Ben Olson is a degenerate

An open letter to the anti-Reader robo-caller

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Contributor

Dear Robo-Caller,

Let’s be clear: Ben Olson is a degenerate, as your recent robocall impugning him and the Sandpoint Reader put it. He’s much less a degenerate now than ever, though, and I’ve known Ben since 1993, when we were seventh-graders at Sandpoint Middle School. He was more appropriately classed as a reprobate then and remained so for through high school—though he still managed to be crowned homecoming king, beat me in the election for senior class president and ranked as the 1999 salutatorian. 

He was a bartender at the Downtown Crossing between 2007-ish and 2011. During that time, he also published a novel, wrote and produced three plays, and started playing music publicly (you might have caught his band, Harold’s IGA, opening for Sublime at The Festival this past summer). 

To your robocall’s assertion that Ben has no education. Well, he did only attend three semesters of college from 1999-2001, after which time he worked in film and TV production in Hollywood. When I started the Sandpoint Reader with two partners—John Reuter and Chris De Cleur—back in 2004, it’s true that Ben had never been a journalist. Yet, he was our first and last paid writer and remained a steady contributor from 2004-2012. By my arithmetic, that gave him eight years of practical experience, though I don’t know if you could call it “training,” as he only heeded my edits when he was too tired out from degeneracy to resist. 

That said, I do recall numerous instances of degeneracy during that time. A search of my Gmail inbox reveals 18 conversations going back to June 14, 2005 in which one or the other of us called one or the other of us “a degenerate.” So, point taken, robocaller. 

I ended the Reader in 2012—not in “bankruptcy,” as your anonymous robocall of Sept. 20-21 asserted, but because I couldn’t keep it up by myself and didn’t want to (also, Ben turned down my partnership offer at the time). Considering my first child was born in April of that year, I was also exhausted. Rather than “bankrupt,” when the last edition of Reader 1.0 was distributed in May 2012, the paper was owed upwards of $30,000 in accounts receivable, which were never received. That’s water under the bridge, though.

Ben has published Reader 2.0 alongside Cameron Rasmusson since 2014, so add another four years to his total and Ben has been a practicing journalist for a total of 12 years, which technically makes him “mid-career.” Last year he took first place for serious feature reporting among statewide weekly newspapers at the Idaho Press Club. Not too shabby.

I don’t know how many people in the Sandpoint area received your robocall, which featured a man’s silly stentorian voice and an Exorcist-esque soundtrack, attacking Ben not only as a morally defunct, dunderheaded hack but a “cancer” that “our people” need to “burn out” before he and his newspaper “kill” Sandpoint. Plenty of people did, judging from the oodles of support it has since generated. (Speaking only for myself as Reader editor emeritus, I’d like to thank you joker(s) for your contribution to marketing the paper. When I shared a recording of your robocall with Reader co-founder John Reuter, his response was: “I am so jealous! Why didn’t we ever get this kind of community engagement? Well done, Ben! Not bad for an illiterate bartender.”). 

Thankfully, most people who received the call and felt compelled to contact the paper and Ben about it realized a central fact seemingly lost on you, despite your claim to representing “our people” in Sandpoint: If Ben, and by extension the Reader, is “a cancer” then he and it are a congenital one.

The Reader is a product of and by Sandpoint. Ben was born in Bonner General Hospital (one day shy of three months after me). His weight at delivery earned him a longstanding distinction of “biggest baby in Bonner County,” though there are clearly far bigger babies in the county now than there ever have been (and they seem to have figured out how to use phones). 

The Reader was likewise born in Sandpoint, with an inaugural publication date of Dec. 23, 2004, three days before Ben’s 24th birthday. Since 2004 it has operated from two locations, both within spitting distance of the corner of Cedar Street and Second Avenue. It has never been under ownership outside Sandpoint. It has never been anything but totally independent. 

If there is such a thing as “our people” in Sandpoint, the Reader is as much or more an outgrowth of it than any other media source currently in operation.

Nonetheless, you claimed the Reader is “not a real newspaper.” Rather, the vehicle for Ben’s “cancer” and the sinister nucleus of a tiny “cabal.” I don’t have anywhere near the amount of space I’d need to adequately unpack the semantic gymnastics that undergird this flabby “fake news” hobbyhorse. Based on your robocall, robocaller, the Reader isn’t “real” because of Ben’s bad character (which I presume includes the charge of “liberalism,” though one of my complaints is that Ben and Cameron are even-handed when they should be giving the back-hand), lack of university degree and supposedly amateur reporter chops. Please. 

What would you say if Ben was a triple major in political science, philosophy and English at Harvard and held a master’s in journalism from Columbia? Let’s say he interned at The Atlantic and landed a staff job at The Washington Post, then got head-hunted by The New York Times and went to work in the White House Press Corps? For good measure, let’s say he won a couple of National Magazine Awards and a Pulitzer. 

Uh oh… now Ben’s part of the “media elite” and he’s still “fake news.” 

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, it seems. So, if you’d be so kind, robocaller, would you let me know precisely what level of education and experience is necessary to legitimately publish a newspaper? I’ll pass it along to the rest of the “cabal” of working journalists in the world—who put our names on our work, by the way—so we can adjust our resumes accordingly.

All fun aside, this idea of “cancer” has me worried. First of all, I have to put in a word for Cameron here. What’s he? A really bad cold? Come on, robocaller. Cameron’s byline is just as cancerous as Ben’s. 

More to the point, I’m not sure you understand how cancer really works. You don’t “burn it out” (though you can “burn out” newspaper offices. You know who else does that? Nazis, that’s who). No, unlike the Reader, cancer is quiet. Unlike Ben, it doesn’t put its name on the things it does. It just lurks in the background, silently poisoning the body until a phone call comes in the night and you hear the Exorcist theme and… 

Wait a minute. 

Hey, robocaller… have you been to the doctor lately?

Zach Hagadone is the former owner and editor of the Sandpoint Reader, served as editor-in-chief of the Boise Weekly and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Pullman. He is also a degenerate, and today is his birthday.

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