07/21/12 7:00am
07/21/2012 7:00 AM

So other than sitting on the deck at a place called McSeagulls overlooking the harbor while enjoying a cool yet spicy “dark & stormy” — for the uninitiated that’s a mixture of Gosling’s Black Seal rum and ginger beer —  what else is there to do in Boothbay Harbor?

You remember Boothbay, right? The midcoast Maine town about which I waxed romantic a few weeks back? I must admit that when temps climb to or near the 90s my thoughts drift back north. Bear with me for a minute, for this isn’t an installment of a graybeard’s wistful longings. There’s a local connection, I promise.

So what else is there to do in BH? I mean other than buying T-shirts and sweatshirts, fudge and all manner of lobster-shaped doo-dads?

Well, an hour or so away there’s the state prison store in Thomaston, filled with furniture, birdhouses, ships models and all manner of wooden things made by inmates.

Then there’s a ride on the steam locomotive at the Boothbay Railroad Village and a walk through its antique car collection. There’s even a small building dedicated solely to salt and pepper shakers. Somehow, family lore has it that I only stop there for the nudie models, which are rated either R or PG-13, depending on your point of view.

OK, this obviously isn’t a spring break destination; then again, the idea is to do as little as possible.

Me and The Mrs. never fail to stop by the Boothbay Harbor Library’s used book annex. Never has she walked out with fewer than four paperbacks at a total cost of well under a dollar. Last time when I asked, “Did you find the bodice-ripper section?” she didn’t smile. Women; go figure.

I’d also come across several worthwhile titles, particularly during my Andrew Greeley phase. You know, Andrew Greeley, the Catholic priest whose novels are liberally sprinkled with, well, ess-ee-ex, mostly of the sinless married variety, or so I’m told.

Nothing on the shelf caught my eye this year, except when I went to pay for the 87 volumes — OK, a slight exaggeration — that The Mrs. picked out. Waiting for chance to unload a pocketful of change, I noticed a section I’d never seen before called “collectibles.” What’s that all about? I wondered.

Up on one of the topmost shelves there stood a forest green book with gold letters along the spine. Wait, does that say “Greenport”? It sure does; “Greenport: Yesterday and Today,” to be precise. Suddenly forgetting the lack of stories with chaste marital relations, I pulled the book off the shelf.

“Excuse me, Ma’am?” says I to the cash-collecting volunteer. “How much is this?”

“That’s $15,” says she. My Hawaiian shirt must have been a dead giveaway that I was a tourist “from away” and so ripe for fleecing. I would have started haggling, á la the guys on the TV show “Pawn Stars” trying to get $6 million for a Civil War rifle when the owner’s offering $17.38.

“Look, lady, why would anyone in Boothbay Haahbah pay that amount for a book about a little town at the tail end of Long Island that’s a five-hour drive and a 90-minute ferry ride away?”

I didn’t say that, of course. Wouldn’t have been in keeping with that “hakuna matata” vacation spirit. But more to the point, the volunteer, while silver-haired and soft-spoken, looked like she wasn’t about to take any crap from anyone, especially some floral-shirted tourist. So with that “collectible” and The Mrs. many paperbacks, I shelled out about $15.65.

Back at the cottage I discovered the book’s secondary title; “The Diary of a Country Newspaper” by Elsie Knapp Corwin and husband Frederick Langton Corwin. Not just any old newspaper — The Suffolk Times, the News-Review’s sister publication. What are the odds?

One rainy afternoon I put aside my fascination with French-Canadian television — a strange thing considering I had just two years of high school French and can’t remember much more than “open the widow” and “is Bernard home?” — I came to Chapter III: “A Newspaper Published — A President Assassinated.” Sounds like the two are related, but there’s no evidence of that, I think.

The chapter opens with “In the early 1850s the standard work week was six days of eleven hours each and this custom was in operation when the Suffolk Weekly Times, on August 27, 1857, published its first edition.”

Wow, some things never change. OK, that’s not fair or accurate. Nowadays we won’t work more than 10 1/2-hour days; 10 3/4 max. Just a wee bit of journalistic humor there. No need for the publisher “to have a word with” yours truly.

Anyway, the book goes on to say that the paper’s founder, one John J. Riddell, who was all of 27 and who later served in the Civil War, embraced the new Republican Party’s principles. Wow, some things never change. (More journalistic humor there.)

