Monday, March 31, 1997

Drama Review: Dracula strikes a vein at Middlebury

Published in the Mountainview

Last weekend the Department afTheatre. Dance. and Film/Video outdid itself in the Arts Center Studio Theater. "Dracula," directed by visiting director Blake Montgomery '93, was a spectacularly intricate web of mystery. More a show than a play, taking place on a minimalist Brutalist set, "Dracula" engaged without entrancing, mystified without terrifying, and provoked thought without confusing.

The adaptation from the Bram Stoker novel, created by the cast and staff of the 1997 Spring Production Company, was, simply put, a melange. Putting a classical Greek chorus around Victorian characters, providing startlingly accurate sound effects onstage, and with unobtrusive lighting, "Dracula" was more theatrical than it was theater.

It was, to be sure, an excellent production. The set, which did not change throughout the show, took on characteristics of a castle, a house, a tomb, a train, a canal, and a bustling seaport. Character movements and dialogue served as the only transitions between locations; lighting, directions of character entry, and intricately blocked movement throughout the set provided the visual cues which ensured the audience was aware of scene changes.

The main driving force behind the story of "Dracula," that or evil, was persistent but not scary. The secondary force, latent Victorian eroticism, was only present in the character of the Count himself, who engaged in pelvic thrusts with victims, while drinking blood from their necks.

Complicating matters of audience comprehension, but providing illumination into the story, was the gender reversal: male cast members played female characters, and female actors played the male roles. At first disorienting, this switch became believable and integrated well into the performance.

A part of the show which did not fit well was the sole foray by a character into the audience. Dracula, terrified of his pursuers. raced up the stairs, paused, and then exited from the balcony. It seemed a gratuitous move, in a theater world where audience involvement is becoming commonplace. Monologues were most often directed at the audience, as expositions, rather than solitary ruminations.

The cast was solidly commited to flexibility. Costumes did not change throughout the play, despite widely differing circumstances and locations. The change of a character's nationality took advantage of the caricature skills of a native Texan actor; the set's versatility and believability has already been explained. Each member of the chorus also had a part in the actual plot of the tale. Further, the physical demands of moving around the set on foot, much less on all fours or on stomachs or backs, were strenuous, and were more than in a more conventional production of this story.

The character of Dracula, played by Michole Biancosino '98, was excellent. Not only was the makeup and costume extravagant and clear from the first moment about who this character was, but Biancosino's portrayal of the possessed and tortured Count was at once reserved and passionate. Motivated by desire, relentless, and fearful of failure, Dracula's attempts to create more vampires, and his ultimate defeat at the hands of determined cross-wielding pursuers, were well played. They conformed to some stereotypes of Dracula's behavior, while also illustrating a tortured side of the Count often lost amid the evil and fear he symbolizes.

The rest of the cast, some well-known on the Middlebury stage, and others newcomers, all conducted themselves with what can only be called Middlebury aplomb: their skill, courage, and attitude reflected how hard hey thad worked, and the challenge of the intensity of the story they performed.

This was, it must be noted, a rare event in the history of Middlebury theater. Not a single person stood to applaud at the end or the Saturday matinee performance. Everyone stayed seated throughout the applause. There was no encore appearance of the cast. It was as if the entire audience had become infected with some of the apprehension and malaise they had just seen acted out on the stage. The audience was also swift to depart after the cast retreated from the stage. Neither an indictment of the show, or a laudatory indicator, it demonstrated that uncertainty about the world had been assumed by the audience, at least in the short term.

Opinion: Our ignorance of eternity

Published in the Mountainview

There is in the heavens now a symbol of divine disapproval, a harbinger of doom, a messenger from the gods, a comet. Described by one astronomer on NBC's "Today" show as "an iceberg, twenty-three miles wide, hurtling through space, disintegrating," the Hale-Bopp Comet is now visible to the naked eye.

It is in the north-by-northwestern sky both in the morning and the evening, and will be visible at least through mid-April, if not later in that month. It will pass relatively close to Earth, within about 100 million miles. This is not as close as Halley's Comet came eleven years ago, but is closer than most comets come to our planet. Detected about two years ago by two astronomers (Hale and Bopp), working separately, it is bringing to us knowledge about the universe's very beginnings.

