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The Crier
  • The Crier
My column this week in the print Reader takes us to southeast Missouri to tell a story: it's about a woman from New York City—a satiric novelist no less—who sets up shop in a small town in order to Speak Truth to Provincials. Frances Madeson's newspaper project in Fredericktown (population 4,000) goes badly, and when things blow up she vents on the Madison County Crier's home page.

Fredericktown (the county seat), is "one of those 'communities' that have been completely written off by the power brokers,”" she declares. Despite getting "exactly zero dollars in earmarks," folks in Madison County “"seem to adore" their local congresswoman because "she manipulates them with demagoguery 101 on the gun control issue and they buy it hook, line and sinker. . . .There's no need to give Madison County anything; they wouldn't confront power if their lives depended on it (which they do)."

Rightly or wrongly, the folks in Fredericktown have proved reluctant to perceive their lives in quite such dire terms.

But if Madeson's rhetoric has done her no favors, neither has the conventional journalism the Crier was created as an alternative to. The paper was launched in the first place in 2008 by Karen Whitener, who'd just stepped down as mayor after spending her term trying to get the town to sell off its electric utility, whose rates were roughly twice that of the co-op that served the surrounding countryside. Whitener felt she got no help at all from the local Fredericktown Democrat News.

"I thought, 'The people have no idea what’s going on,'" she told me. "No malice intended, but it was pretty poor reporting. The reporter was a part-timer who used to work for the post office. He didn’t care if he got it right."

When Whitener, now a local merchant, took a job requiring constant travel, she turned over the Crier to someone else, and eventually it disappeared. When Madeson came along Whitener urged her to resurrect it.

As my column explains, Fredericktown blew up over an item in Madeson's sixth issue, published September 12. A local couple, William and Donna Killian, turned in a story about their son Caleb graduating from marine boot camp. The story reported that Caleb Killian had received training "in first aid, uniform regulations, combat water survival, marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat, the basics of the M16A4 service rifle and close order drill."

Madeson ran the story as it was submitted, as well as a picture of the new marine in his dress uniform. But she had a few thoughts about militarism to get off her chest, so on the far side of the picture the story of Caleb continued, now in her own words. She made that clear.

"In an alternative universe (the one many of us are dreaming of and working toward), this announcement might say:

"Caleb Killian . . . graduated from U.S. Peace and Love Corps boot camp at MCRD, San Diego, CA on August 12, 2012 . . .

"During the 13 weeks of boot camp, he was trained in both class and field environments in first aid, uniform regulations, water preservation and desalinization, astronomy, hand-to-hand massage, the basics of vegetarian cuisine and close order jitterbugging . . ."

Caleb's parents didn't appreciate this embellishment one bit. Most folks didn't. Madeson stood her ground. And from Cape Girardeau, Missouri (hometown of Rush Limbaugh, not that there's anything wrong with that), CBS affiliate KFVS came to town to do a story.

Reporter Todd Tumminia held the Crier up to the camera and explained what "has everyone talking. The left side was an article submitted by the family. The right side was written by the editor of the paper…Here’s the part that has so many people upset. The paper says he was trained in various things, like 'hand-to-hand massage, the basics of vegetarian [pronounced veterinarian by Tumminia] cuisine and close-order jitterbugging.' The article then went on to say he will return to Fredericktown and lead in drum circles and campfire stories. People I spoke with say this article makes fun of something they consider a true honor."

The Crier did use those words, but it did not say those things. Tummunia either misunderstood Madeson's wishful fantasy or willfully misrepresented it.

Did this voice from the outside world further muddy the swirling waters inside Fredericktown when it failed to point out that Madeson was riffing about an alternative universe? Possibly. (Though it must be said that Madeson could have pointed this out to Tumminia if she'd returned his phone calls.) I like to think journalism matters. Which means it not only can make things better, but when it misrepresents what is going on it can make things worse.

As for the Democrat News, it carried the Killians' apology to their son, but that's been about all. It's a terrific local story for a paper that understands the community and has a strong sense of nuance. They've stayed out of it.

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