Thursday, June 13, 2013

Q&A with author Ken Rossignol

Ken Rossignol, the former publisher of the weekly newspaper St. Mary's Today, is a prolific author. His books include Titanic 1912, Bank of Crooks & Criminals, and The Story of The Rag. He often speaks on cruise ships about maritime history and the Titanic.

Q: What sparked your interest in the Titanic, and was there anything that particularly surprised you as you learned more about it? 

A: I first read of the Titanic at the age of 12 when I read Walter Lord’s great novel, A Night to Remember.

Lord interviewed 60 survivors of the ship who were still alive in 1956 when he wrote his book and the connection he made with so many of those who were on the ship really added the human story as well as capturing the emotions.

Even today, I think that so many who are touched by the tragedy wonder, what would they have done had they been on the ship, what thoughts would they have if were in a lifeboat gently moving away as the ship sunk, lower and lower until it was gone.

Telling the story of the Titanic in my book, Titanic 1912, occurred to me as I read the historical newspapers of the days and weeks after the disaster.

I caught myself making the same mistake I had always done, of only reading the headlines. When I decided to actually read the articles, I found those first news stories were the best accounts of the Titanic I had ever read.

Then I looked around and in spite of there being hundreds of books about the Titanic, none went back and did any analysis of the original news stories. So I did. I played out the news stories for the reader and then provided the information as to whether or not the news story was correct, if they got it wrong or right, as it is important to know the difference. 

I also tried to track down how they got the story wrong, through embellishment or miscommunication of wireless transmissions, as it was both.

There was one news story that proclaimed that the Titanic was too big for any shipyard in America to repair it and the ship would have to be brought back to Great Britain. Another story in an English paper said that the ship was under tow to Halifax. The Washington Post noted that there were about 800 casualties and the London Daily Mail said “all were saved”.  

On the 100th anniversary of the sinking, a friend in London mailed me the glossy color pullout of the Daily Mail showing their coverage of the event and they didn’t have enough class to bother to include their original mistake.

I also included some contemporary coverage with criticisms of news organizations of today showing an inability to get the story right, even 100 years later. 

Big surprise.

I have a new book about the poems and music of the Titanic and again, I went back into history to see how people expressed their sorrow and hearts over the tragedy.

I included a few original poems and stories of my own. People all over sent to newspapers their compositions in verse about the Titanic and from schoolchildren to some noted poets of the time, they added to the body of the knowledge of the story that we have to read today.

At one point, the editor of The New York Times wrote a pithy editorial, pointing out that his newspaper had been receiving hundreds of poems a day. He wrote that just because one owned a pencil and piece of paper didn’t make one a poet, and would people just stop sending them into the newspaper.

Newspapers today may mislead their readers but they are seldom so unfriendly, especially about the reaction of the nation to a tremendous tragedy like the Titanic disaster.

Q: What were some of the highlights of your years in the newspaper business, and how were you able to select what to include in your book The Rag?

A: I founded my local newspaper in Southern Maryland after I realized that all our local papers had been sold out to the big chains and that no one at those papers cared about reporting the news of crime or government.

They were simply go-along, get-along puff sheets and with the exception of one, they are all in the ashbins of history. People wanted to know what was really going on and they wanted their public officials held accountable for how they spent the public’s money and conducted the operations of government. Folks were also ticked off at how drug dealers and hellhole bars blatantly operated and were poisoning their community.

With such a permissive attitude rampant among those who should have been holding law enforcement agencies’ feet to the fire, no one was pointing out the racist application of drug laws. The white drug dealers skated and the black ones went to jail.

Oddly enough, our DWI coverage and pressure on officials and drug dealers attracted attention and Eugene L. Meyer’s front-page news story in the Post gained us national attention on our small-town rag in 1991. Dave Statter brought me in to the WUSA fold and for ten years I was a free-lancer with the station in providing them first-breaking news of the Southern Maryland region for the Channel 9 audience. Later our coverage extended to WJLA and WRC.

Our news photos by Terrance Greenhow of the infamous arson fire at Hunters Brook in Indian Head was picked up and run by news media around the world, and our photographer Dusty Cassidy was the first on the scene so we could break the story of the missing former CIA Director William Colby.

