Press & Reviews

Fresh and valuable… The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen… worth watching. — James Fallows, The Atlantic 

Summarizes the core problem that many small cities and towns face in 21st century America. — Matt Stroud, Postindustrial

This sort of entrepreneurial revival is “one thing that’s happening in Appalachia that is not talked about enough,” says Miller. “There are young creative people doing different kinds of things, and building a new kind of future. And we’re not going back to the past. One thing the mound reminds us of is that civilizations and cultures do eventually move on, and change is inevitable.” — Bill O’Driscoll, WESA 90.5 (NPR)

The city’s rise and fall will be familiar to many who grew up in small, rust-belt towns — yet there’s something distinct about Moundsville, named for the ancient burial mound in the center of town. The Grave Creek Mound Burial Site — which dates so far into antiquity that little is known about the native Americans who built it — provides a physical and spiritual backdrop for the film. — Sean Collier, Pittsburgh Magazine 

Moundsville isn’t just a sad story… The film, indeed, presents the city in pleasant light. – Nora Edinger, Weelunk.com

Miller became fascinated with how a town built on coal mining and steel would recover after the factories closed and its residents found themselves out of work. — Sherry Greenfield, Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Any hard conversation about America’s future needs to start with a shared understanding of our past and present, free of myth and easy narrative. When you’re trying to accept and understand change, the truth always helps. — John W. Miller, Buzzfeednews.com

“Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.” — John W. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A gripping look at a fascinating West Virginia town wrestling with its past and fighting for its future, with lots of surprises along the way.” — Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal 

“This film succeeds by allowing people to tell their own stories – with moments of nostalgia and pride interspersed with flashes of frustration and grief – just like real life. It’s hard to predict the future, but as a viewer (or reviewer, as the case may be), it’s impossible to deny that I’m rooting for Moundsville. These are good folks who certainly deserve a win.” — Tony Montana, United Steelworkers

“I feel energized by the thoughts that this movie has provoked. The way the story is told is brilliant. Communities throughout history like to think others’ success is the reason for their own woes. Rather, they need to look within to figure out how to have their own rebirth. This movie is a step in the direction of understanding.” — C. Donald Brasher, Jr., President, Trade Data Monitor, Inc.

“A provocative documentary about the economic geography of a West Virginia mountain town. It was fantastic! I’m still thinking about it.” – Dr. Bob Ross, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA

“A lot of stories about the Heartland are depressing, bleak, hopeless — or angry. It’s more complicated than that, and this movie finds a path between the extremes that gets you closer to reality. Everyone should take the trip to Moundsville.”– Joe White, Reuters

“Fantastic! A great job showing the multiple forces driving Appalachian thinking and acting.” – Dr. Jason King, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA

“A beautiful, thoughtful, and respectful documentary about my hometown of Moundsville, WV.” – Tracey Whorton, drummer from Moundsville

“Gets to the truth of the place by leaving Trump out of conversations.” Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal

“I highly recommend this absorbing and enlightening documentary about a small West Virginia town and its travails since the halcyon days of the 1950s.” — Paul Blustein, former economics reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, author of “The Chastening” and other books about global trade

Moundsville Craves Stories in a News Desert — Local News Helps Citizens ‘Intercept the Same Reality’

Review of Ghosting the News, by Margaret Sullivan

When 37-year-old CVS cashier David Seum decided to run for Moundsville, WV town council in next week’s election, he hired a Wheeling-based public relations firm called Folkore. Its director, Nathan Daniel Blake, the son of a coal miner, worked for a local paper but left for PR because “it paid McDonald’s wages,” he told me. He manages communications for a tire company, but started Folklore with his wife in 2019 as a community-oriented agency that focuses on stories they believe it. It now has a staff of seven.

In July, Blake wrote up a press release (“Seum believes strongly that Moundsville’s best days lie in the future”), and sent it to local TV stations, and newspapers including the Moundsville Echo and the Wheeling Intelligencer.

Nobody picked it up. Welcome to politics in a news desert.

“It’s really hard to get newspapers to engage these days,” said Blake, who emphasizes how much he loved newspapers growing up. “I hate to say it, but when it comes to marketing in small towns, you’re better off spending money on Facebook than trying to get something into the paper.” Seum said he’s tried to compensate by “knocking on more doors” and “posting more on social media” than his older rivals.

As a neophyte, and not part of Moundsville’s elite dominated by older residents like former mayors Gene Saunders and Phil Remke (both featured in our film, Moundsville, now on PBS), Seum needed a newspaper, not necessarily to endorse him, but simply to hold up his candidacy to the light. Because it wasn’t, his odds of winning a seat next week are diminished, at the expense of citizens, who should know about fresh candidates challenging the old guard. And there is interest: My story on this blog about Seum has been read over 1,500 times, and was picked up by The Daily Yonder, an online magazine covering rural America.

The decline of newspapering in small towns like Moundsville, set off by the internet’s decimation of ad revenue, is a national crisis that threatens American democracy. As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes in her impeccable new book Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, the decline of local news “takes a toll on civic engagement—even on citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts, the very basis of self-governance.” (Sullivan has written a terrific book, and I especially love its title. So much of America’s current crisis, as our film shows, is about wrestling with the ghosts of a past perceived as infinitely more glorious. Moundsville is a town that, literally, markets ghosts.)

The 2016 election turned places like Moundsville into vote clusters for national reporters to mine for political intelligence. And without local newspapers to anchor them, it was easier for residents to get swept up in conversations about Donald Trump. They could find a ready audience repeating what they had heard on TV. Instead of bringing up the story reported in the local paper about how the coal company bribed the mayor, morning coffee squads across the country sunk their teeth into anything related to Trump, and online conspiracy theories with little relevance to their lives.

What we tried to do with our Moundsville movie, was to show that each small town has its own, rich story, free from the national narrative.

