Stories hidden in plain sight: a cautionary fable
Welcome to the idyllic Maine town of Squirmworm Bay. News here crawls around, mostly by word of mouth: across the counter at Nematode’s General Store, across the bar at the Nightcrawler Lounge, over the airwaves from WTPW otherwise known as “The Tapeworm.”
Once a week, the rumors that can be verified, the lies that can be exposed, the exaggerations that can be scaled back and the insults that don’t rise to the level of slander get printed in the local weekly newspaper, The Twisted Times. Nearly everyone in town picks up a copy. Those who’ve moved away or are housebound check in via the paper’s Web site. But other than the small population of devoted Squirmwormers, almost nobody else pays attention to the journalistic contortions of Times editor Rap Tutite or ace reporter Tern D’Around.
Oh, once in a great while, somebody at one of the big-city dailies will be thumbing through a copy of the Twisted Times that arrived in the mail several days after it was published. They might spot a humorous piece about a local fisherman who got his head stuck in a bait bucket, and rewrite it (without attribution to the original source) for their paper. Or they might steal an item (again without attribution) on how Selectmen Twitch Wigglesworth and Spy Rall manage to balance the town budget every year by an accounting method they refer to as “wormhole economics.” No mention in the big-city version of the story as to how the locals call the same thing “embezzlement.”
As with most small towns in Maine, the local news stays local.
Once upon a time, it was a little different. The big papers had enough reporters so they could occasionally spare one to actually go to Squirmworm Bay and cover the news firsthand. The larger news organizations also followed politicians around, so they were there if Sen. Topp Spin told the crowd in Squirmworm the exact opposite of what he’d said the day before in Corkscrew Junction. On one occasion, the regional bureau chief for a mid-sized daily even lived in Squirmworm and made sure the town got some coverage.
But those days are gone. The larger papers have too few reporters to waste any of them in little backwaters. The consultants have long since convinced news organizations that nobody cares enough about politics to justify following a candidate around. And high gasoline prices mean nobody lives in remote towns except those who work there. So, if Squirmworm’s resident mad scientist discovers cold fusion or the last lobsterman of the day notices terrorists in scuba gear under the town pier, word of these events might be a long time reaching the rest of the world.
News, some frustrated journalists used to joke, is anything that happens near an editor or – even better – an editor’s spouse. That’s not quite as funny as it used to be.
Editors and their spouses may rent a cottage in Squirmworm Bay for a week or two each summer, during which time their contact with the locals will be limited to being overcharged for gas, firewood and the “Screwdriver Special” at the Nightcrawler (“You want curly fries with that?”).
“Nothing ever happens there,” the editor will tell his staff when he returns. “That’s why I like it.”
It might be years before anyone from outside the town notices the Methodist church is now practicing cannibalism, and the hardware-store owner is installing machine-gun turrets on his roof and landmines in his front yard.
Surely, I can hear some non-Squirmwormers say, such activities wouldn’t escape the watchful eye of the major wire services. After all, wire-service reporters draw information from a wide variety of sources, ranging from their own reporting to that of the staffs at most of the state’s dailies and TV stations.
Unfortunately for the wires, no small-town weeklies subscribe to their services. Too expensive. So, even if a wire reporter notices these scoops, the service can’t pick up stories from non-member papers, unless one of its own reporters goes out and does the reporting all over again.
How likely is that to happen? Just listen to this actual transcript of a wire-service story conference that I just made up.
Reporter: It looks like the Methodists in Squirmworm Bay are making Yankee pot roast out of human beings for their Saturday evening church suppers.
Editor: You know who my wife ran into the other day? The valedictorian of her high-school class. She sells real estate, now. Married to an insurance guy. Drives a Volvo. Has two kids. Real interesting. We should do a feature on her.
Reporter: It also looks like al Qaeda is using the Squirmworm town pier to prepare for a major terrorist attack.
Editor: I saw a wild turkey by the side of the road on my way in today. We should do a feature on that. And maybe one on robins. Like where they go in the winter.
Reporter: The local paper seems to think the selectmen in Squirmworm are stealing tax money.
Editor: For Halloween this year, let’s interview my neighbor. He’s a pumpkin farmer. But don’t make it too scary.
What goes on in rural Maine stays in rural Maine. Even if it might be important to the rest of the state. Somehow this absurd dictum has become a law of journalism at the state’s major media outlets.
We could be missing out on great discoveries. We could be ignoring amazing achievements. We could be doomed. Although it’s more likely we’re just being lied to and robbed.
Fortunately, most of us won’t know anything about all that until a couple of weeks after it’s too late.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.