PersuadeInk: Maura Casey's Blog

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How Copland's musc helped me say goodbye

Thursday, August 9, 2018  by Maura Casey

About 40 years and two weeks ago, on one of our daily drives, I parked in front of a record store on the East Side of Buffalo and asked my mother to pick some music that she knew, but which I had never heard. I told her I would buy whatever record she picked.

Mom smiled at the challenge. She was still recovering from a massive heart attack suffered in May. She was frail, and couldn’t walk far, but she could get to my battered, 1969 Chevy convertible, parked in front of the decaying Victorian pile in Buffalo where we lived. We would drive somewhere every day, talk and laugh, and she could breathe a little easier during the sweet summer afternoons.

She tottered into the record store and entered the classical music section. But the record she pulled out and handed to me wasn’t something from the 18th century, as I had expected. It wasn’t Bach or Beethoven. It was a composition by Aaron Copland called Appalachian Spring.

I had never heard it before. When we put the record on that night I thought it had just about the slowest beginning of any music I had ever heard in my life. After almost two and a half minutes, I was just about to say something to Mom when she put her hand up, ever so slightly, her wordless message clear: Wait. Just – wait.

Then I heard it: That startling burst of violins uniting and cascading as one in a sudden, swirling dance of notes that, together, send one message: Joy.

I was transfixed. I listened to it over and over again.

And when my mother died two weeks later – 40 years ago today – I knew that while Appalachia couldn’t be more different than the streets of Buffalo, Copland’s beautiful orchestral suite would always remind me of her. It was my mother’s last gift.

Of all that I feared the day I lost her – and there isn’t much more frightening to a 20-year-old than losing her mother – there was so much I didn’t know. How I would have two wonderful children and a husband who, after 35 years, I feel closer to every day. How I would one day watch my little son play on the same green hills in Ireland that my mother’s beloved grandfather tumbled down as a boy. How I would live to dance at my daughter’s wedding, something Mom never was able to experience. How my first view in the morning is of zinnias, dahlias and sunflowers that surround my home, and how in the afternoon the kitchen smells of the sauce simmering on the stove from Pete’s tomatoes. How I would have more, much more, for which to be grateful than to mourn.

My greatest fear then was the prospect of living all these decades, two-thirds of my life, without my mother. But, as I listen to the swirling notes of Appalachian Spring, and hear its triumphant crescendo of “Simple Gifts” in five-part harmony, I know for certain that throughout all these years, my mother has never been further away from me than the beating of my own heart. top Top

My brother's hard-won sense of grace

Saturday, May 26, 2018  by Maura Casey

The man we mourn today had many names: Jim, Casey, Dad Cat to Rachel and Papa to grandson Aiden.  Yet his brothers and sisters always called him Seamus, Gaelic for James, the family name our mother gave him at birth.  Seamus, as the oldest of six kids born in seven and a half years, presided at the dawn of all of our childhood memories. And at times, he was the family hero.

He confronted our father when Dad’s drinking got out of hand. He gave our mother money to pay the bills. He took his role as the oldest seriously, particularly in his emotional support of our sister Ellen, in and out of the hospital for kidney disease. Yet during one particularly long hospitalization, even Seamus’ sense of humor couldn’t lift her 13-year-old spirit. Every day, Ellen became more ill.

Seamus knew that what she needed wasn’t a matter of medicine. He asked the nurses late one night to bring Ellen to the first-floor lobby. When she appeared, gaunt and in a wheelchair, she was utterly mystified as Seamus offered her a laundry basket draped in a blanket. Ellen pulled off the cover and a puppy, soft as down, squirmed out and licked her face, which lost its gray pallor and lit up like Christmas morning.  “She’s yours, Ellie,” Seamus said, “But you have to get out of here to take care of her.”  Ellen was home in a week.

Seamus also kept an eye on Tim, his brother and Irish twin whose births were bookends to 1950, Seamus in January and Tim in December. They went through school together, Tim, always the youngest in the class and Seamus the oldest. They were best friends, both athletes, attending high school and college together and rowing crew. They had very different temperaments but shared experiences and friendships, some lasting many decades.