The more residents can live in that story, the more anchored in reality they’ll be, and the healthier society we’ll have. Voting “becomes more political polarized when local news fades,” according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Communication cited by Sullivan. She also quotes from a Pope Francis 2019 speech: Local news helps citizens “intercept the same reality” and “transmit to a wider horizon all those values that belong to the life and history of the people, and at the same time give voice to poverty, challenges, sometimes urgent issues in the territories, along the streets, meeting families, in places of work.”

At first, I kept this blog alive to publicize the film, but over time, I realized that it had become, on days when I made phone calls, read documents, checked facts, and wrote up a story, a local newspaper. My tales about the local bakery, preparing for the coronavirus pandemic, and Lady Gaga’s mom, who is from the Moundsville area, have notched over 100,000 total views. (Moundsville has around 8,000 people.) A negative review of our own film I published got over 2,500 reads. People yearn for authentic conversation about and around where they live. That hunger for local stories has enabled the rise of a network of 1,300 fake local news sites that sell targeted stories clients with political or commercial goals, quite the opposite of journalism. For $2,000, for example, on one site, you can buy “five articles and unlimited news releases,” according to an investigation by New York Times reporters Davey Alba and Jack Nicas.

Since the 19th century, local newspapers “have bonded communities,” said Victor Pickard, author of Democracy Without Journalism?, another new book on the local journalism crisis. “That cultural memory is still there, and even conservatives who say they hate the media have warm fuzzy feelings about their community paper.”

For decades until his death in 1995, Moundsville Echo editor Sam Shaw rode his bicycle around town, covering the courthouse, knocking on doors for interviews, and collecting the news from conversations on the street. The eccentric bachelor was celebrated for his integrity, and hobbies like bird-watching, choir-singing and slow walking. The Echo is now a flailing obituary sheet with minimal coverage. Current editor, Charles Walton keeps a low profile, and refused my many requests for a conversation.

In Uniontown, PA a few weeks ago, I came across a plaque in the center of town, dedicated to an editor named Walter J. “Buzz” Storey, Jr: “Community journalist for more than six decades, civic and church leader, historian, author, humorist, Pittsburgh Steelers fan, World War II, veteran, family man and someone who loved his native Uniontown with all his heart.”

This is who a newspaper editor could be in America: a hero.

To be sure, in Moundsville, local TV stations like WTOV9 and WTRF cover city council, the weather, crime, and football games, but they don’t offer deep investigations, or intimate day-to-day engagement with the lives of fellow residents. They’re not Sam Shaw.

Margaret Sullivan worked at the Buffalo News for 32 years, before moving to the New York Times. She finished in Buffalo as managing editor, and maintains her passion for the power of local journalism as a vehicle for community-building and holding the powerful to account. Buffalo is where she learned, she writes, that “a newspaper’s purpose isn’t only to keep public officials accountable, it’s also to be the village square for an entire metropolitan area, to help provide a common reality and touchstone, a sense of community and place.”

The newspaper’s place as the pillar of the village square has come crashing down. You could once become one of the world’s richest people by owning a paper. Warren Buffett bragged about the 30% profit margins at titles he controlled. Now Buffett predicts newspapers are going to “disappear.” From 2004, to 2015, over 1,800 print outlets in the U.S. closed, according to a study in the Newspaper Research Journal quoted by Sullivan.

So without a newspaper to cover long-shot candidates like David Seum, what hope is there for local news in a place like Moundsville?

Blake, the journalist-turned-PR entrepreneur, told me the solution is private investment in local storytelling, including by companies and advertisers. “They’re involved in selling goods and services to people, so they see the stories firsthand,” he said. “Tell those stories. People care far more about that than endless advertising about how great you are.” Best to include video and audio in story packages “because not that many people read anymore.” (That point helps explain why public radio is doing well.) A big challenge at the local level, of course, is guaranteeing editorial independence. At the local level, “if you have somebody who spends the money, that person is going to want some clout in how stories are portrayed,” he said.

Sullivan’s book, and a similar work by Victor Pickard, Democracy Without Journalism? highlight promising initiatives, including the prospect of public subsidies, ProPublica and Report for America’s cooperation with local news organizations, public radio, and start-ups like the East Lansing, Michigan’s East Lancing Info, a nonprofit launched by a citizen journalist and a network of friends and local residents. Wheeling has a similar venture, called Weelunk. The Daily Yonder, edited by Tim Marema, covers a wide range of issues impacting rural America. The trick is getting people to filter out all the online garbage and find their way to these sites.

In West Virginia, the Mountain State Spotlight, a collaboration between ProPublica, Report for America, and veteran West Virginia journalists like former Charleston Gazette-Mail executive editor Greg Moore, and Pulitzer Prize-winners Eric Eyre and Ken Ward, Jr., is producing A+ reporting on critical issues like health care, poverty, and voting. (I recommend Lauren Peace’s recent series on the closure of a hospital in Wheeling.)

The resurrection of local news might require public subsidies, anathema to many Americans. “But we wouldn’t let public schools die because they’re not profitable,” said Pickard. “And it should be done by professionals, we don’t let just anybody become a public school teacher.”

The hope, said Blake, is that people in his area will demand “real community” and “storytelling that changes the narrative of the Rust Belt and Appalachia.” His generation, he said, “has moved beyond the commodity mindset where all you care about is what’s cheapest.”

Sullivan writes that her “research for his book, combined with my decades in journalism, has left me with a great deal of sadness about what is happening and what is to come.” Still, she says, “I am not without hope.”

For the sake of democracy, she concludes, “we need to save as much as possible of what remains, bringing the traditional strengths fully into the digital age. And, at the same time, we must energetically support and foster the newer models that are forging the local journalism so necessary for today and tomorrow.”

