Monday, February 26, 2018


I was several years into my journalism career when, 33 years ago this May, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine became the first major publication to print one of my short stories. Many more would follow that story, "The Warden" -- in mystery, horror and science-fiction magazines. And then came the books, the first, Thunder Rise, a novel. Soon, my 17th book, the sequel to Toy Wars, will appear...

And so, to mark this long run, starting May 1, and continuing daily through May 31, I will publish an excerpt from some of this non-newspaper work: some short stories and some of the 17 books (with  posts June 1 and June 12, to total #33Stories). Also, some screenplays and unpublished treatments and novels. I will provide brief commentary, and the dates times when they were written or published. A sort of retrospective, if you will, of my non-journalism body of work -- and a glimpse of things to come.

Should be fun! See you on May 1.

These are among the stories I will excerpt:

-- "Nothing There." Mark Slade and his great crew have made it into an audio drama podcast.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

#InsideStory: the columns, the podcasts, links to the show.

In conjunction with Story in the Public Square, the national Telly Award-winning weekly Rhode Island PBS/SiriusXM Satellite Radio show I co-host and co-produce with Pell Center head Jim Ludes, I write a regular column, Inside Story, for The Providence Journal. And with the great producer Whitman Littlefield, I frequently offer a podcast from these shows.

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 others 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

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!

The columns:

-- Weekend of Jan. 4, 2020: Keesha Middlemass, Howard University

This week’s guest is Keesha Middlemass, associate professor of Public Policy in the Department of Political Science at Howard University and an award winning author of  “Convicted and Condemned: The Politics and Policies of Prisoner Reentry.”

Takeaway One: The U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate of any nation.

And the federal and state prison systems are used to address “multiple social issues” that could be better managed outside of a prison, according to Middlemass. “We use prison now for mental health,” she said. “We don't have mental health institutions -- they were shut down largely in the late '70s and early 1980s -- and now we incarcerate individuals with mental illnesses. And so, when you start thinking about mental illness as a public policy issue, we now use the criminal justice system to incarcerate people that are ill.”

Keesha Middlemass.
Photo by Erin Barry / Pell Center.

Takeaway Two: Certain groups are disproportionately imprisoned.

“For the most part in this country we incarcerate poor people and we incarcerate black people,” Middlemass said. “Unfortunately, Latinos are increasing in terms of percentages, and the fastest-growing group of individuals now going to prison are black women.”

Takeaway Three: Some of the money spent on prisons could better be used elsewhere.

“The economic impact of prisons is huge when you start thinking about state budgets,” Middlemass said. She cited New Jersey, which, she said, “spends approximately a billion dollars a year on the criminal justice system broadly defined. And when you're spending that kind of money, that means it's not going to roads, it's not going into education, it's not going into public health, it's not going into programs” but rather “warehousing individuals.”

Change will be difficult, Middlemass said. “Part of the challenge is how do you convince people to reduce the dollars they spend on prison, because then the fear of the public -- and I'm thinking about voters -- is they'll be like, ‘oh, you're releasing all these bad people back into the community, we don't want them to back in the community.’ No one really talks about dollars and cents, but on average -- and this is nationally, some states are a little bit more expensive -- it's about $30,000-$35,000 a year to incarcerate one person.”


-- Weekend of Dec. 28, 2019: Adela Raz, Afghanistan ambassador to the U.N.

Adela Raz, ambassador and permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the United Nations, is this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square.” She discusses America’s longest war — and also her country today, when Afghanistan is home to a vibrant democracy, a free press, an equality minded young generation, and much more that may surprise some Americans. 

Takeaway One: Democracy in Afghanistan has come at a very high price. “We have achieved what we have achieved so far with blood and treasure, through the contribution of our allies and friends, and the support of the international community and people of Afghanistan,” Raz said. “Voting in my country is just not simply a right that people exercise. Voting in my country means fighting for it. And [maybe] losing your life in order to vote. It's just not walking out from your home and then you go and you vote. People's fingers are cut because they have voted.” 

Ambassador Adela Raz.
Photo by Erin Barry / Pell Center.

Takeaway Two: Unlike many other nations in the region and elsewhere, Afghanistan has a true free press. “Not too long ago, when I talked about the Taliban time, and even before the Taliban time, there was only one TV channel and that was the national TV,” she said. “There was one radio and that was the national radio. So imagine, we came from the Soviet era, went through the Civil War, and then the Taliban regime. Now in the region — and I want to be diplomatic and not name countries — but we are among the countries with the most free press. That's the product and the outcome of the last 18 years. And I can say with much confidence, it's the most free press compared to any other country in our region. And it's critical, it's independent.” 

Takeaway Three: America’s long support, at great cost in its own blood and treasure, is deeply appreciated. 

“If there's one thing that you would want the American public to know, what would it be?” co-host Jim Ludes asked Raz as the clock wound down on the episode. 

“I think I will humbly ask them ‘do not doubt your investment,’ ” Raz said. “Do not question what you have done; you have done an amazing job. And the nation, especially the younger generation, knows the value of it. We're really in a critical time in a way that we are negotiating the peace agreement, or the peace deal, with the Taliban. But what is really important that that deal must preserve our gains. We should not think it's a lost case.” 


-- Weekend of  December 14, 2019: Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice

Susan Rice, former President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square.” She discusses contemporary foreign and domestic issues and her New York Times bestselling book, “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For.”

Takeaway One: Today’s political divide is a grave national security threat.

“These divisions are preventing us from getting even the most basic things done that we need to do to remain competitive in the 21st century,” Rice said. “We can’t invest in infrastructure, we can’t prepare our young people, our workers and students to be maximally competitive in an environment that’s going to be highly technical and revolve around things like artificial intelligence because we can’t agree on the kinds of initiatives and proposals and investments that are necessary to do so.

“So we’re allowing our competitors a jump but also our adversaries, for instance the Russians, most deliberately and clearly recognize our divisions and understand that they can weaken us, if not defeat us, without firing a bullet — simply by working methodically as they are to exacerbate our domestic political divisions. So on every divisive issue — race, immigration, gay rights, guns, you name it — they are very actively working through social media and actually through overt media to pit Americans against each other and cause us to hate and distrust each other more than ever.”

Susan Rice, center, with cast and crew of Story in the Public Square

Takeaway Two: The situation is not hopeless.

“As divisive as this moment is and as deep as our divisions feel, and they are, we need to look back over the span of our history and recognize we’ve been through so much worse than this,” Rice said. “We’ve been through a civil war, reconstruction, two world wars, McCarthyism, Vietnam, our cities burning down during the civil-rights era. We have come through each of those periods of far greater division and stress, arguably stronger and certainly whole and so we have a capacity to change, to grow, to renew, to heal divisions. We’ve proved that time and time again, and so I, for one, am unwilling to bet against our ability to do so again.”

Takeaway Three: “Tough Love” is also a revealing memoir.

“I come from a family that’s rather unusual, descendants of slaves on the one hand, immigrants from Jamaica on the other, who each generation worked to rise and lift itself and others up with it,” Rice said. One lesson that she took to heart came from her mother and her father, a descendant of slaves who served in World War II with the Tuskegee Airmen.

“They taught me when you get knocked down, you gotta get back up — that you really have two choices in that context, stay down and be beat down or get back up and try again. That’s very, very valuable. Simple as it is, it enabled me to do the many things that I’ve tried to do, working hard, being committed, doing my best, not letting other people define you.”

-- Weekend of Dec. 7, 2019: Lenette Azzi-Lessing, Boston University School of Social Work

Lenette Azzi-Lessing, Clinical Professor of Social Work at the Boston University School of Social Work, is this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square.” She discusses her book, “Behind from the Start: How America's War on the Poor is Harming Our Most Vulnerable Children,” and the many issues facing the millions of American children who live in poverty today
Takeaway One: Families on welfare live a day-to-day existence.

“The American public in general has bought into a myth that struggling families have it too easy, that welfare enables people to not work and to live a reasonably comfortable life, and that lots of families are on welfare or that women are having more children in order to get a bigger check,” Azzi-Lessing said. “The reality is that since welfare reform, which was passed under President Clinton in 1996, the safety net has severely diminished. Yes, welfare reform increased the number of poor parents who are in the workforce. It also increased the number of working poor families in this country. And it increased the number of families in deep poverty. And when we talk about deep poverty, we're talking about a mother and a child living on eight, nine thousand dollars a year.”

Lenette Azzi-Lessing.
Photo by Erin Barry / Pell Center.

Takeaway Two: The so-called “welfare queen’ is a myth.

“The reality is often a young woman who grew up in our foster care system, who was shuttled from foster home to foster home, may well have been sexually abused before she was moved into foster care, has been in four, five, six different school systems, reading at maybe a 5th or 6th grade level, has a child and is struggling with mental health issues,” Azzi-Lessing said.

“She might be medicating herself with drugs or alcohol. She's never gotten good mental health services. She's trying to take care of her child. She's living in a dangerous neighborhood. She's isolated because of the high crime rate there. And someone like that needs all the support that we can give them. They don't need to be called out, they don't need to be shamed. They need support, they need education services, mental health services, maybe substance abuse services.”

Takeaway Three: America does a bad job of taking care of its most vulnerable children.

“The United States has the highest poverty rate of any similarly developed country. And of course we are the richest country in the world as well. But we have 13 million children living in poverty, six million living in deep poverty. If you wanted to break that cycle, it would seem to me that what you would want to do is invest resources in that family, that young, fragile family, support that young woman to finish her education, get the skills necessary for a good job… And help that young child get off to the best possible start so that that child goes to school ready to learn, with his or her needs met, and can be successful and grow up in a way that's different than the parent grew up.”


-- Weekend of Nov. 30, 2019: Edward Berenson, NYU History Department Chair

Edward Berenson, professor and chair of New York University’s History Department, is this week’s guest on “story in the Public Square.” He discusses his new book, “The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town,” and violent anti-Semitism historically and today, an era when neo-Nazis and white Supremacists in some parts of the world are emboldened.

Takeaway One: Blood Libel has been used for centuries against Jews.

So what is it? “A really horrifying accusation against Jews,” Berenson said. “And the accusation goes that Jews, for their religious rituals, need to use the blood of a Christian child. That’s got to be one of the ugliest myths of Antisemitism that's out there… It goes all the way back to the 1100s in England, which is the first incidence… It’s an anti-Semitic slander.”

Professor Edward Berenson.

Takeaway Two: From England, it spread quickly throughout Europe.

“I'm sorry to be graphic about this,” Berenson said, “but there are works of art from the Middle Ages -- some of them are up on the walls of churches in places like Italy -- where you see a figure of a Jew who's stuffing a baby into a barrel, and the barrel has spikes sticking out, and then there's another figure of a Jew who's collecting the blood as it drips out from this baby. There's graphic images of this sort of thing all throughout European history.”

Takeaway Three: Blood libel myths have prompted real-life persecutions, murders and pogroms against Jews, starting in the Middle Ages and continuing into contemporary times.

“Nowadays, we have grounds for a bit of worry because in Europe, and also [elsewhere in the world] anti-Semitism is spread through media,” Berenson said. “We have one case of an anti-Semitic newspaper in the United States and that was Henry Ford… What's worrisome nowadays is that we have media online, like 8chan, that can spread these sorts of rumors. And I don't think we should be terrified, but it's something we should be vigilant about.” Berenson’s book, “The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town,” chronicles an example in the U.S. in the 20th century.


-- Weekend of Nov. 9, 2019: Dr. John Halpern and David Blistein, authors of "Opium"
Dr. John Halpern and David Blistein discuss their new book, “Opium: How an Ancient Flower Shaped and Poisoned Our World,” and the dangers of opioids this week on “Story in the Public Square.”

Takeaway One: “This problem has escaped the grow cycle, has escaped the flower,” Halpern said. 