Fellow oarsman and neighbor John Bennett, described Seamus as his “best and truest friend.” They worked out together during winters in Buffalo’s Auditorium, running up the stairs to keep in shape, then rewarding themselves by hiding until the Sabres’ games started in the evening and watching from the balcony.  John was touched decades later when, after he had a minor stroke, Seamus offered to live with him to help as he recovered.  Similarly, Joe Clore, a high school classmate, had long moved out of Buffalo when he returned home in 2012 for his mother’s funeral, but called on Seamus to be a pallbearer. Seamus was happy to do so in part because helping people came naturally to him.

Because that was true, it was unsurprising that he worked as a Food Stamps examiner for more than 30 years. He was often assigned the most difficult people to interview because of his sizable physical presence. Yet although he sometimes waxed cynical about his job, Seamus never lost the spark of idealism that made him want to help people who were down on his luck. And, during a really difficult day, he had his pals with him and he could always look forward to grabbing a bear on his break – which I have on good authority would last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and a half.

It was while he worked for the county that Seamus met Carol, and soon after, she became his one and only.  Carol was good for him and he was her rock. They married on Leap Year Day in 1980 and had Rachel, their adored daughter, a few years later. Carol, like Seamus, worked full time and they made a good life for their family. They traveled when they could; up to Maine, down to Florida, and a number of cruises, particularly when both retired in their 50s. And thank God they retired early. Seamus lived to escort Rachel down the aisle to marry a great guy, Rick Bartalotta, and both he and Carol were  thrilled when they had grandson Aiden.

Family came first. When Carol’s mother needed a place to live in her 90s, Seamus didn’t hesitate to welcome her in their house, and she lived to be 100 in no small part because of the wonderful care that Carol gave her. It was a precursor to the care Carol would soon give to her husband.  

ALS is cruel. It took away Seamus’ cherished ability to tell jokes and stories, and it long since robbed him of the ability to hoist a few cold ones with friends – two things he enjoyed the most. He faced it with courage. It helped that he had a loving and supportive partner, who never forgot the meaning of “till death do we part.”   Carol’s caring, kindness, humor and tireless compassion as Seamus fought this disease gave him a good life even as the illness limited him a little more every day.

 No matter how exhausted Carol was, she never complained. Seamus, only half humorously, began to refer to her as “St. Carol,” and so did the rest of us, as she lived out the truth of that title.  It was Carol who both comforted Seamus and made it possible for him to stay home. It was Carol who made him feel loved and continue to experience joy.  The disease gave them no good options, but they faced them honestly, and faced them together.

Carol gave Seamus the same gift Seamus had given Ellen that day in the hospital all those years before. She gave him hope – not for a cure, but hope that he could live out his life in dignity and peace, with the assurance that she would never leave, not for a moment. And through that searing experience, their marriage became an example to us all.

When I visited Seamus this past winter, I saw how Seamus’ face lit up when Rachel stopped by with Aiden, with Aiden running to him, arms outstretched, yelling, Papa! Papa!  Later, when Carol went to bed and with Seamus and I staying up late, he  asked me in his slurred voice to bring him a bag from a hiding place in the closet. It was a gift and a Valentine’s day card for Carol, covered in red hearts. With me holding the card, and with the little strength and control he had left in his right hand, he wrote, slowly and carefully, “Your husband.” He wasn’t being formal. It had become his joy and comfort, and what enabled him to face the end with unblinking courage and a hard-won sense of grace. top Top

The Press under Donald Trump

Sunday, January 15, 2017  by Maura Casey

 This is a speech I gave at the request of Temple Emanu-El, Waterford, Jan. 15, 2017,  five days before the inauguration of Donald Trump.

My friend Paul Greenberg, Pulitzer prize winner and EPE of the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, says that nothing good ever came out of committee except for the King James version of the Bible and the 1st Amendment, and neither of them count because both were miracles.

The First Amendment is indeed miraculous in its precision of writing and its incredible paucity of words. In 45 words it guarantees to the people FIVE rights, two of which are freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and I will applaud anyone who can tell me the other three without consulting Google (assembly, right to petition government, and freedom of worship. 

