One of my fiction advisors liked to opine "Fiction is more real than non-fiction" and on the whole I agree. But having spent thirty years as a journalist, I'm also acutely aware of how that particular sentiment can be misapplied by careless writers and critics. As Exhibit A, I point to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" one of America's great literary masterpieces, now undergoing a slow, devastating critical post-mortem. Capote's "true novel," as he called it, turns out to have been as much a work of his imagination as, say, "Other Voices, Other Rooms" or "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and certainly not, as he claimed, exclusively the product of journalistic observation, of "facts sweated for and sworn to" as one of his own detective characters phrased it (or was that also just another of Capote's clever inventions?). "Facts sweated for and sworn to" are, of course, at the heart of all genuine reporting, not only defining the core of journalism's integrity but also its practical usefulness in any working democracy.
The Nation’s Last Poor Farm - (early story of mine published by Vermont Life in 1990)
Alas, journalism as a whole is not given much credit for integrity or truthfulness by the American public these days. On the other hand I have benefited greatly from being mostly a public radio reporter, editor and news director in my career - a relatively small niche in journalism that the public still holds in relatively high esteem. I myself remain a great fan of the work of traditional newspapers and I think the public's low opinion of print is grievously unfair. Commercial television news is hands down the culprit, the perennial purveyor and showcase of journalistic malpractice, shallowness, bad judgment and plain laziness. If you don't believe me, watch any 6PM or 11PM local newscast on any commercial station in any size market - small, medium, large - anywhere in the US. For a while at WGBH in Boston I worked with a TV producer who had spent thirty years as a commercial TV news reporter at a local CBS affiliate. She said that during her years at CBS not a single one of her stories was ever edited - or even previewed by a higher-up - before it made the air.
NPR's editorial staff is legendary. I had the privilege and at times agonizing challenge of being edited and mentored by some of NPR's best: Peggy Girshman, Ken Barcus, Libby Lewis, Andrea deLeon and others. I filed over 150 stories and features to NPR over the years. Here's a small sampling of some of the ones I consider the most important: (for more NPR stories, awards and series, click here and here).
At midnight July 1, 2000, the union of same-sex couples became legal in the state of Vermont - and for the first time in world history. However, in the summer and fall of that year, thousands of Vermonters placed signs on their property to protest the coming of gay marriage. But the backlash proved short-lived.
Four years later, it was Massachusetts' turn. On May 17, 2004, gay marriage was legalized in the state, the first time that the term "marriage" became legally recognized for same-sex couples (Vermont stuck with the term "civil unions,") As in Vermont, at the time of legalization it seemed highly likely that supporters of gay marriage would face fierce opposition in that fall's elections. Remarkably - and despite my own dark tone reflected in this NPR piece - this proved to be untrue. Massachusetts voters seemed to accept the change almost overnight. That made two states in which I had covered gay marriage extensively both locally and nationally and had been completely wrong as a political prognosticator.
Covering the gay marriage debates and legalization process was absolutely fascinating to me. It also cured me of a reflexive homophobia I was barely even aware I had within me. Moreover I think that my experience with this mirrors that of many, many straight males (and females) throughout the country. Covering the story made me a better person. One of my enduring memories was listening to an elderly legislator, a former state police trooper from Alburg, Vermont, a lifelong Republican, defending his vote for civil unions in front of a hostile Alburg Town Meeting crowd in March of 2000. He had no allies in that audience. Later that year he lost his re-election bid in the Republican primary in Alburg because of his vote. There were many acts of courage displayed by a surprisingly wide variety of advocates during that struggle.
It's an environmental battle that is now entering its fifteenth year with no clear resolution in sight: an ambitious proposal to place 130 wind turbines in the middle of Nantucket Sound to provide up to 75% of the area's electricity needs. From the beginning, the dispute featured strange bedfellows, such as the Kennedy family allied with the coal and oil baron Koch brothers in opposition to the project, liberal Democrats allied with the Bush administration Interior Department energy officials in support. At stake is the economic viability of alternative energy to replace fossil-fuel power plants.
This was actually the second of three stories on Cape Wind I filed for NPR - that's how long the controversy has lasted (NPR doesn't like to revisit "local" feature stories more than once every five years unless, of course, there's an important news peg to report of national interest). Unlike my series of stories on gay marriage, I didn't try any prognostications in this story. But behind the scenes way back in 2002, the then editor of the Cape Cod Times Cliff Schechtman and I had a little informal bet going. Cliff was a die-hard opponent of the Cape Wind project but believed it would eventually get built. I had no strong opinion for or against, though I leaned in support. But I was impressed by the strength of the opposition and so predicted the project would eventually fail. So far, neither one of us has been proven right - though it probably does show that the two of us old news guys are - like the stereotype suggests - inveterate pessimists.