August 29, 2020 8:00:11 PM
Before coming to The Dispatch in the mid-90s, I worked as a commercial photographer. In those days there was a lot of manufacturing in the area, and there was product photography to be done: fishing lures, toilet seats, gym sets, hams.
Occasionally I would get the odd magazine assignment.
One of the last editorial assignments I took before my career change was for the Sunday magazine of a British newspaper. They sent me to south Florida to photograph the writer Carl Hiaasen.
Hiaasen was then and still is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He is the author of more than 20 novels. For the writer of satire, South Florida, with its violent weather, wealthy retirees, flawed elections, snowbirds, developers and the inexorable creep of the tropical environment, is dense with material. Hiaasen mines this rich lode to weave tales that are comedic and cautionary.
One aspect of the tropical environment Hiaasen uses to good effect in his most recent offering is the escaped Burmese pythons that now proliferate the Everglades.
Originally brought to South Florida decades ago as pets, the snakes are devouring the wildlife of South Florida and are showing up in unexpected places.
Recently a woman in south Florida found a python curled up in the basket of her washing machine.
According to a July 2019 Smithsonian magazine article titled "The Snakes that Ate Florida," the reptiles can grow as large as 20 feet long and weigh 200 pounds and have decimated the native raccoon, marsh rabbit and possum populations. The pythons eat birds, deer and alligator. Road kill is now a rare sight in South Florida.
The python population is estimated to be from 10,000 to as high as 100,000.
Recently Hiaasen appeared on NPR's "Fresh Air" on the occasion of the publication of his most recent novel, "Squeeze Me," which, as the name suggests, features one of these reptilian interlopers.
Near the end of the program the tenor of the interview changed when the host suggested listeners seek out the column Hiaasen wrote about his brother, Rob, who was one of five journalists killed by a gunman in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018.
The shooter, said Hiaasen, was angry about a long ago story none of his five victims had anything to do with. As for his brother, it wasn't a matter of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said.
"He was right where he wanted to be. He was putting out the daily newspaper. ... He was doing exactly what he loved doing, which was sitting in the newsroom with other reporters and editors putting out a daily newspaper for a community that he loved, the people of Annapolis. ... he was devoted to those readers and that community ... he wouldn't have been anywhere else on that day."
Hiaasen went on to note the persistent reality of an unloved press and the role it plays in the workings of our democracy.
"Trump is not the first president to demonize journalists. ... There was a guy named Nixon who did a lot of that, too. I mean, the press has never been a beloved institution. And you don't go into it as a profession because you want glory or adulation or you want people to look up to you or love you.
He continued: "... the people that are doing it ... doing the grunt work are there because they believe that it's an important part of this country to have a free press and ... to get information into the hands of people who need it before they go to the polls to vote, before they take their kids to school ... . It's just the bare essential of a democracy. So yeah ... it is bothersome that we now have, not just a contempt for the press, but ... a hatred, and these conspiracy clowns -- if they ever saw a newsroom really work, it would be amusing to them."
Few who have spent time working in the newsroom of a local newspaper would dispute Hiaasen's assertions. And, while it's true journalists get their share of knocks, their tenacity occasionally evokes a kind word or an appreciative email. And, as I'm sure it did for Rob Hiaasen, this expression fuels their efforts and confirms the importance of their "grunt work," as his brother termed it, to the welfare of their communities
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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