Friday, December 28, 2012

An Open Letter to Media-bashers

I have been a journalist nearly all my adult life: since 1978, when, having just turned 24, I took my first job as a reporter at a small newspaper in Massachusetts. So I am not new to criticism of the media. I have mostly welcomed it, particularly the constructive criticisms, which motivate me and my colleagues to strive to improve what we do. Critics help us be accountable.

But in recent years, a particularly strident criticism of a so-called monolithic “mainstream media” has flourished on certain blogs, talk shows and social media sites -- and even on the reader comment sections of many of these same “mainstream media” outlets, including my own. People are exercising their First Amendment rights, which is a good thing.

What is not a good thing is commentary that holds the “mainstream media” to be comprised of lying scoundrels pushing a traitorous agenda, to put it bluntly. Not nearly as bluntly as some of the rants I’ve witnessed, but, yes, bluntly.

My educated guess is that I have known many more members of the media -- personally and professionally -- than any of these critics, some of whom embrace the cowardly approach of anonymous commentary. I have worked for almost 35 years with journalists, hundreds in total, and thus have been intimately exposed to their methods, their personalities and their beliefs. Some are now at large outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Some remain at regional or local companies. Many sit alongside me today at 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. A few have left the profession.

I do not know of a single one who has lied in his or her journalism or pushed an unsavory agenda. More on agenda in a moment.

Do we in the media make mistakes? Yes, just as mechanics, lawyers, clerks and pretty much everybody makes mistakes. People are fallible.

Should we be called on these mistakes? Of course. And we are, regularly.

Every newspaper with which I am familiar not only accepts corrections but solicits them. My own, The Providence Journal, runs a notice every day on page 2 stating that we willingly correct all errors (and we do), with instructions on how to report them; daily, we publish letters to the editor and allow readers to post online. Still dissatisfied? You can submit an op-ed piece or demand a meeting with an editor or reporter. Does your local bank or grocer go this far to give you a say?

And when confronted with an error, every reporter I have ever known not only has set the record straight, in print or on air -- in public, and, in the internet era, in perpetuity -- he or she has been embarrassed and troubled at the failure. Then learned from it and moved on, vowing to do better. These are people of honor who would do this.

There is, of course, that handful of actual lying journalists, although, to the best of my knowledge, I am not personally acquainted with any. Nearly all are eventually caught and exiled from the business by –– well, by fellow journalists, the editors who employed them. The most recent example is ex-Cape Cod Times reporter Karen Jeffrey, who was fired by the newspaper late this year when an internal review confirmed that she had fabricated characters and events in several of her stories. What I find most revealing about this episode is that the editor and publisher of The Cape Cod Times not only fired Jeffery, but published a front-page story explaining what had happened and apologizing to their readers. (Disclosure: I worked at The Cape Cod Times from 1979 - 1981, leaving before Jeffrey was hired.) 

This shameful story of one lying reporter at one small newspaper became national news. It did precisely because such instances are so rare.

Now, about this monolithic “mainstream media.”

There is no such thing. There never was. As long as the First Amendment holds, there never will be.

True, there are outlets that generally favor certain stories and political philosophies over others. Fox v. MSNBC is a well-known example. But is this monolithic when America has thousands of publications and broadcast outlets -- and now, in the Internet era, so many blogs and web sites -- each with its own raison d'ĂȘtre, and each managed by different local owners, parent companies, or regional and national chains? Hardly. If you want monolithic “mainstream media,” look to North Korea, Iran or the old Soviet Union, not here. Different blood runs through American veins, and has since before our independence was declared.

The American press took root at a time, the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the primary goal of many editors and writers -- perhaps most -- was to advance specific politics, not offer balance, opposing points of view, or even what we now call news. Thomas Paine’s pamphlets and other publications relentlessly pushed independence from England; in New York, the Gazeteer espoused loyalty to the crown. The Founding Fathers adopted the Bill of Rights with the realization that a free press meant that those who managed and owned the presses (they were literally that: printing presses) would continue with their overtly partisan writing. And they did, as Hamiltonian readers of Federalist publications and Jeffersonian readers of Republican papers, two groups frequently at odds, could have attested.

The advent of the telegraph changed journalism, as did the establishment of the Associated Press in 1846, both helping to create the concept of news as we more or less understand it today -- and diluting, if not removing, the agenda-driven philosophy of the late colonial and early republic periods. Later technologies -- radio, TV and digital -- had their profound effects. So did the rising wealth of the industrializing nation, which supported increased advertising revenues, which in turn supported larger and more diverse staffs -- and many more publications, stations, networks, wire services and more. Not exactly a monolith, then or now. (For an exhaustive history of the American press, I recommend Christopher B. Daly’s COVERING AMERICA: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism)

But, yes, some outlets today do have an agenda, broadly speaking -- an echo, if you will, of the opinionated press that Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington and Madison knew well. Fox offers a conservative view, MSNBC a liberal one; The Wall Street Journal generally speaks for the business community, The New York Times for the intelligentsia, the New York Post for the working man. Is there anyone who follows the news who doesn’t know this? But many more newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets fall into more neutral territory, with diverse and sometimes conflicting points of view expressed throughout their content –– and pure dogma relegated, for the most part, to columns and the editorial and op-ed sections, clearly identified as such.   

