Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, October 24, 2016 7:19 pm

Accountability journalism, how to make a profit, and the free-rider problem

This is a fascinating Q&A with James T. Hamilton, whose book “Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism” comes out this month. He talks about how he found that investigative reporting provides a public good worth $100 or more for every dollar invested — and how a news outlet’s inability to recover some of that value keeps the market undersupplied with good investigative stories.

We wrestled with this problem at the News & Record when I worked there, and every news outlet that produces accountability journalism wrestles with it, too. The reasons are pretty simple. Accountability journalism is time- and labor-intensive, and it pretty much never earns back its production costs, let alone anything like a return on investment. (I say “pretty much never” because it’s possible that a series like Barlett & Steele’s “America: What Went Wrong” for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was so popular it was adapted into a best-selling book, might have generated a real return for Barlett & Steele, if not for the Inquirer.)

In economic terms, accountability journalism is a “public good,” meaning that while private, for-profit interests produce it, they almost always do so at a loss because the economic good is socialized — people and institutions benefit from it without paying for it and in many cases without ever buying the newspaper or watching the TV broadcast that produces that public good. Economists call that they free-rider problem.

Economists have pretty decent ways of estimating the value of public goods — they can tell you, for example, roughly how much a saved life is worth. What they haven’t come up with (and to be fair, neither has anyone else) is a reliable way of ensuring that private interests that produce public goods can recapture some of their investment — if not enough to profit, at least enough to recover the direct costs.

(My favorite example of this is the series “Bitter Blood,” which my former co-worker Jerry Bledsoe published in the Greensboro paper back in the 1980s. It sold roughly 10,000 copies of the paper per day over and above what the paper otherwise would have expected to sell. That sounds like a lot of extra papers, and it is. But each paper produced only 25 cents of revenue, so each day’s added sales yielded gross revenue of only about $2,500 — less than a 1-day, 1-page, black and white advertisement would have yielded. And that’s before you figure in the additional paper, ink and labor costs of printing and distributing those extra copies.)

How valuable is the public good produced by accountability journalism? Pretty valuable. Hamilton estimates that value at $143 for every dollar invested by The Washington Post in one of its projects, on police shootings, and $287 for every dollar invested by The News & Observer in a series on the state’s system of parole, in the first year following policy changes. In the case of the N&O, he says, that would have been enough money to hire 90 additional reporters for that year. He adds:

For comparison, when the Office of Management and Budget looked at the total ratio of annual benefits to annual costs of some regulations, the ratios were 3.0 for a Department of Labor rule on hazard communication and 5.5 for a Department of Energy conservation standard. Investing in investigative work appears like a relatively good investment from society’s perspective.

Ya think? Yeah, I’d say investing a buck and getting $287 or even $143 back is a “relatively good investment” compared to getting back three bucks or $5.50.

But the question remains: How can news outlets recapture some of that value? Hamilton offers some logical solutions, but I question whether the solutions would work, much as I want them to. For example, he suggests foundation funding. Most foundations would look askance at giving money to a for-profit news outlet, particularly when that outlet has been skimping on acountability journalism to support an artificially high profit margin, as many have. And for a news outlet to seek large donations from a single donor means adopting that donor’s charitable and political baggage, which almost all large charitable donors have. That can damage the outlet’s reputation for independence, which in turn harms its credibility, which could lessen the impact of its reporting and thus the value of the public good it produces.

I suppose it might be barely possible to give news outlets tax credits based on a small percentage of the public good their accountability journalism supplies. But as a practical matter, those benefits might take years to realize, and as a political matter, I don’t know of a politician alive or dead who would vote to give tax breaks to news outlets for investigative work.

Here’s the thing: Accountability journalism has NEVER paid for itself. It has always been subsidized, either by other, more profitable things that news outlets do (advertising, the comics, the horoscope, etc.) or by outside funding (as in the case of the investigative nonprofit Pro Publica). Hamilton has helped quantify the economic value of this problem, but at least based on this Q&A, he brings us no closer to the solution. Still, I plan to read the book and hope it will be more encouraging.

(h/t: John Robinson)

Updated 10/25 to fix the stupid paragraph breaks.

Monday, October 10, 2016 6:27 am

You don’t have to feel like this

Today is World Mental Health Day. And if you’re depressed or anxious to the point of feeling suicidal, please, get help. Here is a state-by-state list of suicide hotlines.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled inanity.

Saturday, September 24, 2016 10:48 am

After protests, the next step is a boycott — but of what?

The problem with protests is that while they can raise awareness, they’re much less effective tools for bringing about real change. And some of the people most involved with protests against the killing of unarmed people of color by U.S. law enforcement are beginning to talk about that.

Shaun King in the New York Daily News:

… we’ve crossed a line in America. Police brutality and racial violence have pushed people far past a reasonable or compassionate human standard.

For the past two years, we’ve protested all over the country, and my gut reaction used to be that it hadn’t accomplished as much as it should have — that the energy required for those protests didn’t meet the meager reforms that we’ve achieved.

I no longer feel that way. In two years, in great part because of those protests, the fierce injustice of the United States has now become known to the entire world. That’s no easy feat. The world knows the names and stories of our victims and they care.

Furthermore, we have built consensus among tens of millions of people in America who are fully fed up with police brutality and demand a better way.

It is time that we organize a passionate, committed, economic boycott. It must be painful. It must be unified. And we must continue with it until we see change. This country is clearly willing to continue killing unarmed men, women and children without ever making any serious efforts at reforms. This economic boycott can change that. …

I’m going to be listening for the best ideas on how we proceed. We have to all be on the same page here or it won’t work. I’m in and I hope you are too.

(If you want to contact King directly, he’s on Twitter at @ShaunKing.)

For the purpose of discussion, and because I live in the real world, I’m going to stipulate the following: 1) We do have a problem with law enforcement killing unarmed people of color; 2) state and local governments, which oversee the overwhelming majority of law enforcement in this country, do not perceive this problem; do not think the lives lost are as important as other considerations, which may range from retraining cost to fears over loss of political support of LEOs; or perceive the problem and are just fine with it; 3) protests alone have achieved most or all of what any reasonable person could expect, i.e., they have raised awareness but have not led to widespread political or policy change.

King draws parallels with the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King and others, which lasted for more than a year. Closer to home and closer to now, there have been protests about the N.C. legislature’s ill-considered House Bill 2, but real pressure for change didn’t build until businesses, associations and entertainers started boycotting the state (and REALLY didn’t build in this college-sports-crazy state until the Greensboro-based Atlantic Coast Conference pulled all its conference championships out of the state and hinted that it might move its headquarters out as well).

King concludes not with a specific call to action but with a call to discussion, because he acknowledges, however briefly, a critical truth: To work, boycotts need a clearly identified target related in some way to the boycott’s goal. Here in North Carolina, business leaders who have legislators’ ears are seeing economic-development opportunities fly out of the window — and they also know that there undoubtedly more opportunities passing us by that we never even see, company formations or expansions for which we’re never even considered, because of the bigotry among the Republicans who control the Lege.

What might such a dynamic look like with respect to getting the police fully back under civilian control — because they are only nominally there now in many jurisdictions — and making the political changes, not just law-enforcement changes, necessary so that law enforcement officers can truly work for justice, rather than merely function as tools for keeping what one privileged segment of society considers to be order?

I have one suggestion. It might not be the best. It might not even be particularly good. And God knows whether it’s workable. But it identifies a clear target that is related directly to the goal of changing the policial framework that dictates how law enforcement operates, so that law enforcement will operate in the interests of true justice:

A tax boycott.

People of color and their allies could stop paying their state and local income and property taxes until state and local governments and their police forces take specific, quantifiable steps to reduce that violence.

People of color pay taxes, just like anyone else, to support a government that is required by law to provide equal protection under the law. Yet it is abundantly clear that that government does not provide equal protection. Further, the majority-white power structure in most jurisdictions doesn’t care, or else more steps would have been taken before now.

What might the steps that people demand look like? That would be up to each community or state to decide. For purposes of discussion, I’ll throw out some possibilities:

  • Mandatory, periodic training, retraining, and certification in de-escalation techniques.
  • Mandatory, periodic training, retraining, and certification in dealing with subjects with mental illness.
  • An increased commitment to community policing. A lot of departments are doing a lot of this now. We need more. It is in officers’ own safety interests to be seen as part of the community, someone you run into every day, and not as an occupying army.
  • Repeal of the new state law, HB 972, which permits release of police body-cam and dashcam video only with the permission of a judge. Here in N.C., those videos should be treated the same as any other public record under North Carolina law, which is to say that they should be presumptively public.
  • Civilian police review boards with subpoena power.
  • Demilitarization of state/local law enforcement and return of military-grade equipment to the federal government. (This one in particular I’m not on board with; there are so many firearms and other weapons on the street that a lot of departments need at least some of this stuff to avoid undue risk to officers. But there also are a lot of places that will never in a million years need it.)

