We have a marvelous range of guests -- noted scholars and storytellers from the worlds of film, TV, still photography, books, music, journalism, social activism, academia and more -- more than a few Pulitzer and other prize-winners -- and I highly recommend you view the full slate at the Story in Public Square episode site. Story is a partnership of the Pell Center, where I am a visiting fellow, and The Providence Journal, where I have been a staff writer for many years.
|Miller, left, with co-host and co-producer Ludes. Photo, like most here, by Erin Demers|
So let's get to it. I will archive my #InsideStory columns -- and links to the podcasts -- here on my blog, and I invite you to read... and to download and listen to the 'casts. I always welcome feedback, and suggestions for guests. We are in Season Four and growing -- with national broadcasts starting in September. Welcome to our audience!
Note that whether or not I write an Inside Story column, we upload every episode of Story in the Public Square to our YouTube channel. We also make every podcast available on iTunes, Google Play and other places -- and all for free. Click here for an episode-by-episode breakdown.
And you can always find every Inside Story column in original form at providencejournal.com
And, since September 2018, you can watch Story in the Public Square in markets large and small across the U.S. -- from New York to Chicago to LA, and many places in between!
-- Weekend of November 3, 2018: MIT physicist, humanist and author Alan Lightman
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At the risk of sounding trite, I wonder whether any question has been pondered more since prehistoric times than the meaning of life. The search for answers and the answers themselves infuse religion, science, philosophy, spirituality and day-to-day existence. So when one of today’s deep thinkers in all of these disciplines agreed to share his views with us on this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square,” we warmly welcomed him.
Alan Lightman is a theoretical physicist and author, and the first MIT professor ever to receive dual faculty appointments in science and the humanities. His latest book, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” so captivated me that when I began reading it — while on vacation on another, bigger island in Maine (Mount Desert) — I could have finished it in one sitting. In this magnificent collection of essays, Lightman, writing in lovely prose, ponders cosmic mysteries.
|A light moment on set with Alan Lightman, right.|
“I lay down in the boat and looked up,” Lightman read. “A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes my world dissolved into that star littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity.
“A feeling came over me I’d not experience before. Perhaps a sensation experienced by the ancients at Font-de-Gaume. I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars as if I were part of them. And the vast expanses of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot.
“I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute.”
Lightman went on to discuss what I described as another of the “grand themes” of his book: What caused the universe to come into being in the first place? Why is there something rather than nothing?
The physicist mentioned the Big Bang Theory and other explanations of how the universes — ours is but one of many — came to be. But as for why there should be anything, as opposed to nothing — why we should be, as opposed to never have been — Lightman said, “that we have no theory for, not to mention no ability to test anything like that. That’s a deep philosophical and theological question.”
One he, this man of science and letters who has experienced the transcendent, has long pondered. And still does.
“I’m struggling with these issues,” he said. “I’m turning this over and over in my mind. How can I be a scientist and committed to a material world and also a spiritual person who feels this connection to something larger than myself? So I just turn that issue over and over and look at it in various ways.”
“Are you still turning this over in your mind?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Do you think you’ll ever come to a conclusion?”
“I don’t believe that I will.”
“Would you like to?” I asked.
“That’s a good question,” Lightman said. “I think there are some questions that I would not like to know the answer to, and this may be one of them.”
-- Weekend of October 27, 2018: John Kerry, former Secretary of State and U.S. senator
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WATCH A SPECIAL BEHIND-THE -SCENES FILM OF HOW IT CAME TOGETHER
Until this month, through 91 guests since we debuted in January 2017, we had never left our Rhode Island PBS studio to record an episode of Story in the Public Square. Then came John Kerry. He has a new book out (“Every Day is Extra,” highly recommended), and several weeks ago, my co-host, Jim Ludes, suggested we tape at Salve Regina University, where Jim heads the Pell Center. It was an audacious, if ambitious, idea.
We green-lit things over the summer, and after weeks of planning by dozens of people in Providence and Newport, on October 10 we set up in the great hall of Ochre Court, Salve’s main administrative building, a former private mansion that ranks with Marble House for its architectural splendor. Pretty sweet set!
|News coverage of the taping went nationwide.|
A live audience filled the hall and lined the balconies above, camera operators faced the stage, and in an adjacent room, director Scott Saracen and his crew manned the controls as we readied to roll. Jamie McGuire, co-producer and digital production manager at Salve, shot and edited a superb behind-the-scenes video and if you have any interest in TV production, I recommend watching it: http://bit.ly/2CG8RBM.
Set for broadcasts this weekend on Rhode Island PBS and SiriusXM Satellite Radio, the episode was powerful — for the stories Kerry told and the analyses he made, and for his booming delivery. Ludes and I managed only a few questions — one of the hallmarks of our show is letting our guests do most of the talking. We are into listening, not pontificating.
Kerry spoke of his lifelong ambition to help make the world a better place — an ambition with roots in his childhood, when he walked with his mother in France through the rubble left by World War II. The ambition intensified during Vietnam and after, when he returned home to become one of the leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He rose to greater prominence during his Senate years and, in international affairs, greater prominence still as secretary of state. Among other achievements as secretary, Kerry negotiated the Paris Agreement to combat climate change.
Kerry’s assessment of Washington politics today was blunt.
“You need people who are adults who are going to stand up and say, ‘You know, this isn’t the way we’re going to do business,’” he said. Rather, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate should decide that “this isn’t working for our country and we need to change it and here’s how we’re going to change it. We’re going to stop this business of rating each other’s willingness to work together and stop having a perpetual election and a perpetual political ideological war. We’re going to make things work.”
And so, he said, “We invest in infrastructure. We fix education. We have healthcare that makes sense. I mean, we’re spending so much more on healthcare in the United States and getting worse returns than countless countries around the world. People ought to be incensed by that. There are ways to fix it without making the system worse. So I think we’re in an incredible crisis moment where we really have to fight to make wise choices.”
|Lights, camera, action!|
Kerry did not mention the president by name, but he was clear that some blame rests with Donald Trump.
“We should be very worried about a president who sees fit to personally mock and make fun of and attack on very personal terms a United States senator or a reporter who is physically challenged ... That’s so unbecoming of the presidency, let alone of any president, and we’re just not dealing with facts. It’s a real problem, folks, in terms of how you govern.”
“How do we protect democracy and how do we sail forward?” asked Ludes.
“Well, boats have a captain,” said Kerry. “We need a new captain.”
And all of us, regardless of political affiliation, need to vote, Kerry said.
That, he said, is “the only way.”
I daresay hundreds of hours went into the planning and execution of this weekend’s half-hour episode of “Story in the Public Square.” Pulling it off without a glitch was a treat for all of us, especially Ludes, who worked on Kerry’s Senate staff for four years and ran a think tank, the American Security Project, whose board included Kerry.
Republican or Democrat, agree with Kerry or not, you will find a public-discourse treat of your own on this Halloween eve on “Story in the Public Square.”
-- Weekend of October 13, 2018: Best-selling author and immigrant Padma Venkatraman
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The story of Padma Venkatraman’s life, as you can hear in this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square,” is one of someone born and raised in India, who became an oceanographer, a U.S. citizen and, now, a best-selling author, whose website’s home page declares, “Stories are ships on which we sail oceans of imagination.”
I joked with co-host Jim Ludes that we should steal that motto for our show. We won’t, of course. But we do hope you will tune in to meet Venkatraman — and, if you are not already familiar, learn about her novels, including her recent “A Time to Dance,” which Kirkus Reviews called “a beautiful integration of art, religion, compassion and connection,” and “The Bridge Home,” which Penguin will publish in February.
“I was very poor growing up with my mother, who was divorced, which was very, very unusual in India,” Venkatraman said. “She struggled to make ends meet but then she always went out to help children who were in poverty. And so I came into contact with these other children who had stories that were gripping, stories that were so important.”
As a girl, Venkatraman was discovering the power of compassion. And while her early passions were science and math, literature pulled her in, too.
“I wrote because words were magical to me,” she said. “The first time I saw writing, it made sense to me. The fact that these little black marks on paper could transport you and transform you and make you speak to somebody whom you didn’t know, make you go back in time — time travel — that was fascinating to me.”
Venkatraman came to America at the age of 19 and, after earning a doctoral degree from The College of William & Mary, became a professional oceanographer. Her love of America’s public libraries — there were none available to her growing up in India — was part of her motivation to become a U.S. citizen. She also wrote, eventually publishing non-fiction science books.
“Being an oceanographer was something I did because I was concerned about the environment and about the world,” she said. “I started to feel that people, when they change, change not just because of information that they have, but also because they learn to be a little more compassionate. Through story, that happens. If you open, let’s say, ‘A Time to Dance,’ or ‘The Bridge Home,’ or ‘Climbing the Stairs,’ you get transported into another culture.”
And into another person’s life.
“You are, for a while, if you read ‘The Bridge Home,’ homeless and hungry and on the streets in India. If you read ‘A Time to Dance,’ you are, for a little while, a person who loves to dance and loses your leg and through that physical recovery process discovers your spirituality.”
The best fiction transcends time and place, but contemporary fiction and its writers can also can speak to the here and now. Venkatraman, who lives in Rhode Island with her husband and young daughter, masterfully does both.
“I wanted to put human beings into those situations because I think then you become more compassionate,” she said. “You break walls through books of fiction. And I think breaking walls is so much more powerful than building them.”
-- Weekend of September 29, 2019: Author and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar.
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Given the importance of health care, it is proper that we have featured many physical and mental-health experts on “Story in the Public Square” since our TV and radio show debuted in January 2017. Our most recent such professional was Dr. Daniela Lamas, a critical-care physician at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital and author of “You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death and In Between.” (Coincidentally, Lamas will be speaking and signing copies of her book 7 p.m. Tuesday at Salve Regina’s Bazarsky Hall.)
This weekend, co-host Jim Ludes and I welcome Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, New York City cardiologist and bestselling author of “Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation” and “Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician.” We discussed the issues he raised in those books and went into depth on his latest, the just-published “Heart: A History,” on this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story.”
|Ludes, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, Dr. Fred Wu of Boston, Miller and Padma Venkatraman in the Green Room between tapings.|
Jauhar spoke of his lifelong fascination with the heart. Literally lifelong: as a child, he would listen to the beat of his own heart and marvel. This was long before medical school at Washington University, obviously — and long before the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in physics he earned at the University of California, Berkeley, before deciding to pick up the stethoscope.
“The brain cannot function without a beating heart, but the heart can function without a functioning brain, at least in the short term,” Jauhar said. “The scientific properties are very, very interesting — and on top of it, the heart is a metaphorical entity that has occupied our cultural imagination for millennia. The heart was always thought to be the locus of the emotions, the seat of the soul.”
Today, think: Valentine’s Day.
“In addition to all that,” Jauhar said, “I have a very malignant family history. Both my grandfathers died, one very prematurely, and my mother died of heart disease.” The cardiologist and author himself lives with a cardiac condition, likely inherited.
