“O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!”
~ Robert Burns (1769-1796), Scottish national poet
By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — After 9-11, when many were thinking about leaving Ground Zero, Matthew Wells decided it was time to make a move he’d been contemplating for years.
“I’d been hankering to come and live here. Seven-and-a-half years ago, I decided to move from London to New York City,” said Wells, 43, a veteran print and broadcast journalist who covers “Wall Street to Broadway and everything in between,” including a vast beat that encompasses news and feature stories from coast to coast.
He was in town this week to do stories for the British Broadcasting System (BBC) on Spaceport America and on the controversial lawsuit seeking to bring Geronimo’s remains home to New Mexico from a grave in Ft. Sill, Okla.
Wells attracts an international audience during assignments for BBC News, free-lance projects and his online site, “Vindaloo: words, pictures and sounds from U.S.-based journalist, Matthew Wells” at http://matthewwells.typepad.com/rhapsod/
His recent reports include a story about desperate downsizing in Michigan: “ ‘Smart decline’ — That’s a great euphemism for shrinking. Flint, Mich., has already shrunk, but quite a few people still don't accept it.”
He just finished a two-part series for the BBC on a surprising American economic success story: “The Dakota Tiger. Grrr. There’s at least one place in the U.S. that’s going great guns. North Dakota’s economy is doing just fine, and that’s partly because they produce things. Tangible things, not derivatives or marketing strategies,” he reports.
His eclectic and sometimes eccentric interests could inspire comparisons that range from CBS-TV’s late, roving, “On the Road” reporter Charles Kuralt to Alexis de Tocqueville, the legendary French historian who roamed America in the 1800s and wrote about our fledgling democracy and its people.
“I think I’m more naturally skeptical than de Tocqueville, as I would hope a good journalist would be,” he said.
After studies at Oxford that focused on “modern history,” Wells, a journalist since 1983, has had a varied career that included writing and editing for newspapers and documentaries, and a stint as a TV news producer for Great Britain’s Channel 4, which he describes as a kind of “PBS-style news and arts program: HBO meets Nightline.”
He’s always had an instinct for trends, interviewing Kurt Cobain, “before Nirvana got big. A lot of American bands came to Europe then,” he said.
“I’d been visiting New York since 1994, but I really didn’t have impressions of America and really didn’t discover the rest of America” until the last decade, he said.
“It’s a much more individual, complex and unpredictable place than I thought it was.”
He thinks the U.S. will experience transitions in this century that are comparable to the decline of the British empire in the 20th century.
“I think America will be increasingly less significant to terms of world power and is not going to be as dominant in economic and cultural matters.”
As a student of history, he said, he appreciates America’s position as a leader of democracy: “You were advanced and you advanced the rest of the world.”
But in recent years, in the eyes of the world, he said, “There has recently been too much self-confidence. America shot first and asked questions later. And there is the perception that America has been selfish in its spending habits.”
Yet in his travels, often to remote and rural areas of the U.S., he has been intrigued by how different American communities and their residents are from international perceptions and political and cultural stereotypes.
He’s had some multicultural adventures of his own in the U.S., too. He met his Iraqi-American wife, Heather Raffo, a Michigan native, “when she came to my apartment to record a voiceover for a documentary." Now he and Raffo, an award-winning playwright and actress and author of the well-reviewed “9 Parts of Desire: Stories of Iraqi Women,” have a six-month-old daughter, Safia.
His far-flung concerns were evident during a tour of Mesilla. He mused about baby-proofing his New York apartment, while wielding his microphone to collect tidbits of history about the Gadsden Purchase and anecdotes about the Double Eagle ghosts and the Mesilla sites where Billy the Kid was tried and incarcerated.
“Quite a good news patch you have here,” he proclaimed, but stressed that he will be concentrating on his original two assignments this trip, interviewing southern New Mexico sources about commercial space travel and collecting insights on legendary Apache leader Geronimo.
“It’s quite a story, and I’m intrigued by the Skull and Bones Society angle,” he said, and long-held claims that in 1918, members of Skull and Bones, including Prescott Bush, the father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush, invaded Geronimo’s grave at Fort Sill and stole his skull, bones and other items buried with him.
“I went to visit the Skull and Bones Society at Yale myself in 2004, because I thought it was quite amazing that both candidates, Bush and John Kerry, were members of the same secret society,” he said.
Wells said his BBC pieces on this area will likely be posted in about two weeks on his Web site at http://matthewwells.typepad.com/rhapsod/
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org