The Power of the Press Transcript

Mar 14, 2019

Back to the Power of the Press episode.

There’s a photo in the Vermont Historical Society that shows a press conference right after Madeleine Kunin was elected governor.

Kunin was one of the first female governors in the country.

Shelly Allen: You can tell by the look on everybody’s face in that picture that it was like, this is kind of important, this is kind of cool.

The photo’s dated November 9, 1984. It just shows the back of Kunin’s head. There are two reporters sitting at the table to her right, and four camera operators across from her.

And all of them are women.

Shelly: It wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s send the women to cover the new woman Governor.” It was just, I just happened to be going with Alex Marks down to the statehouse to cover it…When we saw the picture come out, we were like, “Oh wow, look at that. Look at all the women.”

This is Shelly Allen.

Shelly: I’m the assistant chief photographer at WCAX TV in Burlington.

Shelly’s also one of the camera operators in this photo. She’s on the far right, looking through her viewfinder, with the lens trained on Kunin.

Shelly: I would always, always be asked, “Why are you carrying the heavy equipment, and the reporter’s just carrying the microphone?” I’m like, “Well, it’s my job. That’s what I signed up to do.” I mean, it was non-stop that they would ask that question and especially here at the legislature.

I still do get asked the question, “Why are you carrying all of the heavy stuff?” I mean, I just did the job.

Shelly started at WCAX in 1981, shortly after graduating from college. She was the only female photographer on the staff.

Shelly: That was my first job in television and I thought, “Oh, I’ll be there for a few years,” and now, 30 some odd later, I’m still there.

She says that in a lot of ways, journalism has changed.

Shelly: We feel like we don’t get the chance to tell those in depth stories, that you don’t get to really get to know, through the story, the individuals that we’re doing the story on. I feel like we used to tell stories that would be two and a half, three minutes long on a specific person. Now I feel like it’s rush, rush, rush. You don’t get the same detail.

But her love of the job hasn’t.

Shelly: My favorite part is just going out, meeting people, doing the interviews and editing the story and getting it on the air.

I still run into Gov. Kunin every once in a while. She remembers me, and I remember her. She was great to cover.

Shelly, and the other women in this photo, are part of a long line of journalists that have helped to record Vermont’s history in real time. They’ve used the press to document milestones, like Kunin’s election. But they’ve also used it to hold people in power accountable, to give voice to unheard people, and to warn against threats to democracy.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Today we’re looking at an old wooden machine in a big glass case at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier. Here’s Executive Director Steve Perkins.

Steve Perkins: So we are looking at a printing press, probably from the mid-17th century, made in England, so really old, 1600s. Big huge screw on it that pushes a heavy weight down on a flat carriage that would hold the old, at first carved wooden type and later cast lead type.

Large pieces of paper hang from lines strung around the machine.

Steve: Broadsides, we call these—I guess today you’d call them a poster—that were printed on the press, and it was a way of disseminating information. This one’s a catalog. Over here you can see a proclamation by Thomas Chittenden.

This is the oldest printing press in Vermont. It’s known as the Dresden press.

Steve: So this was 1778. That’s one year after Vermont created the Republic of Vermont. [They] needed a press to print all of these state documents.

Several towns on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River briefly joined the new Republic. Lebanon and Hanover became known as “Dresden.”

Steve: So this press was moved to Dresden, Vermont, and it was the first official printing press of the state of Vermont. It printed broadsides, books to support the new republic.

By mid-1779, those towns had gone back to New Hampshire, and the names were reverted to Hanover and Lebanon.

Eventually, this press was replaced by newer technology. It was stored in a barn in Windsor, and then it lived for a while under the State House dome.

But now it has a place of pride in the museum, and not just because it’s old. It represents the history of written law in our state, and also the crucial role that journalism – the press – plays in a democracy.

Steve: Information could be disseminated to everybody, not just the elites. It’s not a spoken word whispered in salons. It’s something that is pasted on walls so that everybody can read it. And that idea that everybody has the information they need to make an informed decision is the basis of what later became our democracy.

It is still just [as] important. Whether it is on this technology, or on a computer today.

One of Vermont’s earliest newspapers was called “the Scourge of Aristocracy.”  It was published by Matthew Lyon, a soldier who had served with Ethan and Ira Allen in the Green Mountain Boys.

John Daly: The Scourge of Aristocracy had a header. It was a quote from Jure Divino by Defoe. The quote is, “Nature has left this tincture in the blood that all men would be tyrants if they could. If they forbear their neighbor to devour, tis not for want of will, but want of power.” That sums up Lyon’s message: the corruptive nature of power.

This is John Daly. He’s been researching Matthew Lyon for the past several years.

John Daly: I just couldn’t believe the man’s story arc. There’s so many things where it’s like, “are you kidding me?”