That said, even with a beautiful amendment like the first which has stood for more than 200 years as the bulwork of the American media,  I believe that the Trump administration will prove to be among  most challenging eras for journalism in my lifetime.

His election was a shock to many, but I submit it was part of a worldwide trend and one that has been growing in America for years.  Let me lay the groundwork for this discussion.

The rise of populism and distrust of institutions, many of which were previously held in far greater respect, is a worldwide phenomenon, not just something that is just happening here. It brings with it a thirst for change. It brought Great Britain Brexit and brought us Donald Trump. Admittedly, that is the kind of change that is a little like deciding you don’t want to take out the garbage so it would be a good idea to crash a bulldozer through the walls of the kitchen instead, as my friend, NYT columnist Gail Collins pointed out.

The Gallup survey has chronicled trust over the last 40 years. During that time the only institution that has gone up in any significant way in American trust is the US military. Every other institution - Congress, the presidency, even churches - have gone down. OK, big business has gone up a little. 

The press has never won a popularity contest. The percentage of the public   expressing “very high” confidence in the press peaked around 1976 at about 30 percent, according to Gallup. Gallup made a distinction between TV reporters and the rest of the media with TV reporters coming in at under 20 percent. In 2014 just about 10 percent of the public said it had “very high” confidence in the press.

Where we get our news, of course, has changed. Forty years ago, 70 percent of people reported reading a daily newspaper. Now, not so much. Just 20 percent of people get their news from newspapers. Most - 57 percent - get their news from television, 28 percent from news apps, 18 percent from social media, 25 percent from radio. These statistics are from Pew's survey on the state of the media, released June of 2016. 

Meanwhile, the Internet has caused the advertising newspapers depended upon to melt away. The result?  Newsroom jobs have tumbled by nearly 50 percent in 10 years – from nearly 60,000 to 32,000 at the end of 2015.

Another thing weakened the institution of American journalism – the administration of Barack Hussein Obama.

Obama used a WWI relic, the Espionage Act, to prosecute nine government whistleblowers who leaked information to reporters. He used this odious power – to arrest people who talk to reporters - more than all previous presidents put together. His justice department, through the FBI,  threatened to imprison reporters if they didn’t reveal their confidential sources. The Obama administration also won an important, and damaging Fourth Circuit court ruling in 2014 to challenge the right of journalists not to testify about their confidential sources.  The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which involved a New York Times supporter who was subpoenaed. This court ruling makes it easier to imprison reporters unless they reveal sources.

Obama also restricted the presence of photographers in the White House and substituted his own, hand-picked photographer’s shots to distribute as “news.” Those shots were  not news, of course, and he’s too smart not to know it. It was PR from the get go, control of the media.  

So at the beginning of the 2016 campaign, journalism was in a weakened state. At the same time, Donald Trump understood as no other candidate did that ours has become an economy that monetizes attention – not facts, not policy pronouncements and not politics as usual.  Trump knew what to say to get attention, because attention was the most important thing to him about running.

Trump preferred twitter to press conferences, off the cuff remarks to written speeches, and lies to truth. Politifact said that more of his statements were untrue than not. He is also among the most combative, thin-skinned men to ever run for and become elected president and unless the media grovels before him Trump has a disturbing tendency to threaten reporters from the podium. He’s threatened to weaken the libel laws so it is easier for public figures to sue journalists for stories they don’t like. I have no doubt he will follow through.

Trump won because of a frustration with the status quo, a lack of trust in the established institutions, because he ran against Democratic candidate who had very high negatives and was simply not trusted by many voters, and an economic downturn that left people in the Rust belt and the Midwest Behind, and you have the foundation for a political earthquake.

Trump abused journalists in the campaign, attacked the media constantly and he has continued a pattern of distorting the truth and outright lies in his tweets and speeches. Fake news? Trump invented it by his years-long campaign of lies that questioned where Obama was born. 

So how does the news media handle the new political reality?

We do our jobs, that’s how.

But we do it smarter.

-- HOW do we treat Trump's tweets? He’s the president so we have to cover them. But we must stop reacting like crows flying after shiny objects. The press drops  substantive stories to chase superficial tweets. Trump is a master manipulator an understands this. He is a past master at trying to deflect attention from stories he wants to bury. Case in point was the media rushing to cover his tweeted comments about Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes last week when the story of the day had been Russian interference in our elections. 

