Giving "invisible" people a media voice
Excerpts from the award-winning public service journalism series
written by Catherine J. Rourke from 2004-2010
Published February 12, 2008
"I do not want to spin silly tales for money; I want to write about revelations..."
Recipient of a 2006 Arizona Press Club "Community Journalist of the Year" Award
Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity,
nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor
by the well housed, well paid and well fed.
Herman Melville, novelist and poet (1819-1891)
Known as "the spiritual Mecca of America," the city of Sedona remains a mystical destination for the 4.5 million tourists and spiritual seekers who flock to her red rocks for inspiring vacations, plenty of scenic eye candy and postcard-perfect snapshots every year.
Like any other locale boasting an irresistible combination of beauty and mystery, Sedona has also become a Mecca for luxury second-homeowners such as affluent retirees and wealthy celebrities, creating a high-cost real estate market that has placed it in the Top 20 most expensive real estate communities in the nation. In 2002, the median price for a standard Sedona home was $864,000. Despite the economic turndown, today little has changed in Sedona's housing costs.
Upon entering the city, a glut of exclusive galleries, chic boutiques and overpriced restaurants meets the eye. The distant hills are dotted with resplendent Taj Mahal homes, all characterized by their trademark floor-to-ceiling glass windows, infinity pools and cathedral ceilings. Long gone are the Hohokam tribes that once called Sedona home, settling along the banks of Oak Creek in tee-pees to conduct their rites and rituals.
In 2003 USA Today described Sedona, Ariz., as "the most beautiful place in America." Despite its spectacular rock formations and stunning vistas, the city is, like most places, similar to any coin with two sides.
While most media, from The New York Times to the regional Arizona Republic, focus on the town's razzle-dazzle, journalist Catherine J. Rourke turned her reports away from the glittering galleries and powerful elite to the city's flip side -- the one most tourists never see, that most residents turn their heads away from in denial, and that remains sorely neglected by the press.
The homeless, the hunrgy and the health care-deprived.
The ones who build your home, and then have no roof of their own.
The people who take our your trash, clean your toilet and bus your dirty plates at local restaurants.
Those who never appear in the slick pages of the city magazines with soiree photos of folks in fine clothes holding flutes of champagne.
Instead, her subjects hold cardboard signs -- and mops, when they're lucky to find a job.
Rebel with a Clause
While working as an editor and columnist for a local paper, Rourke began writing a blog in 2004 called “Rebel with a Clause” to address the “unheard voices” in her community. In its digital pages she highlighted what she described as "the need for greater exposure on a vast number of social issues, from low wages, homelessness and lack of affordable housing to a shrinking middle class and limited access to health care -- a growing concern that is only going to get worse before it gets better.”
In a gilded red rock landscape of extraordinary wealth and beauty, Rourke exposed an ugly bedrock of truth drenched in poverty while revealing another layer of -- the real beauty of Sedona that lay hidden: its "forgotten folks." In addition, a growing number of allegations about compromised patient safety issues from doctors, nurses and patients at a local medical facility stirred her journalistic soul to examine the facts and stats in a series of investigative reports.
Rourke's social justice articles were censored and rejected by local papers until she finally found one willing to publish some of her stories for free in exchange for her retention of all the copyrights to her work.
For several consecutive years and without pay, Rourke ventured out into the city's forbidden trenches where angels fear to tread -- the trailer parks where 20 illegal Mexican immigrants live packed in one mobile home; the stinking landfill pit where trash collectors dump the city's garbage; behind the swinging door of restaurants to talk with subminimum-wage workers in the grease pit; to resort laundry rooms to document the voices of undocumented workers; to public restrooms to tell janitors' side of the flushing life; and to homeless camps ["modern-day leper colonies," as she describes them] to tell people's stories of what it's like to have nowhere to sleep, in the words and voices of the homeless themselves.
Highlighting some of the city's most swept-aside socioeconomic issues -- from sub-minimum wage jobs, the lack of affordable housing and public shelters, medical monopolies compromising patient health care, the plight of undocumented Mexican immigrants, increasing numbers of homeless families and decreasing numbers of middle-class residents, plus all those dirty jobs that nobody wants to do, Rourke revealed another facet of "the most beautiful place in America," a side of a city that remained in the shadows, until she brought it to light and gave the downtrodden a voice with her poignant pen and camera lens.
No pay, plenty of reward
Rourke initiated the column in 2004 “to inspire local residents out of complacency and into action and public discourse.” Designed as "a voice and presence for Sedona's unheard and unseen residents," it offered an in-depth analysis of the issues of the people and issues with a weak local media presence: seniors, affordable housing, health care, undocumented immigrants, workplace challenges, the homeless and other socioeconomic community concerns. Above all, Rourke hoped it would serve as a catalyst for the construction of a sorely needed public shelter in Sedona and more affordable housing for the city's working poor families -- plus to draw attention to a growing epidemic: the lack of affordable access to health care.
This ongoing compilation of journalistic essays exposes the truth about the everyday reality of the city's "invisible" people, struggling to make ends meet while providing vital services to the local community or merely trying to survive in the most beautiful place in America -- whether picking up the trash or picking through it -- in an affluent city that thrives on their labor and contributions to society.
Originally published in the former Sedona Red Rock Review from 2004-2007 as an ongoing column titled "Tales from the Trenches," these reports now continue here in The Sedona Observer as the "Invisible Sedona" series.
So why on earth would any journalist write without pay?
"These stories simply must be told," Rourke wrote. "And they are the ones that are not perceived by many publishers of holding any commercial value. But they hold invaluable truths and solutions for our time. The news must start paying more attention to the little guy over the celebrity; we have plenty of TV shows, magazines and other media dedicated to the shallow foibles of the super rich instead of needs and struggles of the super poor.
"Journalism should be about and for the common folk, giving them a voice, focusing on their issues and encouraging their engagement in civic life and their participation in a media that bestows to them a sense of ownership in it. They need news that addresses them and their everyday concerns," she concluded.
Reward comes in many forms and for this reporter it transcended cash. While she never saw the fulfillment of her dream of a designated shelter for the homeless, Rourke did see a raise in the minimum wage, a campaign she worked long and hard for over the years with her pen and at the speaking podium.
The joy of CJOY
In 2006 Rourke received a "Community Journalist of the Year" award from the Arizona Press Club for her tireless and unpaid column series, which was selected out of more than 2,000 entries for the distinction that has been regarded as one of the highest journalism honors in the state since 1992.
The CJOY award recognizes "exceptional writing that enhances the goals of the journalism profession as well as the quality of life of community residents." According to the press club, “...being out in the community, talking and listening to the people who live there and voicing their needs and concerns” rank high among the qualities the judges value in the award competition. In addition, the panel looks for "coverage of local issues that are often overlooked or misunderstood.”
Rourke and her "Tales from the Trenches" fit the job description for the award to a T. Upon receiving the CJOY award, she emphasized "the rewards, not the awards, of social justice journalism." She also paraphrased the following quote:
I am grateful to receive the award in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, in the name of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved and uncared-for throughout society, and people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.
-- Mother Teresa, upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace
Rourke writes in her column series:
“In the humblest members of our community, I have found remarkable courage, amazing resilience, raucous humor, grace under pressure, simple truths and astonishing beauty. My stories are intended to instill greater compassion for these individuals while giving them a presence in a media culture often more focused on high-speed chases and celebrity sensations. In doing so, it provides a pathway to initiate citizen dialogue and catalyze solutions for positive social change.
"Journalism is a sacred trust because it impacts public thought, opens minds and hearts and ignites the fire of community spirit. Giving back to the Sedona community this way, providing rich literary journalism and giving a voice to those who formerly had no media presence, has been my greatest reward.”
In its 2006 annual awards journal, the press club explained why the judges selected these columns for the CJOY honor:
"In order to tell her tales, Rourke picks up the garbage with trash collectors, burns toast with waitresses, chases fire trucks with EMTs, makes beds with immigrant housekeepers, delivers meals to shut-ins, walks hospital corridors with nurses and flushes toilets with janitors, peeling through the layers of affordable housing, health care, immigration and other pertinent city issues.
Making sweeping changes by giving all walks of life a media presence...
"She chronicles the triumphs, trials and tribulations of the city's residents, celebrating their contributions to the community, exposing their truths, and offering possible solutions to Sedona's socioeconomic challenges."
In doing so, Rourke has been described by some press associations as "a modern-day muckraker, the Ida Tarbell, Charles Dickens, Jack London, Upton Sinclair and Studs Terkel -- not just of Sedona, but of her time."
