Town Thinks Story Is the Pits

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The outcry over a national magazine article dubbing Battle Mountain the "armpit of America" cost a local newspaper editor her job and stunned the article's author, who insists he's fond of the rural Nevada mining town.

Lorrie Baumann, former editor of the Battle Mountain Bugle, said she was fired after local merchants outraged over her cooperation with the Washington Post Magazine threatened to pull advertising from the twice-weekly, 1,700-circulation newspaper.

"I lost my job because of this," Baumann told Associated Press. Baumann said she wouldn't say more until she meets with a lawyer.

Residents were upset by comments attributed to Baumann in the magazine's Dec. 2 humor piece in which she generally agreed with the unflattering label of the rural northern Nevada mining town of about 5,000.

"Sounds about right," she said in the article written by Gene Weingarten. "I think a quick drive around downtown will answer any questions that might be lingering in your mind."

Bugle Publisher Lee Denmark, who also publishes the Humboldt Sun in Winnemucca, said Baumann's departure was a personnel matter and he would not comment. He said local reaction to the article was varied.

"Some people were outraged. Some thought it was humorous." As for himself, he found "large segments mean-spirited and unnecessary.

"At this point, I think most of them want to try to figure out a way to capitalize on the publicity," Denmark said.

Barry Smith, editor of the Nevada Appeal in Carson City, offered similar advice in an editorial Friday: "Don't get mad. Make a profit."

Critics, including a U.S. senator, said the article unfairly poked fun at Battle Mountain as a desolate, backward community inhabited largely by hicks and lacking in any real history, culture or entertainment beyond drinking and gambling.

"This is a very hurtful article," Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid told the Elko Daily Free Press. "Think how this makes the kids who are going to school there feel."

But over the course of the 6,000-word article, Weingarten appeared to undergo a transformation in which he ends up having respect for the resourcefulness of the townspeople, their local pride and dedication to their children.

"I've been going about this all wrong," Weingarten wrote. "This isn't about architecture, roads, weather, cultural opportunities. . . . It's amazing what you can discover when you start to look in the right places."

In fact, the article's headline states: "Why not the worst? We promised to find the armpit of America. Turns out it's only about five inches from the heart."

It's the path Weingarten took to get there that upset the locals, ridiculing the town's big white letters on a mountainside, "BM," a town where "architectural context is nonexistent" and "corrugated aluminum and aluminum siding seem to be the building material of choice," where there is "a brothel, but no ice cream parlor."

The magazine cover features a photograph of the Battle Mountain Shell station sign with the "S" burned out--HELL.

The cover says, "Nowheresville USA" and "Worst Place in America" and Weingarten explains how Battle Mountain beat out places like East St. Louis, Ill., Elizabeth, N.J., Branson, Mo., Fargo, N.D., and Scranton, Pa.

"Take a small town, remove any trace of history, character or charm," the article said.

"Allow nothing with any redeeming qualities within city limits--this includes food, motel beds, service personnel. Then place this pathetic assemblage of ghastly buildings and nasty people on a freeway in the midst of a harsh, uninviting wilderness, far enough from the nearest city to be inconvenient, but not so far for it to develop a character of its own. You now have created Battle Mountain, Nevada."

It didn't help that Baumann acknowledged in print that part of her agreement to work at the newspaper included assurances she didn't have to live in Battle Mountain. She lives 50 miles away in Winnemucca.

Weingarten, who grew up in the South Bronx and had never visited Nevada before his assignment, said he was "stunned" by Baumann's firing.

"I'm horrified," he said by telephone from Washington, D.C.

"Near as I can tell, he fired this woman for telling the truth and expressing an honest opinion. I don't think this is a great moment for American journalism."

Weingarten said he has received about 100 e-mails and letters from the Battle Mountain area and former residents. He estimated they were evenly divided pro and con.

He read one that said the author "should be shot."

"I would have to say I got more vicious mail from Scrantonians for merely mentioning their city in the story than I got from Battle Mountain," he said, laughing.

Lander County Dist. Atty. Hy Forgeron, a 30-year resident of Battle Mountain, questioned in an opinion page column in the Elko paper: "Why did the Post feel it was necessary to travel outside its own city to find 'the armpit?'

"After all, didn't I recently read that D.C.'s homicide rate is tops in the U.S. and its drug-related crime also at or near the top? . . . I wouldn't live in Washington, D.C. if you gave me title to the whole place."

Weingarten said the Battle Mountain Chamber of Commerce requested 50 copies of the magazine and many residents who wrote recognized the underlying theme of the article.

But others "misunderstood what the ultimate message of the story was, which is that you can't define a place by what material things it lacks," he said.

"You define a place by the contents of the people's hearts. It seems to me it doesn't take a real careful reading of the story to understand I came away with a fond feeling for Battle Mountain."

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