Such a boycott would have a clear target. The target would be related directly to the problem. I have no idea if it would work. And the consequences for at least some potential participants could be devastating — and these are people who already have endured devastating consequences.

But if that many people took part — tens of millions of Americans in all 50 states — governments couldn’t jail/foreclose on all of them.

Again, to be clear, I am not advocating this specific course of action. But I think people of good will do need to talk about what it will take to force the kind of lasting political change that will, if not end this phenomenon, at least make it much rarer. This suggestion is one idea about what an effective course of action might look like.

But Shaun King is right: Protests alone, while serving a valuable purpose in raising awareness, aren’t effecting change. History suggests that money, almost alone, talks. So money must find its voice if lives are going to be saved.

(h/t Jill Williams for bringing King’s column to my attention and prompting my thoughts on this subject.)

Saturday, September 17, 2016 2:45 pm

The press is lying, but so are the voters

Two of our greatest American institutions are badly failing us today — our news media, and our very electorate. Both like to think of themselves as standing up for our essential American-ness, embracing values as defined in, say, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and even the Pledge of Allegiance. But both groups are lying, to us and to themselves.

Evidence of the problem can be found in the news media’s problems in covering Donald Trump, which I addressed earlier this week, and I’ll have more to say on that in a bit. But let me start with the electorate.

We voters like to think of ourselves as spokespeople for American values, holding these truths to be self-evident — a free and independent country, a democratic republic where all are equal, with liberty and justice for all, and so on and so forth. In point of fact, those truths are not self-evident; they are evident only to the extent that we do the work of making them real, every day, everywhere. And that is not what American voters have chosen to do. Largely although not exclusively by embracing Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, a large minority of Americans has said something quite different: that they choose to be ruled by a tyrant.

This is not a new development. That segment of Americans has always been present and has been politically active continuously since World War II. They were there in the 1950s, lining up behind Joe McCarthy; they were there in the 1960s, hailing the domestic spy and hypocrite J. Edgar Hoover long after it was clear he was a constitutional abomination; they were there in the 1970s, defending the indefensible Richard Nixon; they were there in the ’80s, supporting the lawbreaking and increasingly senile Ronald Reagan; they were there in the ’90s, cheering George H.W. Bush’s pardons of the Iran-contra lawbreakers as he left the White House; they were there in the aughts, angrily denigrating anyone who didn’t support the Bush administration’s serial violations of U.S. and international law; and they are here today preparing to cast a ballot for a dyed-in-the-orange-wool fascist. Take it away, Esquire’s Charlie Pierce:

A substantial portion of this country wants someone not to govern, but to rule, to defeat the imaginary enemies they have concocted so as not to bestir themselves to resist the forces that actually are working against their interest. For the balance of this election cycle, and largely due to the presence in it of this ridiculous man and his ridiculous campaign, the American people have proven themselves profoundly unworthy of being called citizens. …

[Trump’s personal and financial involvement with Moammar Qaddafi] likely will occasion another spasm of impotent introspection on the part of our elite political media on the topic of, “Why doesn’t any of this stick?” But few of the members of that media will dare to look at the real answer, which is that there is a substantial constituency for what Trump has been peddling. …  Americans are bored with their democracy and they don’t have the democratic energy to do anything about it, so they’ll settle for an entertaining quasi-strongman. When they decline, democracies get the dictators they deserve. A country mired in apathy and lassitude gets a dictator who can’t even put in the hard work of becoming very good at it. …

But the truth is that the facts are out there if anyone wants to make the effort and find them. (The elite political media makes this harder by its curious reluctance to let these stories fully inform its coverage of the campaign.) That’s our collective job as citizens, and to do it requires a collective national will that no longer may be in us. With every new poll that is released, I comfort myself with the knowledge that Donald Trump is not willing to put in the hours to be a competent authoritarian, which is cold comfort, I know, but you take what you can get.

That cannot be said of the next guy to try it, and there will be a next time, because the basic tectonic plates beneath our democracy have shifted so as to make the next guy inevitable. The mechanics of tyranny are not a magician’s prestige, the third part of a trick in which the lady is reassembled or the rabbit brought back to the hat. The mechanics of tyranny are primal in all of us, and vestigial in very few. They are reflexes, like breathing or flinching. We engage them without thinking. In fact, that’s the very best way to do it.

These are people who largely have decided not to do the hard work of self-goverance. Rather than seeking wisdom, or at least knowledge, they seek candidates who reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and who seek extraconstitutional power. They do so secure in the belief, though lacking any proof of that belief, that should such a tyranny come to pass, they would never suffer.

Why do they do so?

One big part of the problem, as I noted on Monday, is that the U.S. news media, for the most part, has not provided the information that a free people need to govern themselves, but the problem with the press is bigger than that. Donald Trump has presented the press with a campaign in which it is important, perhaps for the first time, for the press to respond not only with facts but also with values — and the press has almost completely failed to do so.

When Web 2.0 and social media began to become a thing back in the early 2000s, I wrestled with this issue in my role as an editor, Web jockey and blogger for the News & Record in Greensboro. Among the many things that seemed clear to me was that “objectivity,” the standard of the mainstream U.S. news media for the past century or so, was an inadequate standard for a changing industry. I suggested to co-workers at that paper and in the industry, and to the occasional reader who asked, that we needed something different, something more.

I argued, in different times and places and with differing levels of coherence, that we needed not objectivity, but fairness, accuracy and transparency in pursuit of what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book “The Elements of Journalism,” called “the discipline of verification.” With respect to transparency, I said, news organizations need to be open to their publics about how they do what they do, and about why they do it. And those reasons, I argued further, should stem from clear, well-defined values.

What should those values look like? I never completed a list, but I did start one. I would have hoped, for example, that a U.S. news organization would embrace and stand for some of the country’s fundamental values — like, well, liberty and justice for all. Equal protection under the law. Government by the people, which meant, as a practical matter, that the people needed to be able to know in almost all circumstances what the government was doing, and how, and with whose money and for whose benefit.

It sounds pretty basic and pretty logical, but the longer I spent in newspapers, the less I believed that the U.S. news media really stood for this stuff anymore, if it ever had. (Some of the country’s best, and best-known, newspapers were segregationist until relatively recently, for example. For another example, U.S. news media did not uniformly criticize our government’s use of torture, a crime against both U.S. and international law for which it had hanged representatives of other governments.)

And that is part of the reason why the media are failing to confront the danger that a possible Trump candidacy poses to those American values, writes Brian Beutler in The New Republic: The press hasn’t expressed those values because it hasn’t embraced them except in very attenuated circumstances. What it values most is itself.

The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions—except when press freedoms and access itself are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.

That’s not a value set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.

Even then, though, the press has no language for explicating which affronts to press freedom are more urgent and dangerous than others. All such affronts are generally lumped together in a way that makes it unclear whether the media thinks it’s worse that Trump blacklists outlets and wants to sue journalists into penury or that Clinton doesn’t like holding press conferences.

The result is the evident skewing of editorial judgment we see in favor of stories where media interests are most at stake: where Clinton gets ceaseless scrutiny for conducting public business on a private email server; Trump gets sustained negative coverage for several weeks when his campaign manager allegedly batters a reporter; where Clinton appears to faint, but the story becomes about when it was appropriate for her to disclose her pneumonia diagnosis; where because of her illness, she and Trump will both be hounded about their medical records, and Trump will be further hounded for his tax returns—but where bombshell stories about the ways Trump used other people’s charity dollars for personal enrichment [or about how his financial dealings conflict directly with national interests — Lex] have a hard time breaking through.

News outlets are less alarmed by the idea that Trump might run the government to boost his company’s bottom line, or that he might shred other constitutional rights, because those concerns don’t place press freedoms squarely in crosshairs. Controversies like his proposal to ban Muslim travel into the U.S., create a deportation force to expel millions of immigrants, and build a wall along the southern border are covered less as affronts to American values than as gauche ideas that might harm his poll numbers with minorities. Trump’s most damaging scandal may have been his two-week political fight with the Khan family, but even there, the fact that Trump attacked the Khans’ religious faith was of secondary interest to questions like whether attacking a Gold Star family of immigrants would offend veterans and non-whites who might otherwise have voted for him.

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that when liberal intellectuals argue the press’ coverage of Trump and Clinton is out of whack, in ways that imperil the democracy itself, members of the media don’t see a world-historical blindspot that must be urgently corrected. They see an attack on the trade itself—and reflexively rush to protect it.