“It's now 100% synthetic. Fentanyl doesn't require any precursors that need to be grown from the soil. It's 100% synthetic. ... So, heroin is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than that. Carfentanil, which killed 1,000 extra people in just one year in Ohio when that was found on the street there, is 10,000 times more potent than morphine.”    

Takeaway Two: “Today, we understand that when we talk about the drug user, that's somebody's mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son,” Halpern said. 

“That's part of us. We've got to stop ostracizing them and pushing them away and labeling them as the bad individual because they're just as much in need and deserving of good medical care as any of us. “So once we can get that discussion going, then we can look at why the problem is so bad and what we can do about it. And maybe we don't want to have that discussion. If you really want to get to the heart of the problem of the drug issues, then we have to talk about childhood poverty, then we have to talk about inequities in education in the United States that are serious and very complicated to solve and very expensive. So this is a reason why this problem keeps perpetuating from one generation to the next, because it's woven through the fabric of the other major problems of our society.”          
Takeaway Three: “Everyone that deals with addiction knows what to do,” Blistein said. 

“The first thing you do, is you decriminalize it. You don't throw people in jail for having an illness. You don't through people in jail for having diabetes or lung cancer. That's the first thing. Second of all, you desperately need insurance parity so that you can get the same kind of level of treatment you get for addiction as you can get for a heart disease or whatever. “That is the top level, because down on the ground they know we need safe injection sites, they know we need naloxone everywhere, they know we need clean needles. You go to any, you know, drop-in center, they know that. So, it's the national level we need help with.”


-- Weekend of  Oct. 26, 2019: Patricia Nguyen, artist, educator and scholar.

Patricia Nguyen, an Asian-American artist, educator, and scholar born and raised in Chicago appears this week on “Story in the Public Square.” Currently a visiting assistant professor in Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, she is the daughter of political refugees from the Vietnam War.

Takeaway One: Nguyen has a rare combination of talents.

As co-host Jim Lude says in his introduction, “if you are a regular fan of this show, you know we define story and storyteller very broadly. Educators, artists, scholars, and more all qualify in our eyes. But occasionally we meet a talent that weaves all three skills together with profound humanity that commends their work to us as they inspire and even heal others. Today's guest is just such a person.”

Takeaway Two: Time she spent in Vietnam profoundly influenced Nguyen.

“Going back to Vietnam for the first time after college was this journey of trying to understand what the other side of the war looked like,” she says. “And the way that I journeyed to doing that was working with survivors of sex trafficking, human trafficking at the border of Vietnam and China and Vietnam and Cambodia, and the women that I worked with were ethnic minorities or indigenous women, and so I was like, how do we traverse across these linguistic and educational barriers?

“And it was through art. It was through performance, it was through visual art, it was through doing movement work and theater work with them that we were able to connect with each other. And heal through the various levels of trauma that they had been through.”

Takeaway Three: Trauma can pass down through generations and must be addressed.

Therefore, Nguyen says, “how do we make sense of inherited trauma if it's not somebody shouting, this is what happened, this is what I went through? How do we understand how it lives in the body, how it lives in our genes, how it lives in the way that we understand how to breathe or how to move, how to deal with conflict, how anger arises and how we negotiate that?”


-- Weekend of Sept. 28, 2019: Dr. Joseph Sakran, trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital
Welcome to the new Inside Story format, featuring three takeaways from “Story in the Public Square” broadcasts. This week’s guest is Dr. Joseph Sakran, who nearly died as a teenager when struck by a random bullet and is now a trauma surgeon at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital and a leading advocate for efforts to end gun violence. 

Takeaway One: Mass shootings account for few of the approximately 100 deaths by gun in the U.S. every day. 

“The reality is that every day, there are young men that are being killed on the streets in cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago,” Sakran said. “And their stories often go untold. But for us, from a health-care perspective, we’re seeing those injuries, and those deaths, on a daily basis. Mass shootings comprise less than 2% of the overall public health crisis we’re facing.”

Takeaway Two: Few communities are spared gun violence, in part because a firearm is often used in suicide. 

“The majority of deaths are from suicides, about two-thirds,” Sakran said. “Then the other big chunk are homicides. And then, of course, we have the unintentional injuries that happen. You know, right now, in this country, we have 4.6 million children that live in homes with unlocked and loaded weapons. And if you talk to any responsible gun owner, they’ll tell you that that’s unacceptable.” 

Takeaway Three: Mental illness is rarely a factor in gun homicides. 

“Less than 5% of people that commit these type of crimes actually have mental-health disease,” Sakran said. “And in fact, people with mental-health disease are 10 times more likely to be victims. So I think it’s a real fallacy to be broadcasting that type of narrative. It’s a way to really skirt the issue.”

-- Weekend of Sept. 21, 2019: Dr. Michael Fine, author, physician, healthcare innovator

If you are looking for a tepid critique of American healthcare, this weekend’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square” are not for you (I am not wearing my marketing hat while writing this sentence, needless to say). But if you want an impassioned and deeply informed ITAL critical discussion by a physician and former state health department director who brings uncommon knowledge and experience to the debate, this is must-see TV, radio and podcasting.

Dr. Michael Fine is that physician. Author of “Health Care Revolt: How to Organize, Build a Health Care System, and Resuscitate Democracy -- All at the Same Time” and, just recently the novel “Abundance,” Fine headed the Rhode Island Department of Health under former governor Linc Chafee. He remains a practicing physician and is the Blackstone Valley Community Health Care Senior Clinical and Population Health Officer.

Right from the gate, Fine was on fire.

“If you think about what a health care system is,” he said, “it's a process for getting a certain set of services to every single person and we don't do that, we don't do that at all. Instead we have a bunch of people who sell services to people and try to maximize their profit. The chaos that we all experience comes from these entities and enterprises doing exactly what we want them to do. But this is a function in many ways of government abandoning its responsibility to build a health care system that takes care of everyone -- and takes care of everyone equally.”

My cohost Jim Ludes asked: “How does the American experience compare to healthcare experiences around the world?”

“We are the outlier,” Fine said. “We are fundamentally different. Most other countries have a ministry of health and that ministry of health oversees both the financing and what the services look like; decides that there ought to be primary care services in each community; decides how many hospitals we need to have and what those hospitals ought to look like, decides what the electronic medical record interchange ought to look like…

“It is responsible for the whole thing and responsible for public-health outcomes. And it’s the Ministry of Health that gets into trouble if life expectancy falls, the ministry of health that gets into trouble if infant mortality rates get too high. And [in the U.S.] we have nobody responsible in a similar way.”

Beyond responsibility are health outcomes. They are shameful, especially in light of what the nation spends annually on healthcare – about $3.65 trillion annually, more than any other nation in total (and per-capita expenditures). And for that, we get lower life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates and many other poor outcomes that lag behind numerous other nations.

"Some of our rates reflect not only poor function, as a nation, but reflect health disparities that are in my view, unforgivable and unacceptable,” Fine said.

And there are other factors, Fine said.

“You have to think about more distal causes, which I suspect have to do with what are called diseases of despair, or a crisis of meaning. Why are people getting addicted to drugs? Why is the suicide rate climbing? We've got some fundamental problems in American society that public-health analysis tells us about, but we have not been willing to confront.”


“It has to do with our maturity as a nation and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are,” Fine said. “We have lots of beliefs that a good life is a life in the suburbs with 2.7 children,  probably now more like 1.8 children. You know, two cars and garages and all that kind of stuff.”

And that, he said, is a story of yesteryear – if in fact it ever truly reflected reality.

“There’s plenty of evidence that suggests health is a function of community,” Fine said, “and those two directions oppose each other because as people cluster in suburbs, they leave their connectiveness to each other. The opportunity that we have not addressed is how we build communities that feel safe, feel connected, but are connected.

“You know, where you can have the material goods that you might want, but don't become enslaved to them, and where we value the relationships we have with each other. This is a personal belief. That's where some of [my] novel writing comes from. But that's where I think human life has its meaning.”

In “Health Care Revolt” and this week on air, Fine offers solutions. Tune in to learn them.


-- Weekend of Sept. 7, 2019: Christopher Brown, lawyer and author


“Why are we so fascinated with lawyers?”

That’s the question I put to guest Christopher Brown during this week’s episode of “Story in the Public Square.”

And who better to answer than Brown. A Texas resident, Brown is a lawyer and novelist whose books, most recently the masterful “Rule of Capture,” combine the best elements of John Grisham, the legal-thriller extraordinaire, and dystopian writer Cormac McCarthy.

Brown’s answer?

“There are sort of two dipoles of the archetypal lawyer,” he said. “One is the ‘Atticus Finch,’ the champion of justice.’ Finch, of course, is the hero of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“A paragon of virtue,” in other words, I said.

“Yes, taking care of people,” Brown said. “Being unafraid to speak the truths that everyone else is afraid to confront or to call out the injustices in the society around them. And there are a lot of great examples like that in real life as well.”

In the Green Room: Chris Brown, second from right. Former Story
director Scott Saracen, right, and guest Ian Reifowitz joined us.

Brown segued to the second archetype, that personified by a lead character in a popular (if dark” television show.

“And then there’s the ‘Better Call Saul’ type, the lying, sneaking one,” Brown said.

And both types, Brown asserted, are reflective of we as Americans.

“Those characters are, you know -- they're us,” he said. “They're all variations of us to some respect and the way they conduct themselves tells us a lot about the society we live in and the way we want it to be.”

Brown is one of the rare repeat guests on “story.” He first appeared two years ago, to discuss his debut novel, “Tropic of Kansas.” He basically blew us away, so when learned that “Rule of Capture” was about to be published – it was, a month ago by Harper Voyager – we invited him back. Among other things, I wanted to know if he still writes in the 1978 Airstream trailer he has retrofitted near his home in Austin (yes he does, though we did not discuss on-air).

Brown discussed his methodology for “Rule of Capture,” which his publisher describes thusly: “Defeated in a devastating war with China and ravaged by climate change, America is on the brink of a bloody civil war. Seizing power after a controversial election, the ruling regime has begun cracking down on dissidents fighting the nation’s slide toward dictatorship…”

Sound timely? It is – and remarkably, he began writing it years ago.

“It started with a billboard that I saw while standing outside a coffee shop by a highway in Austin while I was working on my last book, ‘Tropic of Kansas,’ ” Brown said. “I had this scene I was working on where two characters had been put in jail and one was trying to get out and I wondered: Well in a dystopian society, who would the lawyers be?”

Imagination fleshed the concept out, with Brown’s legal background helping place it on believable, if dystopian, ground. The novelist also drew on his experiences serving on a real-life Texas grand jury.

“You know, where you're meeting every three days a week for a period of months hearing every felony indictment that the county attorney or the district attorney wants to bring,” Brown said. “And I got a window into how justice, the machinery of justice, really works in this country… And then I spent a lot of time hanging out in the federal courthouse in Austin and watching trials. And seeing from another angle how things really work.

“And a lot of the scenes in the book are just drawn straight from that – the kinds of things I saw in the courtroom and cases that no one was really paying much attention to, just the everyday machine working its way through the lives of humans.”

It was not always pretty.

“Something I learned in the grand jury system is that often in criminal law in this country the clients are guilty but the things they're guilty of are, in the grand scheme of things, maybe not really that criminal,” Brown said. “And the way in which those rules are applied is often unjust, maybe in a kind of everyday, naturally conscious way -- and maybe in a very conscious way in some instances.”

Reflection on the American justice system today and in a distant (or maybe not) future – this is what Brown brings to his books, and to this week’s “Story in the Public Square.”


-- Weekend of Aug. 31, 2019: Deborah Carr, sociology professor at Boston University

The so-called “Golden Years” — depicted most famously on the screen in the long-running, multiple Emmy-winning sitcom “The Golden Girls” — are of course not as lighthearted and fun for everyone in real life as portrayed in that 1980s and ‘90s show, which remains popular on Hulu and Amazon. 

