ALICE CHERBONNIER — rarely spotted, some think it's merely a myth, this is what real journalism looks like

Alice Cherbonnier

New American Dream Interview

"While newspapers were better-written back then, it was already clear that something more was going on in addition to reporting the news."

ALICE CHERBONNIER, age 63, lives in Baltimore.

She was born in Talbot County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

She graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1975.

Since 1976 she has been a writer and editor for the Baltimore Chronicle, an independent newspaper founded in 1973.

Best Columnist:
Alice Cherbonnier, Baltimore Chronicle
"... month after month, the Chronicle provides detailed left-of-milquetoast deconstructions of public affairs and conventional media wisdom ... whatever the virtues of the Chronicle's gray format, there's nothing bland about Cherbonnier." —
Baltimore City Paper


The New American Dream Trivia Question:

To win a button that says, "Bush Is Lying About What He Knew," be the last lawyer in Laramie to answer correctly.

Alice Cherbonnier ...

a. Plays blues harmonica
Coaches little league baseball
Is a novelist at heart
Believes in Bigfoot
Regrets that Bush will probably not go to prison some day
f. Knew Abbie Hoffman


NAD: Alice, hello, welcome.

Where did you go to school?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: I had a full senatorial scholarship to Western Maryland College, since renamed McDaniel College, where I majored in French Lit and Art History. Later, while teaching high school French, I earned a Master of Liberal Arts at Johns Hopkins and a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law.

NAD: How did you make the jump from law school to newspaper work?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: That was an easy decision! After working at Legal Aid, I realized I wasn't the right person to help solve other people's problems one by one. Too often, one problem is only a symptom or result of many others. I'm a crusader at heart, someone who wants to prevent problems if possible, and warn people of things coming at them that could harm them.

I realized this about myself very early, and was involved with newspapers from the ninth grade through college, writing and holding editorial positions. I also worked for two weekly papers during summers. But then, to satisfy the terms of my college scholarship, I was diverted to high school teaching, which I did (quite happily) for seven years until my son was born.

NAD: Did you already not trust mainstream media in the 1970s? For some of us, it took decades longer to even begin to understand.

ALICE CHERBONNIER: While newspapers were better-written back then, it was already clear that something more was going on in addition to reporting the news.

You could find totally different accounts of certain stories in, for example, The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post.

I remember clearly when McGovern spoke to a large crowd at the Baltimore City Fair. There was great enthusiasm, and not just about McGovern's call to get out of Vietnam.

Yet the next day, the Sun published a story that was totally at odds with what those of us who attended had experienced.

The general reader would have thought that few people came to hear the candidate, and that they were mere 'curiosity seekers' who showed no real enthusiasm except for mild approval of McGovern's stance on the war.

Luckily the Post covered the story too — and their reporter captured what really happened. The contrast was stark.

I sent the Post story to the Sun's editor and suggested their writer was better suited to their op-ed pages, but received no response.

In the early 1980s, the Sun continued to fail the public by, inter alia, declining to report fully on the atrocities in Central America; when eyewitnesses attempted to get interviews with Sun reporters, they were rebuffed.

Some of the eyewitnesses came to our newspaper, and we began extend our coverage well beyond local news, adding national and international coverage, doing the best we could with limited resources.

I don't think, in today's Age of the Internet, that newspapers can get away with such ineptitude, or worse, because there are so many sources of information available online; the problem now is determining what information you can trust.

For us, it's always been about "Who will tell the people?"

(By "we," I mean my husband Larry Krause, my brother Marc Cherbonnier, and a host of reporters and interns who've worked with us over these 35 years.)

NAD: What hope do you find in doing it yourself?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: You get to control the ball, even if on a small playing field. I couldn't bear it to be told by some boss, "You can't cover that." Or worse: "That's not your area." That's like a red flag to a bull if you're a real journalist.

NAD: Would you like to choose one of these to answer, elaborate on?
I don't ask this to make fun. I ask because I really seek the answers.

Are UFOs real?
Did we land on the moon in 1968?
Did Bush knock down the towers?
Was Paul Wellstone's death an accident?
Is Bigfoot real?
Is there a God?

Alice: I do think we landed on the moon. The other stories are still up for grabs; there's just not enough verifiable evidence to draw reliable conclusions. We may never know "the answers," and we have to live with that. It's tough. Speculate privately? Yes. Publish as fact something we can't prove? No.

NAD: What makes you think that?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: Simple little questions about complex subjects cannot be answered simply.

NAD: How did you survive the Bush years?


NAD: Do you anticipate having to survive the Obama years, struggle through — or do you have hopes for something better?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: Definitely have hopes for something better. Do not sense that Obama is beholden to the mindset of the Project for a New American Century, Heritage Foundation, and other noxious think tanks.

Do not expect miracles. Under the difficult economic circumstances, we will most likely need to content ourselves with incremental changes for the better and an emphasis on civil rights and press/Internet freedoms.

NAD: Please tell us more about yourself, the things you have done, what you would like to do, what you did today.

ALICE CHERBONNIER: I've worked long and hard at our newspaper, without knowing for certain whether our efforts have made a difference.

Have not focused on making a lot of money; have made a trade-off for the freedom to follow my conscience and the ability to engage many, many wonderful people, including excellent high school and college interns, in the journalistic process.

NAD: What did you absolutely have to get done by noon today?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: Had to circulate timely news stories to our news list, and prepare stories for our website. Had to meet advertising deadlines for some clients.

NAD: How about by Christmas 2010?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: By then I'll be qualified for Medicare; until then, my motto is: "I work for health insurance." This country's health care "system" is barbaric.

NAD: What do you like about being a reporter?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: Following the trail! Reporting is a natural extension of being a generalist and a learning omnivore.

NAD: Do you work from home? Do you have an actual building, office?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: We sold our office building a couple of years ago, and now work from a rented office in a renovated industrial building in Baltimore City.

NAD: Were there many independent publishers like the Chronicle back in the '70s? How many have survived? Are you guys the precursors to today's indy media?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: Many others also tried to publish here back then; we survived.

One other paper, more oriented to entertainment, has survived. Haven't seen any serious grassroots efforts at publishing newspapers for a long, long time — and this surprises me, because the software and technology are much more accessible then they were back in the days of typesetting, paste-up, etc.

Maybe our young-and-restless would-be journalists can't afford to take a chance because they're too focused on paying off college loans. Or maybe they know too much about the risks!

Would not say we're a precursor of indy media because we edit and check facts; we've never just published whatever is sent to us. Our responsibility is to our readers first.

NAD: What else would you like to add? What else should I have asked?

ALICE CHERBONNIER: How about: What are some of your favorite inspirational quotes?

Mine would include:

Ben Franklin: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Voltaire: "Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices."

Voltaire: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

Voltaire: "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers."

Mark Twain: "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

Mark Twain: "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it."

John Ruskin: "Every increased possession loads us with a new weariness."

NAD: Please insert a link here to something you would like linked to, with a brief tag re: where that link goes:

ALICE CHERBONNIER: My Black Humor avatar blog, continuing the adventures of a fictional Baltimore heroine that we've published since 1984: http://louellapryzbylewski.blogspot.com

(Find other episodes in the archives at http://www.baltimorechronicle.com.)

[First published Jan. 1, 2009]

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