The book gives a snapshot view of Greenport’s history, from its whaling days to rum running during Prohibition to the oyster business to the founding of Eastern Long Island Hospital.

Valuable historic info, but not exactly a beach read, if you catch my drift. I did find an August 1921 editorial saying the paper has been flooded with complaints “concerning the manner in which a number of our young ladies of the town are dressing.”

What’s that? It continues, “Main Street at noon is fast becoming a rival to ‘The Follies.’ ”

Remember, this was the Roaring ’20s. The editor said, “The peek-a-boo waists are not even peek-a-boo any longer. We realize that socks are stylish and comfortable, but it does seem that skirts should be sufficiently long to lap the sock at least an inch.”

Good lord. Honey, when does the library annex reopen? You didn’t perchance get a copy of “50 Shades of Grey,” did ya?

Ah, no, of course not. I’m just curious is all.


02/17/11 11:46am
02/17/2011 11:46 AM

It’s official: I’m older than dirt.

OK, before any of you weisenheimers pipe in with, “You must be, Buddy, if you’re just realizing that now,” yes, that’s not entirely a revelation. What makes it official is my high school class preparing for our — gulp — 40th reunion this summer.
40 years? Why, it doesn’t seem like more than 36, 38 tops.

Our reunion website provides the opportunity to view pictures of people I haven’t seen for, well, you know how long. Sweet day in the morning, who are all these old-timers? Glad I didn’t age like that. A-hem.

What most caught my attention is the link to “Our Teachers,” on the left side of the home page, next to a photo of three barefooted nuns — at least they’re dressed like nuns — sitting at the end of a dock drinking beer. The caption reads “Ha! Didn’t we wish!”

This I had to see.

In just 20 minutes I learned more about these women than I had during my four years (yes, only four years) at Mercy High. Not that I had a burning desire back then to get to know them. Most were well into their retirement years in the late ’60s, so the updates came largely via obituaries in the Long Island Catholic, the diocesan newspaper (which, by the way, was the best source to identify the best movies. I mean, what review could top “morally objectionable for all” or “condemned?” Not that I got to see any of those.)

When sitting ramrod straight in a jacket and tie, never chewing gum and doing your utmost to stifle all yawns, many thoughts came to mind. “I wonder who Sister Mary (fill in the blank) really is?” was not among them.

It seems most of the Sisters of Mercy were Irish girls from Brooklyn. I know, not exactly shocking. Still, who knew?

Sister Mary Cleophas, who in a freshman year Latin class described me as “the stupidest boy I ever met,” was the daughter of Joseph Keegan and Bridget Donohue.
Sister Mary Leonie, fashioned entirely of nervous energy, was the former Susan O’Sullivan.
Sister Mary Eugene, who could make the strongest linebacker quake with fear, was born a Farrell.
Sister Mary Jeremiah was Catherine McDonough. Sister Mary Joachim, Mary Conway. Sister Mary Hugh, Anna McDougall.
Oh, man, even Sister Mary Carmelita, the Spanish teacher, is a Shaughnessy.

You’d think that given our shared heritage ­— I’m the product of Charles Kelly and Joan Brophy of Yonkers, with cops and firemen hanging off the family tree — the good sisters might have cut me some slack. But no.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly why they didn’t.

Nor did the Sisters of Charity, my teachers from first through eighth grade. A different order, but equally adept at inducing fear, anxiety, dread, horror, terror and panic, particularly among the ranks of under-achievers. Or so I’ve heard.

Alas, nuns have always been a part of my life. In my hometown, a wonderful old Stanford White bayfront home was for a time a summer retreat for sisters of unknown origin. Unknown to us, anyway. It was hard to miss, right across the creek from my best friend’s house. Every now and again, a group of nuns, flying full habits, would row up the creek in an old wooden boat, at least four, if not more, at the oar. Honestly. That was a sight, let me tell you. The Viking nuns, we called ’em.

One summer afternoon, we spied a solitary sister heading toward the bay. She doffed her black cloak and walked into the water in a black one-piece. Ah! Nun legs! I’m blind!

Me Ma, once a Catholic school teacher, invited the nuns from her school to our house at Christmas. They’d sip frosty whiskey sours, their cigarettes leaving curving, twisting smoke trails as they laughed in animated conversation. We watched, abashed and amazed, from a respectful distance.