Deborah Carr, professor and chair in Boston University’s sociology department, has the research and scholarship to present the true picture. Author most recently of “Golden Years: Social Inequalities in Later Life,” published this year, Carr dives into the reality in 2019 on this week’s broadcasts of “Story in the Public Square.” 

“The story of aging really is a tale of two cities,” Carr said. “It’s kind of a best of times, and worst of times. For millions of Americans, old age is filled with good health, the comfortable home, relationships with grandchildren, hobbies, travel, golf, all of the things that you see in pharmaceutical ads, for instance, or on the 6 p.m. news.” 

Betty White and Beatrice Arthur in “The Golden Girls,” in other words. 

“But for millions of older adults, their experience is the complete opposite, and we don’t see these images on the 6 o’clock news,” said Carr, a Cranston native who lives now in Providence. “These are the 6% of older adults who are home-bound, who haven’t left their home; the millions who live in poverty; those who are homeless; those who are incarcerated; those who suffer from poor health; those who are socially isolated; who don’t have friends or family nearby. 

“And these older adults in that latter category really are in the millions, but we don’t think about them, or see them on media images, or even see them in our neighborhoods because our neighborhoods are so stratified. We spend our time with people just like us, and so those older adults who are on the margins are really out of our sight lines.” 

Carr went on to describe in greater detail the socioeconomic factors that have an influence on how one will age: education, race, zip code, employment history, savings, access to health care, level of Social Security benefits, exposure to trauma and stress, isolation or socialization and many more. Disparities are profound.

 “African Americans fare worse than whites on so many dimensions,” Carr said. “The most harsh dimension is mortality: they die younger, they die younger of almost all causes, they have earlier onset of most major health conditions relative to whites, meaning you suffer younger, you leave your jobs younger, and then you have more years of grappling with those health problems that advance. 

“There’s racial discrimination in the workforce, racial discrimination in access to loans, and to homes in good neighborhoods, and so blacks relative to whites have lower levels of education, and income, and benefits, and the most jarring disparity that you’ll see in the data has to do with savings. It’s a tremendous disparity of how much blacks have in assets, including home ownership, money in the bank versus whites, so there’s no cushion to save for that rainy day.” 

A comprehensive solution for all, regardless of race, Carr argues persuasively, will require more than nibbling at the edges. 

“Government has played a role historically in helping to pull millions of older adults out of poverty, but it’s not a complete fix,” she said. “Some of those fixes have to happen before someone’s 65th birthday. It comes from investing in public school systems, providing jobs that pay a living wage and have health-care benefits for people, safe neighborhoods, fighting climate change so that we don’t have so many environmental degradations that we know hurt people who live in poorer areas. 

“So when we think about social policy, absolutely we want policies that are targeted to older adults specifically, and low-income older adults, but the interventions have to start earlier and broader.”


-- Weekend of Aug. 24, 2019: Impeachment scholar and historian Frank Bowman

With U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin this week joining the growing number of lawmakers supporting an impeachment inquiry of President Trump, scholar and historian Frank O. Bowman III’s appearance on “Story in the Public Square” could not be more timely. 

Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, may be the nation’s foremost expert on impeachment. He has studied the process over the centuries from its roots in 14th-century Britain, and his latest book, “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” is an in-depth explanation. 

In the book and on “Story,” Bowman argues that impeachment is — and always has been — a “political act,” not the strictly legal proceeding that some believe it to be. On air and in “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Bowman also presents the cases for and against impeachment of Trump. 

Having lived through proceedings against Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, I knew a fair bit about impeachment in contemporary America — but until Bowman, nothing about the origins centuries ago. My guess is I am not alone in that. 

“It was a creation of the British Parliament, beginning back in the 14th century,” Bowman said, “and it was designed as a means of dealing with the possibility of ... tyranny or royal overreach. And as Parliament grew as an institution representing the other elements of society that weren’t part of the Royal Family or its retainers, they needed a means to strike back at the Crown when the Crown was going too far. 

“And short of holding a revolution and chopping a king’s head off, which they did once, they needed some other means, and the idea early on was you would strike at the king through striking at his ministers.” 

Trump and his supporters, of course, argue against impeachment proceedings. The Democrat arguments against them, Bowman said, are political — as is the process itself. With an eye on the 2020 elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thus far has resisted opening an inquiry. 

“I don’t purport to have any more insight into this than anybody would who’s just reading the papers,” Bowman said, “but what I hear is the speaker believes that if the Democrats initiate an impeachment inquiry, that that would cost Democrats the House, or at least it would risk costing the Democrats the House.” 

The argument for opening an inquiry? 

“If one simply looks at the second volume of the Mueller Report, Attorney General [William] Barr’s opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, it makes an inescapable case that Mr. Trump committed obstruction of justice in both the technical legal sense, and also in the constitutional sense that led to at least one of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon,” Bowman said. “And I say this as someone who is both a long-time former federal prosecutor and a student of this impeachment process.” 

An investigation, Bowman asserted, might raise additional issues, “notably including the fact that [Trump] is currently essentially stonewalling not merely inquiries into things that might be impeachable for him personally, but essentially all executive branch functions by Congress.” 

Conversations with people in Washington and his perception of the general public, Bowman said, suggest that “what’s happened is that the executive branch is essentially preventing Congress from performing its oversight function, across the entire array of its responsibilities. That too, it seems to me, if it hasn’t already reached the level of being impeachable, it surely might.” 

Wherever you stand on the impeachment issue, you are likely to be better informed after this week’s episode of “Story in the Public Square.”


-- Weekend of Aug. 10, 2019: Ashley Jardina, Duke University political scientist

We taped this week’s episode of “Story in the Public Square” in June not knowing, of course, what would happen last weekend in El Paso and Dayton. But given these latest mass shootings, no topic could be tragically more timely than what Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina explores in her recent book, “White Identity Politics.”

These politics may not be what you think.

“I want to unpack what I mean by white identity politics from what we think of as racial prejudice,” Jardina said, drawing a distinction.

“Social scientists have spent a lot of time trying to understand what white racial prejudice looks like. We've been thinking about this since the 1940s, coming out of World War II and Nazi Germany. So when we've studied white racial attitudes generally, we've often been interested in, ‘what do white people think about people of color?’ Particularly in the United States, how do whites think about blacks? So we spent a lot of time thinking about the animus or the hostility or the resentment, or the negative stereotypes that some whites have toward these groups.

“And we think that explains racial inequality, it explains why some white people support particular political candidates. We know it explains why they oppose a lot of policies that are meant to help achieve greater levels of racial equality in The United States. So that's kind of the lens with which we often thought about race and racial attitudes mattering.

“But what I'm arguing is that there's another force at play here now -- one that wasn't necessarily always part or central to American politics, it's more episodic. Some whites aren't motivated at all by a dislike for people of color – instead, they're motivated and they see the political world as being about trying to protect their group and their status, and the privileges that they get as part of being white.”

Thus, Jardina concludes, many people who self-identify as white – regardless of where in the country they live, she argues – support or oppose politicians and policies based on self-interest, not dislike or hatred of people of color.

“Whites who are high in white identity are far more likely than whites low on identity to be worried about the ethnic composition of the United States,” she said. “They don't think that immigration is good for the country. They're also worried that politicians who aren't white are going to do more for people of color than they're likely to do for white people. So for them it really does seem to be about this legitimate in their minds, sense of loss, right?

“And of course the reality is that's far from likely to be true. Even as the country becomes more diverse, it's highly unlikely that the disproportionate share of resources whites have is going to markedly shift any time soon. That's part of why this is important. Because if we're interested in talking about racial equality, what's going on here is that a lot of these whites are really interested in frankly preserving a system of racial inequality because they benefit from it.”

To some, this will be a controversial point of view, one that Jardina presents with extensive original research. Watch or listen to this week’s episode of “Story in the Public Square” and decide for yourself.


-- Weekend of Aug. 3, 2019: Emmy-winning actor, screenwriter and producer Danny Strong


Is there anything Hollywood that Danny Strong has not done?
Apparently, no. Strong has acted in “Gilmore Girls,” “Mad Men,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and numerous other TV shows. He was the screenwriter for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Parts 1 and 2,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Game Change,” “Recount” and more. He directed “Rebel in the Rye.” And he has produced and directed the smash Fox hit “Empire,” which he also co-created.

And for this distinguished body of work, Strong has received Emmy awards, a Golden Globe, an NAACP Image Award, the 2014 Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square and many other honors.

Too bad we didn’t have time to get into all of Strong’s work this week on “Story in the Public Square.” But we did learn about Strong’s journey to the top (he started as an actor) and his modus operandi as a screenwriter (a lot of research). We got behind the scenes of some of his best work: “Recount,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Empire,” which ends its run with Season 6 this fall.

The roots of “Empire” lie in Strong’s association on “The Butler” with Lee Daniels. During post-production, Strong impressed Daniels with his editing — of material he had written.

“When I get into post, I shift from a writer to a producer,” Strong told us. “I stop worrying about my script, and I can become more ruthless on cutting than almost anybody else.”

I wish I had that ability.

“Lee loved how honest I was about giving him feedback and notes,” Strong recalled. “And he said, ‘we gotta do something else.’ And I said, ‘well, let me think about it.’ ”

Enter: An epiphany.

“So I was in L.A., driving around, and there was a news story on the radio about Puffy, Sean Combs, and some deal he’d closed, and I just remember thinking: Hip-hop is such a dynamic, exciting world, I wonder if there’s some sort of musical that I could do with Lee and hip-hop?”

Just like that, the idea was born.

“You know, these things happen for me very fast or they don’t happen at all,” Strong said. That’s sort of my process: it floods in once I get a sort of breakthrough, or it will never flood in and it’s time to move on to another project. But almost instantly, I thought, well, what about ‘King Lear’ or ‘The Lion in Winter,’ and what about doing that in a hip-hop empire?”

Strong conceived the idea as a movie and he pitched it to Daniels over lunch in New York a few weeks later.

“He really loved it,” Strong said. “He called me a week later and he said, ‘I can’t stop thinking about it, but I think it’s a TV show instead of a movie.’ And I said, ‘I think you’re right.’ You know, the best TV shows are all about families fighting, and that’s what this whole thing is: a family at war for itself over, quote, the empire.

“And I remember in the phone call, saying, ‘yeah, it could be like black ‘Dynasty.’ And Lee started screaming, ‘Yes, black ‘Dynasty,’ yes!’ And that was the beginning of it.”

As our episode wound down, my co-host Jim Ludes noted that “Empire” ends this year. “We’re not going to ask you for any spoilers, but what should the audience expect?” he said.

Strong, of course, is bound by confidentiality. But not by any prohibition against a tease.

“It’s just gonna be crazy, you know?” he said. “I mean, that show rides and lives on a tightrope, and sometimes we fall off, and then we’ll get right back on, and then walk for quite a while. And it’ll be real exciting, and then we fall off again. It was born that way, it’s been that way the entire time, and I have no doubt that season six is going to be up on that tightrope.”


-- Weekend of July 27, 2019: Poet Maggie Smith

Some of our guests on “Story in the Public Square” write poems,  most notably Eve Ewing, the African-American sociologist, visual artist and author from Chicago who came on the show two summers ago. But Maggie Smith, this week’s guest, devotes nearly all of her writing energy to poetry.

Smith is celebrated, and rightly so. With elegance and an economy of words, she discerns the world – often through the eyes of a child, or in answer to questions a child might ask, with meaning an adult will get. But why poetry at all?

Smith phrased it this way: “There's so much in the world that I would love to fix, so why am I here, writing a poem? It's not going to feed someone who's really hungry. It's not water if you're thirsty. It's not a tourniquet if you're bleeding. Poems can't do those things, but I do think they feed our spirits. And provide a connection between people that is really meaningful. I think of them as a sort of empathy machine, because they are humanizing objects.”