I was very proud of the fact that the country-club Republicans and the liberal Democrats all hated me equally and that it took my newspaper to break the story of Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening having an affair with his deputy chief of staff, a woman to whom he promoted and gave $31,000 in raises while bedding her. He denied the story but then his wife divorced him and he married his girlfriend in time for them to announce their love child to the world. He also should be held responsible for killing off the chances of his Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on succeeding him as governor when the state put the first Republican in the statehouse in 40 years.

I had the killer of a 13-year-old girl confess to me and it still took a bumbling sheriff another year to not lock him up and finally I got the Maryland State Police to take over the case and bring the man to justice. Covering drug raids, fatal wrecks, fires and printing the real news stories of how our volunteer institutions and governmental groups often fail to do what they say they are going to do or are paid to do is a great way to catch flack. I don’t miss it a bit.

With a Republican sheriff and a Republican state’s attorney leading a posse of six deputies out the night before the 1998 election and cleaning out newsstands of all available copies of my newspaper in order to avoid having voters read critical articles about them prior to voting, I was given the opportunity to embark on a six-year battle in court, which we won.

The decision, Rossignol v Voorhaar, Fourth Circuit United States Court of Appeals, ruled that it was in violation of the 1983 Civil Rights Act for that crew of law officers to retaliate for news coverage and to prevent readers from deciding what to read. The three-judge panel’s published opinion made reference to the law being enacted in response to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and said such conduct was consistent with a society much more oppressive than our own.

Ben Bradlee was really supportive to me (he subscribed to my paper and paid his invoice each year for 22 years) and helped kick the butts of the lazy minions of his Washington Post newsroom to get them to actually provide coverage of the original sweep of newsstands, which his paper had first passed off as a prank.

That changed.

After the Post ran a front-page Style section story, Good Morning America brought me to New York to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer and Chris Wallace did a special segment on 20/20, which explained the story in detail. Bradlee told me at the conclusion of the court action, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, that the decision was the most important First Amendment ruling in 40 years.  The wonderful firm of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz took my case, along with counsel from Alice Neff Lucan, with lead litigators Ashley Kissinger and Seth Berlin, and the rest is now the law of the land.

Telling the story of the newspaper was really difficult, as explaining to people how a small regional newspaper with a weekly print edition and 24-hour internet coverage is accomplished can never be adequately described.

From our readers, our advertisers, our eyes and ears in the communities we served came the lifeblood of a news operation – information.

Since most web news operations in the area now equal the lifeless reporting of the local sheets, I am constantly asked if I will return my newspaper to life.

I sold the paper three years ago and the new owner closed it after losing $1 million in eight months. During that time he changed the name and changed the focus to fluff and stuff instead of crime and government.He says he would like to give it another try and if does, he treated me right, I would help him but I doubt that he will.

I still have my monthly, The Chesapeake, and it includes some news along with fish. We have two collections of short stories from The Chesapeake since 1988 in eBook and paperback available in all venues.

I recently put three years of work into a news/book, Bank of Crooks & Criminals, in which the story of an old Marine being robbed by his banker at the point of a pen is revealed. The crooked bankers of Southern Maryland and the crooked lawyers, of which we seem to have a never-ending supply, have really worked over this man but the victim’s fortitude will hopefully prevail. This experience teaches me that the news can be still be covered on a local basis using the forces of digital publishing.

Q: How do you conduct the research for your books?

A: I spend a lot of time in libraries. I also travel around the world giving talks on maritime history and draw upon my thousands of photos I take to help me be inspired and to describe what I am trying to provide to the reader.

Q: In addition to your writing, you have a website focusing on the dangers of driving while impaired, an issue that has had a tragic impact on your own family. What can you tell us about the site,

A: The website speaks for itself and Jay Korff of WJLA did a great job on a news piece that is accessible at the top of my website.  He won an Emmy for that work.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A story of how to better choose a cruise ship and what one should really know about the real dangers that lurk on the high seas.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Sure, Gene Meyer was kind enough to invite me to be part of a panel that you, Deborah, moderated on June 8, 2013 at the Books Alive 2013 conference and I decided to add my remarks to a Voice of the Author forum on Amazon. Our fellow panelist, Robert W. Walker, chastised me for being too humble in describing the reaction of the attendees to our panel on self-publishing and promotion of our books. Therefore, my retort to Rob, I turned into an actual eBook, Notice My Book, which is available now on Amazon but I have provided for your blog readers here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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