John W. Miller

Lighting Up West Virginia’s Native American Past After Suppression

11,000 people in WV claim Native American ancestry — Couldn’t own property until 1960s

In Moundsville, Native Americans are present through the stories of the Adena people and the mound they built over two thousand years ago. We couldn’t find anybody in town with Native American ancestry to interview, but in West Virginia, there are still some 11,000 people who claim ancestry, out of a population of 1.8 million.

In the 18th century, white settlers and explorers, including George Washington, found a land of rivers and valleys dotted with settlements, sometimes villages in the thousands, and tribes that included, among others, the Shawnee, Mingo, Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca and Mohawk. Humans had lived in Appalachia for over ten thousand years, forming some of the oldest settlements on the continent after trekking from Asia. The town of Wheeling’s name comes from a Delaware word that means “place of the skull.” Famously, white settlers battled Native Americans in and around the Ohio Valley. The Battle of Point Pleasant, in 1774, “eliminated Native Americans as a force on the frontier for the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, clearing the way for peaceful settlement of the region,” notes the state’s official history.

In the 19th century, as the United States of America thundered westward, the government forced Native Americans to relocate to reservations outside West Virginia, or assimilate and list themselves as “white” or “colored”, a process that continued into the 1950s. We talked to people who grew up next to Cherokees born in the 19th century, segregated in the same part of town as African-Americans. It wasn’t until Civil Rights legislation was passed in the 1960s that Native Americans could own property in the state.

Although West Virginia was founded in 1863 during the Civil War as Virginia without slavery, it was still segregated, “and Indians didn’t legally exist,” Wayne Appleton, head of the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia, told me. “When people raised the question of why some people in the state have darker skin, the standard answer was, well, we’re Portuguese, because that made them white.” Appleton, a Charleston-based chemist who also goes by the name “Chief Grey Owl”, has made it his life’s work to resurrect the heritage of Native Americans in the state.

Federal and state leaders did all kinds of things to obscure the history of previous human inhabitants. They spread rumors that somebody else had built burial mounds. Curriculums emphasized that West Virginia had been empty, or a “hunting ground”, before white settlers moved in, a line we heard echoed in interviews for the film. It’s comforting for white Americans to think that their ancestors didn’t displace anybody in settling this vast, diverse land.

In the last few decades, the light of truth has been shining through in parts. In 1996, West Virginia’s state senate passed a resolution recognizing Appleton’s group, the AAIWV, and affirming that “American Indians were the original inhabitants of the lands that now comprise the United States of America and West Virginia.” The resolution noted that “concepts such as the freedom of speech and the separation of powers in government, all of which were found in the political systems of various American Indian nations, influenced the formation of the government of the United States of America.”

John W. Miller

Candidate for Council Dreams of Rebuilding Town While Making $19,000 a Year Working as CVS Cashier

David Seum Wants to Reboot Moundsville With Events, Family Park — Imagines Life on $37,000 A Year

Way up this fall’s U.S. election ballot is the presidential choice of Donald J. Trump or Joe Biden, and, in Moundsville (pop. 8,000), way down the list is 37-year-old David Seum, who’s standing for town council. You can watch the eight candidates for council debate in an online candidate forum Wednesday, October 7 at 6 p.m. (Two, Gene Saunders and Phil Remke, are stars of Moundsville, now playing on PBS.)

Seum (pronounced SEE-UM) is running on a platform of rebuilding shared physical public spaces, like new businesses and plants, and events, clubs and parks. “It’s nice to talk about how great things were 50 years ago, but my question is what is this place going to look like in the next 50 years,” he says. “Once the oil and gas industry fades, if we don’t diversify, we’re going to be in trouble.”

The question Seum is posing — how life in America can be happier and healthier in places like Moundsville — still escapes much of the vision of national politics, which is obsessed with the theater of famous persons, the circus of celebrity, and a surface stock market-based prosperity, and has lost sight of the importance of everyday lived human experience.

The national conversation usually avoids uncomfortable truths, especially the country’s gaping and growing inequalities, exploding poverty, and how dependent the U.S. economy has become on an underclass of tens of millions of service workers at companies like Amazon, McDonald’s and WalMart making under $15 an hour with limited benefits. That class includes Seum, who works at CVS as a cashier for $11.25 an hour and gets his healthcare via taxpayer-funded Medicaid. You don’t have to be a working-class populist or raving socialist to see the damage wrought by the hollowing out of America’s middle class and rotting of thousands of once prosperous and tight-knit communities.

In Moundsville, the economy is built on a thousand or so low-wage service gigs, and another thousand jobs working in local hospitals and a prison. There is only one unionized factory left, with jobs in the low hundreds, and it makes lids for jars. City government and the school system employ a few hundred more. The gas industry is relatively strong, but its best jobs are for migrating engineers and pipeliners who don’t settle down. The population is aging, and the brain drain has sapped the town of its best and brightest, making a rebuild feel out of reach. And yet some people stay- for family or work, or simply because they love the place. And like Seum, many are doing something. Against the odds, they are rebuilding. They are doing hard work worth celebrating. (For a broader celebration of the rebuilders, I recommend James and Deborah Fallows’ Our Towns book and upcoming documentary.)

I’ve been talking to Seum these past two weeks. He’s been out and about, knocking on doors and walking the streets talking to voters. We’ve been chatting via messenger apps, and on the phone, including once as he picked up McDonald’s drive-through in his 2010 Kia Sportage.

Politically, Seum is an independent. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care about at all about national politics. Any time I brought up Trump and Biden, he changed the subject. Conversationally, he’s earnest, polite and enthusiastic. His dream really is to improve quality of life where he grew up. I’m rooting for him, partly because unlike older town leaders, he’s from a generation that has struggled its entire life in a system without stable employment, strong unions and tight-knit communities.

Seum’s day-to-day toil and troubles right now are typical of young and middle-aged residents of small towns in the Rust Belt and Appalachia. After stints in other places, he returned to Moundsville care for his ailing parents, moving into a garage apartment behind his parents’ house. He has an ex-girlfriend and son in California.