Her latest collection is “Good Bones,” which one critic described as “a guidebook for mother and child to lead each other into a hopeful present.” A collection of poems, that critic wrote, that “affirm the virtues of humanity: compassion, empathy, and the ability to comfort one another when darkness falls.”

“Good Bones,” Smith said, arose from her position in life as a sort of “hinge between my parents and my children. I'm the daughter of a mother -- but I'm also the mother of a daughter. My daughter's now ten. I remember being ten. I started writing poems not long after I was her age.” In her daughter, she said, she sees some of her earlier self.

We asked Smith to read “Sky,” one of the poems in “Good Bones,” and then dissect it.

 “What you draw as a blue stripe high above,” the poem begins.
“a green stripe, white-interrupted, the real sky
“starts at the tip of each blade of grass and goes
“up, up, as far as you can see. Our house stops
“at the roof, at the glitter-black overlap of shingles
“where the sky presses down, bearing the weight
“of space, dark and sparkling, on its back...”

Her daughter was about three when she asked Smith the question that led to the poem: “Why is the sky so tall and over everything?” And that, Smith said, prompted her to ponder “What is the sky? How do we perceive it?” Which led her to “a child's drawing of the sky… and  thinking about the way we move in the world. It is a little bit about magic.”

Many of her poems in “Good Bones” are also about reality, about the world into which she brought her children. A world that can be harsh. Just check the headlines any day.

“I want to be honest with my kids, and I don't want to lie to them,” Smith said. “But on the other hand, I don't want them to hate the place I brought them to… It's my job to be honest with them about the darkness, but also to show them the light. I'm not really doing them a service as a parent -- as a sort of tour guide -- if I'm only showing them the bad, or only showing them the good. I mean, I can't dwell in either place wholly, either.”


-- Weekend of July 20, 2019: Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis

“Editorial cartoonists occupy the space between writing and drawing, capturing truth and big ideas with seemingly simple illustration in an economy of words,” is how my co-host Jim Ludes started us off on this week’s broadcasts of our “Story in the Public Square” PBS and SiriusXM Radio show. “Today's guest does it better than most. He's Adam Zyglis.”

It was an appropriate introduction for Zyglis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buffalo News and syndicated cartoonist. It sparked a lively half-hour discussion that delved into politics and craft through the lens of a handful of Zyglis’ finest cartoons.

An editorial cartoon, Zyglis said, is “like a visual poem that is loaded with an opinion. And it's not just a visual opinion, but it has a layers to it like a poem.”

Every element, Zyglis said, “has a purpose, has a layer of meaning. So you combine that with the fact that it's strongly visual and it often can evoke some emotion with the artwork. It has that extra layer of effectiveness, I think.”

Unlike pure text, Zyglis said, “where a writer tells you his thoughts or her thoughts on a subject, the cartoon is like a little puzzle. And I feel like a really good cartoon makes the reader do just that much work so they feel like they're part of the process. It engages the reader in a way; it empowers the reader… It has an investment from the reader.”

Each of the specific cartoons we asked Zyglis to dissect was masterful, even if you do not agree with the message (if you watch the show, you will see them as he describes their creation and purpose).  I was especially struck by one about the detention of immigrant children in border camps that I described this way:

“One of the most powerful cartoons I think I've ever seen, certainly one of the most powerful that you have done, shows the Statue of Liberty. And in the crown, behind the crown, are a bunch of children who are imprisoned. So take it from there. There's not a word in this cartoon too, by the way. Not one word.”

Said Zyglis: “One of the goals as a cartoonist is to try to communicate something very big and something very large without using words because it's a visual medium…  It’s the cliché that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ It holds true with some of these powerful images.”

Zyglis explained that as “someone with two small kids,” he believes separating a child from a parent “is one of the worst things you could do.”

So emotion moved him in drawing the cartoon, as it did me in seeing it.

“I felt very personally about this, personally charged about this issue, and I thought sometimes the only way to just convey that message is to show it,” Zyglis said. “The Statue of Liberty is used so often and I try to avoid it, but in this case what was happening, this policy, is really altering a symbol of our country.

“One of the largest symbols of America is that Statue of Liberty with a new colossus.This policy is the antithesis to that. It represents the opposite of what we stand for. As a cartoonist, I'm always trying to juxtapose things. It just hit me that the grill above, in the crown of the Statue of Liberty has these -- it looks like a cage in a way. So I just thought if I had a sea of children looking scared and frightened… It was intended to have this shocking effect.”


-- Weekend of July 13, 2019: Neuroscientist and bestselling author Lisa Genova

It’s a safe bet you know of Lisa Genova, the Harvard-trained neuroscientist turned best-selling author – and it’s likely you have read one or more of her books, which include “Left Neglected,” “Love Anthony,” “Inside the O’Briens” and, most recently, “Every Note Played.”

And, of course, “Still Alice,” which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year, was translated into more than three dozen languages, sold millions of copies, and became the movie of the same title, which won Julianne Moore an Oscar for Best Actress.

So there was a lot to discuss with Genova on this week’s “Story in the Public Square” broadcasts, and not nearly enough time. But we managed to get into her enormously popular TED Talk, in which she discusses ways one can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts the protagonist of “Still Alice.” And how she connects with the real-life people with neurological disorders who help her frame her fiction. And why these people open up to her.

Lisa Genova with leading Alzheimer's researcher Dr. Stephen Salloway, right
and guest Phil Deloria, Harvard Native American historian.

“If we're talking about Alzheimer's, or ALS, or Huntington's, these are diseases that are diminishing you and quieting you and squirreling you away,” she said. “People don't understand what's going on, they don't really want to look at you, so you're becoming invisible, and I think as human beings, our birthright is to be seen and heard, we want to be connected.”

Becoming “invisible,” Genova said, creates loneliness, which she called “one of the worst things to experience. People with Alzheimer's or ALS get excluded from community, they become ‘otherized,’ and I think that in talking to me, I'm giving them a stage and a microphone… By telling these stories, we drag these diseases and conditions out of the closet, we demystify them, we humanize them, and we give people a vehicle for conversation, and conversation fuels social change.”

Yes, the power of story, which is the raison d'être for our show.

We first met Genova in April 2015, when we awarded her the third annual Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square. We taped an interview with her then, and while it was never broadcast, we had our first lessons in TV production – lessons that led to our show. So basically we have Genova to thank for giving us our start. And we thanked her on air this time.

 One question we did not ask then but did on this week’s episode was, in the words of my co-host Jim Ludes: “You have this remarkable biography, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who has found this calling, this life in storytelling, in fiction in particular. What drew you to fiction?”

Her grandmother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the 1990s, Genova said.

“I come from a really large Italian family, we live up in the Boston area, and as the neuroscientist in this big family, I figured it was probably my responsibility to understand this neurological disease as best as possible, and pass that education along to my aunts, who were her primary caregivers,” she said.

So she learned all she could about the clinical management and molecular biology of the disease, “but in all of that education, it lacked the answer to this question: what does it feel like to have Alzheimer's? And that was the question that was haunting me, because I could understand her as a neuroscientist, but even after all that education, I still had no idea how to understand her as a granddaughter, I didn't know how to simply be with her.

“And while all of us had lots of sympathy for her, so it was, I could feel really bad for my grandmother, and all of the memories she was losing, and all of the identify, and the confusion, and the bewilderment, and it was heartbreaking, and so upsetting, and unnerving, and it made us all really uncomfortable, and we felt bad for her, and we felt bad for us, but I didn't know how to feel with her, and that's the distinction between sympathy and empathy. And I had this intuitive thought which was, well, fiction is the place where you can explore empathy, stories give us the chance to walk in someone else's shoes, and so I thought, well, that book didn't exist, and so I thought, well, maybe I'll write a book about a woman with Alzheimer's, and tell it from her perspective, and maybe then I'll get this insight, this empathy that I was searching for.”


-- Weekend of July 6, 2019: Philip J. Deloria, Harvard professor of Native American History

Philip J. Deloria is the first-ever tenured professor of Native American History at Harvard University. The author of several books — from his 1984 “Playing Indian” to his latest, “Becoming Mary Sully” — Deloria speaks with unquestioned authority on indigenous issues from pre-Columbus times to today. 

A man of Dakota descent who is gifted with humor, candor and eloquence, Deloria makes this week’s broadcast of “Story in the Public Square” compelling TV and radio. 

We began by asking Deloria to relate some of his own story. 

An accomplished musician, videographer and editor before becoming a scholar, Deloria is the son of the late Vine Deloria Jr., president of the National Congress of American Indians and a prolific author. His great-grandfather was a minister at Standing Rock Reservation, in the Dakotas. Other relatives include his great-aunt Mary Sully, the artist profiled in his latest book. 

Lisa Genova with leading Alzheimer's researcher Dr. Stephen Salloway, right
and guest Phil Deloria, Harvard Native American historian.

Deloria broke down her art and its significance for us, and then we got into contemporary native issues, starting with the disproportionately large numbers of indigenous women who have gone missing or become victims of murder and other violence. 

“One way to think about it is there’s a sort of epidemic over the last 30 years of these kinds of incidents,” Deloria said. “Some part of this can be directly traced to resource extraction in ‘the Deep North’ ... North Dakota, South Dakota, the Southern Canadian provinces, where you have these manned camps of folks and you have a large concentration of indigenous women.” 

In traditional homes of natives, mining and oil and gas drilling draws outside workers, most of them non-native men and some of them criminals. 

But Deloria sees another factor, which dates to the arrival of Europeans who claimed America as theirs, even though the original inhabitants had lived here for thousands of years. 

“This is actually a structural kind of violence that goes all the way back to the very beginnings,” Deloria said. “The earliest forms of enslavement tend to focus on native women and children. Colonial violence is oftentimes directed at native women and children. So many of these massacres that you see and you hear about when you talk about the Indian wars were directed at native women. In the 1970s, sterilization programs were directed at native women.” 

I was familiar with the sterilization of intellectually and developmentally disabled women decades ago in the United States, but not with this more recent atrocity. 

Deloria explained, “In the U.S., if you were a native woman, you could walk into an Indian health clinic wanting to think about your reproductive rights or about childbirth, and you could walk out being unable to reproduce,” he said. 

“And this has everything to do with the erasure of native people, not just in American culture but demographically. And if you’re thinking about demography, women are one of the first places you think about. And so, I think there is a bigger and deeper meaning embedded in this, a continuity of the violence directed against native women that goes back hundreds of years.” 

The conversation turned to mascots, which many Native Americans have found objectionable for years. Progress has come, most recently with Maine’s decision to prohibit public schools, colleges and universities there from using native names, symbols or images. But some prominent institutions resist, including The Washington Redskins, whose owner, Daniel Snyder, has vowed to “never” change the NFL team’s name, despite protests. 

Deloria, needless to say, put that in context. 

Native Americans Lorén Spears, head of the great Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, and Christian Hopkins, a Standing Rock activist, were our guests on our second show, when “Story” went weekly in January 2017. Deloria adds more insights this week — and you can expect more native guests and discussions on the show as we roll out our new national season.


-- Weekend of June 15, 2019: Julie Keller, University of Rhode Island sociologist

Undocumented immigrants and America’s dairy farms? Not a connection you might automatically make. And then you read Julie C. Keller’s landmark book, “Milking in the Shadows: Migrants and Mobility in America’s Dairyland,” and discover the economic forces at play responsible for Mexican laborers risking their lives to come north, and farm owners to employ them.

Which really only scratches the surface of what Keller has achieved in her book, the main top of her appearance this week on “Story in the Public Square.”

An assistant professor sociology at the University of Rhode Island, Keller, a California native with family roots in Wisconsin, is a masterful storyteller. As my “Story” co-host Jim Ludes and I often say, facts and figures are important in issues of public importance – but emotion derived from narrative has a power all its own.

Keller’s personal roots and her professional interests – rural studies, gender, sexuality and migration – intersected on “Milking in the Shadows,” years in the making.