You’d think by now I’d be cured of my nunophobia, but when walking down Fifth Avenue toward Rockefeller Center over the holidays my posture automatically corrected when I passed a pair of women en habit.

Still, I’m hoping some of the surviving sisters will come to the reunion. It would be nice, and novel, to interact as adults.

Hi, Sister. Long time no see. Ha ha.
Hello, Mr. Kelly. Nice to see you too. By the way, what’s that in your hand?
This? It’s a, uh, um, a piña colada.
Well, well, is that a fact?
Uh, yes, Sister, it is.
Would you get me one?
Uhhhhh, WHAT?

01/05/11 1:32pm
01/05/2011 1:32 PM

You can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.

That’s the explanation, according to Dennis McDermott, founder and former owner of The Frisky Oyster in Greenport, for the rather surprising quote that appeared last month in this newspaper.

In a story written by News-Review editor Mike White about Dennis’ plan to open a new downtown Riverhead restaurant, to be called the Riverhead Project, he was quoted as saying, “Greenport looked a lot like Riverhead does now; there were a lot of empty storefronts. With the success of The Frisky Oyster, there’s been this whole gentrification of Greenport. But it wasn’t our intention to sort of turn a whole town around; it sort of just happened. That demographic — affluent, cosmopolitan — was always there. We just tapped into it.”

In a phone conversation this week, Dennis did not deny saying what Mike White quoted him as saying, but that earlier comment does not fully reflect his true feelings about Greenport’s renaissance, he said.

“In no way do I think I’m responsible for the gentrification of Greenport,” he said on Monday. “That’s just not me.”

He went on to credit former Greenport Mayor David Kapell’s “master plan” and the subsequent arrival, after TFO opened in 2002, of such high-end eateries as Fifth Season and Scrimshaw. “They saw that a restaurant could succeed in Greenport, and that’s all I did,” he said. “End of story.”

Well, not exactly the end. Even before 9/11 and TFO, there were some pioneers who precipitated Greenport’s resurgence. They include, but are not limited to, businesses like there-since-the-beginning Claudio’s, The Cheese Emporium and The Greenport Tea Company, all of which Greenporter/La Cuvée owner Deborah Rivera — who, not incidentally, came to town in July 2001 — credits with first attracting her to the village.

And Dave Kapell himself told me this week that he and his family might never have moved to Greenport if weren’t for Mayor Joe Townsend Jr. in the 1970s.

Which is to say — as most of us, including Dennis McDermott, seem to agree — that Greenport’s recovery began well before 2002.

As for downtown Riverhead’s long-awaited recovery — which Dennis hopes to participate in and facilitate with the opening of his new restaurant sometime this spring — I wish him well but, based on recent and not-so-recent history, he best be prepared for the long haul.


01/05/11 11:21am

A new year is a time for new resolve, new hope and a fresh perspective. The last two years, I felt like New Year’s was just more of the same. This feeling began when my husband lost his 22-year position as a church administrator with the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The economic crash of 2008 swept into our home with the force of a tsunami.

At that same time, my youngest daughter, Johanna, born with a rare genetic disease causing malformations in her brain, was undergoing IV treatments for a systemic infection. I anxiously pondered how we would provide for this fragile life. While preparing for Johanna’s 75th surgery, we educated ourselves on unemployment, COBRA and life in these new economic times.

Our greatest financial concerns were health insurance and the mortgage. The COBRA subsidy of 2009 helped to provide the life-sustaining health insurance our daughter so desperately needs. The mortgage was a nightmare.

In 2006, in an effort to provide some breathing room with medical, household expenses and college bills, we entered into a mortgage that our broker explained was a relatively safe venture unless the economy and housing market crashed and you lost your job. Being short-sighted and exhausted from the crises surrounding our daughter’s illness, we blindly discounted those risks in favor of breathing room.

That “breathing room” quickly suffocated us as the “perfect storm” of economic disaster hit our home in November 2008. Early in 2009, we communicated our struggles to the bank, seeking a loan modification in an effort to secure the mortgage.

