Objective Advocacy: Lessons from Mike Frome

“He’s what all good conservation communicators should be, a gadfly to some, an inspiration to others. You can’t, as the old saying goes, make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and our new Chief has cracked more than a few vulnerable shells in his career.”

— Joel Vance, welcoming Dr. Michael Frome to the Circle of Chiefs

By Ted Williams

“But did he have to name names?” one of the many editors who have fired Mike Frome plaintively intoned to investigators from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Well, yes he did.

“He gives ’em hell,” bragged one of the many editors who have hired Mike Frome. Well, no he doesn’t. To borrow the words of Harry Truman, he “just tells the truth on ’em, and they think it’s hell.”

Frome didn’t become a college professor until seven years after I’d finished my schooling, but he is the best writing instructor I’ve ever had. He started teaching me my sophomore year in college when I read his first conservation column in Field & Stream. That was 1967.

Later, during my graduate studies in journalism, my professors pounded home the message that allowing one’s opinion to show in an article was as indecent as mooning the dean. Professional writers never pushed, prodded or challenged their readers. They were “objective” in that they presented only “facts.” They gave both sides of every story, never hinting that one side might be wrong or which side that might be. They got quotes from both sides, even when one or both sides were lying. They never identified the lies, probably because they didn’t recognize them.

The kind of reporting Frome did was harder and served the reader better. Rather than recycle flack babble and press releases from, say, Weyerhaeuser and the Sierra Club — something readers could get on their own — he dug out the real story. And, while he didn’t sermonize, he made it absolutely clear what he thought. How could a writer be so “unprofessional” and work for national magazines?

Frome claims not to have known much about teaching when he entered academia in 1978 as a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont. He’s wrong because the best writers don’t just “report”; they also teach. When Frome got to the classroom he kept doing what he had always done since signing on with The Washington Post late in 1945 (after four years in the Army Air Force). He just did it in a different medium.

Frome’s central message in print and in class has always been that advocacy journalism is a virtue not a vice, that it’s not just OK but essential to have “an agenda,” and that if you’re an outdoor writer and your agenda is not safeguarding fish, wildlife and the environment, you should be in a different business. Here’s how he puts it in his recent book, Green Ink, which ought to go out with the member directory to all OWAA members: “I have heard the command to ‘be professional’ used in some instances to block expressions of pity, grief, or outrage at wrongdoing…. As practiced by most dailies and other outlets, established journalism continues to suffer under the delusion that objectivity is being maintained. Not only is this a sham, but it does not promote as much digging into contrary views as the alternative advocacy. The best journalism carries authority and a sense of purpose. Literate writing, advocacy writing, contributes to a view of the world that is more rather than less complicated…. Get the facts, but then write them with feeling, your own feeling.”

Frome taught me that getting and staying hired is easy. What takes talent, effort and spine is getting fired — or, rather, choosing to get fired when principles are at stake. Frome has done a lot of this, displaying a brand of courage you don’t see much in journalism or anywhere. But he also taught me that whenever a door closes behind you another opens ahead.

American Forests has come far since March 4, 1971, when William Towell, then its executive vice president, sent this written order to James Craig, editor of the outfit’s magazine, American Forests, about its muck-raking columnist: “Frome, in the future, is not to write critically about the U.S. Forest Service, the forest industry, the profession or about controversial forestry issues…. I am very pleased, as was the board that Mike has agreed to this censorship.” But Frome had agreed to no such thing. Agreeing would have been easy; getting fired, the path he chose, was not. Richard Starnes, then Frome’s fellow practitioner of advocacy journalism at Field & Stream, wrote about the incident in such terse prose that he was able to get the entire story into his title: “How the Clearcutters Tried to Gag Mike Frome.”

It still astonishes me that Field & Stream and, later, Western Outdoors would have hired someone like Frome. He’s not a hunter, and he exaggerates with the word “pretty” when he calls himself “a pretty terrible fisherman.” I’m even more astonished that he managed to stay at Field & Stream seven years, writing 75 conservation columns and a dozen features, always naming names, never pulling a punch. Frome was happy at Field & Stream. “Clare Conley [the editor for most of his tenure] gave me free rein, plenty of space and supported me all the way,” he says. “I loved writing for the hunters and fishers in the outdoors community and received calls and letters from all over the country with inside information, invitations and pleas to come to investigate issues. I spoke at state wildlife federations, Trout Unlimited chapters and at college and university programs.”