In 2007 Rourke submitted an investigative report to her publisher for her ongoing "Tales from the Trenches" column. Titled "Prescription for Profit?" the article represented an allegation by local doctors, nurses and patients of compromised patient safety at a regional medical facility that Rourke had been researching for four years.
The story was censored because the publisher feared loss of revenue. After all, the facility was the largest advertiser in the regional and local media -- even though Rourke never mentioned the facility by name and focused her story on interviews with physicans and patients about mysterious deaths.
That's when Rourke knew the time had come to take muckraking, or investigative reporting, to a new level to avoid suppression of the truth. Instead of muckraking, which corporate media and corrupt politicians have cast a negative connotation, Rourke refers to her social justice journalism as "truth-raking."
"The power of the press in the 21st century belongs to those who own one online," she wrote. "I had tales of lost lives, lost spouses, lost limbs, lost savings, lost homes, lost dreams and lost hope. The stories simply had to be reported. With no paper willing to print them or do them ethical justice, I had no choice but to publish them myself as my moral responsibility as a journalist."
And so she did.
Rourke launched the nonprofit Sedona Observer in 2007 as a community journalism experiment to resurrect investigative reporting while attending the New Media Academy at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, a program for working professional journalists. Designing the Observer as a new business model for media to replace the old advertising-based revenue model, which she perceives as "a public disservice and journalistic failure," Rourke launched her digital newspaper out of pocket with $187.50 and turned to public donations for support.
With an intention to transform journalism from "a profit-obsessed commodity based on an archaic business model to the principle-based practice as our nation's forefathers intended it," Rourke designed a paper that replaced surface news and celebrity sensationalism with a new flavor of truth and justice. She even dedicated an entire page to labor and workplace issues -- a journalism industry first in Arizona in nearly 100 years and across America.
The paper exploded virally to garner a nationwide audience and now serves thousands of subscribers around the globe who look to Sedona-based stories as a leadership precedent for addressing similar challenges in their communities. In 2008 the Observer received six national press awards and was described on barackobama.com as "everything the media in America ought to be."
Rourke's goal is to resurrect what she calls "the lost art of muckraking and investigative reporting for the common good." Without it, she claims, there would be no democracy, no freedom of information or expression, no public safety monitoring, no weekends, no labor unions to protect workers' rights and none of the pivotal stories to awaken Americans to the truth about what is really happening in their government, in medicine, in business and in their communities.
She celebrates and emulates her muckraking predecessors... writers like Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, Rachel Carson, Jack London and many other social and environmental justice advocates who used their pens to uphold truth, integrity, freedom, democracy and human rights.
She writes: "Without modern-day muckrakers like Woodward and Bernstein and papers like their papers that were willing to publish the truth, there would be no Watergate and the American people would have never known about crimes stemming from the Oval Office.
"In these times, investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein would have been given their pink slips as their jobs become obsolete and editorial content is controlled by advertisers and government. America needs good professional muckraking now more than ever; imagine how many Watergate stories and medical scandals are falling into the cracks and remain unreported."
That's why Rourke paraphrases her motto from Jack Kerouac, another rebel writer:
"I do not want to spin silly tales for money; I want to write about revelations..."
Thus she publishes her stories in her spare time out of pocket, relying on public donations to produce the Observer while earning her living as a freelance writer, blogger and book editor.
THEN: Muckraking, 1898 NOW: Muckraking, 2008
Ida Tarbell, McClure's Magazine Catherine Rourke, The Sedona Observer
Story: Standard Oil Corporation series Story: Truth in Medicine Series, The Economics of Breast Cancer, What Ails Northern Arizona Healthcare?
Health care: "the greatest disgrace in American history and modern-day genocide"
Rourke now focuses her camera lens and pen on medical and media issues while serving as a spokeswoman for Truth in Media and the Future of Journalism. Her dream is to "emancipate journalism from the shackles of advertising" by restoring it as a public service vehicle to serve the common good.
And she is taking muckraking to new levels. Health care and medical investigative reporting to expose insurance industry, pharmaceutical and medical "crimes against humanity for the sake of greed" remains the issue dearest to her journalism heart.
"Health care remains the greatest disgrace in American history," she writes, "and I think it's worse than our history of slavery because health care affects every individual, not just those with a certain skin color. And as it stands today in 2008, access to proper affordable health care in America is deteriorating into a critical massive epidemic of cancerous greed that kills thousands of people each year. As such, I see it as modern-day genocide."