The conversation turned to heart surgery.
“Up until the late 19th century,” Jauhar said, the heart “was never operated on. Every other organ in the body had been an object of surgery — including the brain — but not the heart.”
One reason, as Jauhar said, is that the heart is always moving, making it a difficult target for instruments and sutures. Another, as he noted, is that “the heart’s filled with blood, so if you cut it open you would bleed to death. And if you stop the heart and isolate it so that blood isn’t coursing through it, then you would develop brain damage and kidney damage. So this is an incredibly difficult problem to solve.”
The solution, as Jauhar said, “has a fascinating history. It involved at one point probably the most innovative surgeon of the 20th century: A guy named Walt Lillehei.” I knew that guy, and spent a lot of time with him before he died writing “King of Hearts.”
In the Green Room, Jauhar and I talked more about Lillehei and heart medicine in general. And we were joined by another admirer of the cardiologist: Dr. Fred Wu, himself a cardiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, who also sees patients in Rhode Island, who took time out of his busy schedule to come to our flagship station, Rhode Island PBS. I first met Lillehei at Boston Children’s after writing another book (and Journal series) about then Chief of Surgery Hardy Hendren, but those are stories for another day ...
This weekend, the stories on “Story in the Public Square” are Dr. Jauhar’s — and they are all compelling and informative, related by a natural storyteller. I hope you can join us.
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At one point during taping of this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square,” my co-host Jim Ludes asked our guest, Sister Helen Prejean, what role her decades of advocating against execution has played in the dramatic decline in death sentences in the U.S. over the last two decades.
Sister Helen, readers will recall, is the Roman Catholic nun who wrote “The Death of Innocents” and the best-selling “Dead Man Walking,” made into the 1995 movie that brought Susan Sarandon the Academy Award for Best Actress.
|Sister Helen, right, during taping.|
“I’m part of it, sure,” Sister Helen said, with her wonderful New Orleans accent. “But like when a wave hits the shore, you don’t single out one drop. I’m a drop in there.”
We begged to differ. She has been considerably more powerful than a drop, though indeed there has been a wave, one that includes citizens, clergy, lawyers and organizations. By now, a tsunami, one could almost say.
Some have joined the cause after learning the grisly mechanics of how we legally kill someone in our country: the strapping-down of the condemned, the insertion of the needle, the signal to send poison into the bloodstream. And the many botched executions, with their writhing contortions and pain.
“I’ve been in every state, been in every major city, crisscrossing to speak to groups, universities, civic groups, churches, synagogues,” Sister Helen said. “You talk to the people and one of the things you realize is: The people say they’re for the death penalty, and everybody will give their little scenario ... and they have no idea how it really works. And you take ‘em through it.”
Through the other elements of a death sentence, too, including what she describes as torture.
“When you sentence a conscious, imaginative person to death, you can’t help but anticipate it. Every person I’ve been with on death row had the same nightmare: They’re coming to get me, it’s my time, they’re dragging me out of my cell and I’m going, ‘No! No!’ And then I wake up …. But they are going to come for me.”
Since most of the condemned spend years on death row before their turn comes, they wait for that day “watching as the others are taken to be killed.”
Few watch the hours pass in a vacuum, Sister Helen said.
“They have mommas and daddies and siblings and little nephews who are going to go through that with them. I describe those scenes in ‘Death of Innocents.’ Right outside the execution chamber having their last visit and their last goodbye and not knowing what to say. And silence. And then, ‘how much I love you’ and then they take ‘em away.”
The executioners, those who strap and insert and send the toxins?
Some of those public employees later experience regret and trauma, Sister Helen said.
“A state can go bankrupt trying to do one death penalty.”
“When New Jersey did away with the death penalty about 10 years ago, 62 murder victims’ families testified: ‘Don’t kill for us. The death penalty just victimizes us.’ They wait for this justice that’s supposed to happen. They wait 10 years, 15 years and then they just say there’s no closure and it’s all public, there’s media at their door: ‘How do you feel? He got another stay of execution.’ How do you move on?”
What of the argument that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime?
“All you got to do is look at the states that practice the death penalty and those that don’t and look at the crime rates.”
I did. One example: Death-penalty state Louisiana had a murder rate of 10 or greater per 100,000 people every year from 1996 to 2016. Non-death-penalty Iowa over the same two-decade period has never seen a murder rate higher than 2.5 per 100,000 people.
“And here’s the thing,” Sister Helen said. “Most people that commit murder don’t know when they wake up in the morning they’re going to murder somebody. Few murders are premeditated …. It happens in a moment. There’s no premeditation and no thinking of consequences.”
-- Weekend of September 8, 2018: Gary Glassman, director of PBS series "Native America"
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Chances are you’ve seen a film by Gary Glassman. Maybe many of them. He and his Rhode Island-based Providence Pictures have produced more than 50, and they have been broadcast on NOVA/PBS, The History Channel, the BBC, National Geographic and The Discovery Channel, among other places. His signature photography, animations and re-enactments, all grounded in exhaustive research, have brought viewers to distant times and places they might otherwise have never visited.
Glassman does it again with “Native America,” a four-part series that premieres Oct. 23 on PBS. Having been given the opportunity to watch some of it before it airs, I can tell you it is a stunning documentary about the original inhabitants of South, Central and North America and the advanced and interconnected societies they built.
|Gary Glassman on location for "Native America"|
If you think you know the full story of the indigenous people of America, “Native America” likely will make you think again. The size of some of their cities, among the biggest on the planet at the time, is one example of a fact that may surprise some viewers. The engineering and scientific sophistication of these societies is another. Standard history texts say such societies existed then only in Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, but those texts are lacking.
Glassman gave us insight into “Native America” during this weekend’s broadcasts of Story in the Public Square, including about the many tribal members today, descendants of the builders of these pre-Columbus civilizations, who eventually partnered with Glassman and his team during production and post-production.
“There have been so many negative images of Native Americans historically if you look at media and certainly Hollywood going back,” I said. “And here’s this stranger who shows up. You had to build trust, is that not correct?”
Glassman agreed, saying that “the distrust from the Native community is totally understandable. Five hundred years of genocidal warfare and policies has contributed to that mistrust. So there’s every reason to not trust anybody else to tell their story but themselves.”
Providence Pictures’ reputation helped bring many of these consultants, musicians, storytellers and others on board, as did Glassman’s success in getting Robbie Robertson, a Mohawk and member of the rock group The Band, to narrate — and Comanche filmmaker Julianna Brannum to serve as series producer and talent liaison.
The desire to share the wisdom of Native American spirituality, one a stressed planet should embrace, also helped.
“The people who chose to participate and share their knowledge have a mission,” Glassman said. “It may sound simplistic but many of the Native cultures see themselves as protectors of the earth. And see it as a responsibility to take care of all living things. Many of them understand that we are in a crisis now in terms of our environment. They have incredible knowledge that could be very helpful to everybody.”
I’ve written often about Rhode Island’s indigenous people, most recently a profile of Eleanor Spears Dove, the Narragansett tribe’s 100-year-old matriarch. But the “Native America” clips I watched and Glassman’s discussion were a reminder of how much I did not know about the humans who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. One more example: the role the Haudenosaunee Peoples of northern New York state, also referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy, played in the creation of American democracy.
Glassman relates the background, how the Haudenosaunee adopted “rules of how to get along and the foundation of democracy. When the Founding Fathers came to America, they heard of this democracy. It’s a three-part democracy that our U.S. Constitution’s three branches of government very closely mirror.”
The Haudenosaunee, Glassman said, shared their system with the colonists. “There’s plenty of evidence of this exchange. In fact, in Philadelphia, the Founding Fathers gave a house to the Haudenosaunee to come and be close to, to advise them on how to write the Constitution.”
Just one of the many discoveries awaiting viewers of “Native America.”
-- Weekend of August 25, 2018: Trenni Kusnierek, Emmy-winning NBC sports anchor.
Trenni Kusnierek, the Emmy Award-winning sports anchor/reporter for NBC Sports Boston, has covered the Olympics, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Majors and more. She has reported from the Super Bowl and World Series. She is outspoken about many issues, in and out of sports, including racism, the status of girls and women, and mental health.
And she is refreshingly open about her own experiences with depression and anxiety. A frequent guest on the top-rated Boston Public Radio show, hosted by Margery Eagan and Jim Braude, Kusnierek has used that platform and others to advocate for understanding and to fight stigma.
|Kusnierek, right, with co-hosts during taping of "Story in the Public Square."|
We got into Kusnierek’s many interests during this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square,” but first we had to ask her: With Bill Belichick still at the helm, will Tom Brady, at the age of 41, lead the Patriots back to the Super Bowl?
“Could he? Absolutely. He’s Tom Brady and he’s Bill Belichick,” Kusnierek said.
But there was a “but.”
“I will never say never,” Kusnierek said, “but the way this team is currently constituted, I don’t know that they get there. This is the weakest wide-receiving core they’ve ever had. There are so many question marks on defense… . But if you have Tom Brady and he’s healthy and he’s got Bill Belichick, there’s always a chance.”
The conversation turned to certain NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest social injustice and racism — a movement that has drawn support from in and out of the sports world, and also vehement objection. Why, we asked, has there been such aggressive backlash against the protest by many fans and non-fans?
“Honestly? I think it’s because it’s black men,” Kusnierek said. “Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, I think racism is still a real thing in our society. I think there are more people than are willing to admit who think, ‘You’re making millions of dollars while I’m toiling away making $25,000, $30,000 in a factory. No. You play for me. You entertain me. Don’t you dare disrespect my nation, my country, that has given you so much.’
“We’ve heard those words used. We’ve heard those words used by our president ... to which I always respond, ‘Well, who gave it to them, other than their mother and, if you believe in God, God?’ They took that talent and they ran with it. But racism is still so ingrained in our society that that’s what it comes down to.”
The conversation moved to the controversy sparked by President Donald Trump’s recent tweet about two African-Americans, one an NBA superstar, the other an award-winning TV journalist. It read, in part: “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
Kusnierek broke that down for us. Then we got into the recent decisions by two NFL greats — Brian Dawkins, former safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos, and Steve Smith Sr., former Panthers and Ravens wide receiver — to openly discuss their mental-health challenges.
Which led us to Kusnierek’s own. What prompted her to be equally open?
The suicide of NFL Hall-of-Famer Junior Seau in 2012, she said.
“It just hit me really hard,” Kusnierek said. “And I thought what if he would have had someone that he felt like he could trust or talk to? And I thought, ‘You know what? It’s an opportunity for me to use my voice for something good.’
“I don’t want this to come off the wrong way. I love sports. I love talking about sports. I think it’s fun. I think it’s a great escape. But I’ve always felt like, OK, at the end of the day what am I really doing for the greater good of the world? And this for me was a way that I thought I could give back."
-- Weekend of August 18, 2018: C.J. Chivers, Pulitzer-winning author of "The Fighters."