What media-bashers really mean by agenda is: something they read or hear that challenges or refutes their own views. I suspect what they really would like is their own monolith, where opposition did not exist.

This holds true for people on both sides of the political divide, but in my experience, it’s more commonly an assertion by some on the far right. They see a broad conspiracy by large numbers of individual journalists who, they believe, are determined to undermine the nation by promulgating “socialist” policies. They assert that “mainstream media” reporters, editors, publishers and broadcasters want to destroy marriage, swell the welfare rolls, ruin health care, take all the guns away, flood the country with illegal immigrants, over-regulate business, punish the rich, demonize the Republicans, ridicule the conservatives, spread myths about the environment, remove God from everywhere, and the list goes on.

And to that end, they believe that “mainstream” journalists twist, distort and lie. What they really mean is that only members of any medium who are lock-step with their own opinions are truthful.

I have yet to hear a credible explanation of how so many journalists, spread across this sprawling country of 315 million, could conspire on such a scale. Perhaps by their oaths at the annual Skull and Bones gathering? Seriously, if there is one thing I have learned about my colleagues, it’s that virtually without exception, they are stubborn (and sometimes ornery) individualists. If you have ever attended a meeting of a news staff, you know what I mean. Individualism seems to be written into our genes.

Providence Journal newsroom meeting
With individualism comes conviction. And while there are certainly aimless journalists, most of the many I’ve known hold strong beliefs about important things. They did not get into journalism to achieve celebrity or become rich, Lord knows.

These people I know believe in a well-informed citizenry. They believe in righting wrongs, and in giving voice to the voiceless, and in advancing social justice. They believe in exposing corruption, in explaining new or difficult subjects, in writing what has sometimes been called the first draft of history. They believe in the value of sports, entertainment, the arts, fashion, and good health, fun and food. They believe in the power of storytelling and a journalist's vital role in sustaining the public discourse, our birthright as Americans. They believe in taking readers and viewers (and themselves) to places they ordinarily don’t go. Some put their lives at risk: war correspondents, notably, who believe that only independent reporting gets to the truth.

These are the women and men of the mainstream media I know. They are people of professional integrity engaged in commendable enterprise. In their chosen field, they are disciplined, hard-working, energetic, intellectually curious, skeptical, sometimes cantankerous or tempestuous, and deeply committed to a bedrock principle of our democracy: free speech.

I thank and salute them.


Some other recent posts of interest:

My Dad and Airplanes.
Some Time in Maine...
The Growing Season: The Story of Frank Beazley.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Dad and Airplanes

Roger L. Miller as a boy, in the 1920s

My Dad and Airplanes
by G. Wayne Miller
I live near an airport. Depending on wind direction and other variables, planes sometimes pass directly over my house as they climb into the sky. If I’m outside, I always look up, marveling at the wonder of flight. I’ve witnessed many amazing developments -- the end of the Cold War, the advent of the digital world, for example -- but except perhaps for space travel, which of course is rooted at Kitty Hawk, none can compare.

I also always think of my father, Roger L. Miller, who died ten years ago today.

Dad was a boy on May 20, 1927, when Charles Lindbergh took off in a single-engine plane from a field near New York City. Thirty-three-and-a-half hours later, he landed in Paris. That boy from a small Massachusetts town who became my father was astounded, like people all over the world. Lindbergh’s pioneering Atlantic crossing inspired him to get into aviation, and he wanted to do big things, maybe captain a plane or even head an airline. But the Great Depression, which forced him from college, diminished that dream. He drove a school bus to pay for trade school, where he became an airplane mechanic, which was his job as a wartime Navy enlisted man and during his entire civilian career. On this modest salary, he and my mother raised a family, sacrificing material things they surely desired.

My father was a smart and gentle man, not prone to harsh judgment, fond of a joke, a lover of newspapers and gardening and birds, chickadees especially. He was robust until a stroke in his 80s sent him to a nursing home, but I never heard him complain during those final, decrepit years. The last time I saw him conscious, he was reading his beloved Boston Globe, his old reading glasses uneven on his nose, from a hospital bed. The morning sun was shining through the window and for a moment, I held the unrealistic hope that he would make it through this latest distress. He died four days later, quietly, I am told. I was not there.