In her spare time, Rourke is writing "From Hippocrates to Hypocrisy," a treatise on health care reform and how the medical establishment, backed by Big Pharma, the AMA and the FDA, is suppressing the truth about available cures and alternative treatments. Some of her "Truth in Medicine" reports about these epidemics appear on the Observer's Health and Medicine page.
A life-long literary passion
Rourke picked up a replica 18th-century quill pen in a museum gift shop at age 4 and started writing before she knew the alphabet. She became a muckraker at age 15 when she nearly got expelled for an op-ed article in the high school paper titled 'Who Rules America?' Yet that piece earned a Quill & Scroll Award for excellence in high school journalism.
"If I'm stirring people, that means I'm doing my job as a journalist," she said. "That's how America was born -- from a revolution spurred by the indignant and incendiary pens of the first journalists like Ben Franklin whose Gazette paper upset a lot of people but also inspired a group of bedraggled colonists to stand up to the greatest army of their time -- and win to free themselves from political tyranny.
"There's nothing worse than journalism steeped in mediocrity. And there's enough of that to go around for folks who want the weather, school lunch menus [childhood obsesity in the making], sports scores, the latest celebrity scandal and sacrosanct pages littered with cheap ads. Those who lack the interest and patience to read more than the length of a Twitter headline will simply drown in their own ignorance and pay for it with their well-being, unless they take the time to educated themselves about how they are being hoodwinked by the system.
"It's time for journalists to start writing again instead of regurgitating canned copy the length of Twitter sound bites. Those who remain too impatient to take the time to read full-length literary journalism will only drown in their ignorance.
"My soul blueprint is to go beyond canned content and try to make a difference with my quill... to write about revelations in an era when the masses are starved for substance, support, solutions, meaning, purpose and wisdom -- when the voices of the little people need to be heard, when America needs answers for everything that isn't working these days.
"For those foolish enough to label the truth as "doom-and-gloom," they are unfortunately missing the good news that the Observer represents: that there is a great opportunity for mass awakening of human consciousness, that there are many affordable and noninvasive cures for medical ailments, that every challenge exists to prompt us to end the separation and embrace our "oneness," and that we already possess the power we seek. Humanity stands poised on the critical cusp of the most exciting evolutionary opportunity and unprecedented renaissance in history... if only we could stop searching aimlessly like Laurel and Hardy for keys to doors that are already open and see that the answers lie within us.
"Traditional 19th-century journalism has its place... of course, we need weather reports and vehicles for our announcements, to promote our services and sell our goods; there's nothing wrong with that. But that business model has failed us when it controls the direction of the news. That's why we need nonprofit business models like the Observer that are willing to uphold public service journalism and report the issues of the have-nots in their own voices and perspectives."
Rourke's reports focus on what she considers "the good news of this era" -- how chaos and upheaval present opportunities for positive change and not the harbingers of our demise. "We are transforming individually and collectively," she writes. "And we need to restore the sacred public trust in journalism as a vehicle of truth and public service. That's the foundation and soul of democracy."
Catherine J. Rourke is an investigative journalist specializing in socioeconomic issues, health care reform, work-life balance, truth in medicine, the downtrodden and forgotten or "Invisible People" through her Invisible Sedona columns. Her mission is to tell the Charles Dickens stories of this era to advocate social justice and societal transformation through "SOUL-utions" for work-life balance and positive social change. She has received more than two dozen press awards for her narrative-style literary journalism reports dedicated to public service.
Rourke has written these columns since 2004 WITHOUT A SINGLE CENT OF INCOME in order to disseminate the truth about the human condition and initiate greater awareness, compassion and possible alternatives. Your donation below will help offset her time and energy and prevent her from falling over the financial edge to produce this work.
SCROLL DOWN TO READ HER INVISIBLE SEDONA STORIES
Want to see more pieces like these
instead of shallow celebrity sensations,
high-speed chases and body-bag journalism?
Donate here to support a nonprofit free press!
All donations are tax-deductible and receive
an instant receipt for your records.
The Sedona Observer
Changing America by Changing Its Media First
and Transforming the ME-dia to WE-dia
The Sedona Observer upholds the tenets of genuine public service journalism by resurrecting investigative reporting via Emancipatory Journalism -- a return to the original style of the earliest newspapers during the American Revolution.