On weekends, Seum supplements his CVS income by calling bingo games. His total income for a year of full-time work in 2019 was $19,000. “It doesn’t make sense that you can work full-time and not have enough money for life as a single person,” he says. His dream revenue is around $37,000, enough to take vacations, pay for his medical care and save for retirement. Right now, it’s hard to see how that could happen if he stays in Moundsville. CVS has offered to train him to work in their pharmacy, but that only offers a raise of 65 cents an hour, and the other places he could work are Walgreens and WalMart. Another challenge is that installing automated cashiers has allowed CVS to cut Seum’s weekly hours to 26 from 34.

For Seum, who’s still undecided on his presidential choice, politics feels so broken, so remote, that it’s hard to see how anything good at all could come from the government.

Big ideas like a higher minimum wage, universal health care, universal basic income, and investment in infrastructure and education don’t feel that realistic, even if campaigns still make those promises. The Biden platform, for example, includes support for a $15 an hour minimum wage. That sounds utopian, and even like something Seum doesn’t think he deserves. “I’ve been on my own since I was 17,” he says. “I don’t like to make excuses.” In Seum’s America, things fell apart a long time ago. Even in Moundsville, the $7.25 per hour minimum doesn’t amount to a prosperous life.

Really rebooting Appalachia and the Rust Belt would require some combination of big, sweeping ideas, plus specific investments in a new colleges, training centers, factories, or public institutions or offices.

But what counts as investment in Moundsville these days is a new armored car the town received as part of a Pentagon plan to steer used military gear toward local governments. The presidential campaign’s theater of personality, identity validation, and basic ideas feels feels distant. (The Democratic primary was more substantive, and Seum says he was attracted by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s pro-working class platform.)

Seum’s selling point in running for council is his aptitude for organizing concerts and other events, which he did in Wheeling when he lived there. “We need to give people stuff to do,” he says. “Right now, there’s nothing for kids to do but sports. I’d like to bring in more bands, more acts, and revive life here.” For example, he’d like to install a family entertainment complex with “a go-kart track, miniature golf, cornhole, darts, that kind of thing” on the former Fostoria glass factory site. That would bring in local tourists “from towns that don’t have the resources we have,” he say.

He hopes to attract investors. “Right now, the only businesses taking advantage of tax breaks that are available are these gambling parlors” catering to gas workers from out of town,” he says. There are around 10 gambling parlors in and around town. “That’s a detriment to the economy, because people spend money there instead of on their kids,” he says.

“Growth comes from the nuanced cooperation between local government and private enterprise,” Seum writes in his campaign bio, which notes that Seum has served on boards of organizations like an Italian festival and the Ohio Valley Jaycees, “group of younger people creating positive change.” The past, he tells me, “should be remembered and even celebrated” but it doesn’t “hold the answers as to what Moundsville can be in the future.”

In places like Moundsville, people run for town council partly for extra income. Council members make $250 per bimonthly meeting, says Seum. The mayor, chosen from its members, makes $1,000 a month.

John W. Miller

Moundsville Blog Passes 100K Views — Lady Gaga West Virginia Roots Post is Most Read All-Time

David Bernabo and I made “Moundsville” (now on PBS) to tell a new kind of story about America. But in our dozen trips to the town and all our research, we collected way more material than we had room for in a 74-minute movie. So I started throwing stuff on this blog.

And, to my surprise, people read it. We passed 100,000 total views this week. To be clear, that’s not a lot of views for a story about politics or the NFL, or anything in the New York Times. But, for a little WordPress blog about and around a tiny West Virginia town of eight thousand people, written by one person, with no corporate backing or advertising, that is a surprising number. I’ve written stories for mainstream media outlets that were read by only a few hundred people. In early 2019, I spent a hundred bucks or so on Facebook and Twitter ads, but quickly realized that was a dark hole of endless spending with unclear returns. We were still having trouble cracking four digits on any individual post. But then the movie got rolling, with good reviews, screenings around the region, and a PBS deal.

Our most popular blog post was a profile of Lady Gaga, whose mom Cynthia Germanotta grew up in the Moundsville area, followed by posts on Charles Manson (from nearby), Brad Paisley (from Glen Dale/Moundsville) and Quality Bakery’s famous donuts. We’ve published all kinds of stuff, from entrants to a poetry contest and a historical essay about the so-called Mother of the Civil War, to, in the spirit of free and open dialogue, a mostly negative review of our film by an academic from Moundsville who wrote to me, and a letter to residents about why viewers love their town. I wrote my first-ever obituary for a dog, reported on how the town was preparing for Covid, and documented how people used to go watch baseball at the old prison.

Here are the top most 10 popular pages on our blog.

  1. “Pick Yourself Up” – Lady Gaga’s West Virginia Roots and Her Grandma’s Inspiring Words That Helped Make a Star (35,247)
  2. Home Page (10,675)
  3. When Serial Murderer Charles Manson Tried to Move to Moundsville, WV (4,883)
  4. Brad Paisley is the Proudest West Virginian — Country Star Shares State, Small Town Roots With Lady Gaga — Putting WV On Everything: “Pitt Fans Aren’t Happy” (2,994)
  5. Donut Heroes: Quality Bakery Shoppe Bakes All Night for Moundsville — 1,200 Donuts a Day — Owners Are Drum-Playing Baptist Preacher and Baker Wife — All 4 Kids Help Out — “People Are Supporting Local Businesses During Covid” (2,910)
  6. Before The Star Was Born: The Legend of Lady Gaga’s Singing West Virginia Grandpa (2,606)
  7. The Inspiring Story of the Stubborn West Virginia Glassmaker Who Lost His Job at Fostoria and Kept On Making Glass (2,449)
  8. Moundsville Named as West Virginia’s Entry in USA Today Contest for “Best Historic Small Town” — Vote Here (Once Per Day) Before May 6 (1,899)
  9. Bracing for Covid-19 in Moundsville — U.S. Rust Belt Towns Face Big Risks With Aging Populations, Hospital Bed Shortages — ‘I Know I’m Vulnerable’ (1,879)
  10. ‘Taj Mahal of Appalachia’ — West Virginia’s Hare Krishna Temple Named To National Register of Historic Places Has Crazy, Fascinating History– Known for Drugs and Murder in 1980s (1,805)

The most common source of links was Facebook, with 68,111, followed by search engines, with 12,824, and Twitter, with 2,484. The number of views from search engines is increasing, which, encouragingly, means that more people are hearing about the movie and reading up at their own volition.