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Since “Story in the Public Square” debuted in January 2017, we have repeatedly explored war. Middle East correspondent Sulome Anderson has joined us. Filmmakers Justin Kenny, Daphne Matziaraki and Stephen Morrison. Tara Copp, Military Times Pentagon bureau chief. Naval War College president Admiral Jeffrey Harley and War College professor Jacquelyn Schneider, among others.
To this eminent group, this weekend we add C.J. Chivers, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times staff writer and author of the new book “The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
|Chivers signs books at party in Wakefield, R.I., August 17, 2018. Good time!|
Its roots in Chivers’ many Times assignments alongside soldiers in both wars, “The Fighters” is an unvarnished account told through the stories of a jet pilot, medic, helicopter pilot, grunt, infantry officer and Special Forces sergeant. Courage, conscience, fear, morality, doubt, fraternity, death, injury, luck, mistakes, malfeasance — we know these to be the components of combat, but rarely do we see them presented so masterfully. Critics have compared Chivers’ book to “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Band of Brothers,” and the comparison is apt.
On “Story” this weekend, Chivers, a retired Marine captain who began his journalism career at The Providence Journal in the 1990s, goes in-depth about some of the fighters in his book, notably Layne McDowell, jet pilot, and medic Dustin “Doc” Kirby. Both experience trauma and both reflect profoundly on purpose — their own, and the nation that sent them into combat. War changes both men, as inevitably it does most who wage or witness it.
And while “The Fighters” is deliberately no polemic, Chivers does not dodge the larger questions behind these two longest of American wars. As he writes in the book:
“On one matter there can be no argument. The foreign policies that sent these men and women abroad, with an emphasis on military activity and visions of reordering nations, did not succeed. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the officers in command.’
So “Story” co-host Jim Ludes and I asked Chivers to elaborate.
“The reporting you’ve done, the experience you’ve had, where do you see us as a nation on this journey?” Ludes said. “Is there an end in sight to these wars? Or is it, as some analysts have called it, the forever war?”
“There’s an end, I’m sure,” Chivers said. “It’s certainly not in sight. We’re in multiple wars right now and there’s no articulated end state for any of them. So, no, I don’t in the foreseeable future see them going away. I don’t even see yet a real conversation about what the ends might look like.”
“Partly that’s sort of the nature of American politics right now,” Ludes said. “We gloss over these really profound questions even though there are Americans still in harm’s way.”
“I think it is the nature of our politics not to question the Pentagon,” Chivers said, “to sort of sanctify, even deify, our veterans and to not put the hard questions to ourselves as a country about these wars. And it’s one of the perils of being an island nation. These are far away and we don’t see them really unless we look.”
Of course, as Chivers said, we can look — at newspaper and magazine stories, news broadcasts, documentaries, books, YouTube and elsewhere on the internet. “The truth is that the truth is out there,” Chivers said. “It’s all there. But people are choosing in the main not to invest in understanding it, much less changing it.”
-- Weekend of August 4, 2018: Gary Varvel, IndyStar cartoonist, columnist, filmmaker, author.
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“Story in the Public Square” co-host Jim Ludes and I were greatly looking forward to welcoming internationally syndicated Indianapolis Star editorial cartoonist Gary Varvel onto our show. In the precursor show to “Story,” two years ago, we had on Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Adam Zyglis of The Buffalo News, and our half hour with him was a highlight of that abbreviated season.
Varvel’s cartoons have won many awards, and he is also an acclaimed author, filmmaker and columnist for his newspaper and USA Today. An Indiana native, Varvel is a conservative Christian and daily Bible reader, but his canvas is expansive. Whether it’s global, national or Midwest news, you can bet he’ll weigh in. His annual Christmas cartoons are a big favorite with his audience, as are his caption contests, wherein he draws the art and readers write the words.
|A Gary Varvel Christmas cartoon.|
On air, Varvel spoke about the road one travels to cartoonist (no straight line), and the genesis of two of his best cartoons: the extraordinary one he drew shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and another, equally powerful, after U.S. forces finally found and killed Osama bin Laden. We listened as he dissected two of the many he has drawn involving President Donald Trump.
Varvel supports Trump overall, although he hasn’t always; in a recent IndyStar and USA Today column, titled “How I went from a Trump critic to a Trump supporter,” he wrote about that evolution, noting that at first, his cartoons “were as critical of him as many of my liberal cartoonist friends.”
Indeed, Varvel initially drew candidate Trump as a circus character.
“I drew him as a clown in the beginning,” Varvel told us. “I was uncomfortable during the campaign, the debates where he’s calling people names. I didn’t like that. I still don’t like it. But it was effective. He got all the attention. As he’s been in office, the things that he’s been pushing for — I can’t help but agree with. I think the economy has turned around based a lot on what his decisions have been.”
Still, Varvel has not donned blinders regarding the president.
“I don’t go along with everything,” he said. “I’m still skeptical about a lot of things. And I will still be critical from time to time.”
A bit deeper into the show, I said, “Now this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for — at least I’ve been waiting for. You have kindly offered to draw — here — a caricature of Donald Trump. Describe as you’re doing this what is happening.”
As the cameras rolled, Varvel drew Trump. “All I have to do is draw his hair,” Varvel said. “Everybody immediately knows that’s Trump.”
|Varvel with his caricature of Donald Trump he drew on air.|
No doubt, as you will see on the show.
We wrapped the episode, and Varvel, whose flight home to Indiana did not leave for a while, sat in the Green Room watching on the monitor as we taped our next guest. He did more than watch: He created caricatures of Jim and I, with real-time animation of his pen in action as he drew.
I rarely use the word “awesome” — but, folks, this was awesome. You can be the judge watching the animation yourself. And for a real treat, check out Varvel’s hilarious “Cartoonists in Cafes Drawing Caricatures,” inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix hit “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
And, of course, make sure you tune in to see Varvel share his talent and views on broadcasts in this week’s “Story in the Public Square.”
-- Weekend of July 21, 2018: Jay Bookman, Atlanta Journal columnist and blogger.
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We bring in guests from around America to discuss their work — and views — on “Story in the Public Square,” our weekly Rhode Island PBS and SiriusXM Satellite Radio show. In this week’s broadcast, we welcomed Jay Bookman, a longtime and award-winning columnist and blogger at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was a special treat for me: Jay and I began our careers in the late 1970s at The Transcript in North Adams, Massachusetts.
There was plenty of catching-up in the green room (and after the taping over a beer at a hotel as Jay waited to fly home) — and lots of conversation about the changes in journalism since those long-ago days, before the internet transformed our profession. We could have devoted the show to those transformations.
|Jay Bookman, right.|
We did not. Instead, Bookman gave us his keen observations about politics in the Deep South and the transformations under way there, in particular Georgia, where he has lived for many years. We also talked national politics, which Jay also follows religiously. He has a large following of his own in the South, and beyond..
What about President Donald Trump’s criticism of many of America’s longtime allies and apparent embrace of Russia’s president, a story that dominated the news this week, and North Korea’s dictator?
“It’s a remarkable thing,” Bookman said. “Other folks have commented on it as well. We have a president who insults our closest allies and embraces our longtime enemies. He can’t find a thing wrong to say about Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.”
“I think the president has an affinity for those who he perceives as strong leaders — ‘strong leaders’ being people who don’t have to worry about getting elected. People who run their countries like Donald Trump runs his hotel business. That’s who he naturally gravitates toward. People who have to satisfy constituencies and voters — and move incrementally as a result — he has total disdain for.”
My cohost, Jim Ludes, asked Bookman about the midterm elections, now less than four months away.
“I think the Democrats will take the House,” Bookman said. “There may be even one or two seats in Georgia that change.” Bookman also foresees seats changing in Virginia and Pennsylvania, among other states.
But the Senate? “Much more difficult for the Democrats because most of the seats that are up this cycle already are Democratic,” Bookman said.
As summer gives way to fall, Bookman said, national developments will increasingly influence politics and voters.
“We have seen what Donald Trump’s policies are. We haven’t yet seen what the consequences of those polices are. By November, we should know, have a better idea, whether the North Korea imitative. By November, the tariffs that are being put into place are going to start biting. ... Trump is talking about shutting down the government in the fall if he doesn’t get his wall. ... We’ll see what happens.”
-- Weekend of June 23, 2018: Ross Douthat, conservative New York Times columnist, author.
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Were you to look back over the nearly 75 guests who have appeared on “Story in the Public Square” since it debuted in January 2017, you would have to agree that we have presented a broad diversity of opinion, from conservative to progressive and all that lies between.
This weekend, we welcome The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, one of the deans of American conservatism. We talked politics, of course, with Douthat weighing in on President Donald Trump and his administration (spoiler alert: he’s no fan). But we spent a lot of time discussing his new book, the intriguing “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism,” recently published by Simon & Schuster to the critical acclaim of Booklist, The Washington Post and others.
|Ross Douthat, right.|
Douthat, a devout Catholic and family man, has penned a portrait of a leader who — depending on your view — is either savior or threat, hero or heretic. Douthat does not embrace the debate Francis has encouraged on communion for the divorced and remarried, among other issues — but as a writer, he certainly appreciates the narrative.
“It’s the most interesting religious story of our time, both what he’s trying to do and then all the resistance that that has summoned up,” he told us. “And hopefully it’s a little more interesting as told by me because I’m skeptical of some of the changes which I think makes me somewhat of a minority.”
“So you’re an outlier,” my cohost Jim Ludes said. “People typically refer to Francis as ‘my favorite pope.’ Even people who aren’t Catholic.”
“He’s beloved by many people in and out of the one billion-plus Catholics on the planet,” I said.
“You’ve got to take some heat,” Ludes said.
To which Douthat replied: “It’s less heat than sort of, I’d say, sometimes a friendly bafflement — ‘Everybody likes this pope, what do you have against him?’ And I like many things about this pope. I’m not immune to Francis’ charisma and his charms. I think there are aspects of his papacy that are incredibly successful. The way that he uses imagery and gesture and so on to create this kind of public imitation of Christ, in a way.”
So what is Douthat’s dissent?
“The push for essentially what amounts to a kind of a truce with post-sexual revolution culture in the West, I think, is generally a mistake. I think that tension between what the Church teaches and the way that we all — myself very much included at times — live now is actually crucial to the Catholic Christian message.
“Trying to blur it and sort of sand it down ends up blurring and sanding down things that are essential to the faith. We’ll see what happens, but I think it doesn’t in the end bring people back to church.”
Douthat opines on the hero-or-heretic question and plenty more about Pope Francis, Catholicism and religion in general — plus offers his prediction on the remainder of the Trump presidency — on the latest episode of “Story in the Public Square.”
-- Weekend of June 17, 2018: Dima Amso, neuroscientist, scholar, Syrian refugee activist
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I met esteemed Brown University neuroscientist Dima Amso five years ago while writing an installment in The Providence Journal’s eWave digital-revolution series. Among other things, she helped explain to our readers how the young brain develops. In later stories, I profiled her work with Syrian refugee children, subjected to some of the worst childhood trauma imaginable, and her advocacy to bring more women into the STEM disciplines, where they remain underrepresented.