So when someone points out weaknesses — often huge ones — in the press coverage of Trump, the press doesn’t perceive the criticism as highlighting a danger to the country, it perceives the criticism directly as a danger to itself. As Beutler notes, this tendency was highlighted by Liz Spayd, the grossly inferior successor to Margaret Sullivan as public editor (ombudswoman, if you will) of The New York Times.

This problem can be prevented if the press will define and then act in accordance with its explicit values as elucidated in the founding documents, crafting those values as reflective of the press’s historical role as the representative of the people, all the people, who govern this country: its citizens. It also can be prevented if journalists will stop spending so much of their time worrying about what effect this proposal or that comment will have on one candidate or the other’s standing, and worry instead about what we talked about earlier: pursuit of the discipline of verification, including eyewitness verification.

Beutler agrees, in a separate article published just yesterday:

Most prominent political reporters have covered more than one election. This is my third election as a professional political writer; James Fallows has been doing this since the 1970s. Whether you have a short or long view, you’ve seen enough to say authoritatively that Trump is different from all major party nominees in living memory. It is not normal in modern times for a major party nominee to be an erratic, racist demagogue; and it is almost definitionally abnormal for a major party nominee to be described as such by leading members of his own party.

These are the cardinal facts of this election. They should be the dominant upshot of any significant increment of news coverage and analysis—the thing that reaches and sticks with casual news consumers, in the same way that even musical dilettantes can hum the leitmotif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

That is a journalistic judgment, just as sending hundreds of reporters to Louisiana to cover Hurricane Katrina was a journalistic judgment. It is not a Democratic or liberal judgment. It is not the equivalent of saying that unflattering revelations about Clinton should be suppressed or that any particular new revelation about Trump should be overhyped. It’s simply to say, through the many means we have to indicate what is important, what is breaking news, what is worthy of discussion, “we have seen this, it is ongoing, and it is extraordinary.” And then let the chips fall where they may.

For several weeks now—including since Labor Day, when most Americans truly began paying attention to the campaigns—these truths, which we all took for granted six months ago, have not been communicated to glancing news consumers. They’ve receded from most article leads, headlines, front pages, and A-block TV segments.

That development is the product of many collective choices and thousands of individual ones. It is an institutional failure, and as such, a major and abrupt course correction seems highly unlikely. But that doesn’t absolve reporters, editors, producers or anyone else who is part of the system. There’s still time to alter our focus, however incrementally, so that it better captures what’s new and alarming, and all journalists have some degree of power to nudge it in that direction. The goal is not to swing an election, or call Trump mean names, or render partisan judgment about whether electing him would be a world-historical mistake. It’s simply so that after this is all over, however it shakes out, we can say we bore witness faithfully.

What we do about the large minority of the electorate that appears to desire, or at least be content with, the election of a tyrant is a larger and more difficult question, likely encompassing everything from family dynamics and civic education to neuropsychology. And the stakes could not be higher outside the realms of global warming and giant meteors: The future of the 240-year-old American experiment depends on our finding an answer, for as Pierce observes, while this tyrant is quasi-comical and in many ways inept, the next tyrant quite likely will be neither. But one thing that cannot hurt and almost certainly will help is a press that strives to pursue the discipline of verification within the context of explicitly stated and observed values that will inspire us to be our best national self, which is the best the world has to offer.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 12:19 pm

Why “Bernie or nothing” will kill us dead

If there’s anyone out there who seriously thinks there’s no difference between Hillary Clinton and the Republicans, just get over yourself right now.

We’re taught as kids that voting means choosing the person we think is best for the job. Unfortunately, what we’re too often faced with when we come of voting age is a choice between the lesser of two or more pretty evil evils. But you know what? That’s true in a lot of situations in life, not just electing a president. Adults deal with it and move on.

I was around in ’80 and ’00 and I saw the damage that “perfect or nothing” causes: It gave us Reagan and Bush 43, two of the three worst presidents of the postwar era. Moreover, as a result, I’ve spent my entire adult life cleaning up the messes created by people who think like you, and I’m damned tired of it. I’d like to play offense for a change — work for things, not just try to stave off, or clean up, disasters.

I voted for Bernie in the primary, but I’m going to vote for the Democratic nominee in November, no matter who it is, because ANY Republican in or currently contemplating the race would be an unqualified and unmitigated disaster. (Voting for third-party candidates like Jill Stein, nice and appealing as she is, is like voting for a Republican, too.) Hillary won’t deny anthropogenic global warming, and that difference alone could save millions of lives in coming years. Hillary will work for a saner gun policy, which also will save lives. And if nothing else, Hillary Clinton would not put a Sam Alito or a Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, and by God, that matters to anyone who doesn’t want to be pledging allegiance to MegaCorp or the Last Global Bank and the exploitation for which they stand.

Yes, Hillary is a huge letdown for people who believe in and voted, or plan to vote, for Bernie. But if you throw a snit fit over Hillary’s becoming the Democratic nominee, if in fact that’s what happens, your tantrum will have a body count.


Thursday, October 8, 2015 12:00 pm

Want to know how you can help survivors of the S.C. flooding?

The South Carolina Emergency Management Division has got you covered. So dig deep and give generously.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 5:45 pm

Odds and Ends for Oct. 6

First things first: Here in Greensboro, the polls are open until 7:30 p.m. If you haven’t already voted, vote! It annoys the bastards.™

So did the Lions lose to the Seahawks last night because the officials knew the rule but made the wrong call? Or did they lose because the officials didn’t know the rule?

No one ever has paid me to be a campaign manager, but I cannot see any upside for Hillary Clinton to pulling out of New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders may lead her there now, but it’s months until the primary. The state awards delegates proportionately, so a loss could be almost as good as a win. The Clintons have a lot of history there; indeed, Hillary won there in 2008 after being left for dead. And is anyone seriously arguing that a campaign that took in $32 million in the third quarter can’t campaign there and on more promising turf? I think this is just a case of Politico doing what it does best, which is to let any old fool say any damnfool thing that comes to mind and treating it like a story.

So 87% of frequent flyers are annoyed by the TSA. The good news is, those 87% are at least 153% annoyed.

I don’t know why the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, got bombed by U.S. planes. All I know is that it did and that the organization is pulling out of the area, taking northern Afghanistan’s last trauma-care hospital with it. This needs investigating. If it was an accident, the U.S. government needs to be issuing abject apologies and paying reparations. If it was intentional, some people need to be charged with war crimes. Either way, some heads need to roll — and I mean commanders and civilian bureaucrats, not pilots.

An EU court has ruled that EU-based companies that store their data in U.S. servers are illegally exposing their customers’ data to snooping by the U.S. government. So not only is that snooping unconstitutional, it’s also bad for business. Maybe that will get the Republicans’ attention.

So once upon a time, South Carolina’s five Republican representatives and two Republican senators voted against federal disaster relief for the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy. Now, with all the flooding in South Carolina, they’re all, including presidential contender Lindsey Graham, seeking federal disaster relief for South Carolina. This is hypocrisy, but it’s more than that: It’s a bone-crushing level of stupid. Because when they were extending the middle finger to New Jersey and New York, did these intellectual ceiling tiles not think that tropical weather — or ice storms, for that matter — could make a huge mess of South Carolina?

Charlie Pierce has more:

Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of the destruction, certainly. (To paraphrase Will McEvoy, nobody’s thoughts and prayers are with the flood.) But my memories go back to 2013, when a survey warned us that the country is chockfull of aging, obsolete dams, many of them of the earthen variety, like the ones that gave way in South Carolina today. That same survey found South Carolina’s performance on dam safety as leaky and unsafe as the dams themselves. I mean, 4.3 fulltime employees to monitor and inspect 550 dams, 162 of which were classified as “high-hazard.”

Talking fence post Ben Carson thinks the Oregon community-college shooting was as bad as it was because not enough people attacked the attacker and assures us he would have behaved differently. By his logic, not enough cavalrymen shot at Injuns at Little Big Horn and we must not have shot back at Pearl Harbor. His candidacy poses an interesting question: How dumb can a presidential candidate be before Republican voters notice?

Florida Senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus once sacrificed a goat and drank its blood, which I not only am OK with, I also find it one helluva lot less bizarre than believing in supply-side economics.

A TV reporter asked a Dothan (Ala.) city commissioner a question and got hit twice in the face for his trouble. Commissioner Amos Newsome faces assault charges and is lucky not to have a high-def video camera stuck where the sun doesn’t shine.




Saturday, September 12, 2015 7:49 am

Giving the government a do-it-yourself proctological exam

Hi, kids. Ever want to live the glamorous life of an investigative reporter but also wanted to, you know, eat? Well, know, and I are placing a powerful investigative tool in your hands, absolutely free. It’s the Freedom of Information Act! This graphic will tell you most of what you need to know to place a Freedom of Information Act request, what to do if your request is denied, and generally how to go about using this wonderful and powerful tool.