The process was frustrating from beginning to end. Lack of consistent bank personnel, lost paperwork and inaccurate notations on computer systems bred confusion. Every encounter started from square one. Unable to pay the mortgage on unemployment and COBRA, we continued our frantic communication with the bank. We secured the services of an attorney to walk us through the tumultuous waters of a loan modification. The law office kept us abreast of the endless paperwork and provided third-party verification for all communication with the bank.

In March, 2010, just weeks before my daughter had another brain surgery, my husband secured a great job as an administrator for a thriving business. Our home business was growing as well. We excitedly presented our attorney and the bank with the new numbers, hoping to secure the mortgage and our home.

Frustrations mounted as the paperwork continued. The only offer of updating our loan was to pay the ballooning arrears and re-enter this faulty loan, now in litigation in other states. Finally, the day after Thanksgiving, we received a denial for modification.

At wit’s end, I did what every writer would do; I wrote our story and sent it to friends, editors and co-workers. I even wrote a letter to Santa. I heard my essay crossed the desk of some Wells Fargo executives. I put my faith in Santa and a little baby born in a manger.

At that same time, an MRI confirmed that Johanna has a brain tumor unlike the malformations that have plagued her since birth. Surgery was scheduled for just after New Year’s, as we made plans to spend Christmas at home.

At 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, just before leaving for Mass, I received an unexpected call. It was a home preservation specialist from Wells Fargo wishing me a Merry Christmas. Emotions brewed as I considered this a cruel prank on this Holy Eve. As our conversation continued he explained that Wells Fargo would indeed be granting us a modification and the terms would be worked out in the coming weeks. They wanted us to know so we could celebrate a Merry Christmas. Stunned, I stuttered, “Thank you. And Merry Christmas to you.” As scenes from “It’s a Wonderful Life” emerged from my subconscious, the shock on my face and hysterical sobs caused my family to believe I received news someone had died. In fact, we came back to life Christmas Eve. After two years of fighting the death of our dreams, we offered thanks at the altar of God and left some extra cookies for Santa. God heard our prayer and surely Santa got my letter.

Johanna received a precious gift from a friend this Christmas. It’s a snow globe with Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She keeps it by her side day and night. Johanna says, “When I am in the hospital, all I have to do is shake my snow globe and look at my ruby red slippers and say, ‘There’s no place like home.”

While 2011 presents us with new challenges for my daughter’s health; we are a family of new resolve, fresh perspective and new hope. We resolve to ride the waves of these tumultuous times and head for the shore, working hard to secure a future for our family here on the North Fork. Whether in the pediatric ICU or on the porch in Jamesport, we will endure and thrive because truly there is no place like home.

Ms. Benthal is a community columnist covering Jamesport and Aquebogue for Times/Review Newsgroup.

12/22/10 12:14pm
12/22/2010 12:14 PM

There are four stages of a man’s life:

1) He believes in Santa Claus.
2) He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus.
3) He is Santa Claus.
4) He looks like Santa Claus.

I’m hovering between 3 and 4, edging ever closer to a full 4. Which has its obvious drawbacks, but it’s still a good thing as I’m particularly fond of the Christmas season. It’s a sensory delight, what with the lights, the sounds, the smells, the sitting around in torn sweats and mismatching socks dunking those Danish butter cookies that come in 100-gallon drums into a mixing bowl of eggnog throughout the 24-hours “Christmas Story” movie marathon.

OK, I made up that last part. No, seriously.

There’s also the socializing, the great food, some time off. (I left out “much deserved” because that’s, well, a given. Duh.)
What’s not to like about all that?

OK, you got me there. Sure, there’s crushing credit card debt, crazed crowds of angst-ridden shoppers, the relentless rush-rush-rush, post-party mornings of a pounding head and cottonmouth. I read about that last part in, ah, the paper one Sunday morning before heading straight off to church.

I’ve been described as an overgrown kid and won’t deny it. Aging is mandatory, maturity optional. Were I a counselor/analyst — granted, an unnerving and disconcerting notion on so many levels — I might opine that, for those who follow it, the Christmas experience allows us to reconnect with our inner child. In so doing, we draw deeply from the well of long-submerged feelings of safety, security, familial love, innocent excitement and that all-too-elusive sense of wonder.

Not to mention socially acceptable avarice. (Hey! How come Dennis and Mary got more gifts than me! No fair!)