So Amso was a natural to appear on our “Story in the Public Square” TV and radio show.
|Dima Amso, center.|
We could have listened for hours, but in this weekend’s broadcasts, just under 30 minutes long, we did manage to cover substantial ground. Amso gave us a sort of primer on brain development starting before birth. She offered a perspective on the impact of social media on the developing adolescent mind (it’s not all bad, she asserts). She told some of her own story: how a college psychology and art history major wound up on the front lines of brain research.
A lot of the conversation, however, concerned Syria, where Amso was born and a country with which she strongly identifies.
More than two years ago, the war there began to deeply disturb her. No end seemed in sight, and the ranks of the innocent victims continued to swell.
“At some point you realize that this is now not just an emergency situation but this is a prolonged crisis,” she said. “So many children are part of this crisis, or part of this war. And many of them have been displaced. Many have experienced the trauma and the violence that comes along with a war of this proportion. As a scientist you think, ‘What can I offer?’”
And her answer was: “I have this wealth of information and this amazing scientific community to lean on for how brain development is shaped — but not just how it’s shaped by negative experiences but what makes children resilient. What were the positive things that one could introduce into a difficult environment that might help buffer some of the effects.”
So Amso, with several Brown colleagues, organized a mission to refugee camps in Jordan, where they offered guidance to front-line workers who are helping Syrian children. They followed that with “Brains in Crisis: Stress and Resilience in Syrian Refugee Children,” a two-day conference that gathered experts from across America and overseas to plan further steps.
And more good emerged from the refugee mission: Amso met Rana Dajani, a molecular biologist and university professor who founded “We Love Reading,” an NGO program that has brought books and libraries to dozens of Middle East and other countries and thousands of children who might otherwise miss the benefits of reading for pleasure.
In the Middle East, Amso said, “culturally it’s not common practice to read for pleasure. A lot of the reading that’s done is more academic in nature.” Good enough, but the joy of reading is good for the brain and the soul.
Dajani, Amso said, believes that reading for pleasure also “empowers the community.” The Brown neuroscientist agrees. “So I’ve been doing a little bit of work with Rana to look at the efficacy of ‘We Love Reading’ on cognitive development,” Amso said.
While some researchers today remain cloistered in their ivory towers, a growing number understand the importance of conveying their knowledge and wisdom to the public. Some go a step further, using their positions to help advance the common good. Amso’s Syrian ancestry has been motivational in some of her outside-the-laboratory work, but it is not the only factor. She represents a new generation of scientist, a type urgently need in these divided times when some prominent politicians and media personalities cast doubt on provable facts and truth.
-- Weekend of June 9, 2018: Dr. Daniela Lamas, author and critical-care specialist.
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When I wrote a Journal review of the exceptional book “You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death And In Between,” by Daniela Lamas, the only question was whether she would accept an invitation to appear on our weekly “Story in the Public Square” TV and radio show. Lamas did, and as you will discover during this weekend’s broadcasts, her appearance is every bit as good as her book.
A critical-care physician at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital who has a rare talent with the pen, Lamas discusses the heartbreaking life-or-death decisions desperately sick patients face when placed on advanced medical machines — through the lens of people who were in her care, and others she did not treat, but met and interviewed. She already had a background in journalism, working as a medical reporter for the Miami Herald before becoming a doctor.
|Daniela Lamas, right.|
“I began the process of writing this book knowing that there were stories that I felt were important, stories that interested me, that I felt weren’t in the public space,” Lamas said to me and co-host Jim Ludes. “I wanted to tell them, but what lesson I could draw from those stories, if any, was entirely opaque to me.”
Clarity came during the writing, and while Lamas was too modest to claim her book offers profound meaning, Ludes did just that. “You’re really exploring what it means to be human,” he said, and that indeed is the transcendence of “You Can Stop Humming Now.”
One of many such transcendent stories Lamas brings to the page — and our show — is that of Van Chauvin, kept alive by a heart-assist machine until he could receive a heart transplant. In the end, he did not qualify for one.
“And I had thought that living with this device without a transplant would be worse for him than the hope of a transplant,” Lamas said. “But what he ultimately told me was that uncertainty — not knowing how things would be and thus not being able to own his reality and find ways to make his quality of life the best he could — that was the worst part.”
Learning he would never receive a new heart, Chauvin was liberated.
“He was able to tolerate living with this device, which meant that he carried a battery pack with him during the day. He plugged himself into a wall socket at night so that he didn’t die. He was willing to live that way as long as he could do the things that gave his life meaning and pleasure. And one of those was fishing.”
From a boat that he had rebuilt.
Battery, water, fragile machine — no, his health-care professionals could not not sanction fishing.
But Chauvin was liberated.
He went fishing.
“For Van, a life of quality meant breaking the rules,” Lamas said. “Being fully safe and living within the constraints of his [machine]-assisted reality — that wasn’t life for him. But by bending the rules a little, by going out on the lake, even though there was a danger associated with that, he could live.”
Chauvin invited Lamas to fish with him.
“I thought maybe one time in the next summer I would,” Lamas said. “It didn’t happen.”
Chauvin died before that summer. But he is immortalized in Lamas’ book — and in her mind.
“That’s the way that I will choose to see him: on the lake doing something that he loved, even with his batteries in tow.”
-- Weekend of June 2, 2018: Larry Tye, Robert F. Kennedy biographer.
An assassin’s bullet can do more than kill a person. It can change the course of history, as history has demonstrated time and again. Imagine America today if Lee Harvey Oswald had not shot President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Or if James Earl Ray had not killed Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Or if Sirhan Sirhan had not killed New York senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy two months later.
Bestselling writer, educator and journalist Larry Tye can. Author of the definitive biography of RFK, “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” Tye spoke with conviction on this weekend’s broadcasts of "Story in the Public Square" on TV and radio.
|Larry Tye, center.|
“I think that Bobby Kennedy would not only have beat Richard Nixon, I think he would have beat him by a sizeable margin and I’m totally convinced that he would have tried in the first five minutes of his presidency to do the things that Jack Kennedy was waiting until his second term to do,” Tye said. “Which is to give us a strong civil rights bill, to wage a war against poverty and maybe most importantly, to get us out of Vietnam.”
None of that happened, of course. Nixon won in 1968 and during his presidency, the Vietnam War intensified, further dividing the country; civil rights and social justice receded as urgent national priorities; and Watergate brought new distrust of Washington as Nixon played fast and loose with the truth.
At more than 600 pages, “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon” provides an extraordinarily detailed look into the life, and death, of RFK. In writing it, Tye, a former reporter for The Boston Globe, used unpublished memoirs, unreleased government files, and dozens of boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for 40 years. He conducted hundreds of interviews with people who knew Kennedy, many of whom have rarely or ever spoken publicly, including Kenendy’s widow, Ethel, and his sister, Jean.
“He would have been a very different president,” Tye told us. “Instead, what happened that night in California was Bobby Kennedy got down from the podium. It was one of the few moments in the campaign where his one real bodyguard, an ex-FBI agent named Bill Barry [the late William G. Barry], wasn’t with him. Bobby had said to Barry, ‘You stay behind and help my pregnant wife Ethel off the stage.’
“So Bobby goes, against the advice of his bodyguard, walks through a shortcut to get to the waiting press through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and the rest was a tragic history. He’s gunned down at the moment of his greatest hope.”
Tye spoke of the deep depression that had consumed Kennedy after brother John, “his best friend, his whole political purpose in life,” was assassinated five years before his own life ended in similar fashion. RFK held it together through JFK's funeral and aftermath, and then the darkness enveloped him.
“He wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay in public life, he wasn’t sure that he didn’t want to take Papa Joe’s money and go travel the world,” Tye said, referring to wealthy Kennedy patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who died the year after son Bobby. “And at the end of that period he decided to reengage with the world by running for senator from New York and he developed a whole different sense of purpose in life.”
We discussed America in 2018, bitterly divided, just as it was in 1968. Tye spoke of how RFK had reached out to conservatives of his time as well as liberals, winning support from many of those who once opposed him.
“What’s the message for today?” my co-host Jim Ludes asked.
“The message is as clear as it could ever be,” Tye said. “The message is the way we move ahead as a country, and the way we get inspired again about politics, is to have somebody in the Bobby Kennedy mold who is trying to build bridges. Who doesn’t give up on the conservatives that one would assume that a liberal icon would have despaired of ever reaching out to..."
And who might that be?
“The closest thing that grandmother Ethel, Bobby’s widow, says that the Kennedys have produced to Bobby is a young congressman from Massachusetts named Joe Kennedy the third,” Tye said.
Civil rights icon Bernard LaFayette Jr., friend and associate of Martin Luther King Jr., was a guest on "Story in the Public Square" on the 50th anniversary of King's death earlier this year.
-- Weekend of May 26: Sofie Karasek, sexual assault survivor, national organizer #InMyWords
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The resignation of New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman earlier this month after The New Yorker reported that four women had credibly accused him of violence against them, and Harvey Weinstein’s arrest Friday on rape charges, are but the latest developments in the #MeToo movement, which has given survivors of sexual assault and harassment a global voice and prompted long-overdue change in attitudes and policies regarding women in the workplace, at school and in their families and personal lives.
Much remains to be done, of course, and so we were eager to hear leading activist Sofie Karasek talk about the road ahead on this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square” on TV and radio.
A survivor of sexual assault while a student at UC Berkeley, Karasek was 19 when she co-founded the End Rape on Campus movement, years before The New Yorker and The New York Times ignited today’s activism with Pulitzer Prize-winning stories last fall. She is now national organizer for a new effort, the #InMyWords campaign, which calls for a new approach for treating survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence.
Karasek said that the traditional model, “punitive justice, this idea that the way that we enforce moral behavior as a society is through enacting punishment,” is wrong.
“That’s just a fundamental part of American society: that if we punish people, then they will behave in the way that we want them to behave,” she said. “In the context of sexual violence, it’s ‘so we really don’t want people to be committing sexual harassment and sexual assault so what we’re going to do is fire them or incarcerate them or expel them.’ And that’s supposed to teach them the lesson that they won’t do it again.”
It’s ineffective as behavior modification, Karasek asserts — and insensitive to the needs of a survivor.
“The reality is, that’s actually not meeting what the survivor would have wanted in the situation — and also does a poor job of changing the behavior,” she said.
“So if not punitive justice, what?” my co-host Jim Ludes asked.
Karasek cited two models she is incorporating into her new #InMyWords campaign: restorative justice and transformational justice, which entail “being able to view the humanity of everyone in the situation and being able to come from a place of empathy and connection. And being able to say ‘hurt people hurt people.’ And being able to see what is it that can be done to repair the harm that was caused to the survivor.”
Depending on the individual survivor, that could take many forms, Karasek said. “Is it an acknowledgment that there was harm done and to be able to feel seen and heard by the person who did that to you? Is that what that person needs? Or perhaps they’re also looking for support from other community members.”
