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Changing of the guard

An interview with Bill Bartholomew, who has emerged as a new voice across Rhode Island media platforms

Photo by Mike Salerno

Bill Bartholomew, an emerging new star in the Rhode Island media galaxy.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/16/20
An in-depth interview with Bill Bartholomew, an emerging voice in the Rhode Island news media galaxy.
When will Gov. Gina Raimondo shift gears and hit the pause button on in-person school learning in Rhode Island, as the coronavirus pandemic keeps spreading in the community? When will the listeners to talk radio in Rhode Island concede that President Donald Trump lost the election and President-elect Joe Biden will be in the White House on Jan. 20, 2021? How prepared is Rhode Island’s public health infrastructure to cope with the next pandemic after the croronavirus, which Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health, has predicted with some certainty will occur? Is there a map of food insecurity in Rhode Island that shows how the coronavirus pandemic has depleted access to affordable sources of fresh fruit sand vegetables?
There are two major forces pushing aside traditional political hierarchies in Rhode Island and the nation. The first is demographics, where young voters, particularly women voters, and voters of color, are pushing out the older, whiter entourage of elected officials. Which is not to say that the forces of reaction to those changes has not become more frightened and been vociferous in attempting to preserve the status quo. The thing about demographics, short of armed intervention, is that demographics will always win.
The second force is the failed business model for health care delivery in the U.S. and in Rhode Island. The arguments being carried out on social media with a false dichotomy around how to prioritize care in the midst of a raging pandemic – emergency care vs. elective care, belies the bigger problem: all the structural inequities in the way that health care is delivered, captive of a business model that is not sustainable and falls apart when confronted with the urgent demands that arrive in a pandemic, where increasing wealthy disparities are quickly translated into escalating health disparities. No algorithm is going to solve this problem.
In Rhode Island, the health industry sector is the largest private employer and, at the same time, a major driver of projected future economic prosperity through the innovation economy. The question is: what happens when the intimate relationship between hospitals, insurers, biotech clusters, pharmacies, and elected officials breaks up? To paraphrase an old country music lyric: who gets the mine, and who gets the shaft?
The state budget now under consideration by the R.I. General Assembly will be facing some important decisions around where money should be invested.

PROVIDENCE – Bill Bartholomew has burst on the news scene in Rhode Island during 2020, performing with dexterity across a challenging array of media platforms.

His emergence coincides with a changing of the guard, so to speak, of more traditional icons: in the last week, Alan Rosenberg, executive editor at The Providence Journal, has called it quits after four decades; and Scott MacKay, political analyst at The Public’s Radio, has hung up his reporter’s cleats.

Bartholomew’s baritone voice has become a familiar presence for many listeners because of his determined and insistent tone when he poses questions of Gov. Gina Raimondo at her weekly news briefings, standing his ground.

As a musician turned news honcho, Bartholomew understands how to hit the mark when it comes to speaking on cue. [WPRO’s Steve Klamkin has a great tale of encountering Batholomew at the Newport Folk Festival when Bartholomew was performing, and how he kept asking questions about the art of radio production.] Call him a quick study, with a trained ear and a willingness to listen and learn.

Bartholomew has also emerged as a presence across numerous social media platforms: he hosts and facilitates a Facebook forum; his BTown podcasts keep growing in popularity and audience reach. Most recently, he has joined the team at the new RI PBS on its weekly news show as one of the on-air storytellers. And, this past week, Bartholomew filled in for Tara Granahan on WPRO on her morning show slot.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Bill Bartholomew, conducted through e-mail, in the week following the declaration of former Vice President Joe Biden as the President-elect and the debut of the local PBS news show.

ConvergenceRI: What do you see as the most important news stories in Rhode Island that are under the radar screen and need better coverage?
BARTHOLOMEW: We know that the big stories of 2020 are COVID-19, social justice and elections.

Through these themes, we have also come to understand them to have a significant amount of dichotomy:

• Folks who embrace COVID-related restrictions versus those that call the pandemic a hoax

• Those who enjoy relatively sound health care options versus those who do not

• Those who want to see educational and other disparities corrected and those who view such efforts as “domestic terrorism”

• Those who wish to abolish the police and those who “back the blue”

• Those who are pro-Democrat and those who are pro-Republican, and

• Those who fancy themselves patriotic versus those who challenge the notion of what it truly means to be patriotic.

But what about those people that view these rifts as fundamentally detrimental? We have seen an enormous, well-organized effort by members of Generation Z and their allies in the Millennial and other age brackets.

Some of these folks wish to dismantle the “us versus them” narrative, or at least shift that narrative to a broader understanding of “right and wrong.”

Climate change also factors into this conversation, as do other environmental issues.

The most underreported story of 2020 is the emergence of a youth-led movement that seeks to think beyond the classical political paradigm. In my opinion, we may be witnessing the early moments of a socio-political climate that may expand to the mainstream in the coming decades, one that discards the factional thought process of neo-liberalism and reinstalls a broader set of political parties and coalitions, where wedge issues and hate are superceded by what is most appropriate for the survival of the species and a more equitable society.