“I'm really interested in this new labor system that developed in Wisconsin in the late 90s to early 2000's,” Keller said. “Instead of relying on local white European-Americans to do the tough work of milking cows, we began to see more and more immigrants taking on these jobs. I was really interested in how this new labor system developed, how is it that farmers began hiring some of these workers, where are they coming from, what is life like once they get there, what are their hopes, their dreams and their struggles.”

Hopes? Essentially, like all immigrants, a better life for them and their families.

Dreams? Among them, the simple one of having their own house.

Struggles? From the trip north to Wisconsin (and also, increasingly, dairy farms in California, New York, and other states), to the thankless and low-paying work and living conditions on dairy farms, to the equally risky return to Mexico, it’s all a struggle.

Some migrants stay a year or more on dairy farms, living in substandard conditions. The housing is gratis, but, Keller said, “just because you have free housing doesn't mean that it's high-quality housing. So unfortunately, in a lot of the cases where I would visit workers on the farm property they're living in a trailer and that’s definitely not a high-quality living situation. I saw holes in the floor, heard mice scurrying around, oftentimes the bathroom would be broken.”

Keller interviewed dozens of workers and farm owners but uses pseudonyms in her book to protect them. I ordinarily frown on pseudonyms – in my decades in journalism and as an author I have almost never used them – but in this case, Keller made the right choice. And not only to protect her sources, who in the case of the immigrants could face imprisonment or worse, but also as a technique she needed to get her stories. There could have been no other way.

“I use pseudonyms throughout my book for the workers and for the farmers as well, for the people employing them as well, and I also come up with pseudonyms for the towns I visited, the names of the dairy farms, of course, I came up with pseudonyms for those as well,” Keller said.

“Establishing trust was a really big concern when I started doing this work. How am I, an American, a white woman -- I was a graduate student when I started this work -- how am I going to establish that kind of trust with these workers in order to hear their stories and hear their struggles? That was a difficult thing. I had to rely on my contacts in order to make that happen. I knew one person who's a tremendous advocate for these workers, and once I met her, that really opened up the gates. I had the amount of trust I needed in order for people to say okay, I know Julie, I know who her friend is, I think it's okay to sit down and talk with her.”

Trust me, you’ll want to sit down this week and watch or listen to Keller.


-- Weekend of June 8, 2019: Alexandra Watts, Mississippi Public Broadcasting

With an ode to the importance of journalism at the local and state levels — and praise for an innovative new program that supports it — my “Story in the Public Square” cohost and coproducer Jim Ludes gives a fitting introduction to this week’s show:

“Local journalism is one of the keystones of American democracy,” Ludes said. “There’s no substitute for an experienced local reporter not just to get a story but to share it with the insight and perspective that only comes from living in the community in which they report. Today’s guest is one of 13 fellows with Report for America, a new effort to put reporters on the ground in communities across America. She’s Alexandra Watts.”

A 2018 graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Watts, who grew up in Phoenix, covers the Mississippi Delta for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Most of the region’s residents are black, and for many of them, day-to-day life is a struggle.

“A lot of the counties in the Delta do fall below a certain income level,” Watts said, “and poverty’s an issue that I report on. But I’m not just reporting on poverty, but how that intersects with everything from education to health care” to food insecurity and more."

These are, of course, important social-justice issues that demand responsible attention from journalists. Watts gives it — with a foundational philosophy that I admire. It turns a common phrase on its head, as it were.

“I know some people like to say, ‘Oh, we’re giving a voice to the voiceless,’” Watts said, “but I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think whether you are in the Mississippi Delta, or Phoenix, Arizona, you have a voice. It just depends on what kind of news coverage you have — how often that voice is heard. So, everyone in all of the regions that [Report for America] is reporting on, they’ve had a voice. It’s just our job, with our respective newsrooms, to really get those voices out there, and amplify them.”

Watts also brings her audience stories of the rich culture of the Delta, which was home to Blues legend B.B. King. And she reports on some of the racial issues of the Delta, home to many people who trace their ancestry to slave times — and the scene, also, of the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black boy who had been visiting from Chicago.

The murder and later trial of his assailants — and posthumous attention to the case — made Till one of the icons of the Civil Rights movement. When the Justice Department last summer reopened an investigation into the murder, Watts covered the story.

Watts, 24, is just beginning her career, and so, in an era of downsizing and consolidation, it was heartening to hear her take on our business.

“Local journalism is and always will be important,” she said. “I grew up in Phoenix, so that means I had a public radio station to choose from, a public television station, multiple newspapers, and I guess I was really spoiled and kind of lucky with all of the news I was able to consume. And I think I kind of took it for granted....

“But a lot of communities across the United States do not have that privilege, and that’s not fair. And I think if you do want to make a change right now, the start is being informed and that starts locally.”

Report for America is bringing young journalists like Watts to the cause. Good for them, for her, and for journalism in general. I’d bet Ben Franklin — who in 1721 with his brother started one of the first local newspapers in America, The New-England Courant, in Boston — would applaud.


-- Weekend of June 1, 2019: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, public-health hero

It is not every day you meet a true hero, but such a day came for us on “Story in the Public Square” when pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, featured in this week’s broadcasts, joined us on the set at our flagship station, Rhode Island PBS. 

You may have heard of Doctor Mona, as she calls herself, because of her position as associate professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University or from her new book, “What the Eyes Don’t See.” If you haven’t, you surely know about the crisis that brought her to international prominence — the lead poisoning of children in Flint, Michigan, traced to spring 2014, when officials switched the source of the city’s water from Detroit’s comparatively clean supply to the polluted Flint River. 

It was billed as a cost-saving measure, but what resulted was a public-health crisis for the residents of Flint, many of whom are poor and black. 

“I happened to be home with a high school girlfriend who, of all things, was a drinking water expert,” Hanna-Attisha said, when the friend asked if she had heard about Flint’s “new” water. 

Dr. Mona, center front row.
She had. She had heard the reassurances of public officials that it was safe. 

Except it wasn’t. It had become tainted with lead. 

“Lead is probably the world’s most well-studied neurotoxin,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It is potent, it’s irreversible, it’s a poison. Incredible science over the last few decades has gotten us to the point of recognizing that there is no safe level of lead in a child. And its dangers are mainly in what it does to children. 

“It really impacts the core of what it means to be you, impacting cognition, so it actually drops IQ levels, impacts behavior, leads to things like developmental delays and attention disorders and focusing problems. And it’s even been linked to things like criminality. ... At that very moment, my life really changed, because when a pediatrician hears the word ‘lead,’ it’s a call to action.” 

Done with “reassurances,” Hanna-Attisha undertook her own research. 

“There was no going back; there was only going forward, and I conducted the research,” which confirmed that children were increasingly being exposed to the lead. “Then I very publicly shared this research, which is not something you do in academia.” 

Ordinarily, you present your findings to a peer-reviewed journal, and then wait for publication, a process that can take months. 

“But I shared this at a press conference because our children did not have another day,” Hanna-Attisha said. “There was no other option. This is what had to be done. And right away, just like everybody else who had raised concerns — moms and pastors and activists and journalists and water scientists — just like everybody else, I was dismissed and attacked.” 

The pediatrician didn’t care. Heroes don’t in the face of such ugly nonsense. 

Dr. Mona chronicles the story in “What the Eyes Don’t See,” which was the Rhode Island Center for the Book’s selection for Read Across Rhode Island. And she makes a larger point that speaks to all of the country, not only a poor city in the Midwest. 

As a daughter of parents who immigrated from Baghdad, Iraq, Hanna-Attisha brings a global perspective to her country. “What is so mind-boggling and why I really felt compelled to write this book,” she said, “is that this was happening on American soil in the 21st century in the richest country in the history of the world.” 

And, she said, it is an example of “environmental injustice, the recognition that people who are poor and people who are predominantly minority disproportionately suffer from the burden of environmental contaminations.” 

“This is not a new concept. It’s been really kind of well-established for about three decades and well-studied throughout this nation — that these crises that happen or burdens that happen [affect] predominantly poor and black people. And Flint is another egregious example, and probably kind of the most profound in this young century of an environmental injustice.”


-- Weekend of May 11, 2019: Peter Blanck, University Professor at Syracuse University

With Rhode Island recently marking the 25th anniversary of the closing of the Ladd Center, the state’s former institution for people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the half hour we spent with this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square” was particularly relevant. Not to mention informative and inspirational.

Peter Blanck is University Professor at Syracuse University and chairman of the school’s Burton Blatt Institute, arguably the foremost center of its kind in America. It is named for the man who wrote the game-changing 1966 book “Christmas in Purgatory” and went on to become a pioneer in what the center calls “humanizing services” for people living with disabilities.

 Blanck is a modest man, and on our show, he described the center and its expanding missions matter-of-factly, if with pride:

“We have grown phenomenally, with offices in New York City, and Washington, and Atlanta, and Kentucky, and Syracuse, of course, and working all over the world,” Blanck said.

“Essentially, we follow Burton Blatt's main principle, which is written about in [“Christmas in Purgatory”] that each person has value. We look cross-disability. We look over the life course, and we focus on ways in which we can help support -- through policy and research -- the inclusion of people with disabilities in all civic, social, and economic activities.

“Most people with disabilities are poor and live in poverty. Most people with disabilities today lack employment. So we have large-scale programs, for example, on financial literacy, on economic security, on helping people be more involved, self-determined in making their own decisions about their lives to the maximum extent possible.”

Blanck spoke of the movement that led to closing Ladd and many similar institutions where abuse and neglect were common, and to the landmark law that advanced rights.

“The fires of reform were lit,” he said. “In the late 1980s, people with disabilities for the first time came together -- advocates, to try to understand if disability rights could be thought of in a similar way as African American rights, as sexual orientation rights, as rights for women.

“Thanks to the leadership of many senators and really bipartisan efforts, the Americans with Disabilities Act was born in 1990, which was the first major comprehensive law in the world, really, that looked at employment, public services, telecommunications, living in the community.”

So where are we today?

In a better place than decades ago -- but not where we should be, according to Blanck.

“It's a very complicated question because today we have, of course, terrific issues of homelessness, terrific issues of healthcare coverage, terrific issues of incarceration,” Blanck said.

He described his involvement with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent look at Alabama prisons which found that almost half of the system’s inmates “have some form of mental disability. Prisons have become, essentially, the institutions of old.”

According to Blanck, some 60 million to 75 million people in the U.S. live with “severe disabilities” and globally, “there are about a billion people” living with disabilities. Their rights were advanced with the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities treaty, which has been signed by 177 nations – but not the U.S.

President Obama signed the treaty, Blanck said, “but the Senate did not ratify it for an array of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with disability but have to do with signing of treaties in general. Personally, I think it's a missed opportunity because we can all learn a lot together. 

Nonetheless, the CRPD is moving forward, and more and more countries are being involved. It guarantees human rights of employment, accessibility to information, government services, capacity before the law, and a whole host of other areas.”

I neglected to mention that in addition to his formal expertise, Blanck is a compelling storyteller. Tune in to hear some of his uplifting experiences involving people living with disabilities.


-- Weekend of April 27, 2019: Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer-winning author

During the ceremony last month awarding the 2019 Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square to Elizabeth Kolbert, The Journal’s distinguished energy and environment writer Alex Kuffner said, “I believe now more than ever in the importance of reporting on the environment.” His award-winning work confirms that conviction. 

And so do Kolbert’s many articles and books, most recently the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” published in 2014. Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer, is this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square.” After introductions, we started with some of the conclusions in her earlier masterpiece, “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change,” which came out 13 years ago.

She spoke about Arctic amplification, a scientifically proven phenomenon involving the so-called greenhouse effect that leads to warming of the Arctic and melting of ice there, which contributes to sea-level rise, among other effects. 

This was predicted by scientists decades ago, before the warming actually began, Kolbert said. 

