Monday, September 27, 2004
Criticism doesn't bother smoker
Joe Kennedy is routinely named the region's best writer by readers of The Roanoker magazine.
Mellissa Williamson came to her door smoking a cigarette Thursday morning. It was a sign that the Southeast Roanoke woman didn't know or didn't care about the furor her photograph had ignited since it appeared in The Roanoke Times on Sept. 20.
The photo showed her seven months pregnant and smoking a cigarette. It accompanied a story about unpopular "traffic-calming" measures under way on Bullitt Avenue, where she lives. The caption said she worries about the effect of jackhammer noise on her unborn child. She couldn't have touched off a controversy more quickly if she'd called President Bush an Islamic extremist.
Dozens of calls and e-mails came to The Roanoke Times impugning her reputation and criticizing the paper for printing the photo. It glamorized or promoted smoking while pregnant, some people said. At least one syndicated talk radio host mentioned it, and the picture proliferated on Web sites, with the caption and some wise remark like, "Yeah, the noise is what the baby needs to fear."
We'll deal with these issues one at a time.
First, the furor: Yes, Mellissa Williamson, 35, violates sound medical behavior every time she takes a puff. Yes, she deserves censure.
Second, the weighing in of egomaniacal talk-radio hosts: Yes, they're correct in saying Williamson's unborn child - a boy named Emmitt, after her "old man," who also smokes - can be damaged by her smoking.
But egomaniacal talk-radio hosts should be viewed with antipathy because they troll for people to demean. "Mercy" is not in their vocabularies. Their favorite word begins and ends with "I."
Third, the newspaper's decision to publish the picture: My view? That's journalism.
My bosses' view? The same.
"A good newspaper depicts reality, for good or ill," Times Editor Mike Riley said, "and sometimes people don't like what they see on our pages. ... We're not promoting smoking or pregnancy; we're simply documenting one person's viewpoint on an issue."
Managing Editor Rich Martin concurred: "Our photographers are out there to show what's really going on - not to stage or edit a scene just so we can photograph someone in a more favorable light."
Staging and editing scenes constitute filmmaking, advertising or propaganda, but not journalism.
When you write in your journal, do you present the truth as you lived it or a purified account that makes you look good?
A target market
Thursday morning, Williamson said she knows smoking is bad because people have criticized her since she took up the practice 20 years ago.
"I really don't pay that much attention to it," she said. "If people don't like it, that's their opinion. They've got theirs and I've got mine."
She has tried every way to quit without success, she said.
As for smoking while pregnant, she said her doctor told her "it would be good if I cut back, but if I totally quit, it would not only cause stress on me but it would cause stress on the baby."
Speaking generally, Eric Earnhart, spokesman for Carilion Health System, said any pregnant person who comes to its facilities "is going to be advised to quit smoking."
It is possible, he said, that a person having difficulty quitting would be advised at least to cut down.
Williamson said she has cut down from two packs per day to one-half pack.
Smoking is estimated to account for 20 percent to 30 percent of low birth-weight babies, up to 14 percent of preterm deliveries and 10 percent of all infant deaths. Asthma is twice as likely in children whose mothers smoke more than 10 cigarettes per day. This is just a fraction of the possible harm.
"The most effective way to protect the fetus is to quit smoking," the American Lung Association says.
Williamson is a small woman with long brown hair. She didn't finish high school. She hasn't seen her father since she was 13. She has worked in fast food, but doesn't have a job.
"I've heard of the Internet," she said, "but I've never used it. I have no knowledge of computers whatsoever."
She didn't learn about her widespread critics until a few days after the photo appeared. Her ex-husband said his co-workers had talked about it.
"It didn't bother me," she said. "It went in one ear and out the other. I've heard this all my life."
I think she's an easy target, and I think Andrea Siebentritt of the American Cancer Society had the most thoughtful response.
"We have to see her as an audience we need to reach out to," she said.