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 

An “excellent oral history” that unfolds “like a non-fiction novel” reminiscent of Errol Morris’ seminal 1981 film, Vernon, Florida. — Jonathan W. Hickman, Times-Herald

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

When the Hillbilly Shot the Filmmaker: The Genius of ‘Stranger with a Camera’

We’ve been fighting over hillbilly elegies for a long time.

This week, amid the buzz and furor over the Ron Howard movie, I watched Stranger with a Camera, a 2000 doc by Kentucky filmmaker Elizabeth Barret.

The Appodlachia podcast team, John Isner and Chuck Corra, published an anthology of books, movies and podcasts about Appalachia, and included the film, available for free here. (I’m grateful they also included my PBS movie about Moundsville, West Virginia.)

Stranger is an American treasure, and should be watched by every journalist, activist, preacher, priest and professor. The movie is about our nightmare, source shoots storyteller, and is a deep meditation on the charge of “poverty porn” leveled at Hillbilly Elegy (which I wrote about for America Magazine this week.)

In 1967, a Kentucky man named Hobart Isom murdered Hugh O’Connor, a Canadian filmmaker surfing a wave of journalists, documentarians and activists sweeping into Appalachia in the 1960s, spinning poor white people stories. These hillbilly elegists were inspired by a 1963 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and by President Lyndon Johnson’s martial focus on the spectacle of Appalachian indigence.

The murder of O’Connor, recounted in Stranger with a Camera, is a shocking, and surprisingly rare, case in the history of journalism and documentary filmmaking, although violence is a reasonable fear when the president calls reporters enemies of the people. (I was a bit worried when we premiered Moundsville in Moundsville.)

In Kentucky, it happened. Isom pulled the trigger. The case was famous. Calvin Trillin wrote about it in the New Yorker.

What makes Stranger with a Camera remarkable is that the filmmaker, Barret, is from near the scene of the crime in Kentucky. She tells the story while relentlessly questioning herself and viewers on the deeper questions surrounding this random act of violence: Who should tell the story of a poor community? If it’s an outsider, how should they tell it? What are every storyteller’s responsibilities? Barret herself had the experience of living in an area while seeing the “poverty pictures on TV”, movies like Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People.

O’Connor was working on a movie called US that aimed to show the fragility of the American dream. As one of the poorest regions in the entire country, Eastern Kentucky attracted outside chroniclers like O’Connor. He and his crew were filming coal miners and their families. After stopping by a rental home in Jeremiah, KY, they were ambushed by the family’s landlord, Isom. He walked up and fired several shots with a .38-calibre Smith&Wesson, killing O’Connor. Isom’s family had owned the land since the 1890s. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison, and released on parole after one.

O’Connor, by all accounts, was an empathetic actor, experienced at traveling and interviewing people all over the world. “He was there for the underdog,” his daughter says.

In her twin roles as storyteller and neighbor, Barret felt called to probe what had happened more deeply. “As a filmmaker, I felt that O’Connor’s death had something to teach me,” she says in her voiceover. “What can I learn from this story now that I have stood on both sides of the camera?”

There is another side, and while Barret condemns the killing, she criticizes the exploitation. Some outsiders, she says, “mined the images the way the companies had mined the coal.” An army of pen and camera-wielding storytellers storming the hills were consistently heading straight for the most rundown places they could find. Poverty porn, a tradition dating back to slumming in 19th century New York. Barret felt insulted, she says, when filmmaker “focused only on the deprivation and didn’t look past it the lives that are the real wealth of the culture.”

What does this have to do with Hillbilly Elegy?

As the movie drops on Netflix this week, we’ve been on another frenetic ride into the story space of Appalachia, poor whites and so-called Trump country. The incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden drawing up strategies for reaching out to disaffected and disconnected America. There’s a Marshall Plan for Appalachia in the works. It might remind some of the war on poverty.

Barret’s movie poses the right question at the right time. “What are the responsibilities of any of us who take the images of other people and put them to our own uses?” Hobart Isom was wrong to kill, she says, “but the filmmaker’s job is to be true to the experiences of both Hugh O’Connor and Hobart Isom, and in the end to trust that that is enough.”

John W. Miller

‘America Lost’ Finds Humanity and Redemption in Youngstown, Memphis, Stockton

Church or state: How do we rebuild America’s left-behind communities?

NOTE: America Lost is currently available for free here.