2018: 180

2019: 4,864

2020: 7,780

We’re going to keep the conversation going. If you’d like to submit something for publication or write in with comments or suggestions, please email me at jmjournalist@gmail.com.

John W. Miller

How to Win Friends and Talk Politics in 2020 (Without Losing Your Mind)

James Fallows: Start with Schools and Children’s Future — “I Am Your Friend”

Phil Remke and I talk politics– even though we usually disagree.

Phil, the former mayor of Moundsville, WV, and star of the movie Moundsville, is a boisterous small-town supporter of President Trump. I’m a journalist from Brussels whose main political conviction is that societies should aggressively uphold standards of truth and never tolerate lying.  

Americans are more divided than ever, according to the latest Pew survey, which makes it more important than ever for them to be able to talk about difficult topics with people they disagree with.

But how exactly do you do that?

The only reason Phil and I can discuss thorny issues without blood boiling is that we started off by talking about something else. When I began visiting Moundsville, a bastion of Trump support, and interviewing people, Phil invited me to his house, introduced me to his wife, Loretta, and told me stories about his late son Christopher, who had cerebral palsy. Phil and Loretta took care of Christopher lovingly for years, without getting much explicit communication or feedback from him in return. Their stories, and hospitality, were touching and gracious. I told him about growing up in Europe and playing baseball. Then I brought up Trump.

I thought of my political conversations with Phil when I read John C. Danforth and Fr. Matt Malone’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, “A First Step Toward Loving Our Enemies”. Danforth is a former senator from Missouri and an Episcopal priest. Malone is a Catholic priest and a Jesuit who edits America, a magazine I sometimes write for. They call on Americans to take responsibility for how viscerally divided the nation has become:

Everybody bears responsibility for polarization. This might seem like unwelcome news, but it’s the opposite. As long as the cause of the problem is someone else, then nothing can be done. But those who acknowledge how they contribute to the problem also can begin to imagine how they can create a better culture. In this world Americans would see each other as neighbors and treat each other as friends, even and especially when they disagree deeply.

They recommend that Americans first forge better relationships with people before talking politics:

Imagine if Americans began to exchange the peace with their political opponents. In a secular setting they could simply say, “I am your friend.”

This would transform the tone of politics. Treating opponents as friends would be more than a nicety. By showing that we are disposed to listen as well as speak, it would make possible real dialogue.

You don’t have to be a cleric to recommend this approach. James Fallows, the Atlantic journalist whose book with his wife Deborah, Our Towns, reports on how Americans are rebuilding their country, says something similar. (Our Towns is also a movie coming out soon on HBO.)

When meeting strangers, Fallows tells me, it’s best to establish rapport by first asking about the local instead of the national, like “their future or their children’s future in a certain area or industry, how they deal with their neighbors, how the schools run.”

In an email, he explains:  

The range of possible views about national politics is surprisingly limited. People are for Trump — or against him — for a set of finite, and very well represented, reasons.  You virtually never learn anything new, interesting, or insightful about people or communities by asking where they stand on that familiar spectrum.

Fallows adds that reporting on politics in the months approaching an election is useful, but says that, as a rule, immediately jumping face-first into a conversation about Democrats and Republicans

short-circuits the many areas of possible discussion, potential two-way instruction and persuasion, and likely agreement, and jumps to a realm that (in this era) is the least tractable to discussion, persuasion, compromise, and so on.  You *start* with the greatest source of potential division, which makes it very difficult to work your way back to the many areas of possible agreement and cooperation.

Once you’ve established that cooperation, it becomes increasingly feasible to have nuanced conversations about specific questions of politics, like the economy or health care, or even guns or abortion.

Last night, Phil Remke and I texted about one of this year’s hot-button political topics, anti-racism protests, which I support and which he, like President Trump, feels have spun out of control.

Phil: I spoke to a lady that is in charge of nurses at one of the hospitals, and she was disgusted because some of the nurses went out to protest, just left, but still got paid. How wrong is that.

John: They were exercising their first amendment rights, no? And they probably don’t make much money.

Phil: Still not right, what if a small business employee walks out, for a protest, sorry they would not be working for me any longer.

John: Yeah I’d ask for permission.

Phil: They are there to work, protest on their own time. I am old school, NOT this new generation.

John: You didn’t march in the 60s? What about 1776? The Boston Tea Party??

Phil: Are you baiting me? NOT going to work. And no I didn’t march in the 60s. How old do you think I am?

John: Haha. Yes, I’m baiting you a bit. People skipping work is a violation of a labor contract, yes but that doesn’t discredit protesting—that’s democracy baby.

Phil: Friendly protests I don’t mind, but not what is going on now, I do have problems with that.

John: Very small minority—99% of people protesting are law-abiding & motivated by genuine concern for their fellow Americans.

Phil: I personally don’t have a problem with that. Everyone has their own views we all should be civil, it is why we have a democracy. Let’s not forget we are all God’s children and we should respect each other. My finger is tired, it is also old, going to go now. Night.

John W. Miller


How a Bad Dog Did Good — Jack Russell Terrier Terrorized Moundsville While Heart of Gold Kept His Human Happy — Canines Help West Virginians ‘Roll With the Punches’

When you live in a gritty Ohio River town, sometimes it takes a cranky dog to keep you happy.

