Sam Burnham, Curator
i read a recent article in the New York Times.Times writer Glenn Thrush was in Camilla interviewing farmers who lost so much, some everything they had, in the storm. His article didn’t focus on the losses, the recovery efforts, or the work of farmers. No, he chose to focus on climate change.
I’ve done several rebuttals to the arrogant work of East Coast elite “journalists” over the years. This time I’m not wanting to just vent off my frustrations with an angry reply because I think there’s too much at stake this time. This time it’s not just a typical New Yorker looking down his nose at the “dumb Southerners” who don’t understand science. As the political and social divide continues to grow in America and we inch ever closer to whatever cataclysm awaits us at the end of this bumpy road, somewhere the chorus of a Greek tragedy is crying out “this is how they got Trump.”
At some point there has to be a realization. I’m sitting in Georgia, an advocate for the defense in this case. So my position is admittedly biased. But I’m also a writer and I know a bit about that craft as well. Let me just say that a person who can take a woody shard of genetic material, shove it in a hole in the ground, and allow the sky to provide the needed hydration and photosynthetic energy and thereby derive a living for himself and his family is either a scientist or a witch doctor. Either way, his livelihood requires much more understanding of science than a newspaper writer needs.
And that is where the realization must happen. Mr Thrush May have spent the decade of tropical silence between Katrina/Rita and Harvey attending cocktail parties but the farmers in South Georgia were busy trying to turn seeds, dirt, rain, and sunlight into money. While Thrush was rubbing elbows with celebrities, the farmers were looking at late frost dates, finding days that were dry enough for planting, planning crop rotations, timing fertilizers or defoliants, setting traps for boll weevils, planning irrigation, paying property taxes, researching breeds of hogs to determine which will be most profitable. You know, science stuff.
But the biggest realization that needs to be made is that what happened in South Georgia when that storm ripped through wasn’t political. It wasn’t about climate change. It wasn’t even about the $2.5 billion in agricultural losses. What happened was bigger than all that. It was a human tragedy on a colossal scale.
Farming is a ridiculously difficult job. Yes, there are some factory farms raking in subsidies and turning massive profits. But there are far more that are covering expenses and maybe a little more. Many of these farmers are working the land their parents, grandparents, and perhaps further generations worked before them. Many hope to pass down the land and the livelihood to their children. Recovering from this disaster is the only way such a cultural and familial heritage can be passed on because there is presently nothing to hand down to the next generation.
I'm sure part of the article's bourgeois tone was Thrush's own frustration. He was the NYT's White House correspondent until several of his female coworkers brought allegations of unwanted sexual behavior against him. I'm sure he'd rather be reporting on policy in Washington than covering the ruination of some backwards hayseeds in Mitchell County. So instead of covering the human tragedy, he made it all about politics. It says a lot that his employers think covering a human tragedy in South Georgia is a demotion worthy of sexual harassment. Why are these people the ones reporting this story in this way and telling the world it is All the News That's Fit to Print? How is this worthy of a newspaper of record? How can we ever expect to change the tone of this conversation when human tragedy isn't fit to print but the writer's ideas about the role of climate change in the tragedy is?
As it is becoming increasingly clear that big city journalism is trending toward caring less and less about what goes on in places like Nashville or Alapaha, Georgia, Southerners need to be trending more toward small journalism to tell the stories about what is really going on. Support your local papers and other journalism. We need better regional options as well. Maybe if the New York Times wants to cover a story like the hurricane and agriculture they should partner with the Valdosta Daily Times rather than send a Washington-based Times writer who doesn't understand farming or rural life.
Mostly, we need thoughtful reactions. We need to be more and more self-sufficient, more and more regionalist and localist in how we operate. Perhaps instead of giving an out-of-town big city writer a chance to try to make us look stupid in the Times, we need to throw him off the property as soon as he shows up.
To their credit, the New York Times did open comments to farmers and others in the area to add input through a comments section on a follow up to the original article. But what did that prove other than admitting, after the backlash, that sending Thrush to Georgia was also a disaster? So I offered the Times my advice on the matter in the form of a comment I'll add here:
My name is Sam Burnham, I’m the Curator of All the Biscuits in Georgia (allthebiscuitsingeorgia.com) and an advocate and supporter of agriculture and the people who make it happen. Rather than sitting in Manhattan waiting for responses, you need to send people down here to look and see. They need to know some farmers and the local businesses who depend on the success of an agricultural economy. Get off the paved road, get your hands dirty, be real journalists. More importantly, be a real humans. You want to understand why what you printed was so wrong? Come see for yourself. Come open minded and ready to learn. Oh, and come hungry.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire