Truth in Politics

It isn’t often that small papers have the time or the resources to really catch national politicians in lies, half-truths or misrepresentations. Last week, however, several things landed in my lap that were just too obvious to ignore. I was able to pull them together into a story that I hope gets across the problems with today’s political system. Either way, it was fun to take both parties to task for their indiscretions. It’s not every day a small paper gets to do it.

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Back at Full Speed

I’ve been working on videos and more from my Peru trip, which went great. I am now back to running at full speed at the paper, but still looking around for the next cool opportunity.

I stumbled across something today that reminded me just exactly why I do what I do, and what possibilities there are for this type of work. Journalism may be struggling, but there is no escaping the fact that there are stories that need to be told. This was a good reminder:

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The Essence of the Written Word

I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.
I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them.

I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep.
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.

– Bertold Brecht

I saw the last section of this (revised) poem on Facebook the other day when a friend posted it alongside a story about a Chinese dissident who had barricaded himself into his home to avoid persecution. I read it and immediately put it into Google to find the author.

Bertold Brecht was a German writer born around the turn of the century. He lived through both World War One and World War Two, although he got out of Germany for the second war. When I read this poem (which is only really the middle section of a longer poem, with a couple lines deleted) the words stuck in my mouth. They felt heavy, like they meant something regardless of context.

It’s so rare to see powerful writing, particularly in the everyday. It’s something I’ve been working on, hopefully with success.

I was going through emails the other day tossing out old ones and I came across one I wrote to the former editor at NHPR about the mess in Transvale Acres following the Irene flooding. Check it out:

The fact is most of the lots originally were campsites and were never supposed to be anything more. People bought them and built illegally because they knew they could never get building permits for so close to the river. The neighborhood is private, without town roads or infrastructure, so the development largely happened under the radar. They built everything without talking to the building inspector, so half the houses were shacks jacked up on cinderblock stilts. People obviously knew it was happening, but town officials going back 40 years ignored it.
It’s hard to fault the current administration for a problem they inherited. Officials don’t like to talk about it, but they tried to deal with the problem before the storm. They looked for ways to clean up the neighborhood, but without funding to compensate property owners for the homes they would have been forced out of they didn’t get anywhere.
Then the storm came. The emergency declaration gave the town the deep pockets it needed to finally address the problem. It took political will for town officials to step up and enforce regulations their predecessors ignored for four decades, but most people think it was the right thing to do. 22 people had to be rescued out of Transvale Acres on the night of the storm. The question has come up: What happens if durring the next flood a firefighter dies trying to rescue someone out of sub-standard housing that the town allowed to stand? It may seem draconian now, but over the long term it’s the right move.
The real fault here lies with the people who built houses illegally 30 years ago and the officials who ignored it then. Everyone else is a victim. Sure, illegal construction happened more recently, but by that point the problem had become too widespread: What’s the point of issuing a violation for an illegal porch if the house it’s attached to isn’t supposed to be there? The town, and the homeowners who bought from the original owners, were in an impossible situation.
So that’s the story: the situation sucks, particularly for homeowners, but the town is stepping up and doing the right thing for the first time in decades. And although it’s going to be painful, without the storm there would have been no mechanism to compensate these people.
I like to thing it’s strong writing. Her response was this should become part of the script (the script, however, never got written). I keep playing with my writing to see what I can make it. It’s nice once in a while to feel like you’re writing with weight, not just to get the basics of an idea across.

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Pitching Like Crazy

So I have a day job, but in the modern media environment I would feel remiss if I wasn’t pitching all the time too. A steady job is the surest way to lure yourself into obsolescence, I’m sure of it, so I always have a story or two headed to NHPR or somewhere else.

Lately, however, I’ve been trying to pitch elsewhere, and to some big names. I’ve sent a few things into the New York Times over the years, never with success, but I’m trying a little harder lately. I’ve also been talking with an editor at the Boston Globe, which at least has some regional connection. I also had a brief chat with NPR, for whom I’ve done production work but not done stories. I’ve also got something lined up for PRI’s The World, so hopefully that’ll go.

It sucks to get told no, or to hear nothing back at all, but I figure the only way to get in there is to pepper them with stories until one lands on an editor’s desk they can’t refuse. I’ve got a few good ones out right now, and when I get shut down by one person I turn around, tweak it and send it on to someone else.

I’ve already got tickets to California for a story I’m determined to sell, so that one better land somewhere. I’m also arranging to go to Peru for another, so that one better not strike out either. But no matter what, I’m a veritable pitching machine. If you get an email from me don’t be surprised if the subject line says, “Article Query.”

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Ira, and the Fate/Future of Journalism

It’s always inspiring to listen to an excellent storyteller, but it’s particularly interesting when the story they are telling is about your future.

Not my future in particular, but that of the industry I’ve been lulled into loving. Ira Glass, creator and host of This American Life, the radio program that introduced me to the power of radio, was in Keene, N.H., this weekend, and I went down to see him. Ira was there to talk about his program, and about the failings he sees broadcast news.

Those failings may not have been his theme, but they were certainly what I heard most clearly. Broadcast news, he said, is all about telling you what’s important. It’s about making sure you get what it is about this event that make it news. TAL, however, is about connections — connecting the listener to the person on the other end of the interview, making you hear what they are saying and care. It tells the same story, but instead of telling its global ramifications it distills it to the implications for one person. And sometimes that isn’t all that grandiose.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about better ways to tell stories, better ways to get people to connect with the information I put out on a daily basis. This talk was a great window for me into ways to do that. And it has given me ideas for how to improve what I’m doing at the Sun. The goal of journalism is still to inform, but if the audience turns you off that goal isn’t being met. I’m looking for ways to keep people tuned in, ways to keep people connected. Thank you, Ira, for the ideas.

SHAMELESS PLUG (Not for me, but for Ira): TAL is doing a live broadcast on May 10 where they beam the performance into movie theaters around the country. They did the same thing several years ago and it was AWESOME. The closest theater to me that is carrying the show is at the Catamount Arts Center in St. Johnsbury, Vt.  I’ll be there. Will you?

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