A couple of caveats, based on my experience:

The FOIA is not a panacea for several reasons. First, it applies only to the federal executive branch, not to Congress or the federal courts, nor to any level of state or local government. (Here in North Carolina, the law that applies to state/local governments starts at N.C. General Statute 132.1 and goes forward from there; that’s a subject for another post.)

Second, some agencies handle FOIA requests a lot more quickly and sincerely than others, which leads me to caveat 2A: sometimes you can get what you need a lot more quickly and easily by checking the agency’s website, or even chatting up a friendly clerk or secretary, than by going through the FOIA hoops, if you happen to be physically close to the federal agency you need info from. (For local folks, some regional U.S. government agencies are around here, notably the V.A. in Winston-Salem and the Department of Labor in Greensboro.)

Third, there ARE exceptions to the act; it’s not a blank check.

Fourth, your own FOIA request becomes a public document that someone else can request a copy of, so if you don’t want anyone to know you’re looking into something, you’ll want to think twice about going the FOIA route.

And then there’s the fact that if you can’t get into the agency’s face live and in concert, filing a FOIA request can be like flying a paper airplane into the Grand Canyon. True story: In 1991, I filed a FOIA request with the Health Care Finance Administration seeking information regarding federal payments to a local medical practice, Southeastern Eye Center. I nursed that request, calling and writing every few months, from then until I got out of the newspaper bidness in 2009. Southeastern Eye Center is now in receivership. My FOIA request technically remains open, to the best of my knowledge.

But don’t let that scare you. I once got a useful response from the Federal Aviation Administration within 48 hours. (Faxes were involved.)

So, hey, if you want to know what a federal executive-branch agency has been doing, knock yourself out. Why should starving reporters have all the fun? Besides, the National Security Agency, at the least, probably already knows everything you’ve been doing, so turnabout is fair play, right?


Thursday, September 10, 2015 5:08 pm

Don’t do it

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Long story short, no reason is good enough, and I say that as someone who has looked into this particular abyss off and on for a long, long time. If you’re looking, too, drop what you’re doing and call 800-273-TALK.

Thursday, August 27, 2015 9:44 pm

Odds and ends for Aug. 27

I don’t have anything to add to the coverage and discussion of the fatal shootings on live TV of reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward yesterday in Virginia. The now-dead shooter clearly had problems but, given the state of our laws, probably not the type that would have prevented him from getting a gun. The media too quickly made the discussion about itself, when they weren’t outright endangering people’s lives, and I have no interest in adding to that pile of crap. And I’m beyond tired of people who say nothing can be done, as if we don’t actively choose, every single day, to do nothing. Something can be done — maybe not to have prevented this particular shooting, but to prevent many more like it. The whole racism angle was silly (and, no, I’m not linking to Breitbart, FFS). And I’m just profoundly sad for the victims and their families, friends, co-workers, and industry — the TV news bidness is even smaller than the newspaper bidness, so everybody knows everybody else, or at least knows of everybody else. The two dead victims went out to do a job and were ambushed, and I’ve got nothing.

Moving on …

North Dakota is weaponizing its police drones with so-called “less lethal” weapons such as tear gas, Tasers, and beanbag cannons. Internet, you may hereby consider the fatal wounding of an absolutely innocent civilian reasonably foreseen.

Yes, it’s true that roughly 3% of all peer-reviewed research on climate change differs from the predominant theory. It’s also true that several common errors often appear in that contrarian research.

At least one county court clerk in Kentucky plans to fight same-sex marriage — which, by the way, has been the law of the land for a couple of months without the world’s coming to an end — even unto death. Upon reflection, I’m fine if the door hits ya where the good Lord split ya. In fact, I hope it hurts a little.

If you want to try to indict Hillary Clinton for transmitting classified information via unsecured email during her tenure as Secretary of State, you can try — it wasn’t illegal at the time, but what the hey — but you’re going to have to indict a lot of other people as well. One of them might well have been Colin Powell, but we don’t know because his emails were illegally (although probably not criminally) deleted.

Two Seattle cops tried to get a metro bus driver fired, alleging that he had cursed them. Just one problem: the bus driver was wearing a body cam. Now the cops are the ones who have been fired. But one must ask: How often do cops lie just because they think they can? And if they do it over such chickenshit stuff as this, how likely are they to do it when they could be going to prison?

Just how badly doctored were the so-called “expose” videos on Planned Parenthood? Very badly.

Hurricane Erika could make landfall somewhere on the southeastern U.S. coast — possibly in North Carolina — in the next four or five days. Y’all stay safe.

North Carolina’s unemployment still sucks. Couldn’t be because the legislature keeps taking money from the middle class and the poor and giving it to the rich, could it? Nahhhh.

Blogging is dead? Someone forgot to tell the home of some of the original blogging. (h/t Jeff Sykes)

Stevie Ray Vaughan died 25 years ago today. Still miss ‘im.

And, finally, another reason to keep ISIS out of Greece: a newly-discovered palace near Sparta that dates to the 17th century B.C.E.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 8:00 pm

Newspaper editor and publisher Jeff Ackerman, pansy

Newspaper editor and publisher Jeff Ackerman caught some crap for using the word “pansy”; accordingly, he is tired of pansies.

A “JEFF ACKERMAN MUST GO” bumper sticker is a personal reminder of the ongoing assault on free speech under the guise of political correctness.

As you may have discovered, I am not Politically Correct. …

I have developed a recent distaste for pansies, however. I don’t like whiners or snivelers or “poor me” complainers.

A pansy is someone who is probably offended by the term pansy. In fact, someone like that would probably run out and print a “JEFF ACKERMAN MUST GO” bumper sticker just because I used the word in a column … the pansy that he is.

The guy who printed and distributed the “JEFF ACKERMAN MUST GO” bumper sticker at my last place was kind of a pansy and did that because he didn’t like what I had to say and wanted to shut me up. That seemed better than … say … writing a letter to the editor, or maybe reading something besides my column.

In other words, he wanted to censor me.

If you haven’t noticed, there is a lot of censoring going on in the name of hurt feelings. …

It’s gotten so bad that the University of California at Berkeley now has six possible answers under the enrollment application that asks for gender.

It used to simply be “Male” or “Female.” Now the options include:

  • Male
  • Female
  • Trans Male
  • Trans Female
  • Gender Queer
  • Different Identity

I’m not sure I want to know the options under “Different Identity,” but my guess is our colleges will need to start building a lot more bathrooms.

Might be good to pause here, in case anyone is offended by what I just detailed.

Un-wad those tighty whiteys and let’s continue, shall we? …

A Harvard law professor detailed an example where she was unable to teach about rape laws because it caused some students stress. In fact, one student had a problem with the term “violate” (as in, “that violates the law”) because it was also stressful.

It’s why I’ll just stick with pansies. The only one who could possibly be offended by that is a pansy and … as I said … I really don’t care what a pansy thinks.

Jeff Ackerman’s paper wants you to be a paying subscriber to comment on their site. Screw that. So I sent Jeff Ackerman a letter. It said:

Hi, Jeff:

I don’t know if you are, in fact, a pansy. I suspect so, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. But I’m pretty sure you’re a jackass.

As any newspaper publisher worth a damn ought to know, freedom of speech means only that the government can’t censor you. It doesn’t protect you, legally or practically, from any other consequences of your speech, including but not limited to:

  • opposing speech
  • name calling
  • calls for you to be fired
  • your actual firing (except in the case of an employment contract that gives you a shooting license, speech-wise).
  • canceling subscriptions to your paper.
  • boycotts of any companies/products/services/advertisers with which you are affiliated

None of these things constitutes violation of your freedom of speech. In fact, they’re currency in the same marketplace of ideas in which you’ve offered your thoughts for sale.

As for political correctness, take it from this Southern Republican: 99% of what people like you call “political correctness” is just good manners. Manners, as my mother and grandmother from Charleston taught me, are the art and skill of making other people feel comfortable. That’s all.

So the fact that you defend your bad manners as “being politically incorrect,” rather than rudeness that you somehow think is justified, makes you a jackass, not the victim you claim to be.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, being a jackass is not always a bad thing — or, at least, not the worst option available. I myself have been a jackass many times in my life, but since escaping college nearly 35 years ago, I’ve tried to limit my jackassitude to situations in which there are more important things than manners and civility. And I’ve known in advance that my jackassitude would not be well-received at times and I’ve taken the response like an adult. Calling out war criminals would be a good example. Making fun of other people’s gender identities — and, more broadly, their desire to be treated equally and decently —  not so much.

Yet instead of taking the blowback like an adult, here you are whining and sniveling about the treatment of your ideas in the marketplace of ideas — the very behavior you decry. That makes you a pansy by your own lights. By my lights, the lights of a guy who spent 25 years in your line of work, it also makes you too goddamned dumb to be a newspaper publisher.