“That was right at the point where I was reporting this story, so big groups were coming out and saying, ‘OK, we are seeing a clear climate-change signal now,’” she said. “And I ended up going and spending a lot of time in the Arctic, because that is actually where the signal is strongest.” 

I asked: “Were these findings being communicated to the public — in other words, outside of the scientific community? Was the average person, reader, viewer privy to this?” 

They probably were, Kolbert said, but other matters dominated headlines. “The U.S. was going into Iraq, there was a lot of news going on — let’s put it that way,” Kolbert said. “But if you wanted to know, for example, the American Geophysical Union came out in 2003 with a statement saying climate change is real, it’s a serious problem.” 

“But some people were paying attention,” I said. 

“Oh, absolutely.” 

“And some of the people paying attention to this would be, I guess — I hate to even use the term but — ‘climate deniers’ who were saying, ‘What, is this a hoax? It’s liberal scientists and blah, blah, blah.’ That was happening.” 

Indeed, Kolbert said, a lot of those folks were jumping on the hoax, fake-news, call-it-what-you-will bandwagon. And many others have written about “the whole denier industry, denial industrial complex, whatever you want to call it,” she said. 

“Some people have won Pulitzer Prizes looking at how this concerted disinformation campaign was financed and propagated very much along the lines of the disinformation campaign that the tobacco industry fostered to try to confuse, just cloud, the link between smoking and lung cancer that also put off regulation of tobacco products for quite a long time, and we’re seeing exactly the same dynamic play out.” 

“Does that disinformation campaign explain why, from a public policy perspective at the federal level, we have just not been able to break through?” my co-host, Jim Ludes asked. 

“I think it’s a very, very serious part of the problem,” Kolbert said.

 “I’m not sure it’s the only problem, because I do feel the disinformation campaign is finally failing and flagging as people see the effects of climate change pretty dramatically in different parts of this country for themselves.” 

Kolbert described disinformation as now perhaps the lesser of two major problems confronting humanity as the deniers fade into the margins.

“It is a very difficult policy problem, as I needn’t tell you,” Kolbert said. “Fossil fuels are at the base of our economy.... Every aspect of modern life is tied up with fossil fuels, and to break that relationship is a monumental effort that we ought to be making. I couldn’t argue more strongly for that, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, if everyone just suddenly agreed we had a problem that we would immediately have a solution.’” 

And all this came before we got into the incredible “The Sixth Extinction,” a must-read book for all. Tune in for that discussion and more from one of the leading environmental writers of today.


-- Weekend of April 20, 2019: Kim Wallace, features editor, Game Informer

My first introduction to video games was decades ago, when I lived in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a popular watering hole, the Purple Pub, installed “Pong” — the original version, which was essentially a ball on a screen that two players controlled with a paddle. I played more advanced games as the years went on but ceded interest to my son when he was a child.

Calvin’s 25 now and remains an avid gamer, but save for the occasional updates he gives me of the latest and hottest games, I remained largely uninformed of the state of the art.

Kimberly Wallace, @KStar1785, this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square,” changed that.

Wallace is the features editor of Game Informer, a monthly magazine devoted to video gaming that has a circulation of almost 8 million — in print. That astonishing figure alone tells you all you need to know of the field that has its roots in an era of paddle-controlled balls.

Co-host Jim Ludes, who is a gamer, started the conversation with two other figures, also astonishing.

“We were talking about this before we rolled, that ‘Avatar,’ the highest-grossing movie of all time, grossed $2.8 billion,” he said. “’Space Invaders,’ the highest-grossing video game of all time, did $13.9 billion.”

“Yeah, crazy,” said Wallace.

“With that kind of money, do we take video games seriously enough?” Ludes asked.

“I’ve seen it go both ways,” Wallace said. “You get the ‘lazy gamer’ stereotype that goes on, but I think video games have grown so much. I was talking to one of the developers, Ken Levine, who created ‘BioShock,’ which is a phenomenal game, if you haven’t checked it out. He was talking about how it was like film. Like film, everything had to be invented, and he felt that’s what was going on with video games, starting with ‘Pong.’”

More numbers: “BioShock” in its many versions has sold tens of millions of copies.

As gaming has evolved, Wallace said, story has become paramount.

Starting with the appeal of fun, Wallace said, “now we have games with full-blown storytelling, themes, fully-realized characters … There’s also the social side of them, too, where games bring these communities together, people together every night to just sit on there and play some games and get to know each other.” This, via the internet, something that also did not exist commercially back in those Purple Pub days.

Creation and production of a top contemporary game, Wallace said, involves an enormous investment of time, talent and money — more than for many Hollywood movies.

“To tell a story through a video game is much more difficult,” she said, “because you have to constantly engage the player. There’s always a battle between giving the player something interesting to do, versus being able to tell the story you want to tell.”

Ludes asked: “Do you have a sense of who’s actually playing games? The stereotype, I think, is sort of a prepubescent teenage boy, but what’s the truth?”

“Well, it has changed,” Wallace said. Polling by the Electronic Software Association, she said, finds “it very close to” 50 percent women, 50 percent men.

“They also find that it skews actually a little older than you would expect, even though all these young kids are getting into it, too,” Wallace said.

“The numbers that I looked up said that the average female gamer is 36,” Ludes said.

“You wouldn’t think that, right?” Wallace said.

“And the average male gamer is 32,” said Ludes.

“And that is totally not the stereotype,” I said.

“If you go into one of these games that you have to coordinate as a team, and you listen to your teammates, you can tell you have people of all different ages,” Wallace said. “You’ll be like, ‘That’s totally a kid there, but yeah, they’re great,’ or ‘Okay, that guy sounds like he’s a bit older, and has done this for a while.’”

If you’ll pardon the pun, few people are as informed about gaming as Wallace. Her knowledge and good humor make for an exceptional edition of “Story” this week, whether you game or not.


-- Weekend of April 13, 2019: Sarah Fawn Montgomery, poet, author, mental-health advocate

We have been deliberate in giving voice to mental-health issues on “Story in the Public Square.” Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, and Jeff Sparr and Matt Kaplan of PeaceLove, Rhode Island-based but now with international reach, have appeared. Other guests have brought insight, too.

This week, Sarah Fawn Montgomery — poet, author, memoirist and assistant professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts — brings her firsthand experiences with mental illness to the show. She discusses several of her books, but the focus was her latest: “Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir,” an exquisitely rendered personal memoir and history of how people living with mental illness, women especially, have been mistreated by society and the medical profession. Montgomery was a young college student when her own symptoms first surfaced.

“I was convinced I was just stressed, which sounds silly now, but I was in graduate school, and I was very much following the graduate school narrative, which is you work hard, you work all the time, you don’t do anything for fun. Of course you’re stressed,” Montgomery said. “And I would say I probably figured out something was wrong when I started having panic attacks a dozen times a day, 20 times a day.”

They were intense, and Montgomery on camera reads some of the horrifying descriptions from “Quite Mad.” And it was from within that terrible time of her life that the seeds of this masterpiece took root.

“I was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder ...” she said, “and then I was also diagnosed with pretty severe obsessive compulsive disorder, and then post-traumatic stress disorder. And so, as a patient I was encountering pretty brief doctor visits, maybe 10 minutes, or so, and I didn’t get all the information that I wanted about my disorders, but also about the different treatments that I was encountering.”

Mental-health reporting has been my journalism passion for decades, and I sometimes cite National Institute of Mental Health data, including that about one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness in any given year. With such a large number, why do stigma and mistreatment still exist?

Montgomery got into that, saying, “The narrative of mental illness flies in the face of the American ideals of rugged individualism and American exceptionalism. We’re a nation founded on the idea that if you work hard, and you try your best, you’ll be able to overcome any obstacle, and you’ll be able to achieve success. And mental illness you can’t control. And you can work as hard as you want on it, and you still might not be able to control it.”

Montgomery’s own journey? After living with anxiety and panic attacks for years, “I decided that you could either fight it, and you can try to get rid of it, or you could own it, and sort of claim it. And when I stopped thinking there was something wrong with me, and stopped saying, ‘My brain is broken, my body is broken,” [I] started saying, ‘No, it’s just different, this is how I see things.” Good professional intervention, of course, was also a factor.

“There’s another message in ‘Quite Mad,’” I said as we were winding down, “and that’s what you describe as a beacon of hope and truth for the millions of individuals living with mental illness. What is the hope and truth that you bring through your book?”

“That we are not broken, that we are not wrong, we are just humans that are trying to get through it,” Montgomery said. “I think the narrative that people often hear is that there’s something wrong with you, you need to fix it, you need to pull it together, mind over matter, be stronger.

“But no, there’s many of us, we’re a community, and we’re just trying to find the things that we need to make it day-to-day. And so if anything, the message that I want to share is a message of normalcy, that we all are here together, and that even in your darkest times, the times where you feel the most unhinged, or off from reality, there’s a lot of people that have felt that way too, so you’re not the only one, and there’s some comfort in that.”


-- Weekend of April 6, 2019: Elisa Kreisinger, podcaster, feminist, humorist


One of the immensely popular podcasters of our time is Elisa Kreisinger, a graduate of Simmons University in Boston, whose “Strong Opinions Loosely Held” show explores key issues of our era with insight and irreverent humor, much as the best of “Saturday Night Live.” Many of our guests have the gift of humor, but I don’t think Jim Ludes and I have ever laughed so much on an episode of “Story in the Public Square,” nor have we had a more insightful guest regarding women’s issues.

Kreisinger some while ago adopted the professional moniker Pop Culture Pirate, @popcultpirate on Twitter, because, she joked, “There comes a time in every woman’s life where you have to choose a URL and a domain name.”

Behind the joke was something from college. “I read this feminist theorist,” Kreisinger explained, “and she said that in order for women to survive in society, they had to loot and plunder from culture, take what they needed, and disregard the rest.” The culture then, more than a decade ago — and still in many ways today — is male-dominated, as Kreisinger discusses this week on our show.

Kreisinger gave her own passion as one example. When she began podcasting three years ago, she said, “the voices that you heard were men’s voices. And there was a lot of critique of women’s voices. ... Anytime a woman went on air, they were critiqued for the sound of their voice. So, naturally, one of the first episodes we did was on critiquing women’s voices.

“But the importance to me was, ‘Hey, here’s an industry that hasn’t really been totally cracked open yet. How can we have fun and play here? There’s obviously women who are listening, so is there a way that we can appeal to them in an interesting way that these other shows aren’t?’” Thus was born “Strong Opinions Loosely Held.”

One more example Kreisinger offered was the subject of another of her podcasts: “Why is women’s pain taken less seriously?” It is, as I have learned from female members of my family, including several who work in health care, and from my Journal health-care reporting.

Kreisinger gave an eloquent answer, too long to quote in its entirety here. But “boiling this down to its basic level,” our guest said, “it’s because the majority of doctors are male and they don’t understand the pain that women can be in, and it is inherently taken less seriously because people don’t take women seriously.”

Turning to craft, as we often do, we asked Kreisinger what keeps her going in the tumultuous and increasingly crowded world of podcasting.

“So ‘Strong Opinions’ won a bunch of awards,” she said. “I go back and I read through the awards and just the stuff that we accomplished. It was a Digiday Award winner, it was a Webby Honoree. So much of digital media and digital culture isn’t tangible — you can’t hold it in your hand. It’s ephemeral. It goes away in 24 hours. But you can see an award. ... I know people say, ‘Don’t do it for the awards,’ but to be able to see something tangible, that, to me, is really helpful.”

Congratulations, Elisa. In that vein, a big thanks to our many guests over the years and to our Rhode Island PBS crew for helping us to our latest honor: the just-announced Newport Historical Society’s inaugural History Starts Here Award. Huge credit to the two women in charge of “Story” at RIPBS: director of production Kim Keough and show director Cherie O’Rourke, who succeeded our first director, Scott Saracen. Lastly, check out our cool new show ending, courtesy of editor Nicholas Moraites. Love the drone shot!­2t


-- Weekend of March 30, 2019: Helen Ouyang, E.R. physician, Columbia U. professor


Physician-writers rank among our favorite guests on “Story in the Public Square.” Doctors Daniela Lamas and Sandeep Jauhar appeared in separate episodes last year, and this weekend, we welcome Dr. Helen Ouyang, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and emergency-room specialist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, one of the country’s busiest — and best — hospitals.