The 2016 and 2020 elections had different outcomes, but this in common: neither magically reboots America’s diseased neighborhoods. The work of rebuilding, and surviving in, communities crippled by globalization, white flight, crime, drugs, income stagnation and the collapse of civic institutions and local journalism goes on, away from Washington. Whoever governs America in the future would do well to acknowledge the lived human experience of people in struggling places like Appalachia, Baltimore and the Ohio Valley. (And Moundsville, WV, as portrayed in our PBS film.) Their wages, health care, schools, safety, streets, parks and pools matter.

In America Lost, an 80-minute documentary playing on PBS and available on Amazon, director Christopher Rufo has made a film that adds to the important work of dignifying these left-behind hoods, hovels and hollers with complicated and enlightening humanity. It’s the kind of movie you need to watch if you want understand the full reality of America, including the presidency of Donald Trump and its aftermath.

Rufo spent five years filming people in three damaged urban areas, Youngstown, OH, Memphis, Tenn., and Stockton, CA. “Big city journalists and elite media think a poor coal town in Appalachia, an African-American neighborhood in Memphis and a Latino ghetto in California are completely different,” Rufo told me in a phone interview. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. The experience of these people is different, but what they’re going through” is similar, he said.

America Lost doesn’t offer broad theories about the causes of American decline, but notes a crumbling of institutions that bond people together in hard times, especially family and church. In his current job as director of the Center on Wealth & Poverty at the Discovery Institute, a right-leaning think tank, Rufo has positioned himself as a conservative thinker and writer — to the displeasure, he says, of many of his creative and film friends — but his movie, in my view, is more a great work of reporting than a position paper or sermon.

Rufo, 36, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Sacramento, and worked for over a decade as a documentary filmmaker. Filming America Lost, he told me, nudged him toward conservative orthodoxy. He came to see liberal anti-poverty social programs as almost useless, and salvation in the strength of individuals knitted together by healthy institutions, especially churches. The argument over trusting church or state for salvation is an old one, and Rufo’s work enriches it by shining a light on what’s actually happening to people’s lives.

There’s a temptation, when reporting in places like Appalachia, to define people by their connections to national political parties, companies, or trends, instead of fleshing out the intimate details of people’s life. America Lost doesn’t do that, focusing lovingly on its subjects. And, like Moundsville, it leaves national politics and Trump out of the picture. “The issues in the film transcend partisan politics,” said Rufo. “If the film took on those issues, it would be immediately polarized—and stop communicating with half the country. I focused on issues, not partisan politics.”

It’s a wise choice. Even if it’s important to understand, Trumpism usually stops more conversations than it starts. In screening Moundsville last year, my favorite part was the conversations after the film running toward stories about people and communities and jobs, and away from Trump and Washington gossip.

Another temptation for outsiders is to offer utopian solutions. Tax cuts will make factories rise from the ashes! Universal basic income will make us all happy and free! Instead, America Lost and Rufo suggest, we might work harder to start by simply accepting the truth that wide swaths of America have, for now, become markedly poorer, that there are no easy answers, and that people in those places deserve our respect, support and understanding. “The people I met in America’s forgotten cities are searching for purpose, meaning, moral order,” says Rufo.

I do wish that, instead of vaguely castigating “bureaucracy”, America Lost acknowledged U.S.’s most obvious public policy failures, especially the country’s outrageous health care costs and incomplete coverage and care. It’s hard to focus on finding meaning and purpose in your life when your teeth are aching. Why can’t we have church and state?

My favorite parts of Rufo’s film are his beautiful camerawork and illuminating selection of characters. For example, Todd, our on-screen guide in Youngstown, is a former steelworker turned scrap merchant, making a business out of melting down America’s former prosperity and turning it into metal for future projects. In this century, scrap has been one of this country’s biggest exports. We have literally been exporting our past.

Youngstown, Rufo tells us in a voiceover, is a city that “failed to make the transition from the modern to the postmodern world.” And, while, on the surface they’ve lost the factories, “but deeper than this they’ve lost the human bonds that once held people together.” Despite periods of economic retrenchment, this is the first time there’s been this kind of collapse of institutions, says Rufo.

The decline reported by Rufo has been well documented. We bowl alone. The tricky questions are around what to do about it. Should we let cities without good companies and jobs turn into ghost towns? How can we rebuild? Do employers beget a virtuous, hard-working labor pool or vice versa?

“There are no easy answers,” Rufo said. “On an individual level, if you want to be upwardly mobile and want a middle class life you should probably leave and go to Pittsburgh or Cleveland.”

For those staying behind, he found, there is usually work, even if it can’t afford a big city lifestyle. “In Memphis, there were warehouse jobs paying $15, $16 or $17 an hour, and I saw apartments there renting for $300 a month,” he said. Those are familiar economics for the millions of Americans who work jobs for less than $15 an hour with minimal benefits at places like CVS, WalMart and Chipotle.

