Thursday, July 12, 2007

My two cents worth

I'm still ticked off about the poorly done feature on Skowhegan that NPR ran last Tuesday (July 3). While I don't know if the locals generated much in the way of protest, or at least some old-fashioned indignation, for my own sense of propriety, I had to fire off a letter, even though it's taken me a week to find some time.

While a part of me understands that journalism in general has taken a turn towards the trivial and is more concerned with its entertainment value than actually capturing the truth of the story, the other half is somehat surprised that even NPR appears to have relaxed its usual standards. Just one more sign that Empire USA is on the downward slope.

Here are my thoughts sent NPR's way, about some lousy journalism (in my opinion) on the part of reporter Adam Davidson.

I'll let you know if I hear anything back from NPR; I'm not holding my breath, waiting.

July 12, 2007

NPR Features Editor
635 Massachessetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001

RE: Skowhegan Feature

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing to express my disappointment with last Tuesday’s (July 3rd) overly negative feature story on Skowhegan, Maine. Your reporter, Adam Davidson, didn’t seem interested in presenting an honest and balanced story. Typically, as is often the case when reporters visit rural America, Davidson latched on to anything he could find that painted Skowhegan as a rural backwater—substance abuse and pregnancy among teens and of course, domestic violence.

I’m not sure how much time Davidson spent in the area, but I’m guessing it wasn’t very long at all. I have been told by some locals that they were originally contacted and told that he would only be in town for one day and if they couldn’t do the interview that day, then they wouldn’t be given an opportunity to present their side, one that probably would have contrasted with Davidson’s. While I don’t know the details of his trip, the shoddiness of the feature seemed to indicate a paucity of time on the ground, in the Skowhegan area.

I’m not a resident of Skowhegan, but I feel like I know the town, mainly from spending time in the area in my role as a business liaison and workforce trainer, helping to raise the skills of the local workforce. While many of Skowhegan’s lucrative industries of yesteryear—shoes, lumber and paper—don’t offer the same opportunities that they did 30 years ago, Skowhegan and the surrounding towns of Somerset County are not in the dire straits that Davidson portrayed. While I don’t live in Skowhegan, I’ve lived in Maine for most of my 44 years and have also spent part of the past five years freelancing stories about Maine as a journalist, not to mention writing a 300 page book on small town Maine. I also grew up in a mill town very similar to Skowhegan, so I think I know about what I speak—Mr. Davidson, on the other hand, obviously knows very little about the people of Skowhegan, Maine, but even worse, shows very little concern about his subjects beyond that they are a means to end—pawns to be manipulated in order to file a story.

The county is fortunate to have an economic development director of the quality of Jim Batey, who conducted a series of public forums this spring that were lively, informative and provided some optimism for the future. Certainly, he would have been someone that I might have taken the time to talk to, if not in person, then certainly with a phone call. I’m sure that Mr. Davidson has a land line phone wherever he’s based, or certainly, cell phone service to facilitate follow-up interviews that NPR-caliber journalism should require.

While I would agree with part of Davidson’s assessment, particularly concerning jobs that have gone away and that there are elements of social dysfunction, I don’t think Skowhegan is much different than other areas of Maine, or rural parts of the U.S. In fact, I have seen some many positive elements in addition to Mr. Batey and his role in attracting economic opportunities to the area.

Recently, a public/private partnership between local businesses, the local workforce investment board, community economic development organizations such as CEI and members of the Skowhegan education community, the local community college, as well as the local CareerCenter, helped to pilot a training initiative called WorkReady, which offered a three week soft skills training program, preparing out-of-work and underemployed individuals for opportunities with local employers. This program, foundational in nature, is helping to raise the skills of the local workforce and help equip them for additional training, such as employer-specific training at Kennebec County Community College, or plug them directly into existing jobs locally, if appropriate. Sadly, Mr. Davidson didn’t do his homework, or prepare to highlight anything but the typical and hackneyed, which Mainers have come to expect from journalists from the big city, who come here occasionally, to file reports on the natives and entertain many of the liberal elites that make up NPR’s listenership.

I felt compelled to write this, as I don’t appreciate yellow journalism of any type, particularly when the perpetrator goes out of his way to tar and feather good people, trying to overcome tough times with their typical Yankee resolve and toughness and ingenuity.

In the future, if you are interested in representing what’s really going on here in the Pine Tree State, give me a holler and I can hook you up with several honest journalists that will provide you with some real reporting that Mainers respect and value.


Jim Baumer

cc: Adam Davidson

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