Launched in 2007, The Sedona Observer is a national nonprofit online newspaper that dedicated to truth, justice, good news and New Thought. It transcends homogenized wire service reports, leaving them to the glut of media already distributing such content.
It shuns advertising to prevent censorship and preserve genuine freedom of the press. Produced in Sedona, Ariz., for a national audience of thousands of free subscribers, the Observer is the recipient of six First Place national press awards.
The nonprofit Observer has no backers, investors, hidden special interest groups or umbrella organizations behind it. Instead, it is produced out-of-pocekt by dedicated volunteer journalists who rely on public donations to maintain its site hosting fees and production costs. Your donation is tax-deductible; click here to make a donation and receive an instant receipt.
See the WHEN page for more details about our history and the WHY page for our mission statement.
Invisible Sedona Stories
Read the words that inspire and ignite ire
The following columns represent just a few that sparked some of the most community responses and debates, from the city council chambers to the chamber of commerce and the residents themselves, as well as a steady stream of Letters to the Editor and comments from around the nation, spewing criticism as well as praise.
Rourke dedicates this column series and her writings to the memory of her father, Joseph Rourke, who bequeathed to her his love of newspapers and "truth, justice and the comics." [Read her award-winning tribute to him, "A Father's Undying Love," and her bio on the WHO page.]
To read the full history of what led Rourke to quit her job in mainstream media to write social justice stories with no pay, go to the When page: The History of The Sedona Observer.
See the links below to read her award-winning Truth in Medicine series and environmental reports, or to make a donation to support The Sedona Observer.
Click on each story to read the full report:
Minimum Wage, Maximum Shame
Affordable Housing: Where Will They Go?
Janitors: Somebody's Gotta Do It - Cleaning Sedona's Public Restrooms
Health Care: Crossing the Double Line
Immigration: Underground in Sedona
Trash Collectors: Waste Deep
Down and Out in Sedona: Homeless in the Most Beautiful Place in America
EMTs: 24 Hours on Call with Sedona Rescue 911
GOT A TALE TO TELL THE COMMUNITY FROM YOUR TRENCH?
CLICK HERE TO LET US KNOW
COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE
I particularly appreciated the story on our local Mexican immigrants because I come from a family that fled Europe during the war and had to make a new life in a new country where they were not readily welcomed.
Thank you for your amazing stories and photos and wonderful journalistic contributions to our community - and to think you have written these without any pay! We need more media like you who truly care about our city and its residents and are willing to report the real issues.
I have followed your articles for many years in the local papers and now here on this visionary site and believe you are really making a significant difference in the lives of our citizens and the future of Sedona. On behalf of our entire city, we deeply appreciate your extraordinary example of journalism for the common good as our forefathers intended it to be - the voice of the people. Congratulations are in order on your well-deserved award - you are indeed our "Community Journalist of the Year" - now and for every year hereafter! I just signed up as a subscriber and look forward to seeing more of your superb writing and photographs. Thank you for having the courage to report the truth about these issues and to go where no other media will dare.
City of Sedona
"Health Sentinel" reporter Catherine Rourke puts the medical stethoscope under the media microscope
Click here to read more of Rourke's health care reports
and learn why local residents call her Sedona's "Health Sentinel"
The Sedona Observer is a member of the AHCJ.
Click here to read:
LIKE WHAT YOU'RE READING HERE? WANT TO SEE MORE?
The Sedona Observer earns no ad revenues and offers free circulation.
It relies on public support to produce and host this site and pay its writers.
and Change America by Changing Its Media First!
Launched in 2007, The Sedona Observer is a national nonprofit online newspaper dedicated to public service journalism. It shuns advertising to prevent censorship and preserve genuine freedom of the press. Produced in Sedona, Ariz., for a national audience of thousands of free subscribers, the Observer is the recipient of six First Place national press awards.
See the WHEN page for more details about our history and the WHY page for our mission statement.
Donate here to support a nonprofit free press!
Produced out of pocket by a solo journalist without income, investors or advertising revenue to prevent censorship from advertiser control of editorial content and to preserve its journalistic integrity, the nonprofit Observer relies on public donations to maintain its site hosting fees and production costs. Your donation is tax-deductible; click here to make a donation and receive an instant receipt.