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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wenschhof Interviews Katherine Heerbrandt

George Wenschhof

Today, on "Air-it-Out with George Wenschhof", my guest is Katherine Heerbrandt. Ms. Heerbrandt is currently a columnist with the Frederick News Post and hosts "Frederick's Forum" on WFMD AM Radio 930. She is known to be at times controversial in her opinion and to also be a staunch supporter of Democratic candidates while writing in a county still dominated by Republicans.

She previously worked as a reporter with the Frederick Gazette and Frederick News Post before she began writing commentary. Married, she has spent part of her life in Thurmont, Maryland. Today, I'll be asking her a little more about her background and what led to her present career in journalism.

We are communicating via computer from different locations and this is a live online discussion. So, remember to click "Refresh" on your computer every ten minutes or so to see the latest question and answer. The link to the entire conversation will be conveniently placed in the right hand margin of my home page so it can be read easily at a later date.

So let's go ahead and get started. Welcome Katherine, I am pleased to have you as my guest. You told me Monday when I ran into you on the street, you had forgotten a previously scheduled massage session when we scheduled this interview and you ended up having to give it to a friend. You went on to say you actually were trained in giving massages and did so for a number of years. I am envious as I have never received a professional massage.

GW - Since many of us know little about your background, please share with us a little more about yourself, your family, where you grew up, attended college, some of your hobbies and interests and why you entered the journalism field.

KH - Hi George! Thanks for having me on today. Computer's running a bit wonky today, so I might be a little slow. Ok - the boring stuff first! B.A. from James Madison University, double major in English and Political Science with a minor in Russian studies; Teacher certification at Old Dominion University; English graduate study also at ODU; two years of graduate classes at University of Baltimore in Publication Design. By that time, I'd moved on in my job and got tired of going to Baltimore, so never got that M.A.

Born and raised in Maryland. The family moved from PG county to Frederick county in 1971 when I was 12. Graduated from Catoctin High School - go Cougars! - in 1977. I wont bore you with my activities in high school as they are so dusty and as Frank Zappa said, high school's just a state of mind anyway. Lived in Tidewater for five years before moving back to Thurmont in 1986 to raise my family.

Always been a writer, and have always wanted to be a writer, thus the major in college. I am part of what is known as the Watergate generation of journalists, even though I got sidetracked with careers in higher education. Journalists, I thought in my idealistic youth, could change the world by exposing corruption and all manner of bad behavior.

Hobbies? Work is my hobby now. Over the years, I've dabbled in all kinds of things. Consistently I like being in the woods - camping or hiking or just hanging out.

GW - I have found it humorous when I have heard some readers say a writer should state it is their opinion when they write commentary. Reporting the news and writing commentary are two different styles of writing. It is obviously a writer's opinion when they pen a commentary on an issue. You have been a reporter and a commentator. Do you have a preference and why?

KH - Yea, I find that a little silly myself, especially when folks say I am biased. Duh - I am on the opinion page. Of course I am biased! But I also say I am just one woman with one opinion and just because I get paid to do it doesnt make my opinion any more valid than the average informed person. We view issues through the filter of our own experiences. My experiences lead me one way, yours another.

But, you ask a good question George, one I've heard before and one I dont have to give much consideration before I answer. Reporting!

Working an ongoing story, like the one I did about problems at the local Dept. of Social Services was incredibly satisfying. Moreso because it ended in the firing of an incompetent and lazy director and a controlling micromanager asst. director. I worked that beat for nearly a year. Even the Black Book fiasco, where I tag teamed with another reporter, Michelle Yoffee Beard, was fun because we had boxes and boxes of documents to review. In the end, my then-editor Doug Tallman told me I’d written the single most important story on that whole mess. That story made the entire process anticlimactic because after waiting several years for the release of the documents, I discovered that the most critical stuff – the list of local clients – had been returned to the madam of the escort service by the IRS. The IRS never gave the info back to the Frederick City Police and nobody noticed! We ended up winning some big-time award for that, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Last year, I was so proud to receive the Journalist of the Year Award from Grandfamilies of America for the work I did on the Dept of Social Services.

So yes, my first love is reporting. I think that’s fairly obvious in my columns. Some accuse me of being more of a reporter than a columnist and that’s probably an accurate characterization. When you’ve been a reporter who has to cover one, two, three or more sides of a particular issue, it’s incumbent upon you to present the story with no detectable bias. As an opinion writer, it’s the opposite. It hasn’t always been easy, making that transition.

GW - I grew up here in Frederick County, Maryland; one of the few counties in the state that has maintained a majority of registered Republican voters and a conservative view on many issues. Have you found it to be a challenge to be a liberal woman writer in a predominantly conservative community?

KH - George, you and I probably know better than anyone how that feels right now. But I've never been uncomfortable expressing my opinion, no matter how outnumbered I am. Here's a funny example for you. In eighth grade at Thurmont Middle School, I was one of two in my class who voted for George McGovern in our mock election. Yep, just me and the school pothead. Things got ugly when a few classmates ripped my McGovern stickers off my locker, including my best friend at the time. That just made me more determined to speak up.

I campaigned in Thurmont by dragging my little sister up and down the street in a wagon bedecked with McGovern stickers. Some people yelled and cursed at us from their cars. I must've traumatized her for a while because she later became a Young Republican and Reagonite. Today, I can proudly say that she's over that phase!

GW - One issue that pops up periodically among local readers and one I am sure you have heard, pertains to where you live and work. You currently reside in Pennsylvania and are the featured columnist in the only daily newspaper in Frederick, Maryland. Some wonder how you can write commentary for an area in which you do not reside. How do you respond to those who ask this question?

KH - While it’s tempting to go on the defensive when I hear this question, I will admit that my job would be easier if I lived in Frederick. How that affects my perspective remains to be seen, but it’s been my experience that those few who have a problem with where I lay my head at night are those who don’t like my positions on certain issues.

Obviously I am not alone, thus the whole Live Here, Work Here movement. The FNP’s last three managing editors have lived in West Virginia, Owings Mills, and West Virginia respectively. Most working age people who live in my community work in Frederick; some even commute to Montgomery County and further south. It’s the nature of the area we live in. If people actually lived where they worked, Frederick County housing wouldn’t be so prohibitively expensive.

Interestingly, my predecessors initially had to deal with criticism that they were newcomers to the community, both having moved up from the D.C. area shortly before they began working as columnists for the Frederick News Post. My story is different because I grew up in Frederick County from the age of 12 and have worked in the city for the better part of 22 years, amassing a network of contacts and relationships that is unmatched by anyone writing in the mainstream local media today.

I wrote a column about this in 2007 and if anyone’s really all that fascinated with the whys and wherefores, I’d be happy to email it ( But as a police officer said on The Blaine Young Show recently – if you are dedicated to your job, who cares where you live?

GW - I was laughing earlier when you talked about supporting McGovern. I voted absentee for him while attending college. The voting age had been reduced to 18 and I was so proud of being able to vote!

Writing three columns a week is not as easy as one might think. Share with us how you determine the topics for your columns and whether your editor ever suggests topics to you. Have you ever had a column rejected by an editor and if so, why?

KH - Nope, it's not easy. Sometimes topics flow naturally, other times the process is like swallowing a sponge. I get started on one thing and think, ugh, I dont know where this is going because I am not particularly passionate about this subject. I think you can probably identify those columns easily!

Since I was furloughed from 12 columns to 10 - and that will change when the economy bucks up again - I find that I have too many ideas and not enough space to accomodate them. Especially during an election season. I really wanted to write about the importance of choosing a team to represent the City of Frederick, instead of voting for individual people. I wanted to explore the idea of "matchmaking," because too many times, personalties get in the way of progress and it's essential to look at the body as a whole.

Having a column "spiked" as we call it in the business isn't uncommon, but yes, I have. Twice in fact. Twice in a row about the same topic! We had just gotten a new editor who didnt like anonymous sources. Since I had used these same sources previously in stories about the city buyout, I didnt see an issue, but he's more cautious and that's his right as managing editor. And no, nobody ever tells me what to write or how to write it.

GW - In addition to writing columns, you host "Frederick's Forum" Saturday mornings from 9:00 - 11:00 AM on WFMD AM Radio 930. What led you to this and what is it like being the only liberal talk show host on a conservative radio station? Who have been some of your guests and what have been some of your favorite shows and topics to date?

KH - Both my current jobs were basically handed to me. I never sought them out, but I am extremely grateful for both opportunities. I'd never done radio, though I have done television. I was a wreck about it and didnt feel entirely comfortable for several months. I kept asking myself, what the heck have you gotten yourself into??

As for WFMD, yes, I am surrounded! I borrow a phrase from one of my sponsors when I say I am "an isle of blue in a sea of red!" But even though Bob, Blaine and I come from different perspectives, there is common ground. They've been very supportive of me. All local talk is good for the community because it's so rare these days.

I've had the usual spectrum of local politicos on my show, but was most moved by a few women no one's ever heard of. The author of A Game Called Justice, the widow of Zach Sowers, and two women from Hope Alive were among my favorite guests. Donna Kuzemchak and Jennifer Dougherty are always good for a little straight talk and they've been on a few times each. John Ashbury is my go-to guy and can talk about anything. I liked the one where you and he were on and we got a little riled up!