She gave the example of an uncle sexually assaulting a niece, but the neice’s mother — sister of the uncle — never believed her daughter, the survivor. “Being able to have the support from the mom is actually really important in that situation. There are a lot of different ways that this level of betrayal can happen from sexual violence that isn’t remedied by the traditional system.”
I asked about the last word in the Karasek’s motto for #InMyWords: “Reimagining justice and healing.” Does healing apply to a perpetrator as well as survivor?
“Healing is for everyone,” Karasek said. Something that “gets lost” in the punitive-only mindset, she said, is “not realizing that oftentimes perpetrators are also survivors ... I think that healing fundamentally is about being able to look at our collective humanity and to say, ‘OK, there are no bad people, there are no good people, there’s good behavior and there’s bad behavior ....
“I find it to be really helpful to feel like maybe there actually is some hope in the world when people can have their behaviors change. Being able to see people fundamentally capable of change is in many ways liberating.”
-- Weekend of May 12: Pulitzer winners Mary Jordan & Kevin Sullivan, The Washington Post
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In his attacks on the press, President Donald Trump frequently singles out two newspapers: The New York Times and The Washington Post. Last week on “Story in the Public Square” TV and radio, we heard from a staff writer at The Times, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dan Barry. On this weekend’s broadcasts, we hear from Washington Post reporters Mary Jordan and her husband, Kevin Sullivan, also Pulitzer winners.
During our half hour (which is never enough!), Mary and Kevin discussed many topics, including their joint (and separate) work, which has brought them all over the world — and now, back to the nation’s capital, where Mary is national political correspondent and Kevin, a staff writer years ago at The Providence Journal, is associate editor and senior correspondent.
|Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan.|
Toward the end of the show, my co-host and co-producer Jim Ludes said: “The Post has a long history of being in the crosshairs of sitting American presidents but this is something a little bit novel. I think we have to go back to Nixon to find a president who’s so singularly focused on the affairs of an individual newspaper. What’s it like day-to-day? What’s the morale like? How has it has affected how you do your jobs?”
After noting that her husband was the last reporter hired by legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee, most recently brought to the screen in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 Oscar-nominated “The Post,” Mary said: “It’s an energizing time. Everyone is very aware that it is not a time to make a mistake. You’ve got to be your best. You’ve got to be your fairest. You’ve got to dig deeper.
“We get inundated with calls. And some of them are people who just want us to go and waste time on something that’s not real. But we chase everything down. And it is unbelievable how much time. Everyone’s working seven days a week. It’s really an extraordinary time. You’re in there at eight. You leave at eight at night.”
“We’ve never had a president,” Kevin said, “who attacks the institution of the press quite like he does. You know, we’re ‘the enemies of the people,’ we’re ‘the lowest form of human life.’ And then I think he went even further and called us ‘the lowest form of life.’ The trick here is to keep your eye on the ball, do our jobs, stay focused on doing what we do, don’t take the bait.
“The Washington Post doesn’t hate Donald Trump. The Washington Post is covering Donald Trump. He may not like the coverage, it may make him uncomfortable. But name me a president who has ever thought that the coverage of The Washington Post was fawning. It just doesn’t happen.”
Mary said when reporters ask questions of The White House, “often they just say ‘oh, it’s fake news.’ Well, that’s not an answer. It’s our job to keep digging and find the answer.”
I asked if Post reporters get hate calls and email and “anonymous vitriol” on “a regular basis”?
Mary laughed. “Every day,” she said.
“If you call three times an hour a regular basis, then, sure, yeah,” Kevin said.
So how do they deal with that? Journalism in 2018 is no love fest, as they know better than most.
Sometimes, Kevin said, “You just ignore it.” Other times, “you read something and you get angry but the trick is put your thumbs in your pocket and not respond.” And still other times, “we like to engage with people — but we like to make sure that they understand that we respect that we’re trying to convey their thoughts, we’re trying to convey their point of view. We’re not trying to belittle them.”
And ultimately, Kevin said, the same First Amendment rights that afford reporters their freedom also give non-journalists the right to voice their opinions. “As those of us who have been in the media for a long time know,” he said. “People have a right to hate us if they want. It’s fine.”
Mary and Kevin discussed much more, including the myth that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns The Post, calls the editorial shots. Now that is fake news, as these two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters discuss this weekend.
-- Weekend of May 5, 2018: Pulitzer-winner Dan Barry, author and NY Times staff writer
We have been graced with appearances by several Pulitzer Prize winners since we launched our weekly “Story in the Public Square” TV and radio program in January 2017. Welcome the latest: The New York Times’ Dan Barry, who was part of a Pulitzer team while a staff writer at The Providence Journal in the 1990s, and a Pulitzer finalist twice since moving to The Times.
Dan discusses his critically acclaimed books and popular Times’ stories in this weekend’s broadcasts. You will learn about his This Land series, stories from his travels to all 50 states. You will learn of places and people both unique and universal for their shared humanity; of Dan’s social-justice reporting, which gives voice to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised; of what it is like to work for a paper constantly denigrated by a president who has assailed the First Amendment, calling journalists enemies of the people. And more, much more.
Co-host Jim Ludes and me congratulated him for receiving the sixth annual Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square, bestowed in a ceremony in Newport on April 23. But in this program you will not hear his acceptance remarks, which are about as eloquent a commentary on storytelling as you will find — as masterful as my favorite, albeit longer, such, Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” (A video of Dan’s remarks is on YouTube.)
So allow me to offer an excerpt of Dan’s address. Reading it, you can’t hear his deadpan delivery, of course, nor the brogue of his Irish ancestors that was all but in the room when he spoke, but you’ll get the idea:
“Like so many people gathered here tonight, I guess I’m a storyteller,” Dan said. “And, to my mind, there is no greater calling. To me, telling stories is like the childhood pursuit of catching fireflies in a glass jar. In the never-ending rush of time, you reach out to capture a glowing moment.
“You hold it up to examination with a kind of informed innocence.
“You meditate on its individual wonder.
“You try to see its place in the larger context of the universe.
“I’ve always been like this. I’ve always had a pen and pad with me — at considerable cost to many suit jackets and pairs of khaki pants. But I want to be always ready to capture another firefly of a moment…
“There are many reasons why I am this way.
“For one thing, I had what others might call a dysfunctional childhood — but I prefer to think of it as merely insane. There was a lot of drinking, and fighting, and searching the skies for UFOs — as you do.
“But at the center of it all was The Word.
“My mother, an orphaned girl from County Galway, was a kind of suburban seanachie — spinning Homeric epics out of a simple run to the supermarket for a loaf of bread.
“My father, a New Yorker hardened by the privations of the Great Depression, was forever delivering speeches in the kitchen — to a captive audience of eight, including three dogs — on how the powerful need to be held accountable.
“And me? I got beat up a lot as a kid. My parochial school uniform included green pants, green tie, green and gold belt, and a gold shirt with the insignia of the Holy Spirit embroidered on the shirt pocket.
“I looked like an usher at a St. Patrick’s Day party from hell.
“It was catnip for bullies.
“But you take these three gifts — the gift of language, the gift of skepticism, and the gift of the victim’s perspective — and my future was all but predestined.”
To which the mesmerized audience could only react:
|Dan Barry on set.|
-- April 24, 2018: Dan Barry adds the Pell Prize to his list of accomplishments
|Barry, center, with me, right, and Jim Ludes.|
-- Weekend of April 14, 2018: Kendall Moore, documentary filmmaker, URI professor.
In our determination to feature diverse storytellers and story media on “Story in the Public Square,” we have made filmmakers a cornerstone of the show. Rhode Island’s unequaled World War Two documentarian Tim Gray, Oscar-nominated Daphne Matziaraki, Pulitzer-winner Javier Manzano, and Narges Bajoghli, who has chronicled victims of chemical warfare in Iran, Iraq and Syria — these are among the filmmaking guests who have appeared on our program.
To this distinguished company we now add Kendall Moore, a University of Rhode Island professor whose powerful films about race, the environment and other issues have raised understanding and won multiple awards. Like Gray, Moore, a black woman and descendant of slaves, is a Rhode Island treasure. We discussed many of her films during this weekend’s episode, but I was especially eager to hear her reflections on two: “Jalen and Joanna: A Lead Paint Story” and “Sovereign Nation/Sovereign Neighbor,” about the infamous 2003 Rhode Island State Police smoke shop raid on Narragansett tribal territory. My former Journal colleague and friend, the late Pete Lord, wrote tirelessly about lead-paint poisoning at a time when few others did. And even before our 2015 series “Race in Rhode Island,” I have written regularly about Rhode Island’s indigenous peoples.
|Kendall Moore, right.|
“I was raised in a household that was very committed to issues of injustice, racial injustice,” Moore said. “If you look at the body of my work, you’ll see that there are films that focus solely on race and you’ll see films that focus on the environment and then you’ll see films that are the intersection of the two: race and the environment.”
Moore said she feels a responsibility to tell these stories, and that film is her preferred medium “because it’s a language that communicates across all boundaries — race, class, gender.” She said she uses the “privilege” of her skills in communicating — honed during years she worked as a reporter and producer for ABC News, the Discovery Channel and Reuters — as a means of furthering social change.
Moore was living in Manhattan when URI offered her a job. She had visited Rhode Island just once, and wanting to learn more about what would be her new home, she ran an internet search on the state — and what came up first, she said, was the smoke shop raid, ordered by then-Gov. Donald Carcieri. Many Native Americans and state police were injured in the raid, which for the Narragansetts represented just the latest in a series of injustices dating back to the Great Swamp Massacre of 1675, when white colonists, in the bloodiest event in Rhode Island history, slaughtered and burned alive hundreds of Narragansett and Niantic people.
Reading about the smoke shop raid, Moore said, evoked “horror, to see people who look exactly like me, who I essentially consider to be kin,” being so badly treated. “It was unbelievably brutal. And honestly, it’s been 500-plus years of mistreatment. It’s most [American Indian] nations. So this is a ubiquitous story. And I felt, ‘Well, OK, I can either not address it or I could lean into it’ and when I got here that’s exactly what I did.”
The result was “Sovereign Nation/Sovereign Neighbor,” completed in 2006.
“Jalen and Joanna: A Lead Paint Story,” completed last year, arose from Moore’s interest in the mass lead poisoning of residents in Flint, Michigan.
“I brought this topic to my students in my investigative documentary film class,” Moore told us. “I said, ‘I really want to do a piece on lead.’”
That led to the toxin found in the paint in many old houses — historically, a particular problem in Rhode Island. A compelling portrait of a black mother and her now-grown son who was poisoned by lead paint and now lives with the consequences, “Jalen and Joanna: A Lead Paint Story” is Moore at her finest.
Lead paint poisoning knows no racial divide, but people of color, studies have shown, are disproportionately affected. I asked Moore why.
