EDITORIALS

Honoring Our Own

Posted Sept. 11, 2011, at 6:54 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 12, 2011, at 5:13 p.m.
Seba Smith
Seba Smith

Those of us who make our living in the news business can succumb to job-related pessimism.

There’s never enough time to write that truly great story. And if we do, our editor fails to appreciate our brilliance, and the Pulitzer Prize slips through our hands because a dozen paragraphs are cut. Then there’s reader reaction — so rare is it positive, so often it’s laced with criticism.

The Maine Press Association’s Hall of Fame is one place where those journalists who have run the good race can find recognition.

This year, the MPA is inducting the BDN’s own Beurmond Banville, who for 36 years covered the St. John Valley and the northern part of The County for us. Current BDN County reporter Jen Lynds nominated Mr. Banville, noting that he “produced a constellation of stories telling the tales of life in the St. John Valley,” including the Allagash flood of 1990, labor unrest in the logging industry and the arsenic poisoning in New Sweden.

His proximity to the Canadian border meant he was sent to cover Queen Elizabeth’s two visits and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada, and President Ronald Reagan’s 1980 summit with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Quebec City.

And his proximity to the communities he reported on led to them trusting him to work for them in his retirement years. Mr. Banville serves on the St. Agatha Board of Selectmen and the executive committee of the Maine Municipal Association. He also is a director and past president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent Alumni Association. In 2008, the university awarded Banville its outstanding alumni award. In 1993, he was named Frenchville’s citizen of the year.

Editorial writers will find inspiration in the story of Seba Smith (1792-1868), another inductee this year. Mr. Smith, born in Buckfield and a graduate of Bowdoin College, edited several papers in Portland and founded and edited the Portland Courier, the state’s first daily newspaper. His editorials advocating Maine’s separation from Massachusetts are seen by historians as helping create our statehood.

While covering the Legislature, Mr. Smith created the fictional character Major Jack Downing through whom he could humorously satirize the leaders and political impulses of the day. The character, according to Hall of Fame member and former Portland Press Herald editorial page editor Jim Brunelle, became popular nationwide as Mr. Smith’s writing was picked up by other publications.

The Downing character is referenced in John Quincy Adams’ diary. Literary historians say Mr. Smith was the first to use purely American vernacular in such writing, and his work influenced other 19th century American satirists, even carrying forward to 20th century and the likes of Will Rogers.

“In many respects,” Mr. Brunelle notes, “modern political satire began with a Maine man — Seba Smith — one or our earliest newspapermen and one of our most influential writers.”

Mr. Smith was married to Elizabeth Oakes Smith, who also was a writer and an early feminist.

The Hall of Fame’s other inductee this fall is the late David Bourque, who was the (Brunswick) Times Record’s sports editor.

Inventing fictional characters to illuminate the issues of our time is not something journalists do any more (unless you consider Stephen Colbert a journalist). But seeking to report on and for our communities, as Mr. Banville did, and influencing momentous decisions like Maine’s statehood as Mr. Smith did, is at the heart of journalism’s mission.

And that should be enough to inspire and motivate us.

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