John became so obsessed with Lyon’s story that he wrote a musical, called “Spit’n Lyon.”

John Daly: Over the course of four days without sleep, in character, I wrote about 80% of the concept album.

My poor wife, I was stuck in half colonial time. My cellphone was the demon lantern. The electric car was the Edison…I was writing by candle light with a tricorn hat, a fake musket, candle snuffer on the table.

Years after he started publishing his paper, Lyon came into power himself. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1797, when John Adams became the second president of the United States.

John Daly: Self-government was brand new. A large portion of the population would’ve felt safer and more stable under a monarchy. They tried to make George Washington king during each of his administrations. He was wise enough to turn that down. There was no such guarantee for President Adams.

It’s an understatement to say that Adams did not like Lyon. The Congressman from Vermont made fiery speeches against Adams on the House floor. He got into a brawl with a Representative from Connecticut. He printed editorials criticizing the new president.

John Daly: In fact, the Alien and Sedition Acts were signed into law on Matthew Lyon’s birthday, so it was very personal between the two of them.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws that restricted immigration and made it illegal to criticize the federal government in print. They were an early test for the freedom of the press. Matthew Lyon was found guilty of violating the Acts with his speeches and editorials. So he was thrown in jail.

John Daly: They marched a sitting congressman in shackles 40 miles from Fair Haven to Vergennes. Refused to allow him any heat. He was jailed for four months from October 10th, 1798 to February 10th, 1799 and those were the four coldest months of the year. So they really could’ve been trying to kill him.

The move to silence Lyon backfired.

John Daly: They throw him in jail and his writings from jail start going 1790s viral. They’re getting picked up by Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper…

The press exposure helped Lyon’s campaign.

John Daly: He won reelection from jail by a two to one margin. Because Vermont.

The day that Matthew Lyon got out of jail, eye witnesses described more people than they had seen at the constitutional convention, so imagine Vergennes with a huge crowd.

Lyon headed south to join Congress in Philadelphia. The frozen Otter Creek served as the highway for part of the trip.

John Daly: A whole parade of people joined in every town with poetry and speeches and song and lots of cider. He was the Lyon of Vermont. He was a rock star of his age.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were designed to expire with the end of the Adams administration. His party didn’t want their opposition to have the same ability to silence dissent.

But Matthew Lyon wasn’t through yet. He played a key role in the close presidential election between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800. The two candidates were deadlocked, and Congress needed to break the tie. Multiple votes in the legislature continued to come up even.

John Daly: Representative Morris of the Eastern District of Vermont—as in Morrisville—Mr. Morris was casting his ballot for Burr and Mr. Lyon on the Western District was casting his ballot for Jefferson. On the 36th ballot, Mr. Morris left his ballot blank, allowing Lyon to cast the tie-breaking vote that gave us President Jefferson.

But there was a price to this backroom deal. Lyon had agreed to leave Vermont. He moved to Kentucky, where he was again elected to the House of Representatives. He was one of only a few people to represent two different states in Congress.

John Daly: I’m not sure why we don’t know him. It’s inconceivable to me. I mean, the Fair Haven Rest Stop is the first Welcome Center in Vermont, from the New York land side. There should be a giant concrete lion there like outside the public libraries of New York. People walk up and they’re like, “What’s the deal with that?” I’m like, “Well, that’s the lion of Vermont.”

A few decades later, another Vermont journalist stood in the middle of major social and political change.

Clarina Howard was born to an influential Baptist family in West Townshend in 1810. When she was 20, she married Justin Carpenter, and the couple moved to western New York state, joining other young people heading to seek their fortunes.

Marilyn Blackwell: The idea was that they would make a living teaching and writing, not farming, because they were considered middle class at this point.

Marilyn Blackwell is a historian. She wrote a book about Clarina Howard Nichols called “Frontier Feminist.”

Marilyn: Justin was the editor of a newspaper called The Western Star out there. But he was not a very temperate person. He made enemies very quickly and he was not successful, and it was very clear shortly that their whole venture was going to blow up in their faces.

The couple moved to New York City, where Clarina ran a rooming house to try to make ends meet. When Justin became abusive, Clarina took the couple’s three children and moved back to Vermont.

Marilyn: The whole thing was extremely shameful because she was here, a very enterprising young woman who everyone thought was going to do great things and her whole life was in shatters.

While she was trying to remake her life waiting for the divorce, she began writing material for The Democrat and for the other paper in Brattleboro, The Vermont Phoenix.

George Nichols was the editor of The Democrat, and he liked her work. So he kept sending her material to look at and asking her whether she thought it would be appropriate to print that material.

Eventually, Clarina and George got married. Today, she’s better known as Clarina Howard Nichols. But she continued to draw on the experience of her disastrous first marriage in her writing.