You may have read her pieces in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic and other publications, or heard of her earlier work providing health services and humanitarian assistance in more than a dozen nations abroad. With her busy schedule, it took months to get her on “Story,” but it was certainly worth the wait.

Ouyang covered many topics on-air, and all are relevant to today, when health care remains an issue touching all lives and dominating much of the political debate. She dissected for us one of the key aspects of the opioid crisis: the role some physicians play in overprescribing, sometimes only in an effort to stop a patient’s complaints. She touched on the practice so many of us have (including me) of Googling symptoms, which can lead to (often wrong) self-diagnosis and fright (oh, no, I have that?).

She described her own experiences with the difficulty that she — a learned doctor employed by one of the nation’s top health-care institutions — had in accessing care for herself when she had a problem with an eye. She discussed a situation in rural Alabama where a cluster of tuberculosis cases prompted the intervention of public-health authorities ... and the resistance of the local community, which feared they were being stigmatized, when the outside experts showed up.

But like Lamas and Jauhar, Ouyang grapples with the deeper philosophical questions raised in the practice of medicine. Perhaps topping that list is: What exactly constitutes a life, and in cases of comatose or non-responsive patients, who should define and decide it? As the health-care reporter for The Journal and the author of four books on medicine, these are questions I have confronted in my own writing.

Ouyang gave the example of the individuals she profiled in “My Patient’s Sisters: It was vividly clear, in every touch and gaze, that a patient’s family had made the right decision,” her story for The New York Times last year that brought her to my attention.

Ouyang was working when a 53-year-old woman was sent to her emergency room for replacement of a feeding tube, which was what kept her alive. A decade before, her heart had stopped and her brain had been starved of oxygen for 20 minutes, leaving her permanently in a semiconscious state. As Ouyang wrote, “She would never walk, talk, eat, hug or kiss. She would never actively interact with the world around her, never understand anything again.”

The record showed that doctors had discussed withdrawing life support with her family, but they had declined. And when two women showed up at Ouyang’s ER that day, our guest was in for a surprise.

“They were both her sisters,” Ouyang said, “and they were just tending to her in the most loving, incredible way. And one of them told me how she sees her every day. And the other one — this is in New York — the other one lived in Boston and she comes every couple of weeks and sees the patient. It just reminded me of how everyone has different values and meaning for what is a life worth living.

“And it brought me back to medical school. I remember I was talking to a neurosurgeon friend who was much further along in his training and he sort of made fun of me for being ‘naïve’ because I said, ‘It’s up to the family, what they want. It’s not up to doctors whether a life is meaningful and whether someone should be kept on life support.’ And over the years, my view on that had obviously changed, and seeing this family brought me back to what medicine is all about.”

Herein is a profound and humbling lesson. Ouyang has many of them. Tune in this weekend to see and hear for yourself.


-- Weekend of March 23, 2019: Darnisa Amante, founder and CEO of DEEP


My “Story in the Public Square” co-host Jim Ludes scripts and delivers the introductions to all our shows, and this is how he opened this week’s episode with Darnisa Amante, founder and CEO of the Disruptive Equity Education Project, or DEEP, based in Manchester, New Hampshire:

“Schools across America face an increasingly diverse student population, while deep-seated institutional biases endure. Today’s guest argues that successful leaders, who dig deep and unpack their own experiences with race and bias, can help tear down the barriers of institutional racism.”

Darnisa Amante, 4th from right, with cast and crew of "Story."
It was a spot-on intro to Amante, who for the next half hour went deeply into some of the most pressing issues of contemporary America — issues Amante addresses passionately as an African-American woman with a gift for persuasive speaking.

“When you don’t talk about race, you can’t talk about the racism that I have experienced on a daily basis,” Amante said. “And so, racial equity is understanding that the darker you get in this country, the more disproportionate your experiences of inequity are.”

“You say the darker, meaning the color of your skin?” I asked.

As one of the writers for the 2015 Journal series “Race in Rhode Island,” I had been immersed in race issues, but this was not something we had considered. Such consciousness-raisin­g, of course, is why we need thinkers like Amante.

So, yes, “the color of your skin,” she said. “Skin color actually really does matter in this country.”

Amante, who holds an educational leadership doctoral degree from Harvard, brings her workshops to teachers, schools and community organizations. She does not sugarcoat: her goal is change, not concurrence.

“Equity is one of those words that triggers people because as soon as they hear it, they say, ‘Are you going to tell me I’m not woke enough? I’m not conscious enough? Am I going to be blamed for what I don’t know [and] didn’t know I had to know? And I don’t want anybody to think I’m not a good person,’” Amante said.

This can be “uncomfortable work, but it’s not intentionally trying to make people feel terrible about themselves,” she said. “It’s a call to action, it’s a reckoning that in order for us to be the type of society we say we are, we have to listen to the perspectives of those we both agree with and don’t agree with. That you really have to understand, through storytelling, how people are living in this country — because education right now is not teaching that.”

Amante is teaching that. Consider:

“Did you know that you can still be racially profiled in this country? You can still be told that you’re not intelligent because of the color of your skin? You can still have people assume you’re a thug, or whatever it may be, just because of how you’re dressed? There are real perspectives on both sides of that story, and education’s not normally the place where we share stories like that. And to me, all of that was the disruption: that storytelling and conversations are the work. ...

“Disruption for me is equity, is a process. It’s a process of learning how to talk to people, it’s a process of learning how to agree to disagree again, it’s a process of expanding heart and mind and soul, and being empathetic. And it’s the process of a collective commitment to dismantle policies and practices that will continue to oppress even long after we’re gone if they’re not brought down.”

Much-needed wisdom and encouragement, sprinkled with humor — this is what Amante brings to our program this weekend.


-- Weekend of March 16, 2019: Llewellyn King, journalist, broadcaster, TV show host


One of the distinguished journalists of the modern era lives in Rhode Island, and we are thrilled to welcome him this weekend to “Story in the Public Square.”

Llewellyn King, host of his own TV and radio show, the long-running “White House Chronicle,” began his career in Zimbabwe — at age 16, when he became a foreign correspondent for Time magazine. Since then, he has reported for many publications. He inks a weekly column today for the InsideSources Syndicate that appears regularly in The Providence Journal, among other places. He’s been on NBC and CNN. I could go on.

And I will, a tad more: King and his “White House Chronicle” co-host and wife, Linda Gasparello, gave what my “Story” co-host Jim Ludes likes to call our “training wheels” in 2016, when we taped several episodes that aired as monthly features on “Chronicle.” Without that start, “Story” today would not be the national show that it is. We remain grateful.

As you might imagine, King’s breadth of experience would have made for a lively hour or more of TV, but in our just-under half-hour, we managed to get into some major issues — and of them, I found King’s observations about the effects of rapidly advancing technology on democracy to be among the most compelling.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” as King calls our age, already has dramatically reshaped the world, of course, with its transformation of communication and the speed and extent at which news — real and not — spreads. These are some of the factors behind extreme political movements here and abroad, King asserted, that are challenging the foundations of democracies — and the global world order, or perhaps more aptly today, disorder.

“We have a lot of frustration and unhappiness throughout societies in Western Europe and in the U.S.,” King said. “And often that frustration produces bizarre people, bizarre things; it swings very far right or it swings very far left.”

With its Brexit crisis, Britain could go left or right. “Obviously, Poland, Hungary, have gone way right,” King said. Like Britain, “France is in this state, Germany is in this state — we’re not sure where it’s going to come out. Politicians say they have answers. People are looking for politicians who come out of the west on a white horse — or any compass direction, it doesn’t have to be the west. We’re looking for people on horses, and we’re not getting them.”

King described the “great unhappiness” of people across the planet, as good a description as you’re likely to find of our species’ collective mental state in 2019.

“Some of Europe’s unhappiness is fed, as is some of our unhappiness, by migration. The people of the earth are moving across it and about it. Huge quantities of people are trying to get into Europe. People in Eastern Europe are trying to get into Western Europe. People in north Africa are trying to get into Europe, and if they had the means, people in Central and southern Africa would be trying to get into Europe because those societies are failing, and you vote with your feet.

“We tend to think we have an immigration problem in the United States. We have no such thing. We have some people trying to get in from the south, but we don’t have an overwhelming equivalent of what Europe has with boats coming across the Mediterranean. And of course, most immigration takes place by seemingly legal means. Get on an airplane. Go on a vacation. Stay. Come on a ship. Stay. Jump ship. Stay.

“And we’ve probably treated this entirely wrongly. I’ve had a lot of problems with our attitude to immigration and the idea that immigrants in an immigrant country are somehow foul and inhuman and despicable. They are people trying to get a better life. The most fundamental of all human desires: a better life.”

King touched on more, much more, as viewers and listeners this weekend will discover.


-- Weekend of March 9, 2019: Jeff Jackson, author, playwright, singer, songwriter


It’s not every day that you encounter an individual who has distinguished himself as an artist, author, playwright, singer and songwriter, let alone get to listen to him discuss it all for almost half an hour. But that was the opportunity Jim Ludes and I had on this weekend’s broadcast of “Story in the Public Square,” when we welcomed Jeff Jackson to our show.

Jeff, who lives and works in North Carolina, has a new book, “Destroy All Monsters: The Last Rock Novel,” published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and critically acclaimed by The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many others. We had Jeff read a passage from it on air, and it was hypnotizing.

The book, in a nutshell, as described by the publisher:

“An epidemic of violence is sweeping the country: musicians are being murdered onstage in the middle of their sets by members of their audience. Are these random copycat killings, or is something more sinister at work? Has music itself become corrupted in a culture where everything is available, everybody is a ‘creative,’ and attention spans have dwindled to nothing?”

I assumed Jeff had started writing “Destroy All Monsters” after the 2015 mass shooting at the Bataclan theater in Paris, but that was not the case.

“This goes back 10 years, well before the Bataclan shooting, well before any of that, and it really seemed like a very surreal image at the time,” he said. That image was of “a band on stage performing and being shot in the middle of their performance. And it was a very disturbing image to me but a very powerful image. ... Unfortunately, time has sort of caught up to it.”

Our discussion of real-life mass violence and contemporary culture flowed from there, and we also got into one of the book’s distinctive features (and how he convinced his publisher to let him pull it off). “Destroy All Monsters” has two sides, an A and a B, like a vinyl record. You literally have to flip it over to read what is essentially the novel’s two tellings — perhaps “interpretations” is the better word — of the same events.

Side B, Jeff said, “ends up being sort of an alternate history of side A, almost like a remix of side A. The fates of different characters are changed, the genders of certain characters are swapped, I mean, it’s really sort of a through-the-looking-­glass view of that. ... I mean, the world we’re living in is so destabilized in terms of the narratives that are happening right now, and it feels like story no longer has firm ground under it the way it used to.”

To that I say: Jeff is spot-on.

We would have needed an hour or more to properly discuss Jeff’s other writings — and his plays, six of which have been staged in New York City, including “Dream of the Red Chamber: Performance for a Sleeping Audience,” in which audience members were invited to nod off. Honest.

“It was very popular because, I mean, who doesn’t want to go to the theater and lay down and take a nap?” Jeff joked.

Jeff describes his visual art as “works of assemblage and collage” created from discarded items — junk, in a word — and he talked about that, too, on this weekend’s episode. And then, of course, we had to hear about his songwriting and singing with the North Carolina band, “Julian Calendar,” which performs live and has released an album, “Parallel Collage.”