For 17 years, Toby, a spunky brown and white Jack Russell Terrier, was a life companion to Steve Hummel, star of Moundsville (now playing on PBS) and owner of the Archives of the Afterlife, a museum in Moundsville, WV celebrating the paranormal. The first time Steve met the puppy, with his ex-wife, it was “love at first bite.” (Yes, the dog snapped at him.) Ever after, until he died last month, Toby “was not exactly the most well-behaved dog,” Steve told me.

But something clicked, as it has for many in that part of the world. (West Virginia ranks fifth in the country in dog ownership, with 46% of the state’s residents sharing their lives with canines.)

I admire Steve’s pluck, courage and cheer, because, at 37, he lives in a world with far less opportunity than his ancestors received, but he hasn’t quit on Moundsville, his hometown. Since an early, short stint in the Air Force, he’s owned a gym, a hot dog parlor and now his paranormal museum. He takes care of his grandfather and sells his paintings online. Steve‘s muscle is hustle.

Steve’s marriage, which began when he was 19, lasted only a couple years. The former Mrs. Hummel couldn’t handle Toby. She gave him to Steve and adopted another Jack Russell Terrier. “He wouldn’t listen to her and he would listen to me,” said Steve, calling it a “red flag”.

Toby didn’t always listen to Steve. As they walked around Moundsville, the prowling hound often got loose. If animals entered the yard, he counterattacked. He killed a menagerie, including cats, possums, chipmunks and squirrels. Even a black snake. He even went after bigger dogs, including a Bull Mastiff and an Akita. “Toby was very headstrong, very stubborn,” said Steve, whose grandfather, Les Barker, told him that he had “never seen a dog who so closely resembled his master.”

Toby’s prickly character made him well-suited to his habitat, said Steve. “A lot of folks around here don’t want to give up on their towns, that’s like Toby. He was very headstrong, very stubborn.” In Moundsville, said Steve, “I roll with the punches, that’s the one main option I got, because when you sit back and look at this situation, maybe things aren’t so bad.”

No doubt, that’s what Toby felt every time Steve fed him his favorite foods, Purina and Rachael Ray beef and venison. In a Facebook post this spring, Steve described Toby in more detail:

My name is: Toby

My nickname: Toby the Terrible, Tob-Tob, P.I.T.A., S**t Bird…

My breed is: Jack Russell Terrier

My age is: 17

My favorite human food is: Pepperoni, Chicken, Cheese Twisty Powder,…

My biggest fear is: As a younger lad… NOTHING! As an old man a few things including the sweeper.

My favorite thing to do: Sleep nowadays. As a younger pooch.. RAMPAGE! lol

My favorite toy: Not a thing nowdays, but tug-of-war when he was younger.

What I hate most: Being pestered.

Where do I sleep: With my grandpap in his chair. lol

Do I snore? Nah, not really.

In his 1965 masterpiece “My Dog Tulip”, about his long companionship with an Alsatian, English writer J.R. Ackerley wrote that “if you look like a wild beast you are expected to behave like one; and human beings, who tend to disregard the savagery of their own conduct, shake their heads” over dogs. “’What can you expect of a wolf?’ they say.”

In a post he penned the day after Toby died, Steve wrote: “After 17 years of fun, attitude and destruction this part of our lives path has come to an end. Hopefully we’ll run into each other again when my time comes. Take care old buddy. Rest Easy, Toby.”

In another post, Steve said: “He was a little warrior to the end. He even managed to have a little attitude as he left, lol.”

Steve told me he won’t get another dog “anytime soon.”

— John W. Miller —

Local Launch Angle: Moundsville Man Inspired by Moon Missions Helps Rover Get to Mars

NASA’s seven-month rover mission to Mars, the Perseverance, launched last week, included fuel systems designed by Glenn Romanoski, a 64-year-old metallurgical engineer from Moundsville, WV.

The Mars rover, equipped with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers, aims to return samples of rock and dirt to Earth, so they can be analyzed for possible signs of life.

From his current perch at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Romanoski fabricated components for the mission’s plutonium-based fuel systems.

So yes, this is a local angle story about a rocket scientist who happened to have grown up in the town we made a PBS movie about.

But Romanoski’s story also points to a deeper truth about small towns before industrial decline. They had terrific education systems, and minted young men and women who, unlike many people in alienated hamlets today, felt they were part of the larger American society, with all its dreams and struggles.

In the 1960s, schools in Moundsville would “bring in a TV to watch the Apollo missions,” Romanoski told me when we caught up by phone this week. Even in a small towns, people felt they were a part of something larger. “Everybody had a great sense of optimism, and the future belonged to us as much as anybody in the country,” he said.

Romanoski, Glenn
Glenn Romanoski

Working on a Mars mission carries a similar sense of grandeur. “It’s going to take over six months to get there,” he said. “It’s always exciting. I’m a small part of something big, and the complexity of these missions is humbling and mind-boggling.”

It’s a rare thing that unites the country, he noted. “It’s great every America has some of their tax dollars on board and they’re part  of it,” he said. “I wish we could do other big projects to completion.”

In the Moundsville Romanoski grew up in, friends and family worked their whole lives in jobs with good union salaries at places like the Marx toy plant or the Fostoria glass factory. He loved it. “Sometimes I think it’s a blessing to be from a small town because you feel a connection and you can sense of the scale and scope of things around you,” he told me.

As a kid, Romanoski was taken to see steel mills and coal mines, and inspired to study engineering and metallurgy at the University of Cincinnati and MIT. Along the way, he was inspired to think about wider uses of materials, and wound up at Oak Ridge.

The engineer likes to return every fall to hunt for squirrels and deer. “There’s no more beautiful place than West Virginia in the fall,” he said. “But every year, you’d see a more desperate situation.”