Among my favorite shows lately is one we did on national politics on Sept. 12 with Ron Young and Dan Rupli. If you missed it, you can find it in the vault at The callers were informed and intelligent and we had a pretty lively exchange. I also liked the show with BOE member Daryl Boffman and teacher association president Gary Brennan.

GW - The City of Frederick election this year has been, on the most part, void of any overly controversial issues. The candidates have also been civil while conducting their campaigns. You have been closely following this election which will have the voters weigh in on November 3.

With election day so close, I have to ask you a few questions; First, is there an issue you feel that has not received enough attention by the candidates? As a follow up, what do you feel is the most important issue in this election? Finally, who do you feel will win (not necessarily who you might support) as mayor and who will make up the next board of alderman?

KH - I have to admit that after covering so many elections, they all seem to follow a similar and predictable formula. The candidates answer pretty much the same type questions about growth, budget, vision, taxes and economic development. And interestingly, they mostly give similar answers so it's difficult for the average voter to make distinctions. Last night's forum is a good example though of what I'd like to see more of: head to head debating. This format gives people a deeper understanding of the candidates' differences and personalities and how well they might or might not mesh with each other. It also allows candidates to call out their challengers, to push them on misinformation or to grill them on their plans.

I also liked the format employed by the Neighborhood Advisory Councils because it allowed candidates to mingle with people face to face.

I didn't hear as much as we should about the single most important issue facing Frederick: Budget! Yea, we heard plenty of questions, answers, etc, but we never pressed candidates for details and therefore dont have a keen sense of how much homework they've actually done and how much time they've spent in looking at all angles. (As an aside, I did ask one candidate to focus on this and will present that in Friday's column.) It's critical to have officials who can look ahead to the major budget problems facing the city and there will be plenty. This affects every project they want to undertake.

As for a key question or issue missing from the election season as a whole, I dont think there's been enough emphasis on law enforcement and crime. Frederick's changing. It's not the same place we grew up in, George. We will continue to see the growth of gangs and gang related violence because of where it is geographically. Sorry, I can't stop at one. We also havent heard anything at all about the homeless in Frederick. With the economy in the tank, more and more people are dependent on government services and charities for food, shelter and job assistance. And those who donate are hard pressed these days to give as much as they have before.

"As a follow up, what do you feel is the most important issue in this election?"

Guess I skipped ahead and answered this above: Budget! From which all blessings flow!

"Finally, who do you feel will win (not necessarily who you might support) as mayor and who will make up the next board of alderman?"

Yikes. Sigh. Dang it. Why do you ask me this?? Frederick voters are as unpredictable as the election seasons are predictable!

But for you, I will take a stab at it as long as there's no money riding on it. I think it's pretty clear that I support all the Democratic aldermanic candidates, and not because they are Democrat. I also like Aloi and Haddaway and not because they are women. But to have to choose who I think will sway the voters is a different story. Yes, I am equivocating! Like a politician no less.

Ok, predictions: Aldermen: Michael O'Connor, Carol Krimm, Paul Smith, Donna Kuzemchak, Karen Young. Mayor: That's more difficult to call, but since you are making me do it, I'd say Jason Judd. But don't be surprised if, like in 2005, the underdog wins the day!

GW - The time has flown by and we are coming to the end of our scheduled time so I want to thank you for being my guest today on "Air-it-Out with George Wenschhof". I have enjoyed our conversation. I hope you come back as there is so much to talk about.

KH - Thanks so much for the opportunity, George. You do a great job filling us in on all things Democrat!

GW - I want to close by asking you who are your favorite reporters and journalists? Has there been one or more that have had an influence on you and how you write?

KH - Oh, my. So many I read regularly and some I visit once in a while. But first and foremost, my favorite columnist is Mike Royko of Chicago. I miss his voice and often wonder what he would make of all that goes on today. A blue-collar guy with Chicago roots who could move, incite, incense and pulverize better than anyone I've seen.

Among the living, I regularly read Maureen Dowd. Elegant prose, innovative style and can cut to the core of an issue like nobody's business. I also like Frank Rich of the NY Times, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, and believe or not George Will. Whether or not I agree with him, he's solid stuff. I dont think I'll miss William Safire.

As for reporters, there's Laurie Garrett, a science reporter who used to write for news magazines. Best investigative journalism -

And George, I cannot let this question go without paying homage to Mr. Roy Meachum, our very own living legend. No one locally can touch him.


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Anonymous said...

Roy Meachum has become a senile partisan hack - the Young's should adopt him!

Anonymous said...

I'll take Katherine any day over Roy Meachem. I sometimes wish she was still reporting for the FNP because they don't seem to do any invesigative reporting any more.