I especially liked Frome’s “Rate Your Candidate,” published before each election. Politicians who got low scores, including Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) and Rep. Gerald Ford (R-MI), complained bitterly. Sen. John Pastore (D-RI), chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, which regulated broadcasting, earned only a “marginal” in the 1972 election. In 1974, with Conley gone, Field & Stream cancelled “Rate Your Candidate” and fired Frome, explaining that it just didn’t like Frome’s writing, which may have been true, and later that he was “anti-hunting,” which wasn’t true. Reporting on the firing, Time magazine quoted Conley, as saying, “We got vibes from CBS [which owned Field & Stream at the time] that they didn’t want trouble with Pastore. The word was ‘Do what you have to do, but take it easy,’ “ to which the magazine added: “That Frome refused to do, with the result that he lost his biggest platform.”

Even then I respected Field & Stream’s right to fire anyone it pleased, but what struck me as much more newsworthy than the firing was the public reaction it generated. Nothing like it has ever been seen in outdoor journalism. Readers picketed CBS headquarters in Washington, D.C. Expressing outrage in print was Ray Scott of the Bass Angler Sportsman Society, Jack Lorenz of the Izaak Walton League, Tom Bell of High Country News, fish and wildlife agencies in Massachusetts and Montana, even Outdoor Life.

On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Silvio Conte (R-MA) declared: “Mr. Speaker, I rise to express my dismay and outrage about the censorship and dismissal of Michael Frome, one of the nation’s foremost conservation writers… Because he occasionally dared to attack those politicians who control legislation in committees important to CBS, Mike Frome was censored, censured and, finally, dismissed…. It is intolerable that CBS, which prides itself as a national symbol and defender of the principles of free speech and free press, can get away with firing Mike Frome because he exercised these principles…. The firing of Mike Frome must be interpreted as a selfish and hypocritical act.”

A remarkably accurate prophecy for the next three decades was offered by James M. Shepard, director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, in that agency’s magazine, Massachusetts Wildlife: “Don’t worry about Mike’s career. Why should you? He never has. And that, in a nutshell, is why his career has been and will be so illustrious. He’s forever getting fired from somewhere, but, to the dismay of those public enemies he publicly probes, he never shuts up.” New doors kept opening for him, and they keep opening still.

As a college professor Frome pushed the envelope, too, but it is harder to fire a professor than a writer, and eventually he won the support of most of his colleagues and superiors — liberating them to a degree. The University of Idaho College of Natural Resources now offers the Michael Frome Scholarship for excellence in conservation writing. A few ivy-covered deans and department heads he offended in numerous ways (including by bringing me in as a guest lecturer). He challenged and questioned, trained political activists and writers. Believing that people learn by doing, he encouraged his students to get involved and foment change. He sent them into the field to report on real issues, and he had them publish their articles. Sometimes this churned up the locals; but churning is good for everyone save a few tenured conservators of torpor.

Two years ago when I asked Frome to comment about environmental education for an article I was writing for Audubon, he sent me an excerpt from one of his lectures that gave me an insight into why some in academia view him as a threat: “Education, with only a few exceptions, is about careers, jobs, success in a materialistic world, elitism, rather than caring and sharing; it’s about facts and figures, cognitive values, rather than feeling and art derived from the heart and soul; it’s about conformity, being safe in a structured society, rather than individualism, the ability to question society and to constructively influence change in direction. A change in direction is critical and imperative. The most important legacy our generation can leave is not a world at war, nor a nation in debt to support a nuclear star-wars system, nor the settlement of outer space, transporting all our worldly problems to the rest of God’s universe, nor the breeding of test-tube babies and robotic drones. Our most precious gift to the future, if you will ask me, is a point of view embodied in the protection of wild places that no longer can protect themselves.”

My definition of a “legend” is someone who makes a difference, and to make a difference you have to be different yourself. You have to question, probe and nag. Never can you be content with the status quo. You can’t run out of fuel. You can’t worry about who you might offend. You punch only with the truth; and, while you never “pull” the truth, you also never bully. Unless you’re protecting a source or someone vulnerable to retribution, you need to name names in most cases; but you remember that the people you are naming have feelings, friends and families just like you.

I’m happy to report that Mike Frome, at 81, still follows the high standards he has set for himself and us, still is different, still is making a difference. He continues to speak, write, and gallivant around the world. I get tired just hearing what he’s doing.

Ted Williams is a freelance writer specializing in conservation and the environment. He is editor at large of Audubon and conservation editor of Fly Rod & Reel.

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