Marilyn: She couldn’t write about politics under her own name. She developed a character, a woman named Deborah Van Winkle. She made her up. Deborah Van Winkle was probably the first person who talked about what she basically called women’s wrongs, the fact that women were unable to control their own economic future because all their assets were owned by their husbands and so were their children.

Although Clarina’s commentaries had no byline, word leaked out that she was the true editor of the paper.

Marilyn: They would read her stuff because all these newspaper editors exchanged material, they would comment about her as this “Lady Editress” with all her smart words. She was able to use sarcasm in ways that allowed her to get across ideas that otherwise would be very difficult to talk about.

Journalism also gave Clarina a sense of mission. She said:

Marilyn: “It is a business which permits us to make our mark on the immortal spirit for good if we will. To mingle our sympathies with our kind, to cheer the despairing, to warn the headlong and speed the errand of mercy and the development of every human virtue.” Now that’s the most genteel expression of journalism that I had ever heard.

Clarina’s editorials led to advocacy. In 1852, she petitioned the state legislature to let women vote at school meetings. To support the measure, Clarina gave the first speech by a woman at the Vermont State House. A year earlier, she had spoken at a women’s rights convention in Massachusetts.

Marilyn: She was so effective as a speaker that the other leaders immediately grabbed onto her and wanted her to join their circuit of public speakers.

She traveled to Wisconsin on a speaking tour and thrilled at how free the western states seemed to be. After her second husband died, she moved to what was then called “Bleeding Kansas” because of the fierce debate raging there over slavery.

Marilyn: Many New Englanders decided to go out there and make sure that they were residents and that they made it a free state. She became part of that movement.

Clarina was against slavery, but when she was writing in Brattleboro, she stopped short of calling for complete abolition. Living in Kansas changed her stance.

Marilyn: She hid slaves who were on their way North. She joined the antislavery activities and she became much more radical herself when she was there. Of course, she was also writing and sending material back to the papers in New England.

Clarina became so influential that she helped write the Kansas Constitution in 1855.

Marilyn: She wrote clauses guaranteeing women’s property rights, full property rights, custody of their children and equality in all school affairs, voting and office holding. That was a very important achievement for her. It was her really most famous work.

Clarina lived her final years in California. She was still working as a journalist, and still fighting for equality. Her name was mentioned at the Vermont State House again in 1973.

Marilyn: The Equal Rights Amendment had just been passed by Congress and was due to be ratified by all the states, and Madeleine Kunin introduced it into the Vermont Legislature. She talked about Clarina.

[Barnarts performer, from “It Can’t Happen Here”]: I kept waiting for some miracle that might restore us to sanity. But as the days have gone by, the memory of our past history of America’s democratic legacy of civility, compromise and respect for the fundamental rights of every human being, has, like my hometown, descended into darkness.

Teo Zagar: In the fall of 2016 I read my first Sinclair Lewis novel. I read It Can’t Happen Here.

This is Teo Zagar. He’s a filmmaker from Barnard, and a former Vermont state representative.

Teo: And when I found out that it was written here in Barnard and it was getting lot of attention because people were making comparisons between the current political situation and the America of 1935, I got really interested in that and did a little research and found out that the book was largely influenced by Dorothy Thompson.

Dorothy Thompson was a well-known journalist. She was married to Sinclair Lewis for fourteen years. Teo is working on a film about their marriage.

Teo: She was one of the most famous Americans in her day. Time magazine said she was as influential as Eleanor Roosevelt.

Dorothy Thompson started working as a journalist in the 1920s. She met Sinclair Lewis in Europe in 1927, where he was traveling after publishing his novel, “Elmer Gantry.”

Teo: They were introduced by mutual friends and they attended a party the following night. And at the end of the night, he proposed to her and spent the next few weeks courting her. And she eventually gave in. And he had promised to buy her a farm in New England.

After returning to the U.S., the newlyweds visited a friend in Barnard, Vermont. When the friend mentioned that he wanted to sell his property, called Twin Farms, Lewis and Thompson bought it.

Teo: Having spent so much time in the cities, in New York and in Europe, this provided a really nice sort of refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. And also, it was a place where they could really immerse themselves in the creative process with few distractions.

The two writers liked Vermont for other reasons.

Teo: They both really thought that the town meeting tradition of Vermont was sort of the epitome of American democracy, of direct democracy, and they both really appreciated that.

But they didn’t stay in Barnard for long. Dorothy went back to Germany in the early 1930s.

Teo: She was one of the few, if not the only, American journalist to have read Mein Kampf in its original German. I believe she was the first American journalist to interview Hitler in 1931 before he actually came into power. And she wrote a piece called “I Saw Hitler” that was published in 1932. And if you read that today you can see that she knew full well how he was going to come into power, what techniques he was going to use to manipulate the people.