Here again, I had made a false assumption: That Jeff had been singing and songwriting since before penning “Destroy All Monsters.”

Wrong. He began after the book was finished.

I listened to several of his songs before we went into production, and decided it would be fun to include a clip of Jeff singing. And that’s how we play out this week’s show, in an ending put together by our own artistically gifted editor, Nicholas Moraites of Rhode Island PBS.


-- Weekend of February 9, 2019: Karen King, Hollis Professor, Harvard Divinity School


Was Jesus married? Are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John the only Gospels? Was Mary Magdalene really an apostle? Or was she a sinner and reformed prostitute, as frequently portrayed in Western Christianity?

Who better to answer such questions than Karen L. King, a Brown University graduate who is now the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, arguably the most esteemed religious-studies position in American academia. King is the first woman to be Hollis professor, the oldest endowed chair in the U.S., established in 1721.

Armed with her study of early-Christian texts that were undiscovered for millennia, and her extensive knowledge of Christian history and orthodoxy, King delves into these controversies, and more, this weekend on “Story in the Public Square.”

Karen King, center
Mary Magdalene as sinner, King said, “only belongs to Western Christianity. The Eastern churches never had that story.”

Ancient and authentic Christian texts uncovered in Egypt in 1945 tell what King asserts is the real story: Mary was no prostitute, but rather a close confidante of Jesus, a partner in his ministry, perhaps even his wife. And these are not the fictions of “The Da Vinci Code,” but conclusions born from scrupulous research and scholarship.

Of course, in some quarters, they are not merely controversial but heretical — and have been, more or less, since about the fourth and fifth centuries, when a male-dominated western hierarchy cast Mary as a “fallen woman” for reasons King explains on “Story” and in many of her writings, notably “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.”

Actually, Mary as described by King is seen in the four Gospels, the Harvard scholar said.

“She’s there during Jesus’ ministry,” King said. “She’s the one at the cross. She is in the Gospel of John, the first to see and talk to the risen Jesus. So this is actually the New Testament portrait of her, the canonical portrait of her. But what happens in later centuries is that becomes conflated — that is to say she gets mixed up with some other women in the New Testament, who aren’t named. One of these is the sinner woman with the alabaster jar in Luke 7.”

So how has the wrong narrative persisted for so long in the West?

“Well, this is the power of tradition, this is the power of storytelling. I mean, you guys do ‘Story in the Public Square,’ right?” King said with a smile. “This is the power of stories, and so if you have a story, if you have an artistic tradition and a literary tradition of a person, you read it. You read Mary Magdalene and you ‘know’ who she is, you read it into the story.

“It’s like the way people read the story of Adam and Eve as a story of original sin — but of course, the word ‘sin’ doesn’t appear in that story. Or the story that they ate an apple. [Except] it doesn’t say apple, it just says fruit — that’s Milton, right?”

Needless to say, discrimination against women in culture and politics through the ages has also been a factor in what King asserts is the misrepresentation of Mary.

“It’s certainly historically inaccurate and it certainly has had an enormous impact on the status of women and how women have been treated because you have, you know, Mary the virgin mother and then you have Mary, the repentant prostitute, and these become the primary models. Do we want to call that politics?

“Well, power relations are involved and it’s definitely had an impact on how women are treated and in the exclusion of women from the kind of leadership position that we see Mary Magdalene take, already in the Gospel of John, as the teacher to the other apostles — and as we see her in some of these texts discovered in Egypt, primarily one that I work on called the Gospel of Mary.”


-- Weekend of December 22, 2018: Charlie Sennott of the GroundTruth Project

At a time when credible professional journalism is challenged by economic considerations and absurd notions of “fake news,” what Charles Sennott and his colleagues are accomplishing at the Boston-based GroundTruth Project is a welcome sign that even in uneven times, the republic needs — and many citizens still demand — what Benjamin Franklin and colleagues started in the early 18th century.

Namely, an informed and independent press.

In his appearance on this weekend’s broadcast of “Story in the Public Square,” Sennott, among the most distinguished reporters of our time, dissects some of the top stories of today. He brought to the conversation a global perspective not only on world affairs but also domestic matters, deeply influenced as they are by developments overseas.

Charlie Sennott.

And we brought to our episode some powerful images, including two from award-winning Midwest photographer Maddie McGarvey, who herself was a guest on our show in 2018.

Regardless of your political persuasions, I bet you will appreciate Sennott’s insights. He still reports, but much of his time is spent as executive director and editor-in-chief of GroundTruth, a partnership with WGBH.

As a journalist myself for even longer than Sennott, I appreciate more than ever the importance of the next generation, and I have done what I can to mentor young reporters. Sennott’s GroundTruth does it on a much larger and more impressive scale through its Report for America program, which sends young journalists into newsrooms to “report on under-covered issues and communities,” as declared on its website.

Based on the Report for America work I have read, these are not only talented young people — they are deeply committed to the public discourse and social justice, to RFA’s correct contention that “the crisis in journalism has become a crisis for our democracy.”

Report for America Reporters.

On air, we could have cited any number of fine RFA journalists, but based on one of her pieces, I chose to mention Samantha Max, a woman from Baltimore who now writes for The Telegraph in rural Macon, Georgia. Max’s emphasis is on health-care stories (dear to my own heart, as I cover medical and mental health for The Journal) but the piece that really caught my eye was her essay “A Journalist’s Dilemma: Wanting to Do More to Help Than Tell a Story.”

In it, Max, a 2018 graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, struggles with an issue every journalist I have know has at one point or another: what, if anything, to do when writing about a person in desperate need, beyond telling the story? In this case, Max was writing about a man experiencing kidney failure whose dialysis center closed. An undocumented immigrant, he could not get insurance or government assistance. Max wrote the story for The Telegraph and a moral crisis ensued.

“I’m not a veteran reporter,” Max wrote. “Through Report for America, I’m just getting started at this whole professional journalism thing. In all honesty, much of the time, I just try to improvise as I go. This story, however, disheartened me in a way no other project has before, and I struggled to separate my most basic human emotions from my journalistic responsibility.”

Max in her essay wrote that “I forwarded my article to 20 immigration and advocacy health care groups, with the subject line ‘Please Help.’ ‘As a journalist, I cannot be this man’s advocate, and there’s not much I can do to help him,’ I wrote. ‘But I can share his story.’”

Max’s experience, hardly unique among Report for America’s young journalists, Sennott said, provides hope in what in many ways a dark moment for the press (80 journalists were killed, 60 held hostage, three missing and 348 were detained in 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders).

“That struggle within Samantha embodies our hope for the spirit of public service that’s in Report for America,” he said. “I can’t help her with the equation of how do you balance that because we can’t be advocates... and journalists. We want to encourage her to think of journalism [as] a role.

“But the instincts in her for public service — to be thoughtful, to be caring — we love that. But we also want her to get grounded in the idea that journalism itself when it’s done well — when it’s fair, when it’s balanced, when it’s impartial, when it’s not partisan — when it’s about people and it’s about what they’re going through, that is a public service in itself.”

-- Weekend of December 15, 2018: Story of the year, The Battle for the Truth


Annually since 2013, when our pick was digital spying by the National Security Agency, Jim Ludes and I have picked a national Story of the Year. This year we took a different route, and it’s one I bet will become our new model.

Starting in July, we asked guests on our “Story in the Public Square” TV and radio show what they thought the most important story would be — with the caveat, of course, that they were speaking before the year ended. A degree of informed prediction was required, but by summer, major storylines had emerged. So it was a valid exercise.

Two presidents.

Their responses, taped just for this purpose and separate from the episodes in which they appeared, provided wonderful insights into the national (and international) public discourse. They come from many different storyteller perspectives, among them an MIT physicist, humanist and writer, Alan Lightman; a best-selling author and doctor, Sandeep Jauhar; Mark Blyth, of Brown’s Watson center; and Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking.”

With Ludes, director of The Pell Center at Salve Regina University, our great Rhode Island PBS crew led by editor Nick Moraites put together this weekend’s show, featuring clips of nominations from 16 guests. There was agreement among them, and also divergence.

Lightman chose “The election of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.”

Jauhar, “What’s up with Trump and Russia?”

Blyth, “The Russia thing. The Russia thing. The Russia thing.”

And Sister Helen: “How do we get to truth? How does the American public get the truth?” (The answer, she said, lies in credible journalism.)

Providence Pictures’ award-winning documentary filmmaker Gary Glassman selected “the end of civility.”

Behavioral scientist Caroline Orr, whose @RVAwonk Twitter account has 375,000 followers, named Russia. Similarly, Smithfield documentarian Julie Marron said “election interference and what that means for our democracy.”

New York City food writer Korsha Wilson said ”#MeToo and women fighting for equality. I think that has been a big narrative of this year. And we’re slowly coming to terms with the ways in which women have been discriminated against. And I think that’s going to continue into the New Year, too.”

Jay Bookman, columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, chose the midterm elections. So did Charles Sennott of the GroundTruth project (his full episode will be broadcast the weekend of Dec. 22).

Peter Asaro, associate professor, School of Media Studies at The New School said, “The degree to which social media has shaped public consciousness and the degree to which that can be influenced by bad actors, whether that’s Russia or whether that’s political interests or whether that’s economic interests or just conspiracy theorists or what-have-you. And I think there’s a real reckoning that’s going to take place in terms of journalistic integrity, information integrity, and how do we understand what truth is in this new media world.”

And Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, chose “the collapse of the truth,” the idea, he said, “that people think they’re entitled to believe whatever they want no matter what the facts say. I think we’re entering a very strange period where the president just says whatever he thinks and millions of people believe it no matter what.”

That’s a sampling from our guests.

So what did Ludes and I choose as the 2018 Story of the Year? A sort of uber-narrative that incorporates nearly all of our guests’ selections — and properly so.

The Pell Center at Salve Regina University’s 2018 Story of the Year is “The Battle for the Truth.” Tune in this weekend or listen to The Journal podcast to hear our full explanation.


-- Weekend of November 3, 2018: MIT physicist, humanist and author Alan Lightman


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.
Rather than us describing the book in detail, co-host Jim Ludes and I asked Lightman to read a passage from the opening. It recounts what happened late one night when the author was motoring out to the small island where he and his family have a home. Way out in Casco Bay, the physicist cut the engine and running lights and lay back, peering up into the heavens.

“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



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:

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


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.

Venkatraman, right.

“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.


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.
Named an Amazon Best of the Month for September and one of Amazon’s Most Anticipated Fall Books, “Heart: A History” is a tour-de-force of this most vital organ — in mythology, history, culture and medicine, past and present. As the author of several medical books, including “King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery,” I was honored to listen to Jauhar, whose writing, like Lamas’, is elegantly rendered.

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.


-- Weekend of September 22, 2018: Sister Helen Prejean, author "Dead Man Walking"


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.”

Victims’ families?

“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"


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."


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.


“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.


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.”

Bookman’s explanation?

“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.


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


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.


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


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.

Sofie Karasek.

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


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

Dan spoke about writing after receiving his award. Listen to the podcast.

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.


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.


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.


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 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!


-- Weekend of Jan. 27, 2018: Genocide, the Holocaust, with guest Omer Bartov.


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.


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.”

Sulome Anderson.

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.


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.


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.

Evelyn Farkas.

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.

It was with a degree of nostalgia that I welcomed Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, president of the Naval War College, to the studios of Rhode Island PBS for the taping of this weekend’s broadcast of “Story in the Public Square.” Co-host Jim Ludes and I had invited Harley to discuss the role of his university, the world’s oldest such, in an era of rising global tension.

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.

Documentary filmmaker Tim Gray is America’s preeminent storyteller of those Tom Brokaw famously called “The Greatest Generation” — the American women and men of World War II who, at the cost of much blood and treasure, helped defeat fascism, the despicable movement responsible for an estimated 60 million or more deaths, including 6 million in the Holocaust. Believers in that movement’s ideology carried Nazi flags this month in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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