ConvergenceRI: This week, in ConvergenceRI, I reported on how a pediatrician in Central Falls has become the go-to place for testing, with lines going around the block, with families coming from all over Rhode Island. In one day, she did something like 124 tests, with a 20 percent positive result. Why hasn't what is happening in Central Falls become part of the larger conversation and reporting being done in Rhode Island?
BARTHOLOMEW: That is a fascinating story. I have heard from dozens of listeners in the past week that they have not been able to schedule a test. The hyper-localization and private sector control of testing may be something that emerges as a critical piece of the pie that will get us out of this terrible moment in human history.

As for the 20 percent positivity rate, well, this factors into something that I have personally been trying to highlight throughout the pandemic in Rhode Island – the varying degrees of impact that the virus has based on ZIP codes and other demographic indicators.

Now, as the second wave rolls on, we may begin to see a more widespread impact of the virus, like, say, 20+ percent positive rates in ZIP codes that were not heavily impacted in the first wave.

This is partially due to schools and colleges reopening, partially due to COVID “fatigue” and partially due to the mysterious, such as mutations.

But, your story raises a few critical questions: who and how should tests be administered, and what do we do with the information that we receive from test results? Why are there not additional brick and mortar, walk-up testing sites in south Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket? Did we not learn from the first wave?

ConvergenceRI: Given all the things that you are doing – your podcasts, your Facebook reporting, the new PBS show, being a guest host on WPRO, how difficult is it to not become overwhelmed by the incessant pace of news?
BARTHOLOMEW: Yes and no. I have built systems for myself to be able to deliver on each platform, to compartmentalize where stories and opinion should live, and have continued to consume a great deal of black iced coffee.

During C19, I have seen enormous growth in the numbers and interaction on my podcast and found a groove in social media/digital reporting that simply didn’t exist prior to 2020.

But, because of the unique nature of each platform – pod, socials, TV and radio – I have, so far, been able to manage. I love the work, and understand the great responsibility that comes with engaging in it.

Having said that [hey now, that’s a phrase I have picked up from Gov. Raimondo], I have to retreat to the woods, the sea, the stars, music, the golf course and firepits with friends in order to regain the focus and momentum that is required to execute this mission in a manner that lives up to my standards and the expectations of the public.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have a go-to playlist for music these days? What are you listening to?
BARTHOLOMEW: Yes! Well, for one, I have been listening to a lot of indie hip hop, old school reggae and some of my favorite indie rock artists, like Rogue Wave, Elliot Smith and Wilco.

I’ve discovered a lot of new artists on YouTube. I have also been drumming in a project called FAVE in Newport every Wednesday night, and since March, I have written a new record of my own music.

Though I miss performing live music terribly, I am looking forward to recording that new music this coming winter. I even bought myself an electric drumset so that I can record drums without making my neighbors go mad.

ConvergenceRI: The release of the video by José Batista regarding the alleged actions by Providence Police Sgt. Joseph Hanley have prompted a host of questions about how to report on the police. What do you think are the guidelines that reporters should follow?
BARTHOLOMEW: This is a critical question. Police misconduct is an outrageous phenomenon, [one] that dates back to ancient law enforcement.

I believe that when police misconduct is suspected, leadership should do everything in their power to release all materials in as swift a manner as possible. This benefits both the police [if misconduct occurred, it shows transparency] and the public at large.

Media outlets serve as conduits between the public and police leadership, and the more direct transparency that occurs, the relationship between law enforcement and communities becomes more trustworthy and clear. To me, it’s a win-win. I understand that there are LEOBOR [Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights] issues at play, and perhaps some reform in that area could help to build bridges.

ConvergenceRI: Does there need to be more, better coverage of what is happening on college campuses in Rhode Island? What is the best way to do that?
BARTHOLOMEW: I recently read an interesting New York Times article that described how campus papers are filling that void. I do, however, believe that the public writ large is disconnected from what happens on college campuses, and that there is a need for more reporting in that area.

But, The Good 5 Cent Cigar and Brown Daily Herald do a decent job of serving up some of that content to the greater audience.

ConvergenceRI: In a time of partisan divide, what is the best way to help folks be able to listen to and to hear a different point of view?
BARTHOLOMEW: Empathy. There is nothing more essential to moving our society forward.

Think “Providence Plantations” is a meaningless gesture? Listen to someone who it matters deeply to. Think religious positions on certain wedge issues are nonsense and oppressive? Listen to folks who are passionate about those perspectives.

You don’t have to change your view, or stop fighting for what you believe is right. But, to discard other people’s perspectives as rubbish is to stall human progress.

Now, we all know [or should know)] that some ideas are fundamentally evil [White supremacy, sexual abuse, tyranny, etc.]. I’m not talking about that stuff; I’m talking about perspectives on questions of the day and the so-called “wedge issues.”

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
BARTHOLOMEW: Am I satisfied with the Rhode Island media? There is tremendous talent and perspective in Rhode Island media. However, there needs to be more diversity, particularly in television news. This falls on the shoulders of management and other media leaders to empower different communities to share their own stories, and our collective story. But, we are fortunate to have a media landscape that features a diversity of talent.

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