“Poverty,” she said. “Poverty and people not doing the right thing. Landlords not doing the right thing. The state not enforcing the law to have landlords clean up lead paint. Substandard housing, poverty, and not being willing to look out for poor communities of color. That’s really the simple answer.”
Moore will screen and discuss “Jalen and Joanna: A Lead Paint Story” at this weekend’s inaugural Rhode Island Black Film Festival.
-- Weekend of March 31, 2018: Bernard LaFayette Jr.
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Inevitably, after our nearly half-hour studio recordings end, “Story in the Public Square” co-host Jim Ludes and I wish we had more time — a lot more time. We never get to all we’d like to discuss with our guests, and some of the before- and after-show conversations could be episodes in themselves.
Thus it was when we taped civil-rights legend Bernard Lafayette Jr., an early activist and associate of Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 50 years ago Wednesday. Lafayette was with King the morning he was shot, and he has been a leading proponent of nonviolent social change for some six decades, including with his leadership position at the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies.
|Bernard LaFayette Jr., center, with the SIPS cast and crew.|
In the green room before we went on camera, Lafayette sang a tune from his Freedom Rider days. “Freedom is a comin’” has its roots in slavery, and it was an appropriate choice for the courageous women and men who marched for social justice in the early 1960s, often at risk of injury and death from enraged white supremacists and Ku Klux Klansmen in that Jim Crow era.
Bernard’s rendition mesmerized us. We made a note to have him sing it during the show.
We never got to it, so if you watch or listen to this weekend’s broadcasts, you’ll witness history — but no song. But we could not let the moment pass. And so, when we’d wrapped the episode, we turned the cameras on Lafayette again and asked him to sing “Freedom is a comin’.” He did, after talking about the importance of music to social movements, and the stories that are told as they unfold and are remembered.
“Music played such an important role because when you were in the movement, that music was like food for the soul,” Lafayette said. “It gave you the kind of inner strength that you needed to continue. The music also articulated the goals that you were trying to reach …
“As you began to move toward your goal, you were hopeful — and you were convinced and you also were determined to reach those goals. When people begin singing songs about their own movements in their local areas, that’s when we knew that not only were they in the movement themselves, but the movement was in them. And the song was the evidence.”
Evidence, he said, during his earliest days as a classmate of now-U.S. Rep. John Lewis at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and co-founder and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“I had just arrived and we were starting the organizing and the recruitment. They hadn’t even started marches or campaigns.” But music drew protestors in.
Lafayette recalled the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, in Alabama, one of the milestone events of the civil-rights movement. “I remember Joan Baez was there,” he said.
Marchers sang “We shall overcome” — and, of course, “Freedom is a comin’.”
A smile crossed Lafayette’s face.
“And the song goes like this: ‘Freedom is a comin’ and it won’t be long. Freedom is a comin’, help me sing this song ...”
Hear and watch LaFayette sing "Freedom is a comin' "
-- Weekend of March 3, 2018: Maddie McGarvey, celebrated photographer.
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She did, and if you get the chance to watch or listen this weekend, I think you will agree that McGarvey — whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones and The New York Times, among many other places — is worthy of the honors that have come her way. Those include Magnum’s 30 Under 30 photographers three years ago and TIME's 51 Instagram Photographers to Follow in the U.S., in 2016.
McGarvey is Midwestern-modest regarding those accomplishments, but eloquent in discussing her work and where it appears. Her frequent use of Instagram, where @maddiemcgarvey has attracted some 36,000 followers, particularly intrigued co-host Jim Ludes and me.
|Maddie McGarvey at work.|
“Instagram can be whatever the individual wants it to be,” McGarvey said. “With some people, it's just pictures of their dogs; some people, it's food. I like Instagram because it’s a place to show my documentary photography where 36,000 people who don’t know anything about an issue or don’t know a lot can get an intimate look…
“I’ve photographed, for example, the opioid crisis. This man whose son died 10 years ago from heroin and every week he goes and cleans and polishes the gravestone and mows the grass along it. He invited me to take pictures of him one day. I did and posted [one] on Instagram and I got a lot of comments from strangers that were like ‘My son died from heroin’ or ‘I have someone struggling.’ That’s a way to reach an audience that I don’t think I would ever been able to before. Or people can see that other people are going through this.”
“Connecting people,” Ludes said. “They’re not alone.”
“Yes,” McGarvey said. “I think Instagram is sort of beautiful for that.”
During our nearly half hour on air, McGarvey discussed 30 of her photos. One depicts the son of a woman who became pregnant with him when she was working at a chemical factory. Grown now, the man has a severely deformed face. When I first glimpsed it, I was taken aback. The more I looked, however, something drew me in. Perhaps it was how McGarvey posed him, or the rapport she had built with him. Whatever it was, the man’s deformity no longer mattered. That wasn't him. That, was, well, superficial. I don’t know how else to put it.
“It tells a story of what happened to him, the larger story, but it also captures his humanity,” I said. “He’s a person… Is that in your mind, too?"
“Absolutely," McGarvey said. "When I approach photography — and subjects in portraiture especially — the largest thing I look for is how I can connect with them in an empathetic way. I’m not looking to sensationalize anything. I just want people, the viewers, to look and connect.”
Director Scott Saracen, editor Nicholas Moraites and I cut that photo and 29 others into the final video. Our radio audience should be satisfied — we verbally describe each image verbally — and I would be surprised if our TV viewers, seeing those 30 images and watching 44 seconds of documentary film we also added, are not as wowed as everyone on set was.
-- Weekend of Feb. 17, 2018: Immigration, Latino issues, with guest Gabriela Domenzain.
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I knew from meeting Gabriela Domenzain last fall that she would soon make her mark in Rhode Island. The newly arrived head of Roger Williams University’s Latino Policy Institute, Domenzain brought impressive credentials from her time in Washington, the national media and the Hispanic advocacy organization National Council of La Raza, now known as UnidosUS. With her distinctive energy, Domenzain, the daughter of Mexican immigrant doctors, got right to work on Latino issues, including significant educational and economic disparities here and across the nation.
But the public has come to know her best with her recent involvement in the case of longtime Rhode Island resident Lilian Calderon, wife of U.S. citizen Luis Gordillo and mother of their two young children who this week was released after a month in federal detention. Thirty years old now, Calderon came to America from Guatemala as a 3-year-old, and in January she was seized by ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Her story made national headlines as Congress once again tackles the hot-button issue of immigration.
|Gordillo, daughter Natalie, Miller, Domenzain, and Ludes on set|
So we were keen to discuss that case and the larger issues surrounding it with Domenzain, this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square,” TV and radio. Her intimate knowledge of immigration and her life experiences give Domenzain an authority that is often lacking in the local and national conversations, when some people are quick to post Facebook comments and fire off tweets based on hot emotion and misinformation, not cold facts.
Lilian, Domenzain said, was seeking to set her record straight when “she was literally vanished from her community without any explanation.” For Domenzain, it represented a chilling change of tactics by federal authorities. It was one of the first such in New England, she said — but not the last in the region and country, she fears, under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress.
How did we get here? we asked. Efforts at comprehensive immigration reform date to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, more than three decades ago.
From the GOP side, Domenzain said, an explanation can be found in those congressional Republicans who bitterly opposed Barack Obama in his first term. “A backlash,” she called it, led by extremists who understood that a hard-line anti-immigration stand would appeal to some white voters and might prevent America’s first African-American president from winning a second term.
“We’re talking about the Tea Party and the very, very right fringe extreme caucus that is now in the middle of the Republican Party,” Domenzain said. “It used to be fringe. Now it’s actually front and center.”
Across the aisle, Domenzain asserted, other factors were in play.
“On the Democratic side, they haven’t decided to use their political capital on these issues,” she said. “President Obama tried his first year. It didn’t work. He decided to go with health-care reform, which, by the way, was the number-one priority for Latino voters because we are the most underinsured and uninsured population.”
Like many others, Domenzain sees this year’s elections as potentially game-changing. Surveys suggest that greater numbers of Hispanic, African-American and other traditionally non-Republican voters will cast ballots than in 2016.
That, she said, does not bode well for today’s Washington.
“The Republican Party has no chance with Latinos right now. They have the most anti-immigrant, racist president in the history of this country and Latinos recognize that they’re scapegoats.”
I have only touched on our wide-ranging conversation (which, I would note, Lilian’s husband and one of the children watched from the control room). Wherever you stand on the immigration debate, this is a broadcast well worth hearing or watching.
*****-- Weekend of Jan. 27, 2018: Genocide, the Holocaust, with guest Omer Bartov.
I have known Edgar for several years, and have followed his exemplary work during that time. If you are not familiar with him, here’s a primer: he joined the American Civil Liberties Union just before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then worked for several years advising the director of national intelligence during George W. Bush’s administration. He later advised President Barack Obama, and came to Brown in 2013. Yes, highly credentialed — and an expert and scholar, not a partisan.
-- Weekend of Feb. 10, 2018: Russia meddling in the 2016 election, FBI, with guest Tim Edgar.
You are unlikely to find a more qualified individual to discuss cybersecurity, government surveillance and personal privacy than Timothy Edgar, senior fellow with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and author of the critically acclaimed new book, “Beyond Snowden: Privacy, Mass Surveillance and the Struggle to Reform the NSA.”
So with the Nunes memo bringing investigations of Russian interference in American democracy into the news once again, Edgar’s appearance on this weekend’s TV and satellite radio broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square” could not be more timely.
|Timothy Edgar, right.|
I have known Edgar for several years, and have followed his exemplary work during that time. If you are not familiar with him, here’s a primer: he joined the American Civil Liberties Union just before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then worked for several years advising the director of national intelligence during George W. Bush’s administration. He later advised President Barack Obama, and came to Brown in 2013. Yes, highly credentialed — and an expert and scholar, not a partisan.
Our nearly half-hour discussion covered many topics, but “Story” co-host and co-producer Jim Ludes and I started with the Russia investigations by Congress and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Have they been compromised by political bias, as President Donald Trump and others assert? I asked.
“I think it’s fairly weak to say that the entire investigation is just a witch hunt or it’s just people in the ‘Deep State’ who dislike Trump,” Edgar said. “I think that’s a huge stretch.”
But Edgar, who sees nuance where others might see only black-or-white, raised a caution.
“I do think there are legitimate civil liberties issues in this foreign intelligence investigation, as there always are in foreign intelligence investigations because they’re pretty wide-ranging …. We don’t necessarily trust the government to always get it right when it comes to these very intrusive powers. So I do think we need to look carefully at the possibility that they went too far in certain cases involving Trump campaign officials. That’s completely possible and we shouldn’t dismiss it just because we don’t like Trump or we think they’re trying to distract us from the main focus of the investigation.”
Ludes sought Edgar’s opinion of media coverage of the Nunes memo and related issues, asking, “Have they gotten it right?”
“It’s hard to explain because it’s a complicated issue,” Edgar said. “It’s hard sometimes for people in our polarized media environment to have two ideas in their head at the same time. One idea is it’s a very serious matter: the Russian interference in our political process in 2016. It appears that the president is not taking it seriously and that’s really troubling.