Grow up and stop sniveling, son.



Friday, July 10, 2015 10:28 pm

On the evil of niceness

It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that my ideas might get a better reception if I would say them a little more … nicely.

I get it. I am a Southerner, after all, and I was not born in a barn. I was raised and remain a Christian ( albeit, as shall become obvious in a moment, a deeply flawed one).

But I am, shall we say, disinclined to respond with niceness to those whose governmental policies carry a nontrivial body count, particularly when those bodies are defenseless.

I am, shall we say, disinclined to respond with niceness to bullies. Bullies deserve nothing more or less than a kick in the teeth.

I am, shall we say, disinclined to respond with niceness to sociopaths. Sane societies lock their sociopaths up where they can never harm anyone else again. Our society, by conscious choice, is not sane, and whatever else that is, it certainly isn’t nice.

And I am, we definitely shall say, disinclined to respond with niceness toward people who meet all three criteria.

There are a couple of reasons for my disinclination.

One is that, being from the South, I know firsthand how the premium we place on getting along and being civil is still, even today, used way too often to paper over legitimate grievances. The Duke University historian William Chafe literally wrote the book on that topic with respectd to my adopted hometown, “Civilities and Civil Rights.”

My 80-year-old mother grew up in Charleston. Girls of her generation were brought up to “be sweet.” Being sweet meant  not only being civil, courteous, and polite, but also, “Don’t rock the boat.” That was the case even if that boat needed torpedoing.

Long story short, my mother decided a good while back that being sweet was overrated, and my sibs and I are all better off for that decision.

Another reason for my disinclination is that in my experience in covering and living with the consequences of politics, I have found that pleas for civility are too often the last refuge of a scoundrel who, as they used to say in pro wrestling, desperately needs to be hit with the chair.

Which brings me to Pat Buchanan’s latest screed for one of the right wing’s more virulent fever swamps, World Net Daily, known among the sane as Wing Nut Daily for demonstrable reasons. For a former speechwriter, Pat has not the first goddamned idea what a topic sentence is, so he’s kind of hard to excerpt. So I’ll paraphrase, and feel free to click the link, read behind me, and tell me if I got this badly wrong:

He is predicting, and calling for, civil disobedience against the Supreme Court’s striking down of bans on same-sex marriage. And he is saying that such a movement would be morally equivalent to, among others:

  • Harriett Tubman’s work as part of the Underground Railroad.
  • Northern abolitionists’ support of John Brown.
  • The original 13 colonies’ rebellion against the English crown — to which, he goes out of his way to claim, the Confederate rebellion was morally identical.
  • The civil rights movement, particularly Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Yeah. He went there.

He concludes:

But are people who celebrate the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village as the Mount Sinai moment of their movement really standing on solid ground to demand that we all respect the Obergefell decision as holy writ?

And if cities, states or Congress enact laws that make it a crime not to rent to homosexuals, or to refuse services at celebrations of their unions, would not dissenting Christians stand on the same moral ground as Dr. King if they disobeyed those laws?

Already, some businesses have refused to comply with the Obamacare mandate to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees. Priests and pastors are going to refuse to perform same-sex marriages. Churches and chapels will refuse to host them. Christian colleges and universities will deny married-couple facilities to homosexuals.

Laws will be passed to outlaw such practices as discrimination, and those laws, which the Christians believe violate eternal law and natural law, will, as Dr. King instructed, be disobeyed.

And the removal of tax exemptions will then be on the table.

If a family disagreed as broadly as we Americans do on issues so fundamental as right and wrong, good and evil, the family would fall apart, the couple would divorce, and the children would go their separate ways.

Something like that is happening in the country.

A secession of the heart has already taken place in America, and a secession, not of states, but of people from one another, caused by divisions on social, moral, cultural and political views and values, is taking place.

America is disuniting, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote 25 years ago.

And for those who, when young, rejected the views, values and laws of Eisenhower’s America, what makes them think that dissenting Americans in this post-Christian and anti-Christian era will accept their laws, beliefs, values?

Why should they?

I’ll give Buchanan the benefit of this doubt: As the late Molly Ivins said of his speech at the 1992 GOP National Convention, this piece probably sounded better in the original German. Leaving aside for a moment his claim that some things will happen that are by no means certain — ministers and chapels being “forced” to perform same-sex marriages being the big kahuna among a bunch that contains few small ones — what kind of moral illiterate equates the denial of rights with the expansion of rights? The phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” comes to mind.

Scot Eric Kaufman poses that question and related ones in this essay at Salon, which I linked to earlier today on Facebook. My doing so brought a rebuke from a friend of mine, who wrote that Kaufman “sounds like one bigot bashing another.” Apparently he took that position because Kaufman dared to allude to the fact that we do not have conclusive proof that the man many of us (myself included) worship as the Son of God actually lived on Earth.

The implication of his remark, upon which I challenged him and to which he has not responded as I write, is that because Kaufman said something that hurt his feelings with respect to his Christian faith, nothing that Kaufman said about Buchanan is valid. Because Kaufman wasn’t nice enough.

That notion merits three words of basic Anglo-Saxon: Bull. Fcking. Shit.

Part of the reason that evil runs as unchecked in this country as it does is that too many people, including my friend, are too nice to call out evil for what it is. Too many are far too nice to do anything but accept any vice whatever as long as it is clothed in Christianity. And too many are willing to be so nice that they will accept the dangerous notion that false equivalence, particularly false moral equivalence, is still equivalence.

Pat Buchanan worked eagerly for, and to this day defends, Richard Nixon, the most soul-sickened individual to inhabit the White House in the 20th century. Buchanan’s entire career is a testament to bigotry, anti-Semitism — a word that, unlike many people all along the political spectrum, I do NOT use lightly — and opposition unto death to all of the highest and best aspirations this country ever has had for itself. As I observed earlier today, Buchanan seems hell-bent on becoming the first person to ruin his party’s presidential nominee’s chances singlehandedly in two different millennia. If there is anyone in America outside of a few neo-Nazi groups who deserves to wear the brown shirt, it’s Buchanan. And Buchanan has been richly rewarded for this evil. He writes columns. He publishes books. He appears on TV. He commands princely speaking fees.

For all I know, Kaufman is just as evil. But the odds are against it. Moreover, he has nowhere near Buchanan’s reach and platform, even if Buchanan’s reach isn’t (thank God) what it once was.

But some smart people who ought to know better, including my friend, apparently think that what Kaufman did is exactly as bad as what Buchanan did, because Kaufman dared to raise the same question that millions of honest, educated Christians already struggle with every day. Their position seems to be that not only was what Kaufman wrote “bigoted,” it also was just as bigoted, and just as morally flawed, as what Buchanan wrote and what Buchanan has been pretty much every day of his long and benighted adult life.

If you think this way, you are intellectually silly and morally obtuse. It is literally laughable to think that raising a question about the physical existence of Jesus Christ equates in any moral way with Buchanan’s likening of legalizing gay marriage to slavery and Jim Crow. And if you think this way, you don’t deserve “nice.” You deserve mocking. You deserve ridicule. And here in this little corner of the Interwebz and whatever other digital real estate I control, you’ll get it.

Because I’m a nice guy, but even nice guys can only tolerate so much bullshit before they turn mean.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 8:34 pm

SB 36: Baby, meet bathwater

A couple of folks in the local blogosphere — e.g., George Hartzman, here — have suggested that SB 36, State Sen. Trudy Wade’s misbegotten monkeying around with the city of Greensboro’s election system, will be good for Greensboro because it will rid the city of a corrupt City Council. Their thinking is that because the redistricting that SB 36 calls for would place several council members in one district, forcing them to run against each other, several inevitably would be voted off the council.

If in fact most or all council members are corrupt, then this is a legitimate point. So let’s examine it.

Caveat: I’m not prepared right now to say as a fact that one or more members of the council are corrupt — or not corrupt, for that matter. So, for the purposes of this post, let’s posit that all nine of them are dirtier than a ’57 Buick’s oil pan. Let’s further posit that, for whatever reason, law enforcement cannot or will not deal with the corruption for us.

SB 36 still would be the wrong solution to the problem.

Why? Simple. Although it might get rid of some incumbent council members, there’s no guarantee that it would get rid of those who actually are corrupt. Moreover, because it would give voters a say over fewer seats on the council (one district member plus a mostly-non-voting mayor, as opposed to a district member, three at-large members and a voting mayor on the nine-member panel under the current system), it would make unseating future corrupt council members even more difficult than it is now — to say nothing of the fact that council members would face voters only every four years, instead of every two as they do now.

So SB 36 would be, at best, an uncertain and temporary solution to a problem that, history shows, tends to recur among politicians. And it would make dealing with recurrences of the problem even harder.