It rekindles warm and wonderful memories, like me Ma tripping in the dining room and sending a full baking dish of ravioli and tomato sauce flying. Seemed hilarious at the time. Well, not to her, obviously.

Of staring at me aged granddad, in his chair sleeping and snoring, his mouth open but his dentures closed. (Also hilarious. Not to him when he’d wake up and catch us.)

Of the fully decorated Christmas tree toppling over onto me Ma’s cousin during dinner and a brother exclaiming “tim-ber!” (Hilarious squared.)

Of learning the heart-wrenching truth about St. Nick and in a fit of rage sharing the news with little brother, who couldn’t have cared less.

That, right there, foreshadowed the day when he’d become an attorney.

Come to think of it, Clue Number 2 came some years later as the two of us stood in the bushes below baby sister’s second-story bedroom window one bone-chilling Christmas Eve, shaking jingle bells until our clattering teeth drowned out the happy sound.
Just as we were about to retire to the living room, then ablaze with the glorious glow of a burning yule log — televised in black and white — he shouted, “Ho, ho, ho! Meeeeeeeeery Christ-mas!”

“You idiot!,” I whispered, no doubt punching and/or pushing him. “Now she’s gonna know for sure it was us! Nice going, jerk.”
“Nah,” he said quite cool, calm and collected. “She’ll never know the difference.”

Turns out he was right, but that’s entirely beside the point.

That may have been the first time I’ve played Santa, sort of, but certainly not the last. I’ve got a version of that red and white suit, complete with the black vinyl boot tops, and have worn it at home, at friends’, even a Town Hall Christmas party or two. Can honestly say I’ve had a couple of supervisors sit on Santa’s lap. No, I’m not bragging.

“What? You want me to believe that you’ve been especially good this year? How much have you had to drink?”

The suit, admittedly swiped from a friend a couple of decades ago, is, sad to say, showing its years. So much so that the Mrs. warned me against wearing it to this year’s company Christmas gathering, lest she engage the services of that selfsame attorney brother in a matrimonial action. Then she made some sort of cockamamy comparison to Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa.” For the life of me I don’t know what she’s getting at.

So absent being served with a writ of some kind, I’ll probably don the suit — perhaps for the last time — Friday evening and do my Santa shtick again.

What a wonderful time, unless of course the Mrs. hands me the phone and says something like, “It’s your brother, and he said it’s imperative that he talk with you. Now.”

Tell him I’m busy, and add these three words: “Naughty list and coal.”

11/29/10 9:39pm
11/29/2010 9:39 PM

So, what were you doing at 4:15 Saturday morning? Sleeping, presumably. I, on the other hand, was glued to a flat screen television, watching a DVR replay of the Boise (Idaho) State versus University of Nevada college football game.

Boise State lost in overtime — ending the nation’s longest Division I winning streak at 24 games in the process — meaning that I lost, too. And that’s because I had placed a wager on the outcome of the contest, as has been my practice since my college days (daze?) some four decades ago.

Hold it right there! Before you alert law enforcement authorities to my betting proclivities, please be advised that I have never, ever placed a wager with a bookmaker. That would be against the law, I’m told, so I limit my sports bets to friends and unsuspecting acquaintances.

Unsuspecting acquaintances like my former barber, who for many years always bet on the white man, while I always bet on the black man, in professional boxing matches. (Hmmm. Let’s see: Chuck Wepner or Muhammad Ali? Gee, I think I’ll go with the African-American.) Yes, I know that constitutes racial profiling, but all is fair when it comes to betting on sports.

I think it would be safe to say that I am a serial sports bettor. And never is that more obvious than when an unsuspecting acquaintance walks up to me on the street and forks over a five-dollar bill or extends his or her hand in search of the fiver I owe them. Often, I have completely forgotten making the original wager, which is something you might want to keep in mind the next time you’re short of cash and happen to pass me on the street.

My urge to place wagers on sporting events is so powerful, in fact, that I often place bets against my favorite teams, like the Yankees, football Giants and my alma mater, Penn, also known as the University of Pennsylvania (and not Penn State University!). And this is how it works: If your favorite team wins, you don’t really care if you’ve lost the bet. But if they lose, the sting of the loss is offset by the appearance of a crisp five-dollar bill. Duplicitous? For sure, but try it, you may come to like it.