Comets are thought by astronomers to have been created at the moment of the Big Bang. Some of them, like the one whose crater was recently found off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, crashed into planets. Some have no doubt been sucked into stars, and others, like Halley’s, are in regular orbits which are predictable and observable. Hale-Bopp, on the other hand, is a survivor.

It has no known orbit, no explicable reason for coming into our solar system now (as opposed to sooner, or later), and will leave our solar system for parts of the universe we know nothing about. It is not expected to return for nearly 5,000 years, by the best predictions of Earth's scientists.

Comets have an odd place in human history. They have always been seen as messengers from other times, other places, other people. Even now, in the age of ultra-rational science, comets are fossils from the Big Bang, carrying clues to the origin of the universe. Centuries ago, comets drove icicles of fear into the hearts of peasants and academics alike. They were signs of certain doom, crop failures, unhappy gods (or God).

Many things feared long ago we now can explain and study intellectually. There is, however, sornethirig very deep about a comet. No matter their origins, or their chemical composition, the appearance and disappearance of comets throughout history has always reminded humans that there is something larger than this planet, even than this solar system. Whether we are the sole sentient beings in the universe or not, we cannot escape the reality of the immenseness of space.

Hale-Bopp, when it returns, if it ever does (a lot can happen in 5,000 years traveling all over the universe - just as Arthur Dent), will be the best-traveled physical body we know of. It will have gone to more places in the known and unknown universe than any space probe from any solar system. It will have reached distances beyond radio contact with Earth, beyond sight of places from which you could see the Sun.

We can explain a lot about Hale-Bopp, and describe it in meticulous detail. But we must always admit that there will always be things we do not know, and things we cannot explain. Comets remind us of this. They appear overhead, move through the visible heavens, and disappear. We know why this happens — gravity. We do not, though, know all of what it means, and we never will.

Comets are a sign of something we have come to truly fear these days: human ignorance, impotence, and insignificance. Hale-Bopp, as an unexpected and unpredictable heavenly body, forces us to confront what we do not know, what we cannot know, and accept that the universe (or the gods, or God) is larger than we are, here on Earth. We must deal with this fear of the unknown and remember that there will always be an unknown.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his First Inaugural Address, "The only thing to fear is fear itself." We often try to forget even that. Hale-Bopp, the oddly-named visitor from other worlds, other galaxies, and Beyond, signifies to us all that we must conquer fear, because we cannot dispel the cosmic ignorance from which fear comes, and to which we are, ultimately, doomed.

Monday, March 24, 1997

Opinion: Larger than Life

Published in the Mountainview

I now have the opportunity to experience my own art on the scale on which I experience others'. Five of my photographs now hang framed on the walls of my apartment, next to photographs by friends, commercial art, and maps of various parts of the world. At art galleries and museums I see photos blown up and matted, mounted on the wall.

My images are now in that context. The decision to do this was very personal: I want to be reminded of my visual artistry every time I walk into my living room and my bedroom. I want to remember that I am a photographer and to see some of my own best work hanging with what I consider to be that of others. It puts me in context, reminds me of my place, and, in the end, makes me smile.

I had a hard time choosing which of my thousands of images to blow up and put on my wall, for me to see, and for my visitors to look at. I wanted to choose something people would admire, but of which I was also very proud. I wanted to show off what I consider to be my best work. They will not be my best-selling images, nor my most universally accessible. They will, however, be my first favorites.

My own reaction has been the most interesting. Others have made the appropriate comments: "Oh. I like it," "It's,” and so on. I, on the other hand, see something new in each image each time I look at it. I remember something more about the rest of the scene, outside the photograph, or something someone said to me just before or after I made the picture. More often than not, I remember what I felt when I made the photograph.

I explore, each time I see a photograph, the feeling the artist had when she made the image. I try to feel what she felt, to figure out what she left out of the image, to figure out why there is a dark spot in the lower right corner. I have always done this, with photographs, paintings, lithographs, and so on. I have never before been able to study my own work.

I find, happily, that I can learn more from myself than I thought I could, I also have found a lot of room for improvement. variation, and learning. I can pay close attention to details I would have missed in a slide show.
This self-examination and evaluation of my own work is art excellent barometer of my mindset and ability at the moment. It permits me to understand more concretely where I am and what I am doing with myself. The art serves the artist, even as I create it.

It gives me hope that visual communication can still have this effect on me and on others; in an increasingly visual age expressive images are in high demand. Expression of feelings, ideas, and thoughts are at least as important as expression of facts, figures, and non-fiction. The world, shrinking and even closing in a bit, is becoming more surreal, more abstract. Art of all media are expressing this feeling.

The exploration of the artist's mind and heart have been the topic of much discussion and debate for centuries. Entering that dialogue is important and energizing. It affirms the relationship between the self and the surroundings, and enforces respect between the two. Not without risk, it invites not only praise but criticism and misinterpretation. That is part of the bargain: the art is left to speak for itself. Its effect is never predictable, and the artist will never react the same way to her own art as she does to others', or as others do to hers.

Perceptions of the world are dangerous: they reveal ourselves below the surface. Images created by artists, like words spilled by writers onto the page, give away sometimes more than they reclaim.

The relationship between an artist and the public is never clearly defined. I invite you to visit my walls and see for yourself, and to share with me your thoughts on the world I see.

Bread Loaf Skiing At Its Best

Published in the Mountainview

Recent snowfalls in the mountains have created ideal conditions for cross-country skiing at the Carroll and Jane Rikert Ski Touring Center. at Bread Loaf. Managed by John Rubright. the Ski Touring Center offers thirty-eight kilometers of trails, most of which are groomed and tracked on any given day.

The weather of late has been perfect for cross-country skiing; nearly every trail has been open, for skiers of all levels. Lessons are also available, from beginners to advanced, in both skating and classical Nordic skiing.

Rubright has had a fairly steady turnout of College students; the first day no students showed up was last week. He is rightfully proud of the facilities he runs, and wants to be certain more people know about the opportunities available.

The Bread Loaf ski center is one of the best in the nation; Rubright ensures that Middlebury College ski team members are given the best in skiing conditions throughout the season. This ensures that everyone else gets the same, top-notch skiing experience, even w ithout the finely-honed skiing skills or high-tech equipment of a ski racer. Trails are open to all, except during races. Even beginners can check out the race course, to see what the experts have to handle.

Passes are available at the Ski Shop for full-day, half-day, and the whole season. Season passes for students cost about twenty dollars (the same as a midweek half-day at the Snow Bowl). The trails are a mix of wide and narrow, with comfortable turns, challenging uphills, and smooth downhills.

Skiers of all abilities can be found throughout the trail system, and friendly words are exchanged often, even on a short ski. The practice loops (next to the Ski Shop and across Route 125 from the Inn) provide a predictable, controlled environment for practicing form, while the trails north of the field, heading up into the foothills of the Green Mountains, provide varied terrain for enjoyable skiing.

Most weekdays, groups from local schools come for lessons and outdoor recreation. Students come from as far as Leicester and Shoreham to play on skis with their classmates and teachers. Ski instruction is provided by the staff at the Ski Shop, who include Middlebury College students and alumni.

Rubright, often found outside on sunny days wearing sunglasses and a ballcap, enjoys the place, and even skis here with his family on weekends. He drives the grooming equipment early in the morning, and closes up around 4:30 pm. Every so often, a car is left unclaimed in the parking lot as closing time approaches; usually a skier comes in late to sign out in the Ski Shop register.

Interesting things you will find while skiing at Bread Loaf include the Myhre Cabin, on Myhre Hill, animal tracks and the Catamount Trail. A trail running the length of Vermont for cross-country skiers (much as the Long Trail runs the crest of the Green Mountains for hiking), the Catamount Trail follows Bread Loaf trails in the area of Route 125. It heads northeast from the Frost trail, up into the mountains. South of Bread Loaf, it heads towards Goshen southwest of the southern practice loops.

Also sharing space with the Rikert Ski Touring Center is the Middlebury District of the Green Mountain National Forest. Forest Road 59, from Route 125 at Bread Loaf to the junction with Forest Road 54 (part of the Lincoln-Ripton Road), is skiable, though often traversed by snowmobiles. Rolling hills and wide curves provide attractive alternatives to Bread Loaf's wooded trails. Use of any of the Bread Loaf trail system does, however, require purchase of a ski pass.

Cross-country skiing is excellent exercise, as well as being cheap and easy to learn. Skiing is more immediately available on the golf course or around campus, permitting an escape and enjoyable exercise which is not possible with downhill skis. Rubright encourages new skiers to visit Bread Loaf; rentals are very inexpensive, and lesson/rental combinations are available.

Bread Loaf does not offer many tourist accoutrements (though it is very close to Middlebury's more than adequate tourist infrastructure), but is very much a community- and people-oriented cross-country ski experience.

Monday, March 17, 1997

Concert Review: Greg Greenway and Lucy Kaplansky

Published in the Mountainview

The house was almost full at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Merchants' Row in Middlebury on Saturday night, March 8, for a folk music double-bill. Greg Greenway and Lucy Kaplansky shared the March installment of the After Dark Music Series, and provided excellent evening entertainment.

Greenway opened first, the result of his winning a backstage coin toss. Holding his guitar silently in front of him, he began the a capella opening of "A Road Worth Walking Down." After two verses, his guitar leaped to life for the remainder of the song. As promised in the introduction, the second song was a sing-along. It was "folk music with a groove," and the audience loved it.

His fourth song was "a sing along dedicated to people who hate to be asked to sing." called "Don't Make Me Sing," The audience sang along - though not everyone did - and laughed along with the reasons given for why the audience should not sing, and do the work of the performer on the stage.

Two other highlight songs were inspired by current events. The first was his own reaction to the firebombing of a Turkish family's house in Germany, called "Race is a Myth," a warning about the human tendency to react violently to fear and ignorance. The second, "Free at Last," was an expression of the energy Greenway felt in the crowd which welcomed Nelson Mandela to Boston when Mandela visited that city.

Greenway's fingering, strumming, and hammering on his guitar drew out more sounds from one instrument than most know exist. An excellent entertainer and comfortable with the audience, Greenway had the rare pleasure of doing an encore even before intermission!

Kaplansky took the stage after the break, and seemed intimidated by the crowd, which had responded enthusiastically to Greenway's performance. She sang a number of covers and took quite a bit of time finding a niche in the audience's hearts, a task she never fully accomplished. She sang a number of songs with dense and convoluted lyrics, though with exquisite vocal range and expression. (She sang the only song this reviewer has ever heard which used the word "renege" - "Don't Renege On Our Love.")

In addition to performing her own songs, Kaplansky covered songs by Paul McCartney, Richard Thompson, and her father. Irving Kaplansky wrote some songs front the 1930s through the 1950s, and his daughter shared two of them with the audience at the Knights of Columbus Hall. He wrote an intriguingly prescient love song about space in 1951, long before we knew much of anything about interplanetary space. Called "On an Asteroid With You," it was the song her father wrote for her mother on their honeymoon, and included references to the not-yet-invented spacesuit and weightlessness, which had not been discovered.

Most of her songs were about love and relationships, though she approached from different angles from song to song. Kaplansky's own background is tightly tied to the human experience and intensity of feeling. For ten years she was a clinical psychologist. Only a month ago she finally closed her practice and is singing and performing full-time again. She felt, after years of being a therapist and in therapy herself, that she was avoiding singing because she was scared of it. She has now "jumped off the cliff," as she puts it. Her encore was indicative of this: called "Still Life," it was about no longer running away.

The pair was an odd match, though each was an impressive performer individually. The audience enjoyed both performances, though Greenway was clearly better at working with the audience than Kaplansky.

The After Dark Music Series is sponsored by many local businesses, including Main Street Stationery, the Middlebury Inn, and Otter Creek Brewing. The April concerts will be the final ones of the 1996-1997 season, and will be Garnet Rogers at 8 pm on Friday, April 11, followed by Mustard's Retreat at 11 am on Saturday, April 12, both at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Tickets can be purchased at the Middlebury Inn or Main Street Stationery. The 1997-1998 season will begin in October.

Opinion: Internet explained

Published in the Mountainview

Much of my time lately has been taken up discussing the Internet, commerce, privacy, arid the future of electronic communication. I have decided to write a column on it, to share with others my point of view, and to elicit comments from readers. It is in a question-and-answer format. Questions are those posed to me or to the public in general. The answers are mine.

Q. How safe is sending my credit card number over the Internet?
A. As safe as handing your credit card to a waiter in a restaurant. Safer, actually: it is very difficult to capture credit card information, even when transmitted as clear text (not encoded), over the Internet. For a variety of technical reasons which I can explain at length elsewhere, it is easier for a waiter to run off extra imprints of your credit card at a restaurant than it is for someone to watch your computer at the precise time you transmit your credit card number.

Q. Okay, but I still don't want to do my banking electronically. What can you tell me about that?
A. I can't make you do anything you don't want to do. However, you should realize that electronic banking will become widespread within the next three years. That means you will be doing it then, if only because your bank will charge you money for other services, including ATMs and teller services. (This is already happening in many banking markets around the country.) If nobody uses these systems of electronic finance now, while they are still finding out where the flaws are, nobody will ever find the flaws. Then, when we're all using it, the system will be weaker. The more people who do this sort of thing now, the better. We'll find the problems faster, find solutions faster, and make everything safer.

Q. What about privacy? Can someone find my home address or phone number on the Internet?
A. That information is public information, and has always been available to anyone who asks for it at phone company's Directory Assistance services, or at local, state, and federal records offices. It is easier and faster to find that information now on the Internet, but two caveats apply. First, that information is likely to be inaccurate and out of date. Second, someone must still go looking for it.

Q. What about my Email address? Will people be able to find me?
A. Yes. However, you should know that I actively seek out and register myself with Internet directories, search engines, and registries at every opportunity. I still receive only about one "junk" Email message a month. I receive other "unsolicited" Email messages, but they are like the one today, in which a woman from an ad agency north of Boston offered to purchase one of my photographs. She found my Email address while doing a web search for photographers in Vermont. That sort of unsolicited message is fine with me!

Q. I'm still concerned about controlling access to my name, address, phone number, and other vital information. How should I go about that, in the age of the Internet?
A. The short answer is, "Give up." That information, including your Social Security Number, is pretty much generally available to any member of the public who cares to look for it. This includes the "top-secret password" maiden name of your mother, which is easily findable from your birth certificate and your parents' marriage license. (If there is one, it's in the clerk's office of the state in which they were married; if there isn't one, her maiden name is on your birth certificate.) However, most Internet directory services recognize that people perceive a threat to their privacy from being listed in such databases, and will remove any individual who requests it. There is not yet a service which will request that you be removed from all online databases. I reiterate that, as one of the most easily found people on the web, I have yet to encounter serious privacy problems as a result of the Internet.

Monday, March 10, 1997

Town Meeting addresses pressing issues

Published in the Mountainview

The registered voters of the town of Middlebury gathered at the Municipal Auditorium Monday night, March 3 for the annual Town Meeting. Ten items were on the agenda, two of which were voted on by Australian (secret) ballot on Tuesday. March 4. As of this writing, those results are still pending. The first seven articles were approved by voice vote, and the eighth, "other business," provided the public a chance to offer otherwise unsolicited input to the town governing process.

The meeting began with a call to order by Town Moderator James Douglas. Prior to beginning official business, Selectboard Chair Peter Lebenbaum was thanked by the board and the public for his nine-year service on the selectboard.

The reports of the town officers were presented to the attendees by members of the Selectboard. Questions from the floor were brief, and residents seemed relieved that last year's reading of printed reports had beendispensed with in favor of a more abbreviated summary presentation followed by questions. After a unanimous approval, business moved to the budget.

The annual budget for fiscal 1997/98 was discussed at length. The discussion included questions about provision of services, alternative sources of funding, and other budgetary concerns.
Concerns were raised by residents about the condition of sidewalks around town. Sidewalk repair is being level-funded this year, a fact which one resident noted was ironic because "level is the exact opposite of our sidewalk quality." A voice vote approved the annual budget and taxation amounts.

Only one comment from the floor was offered about the collection of taxes, and Town Manager Betty Wheeler explained that by popular request, the payment of tax had been split into three payments rather than the previous two, to accommodate those with less ready cash throughout the year. Wheeler also noted that, due to confusion over this year's conversion from a calendar year to a fiscal year, over half of the town residents had not paid their taxes to the town as yet. The deadline for payment is March 5.

The voters unanimously voted to spend town money on highways at a level to maintain state highway assistance funding.

The next item of business was the authorization of the use of the Village Green by St. Stephen's Episcopal Church for a building extension. St. Stephen's does not own the land on which it sits. That land is owned by the town, and use variations must be approved by the town voters. The church has long been looking to expand its facilities to accommodate more office space, an elevator, and a meeting room. Many community groups use the space, in addition to the congregation; the construction proposal is expected to benefit those groups as well. After much discussion, use of the small strip southeast of the existing structure was approved by voice vote, with some dissent. Residents' concerns included potential interference with the railroad, the border between the Village Green and the railroad property, building design, and the precedent set by this action. A member of the church's vestry explained that the Agency of Transportation had indicated no conflicts between plans for the future of the railroad and the proposed use of the land. Other issues were not appropriate for the venue, and were postponed until the appropriate point in the planning approval process.

The final issue decided at the meeting was whether the town should advise the Selectboard to continue to include in the Town General Fund Budget, funding for health and social service agencies. Currently that funding is provided within the general budget; other towns use other methods of approving municipal funding to these agencies. Selectman Bill Perkins suggested that municipal funding removes the impetus for voluntary charitable giving on the part of the public, and removes some of the drive from these organizations to raise funds from individuals in the community. Town Manager Wheeler argued that there was greater control for the town,    and greater predictability for the agencies, if money was budgeted annually by the town. Selectman Fred Copeland offered the voters a chance to have more say in how their dollars were spent, by reviewing each of the agencies' proposals separately from the town budget. Board members of several agencies offered their opinions, which largely indicated that Seleetboard review was more thorough than the general public would undertake, so scrutiny of agency budgets was stricter with the current system. Members of the public also offered their approval to the Selectboard for their handling of the matter to date, and suggested that the Selectboard continue to review those agencies which have traditionally been funded by municipal dollars. The advisory voice vote was to continue to include the funding within the general town budget.

Other business included a question about dog license fees, a proposal for the outlawing of smoking tobacco products by those not allowed by law to buy tobacco, and a commendation to the American Legion for donating their old property on Creek Road to the town for recreational purposes, expected to be youth activities.

The meeting ended at 10 PM, after all business was concluded.

Opinion: Selectboard acts properly

Published in the Mountainview

At Town Meeting, the voters of Middlebury were given the chance to have more control of the way their tax dollars are spent. An advisory vote was taken to assist the Selectboard in deciding whether to continue to fund health and social service agencies from the town's general budget, or to separate the budget and the funding to subject them to separate votes by the residents.

Selectman Fred Copeland suggested that we take advantage of the opportunity to review for ourselves the way we spend those tax dollars. He posed several questions for discussion. I will answer them here.

Would it be a threat to the funding of these organizations? From the experience of neighboring towns which approve their agency funding by other means, the answer is no.

Do the voters want more of a say about their tax burden and the town expenditures? In all likelihood, the funding from the town would be the same. Therefore, the expenditures and taxes would be the same. It would be a different method of getting to the same place.

Would it be too much trouble or too much work for town residents to analyze the budgets of these agencies and decide on our own how they should be funded? Yes. We elect our public officials specifically for the purpose of evaluating large amounts of information and making sensible decisions based on that information and their own experience. The Selectboard are experienced at evaluating budgets of social services agencies; I am not. The Selectboard has paid assistants to help them understand material they receive, and they speak with the voice of the whole town when they ask for information from, or make recommendations to, these agencies. As an individual, even were I to give a large amount of my income to one or more of these agencies. I could not speak with the voice of a powerful legal entity with a large budget.

The Selectboard, as attested by members of the board and by officers of various area health and social services agencies, scrutinizes the annual budgets of each of the agencies which request municipal funding. The Selectboard concerns itself largely with the services provided by that agency to residents of the Town of Middlebury. The Selectboard can suggest, as they did this year, that all agencies only request level funding, rather than increases, due to additional expenses borne by the Town this year. Every agency respected that request.

We have the opportunity to take upon ourselves a greater portion of the burden of self-government. We must commend the Selectboard for offering us that opportunity. We must also know when these issues must be decided as individuals, and when we can delegate that authority to our elected representatives. This time it is the latter. We must encourage the Selectboard to continue to offer us the opportunity to govern ourselves more directly; we must also support them in their efforts to perform the tasks we delegate to them.
In this instance, voters' time would be largely wasted by debating each of the agencies'  funding requests each year at Town Meeting. Most of us would be arguing from positions of anecdotal information, largely unsupported by facts. We would not have read, even once, the annual reports of these organizations whose line-item budgets are examined carefully by our Selectboard. Funding to these organizations would not be threatened substantially, and the democratic process would be subverted by discussion which would change little.

The Selectboard are the proper body to consider funding requests from health and social service agencies. The body politic must support them in their effort. We must also offer our input at every opportunity, so that they may know our opinions when they include the funding for these agencies in the general town budget.
We also must recognize that municipal funding is a small portion of the budgets of these organizations, and we, as members of the public, must support them with our own charitable contributions as well. Kudos to the agencies for their hard work, and to the Selectboard for so ably representing and remaining mindful of the public interest.

Monday, March 3, 1997

Opinion: Caution necessary in news council

Published in the Mountainview

An idea of which all journalists should be aware is a new proposal for "news councils," or bodies which monitor news organizations and the media for ethics and integrity. They are watchdog groups, made up of members of the journalistic professions, which can investigate and censure reporters or media which violate ethical guidelines.

Media censorship or regulation is a concept which should be investigated carefully. It rarely does harm to investigate a solution to a problem, but implementation of solutions should be done with great caution. This is particularly the case when dealing with institutions so close to the core of the American culture as its news gathering and dissemination organizations.

Editorial content of one publication is already subject to public scrutiny and to the challenges of other publications. Most publications have a "Corrections" section where they admit their own errors and provide correct information. This is a form of self-censorship which is productive and appropriate; any newspaper which has a large amount of space devoted to corrections is likely doing a poor job of fact-checking. Further, should one publication fail to correct its own error, other publications are free to (and ethically bound to) report the correct facts.

Outside monitoring (even by a formal intra-industry regulating body) are threats to a free press. Press monitoring goes on all day, all over the world. Individuals receive information from media outlets and evaluate the credibility and usefulness of the information. Into that equation they add their own self-interest, the reportage of the same situation by other information sources, and their genera/ experience with a news reporting agency.

To formalize this implicit interrelationship between media outlets is to formalize a threat to an essential freedom in the American democracy. Left unformalized, regulation is on a low level, bound by ethical considerations but free from the intimidation which a watchdog necessarily imposes. Formalized, the regulation suddenly carries the weight of the world.

When developing a system of regulation, the question must always be posed: "Who watches the watchmen?" As the information dissemination system is currently in use, the answer is "They watch each other, and are equally capable of reporting on violations of public trust." A news council would be accountable to the public. That appears to be a good thing, until we remember that the only effective watchdogs the public has on its side are the media. Each individual cannot go out and research the world and current events; that is specifically why we watch television and read newspapers. With news councils in the system, the answer would be "The regulators watch the reporters, who in turn watch the regulators. However, the regulators, when they speak, speak with a more powerful and legitimated voice than the reporters." This imbalance of power and of access to the public mind is dangerous to freedom of information.

Freedom of information is so important to the American public that we often fail to acknowledge its existence. We often exhibit cynicism and doubt towards the media. Those are both good things. If we inherently understand that freedoms are important, we are unlikely to abridge them. If we question the sources of our information, we will always feel in control of our own minds and opinions. However, if we take for granted that freedoms will always exist, and begin to mistrust the media and suspect it of threatening the public interest, we risk limiting the very instruments we rely on for our own., participation in the wider world.

Imposing regulations on a necessarily free industry is a mistake which must not be made now or in the future. Having bodies which meet to design ethical guidelines is an excellent idea; all newspapers currently have them, in the form of editorial boards. Professional journalists' associations have codes of ethics to which all members must subscribe. The ethics are already in place, and despite disparate sources are very similar codes throughout the world's journalistic organizations. Regulating an industry which is self-regulating and necessarily free is to deny freedom of information and of the press.