Thursday, May 28, 2015

Marselis Parsons, Vermont's Walter Cronkite, Dies; One More Great Old School Journalist Gone

Marselis Parsons, the Walter Cronkite of Vermont
has passed away, and now even fewer of the
great old school Vermont journalists are left standing.  
Here in Vermont this week, we're mourning the loss of a guy named Marselis Parsons, who was widely regarded as the Walter Cronkite of Vermont.

Every evening for a quarter century, ending in 2009, Vermonters settled down to watch the Channel 3 news on WCAX, and there was Parsons, in just-the-facts-mode, reviewing the day's events in the Green Mountain State.

Vermont isn't always exactly a hotbed of breaking news, Bernie Sander's formal presidential campaign kickoff this week notwithstanding.

"Div" as Parsons was called, had an hour to fill, including the sports and weather, of course, but as anchor and news director, was always able - nightly - to make our gloriously weird state understandable.

Parsons delivered the news in a steady, deadpan voice, never seeming to break his evenhandedness or show emotion. Except of course when his mentor, WCAX anchor Mickey Gallagher, died suddenly, while at work at WCAX in 1984, and Parsons had to report that news.

He was an institution, having spent 40 years at WCAX, as a reporter, then anchor, then filing occasional stories in retirement

Parsons was as far removed as possible from the  "bubble headed bleach blonde, who comes on at 5, who can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye," as Don Henley famously indicted in his song "Dirty Laundry."

Parsons could sure as hell tell you about the plane crash, but he told you why the plane crash mattered, who it affected, and how such a thing could be prevented from happening again. He followed the stories to the end.

If it took five years for the plane crash investigation to end, by God at the end of five years, there was Parsons reporting on the outcome of that probe.

According to Michael Donoghue, writing in the Burlington Free Press:

"'I'm not crazy about being anchor,' he once told the Burlington Free Press. 'Most stations hire Ken and Barbie dolls.'

He wanted newshounds in his newsroom.

'Most of these reporters aren't going to win a beauty contest. But I think they are good reporters, he said once, pointing at his newsroom."

Makes you want to rid your cable news stations of all those perky blondes reciting a script instead of reporting the news, doesn't it?

 I thought it was fitting that  Donoghue of the Burlington Free Press -  another giant of Vermont journalism -  wrote the definitive news obit about Parsons.

Donoghue, along with Parsons, are, or were, the last of the old school Vermont journalists. The kind I'll miss the most when they're gone or retired.

Oh, sure, I'm a fan just like the rest of the world of the way news is done now. Disasters become visual "weather porn" on the nightly news, and the important parts of those stories are buried.

I enjoy watching the smarmy news satire of Jon Stewart and John Oliver. I'll even indulge in the news-free, facts are stupid conservatism of Fox News

I also accept that it's a different journalism world, where reporters are judged by the number of Twitter followers they have, or the number of Facebook comments they get.

There's nothing wrong with being entertaining and engaging. Any journalist wants to be that, as they should. However, news isn't always a popularity contest. Sometimes news is not candy, to be happily consumed. Sometimes it's medicine we have to take, to  understand the world around us.

That seems like a statement from Captain Obvious, but I'm not sure anymore.

I was in Vermont journalism for more than 20 years, until the Burlington Free Press let me go in 2013. I understood, and they understood. Journalism had changed, and I wasn't sure I fully bought into the change. Both me and the Free Press knew it was time for me to go.

Parsons (and Donoghue, for that matter) stayed put. Stayed committed. Stayed on the story.

Parsons could have jumped ship and moved up the journalistic ladder to bigger markets, but he stayed in Vermont. That's where his commitment was.

In the Free Press, Donoghue writes:

"(Parsons) was happy being in Vermont, where there was easy access to politicians, judges and other newsmakers.

Parsons loved chasing hard news. When the city of Burlington experienced a large number of arson fires in the 1970s, Parsons, after finishing the 11 p.m. newscast, joined reporters and other media outlets hanging out at the police station trading war stories and waiting for the alarms.

He became an auxillary firefighter for the city of Burlington and sometimes would sleep over at the fire station. His blue Fiat convertible had an emergency red light to help him get to scenes quicker."

Nowadays, trading war stories and hanging out at the police station is no way to get more Twitter followers nowadays. But it's surely the best way to get the most compelling news.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin summed it all up as he reacted to news that Parsons, 70, had died.

 "We lost a legend - the Walter Cronkite of Vermont," the governor said.

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