Just this week I collected on another sports bet. Only this time it was with a suspecting friend. Sam and I have wagered on nearly every Penn-Harvard football game in recent memory, and this year my lads prevailed, 34-14. But there wasn’t a crisp five-dollar bill riding on the outcome. The stakes were breakfast at one of our favorite eateries outside Boston, LobstaLand, and I surprised my buddy by bringing along our 3-year-old grandson, who made his “Pa” proud by doubling down on two pancakes and a side of bacon — all underwritten by the hapless football team from Harvard.

When it comes to betting on sports, there’s no such thing as starting them too young.

11/23/10 8:06pm
11/23/2010 8:06 PM

A few weeks back I got my first look inside the new Dark Horse Restaurant at the corner of Peconic and Main in Riverhead.
In addition to opening quite the classy eatery, owner Dee Muma did one helluva job restoring the building, a three-story 1920s beauty in the heart of downtown Riverhead.
The tour she gave included a peek at the gorgeous new two-level condos upstairs. Unit 5 is a light and airy space with a great Main Street view, quite different from the last time I saw it. Some 30 years or so ago I worked there as a cub reporter for the old Traveler-Watchman newspaper. With its dark paneling, red shag carpet and pressed tin ceiling, the place then had the look of a bordello to it.
What I mean is, how I imagine a bordello might look, if I ever imagined such things, which of course I never have.
Last Saturday, my hunt for assorted holiday accoutrements took me to Route 58. Heading west, I couldn’t help but notice the work going at the old Suffolk Life building, soon to be a Lowe’s home improvement supply store.
Then it hit me: In the not-so-distant past we lost two historic newspapers, both community cornerstones. So what, right? It happens. Remember the original Long Island Press or the short-lived Suffolk Sun? The Brooklyn Daily Eagle?
Still, it’s a sobering thought when you work for a newspaper company, one that recently decided to cease printing our northeastern Brookhaven flag, the North Shore Sun. After Dec. 3, the Sun will shine only on computer screens as a web-only news source.
So what does that mean for Pleistocene-era creatures such as meself, who actually worked on — gulp — a typewriter and thought the telephone was the marvel of modern communication?
How the heck should I know?
This much I do know; The times they are a-changin’. Even I have one of them fancy smart phones, a laptop and a Facebook account. But the Mrs. keeps telling me to put down the damn phone lest my mind morph into tapioca. And truth to tell, I can’t divine the meanings of half of the Facebook updates I get. Postings like:
“What they say b true, didnt believe til now.”
Huh? What?
Wonder how many comments I’d get for “bordellos b x-spensiv.” Not that I really know, you understand.
Sure, news isn’t delivered the way it once was. But to say newspapers are a thing of the past is like arguing that the demise of Pontiac and Oldsmobile spells the end of the automobile.
Will there come a day when all newspapers stop printing on paper? Maybe. Heck, if I knew for certain, I’d soon be richer than Bill Gates and the woman who wrote those Harry Potter books. I do know that, without a web presence, news organizations run the risk of going the way of the Edsel and the Packard. With that in mind, we recently upgraded our website and created a web news team. Ah, those crazy, tech-savvy kids! LOL!
Me? I still like the feel of a paper newspaper. One afternoon during our first trip to Dublin, the Mrs. retired for a nap and I ambled down to the hotel pub and settled in a quiet corner with a copy of The Irish Times and a, um, beverage. Ah, ’tis grand altogether. And when in Maine there’s nothing better than starting the day with a breakfast sandwich from the general store, a hot cup of tea and the Portland Press-Herald. Hey, will ya look at that! A lobsterman pulled in a rare golden-toned lobster. Only one of every 30 million lobsters is that color? Now that’s news. While I’m up there, anyway.
Not all news is breaking news, and I know of no one who’s signed up for real-time updates from National Geographic or The New Yorker.
Anyway, who said it has to be either/or?
What’s wrong with both?
I mean, there are places where it might not be appropriate to check a smart phone or laptop. Like a bordello, maybe.
And I’m just guessing here.