-- We need bluntness in stories and ever-more precise headlines. For example, when Trump tweeted to the House GOP that they should not choose as a first official act closing the Ethics office, most media outlets reported this as a sign of Trump’s desire to keep the Ethics office open. Nothing could be further from the truth. He said only that closing the office should not be the first act of Congress. Period. But you wouldn’t know that from the sloppy headlines, and the stories were not explicit enough.

-- I have no doubt that the White House press corps will be chased out of the White House. Already, Trump is signaling that he will move them out – a predictable disgrace.

 -- In the face of all this, the media needs to be fearless, now more than ever. Trump has more conflicts of interest than all the presidents put together. This is a man with 500 businesses worldwide, who continues his self-promotion in his tweets, who hasn’t released his taxes and probably never will, whose health history is a mystery, who refuses to put his hundreds of businesses in a blind trust, and whose election may have been helped by Russia’s intervention.

 The media has to keep exposing these problems and let the chips fall.  

-- And, more than anything, the American public must support a fearless and free press. Every person in this room must spend some money and support the media through subscriptions and news apps, and give them as gifts to your kids and their kids. Good journalism doesn’t come free. Already, journalism has been dispirited and decimated by layoffs, and it’s a danger to democracy. As my old professor, Richard Strout used to say, there are some people that you can’t take your eyes off for a minute. We need as many eyes as possible, as many feet on the street, as many tough, questioning reporters as possible if we are to get through these next few years intact as a country. top Top

The teacher who launched my career

Tuesday, December 2, 2014  by Maura Casey

 Laird B. Anderson was a journalist, an Army veteran, but above all, a teacher. In October, he died in his sleep at the age of 78.

Laird taught journalism at The American University in Washington, D.C., and for years he chaired its graduate school of Journalism and Public Affairs.

The editorial writing class he taught inspired me - and any number of other students - to make a career of opinion writing.

Laird expected his students to be, not just good journalists, but good citizens, with a passion for the First Amendment and a desire to make the world a better place through their chosen profession.

He had a special zeal for editorial writing, sparked when, as a young newspaper reporter, he filled in for a staff editorial writer who went on vacation for a week.  Anderson loved writing opinion and his once-a-week class in editorial writing became well-known. He taught opinion writing as an art form and encouraged vigorous debate among his students for the second half of every class, when we would form an editorial board to discuss issues.

Laird chose the 8 a.m. time slot for his class deliberately – some of us suspected he would have chosen 5 a.m. if the university allowed it – and was famous for entering the classroom, a foot-high stack of editorials under his arm, and opening the windows, wide, for at least a few minutes, even in the middle of the coldest winter day. He exuded confidence and yet he was just a few inches taller than five feet in height. Because he was a colonel in the Army reserves, one male student was heard to joke that if the class didn’t do well, he might make us all do push-ups.

It never happened. Laird had a tough exterior but was a tireless advocate for his students within and beyond the classroom, helping them find places to live and lending a sympathetic ear to their troubles. He was ever-mindful of the expense of graduate school and worked hard to ease the burden, making at least a third of our class graduate assistants.

The last slot, the day before classes were to start, went to me. My job? Cleaning the typewriters once a week in the student newsroom.  (It was 1982, after all). For that, the university knocked $2,000 off the then-breathtaking tuition of $7,000; gave me a stipend of nearly $200 a month and a coveted parking space behind Mary Graydon Hall, which housed the communications program. I was over the moon.

Laird became an unofficial father to many of us and a role model in many ways. For example: when he spoke of his wife, his face would light up. It was clear that he adored her, and at the time of his death, they had been married 44 years.

While still a student, I became engaged, and I told Laird I wanted to keep my name. He wasn’t merely supportive, he was enthusiastic, telling me that he and his wife had to go to court in Florida for her to keep her name. Florence Ashby, Laird’s wife,  confirmed the story, with a twist; she said Florida law in 1970 required a woman to take her husband’s name, but statutes said nothing to prevent her from changing her name backafter marriage. When she and Laird went to court to arrange it, the judge in the case, reading the law, confirmed to the couple that their interpretation was correct. “But don’t tell my wife,” he said, and granted the request.