“And at the same time, it might be the case that there might be legitimate questions to be asked about the investigation. You can believe all of these things at the same time, but the media wants to put us in one camp or another. Either we’re on the side of Trump or we’re on the side of the ‘Deep State,’ and I don’t think that should be the way that we, as Americans, look at the most intrusive surveillance authorities.”
Ludes noted that when the Nunes memo was leaked, he channel-surfed to assess coverage.
“I was struck by the difference in the tone and the tenor,” he said. “It’s almost three different news universes out there depending on whether you’re a CNN follower, an MSNBC follower or a Fox follower.”
“Yes,” Edgar said, “and I think that’s really unhealthy for our democracy.”
We were only a quarter of the way through the discussion at that point, and I can assure you the last 75 percent was equally informative. So tune in!
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On Saturday, the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, #WeRemember, in honor of the 6 million Jewish victims of Nazism and the millions of others killed when Hitler was in power. So it is appropriate that during this weekend’s TV and radio broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square” we feature Omer Bartov, the esteemed Brown University historian who has written extensively about Nazi Germany and ethnic cleansing.
His latest book, “Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz,” published this week by Simon & Schuster, is an extraordinary story of how one small town in Eastern Europe descended into unspeakable atrocity in the first half of the 20th century.
|Miller, Ludes, Bartov.|
“Genocide is often being studied from the top,” Bartov tells us on “Story in the Public Square,” “from the point of view of the perpetrators: how was it organized, how do you organize the mass destruction of a group. One of the ideas in explaining that was you have to dehumanize people, that you have to think of them as different from us, as not normal.”
In “Anatomy of a Genocide,” Bartov focused on the border town of Buczacz, which is today part of Ukraine. Before Hitler and Stalin, the Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian residents there had gone centuries without conflict.
“I wouldn’t say it was a harmonious coexistence, but they lived together and they did not know any other reality,” Bartov said. “This was what they had always done.”
“They didn’t have gangs and killing squads or anything of that sort,” I said.
“No, no, no.”
“They had their differences, but they lived together.”
“Yes,” Bartov said. “They lived side by side quite peacefully. And they often speak each other’s languages, they go to school together.”
As World War II unfolded, German authorities took control of Buczacz after driving out the occupying Soviets.
“The mass killing begins in the late summer, early fall of 1942,” Bartov said, “and by spring 1943 most of the Jewish population in that town has been murdered, about 10,000 people. So by June 1943, this area is decreed by the Germans ‘clean of Jews.’”
“Who did the killing?” my co-host Jim Ludes asked.
“The killing of the Jews is done primarily by about 20 to 30 Germans who are members of the security police,” Bartov said.
Police, not soldiers.
And not at Auschwitz or Dachau, but in Any Town in East Europe — as neighbors watched and, in some instances, cooperated.
As the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides and other ethnic cleansing after (and before) World War II demonstrate, the Holocaust was not unique. Given the right, terrible conditions, human nature can turn horrific.
Bartov explained how ordinary people can conspire in such a descent into the worst darkness.
Say, for example, he told us, “you live in a house and the house has four stories and the people upstairs have the nicest apartment and they have a piano and they’re taken out by the police and shot on the street. You had nothing to do with it. You were friends, your daughters went to school together. Now what happens to their apartment? Who is going to live there? If you don’t move in — it’s a nicer apartment, it has better air, it’s the fourth floor, it has a piano — somebody else will.
“So you move in. And once you’ve moved in, well, you are already part of this process. On the local level, there are no simple victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. Everyone is involved in this process. Everybody gets roped in in one way or another. And the veneer of civilization — of saying hello to your neighbors in the morning — suddenly disappears.”
This process of demonizing or dehumanizing someone who is racially, ethnically or religiously different, Bartov says, is key. He sees similar social dynamics at work today in many parts of the world, including America, where racism and nativism bring headlines.
Born and raised in Israel, where he served four years in the army, Bartov is the son of a woman who grew up in Buczacz, so there is a strong personal element to “Anatomy of a Genocide.” Hear more about that and Bartov’s latest book this weekend on “Story in the Public Square.”
-- Weekend of Jan. 20: War coverage, ISIS atrocities, with guest Sulome Anderson.
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In an astonishing article for Foreign Policy, “Women Survive. They Do Not Live,” writer Sulome Anderson chronicled her experiences interviewing captured ISIS members in Iraq and some of the Yazidi women they enslaved, raped and abused. Anderson asked one woman what she would tell her captors now that they had been captured.
“I have nothing to say to them,” the woman said. “Even if you put them here in front of me and tortured them, cut them into pieces like a salad, I would say nothing, because my heart is broken and my life will never go back to the way it was, no matter what I say.”
Anderson had those words in her head when she spoke to an ISIS member.
“The prisoner denies that he saw what happened to the Yazidi women,” Anderson wrote. “But he seems to have absorbed the terrorist group’s attitude toward women. As we speak, he looks at me with hunger in his eyes.”
And then he said to Anderson: “You are very beautiful. If ISIS had you, they would lash you, cover you, and take you as a slave as well.”
Such is the power of Anderson’s work, which she discussed during this weekend’s TV and satellite-radio broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square”. Based in New York and in Beirut, Anderson specializes in what she describes as “people existing in extreme circumstances.” We have featured other guests who do similar work — Pulitzer-winning Javier Manzano and Oscar-nominated Daphne Matziaraki, for example — and we were delighted to welcome Anderson into their ranks.
Anderson’s work for NBC, Harper’s, The Atlantic, New York, VICE, Village Voice and other outlets has brought her to some of the planet’s most violent regions. She largely eschews politics for people.
“The reason I prefer to focus on the human beings is because they are so often lost in the narrative,” Anderson told me and “Story” co-host Jim Ludes.
“I consider it my mission or my job to make people in America — just for a moment, doesn’t have to last very long — for them to look at the life of someone across the world who they seemingly have nothing in common with and think: Oh, wow, if I were in that situation, how would I feel? How would I react? I want them to imagine that person as a human being. ”
“It’s a mission of empathy,” Ludes said.
“Yes,” Anderson replied.
I asked Anderson about the personal impact of reporting the Foreign Policy piece. “You were hearing horrible, horrific things, the worst kind of human behavior almost imaginable,” I said. “How did that affect you emotionally and spiritually?”
“That was definitely one of the hardest, if not the most difficult, group of interviews that I’ve done,” she said, of her interactions with the formerly enslaved women.
“I know journalists who consider it a kind of badge of honor to detach emotionally from this work. I personally do not. I focused my attention on not crying in front of them because I find that disrespectful. It’s not my life. I didn’t go through anything like that. I don’t feel like it’s my place to sit there and cry in their homes, but it is very difficult to hear these things and maintain composure.”
Quite different when she got to the ISIS prisoner.
“I was very angry and that kind of informed my interview of him,” Anderson said.
As they talked, she seemed able to read the man’s thoughts.
“I knew the ultimate humiliation was to be interviewed by an American woman, unveiled, who isn’t afraid of him,” Anderson said. “For someone who has been living in that ideology and believes it — I knew that would be the ultimate insult.”
But she contained her anger.
“I didn’t do anything overly aggressive with him. I just sort of noticed his reactions to the questions I was asking, to the way I was asking them, to the fact that I was not afraid of him.”
This was not Anderson’s first encounter with terrorists. Daughter of former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, who was held captive for seven years by Hezbollah militants, Anderson writes of finally meeting one of her father’s captors in “The Hostage’s Daughter: A Memoir of Family, Madness and the Middle East,” which won an International Book Award and has been optioned for film.
Anderson has begun work on her next book, about radicalism in America, and it’s one I can’t wait to read. Meanwhile, you can watch or hear Anderson talk for nearly a half-hour about her compelling and growing body of work — from America and abroad, about topics and people, good and bad — this weekend on “Story in the Public Square.”
-- Weekend of Jan 13, 2018: Obituary writing, with guest Margolit Fox, New York Times.LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
Margalit Fox has had the last word more frequently than anyone you’re likely to ever meet.
An obituary writer for The New York Times, Fox is a master of this form of news story, and during her career, she has penned the obituaries of more than 1,200 people — from the well-known to the obscure.
Obscure, that is, until The Times goes to print and suddenly, you know the name and life story of the person who invented the Frisbee or the pink plastic flamingo.
Fox talked about her craft on this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square,” and while admittedly I am biased, our half hour with her was uncommonly informative and entertaining. Not only is Fox a master wordsmith — she is an author, too — but she possesses compelling stage presence. Perhaps it is her training as a cellist, or her master’s degree in linguistics. Whatever, co-host Jim Ludes and I were mesmerized.
|Margolit Fox, middle.|
We opened the program asking Fox to tell us how one becomes what she became.
“Well, the child has not been born that comes home from second grade [saying] ‘When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer,’" she said. True enough. "One backs into it — or, rather, lucks into it.”
Fox also holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, and before joining The Times’ obit desk in 2004, she was a staff editor at the paper’s Book Review. She found her true calling when she began writing about the dearly (and recently) departed.
“Historically, obits were Siberia in any newsroom in America,” Fox said. “It was where they sent you to punish you. It was where they sent you if you were a hair’s breadth away from needing an obit yourself.”
Jim and I roared, not for the last time during the broadcast.
As for penning obits, Fox soon concluded that “the dirty little secret is it’s the best beat in journalism.”
Some might quibble with that, but let her make her case.
“We’re paid to tell stories,” Fox said. “Think of how an obit is structured. You say ‘John Smith was born in Providence on January 1, 1920. John Smith died yesterday.’ That gives you a built-in narrative arc. And readers love to hear the stories of other people’s lives. How does a life go? How much of what happens in life is the product of free will? How much is dumb luck? How much is pure blind faith? How does Joe Smith get from A to B to C — to Z, when he crosses my desk — in his life? To be paid to tell stories is the best beat there is.”
Having written more than a few obits myself — including of former Rhode Island governors Bruce Sundlun and Joe Garrahy, and Newport’s last grand dame, Eileen Slocum — I could totally relate.
Fox has written the sendoffs for some of America’s most prominent (and notorious) individuals, including Charles Manson, the writer Maya Angelou, and the advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers.
The final words for such prominent people, minus a few pertinent but unpredictable details, are typically written before the final passage. Fox told some great stories about that process — and hinted of ones she has in the can of people still among us, though she respectfully declined to identify these future features.
But others are written on deadline, and it is that sort of obituary that Fox cherishes, in a writerly way.
“The ones obit writers particularly love and the ones I particularly love are these unsung heroes — the backstage players, men and women we’ve never heard of. They’re not household names, the man on the street wouldn’t recognize them, yet they’ve done something, invented something, had an idea that somehow changed the world. They’re people who, I say, put a wrinkle in the social fabric.”
She gave examples including Frisbee inventor Frederick Morrison; Don Featherstone, who imagined the plastic lawn flamingo; and Ruth M. Siems, who created Stove Top stuffing, whose manufacturer, Kraft Foods, says is sold by the millions of boxes during the Thanksgiving period alone.