Look, if you think that a council member is corrupt, your path is clear: WORK TO GET HIM/HER VOTED OUT. Unlike congressional and legislative districts, Greensboro City Council districts aren’t gerrymandered. Nobody’s seat is safe, particularly if he or she is corrupt. We already have a sufficient mechanism in place to replace corrupt council members. SB 36 remains what it always has been: a solution in search of a problem and an attempt by anonymous corporate interests to win through their puppet legislature what they cannot win in Greensboro’s ballot boxes.

Friday, April 10, 2015 8:54 pm

Odds and ends for April 10 has created an interactive map showing at least some information on each of more than 5,600 officer-involved homicides dating to 2000. The data are badly incomplete, and Steve Buttry and others have noted that it would be nice if the data were searchable in some ways that they currently are not. But what’s there is scary, and depressing, enough.

Looks like overzealous New York cops may have finally messed with someone with the resources to mess back.

It isn’t Facebook whose mantra is “Don’t be evil,” and here’s one reason why.

Some liberal sites like Newscorpse are arguing that this Roger Ailes statement means he’s admitting Fox News isn’t news but entertainment. That’s true, but I don’t think Ailes is admitting it. Rather, I think he’s talking about competing with TNT, USA, and ESPN merely in terms of audience ratings and share, not content, and that the other interpretation is an unsupported reach.

I admire Simon Schräder’s initiative and creativity even as I hope and expect that his freedom-of-information request will be unsuccessful.

So with its very viability under attack by the N.C. General Assembly, the UNC system decides that its biggest problem is … raising salaries for chancellors? Way to paint a bulls-eye on yourselves, guys.

Its leaders keep saying the legislature’s top priority is jobs, but as the man said in “48HRS,” we all know the truth’s a little different. My friend Susan Ladd continues to call out the legislature for its efforts to shrink state government until it fits inside your uterus.

Duke Energy got off with a $25 million slap on the wrist for contaminating groundwater in New Hanover County. Naturally, it is whining about that.

Two magistrates who left their jobs rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as now required in N.C. by court order are — duh — suing, claiming that their religious rights were violated. Here’s hoping a court swiftly and violently upsides them with the clue stick because I have had it with religious wingnuts and their oh-so-tender fee-fees. If y’all want to know what violation of religious liberty really looks like, Kenya can show you.

The News & Record’s Joe Killian eviscerates the Rhino Times’s fake poll on SB 36, Sen. Trudy Wade’s bill to create a GOP-controlled City Council in a city that’s two-thirds Democratic because they can’t seem to win at the polls.

My friend Linda Hoopes, a psychology Ph.D. with a special interest in resilience — how people respond to and recover from adversity — now has a weekly radio show and podcast, Resilience Radio. It airs live at 4 p.m. Eastern time on Mondays.

Damn. CLT Blog, one of the most innovative and journalistically successful citizen-journalism efforts around, has given up the ghost after 6-plus years. (h/t: @underoak)

Study: People who curse a lot are f—–g awesome.

Sunday, April 5, 2015 8:10 pm

Odds and ends for April 5

He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Cops in California are using a 1930s-era anti-lynching statute to intimidate protesters. Prosecutors so far have declined to press those charges, but it’s only a matter of time until a right-wing nutjob decides to try to make an example of someone.

Speaking of California, its people are in serious denial about its extreme drought, now in its fourth year. About 94% of the state considers the drought serious, but 61% still favor voluntary measures to deal with it. Y’all need to wake up.

Likely presidential contender and perennial horse’s ass Mike Huckabee thinks I’m a member of the “militant gay community,” inasmuch as that’s whom he’s blaming for the backlash against Indiana’s bigoted “religious freedom” statute. Who knew that Christians who take the Second Great Commandment seriously were militant gays? My wife certainly had no idea.

We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent and this case proves it.” (Previously.)

In Florida, relatives of officers of for-profit charter-school companies are enacting legislation to divert money from public schools to charter schools. But none dare call it a conflict of interest, let alone a crime.

Randi Harper, somewhat unwillingly turned into an activist by GamerGaters and perpetrators of online violent and/or sexual threats, got SWATed — someone called in a false tip to police that led a SWAT team to raid her apartment. Her experience could have ended with her dead, or at least her dog. Fortunately, both are alive and well. She talks about what you need to do to protect yourself from such potentially deadly “pranks.” For the record, given the risk of gunplay anytime heavily armed cops storm a home, I think this “prank” should be treated as attempted manslaughter, at least. (h/t: Chip)

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh draws a useful distinction between what he does and much of the “news” you see in print and online today: Instead of taking a tip and building it into a story, too many reporters just run the tip.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014 6:30 am

It’s 6:30 a.m., North Carolina. Do you know where your ballot is?

Polls are now open in North Carolina, so if you haven’t already, VOTE! It annoys the bastards.™

Thursday, October 23, 2014 9:14 am

Early voting has begun in North Carolina.

So vote. It annoys the bastards.

Monday, September 29, 2014 8:19 pm

Why English majors are the hot new hires. (And, no, that not an Onion headline.)

Hey, take it from the American Express website.

I never had a lot of patience with people who asked me why I was majoring in English.

For one thing, I enjoyed it. Duh.

But for another, the skills you develop as an English major are the skills American business always says it needs more of: critical thinking, analytical ability, and the ability to communicate clearly. That was true 32 years ago and it remains true today. Those skills will prepare you for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I know that’s true because they did for me.

In fact, American business’s global competitors are finding they need the same skills, and that their job-focused college educations aren’t providing the people they need who have those skills. So they’re retooling their higher education along the U.S.’s traditional liberal-arts model.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t major in STEM if that’s what sings to you and/or you’re really serious about getting a particular job in that field straight out of school.

But it does mean that an English degree has a world of applications in a broad variety of business contexts. So does practically any liberal-arts degree, because they all teach the same skills, just in different contexts. And that, Pat McCrory, is why English majors (and Art History majors and Women’s Studies majors and on and on) are the hot new hires.

Thursday, September 18, 2014 12:15 pm

Someone’s doing something about football and domestic violence. Spread the word.

(Via my Facebook friend Melissa Hassard)

To bring further awareness to the issue of domestic violence within the football culture, and to open up a dialogue with our young players, Jacar Press, a community-active press, and Women Writers of the Triad are teaming up to create an essay competition open to all high school football players, on Why Domestic Violence is Wrong.

Submissions open through November 30, 2014. There is no fee for submission but a $1 donation is encouraged. Winning essay will be awarded $75, and all donations collected will go to the local domestic violence shelter in the winning writer/athlete’s hometown.

E-mail submissions to and donations may be made via Paypal on the website.

Ideally, education about this link will start earlier and at home, but at this point anything helps. The NFL, by “suspending” convicted players while allowing them to keep getting paid, as in the case of the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy, is screwing the pooch. Yeah, if Hardy misses the rest of the year, as now appears likely, team owner Jerry Richardson will, in effect, have contributed about $13 million to a domestic-violence awareness campaign, but the league, and all of us, can do a lot better.

Monday, August 25, 2014 8:12 am

Letters to the editor: Now the News & Record is just trolling us

For a good while, a number of other local bloggers, most prominently Ed Cone and Roch Smith Jr., have taken the News & Record to task for publishing letters to the editor that contain untrue assertions of fact. I’ve even sent editorial-page editor Allen Johnson a private email or two on that subject.

Well, today we get a twofer. We hear from one Steven M. Shelton, who complains that smoking shouldn’t have been banned on county property because notions that second-hand smoke is harmful are “the old cliche” and “nonsense.” And we also are treated by Gary Marschall to the already-debunked notion that “recent findings” involving carbon-14 testing of T-rex tissue indicate that the fossil in question was only about 6,000 years old. (In point of fact, the people pushing that line are distorting what researcher Mary Schweitzer said to the point of mendacity — and ignoring the fact that she said her own findings are not to be taken as evidence that dinosaurs existed as recently as 6,000 years ago.)

I think we can safely assume that now the News & Record is just trolling us.

Memo to N&R editor/publisher Jeff Gauger and owner BH Media: I get that you want the N&R to be a community paper. And that’s exactly what you should want; we’re all going elsewhere for national and international news. But “community” means focused on local people, events, and businesses. It does not mean giving a voice to every mouth-breathing knuckle-dragger with a keyboard and an opinion. It does not mean mindless boosterism or abdicating the paper’s responsibility for accountability journalism. As you aren’t from ’round here, I feel obliged to point out that not all that long ago, a North Carolina newspaper with a circulation of about 10,000 won a Pulitzer Prize.

