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September 7, 2003

Santa Cruz makes its mark on the world

By DAN WHITE
Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ — Outspoken Santa Cruzans want to be taken seriously and change the world.

And sometimes, Surf City activists can make a big splash.

They did with nationally publicized City Council stances against war on Iraq and in favor of medical marijuana. Now, they’re winning attention with a measure looking into the impeachment of President Bush, which council members are scheduled to consider Tuesday afternoon.

Many savvy Santa Cruzans, however, suspect that much of America, in particular the news media, regards Surf City as silly and a marginal source of comic relief.

To be fair to these viewpoints, Santa Cruz is often hilarious without even trying. Last year the City Council’s attempt to auction off an unpopular highway sign on eBay drew loud chuckles even from locals. But there’s a serious side to Santa Cruz culture that rarely finds its way onto television or into the large metropolitan daily newspapers.

Regardless of how Santa Cruz is viewed in national news outlets, there is little doubt that the city of just 55,000 has a profile much larger than the numbers let on.

And while city leaders and community activists certainly draw attention to themselves, the city’s high profile is also shaped by perceptions and stereotypes aimed not only at Santa Cruz, but on the entire state of California, from West Hollywood to Berkeley.

Fame has its rewards
In the early 1980s, swimsuit-model-turned-radical-feminist Ann Simonton donned an all-meat bathing suit in front of the Miss California pageant downtown, attempting to put forth the notion that the beauty contest was a "cattle show for corporate profit."

The protesters were front-page news across the country, drawing both support and derision, while pressuring contest organizers to move their show to San Diego.

Simonton said even coverage that tries to "marginalize" activists can advance causes by spreading the message.

"In Japan and Canada they started their own protests." she said, recalling the pageant protest.

Simonton now runs Santa-Cruz based MediaWatch, which she describes as a nonprofit watchdog, working against anti-women and racial bias.

San Jose State journalism professor Harvey Gotliffe, a longtime Santa Cruz resident, said Santa Cruz is endlessly typecast. He said that the "mass media" looks for the "crazy" in Santa Cruz, much the way it "looks for the scowl" every time it runs a story about Barry Bonds.

Yet Gotliffe believes that at least some positive influence can be gleaned even from stories that portray Santa Cruz as crazed.

He said stories that strike people as "out there," such as the city’s "nuclear free zone" signs, can be food for thought. He said that Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Neal Coonerty’s much-publicized 1993 decision to sell Rush Limbaugh books for the pound-for-pound price of bologna increased awareness of edgy independent booksellers.

The store’s promotion also drew attention, and annoyance, from conservative commentators across the nation including Limbaugh himself, who said in reply, "Only liberals would be stupid enough to start their own business and lose money."

But, in the same breath, the optimistic Gotliffe said that positive messages can be gleaned even from "News Of the Weird" columns.

The Associated Press wire service picks up all kinds of Santa Cruz stories and passes them on to newspapers nationally.

Clay Haswell, bureau chief of the Associated Press’s San Francisco bureau, says AP coverage "runs the gamut" of Santa Cruz issues.

But, he says, "the stories that do tend to get national attention tend to be the ones that — how can I put this? — that are unlike the stories that would come out of Peoria in many ways."

Santa Cruz is far from the only place with the "wacky" national image, Haswell said. "There is no question the rest of the country likes to look at California and say ‘oh those wacky Californians, look what they’re up to now."

Merely entertainment?
UC Santa Cruz journalism lecturer Conn Hallinan takes strong exception to the notion that the media coverage advances Santa Cruz causes. Quite the contrary, he said.

"If people don’t take you seriously you have less influence, and that eventually begins to affect the way you look at yourself."

He said the national media colors people’s views of certain cities, like Santa Cruz, and can even change the way that city’s residents view themselves.

As a result, Hallinan said, Santa Cruz "is really not as influential as it should be."

He said more worthy Santa Cruz programs, such as vandal-proof disposable needle boxes in public bathrooms, do not get picked up by the media "because they want to write about surfers and banana slugs."

Even when worthy stories get played, Hallinan said, they end up with a "kooky" twist.

One case in point was when local librarians defied the USA Patriot Act, which expanded law enforcement rights, by vowing to shred files to protect their patrons’ privacy, he said. Hallinan believes the event should have been treated more seriously.

"Why isn’t the New York City Library System adapting exactly what we did here? Hello? Librarians took a courageous public stand and brought honor to this town."

Santa Cruz Councilman and UCSC lecturer Mike Rotkin, like Ann Simonton, has been targeted by the mass media, and then gone on to study the media and its influence.

In 1981, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Rotkin being the first "Socialist feminist mayor" and ran a big photo of him on a motorbike.

The problem, he said, is that Santa Cruz is "framed" to accentuate weirdness, "and the further you go up the media food chain, the more it’s an issue."

"We’re on the radar for filler when they haven’t got any big news," he added.

Rotkin agrees with Hallinan, that even the most serious stories are forced into the "weird" frame.

A positive difference
Rotkin, however, believes that Santa Cruz is highly influential in certain parts of the nation, but through grassroots circles, not through mass media outlets.

He said Santa Cruz can become a trendsetter, almost in spite of the coverage. Referring to the much-publicized stance of local librarians, he said it influenced other city’s policy — not because of newspapers, but because of local residents who got on the phone and alerted people elsewhere.

Rotkin also points out that "whole towns followed Santa Cruz’s lead" after the city took a stance against the war on Iraq. Santa Cruz was the first city to do this.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, is aware of "wacky" depictions of Santa Cruz, which he says contains the most left-leaning people in his district. But unlike Rotkin, he’s not convinced the out-there stories are such a bad thing.

Farr says the sheer volume of stories, and their fascination with the flavor and color of Santa Cruz, suggest the city still has a beating heart and is not "sterile" or slumping like so many American small towns.

"You can laugh at Santa Cruz only so long before you end up saying that economically it’s doing pretty well ... and a lot of members of Congress envy having such a progressive active community in a small rural town that isn’t a big university town," he said. "They wish they had Santa Cruz in their districts."

While he said "arrogant" congressman don’t look much beyond themselves, he spoke of a widespread awareness of Santa Cruz in the federal government.

He noted that some of his colleagues were overheard discussing local vegetarian diner The Saturn Cafe parodying the "Freedom Fry" brouhaha last year.

The cafe is sells "Impeach George W. Bush" fries.

Contact Dan White at dwhite@santa-cruz.com.




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