The challenge is how to cope with that reality. “We’ve demolished the old social order but found nothing to replace it,” he says in the film.

That’s not true everywhere. As James and Deb Fallows report in their Our Towns book and film, there are pockets of entrepreneurship and investment rejuvenating small towns across this land, and that local business development helps build community in new, different ways.

Rufo finds answers of his own in the film’s last chapter, in a Latino neighborhood in Stockton, CA, where his hero is a pastor helping men, some former gang members, find and keep work, and function as good husbands and fathers. “Even those at the bottom can lead meaningful and dignified lives,” Rufo concludes. “We all have the capacity to make life a little better.”

In its admonitions against social programs and prescriptive embrace of the role of male leaders, families and pastors, America Lost is more ideological than Moundsville, but, in talking to Rufo, I found, in many ways, a fellow traveler. His film is vivid, authentic, intimate work, and a rich contribution to chronicling the pain, joy and hustle of this country’s hurting communities. No matter what your politics, that is the right place to start.

John W. Miller

Lady Gaga, Star with Roots in Appalachia, Campaigns in Pittsburgh — Mom from West Virginia Town Left for NYC, Part of Rural America Brain Drain

A divided Moundsville watches: “She should wear a Steelers jersey.”

On one level, Lady Gaga’s appearance in Pittsburgh tonight with Joe Biden, on the last night of the 2020 election, is a classic celebrity endorsement. Gaga is a globally famous pop star. Politicians seek out props like Lady Gaga all the time.

On another, Gaga’s appearance in Pittsburgh, Paris of Appalachia, is a reminder of the changing geography and economics of America, as depicted in our film, Moundsville, available on PBS or on this site.

Moundsville, WV (pop. 8,400), is a nearby town, built around a 2,200-year-old Native American burial mound, that once housed some of the world’s mightiest factories, including Fostoria Glass and Marx Toy Plant, maker of Rock’em Sock’em robots.

Lady Gaga’s mom, Cynthia Louise Germanotta, grew up in the Moundsville area in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, like millions of Americans, she left for bigger cities, in her case, New York. Factories were closing, destroying millions of good, middle-class jobs, destroying people’s dreams of any future in the area, and helping places like New York City rebuild. Lady Gaga’s grandmother stayed behind, part of the aging populations in the Rust Belt who helped elect President Trump in 2016.

These regions are not going to rebound until they can figure out ways of drawing young, talented people back to them, which, as James and Deb Fallows report in their excellent Our Towns book and upcoming HBO movie, is in fact happening in a lot of places. (Yes, Pittsburgh is one of them.) Lady Gaga could help America by making rebuilding small towns sexy.

Affirming her connection to Appalachian Trumpian good ole boy culture, Gaga posted a video of herself in camo in front of a pick-up truck. “I’m voting for America,” she tells the camera. “Which means, I’m voting for Joe Biden.”

“And if you live in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Florida or Arizona,” Gaga continues, “I encourage you to vote. And if you have a friend that lives there, tell them to vote. I’m going to be in one of these states tomorrow. Guess which one I’ll be in. Hint: I used to live there.”

She drinks from the beer can, squeezes liquid out it, then slams it on the ground. “Cheers,” she declares, “the 2020 election.”

The state she’s referring to is of course Pennsylvania. In Moundsville, just over an hour away from Pittsburgh, Gaga is still popular, even if her politics leave people just as divided as the 2020 election. That beer, truck and camo video is funny, but it probably isn’t swinging that many votes in the end; West Virginia is a lock for President Trump.

“People are very opinionated,” Rose Hart, founder of the Appalachian Outreach charity, told me. “Strong supporters of Trump, or they can’t stand him and are going to Biden because of him.”

Playing in nearby Pittsburgh is “a good move for Biden, and her fan base,” said Steve Hummel, owner of Moundsville’s Archives of the Afterlife, a paranormal museum. “Politics is business.”

There are ways Lady Gaga could bring people in Appalachia together. “She should wear a Steelers jersey,”said Alex Martinez, who works at the Acapulco restaurant in Moundsville, “or an all-meat uniform.” (Gaga wore a meat costumer at the MTV awards in 2010.) The Steelers, currently 7-0, are wildly popular in West Virginia.

“She has her own opinion, but she should keep it to herself,” said former Moundsville mayor, and Trump supporter, Phil Remke. The town is still proud of her, he added. Lady Gaga, he said, “is allowed her own opinion.”

John W. Miller

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