In Gloucester, poetic license or media lies?

Media’s coverage fishy in Gloucester

By John J. Ronan

Boston Herald Sunday, July 13, 2008

Winslow Homer’s Gloucester is dynamic, hardworking and beautiful. In “Shipbuilding: Gloucester Harbor” and “Sailing Out of Gloucester,” he captured heritage and beauty at once. “Gloucester Houses” and “Prospect Street,” under the hammer of Edward Hopper’s light, portray a strong, stable Gloucester. In 2008, the city is still dynamic, hardworking, stable – and beautiful.

For those who know this, and love Gloucester because of it, the coverage of teen pregnancies here dismays. Not the factual coverage. It is tragic that so many girls, for the bleakest reasons, chose to become pregnant. The city is saddened by this and working to stop what has to be termed an epidemic. The message is not the problem. Embarrassment is not a problem, either; no one I know is afraid of confronting a flawed civic self in the mirror. It’s the lie that’s a problem.

The problem began in Time, in a June 18 piece stuffed with dated clichés. Gloucester is a “fiercely Catholic enclave,” a phrase inaccurate on several counts that conjures villagers gathering with torches. The city is “mostly blue-collar,” though the median market price of homes is about $400,000. Time also referred to the decrease in fishing in Gloucester’s economy. True enough, but decades late. I expected the piece to announce Spencer Tracy’s Oscar for Captains Courageous, the 1937 movie that seemed the source of the article’s tone.

Uninformed piety ran through most print outlets; television was worse. Descriptions of Gloucester as a “hard luck” community were common.   It is a “poor town” where “fishing has tanked.” Skewed clichés marked most broadcast and cable coverage, topped by the usual whoppers on Fox.   And some announcers didn’t bother to look up the pronunciation; I heard ‘glow-chester’ at least once.

The lie? The false image of Gloucester. The drawing of a shabby, Depression-drab landscape that is neither accurate or honest: a fat, lazy lie. But a noir backdrop is necessary to the melodrama of blame. Blame the folk and blame the benighted place that created them. The essential fiction is that a dark anomaly has been discovered, a distortion that lets the world feel better about its own aloof and undistorted self.   It’s an ancient tradition, of course, kept alive today by television’s many blame-and-bounce entertainment franchises. Sadly, the format also disguises itself as news.

When a city is in the national spotlight, those who know the city well get a clear, x-ray vision of media integrity, from the inside out. Dismay comes from not finding it. Some balk at the word “lie,” preferring euphemisms like “misstatement” or “inaccuracy.” In Gloucester, on Main St., at the library, in city hall, on the wharves, at the Crow’s Nest, we are more frank. Our officials are doing their best to combat the false image of Gloucester with fact, so often now an ironic enemy of news.

Gloucester certainly has problems. But they are not anomalous. It has, on average, about the same frequency of teen pregnancy as other cities. It has poverty, of course. But because Gloucester is, politically and demographically, a city, rather than a suburban slice of the middle class, it includes all strata, rags to riches. And recently, more poverty than money, reflecting a growing disparity in the country. Gloucester is America.

The spotlight will soon pan to new marketable scandals. Gloucester, the real Gloucester, will survive, at once dynamic, hardworking, stable. And still beautiful, still the city of Homer and Hopper. Its people are beautiful, too. As Gloucester nears its 400th birthday, they are working on problems, meeting challenges, making progress. No surprise here. Gloucester will endure:

Waves break on outcrop rock: granite,

fire-formed and hard, headland granite –

no coddled cape, no sandbar,

and nothing soft in its city, no knickknack,

Gloucester-by-God, attitude granite.

John J. Ronan

Gloucester Poet Laureate