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A soapbox for the masses

by: Rick Swart, Bill Eagle and his Web site, the St. Helens Update, have spent the past eight years chronicling the foibles of local government through anonymous comments posted by readers. Eagle defends the practice, saying it is a tradition that goes back to the birth of the United States.

Politicians hate it.

Rabble-rousers love it.

People in the middle don't know quite what to make of Bill Eagle's Web site, the St. Helens Update.

Google describes The Update as 'a parable of local government foibles.'

Eagle himself compares it to an underground newspaper.

No matter what you think of it, there's one point upon which just about everybody agrees - if you're interested in salacious gossip, stinging sarcasm, and unfettered political commentary, you'll find it on The Update (www.sthelensupdate.com).

'There's nothing more extraordinary than what people have to say,' said Eagle, who started The Update eight years ago as a vehicle to get himself elected to the St. Helens City Council.

It didn't work. Eagle didn't get elected, but through his Web site he has helped shape local issues by giving ordinary citizens a soapbox from which they can pontificate anonymously from the comfort of their own home. Eagle was hip to Web logs - or blogs, which are now the rage - long before Web logs were cool.

It's all about free speech, according to Eagle, 68, who has been skewered by local politicians and threatened with lawsuits for letting people say almost anything about 'public people.' He can only think of a couple of times when he pulled a comment because it crossed the line into defamation of character. What bothers him more than threats, he said, are politicians who complain about his Web site but don't bother to offer an opposing view.

'A public person is judged differently than a private individual,' said Eagle, who cites New York Times vs. Sullivan, the Supreme Court's landmark free speech case, as legal justification for the freewheeling comments on his site. It is, he says, an American tradition that goes back to Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard's Almanac, and Alexander Hamilton and the federalist papers: 'This is what America is all about - the right of people to speak their mind without fear of retribution.'

In fact, giving people the opportunity to speak without fear of retribution was the genesis of The Update. Eagle decided to allow people to post comments anonymously back in 2000 at the request of St. Helens city employees who approached him and said they had some things they wanted to say about the operation of city government but were afraid they'd be fired or blackballed if they spoke up.

A former government employee himself who was for 38 years constrained by laws against political activism, Eagle sympathized with those city employees. So it was that anonymous comments on The Update were born.

At first, comments were posted in the form of questions to 'Professor Evil,' who offered frequently cynical, sarcastic and satirical explanations for the goings on of local government. Eventually, Professor Evil left and was replaced by 'the Shoeshine Boy.'

Pen names, and distinct writing styles, became a staple of the Web site. Eagle claims he doesn't know the real identities of the contributors, although he did know that 'Timber Truck Tom,' a former Update regular, was a professional writer from Portland who enjoyed posing as a log truck driver who offered folksy observations about everyday life in St. Helens. He's also got an inkling that someone who writes under the pseudo name 'Victor' is a friend 'because he usually has something clever to say and ends up by insulting me.'

The current cast of characters includes Sylvia Fine, who finds a conspiracy under every rock, Short Fellow, who submits political commentary that sound like nursery rhymes, Java Mama, Mugwump the Malcontent, Sally and, Eagle's favorite, R. Patriot.

R. Patriot is a liberal who makes his points in syrupy 'Our Country Right or Wrong' genre loaded with sarcastic zingers like, 'We are so fortunate that George Bush is our president … because he is not about to let any old laws or the Constitution stop him from protecting us. The less freedom you have, the safer you are,' and, 'I am ever so thankful … that I have chosen to belong to God's Own Party. When I vote, I know that I am voting for people that God would vote for.'

R. Patriot's comments probably resonate with Eagle because he, too, is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, who Eagle accuses of turning the government over to corporations.

'I'm really concerned when I see privatization of the commons … the military,' said Eagle, who was a dyed in the wool Dwight Eisenhower Republican until Richard Nixon came along. Eagle, a former federal employee, didn't become politically active, though, until he retired from his post as district conservationist for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2000 when he was elected Democratic Party precinct person for Columbia County Precinct 28.

'I'm appalled when I see them turning American highways into turnpikes,' said Eagle, who admits that in some quarters he is considered a political activist. 'I'm appalled when I see them turning our port security over to foreign countries. We're dealing with monopolies. Look at the media, it's controlled by four or five companies. Look at food distribution.'

It grates on Eagle that the last time the Sherman Anti-trust Act was enforced was during the breakup of AT and T.

'Corporations have taken on a life of their own,' he said, adding, 'A corporation is by its very essence a kingdom with one goal - making a profit. It distresses me when I see corporations running our government. That's what Mussolini (the fascist dictator from Italy) did in the 1920s and '30s.'

Eagle has always been a bit of a rebel, going back to the days of his youth in Los Angeles, when he and his buddies got an old police cruiser and police radio, donned some police uniforms, listened to police dispatchers, and made it their business to beat the real police to the scene of the crime - a game the real police weren't particularly fond of.

Eagle has chronicled that story and other escapades on his Web site in a monthly column entitled, 'Eagle's Eyes' that he pens for the Mt. St. Helens Valley Bugler in Longview. He's explored the sewers and storm drains of Los Angles, run away from drug dealers, played the part of a Catholic priest while working with 'Psy Ops' in the military, masqueraded as a revolutionary, dressed up like an International Red Cross worker, and pretended to be a mayor from a foreign country.

'I've had a lot of fun,' he said.

In addition to managing his Web site, which takes two or three hours a week, Eagle is enjoying retirement by immersing himself in civic work. He is secretary of the Kiwanis Club of St. Helens, chairman of the Columbia County Parks Commission, a member of the St. Helens Parks Commission, director of the Columbia County Cultural Coalition, director and secretary of the Northwest Oregon Resource Conservation and Development District, director of the children's cancer program at Doernbecher's Children's Hospital, and an elder at Plymouth Presbyterian Church. He has been married to his wife Claudia for 41 years, and together they have two grown children.

Eagle says he hasn't made a penny managing The St. Helens Update, and that isn't the point.

'It's a hobby,' he said, 'an amateur attempt at a Web page.'

The appearance of the Web site hasn't changed substantially since it launched eight years ago, either. It still looks, in Eagle's words, 'hokey,' not that he hasn't had lots of offers from people who want to improve the design. Indeed, it's hokeyness is part of The Update's appeal.

'Have you ever seen a Web page quite as eclectic as this one?' he said. 'I don't want it to look great. I'm happy with the way it looks.'