As factories closed, most of his classmates from John Marshall high school left town, he said. It’s difficult to see what will become of Moundsville and its economy. “They’ll be pumping gas out of the ground for decades to come but when I was growing up in the 60s I had a sense that my relatives there seemed to be more of a permanence to people’s employment,” he said. “I had a couple uncles who worked at Fostoria glass. They always did and that’s what they did until they retired.”

As the story of Moundsville and its 2,000-year-old mound show, there is nothing permanent. Romanoski seemed to think my comparison of him leaving Moundsville (and its two-thousand-year-old mound, symbol of the deep past) and humans leaving the Earth (symbol of the future!) was maybe a bit lofty– but he embraced idea of dreaming of a better life somewhere else.

Near him in Tennessee, “Latin American immigrants have been moving in, and there are homes selling for $30,000 that might not be attractive to everybody, but for some people, that’s an exciting new life,” he said. “Of course, you need the jobs.”

John W. Miller


Moundsville Gets an MRAP (For Floods and Hostages) — America Discovers West Virginia Town of Brad Paisley, George Brett, Lady Gaga — AOC, Julian Castro Weigh In — Armored Truck Highlights U.S. Overspending on Defense

You could be forgiven if you’d never heard of Moundsville, WV, pop. 8,400, until Jaime Baker of WTOV9 in Steubenville, OH, reported that the town’s police this week picked up a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected truck, or MRAP.

The machines cost up to a million dollar a piece, but Moundsville got its for free, thanks to the Pentagon’s so-called 1033 program, which channels excess military supplies to small towns. President Obama placed restrictions on the program after racial unrest in Ferguson, MO, in 2014, and President Trump resurrected it in 2017. Now Moundsville has become the latest symbol of the program’s excesses.

Although George Brett and Brad Paisley were born in the area, and Lady Gaga still visits her grandmother there, this hamlet on the Ohio river between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati rarely ruffles feathers.

A tiny town getting a war machine while America tries to curb the use of excessive police force that has been killing African-Americans highlighted this country’s unhealthy obsession with military gear, even in quiet, peaceful places.

I talked to two Moundsville city council members. One was happy to have the truck, saying the police can use it to rescue people during a flood, which does happen in the area, or to deal with a hostage situation, which is less likely. Moundsville barely has any crime at all. The other councilperson called it a toy the town doesn’t need. Moundsville is a sleepy town with an aging population

In 2018, we spent nine months traveling to Moundsville from Pittsburgh to make “Moundsville”, which is now playing on PBS. (You can buy or rent a longer version here.)  It’s a fascinating place, built around a two-thousand-year-old burial mound left behind by the Adena people, and rich in industrial history, and tarred by present impoverishment. It could use money for schools, roads, and job training, among other things.

But instead of butter, it’s getting guns. Moundsville is not exceptional in receiving military gear from the Pentagon. It’s one of many towns that have picked up bayonets, grenade launchers, assault rifles, combat knives, helicopters and detonator robots.

They’re the leftovers from the trillions of dollars this country spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other politicians pointed out Friday, that money could have been better spent on people.

Julian Castro, a Democratic candidate for president in 2020, said the acquisition showed the need to “demilitarize police”.

Moundsville once had mighty factories, including Marx, maker of Rock’em Sock’em Robots and the Big Wheel, and Fostoria. Since 1980, the town’s lost over 7,000 jobs. The population has fallen in half. Nowadays, any help is welcome.

The question for people in town isn’t why Moundsville is getting an MRAP, it’s why America has only MRAPs to give Moundsville.

John W. Miller

Are Ghosts Making a Comeback After Covid Quarantine? Check the Spirit-Filled Appalachians and Rust Belt, Say Paranormal Investigators — Haunted Relic Expo in Moundsville, WV, July 18 — Psychic: “I’ve Needed Self-Care” During Grief-Filled Lockdown

The Appalachians and the Rust Belt have a rich past, from prehistoric mound-building peoples thousands of years ago to the French-Indian and Civil wars, and, more recently, aggressive industrialization from 1880-1980, and now, de-industrialization and depopulation. That’s why the Ohio Valley is “a plethora of paranormal activity”, says Kristin Lee, a psychic medium and owner of the Bellaire Haunted House in Bellaire, Ohio.

Lee is one of a half-dozen speakers Steve Hummel has invited for his Haunted Relic Expo at the Archives of the Afterlife Museum (1600 Third Street, in an old schoolhouse) July 18, 1pm to 8pm. Steve and the Archives museum are featured prominently in our movie Moundsville now out on PBS. “We’re holding this in the summer, because school is out, and now quarantine is over, and at Halloween, I have a lot of other stuff going on,” says Hummel.

The 37-year-old was the first person I met in Moundsville, when I pulled off the highway in 2013 and saw a sign that said “Paranormal Hot Dog Stand.” It was Steve’s business, which I profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, the first step toward making the movie in 2018.

You’ll find these atypical small businesses all over the Appalachians and Rust Belt (Moundsville sits on the border of the two). They’re started and run by people like Steve, who have stayed in towns that no longer offer plentiful employment.  Steve is an artist, entrepreneur, tour guide, Christian preacher and demonologist, paranormal investigator, and all-around hustler, who has cobbled together a living from side gig and rental income.

A lot of them are in the ghost business, appropriate for a place where many dream of going back to the more prosperous past. From my WSJ story:

“We’re seeing a rebirth of 19th-century spiritualism,” says parapsychologist author Pamela Heath. “It happens in times of stress and anxiety.” A parallel trend is the boom in full-time haunted houses. America Haunts, a trade association, estimates that there are now 1,200 haunted houses in the U.S., with annual revenue of $500 million. Both numbers have doubled in the past 10 years.

The phenomenon is prevalent in the Rust Belt. “People in these depressed areas want to escape reality,” says America Haunts organizer Ben Armstrong, who co-owns a haunted house in an old Pepsi-Cola bottling plant in Atlanta. “One of the areas with the most haunted houses is around Detroit.”

