Banned by the Bee: Flint's Spiked Column

August 3, 1997, under a headline that read, “We’re offering differing points of view,” the Modesto Bee announced a new program for the OP/ED page. The idea was the brain child of then publisher Orage Quarles III, who wanted to encourage community participation on the Opinions page. After a contest that featured 249 entries, the Bee chose twelve local writers, each of whose work would appear once a month.

The writers did indeed represent a wide range of viewpoints, ranging from the conservative and even ultra-conservative positions of land-use attorney George Petrulakis and talk-show host Rick Minyard to the more liberal stances of Modesto native Jill Jepson and Turlock resident Don Shaw. The writers were dubbed, “Community Columnists,” and their columns were featured above the fold with an accompanying photo. The early columns featured commentary on national topics, but Quarles decreed commentary should focus on local issues, so the columns soon followed suit.

Many of the columns featured public issues debated in the “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” manner favored by Justice William Brennan in his famous First Amendment commentary. Early on, John Michael Flint’s knowledge, wit and economy of style stood out. He soon gained an audience that cut across political and social boundaries. Former Bee Assistant Opinion Page Editor Gale Hammons, now Editor of the Opinion Page at the Riverside Press Enterprise, had this to say of Flint’s columns:

John Flint offered a clever, original, often irreverent take on public issues and was, in fact, one of the most astute observers of local politics I have ever met.  He was an exceptional writer — but more significantly, he was an extraordinary thinker.  His talent for dissecting local issues — along with his willingness to speak truth to power — made him an extremely influential voice in the Modesto area.  For many years, he was a tremendous asset to The Bee’s Opinion pages, as well as to the communities our pages served.

Flint was an especially keen observer of Modesto city government. He attended City Council meetings regularly and was able to transform the dull issues of the day into a good read. His memory of local issues and politicians was eidetic and long; he could recite the political histories of Haig Arakelian and Carol Whitesides as easily as those of Dick Lang and Carmen Sabatino.

The years 2003-2004 were the high water mark for Community Columnists. Flint broke the story on Stanislaus County Supervisors’ plans for a mega-dump at the Fink Road landfill near Patterson. The column caused a firestorm of comment and criticism, and severe discomfort to many of the county’s movers and shakers, some of whom were not shy about voicing complaints to the Bee about those troublesome columns on the OP/ED page. Despite their protests, the dump story wouldn’t go away. Not long thereafter, Joe Demma, the Bee’s new editorial gun in town, broke the story about County CEO Reagan Wilson’s “friend,” one Lee Torrens, whose vague job description didn’t seem to justify his county salary and benefits. That story was followed by one on Wilson’s lavish life style, subsidized by a county credit card.

It was a rare time. The Bee was speaking truth to power and Valley citizens were taking a second look at long-time political icons like Wilson and his bosses, entrenched county supervisors Ray Simon, Pat Paul and Paul Caruso. Citizen journalism had been given a life, personified by John Michael Flint. Meanwhile, Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino, longtime foe of the Modesto establishment, was charged with eleven felony counts and his political career torpedoed during his first term.

Even in this heady atmosphere, some writers felt the Bee was beginning to bend under the weight of complaints about the Community Columns. There was occasional pressure to avoid certain topics and grumblings about civility. Flint, however, claimed he felt free to write about anything that came to mind, and one could easily see why the Bee would want to give him a free rein; he had a large following and was arguably the keenest observer of local politics the region had ever seen.

Time passed and most of the original Community Columnists wrote less and less often; some stopped writing at all. The original submission schedule had long been abandoned. The Bee recruited more writers, some from the Visiting Editor program, some elsewhere. Flint continued to contribute on a regular basis, and became notorious among the Community Columnists not only for the superb quality of his writing but also for the singular distinction of never having had a spiked column.

There was a noticeable change in editorial policy after OP/ED editor Dick LeGrand retired and assistant editor Gale Hammons left to work for the Riverside Press Enterprise. They were replaced by Judy Sly and Mike Dunbar. Columns started appearing that seemed more suited for the family section than the OP/ED page; some people started calling it the “diets and dust bunnies” page. Sly and Dunbar rejected more columns more often. While some of the writers felt the rejections were politically based, others could detect no discernible pattern; reasons for rejected columns simply seemed random and arbitrary.

Flint, however, maintained his perfect record until March, 2010. That was when he submitted his column about Carmen Sabatino’s campaign for supervisor. The column was rejected.

“It wasn’t favorable to Carmen in any way,” said a mystified Flint, who was very proud that his prediction that a third candidate would enter the supervisor’s race had been validated.

“I didn’t put it in the column,” said Flint, “but I even predicted the third candidate would be Balvino Irizarry, and it was.”

Most of those few people who saw the column were amused by Flint’s puzzlement. There were numerous red flags, not the least of which was Flint’s claim that Carmen Sabatino had been the victim of, “a genuine conspiracy.” Flint wrote, “big names and institutions were involved, and they really ‘got’ Sabatino.”

Insiders had long suspected the charges against Sabatino were trumped up. For one thing, according to the Modesto Bee, Roger Brown, the investigator who had apparently been hired to verify claims of misconduct, CC’d realtor Michael Zagaris with his reports. Zagaris was one of many of Sabatino’s long-time political foes. It appeared to some that Zagaris may have hired Brown to go on a fishing expedition.

Another problem was the role of Pat McGrath. Many of the charges against Sabatino originated with McGrath. Sabatino and McGrath had been partners in a failed restaurant venture, Modesto Joe’s. But when it came time to go to trial, McGrath refused to testify. Later, he declared bankruptcy. Among his creditors, to the tune of $70,000, was one Carmen Sabatino.

There were manifold other problems with the case, including alleged forged documents. But the big tell was the offer to drop charges. The District Attorney offered to walk away from the case if Sabatino paid $4,773. Most observers felt it was a pittance, given the number of felonies involved. Sabatino, defiant to the end, chose to go to trial and got a hung jury. All in all, it looked to many of those who followed the story closely that Sabatino had indeed been, “kneecapped,” as Flint wrote in the spiked column.

But no one who knew of the bitter enmity between Sabatino and the Modesto Bee would have ever dreamed the Bee would print Flint’s story line of a “genuine conspiracy.” Sabatino and the Bee had long engaged in a blood feud that had roots in everything from money to politics to trash talk. And when Flint wrote of “big names and institutions,” a reader couldn’t help but wonder what “institutions” he meant.

Flint’s use of the word “conspiracy” was especially intriguing. Those who knew John Michael Flint knew he generally mocked the notion of conspiracies. He was the polar opposite of the paranoid conspiracy-monger. He was also an exacting wordsmith. When he used a word, he meant exactly what that word denoted.

Over more than twelve years writing for the Bee, John Michael Flint had earned a wide audience. His place on the Bee’s OP/ED page was justified by his long record of accuracy, his lack of a personal agenda, and his vast knowledge of the local political scene. He also represented a point of view many in his community shared. Many of his readers trusted his views more than those they read on the Bee’s Editorial Page. When the Bee spiked Flint’s column, it silenced the most eloquent voice in the community chorus. No matter how much his views conflicted with the Bee’s own interests, John Michael Flint had earned the right to be heard and his readers deserved to know what the region’s best political analyst had to say about one of the major political events in Modesto’s history.

John Michael Flint died July 29, 2010. His like shall not be seen again.

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