People in small and medium-sized communities need, and deserve, journalism as good as — or better than — what people get in major metropolitan areas. And because so many such communities have few or no other news outlets capable of, or willing to engage in, accountability journalism and an overall level of trustworthiness that translate into engagement with readers and advertisers, it falls to the newspapers to do the job. Like it or not, BH Media, this is the business you have chosen. It might not be realistic to expect a Pulitzer from the N&R, but it damned sure is realistic — in fact, it’s a pretty low bar — to expect that the paper refrain from adding to the ever-growing pile of bullshit that now constitutes our public discourse.

Sunday, June 1, 2014 11:26 am

Please do me a favor: Read “The Case for Reparations”

You don’t owe me a favor, but I’m asking for one anyway: Go read the essay “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic.

(Yeah, I’m late to it. I was on vacation. Sue me.)

I concede right up front that this isn’t a simple request. Consequently, as you’re about to see, this is the longest “y’all go read this” post in this blog’s 12-year history.

Likewise, “The Case for Reparations” is a long article — 15,000 words or so. And it deals, obviously, with race, a subject that makes most people uncomfortable and, in the U.S., should discomfit everybody.

But there are some other things you should know.

First, the title is a little misleading — perhaps deliberately so — in that most people probably think that “reparations” means cash payments to make up for black people’s having been slaves. In point of fact, Coates does not call for any such thing, let alone specify an amount, an eligibility standard for individuals, or a distribution mechanism. (This fact, should you see the article discussed elsewhere, will be an easy way to tell which commenters have read the article and which have not.)

Second, even if one brings to the article a broader understanding of “reparations,” one should know that Coates, who is black, has only the vaguest idea of what reparations of any kind might look like, that he sees the concept as too complex to be defined by any individual. Moreover, he opposed the idea in principle himself until only a couple of years ago. Even today, he thinks, for example, that affirmative action doesn’t really address the needs created by the circumstances he describes.

Third, the article is less an argument for some form of reparations — though it is that — than it is a piece of historical investigative journalism that explains the widespread, longstanding, and ongoing, theft of wealth from black Americans. Coates’s work, as he himself points out, is not entirely original and builds on the work of professional historians. Unless you’re in academia, you’ve probably never heard of many of those he credits. But Coates adds original reporting to the research of his sources to create a plain-English piece of journalism that would be a shoo-in for a National Magazine Award even if it weren’t advocating a thing.

And let me emphasize again his subject: the widespread, longstanding, and ongoing, theft of wealth from black Americans. This piece isn’t just about slavery, and another way to separate those commenters who have read the piece from those who have not will be that the extent to which a commenter dwells on slavery likely will be in inverse proportion to the likelihood that that commenter has read the article.

The article does several important things. Primarily, it outlines the economic case for some form of restitution for black Americans. But in explaining the basis for that restitution, it also points out how utterly inconsequential arguments about “pathological culture” (my words, not his) as a cause for the woes of black Americans are in this context, like arguing the merits of a rezoning case when the sun is about to explode. And it shows in striking granularity how some ordinary people lived long lives in an era of supposed equality and fairness while still being robbed blind — not just by slavery, not just by private corporations, but also by their own government even as that government claimed to be working for fairness and equality of opportunity.

To call this article a home run would be to grossly understate its significance. Some home runs barely clear the fence. A few reach the upper deck of stadium seats. This one won’t fall back to Earth for years.

So go read it. I’m not asking you to do anything about its subject, not least because I myself have no idea, at this point, what should be done. But just read it and think about it and ask yourself what should be done. The article suggests one starting point, one that wouldn’t result in the transfer of a single dime from anyone to anyone. But every thinking American ought to think about this.

It’s been said in many places by many people that slavery is America’s original sin. That’s true, but it’s only part of the truth, in that the original sin actually encompasses more than slavery. Americans who truly want this country to be what it told the world almost 240 years ago that it wanted to be must grapple with this original sin and how we go about expiating it. I cannot think of a better place to start than this article.

Friday, March 21, 2014 11:16 pm

An educator unworthy of the name

Long story short, a high-school publication in Fond du Lac, Wisc., is, in the words of regular contributor Doc at, “being punished for pointing out that RAPE IS REAL and it SUCKS WHEN IT HAPPENS TO HIGH SCHOOL KIDS.” And, more specifically, that at Fond du Lac High School, lots of people make jokes about rape, which REALLY sucks for those students who have been, you know, raped.

The school system is imposing a sweeping prior restraint on student publications because a student magazine dared to make an issue of this. Here’s the issue in question; the story at issue begins on page 11. Read the article — indeed, read the whole issue, or at least skim it to get a feel for the kind of publication it is trying to be — and then judge for yourself who’s being responsible here and who is not.

Doc, who works with student journalists in some capacity elsewhere in that region, and his First Draft companions who are scattered around the country, are keeping the heat on, with subsequent posts here, here, and here.

I weighed in with my own missive to the school system’s superintendent, Dr. James Sebert:

Dear Dr. Sebert:

I write as a lifelong red-state Republican, the father of a high-school daughter about to turn 16 — and a former journalist who won a lot of awards for publishing unpleasant truths. And I have one very simple question for you:

What in the pluperfect hell do you think you’re doing?

It is not your job to ensure an environment full of nothing but rainbow-colored unicorns. It is not your job to try to shield students from life’s unpleasant realities because they might somehow interfere with the educational process.

In fact, the very idea that you could is laughable. By the time they cross Fond du Lac’s thresholds for the first time, nontrivial numbers of students at the high school will already have endured more unpleasantness than most U.S. adults could possibly imagine, including but not limited to starvation, bullying and other physical abuse (including from family members), sexual abuse and incest, date rape, stranger rape, psychological abuse, drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and pretty much anything short of a mass murder. Are you seriously arguing that those aren’t already interfering with the educational process? And if not, then why don’t you want to talk about them? Certainly we won’t stop them from interfering with the educational process until we do talk about them.

Are you seriously arguing that students shouldn’t talk about these issues, issues that are a real, and damaging, part of their lives, issues that are harming and will continue to harm their educational processes whether Cardinal Columns discusses them or not? Because if you are, you forfeit all moral claim to the title of “educator.”

It’s that simple. Sure, a misbegotten Supreme Court ruling might give you the right to censor student publications. But keep a couple of things in mind. First, this is basically the same Supreme Court that more recently has stated as a fact that campaign finance does not cause corruption, which is on an intellectual par with the high court’s declaring that the sky is chartreuse with purple polka-dots. Second, having the right to do something is not the same thing as saying you must, you should, or that it might not be a bad idea.

Anyone who seriously considers himself an educator and engages in prepublication review ought to presume news items publishable unless they are proven otherwise, and ought to require no more than the minimum change necessary to make unpublishable items publishable. Topics in general shouldn’t be reviewed at all because high-schoolers are high-schoolers: They’re going to write about what’s important to them, whether or not you like it and maybe even because you don’t. What should you do about that? Nothing. Let. It. Go.

I reviewed the article in question and found it not perfect, but excellent for high school journalism, with due consideration obviously given to the journalistic imperatives to report the truth while minimizing harm. And if you want to argue that the article was not necessary, you need only consider the results of the accompanying poll, which is about as rigorous as polls of students at a single high school can get. Rape jokes are everywhere at Fond du Lac High — and so are the rape victims who have to listen to them and are degraded by them. As an educator, you ought to find THAT intolerable, not a piece of journalism about it.

You’ve still got a chance to make this a teachable moment — for yourself, the school system, the high-school faculty and administrators, and the students. If you’re truly an educator, then that’s what you’ll do. If you need to consult outside experts — rape-crisis experts, clinical mental-health counselors, whatever — for context and advice, swallow your pride and do it.

The kids at Fond du Lac High deserve better. So do their parents. So does their community, whose taxes pay your salary. How you handle this situation going forward can make a nontrivial number of students’ lives easier than they are now — and, oh, by the way, improve the educational process. So get going.



Obviously, I don’t expect either a response or a change of heart. But this sorry excuse for an educator is now all over the Internetz as a stick-up-his-butt censor, which may well give pause one day to any larger school system that might consider hiring him. And I think it’s important for reporter/editor Tanvi Kumar and her fellow student journalists, who performed admirably not only in their original journalism but also in how they have handled themselves so far in the resulting dispute, to know that there are people out here watching them with pride and admiration.

I’m sharing the story of these kids with my own high-school-age daughter. I want her to know that the adults in her life (other than me, of course) are fallible, and that this is what one very important kind of fallibility looks like. But I also want her to understand the merits of what these student journalists were trying to do, and why, and how well they went about it, and to learn from them as well — things like responsibility and curiosity and courage and judgment that to date have been utterly absent from the people running that high school and that school system.

I want her, in short, to learn very quickly at least as much as these Fond du Lac student journalists already know about how, when, and why you speak truth to power. Because everything I see in our society suggests to me that we need more of that, not less, and will need more for many years to come. I want her and her generation prepared, for one small and simple reason: The future of the country and the well-being of their fellow citizens depends on it.