11/03/10 3:17pm
11/03/2010 3:17 PM

It was June 2004 and I was sitting in the room at Columbia University where the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded, alongside some of the best and the brightest people in the world — most of whom I believed to be a heck of a lot smarter than me.
But I was smart enough to know that a string of speakers — all Columbia Graduate School of Journalism faculty — taking jabs at President Bush on the first day of classes was bad form. Weren’t journalists supposed to be impartial, at least in public? This seemed like a strange start to the master’s degree program, no matter how legitimate some of the criticisms.
I wasn’t really that surprised by the professors. But it was disconcerting to peek into one of the big rooms on a November night after class to watch the first 2004 presidential debate on a large screen, and see about 150 reporters-in-training cheering wildly each time the Democratic candidate for president, John Kerry, delivered a blow against Bush. Even instructors joined in, smiling, nodding or applauding Kerry’s answers. So much for not taking sides.
The point is this: The American media is dominated by liberals — big-time. Although I’ve met plenty of independent-minded people in four media companies over about 10 years, I have yet to meet one writer who admitted to conservative leanings. And that’s pretty astounding.
To be fair, real-world newsrooms are less partisan than the halls of Columbia. Most journalists I’ve worked with try their very best to write accurately and fairly, no matter how they vote on Election Day. Few are true ideologues and even fewer are consciously partisan in their reporting.
But that’s not to say news doesn’t get shaped subconsciously. Even if the journalists are highly trained, story ideas coming out of a room of left-leaning thinkers are going to be different from those pitched by a team of right-leaning thinkers. And, of course, the opinion pages of most of the country’s top newspapers over the last century ­— during which time our modern conception of an objective media developed — have leaned overwhelmingly to the left.
That’s why I always thought Fox News Channel had its place in the country’s political discourse. Fox isn’t fair and balanced and never has been, but it has served as a sort of overall equalizer in a liberal-dominated media, as has talk radio. Same goes for the New York Post opinion pages. Sure, the Post doesn’t run any liberal columns, as it should, but before Ruport Murdoch bought the newspaper one would have been hard pressed to find conservative viewpoints in papers such as Newsday and The New York Times either. The papers do run them now, but sparingly. TV news coverage was no better. Then Fox News came along in 1996 and Republicans breathed a collective sigh of relief after decades of frustration.
But things have gotten out of control at Fox. I have a litany of complaints, among them much conscious misreporting of obvious facts, which doesn’t contribute to the discourse and just isn’t fair to the other side. But here I’ll attempt to focus on one glaring conflict, and why Fox is taking the country down the wrong path.
There are now four potential Republican presidential nominees on the Fox News payroll: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. Night in and night out, these people give their spin on things, offer half-truths and sometimes serve up outright lies — as partisans and politicians do — unchecked and unchallenged by hosts who have become continually more beholden to Republicans over the last decade. Fox even has exclusivity agreements that bar these people from appearing on other networks. Of course, the presidential hopefuls don’t mind; I’m sure Sarah Palin is quite pleased about not having to face such tough questions as “Which newspapers do you read?”
Still, the station seems to operate with impunity among its viewers; just look at its steady ratings. Since when is it patriotic to listen to some career politician’s self-serving baloney and take whatever he or she says as gospel? Conservative radio hosts will criticize the liberal media for giving President Obama and other Democrats a “free pass” and then implore their listeners to watch the intentionally, overtly biased Fox News. It’s really all quite laughable.
Fox News is changing journalism as we know it, in a way that may be good for parties and politicians but bad for America. The station’s success has helped spawn another hyper-partisan news network, MSNBC, and it’s doing well in the ratings, too. It’s only a matter of time until MSNBC follows Fox’s lead and puts on its payroll a slate of big-name Democrats with dreams of high political office. If the trend continues, would-be elected leaders won’t ever have to face real journalists to get on TV, because folks at the “friendly” 24-hour networks will always be there waiting with cameras. They will be able to avoid the tough questions and we’ll never know who they really are. Even the presidential debates could be threatened by this trend.
Given these uncertain times and a government bureaucracy that has grown enormously over the last decade, we need a free and independent press ­— the so-called fourth branch of government — now more than ever. Instead, we’re moving toward media outlets as unabashed party propaganda arms.
Part of me has to wonder how much to blame viewers’ wide embrace of Fox News’ antics on a media dominated by the left for decades. For too long, the left-leaning American media took advantage, probably because it could. It was, after all, the only game in town. Consider this: There was no good reason why The New York Times and Newsday, to name just two newspapers, couldn’t have run more conservative viewpoints all those years.
Mr. White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The North Shore Sun. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 152