Like others who have lost loved ones, there are conversations I never had with my Dad that I probably should have. But near the end, we did say we loved each other, which was rare (he was, after all, a Yankee). I smoothed his brow and kissed him goodbye.

So on this 10th anniversary, I have no deep regrets. But I do have two impossible wishes.

My first is that Dad could have heard my eulogy, which I began writing that morning by his hospital bed. It spoke of quiet wisdom he imparted to his children, and of the respect and affection family and others held for him. In his modest way, he would have liked to hear it, I bet, for such praise was scarce when he was alive. But that is not how the story goes. We die and leave only memories, a strictly one-way experience. 

My second wish would be to tell Dad how his only son has fared in the last decade. I know he would have empathy for some bad times I went through and be proud that I made it. He would be happy that I found a woman I love: someone, like him, who loves gardening and birds. He would be pleased that my three children are making their way in the world, and that he now has two great-granddaughters, wonderful little girls both. In his humble way, he would be honored to know how frequently I, my sisters and my children remember and miss him. But that is not how the story goes, either. We send thoughts to the dead, but the experience is one-way. We treasure photographs, but they do not speak.

Lately, I have been poring through boxes of black-and-white prints handed down from Dad’s side of my family. I am lucky to have them, more so that they were taken in the pre-digital age -- for I can touch them, as the people captured in them surely themselves did so long ago. I can imagine what they might say, if in fact they could speak.

Some of the scenes are unfamiliar to me: sailboats on a bay, a stream in winter, a couple posing on a hill, the woman dressed in fur-trimmed coat. But I recognize the house, which my grandfather, for whom I am named, built with his farmer’s hands; the coal stove that still heated the kitchen when I visited as a child; the birdhouses and flower gardens, which my sweet grandmother lovingly tended. I recognize my father, my uncle and my aunts, just children then in the 1920s. I peer at Dad in these portraits (he seems always to be smiling!), and the resemblance to photos of me at that age is startling, though I suppose it should not be.

A plane will fly over my house today, I am certain. When it does, I will go outside and think of young Dad, amazed that someone had taken the controls of an airplane in America and stepped out in France. A boy with a smile, his life all ahead of him.

A version of this essay appeared on the op-ed page of The Providence Journal on Dec.12, 2012.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Some time in Maine as winter approaches...

Spent a few days on Deer Isle, one of my favorite places, and the setting for much of the novel I have been writing for years. Literally, for years. So I wrote some more, and I explored, and I kept a pictorial travelogue, in five parts, links below.

The sun sets on Dunham Point.
For more scenes from Dunham, click here.

Mink, the off-season Isle Au Haut mailboat, only link to mainland.
For a visit to the truly remote town of Isle Au Haut (year-round pop. 45 ), click here.

Graves at Greenwood Cemetery, in Oceanville.
For more scenes from this most unusual cemetery, click here.

On the road from the village of  Deer Isle.
 For more scenes around the island and Stonington, click here.

Unloading lobster gear at the end of the day.
 For more scenes on the commercial wharf at Stonington, click here.

End of the day, commercial wharf, Stonington, Maine.

Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, as the sun heads down. For more scenes from my Deer Isle travelogue, click here.

Almost everyone wears orange.

And many lobstermen have beards.

One of many boats.

A lobsterlady.

A dangerous profession.

On shore, The Opera House, primarily a cinema these days.

Buckets of bait.

Greenwood Cemetery

Look at the fresh flowers, Christmas wreathes, flags and more: On Deer Isle, the living do not forget the dead, many of whom died at sea or made their living there. Many also served their country. For more scenes from my Deer Isle travelogue, click here.

Around Deer Isle

Different places that caught my eye. For more scenes from my Deer Isle travelogue, click here.

School long unused.

Stonington Harbor, morning. The view from my window.


Main Street.

Harbor Cafe, best seat in the house. Only restaurant that is open.

Where I wrote.

A visit to Isle Au Haut

A visit to Isle Au Haut, year-round pop. 45, traveling on the mailboat Mink, which makes just two round trips each day in the off-season. For more scenes from my Deer Isle travelogue, click here.

No registration needed on Isle Au Haut. No repair shops, either.

Only church on the island. Congregational.

Open just a few hours a week in winter.

Part of the island belongs to Arcadia.

Boats, boats, boats.

Merchant Island, near Isle Au Haut, where certain scenes from my novel are set.

Skippers Josh and Mike. Good company on the 45 minutes over and 45 back.

A summer residence.

The sun sets on Dunham Point, Deer Isle, Maine

The sun sets on Dunham Point, Deer Isle, Maine, Dec. 3, 2012. For more scenes from my Deer Isle travelogue, click here.