Thursday, May 9, 2013 7:29 pm

Maybe Allie’s little piece of corn can explain it all to you

For those of you who don’t know me well and have occasionally wondered what in the pluperfect hell is wrong with me — other than being a jackass, I mean — I have struggled with chronic, severe depression on and off since age 13 and continuously for about the past 20 years. (There have been some other issues, too, such as manic episodes, during which I spent money I didn’t have and behaved in risky and hurtful ways that haunt me to this day, and generalized anxiety disorder, more on which in a minute, and even a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder. But depression, like The Dude, abides.) So, if you’ll keep in mind that her experiences and mine are not identical but are alike in many, many ways, I invite you to read Allie’s graphic (which is to say that it includes not only details but also cartoons) explanation of her depression at her blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Now, Allie kind of implies that what I’m about to say about myself is also the case for her, but I may be reading too much into what she writes. At any rate, for me, the difference between depression and GAD is that the former makes me wish I were dead but the latter makes me actively want to do something about it. GAD is a relatively new development for me, at least to this extent. When it got really bad for the first time, last fall, I had done enough reading at least to know what was going on. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time prescribed medication that is the exact opposite of what I should have been getting for the condition, so I fired his ass on the spot. (In my own mind. All he knows is that I haven’t been back or been in contact. Interestingly, his office has never once tried to contact me.)

Problem was, the only way to get to see a new p-doc quickly was to go to the emergency room and thence to the local loony bin for a few days. That was bad, but not as bad as you might think if your only exposure is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” For one thing, the food was actually pretty good. For another, the staff was quite nice. And I did get to see a p-doc who referred me to a new p-doc out in the real world whom I could see reasonably quickly (more on whom in a minute).

The down side, and this really was a downer, was spending several  hours a day in group. For one thing, I didn’t need group; I needed medication that would make my skin stop crawling and make me stop wanting to kill myself. For another, I am an introvert. For another, the dayroom TV was tuned to USA, which was running an NCIS marathon of which I only got to see bits and pieces. I love NCIS. and watching NCIS would have helped me a lot more than listening to the unrelated problems of a bunch of weird strangers whose problems weren’t like mine. Instead, they included everyone from recovering substance addicts to active psychotics, the kind of people who see sentient, carnivorous piles of Jell-O in the corners that no one else can see.

Me: “You know it’s not real, right?”

Him (not at all offended): “It’s not real to you, sure. And that’s OK. It doesn’t want you.”

(In hindsight, I sound like some of the people in Allie’s piece who were trying unsuccessfully and cluelessly to be helpful. But I actually asked the question out of curiosity; I was trying to understand. I neither knew nor cared whether asking would help.)

Long story short, the new p-doc got me on a pharmaceutical regimen that keeps both depression and anxiety in check. I haven’t been badly anxious but a time or two in the past couple of months; I haven’t been suicidal in many weeks, except once for, like, 20 minutes or so. I know I need adequate sleep, which I’m generally getting, and I know I need exercise, which I was getting up until I started grad school two years ago and will resume getting after comps next week.

Depression is kind of a big deal. In any given year, almost 7 percent of adult Americans have it, and of them, 30% have severe cases. No treatment works for everybody. It took me a year to find an optimum treatment, which worked right up until it didn’t; now, I’m on a medication that didn’t exist when I began taking depression medication more than a decade ago.

But, anyway, go read Allie’s story. Odds are, you or someone you know can relate.

Monday, April 15, 2013 5:57 pm

Quote of the day, James Madison just-because edition

This isn’t, as they say on Twitter, a subtweet. It’s not intended for anyone in particular. It’s not related directly to anything in the news (although it could relate to almost everything). I just read it at Charlie Pierce’s place — he concludes each day with a Madison quote, which is a nice and thoughtful way to conclude a day, and this one is from Friday — and I liked it and thought you’d like it, too:

In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

— James Madison, Papers, March 29, 1792.

Monday, April 1, 2013 7:35 pm

Got a female friend about to turn 50? Is she Southern?

Then, boy, have I got a gift for you to give her: The Official Southern Woman of a Certain Age Certificate:


Customizable, printable on a variety of papers or skins, and suitable for framing. You’re welcome.

Saturday, November 24, 2012 5:16 pm

Health alert: generic Lipitor recall

If you take generic Lipitor (atorvastatin), STOP RIGHT NOW. The generic version has been recalled because it might have bits of ground glass in it.

Do I have your attention now? Good. More info here.

OK. As you were.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012 6:42 pm

American IP law: Where ingenuity goes to die, RSC edition

A sensible solution to a vexing and expensive intellectual-property problem? By God, we can’t have that!

For a brief moment last week, a House Republican group that serves as an idea shop for the party was on record proposing a remarkably far-reaching reform of American copyright law. The memo (PDF), written by a young staffer named Derek Khanna, was released Friday afternoon by the Republican Study Committee and noticed by The American Conservative’s Jordan Bloom.

Khanna’s memo begins by laying out the original constitutional purpose of copyright protection and how the current legal landscape has strayed from it. It then proceeds to challenge several widely-held beliefs about copyright law, including the claims that it promotes the greatest possible levels of productivity and innovation and that it represents free market ideals at work:

[A]ccording to the Constitution, the overriding purpose of the copyright system is to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” In today’s terminology we may say that the purpose is to lead to maximum productivity and innovation.

This is a major distinction, because most legislative discussions on this topic, particularly during the extension of the copyright term, are not premised upon what is in the public good or what will promote the most productivity and innovation, but rather what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. This lexicon is appropriate in the realm of taxation and sometimes in the realm of trade protection, but it is inappropriate in the realm of patents and copyrights. […]

Today’s legal regime of copyright law is seen by many as a form of corporate welfare that hurts innovation and hurts the consumer. It is a system that picks winners and losers, and the losers are new industries that could generate new wealth and added value. We frankly may have no idea how it actually hurts innovation, because we don’t know what isn’t able to be produced as a result of our current system.

But by Saturday afternoon the RSC had pulled the memo, citing an inadequate review process and apologizing for the “oversight.” …

The memo lists several specific examples of the damage done by copyright law: Stifling the DJ and remix markets in the United States, making the creation of public libraries — and in particular Project Gutenberg — more difficult, and penalizing legitimate investigative journalism. It concludes with suggestions for reform such as significantly shortening the length of copyright claims, expanding “fair use” doctrine, and reforming statutory damages. (Those damages can currently rise as high $150,000 per infringement.)

The email announcing the removal came from RSC executive director Paul Teller, who said the memo “was published without adequate review within the RSC.” …

However, a source “with knowledge of the RSC’s operations” told Tim Lee at Ars Technia that content industry lobbyists had brought pressure to bear on the RSC’s leadership to disavow the memo.

Among the many manifestations of genius in the United States Constitution is its provision for ““promot[ing] the progress of science and useful arts” by giving an innovator a fair early share of the benefits of his creation, but then later allowing others to build on that innovation without prohibitive legal or financial obstacles. It’s that second part that has come under attack, primarily via industry lobbying (so much so that not that long ago Greensboro’s Rep. Howard Coble’s political affiliation was being mocked in some quarters as “R-Disney,” after one of the primary offenders).

This is both bad public policy and, if you’re a Republican, bad politics. Coble sits on the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees intellectual-property law and chairs the subcommittee that oversees commercial and administrative law (as well as the courts).  Peeps in the 6th District might want to drop him a line on this subject.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 6:30 am

Go annoy someone today

The polls are open, so if you haven’t already, go vote. It annoys the bastards.

Monday, August 6, 2012 8:08 pm

What’s in your printer?

How about a whole new life?

Between what’s in this video and the Mars landing* this morning …

… I think maybe we need to remind ourselves that amid all the horrible news about the economy and politics and climate change and nuts with guns, we live in an age of wonders, and that, if we can avoid killing ourselves and throw off the short-sighted, greedy bastards now dampening our affairs and blinkering our vision, we may yet achieve even greater wonders, on this world and beyond.

*UPDATE: My online friend John Burns, a fellow Davidson alum, posts on Facebook:

Hey, rest of the world. Nice job in the Olympics, really. You’re doing great. Great to see all countries competing in the spirit of harmony. Hey, that reminds me, how did YOUR landing of a 2,000 pound robotic vehicle on another planet go? What’s that? You don’t have one? [Drops mike] 

Saturday, April 28, 2012 12:02 am

Product review: Sol beer

What with Cinco de Mayo coming up (a/k/a Amateur Night for gringos), if anyone offers you a choice between a bottle of Sol beer and a bottle of horse pee, take the horse pee. And then hit the guy in the head with the Sol bottle. The horse pee has substantially more character than the beer.

Next Page »

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: