Wisconsin author Michael Frome, who retired from teaching at Western Washington University in 1995, returns to Bellingham to read from his new book, “Rebel on the Road,” the story of his life as author, educator and environmental activist.
Question: Why is personal advocacy and action important?
Answer: Personal/individual advocacy is a necessity in today’s world. It is for me and for all who care and want to make a difference, in society and in their own lives. Walter Hickel, while Secretary of the Interior said, “Mike Frome tells it like it is — not like we like to think it is.” Somebody has to do that, to stand up to tell the truth about the emperor when the emperor has no clothes.
Q: What is advocacy journalism? Why should journalists write with passion?
A: As a journalist and teacher of journalism, I believe in thorough investigation, analysis, documentation and a strong conclusion clearly expressed. I teach a different kind of journalism, advocacy journalism in behalf of the environment, yet hewing to basic principles of literacy, accuracy, fairness, and meeting the deadline. Environmental journalism requires learning more than “how to write,” but learning the power of emotion and imagery, to think not simply of Who, What, Where, When and How, but to think Whole, with breadth, depth, perspective and feeling.
Passion counts. It makes the difference and should not be repressed or inhibited. It is the way to exercise the power in one’s life, power to join in determining public policy and the course of history. The same holds for advocacy. Advocacy is a word journalists have been taught to avoid, presumably because it marks a bias, something that should not be acknowledged. Conventional journalism continues to suffer under the illusion and delusion that “objectivity” actually prevails in newspapers, radio and television and that journalists must set aside personal feeling for their subjects or get out.
But we ought to be advocates for the health and safety of the planet, concerned with global warning, acid rain, destruction of tropical and temperate forests, toxic wastes, pollution of air and water and population pressures that degrade the quality of life. Business news is almost always interpreted from the business viewpoint. So are sports, food, automotive, aviation, travel and real estate news. Public relations, the spin doctors working for corporate and government interests, constitute a preeminent influence on how news is covered and presented. But then the mainstream media themselves are corporate, driven more by profit than public service.
Q: What is the place of ethics in one’s career?
A: Pursuing the concept of faith and aesthetics, of beauty and harmony, coupled with the essential element of ethics, is fundamental to a fulfilling career. Albert Schweitzer taught that a person is ethical when life becomes sacred, not simply his or her own life, but that of all humans, and of plants and animals, and when he or she devotes himself or herself to other living things. That commitment is implicit in environmental journalism as I have practiced it.
Q: Who are some of your personal and professional role models?
A: Many years ago I dedicated my book on the national forests, “Whose Woods These Are,” to the memory of Bernard DeVoto and Richard Neuberger. Both were lately dead and I wanted to pick up from them — and they still are role models for me. Earlier, while in high school, I was inspired by the “Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens,” which I believe is the one book every journalism student ought to read. George Seldes and I.F. Stone are other journalists in history whom I admire and recommend to teachers and students.
Here in Washington State I was privileged to connect with Harvey Manning of Issaquah soon after he had completed his lovely book, “Walking the Beach to Bellingham.” Harvey had already made a name writing books and articles about the outdoors, and particularly about the North Cascades, when he became imbued with the idea there was more to it all. Thus he devoted the rest of his life, until his death last year, to the mountains he held dear. His final work, “Wilderness Alps — Conservation and Conflict in Washington’s North Cascades,” is lively, human in dimension and clearly prejudiced. The power of the book comes from pure passion and principle, from being there and caring deeply.
In Bellingham, during the 16 years I lived here, I made many friends among faculty and students at Western and in the community. John C. Miles was the dean who invited me to come to Huxley College. For a while we team-taught a course on the history of conservation, bouncing ideas off each other. He and his wife Rotha were kind and generous to me. Craig Moore, the “running doctor,” helped me to care for my body, while Reverend Gary Grafwallner, helped me care for my soul. While I still lived here I met and married another pastor, June Eastvold, my best friend and buddy, who shares my concern for peace and social justice, who has shown me how to stay young in spirit and helped me to search for deeper meaning in my writing and in my life.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: I would like to be remembered a) professionally, as Lopez Island author Richard Behan described me in his 2002 interview with you: “Writer, teacher, advocate and activist, no one could stand more firmly by his convictions, nor serve them with more dedication and competence,” and b) more important, personally, that I treasured friendships, and went out smiling.