As graduation neared, I became increasingly nervous about my ability to find a job. My husband-to-be, Peter Panzarella, and I were going to move to Boston so Pete could obtain a graduate degree in psychology. But neither of us had any contacts there. Then as now, it was tough to find a job in journalism and I began to express my fears to Laird.

He cut me off mid-sentence. Showing an officer’s impatience with a young recruit, Laird barked, “Your job – your JOB – is not to buy into to the world’s negativity. There is no end to the number of people who will tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t listen. What you need to do – and all you need to concentrate on for the next several months – is to take the hill. Hear?” He leaned towards me, his eyes narrowing. “TAKE. THE. HILL,” he said.

His words yanked me out of my self-pity. I got busy, writing letters to every editor whose name I could find in the Boston area, and on my wedding day, while my sisters were fixing my hair, I typed one last letter to Matthew Storin, then-managing editor of the Boston Globe. When I arrived in Boston I met with Storin as well as other editors. But Storin was the biggest help; he told me I was too green for the Globe, but that I should apply to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, 25 miles away. I did, and three weeks after moving into our basement apartment in Somerville, I started as a reporter at the Eagle-Tribune. Six weeks later, editor Dan Warner made me editorial page editor largely on the strength of editorials I had written in Laird Anderson’s class.

One memory about Laird has always guided my thinking about our profession: In class one day a student asked Laird what he considered to be the most important quality of a journalist. He could have given a hundred answers. But without hesitation, Laird replied, “Compassion.” Unless compassion drove our motives and our reporting, we wouldn’t be the professionals, or the human beings, we ought to be, he said.

The word “compassion” has its roots in two Latin words, which together mean, “to feel with.”

Laird B. Anderson “felt with” his wife, his students, his country, and any who needed him.

He touched those he met by his example as a journalist and as a man.

He made the world a better place.

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Five points to ponder before aiming your piece for The NY Times

Monday, June 24, 2013  by Maura Casey

So, you want the NY Times to publish your commentary?  Many are called, but few are chosen.

The NY Times oped page gets many hundreds of submissions for a small handful of spaces every week. In addition, because  the staffs solicits other op-eds from known experts,  the number of spaces available for your opinion piece in any given week dwindles into the single digits.

This doesn’t mean you should not try. But you need to work that much harder on your article before sending it in. 

 Consider this article that former Oped Page Editor David Shipley wrote in 2005.  In it, he pulls aside the curtain just enough to give a glimpse of the editing process of theTimes' Oped Page. 

But how can your piece get to the top of the pile? What's the decision making process? How can you write an article that will get noticed by this most-coveted commentary page? 

The answer varies with circumstances. But here are 5 points to consider before pasting your words into the body of an email (no attachments, please) and hitting the “send” button to

  • The quality of writing is important, but your prose need not melt the stars. Great writing rarely carries dull ideas.
  • The angle on a topic can be infinitely more important than the writing. A predictable viewpoint will languish in the slush pile.
  • Timeliness matters. If you have a unique angle on a current event, write it NOW. The sooner your piece is in the hands of an editor, the better. You don't have days. Frequently, you only have hours before the starting line is crowded with competitors. 
  • If your commentary is 1,000 words or (God forbid) longer, cut it to 750 words or less. Yes, you may have to pitch overboard your favorite sentences. Welcome to the hell known as rewriting.  In the highly unlikely event the oped staff wants you to add words, they will let you know. A word to the ever-hopeful: In my 20-plus career editing opeds for two newspapers, I did this exactly once.
  • Academic credentials, offices held, or golden resumes may spark interest in your piece. But they won't help a boring article see daylight. And personal experience can trump them all. Consider 23-year-old Nicholas Peart’s commentary. His piece, titled, "Why Is The N.Y.P.D. After Me?" made the top of the “most emailed” list for several days. Peart accomplished this because he had a compelling tale to tell, and a very clear point to make. Because his oped did both, he didn't need a long list of credentials.  His ability to articulate his experience closed the deal for oped editors.  

Yours can, too. top Top

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