Siems “did us a solid by dying in November. We were able to run her obit the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week,” Fox said, as only, perhaps, a master of the form could.
Honestly, we could have listened for hours. And, yes, for this episode, Jim and I did extend Fox the courtesy of the final word.
-- Dec. 16, 2017: Trump & Russia, National Story of the Year, with guest Evelyn Farkas.
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Every December, a panel of judges from academia and the media selects the Pell Center Rhode Island Story of the Year. The UHIP debacle was voted 2017’s top story.
The Pell Center also selects a National Story of the Year, announcing the winner in a media release and video. But for 2017, Pell director Jim Ludes and I decided to reveal the top pick on our "Story in the Public Square" TV and radio program — and invite a distinguished national expert to discuss the choice.
And so, in this weekend’s broadcasts of "Story in the Public Square," you will hear someone eminently qualified to discuss our choice: Evelyn Farkas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, national security analyst for NBC News, and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia.
Competition for the top story is always intense, but 2017 brought an unusual number of powerful narratives affecting our country and its people. The #MeToo movement empowering women. The growing threat of nuclear attack by North Korea. Immigration and President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit it. White supremacy. The list is long.
But we chose Trump and Russian attempts to undermine American democracy as the top national story of 2017. It is a narrative with profound implications for our democratic system and many threads — including a connection to Rhode Island in former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a Middletown native, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and who has agreed to cooperate in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“The first thing you need to know about Russia is that the Russian government, the Kremlin, [President Vladimir] Putin and his cronies decided the U.S. was an adversarial state,” Farkas said.
And that arguably was the greatest threat to Putin, whose goal is “to stay in power,” Farkas said.
“What he has in the back of his mind is himself. What he fears most is a United States that is strong and can ultimately, somehow, engineer a change in Russia’s government that will put him out of a job. That’s why he saw an opportunity to attack our elections and he did so.”
“Do you have any doubt about the fact that Russia intervened in the U.S. election in 2016?” Ludes asked.
“Absolutely none,” Farkas said. “It surprises me that he took that risky move, but the fact that he would meddle in our democracy doesn’t surprise me.”
“Are there any experts like yourself who have studied this authoritatively, scholastically, with knowledge and background, who disagree?” I said.
“Not that I know of," Farkas said.
With its continued manipulation of social media, distortion of facts, engineering and promulgation of “fake news” and other measures, Russia, of course, continued its attacks on American democracy in 2017 and is expected to remain aggressive into 2018, another election year.
“Ultimately, it becomes an issue where information isn’t credible, and there are no facts anymore,” Farkas said.
Should that happen, she said, “the American people will eventually say, ‘Well, we don’t even care what the truth is. We don’t want to hear it.’ ”
The winner then?
The National Security Agency’s digital spying operation was the 2013 National Story of the Year.
“Emperor Obama” was the 2014 pick, racial tension and the explosion of nativism in American politics was the top story in 2015, and the assault on fact and truth in public life, fueled by fake news and propaganda, was the 2016 winner.
-- Nov. 25, 2017: China, Russia, war, with guest Adm. Jeff Harley, Naval War College president.
|Rear Admiral Jeff Harley.|
Long ago, when Harley was himself a young student, I covered the War College for The Providence Journal. This was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency — another era of acute global tension. Among other events, I wrote about war games the college sponsors. One involved conflict, sparked by an act of terrorism, in the Caribbean and South America. Another pitted the U.S. and NATO allies against Warsaw Pact nations, led by the Soviet Union. During this weekend’s “Story in the Public Square” broadcast, Harley tells our TV and radio audiences that war-gaming is very much alive at the Naval War College, in Newport. And the threats these computer-assisted games address are as North Korea threatens nuclear attack and Russia, an old power, flexes its military might, along with a new naval power, China.
“Maritime security is more important than ever before,” Harley says. “If you look at the statistics of the billions and billions of goods that transit through the sea lanes every day, most of the items that make it through and end in our hands travel by sea. … There are nations that are challenging the international order of the sea lanes today.”
I asked Harley specifically about China and Russia. China has been building islands and increasing its military presence in the South China Sea, through which much world cargo transits, and Russia under Vladimir Putin has been increasing its naval forces and demonstrating its new might with operations in several parts of the world.
“We do study China and we do study Russia,” Harley said. “We certainly focus on war-fighting at the college. We also look at the constructs of peace, particularly deterrence and the other elements of national power. ... We work very closely with our [international] student body to ensure that we inculcate an understanding of the Chinese systems and the Chinese military writ large. We do the same for Russia.”
The two nations rank so high on the college’s list of priorities that it has created two divisions devoted exclusively to them: the China Maritime Studies Institute and the Russia Maritime Studies Institute. Military and civilian scholars together advance knowledge — and not only for the armed forces.
“These people provide world-class research at an international and national level,” the admiral said. “They’ll testify before Congress based on their expertise. We’ll conduct [war] gaming so that we can best understand the military capabilities of all the different nations in the world and how those integrate together to ensure our success if we ever got to a place where we had to have conflict.
“Principally, we’re seeking to ensure that we can deter a conflict. But if that day comes, we will fight and win in that conflict because of the efforts that are made at your United States Naval War College.”
This weekend on “Story in the Public Square,” Harley expands on this and much more, including the Naval War College’s new strategic plan, which aims to solidify its transformation into a university that, like an Ivy League school, recruits and maintains scholars who are provided tenure and academic freedom, whether or not their views echo official Pentagon policy. I wrote about this earlier this year.
Read an account of a 1983 war game at the Naval War College.
-- Weekend of September 23, 2017: Sunshine Menezes, Metcalf Institute.
With extreme weather having punished populations and environments recently in the Caribbean, on the continental U.S., and elsewhere in the world, this was the right time to spend half an hour with a leading expert in science communication. Science storytelling, she calls it.
Sunshine Menezes, head of the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting since 2006, has strong convictions about the responsibility that scientists and journalists bear in conveying truths about climate change, environment pollution and other assaults on the planet and its life forms, including its more than 7 billion human inhabitants.
|Sunshine Menezes, center.|
“Traditionally, scientists were expected to do their work, publish their results and get their grants, period,” Menezes said while taping this weekend’s broadcast of “Story in the Public Square.” “Now there are growing expectations about the role of a scientist in the public sphere.”
Specifically, she said, “scientists now have the opportunity to be far more engaged in public conversations about their research and about the significance of their research.” That typically takes training, and not just in the art of storytelling but in reframing philosophy. Which is where the Metcalf Institute comes in.
It is no longer enough, Menezes said, for a scientist “just to say ‘I am an expert and I know things and I want to tell you things.’” Today, she said, they should also “interact with public audiences in a much more engaging way, which is to say, ‘Hello, community where I’m doing my research, tell me how you are interested in the work that I’m doing and how you can inform it and how I can learn from you — and how we can work together.’”
And the journalists?
In the 11 years she has headed Metcalf, Menezes said, “the entire news ecosystem has changed pretty dramatically. There’s been a significant loss of dedicated science- and environment-beat reporters.” And a loss overall in reporters of all kinds, as she noted.
“It’s not that we have fewer environment stories in the news or environment stories that should be covered in the news,” Menezes said. “What we see, then, is that more political or general-assignment or business journalists are covering these stories. And that is fine, if that’s what we have to work with. But those folks especially need more preparation to help tell the behind-the-science story.”
I asked Menezes about EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s remark as Hurricane Irma approached Florida earlier this month that it would be “insensitive” at that time to talk about the relationship between recent changes in the atmosphere and the incidence and intensity of storms.
“Outrageous,” Menezes said. “An absurd argument. ... This is a very important time to talk about climate change.”
And what about stories that include quotes from doubters, that tiny but loud group of individuals who ridiculously claim that the science supporting the role of carbon emissions and other human-caused factors in climate change is fraudulent or a leftist conspiracy or whatever?
“That’s called false balance in this field,” Menezes said. “When you provide two voices, one saying one side of things and the other providing the other side of things — when in fact one of those sides is represented by 99 percent of scientists and the other side is represented by 1 percent – there’s clearly a false balance.”
But that, too, is changing, Menezes said: Few credible reporters today add the 1-percent point of view to any of their stories.
I cited The Journal’s own award-winning environment reporter Alex Kuffner as someone who would never seek false balance. “It just wouldn’t even occur to him,” I said.
“I’m very proud to say that Alex is a Metcalf Institute alum,” a 2010 fellow, Menezes said. “And we have many, many alumni all over the country and in fact all over the world who are not using false balance, who are bringing more nuanced conversations to their reporting.”
-- Weekend of August 24, 2017: Award-winning World War II documentarian Tim Gray.
In his many films, Gray captures stories — most never before told — of people now in their 90s who he likes to call “The Toughest Generation.” Sons and daughters of Great Depression parents, they worked hard, complained little, and sacrificed much. And when the war was won, the survivors returned home to rebuild America. We are here thanks to them.
|Tim Gray, right, on set.|
“Not one of those stories is the same,” Gray said during taping for this weekend’s broadcast of “Story in the Public Square.” “You’ve got guys who worked on the home front in Washington behind a desk. Their story is totally different from somebody else who was on the front line. You have two soldiers sitting in the same foxhole during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944, and their stories are totally different.”
Gray’s forthcoming “Journey Home to the USS Arizona,” due for national broadcast this fall, is yet another of those unique stories: that of Rhode Island’s Ray Haerry, a crewman on the battleship the Japanese sank during the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The film documents the return of the late veteran’s ashes to his ship, on which 1,177 Marines and sailors died in the bombing.
Gray cannot get enough of these stories, nor the company of those who lived them.
“My wife likes to joke with me. She says, ‘All your friends are in their 90s.’ And I say, ‘Well, I like to hang out with them because they teach me so much.’ ”
They teach lessons pertinent to 2017.
“Sometimes when I look back at that generation, I think we need to go back to those values,” Gray said. “That wasn’t the selfie generation. That wasn’t the look-at-me generation… They believed in God and in the United States as a country, and they didn’t go around with a sign that said, ‘I helped win World War II.’ And they’re still that way today.”
Those who are still with us. Only about 600,000 of the war’s 16 million veterans survive, and nearly 400 of them die daily.
So Gray is in a race against time.
“My window is closing rapidly,” he said.
But it is not closed yet.
“We’re trying to get to as many of these men and women as possible,” Gray said.
He estimates that the stories of the 300 to 400 veterans he and his crew already have put on tape have not yet “seen the light of day” in his films. Some will eventually — and all, he said, are “going to end up on our website. They’ll be accessible for free for students, for researchers, for educators. We want them to experience what that generation did.”
I can appreciate that: like Gray, I have donated interviews and other archival material from my own films and books to universities, where they are free and accessible to all. Too often, however, I have been impeded by others’ restrictions or profit motives.
Good for Gray. Better still for The Toughest Generation. Let’s thank them again for their service