Spiritual activity is known to feed off human energy and activity, says Hummel. “If there haven’t been a lot of people around, there’s less energy.” That’s why a comeback for humans after Covid lockdowns also means a comeback for ghosts.

Lee agrees but warns: “We don’t call them ghosts, that’s Scooby Doo. We’re talking about spirits and metaphysics.”

Kristen Lee

Without people to interact with, spirits are bursting with energy, she says. “It’s like when you charge a phone.”

The sadness and anxiety around the pandemic have been hard on psychic mediums, says Lee. “The grief and despair have been draining for somebody,” she says. “These jobs have been hard. I’ve needed a lot of self-care.”

Speakers for the Haunted Relic Expo include Kristen Lee, Dave Spinks, Tom Moore, Adam Bonnett, Aaron Shriver and Paranormal Quest.

Special guest collectors include Ed Bowden, Chris Sanders, Derin Tin, the Keystone State Paranormal Society, Outsider Paranormal and Zach Moore of History Haunts and Legends Tours.

Admission is $5.

VIP Ghost Hunt is $10.

Vending is $20, includes one table and two admissions.  

Hummel is also organizing a “Gospel Trumpet Revival” on July 11, at 4pm, at the same location. The goal of the day’s program, which includes music and preaching, is to “promote spiritual healing, the formation of lasting friendships and the salvation of God’s people.”

You can contact Steve Hummel at 304-231-7134 or stevesgymandfitness@yahoo.com

John W. Miller

New Film: In ‘The Campaign of Miner Bo’, Laid-Off West Virginia Coal Miner Runs For U.S. Senate in 2018 — After His Own Political Trials, Bo Copley Empathizes With Clinton: “I Want To Help Find Common Ground”

Bo Copley got his 15 minutes of political fame as the laid-off West Virginia coal miner who challenged Hillary Clinton on a campaign stop during the 2016 presidential election, and then fought a quixotic battle for U.S. Senate in 2018.

In a speech, Clinton had declared her support for miners who needed help and support because environmental controls and the rise of natural gas were decimating their industry. In the speech, Clinton said:

And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.

Critics seized a soundbite from her introduction to the problem – “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of business” – and turned it into a campaign slogan against her.

One of those was Copley, who in 2018 decided to turn his news-amplified voice into a campaign for the U.S. Senate.

The 43-year-old is from Delbarton, a tiny town in the heart of Mingo County, an impoverished coal region in the southern part of West Virginia famous for the Matewan Massacre, and the Hatfield and McCoy feud. Remarkably, he had no campaign experience or established political network before attempting to win statewide office because he felt called by God to use his platform to make a difference.

In Brooklyn, filmmaker Todd Drezner was watching. After the 2016 election, he was looking for a creative project that would help bridge America’s political divides.

He got in touch with Copley who agreed to let him shoot a feature documentary about his Republican primary campaign.

The Campaign of Miner Bo is an engaging journey with Copley, a friendly family man whose evangelical Christian pro-gun anti-abortion politics and support for President Trump clash with those of the New York filmmaker’s.

That’s the point, Drezner told me. Even if we disagree with the politics of people like Copley, “you can’t dismiss their entire lives.” The question is  “how can we find common ground, even if we don’t agree with each other.”

In addition, Copley’s underdog battle “is the American dream of the person who’s unemployed and has no money and thinks he can be elected to U.S. Senate.”

We see Copley laid off from his job as a mine foreman (he doesn’t literally dig for coal) and frustrated, looking for work. “It’s hard to make ends meet right now,” he says. He finds solace in his Christian church, his close community and coaching his son’s soccer team.

As a politician, he’s not exactly a natural. He’s shy about asking people for their vote, and especially their money, a losing recipe in modern politics.

“It’s not a conventional campaign,” Copley tells his coach, campaign manager Jaryd Crum.

But Copley is a decent man, looking for compromise and respectful of American principles found in the Constitution. When an activist at a West Virginia teachers’ union rally berates him for being a Republican, Copley, refreshingly, does not feel threatened. “She has a right to free speech,” he says. “It is what it is.” He says he understands the teachers’ anger and praises his own education. Copley knows he’s an underdog. “Send a David to slay Goliath,” he tells voters.

Drezner is not afraid to challenge Copley, pointing out, for example, that Clinton was actually declaring her support for miners. Copley answers: “I didn’t know that she had said we don’t want to forget those people, but I think we’ve already been forgotten by a lot people across the nation.”

Drezner’s movie is more about politics than mining. Even if Copley were elected President, he’d have a hard time reversing the fall of coal mining, in trouble around the world as countries, including the U.S., transition to renewables, natural gas and nuclear. There are fewer than 20,000 coal miners left in West Virginia.

And if this movie is about politics, it’s about the decency of an earnest political campaign with the best intention of helping others, and, beneath the surface, the connection between the West Virginia coal foreman and the Brooklyn filmmaker.

In the end, Copley loses the Republican primary to West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrissey, getting a little over 4,000 votes, fifth in a six-man field. Morrissey then lost to Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat.

These days, Copley is back to work, but he’s thinking about running for office again. “I want to help find common ground,” he told me in a phone interview. “You and I might not agree, but we don’t need to be extreme, we should compromise and meet somewhere in the middle. That’s what politics should be.”

The process of running for Senate, and feeling the political burn of unwarranted attacks and pressures of garnering support have left Copley more empathetic toward professional politicians. If he could talk to Hillary Clinton now, he told me, he’d tell her “thank you for coming to talk in a place where you knew people wouldn’t like you.”

The promise of better human connection is always uplifting.

An hour-long version of The Campaign of Miner Bo will be broadcast on public television stations around the country this fall. The full-length feature will be available on video on demand platforms in October. To be notified about screenings and VOD availability, join the mailing list at the film’s website, www.minerbofilm.com

John W. Miller