She tried to get the Germans to understand what they were in for if they allowed this particular brand of fascism to become fully entrenched.

Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels formed the “Dorothy Thompson emergency squad” to monitor her activities.

Teo: I think it says a lot about Dorothy that Hitler personally viewed her as such a threat that he had to get her out of the country, because I think he probably did recognize her power to persuade people.

[Dorothy Thompson recording]: It’s the business of journalism to report everything that happens, regardless of whether it’s to the glory or not of one regime or another.

In 1934, Thompson was the first foreign journalist kicked out of Nazi Germany. She made her way back to Barnard.

Teo: Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in the summer of 1935, here in Barnard. He famously wrote it in the span of about four months at a fevered pace.

Teo: All of their friends have said that he never would have written that book if he hadn’t been married to Dorothy Thompson. Because she was the one who was raising the red flag about the rise of fascism and the vulnerability in America to homegrown fascism.

Thompson did more than just raise a warning. She actively worked against fascism before and during World War II.

Teo: She was read by millions of people every week in the newspapers, so she had a really large audience. One of the largest for a writer in America at the time. And she also was on the radio going into the mid-late 1930’s.

[1939 NBC broadcast]: The National Broadcasting Company brings you another in a series of general discussions by that noted woman commentator and former foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson…

Teo: So when Germany started invading its neighbors, she was on the radio every night for a span of two weeks.

[Thompson on NBC]: And the reply was in the form of Hitler’s speech, accompanied by an attack on Poland by air and from four directions on land…

Just trying to rouse America to come to the defense of freedom, basically, for Western civilization.

In 1939, she went to a “Bund rally,” a gathering of Americans who were sympathetic to the Nazis, at Madison Square Garden. Thompson used her press credentials to go inside.

Teo: When the leader of the German American Bund, Fritz Kuhn, started speaking, she started heckling him from the audience. There’s Dorothy Thompson, surrounded by 20,000 Nazis, basically, and she’s laughing at them, she’s yelling at them, she’s shouting, “Bunk, bunk,” and she had to be removed, physically removed, by some of the so-called storm troopers who were there…She was willing to confront fascism up close and personal, and risk her own personal safety to do it.

Thompson also worked to bring European friends—some of them Jewish—to Vermont.

Teo: She used her connections in the State Department. She used her own bank account to get people out and help settle them here. She even went directly to Roosevelt and said we need visas for some of these people to get them out, or they’re going to be killed.

Because of the expats that Thompson helped resettle around Barnard, Lewis started to call the area “Mittel Vermont.” He complained, “Does anybody at Twin Farms speak English anymore?”

Teo: I would say their relationship was tempestuous. It was rocky. They had mutual respect and admiration for each other. They were both sort of at the tops of their game, so to speak, in their respective professions.

Teo: But Sinclair Lewis, his alcoholism was getting worse. He had a pretty nasty temper when he was drunk, and could be a little verbally abusive at times. And Dorothy, for her part, was so immersed in her work that maybe Sinclair felt that he wasn’t getting the attention he deserved. And also Dorothy’s star was rising at the same time that Lewis’ was declining.

When they were first married, the press referred to Dorothy as Mrs. Sinclair Lewis. Later, they simply called her “Dorothy Thompson.” The couple eventually divorced in 1942.

Thompson married a third time, to painter Maxim Kopf. She called him, “The man I should have married in the first place.” She stayed at Twin Farms, built enormous gardens, came to town meeting, and kept writing as a nationwide columnist.

Teo: This was her home, this was where she considered her home. She was registered to vote here. And so Dorothy kept the property until her death in ’61.

Twin Farms is no longer in the family. It’s now a five-star resort, where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner stayed on a vacation in 2017.

Many of the people who lived near Dorothy Thompson in Barnard have passed on. But her legacy extends far beyond the town limits.

Teo: Dorothy Thompson didn’t believe in being neutral. In the case of the rise of authoritarianism and fascism, you couldn’t be neutral. She really believed that for all of its flaws, America was established in such a way that it really does give people the power to change their government and to fulfill the promise of a more perfect union. She really believed that.

Her writing, even though it’s decades old, it’s still very informative and inspirational.

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Humanities Council, the Vermont Historical Society, and VTDigger. This episode was produced by Ryan Newswanger, Abra Clawson, Mike Dougherty and Amanda Gustin. Thanks to our guests: John Daly, Steve Perkins, Marilyn Blackwell, and Teo Zagar. Thanks to John for letting us use clips from his musical, “Spit’n Lyon,” and to Teo and Barnarts for the recording of the performance of “It Can’t Happen Here.”

This program is part of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” Initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The initiative seeks to deepen the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the vital connections between democracy, the humanities, journalism, and an informed citizenry. We thank The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their generous support of this initiative and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership.