Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 7:58 am

Earl and Skip vs. the News & Record

Updated 12/1/2015; see below.

According to Courthouse News Service, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in downtown Greensboro has filed a libel suit against Greensboro’s daily newspaper, the News & Record. Per that story, the museum accuses the paper of publishing false and damaging info about the museum’s finances.

Long story short: This suit will never see the inside of a courtroom.

Forget the question of whether the N&R knowingly or recklessly published something false and defamatory. Forget the question of whether the N&R published anything false at all. Here’s all you need to know:

For this suit to go forward, the museum’s books would have to be opened to the N&R’s attorneys — and probably a forensic accountant or two. And the museum’s founders, Earl Jones and Melvin “Skip” Alston, would have to be deposed — that is, answer questions under oath from N&R attorneys about the museum’s finances and their handling of those finances.

Three words: Nah. Guh. Happen.

Update, Dec. 1: Greensboro’s mayor, who sits on the museum’s board as an ex-officio member, says the suit will be withdrawn, and that’s not all. Thanks to Roch Smith Jr. for this follow-up:

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who sits on the ICRC&M board as an ex officio member, says the ICRC&M board did not vote on suing the News & Record at any of the board meetings she attended. She says she contacted the ICRC&M attorney Doug Harris to see if a vote was taken at any of the meetings she did not attend and Harris told her no vote had been taken to file the lawsuit.

Vaughan did say, however, that she was aware of dissatisfaction with the News & Record’s reporting at the ICRC&M. Vaughan said the concern was that the News & Record did not adequately explain the nature of the center’s debt in the Moffet article and that the misrepresentation of the size of the debt hampered ICRC&M’s fund raising efforts.

As Vaughan explained it, approximately $23 million of the center’s total debt is for tax credits which will be dismissed upon the completion of payments of a couple hundred thousand more dollars. Once the final payment is made in 2016, the balance of that debt will “evaporate,” Vaughan said. Vaughan explained that a recent grant by the City of Greensboro to the ICRC&M is set aside to cover those payments and that they are in an account that requires the signature of City Manager Jim Westmoreland for disbursements.

Vaughan says the ICRC&M had been discussing their concerns about the reporting of the debt with the N&R for “months” and attempting to get it to publish a correction or clarification. Vaughan says she did not know what prompted the suit to be filed without a vote by the board, but understands that after the suit is served on Tuesday, the ICRC&M intends to withdraw it without prejudice — meaning, they can file it again if they choose — and that they will return to negotiations with the News & Record.

As it was written (by me), so shall it apparently be: This suit is going No. Where.

And just as well. The museum’s whining notwithstanding, the News & Record explained the museum’s debt in a good bit of detail in an article that ran last January. It’s archived on the N&R website.

And if Skip and Earl are really worried about public trust and confidence in their institution, they might think hard about stunts like filing a lawsuit without the knowledge and approval of the governing board. I’m sorry, but, Jesus, as running a nonprofit goes, it really gets no stupider than that without embezzlement or sex crimes being involved. I sure as hell wouldn’t contribute a dime to a charitable nonprofit run that laxly.

And, finally, before we get sucked in by Skip and Earl’s bid for sympathy, let’s remember, as this July N&R article reminds us, what the museum’s own long-time auditor said in his 2014 audit report:

In their review [of auditor Oliver Bowie’s 2014 audit report], city auditors Len Lucas and Mickey Kerans noted several areas that point to the museum’s dire financial situation, which officials have sought to downplay in recent years.

According to Lucas and Kerans, museum officials:

• Drained in January its operating reserve, which is required to contain $1 million.

• Have zero working capital and zero contingency money.

• Owe Carolina Bank nearly $782,900 and the city as much as $1.25 million for the first installments of the forgivable loan — minus whatever money it raised toward the loan.

The city auditors also noted a warning about the museum’s future raised by Bowie, who has audited the museum since 1995. Bowie noted that the museum hasn’t paid $500,000 to one of the businesses it was required to set up as a condition of receiving millions in historic tax credits in 2010.

Bowie said “those conditions raise substantial doubt about the project’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

Again, that’s not the News & Record saying that. That’s the museum’s independent outside auditor. I’ll let those of you who are CPAs weigh in on what “substantial doubt about the project’s ability to continue as a going concern” means with respect to the museum. But when I was covering the PTL criminal case, civil lawsuit and bankruptcy case in the late 1980s, CPAs explained that language to me as meaning that auditors didn’t know whether the organization would still be in business in 12 months or not.

I don’t want to let the N&R off the hook completely, however. As of this writing, the paper and its website have published nothing about the lawsuit. I get not wanting to comment on the suit — particularly at this early stage, that’s only prudent. But failing to cover it is bush-league and strongly suggests that Publisher/Executive Editor Jeff Gauger is out of his depth.

Fortunately for him, the available evidence suggests Earl and Skip are even more out of theirs.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2015 8:30 pm

Odds and ends for June 3

Thirty years ago today, what is still the weirdest true-crime story you’ll ever read concluded horrifically. My friend and former colleague Margaret Moffett checks in with some of the survivors. (EDITED to add: My friend Chris Knight, who grew up near some of the characters in this drama, adds his perspective.)

Perv, meet thief: Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, the insufferable pecksniff whose most recent pronouncement was that he wishes he’d “felt like a girl” in high school so that he could have gotten to watch girls shower naked, makes it clear he’ll do anything to get close to Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s donors. Scott, of course, led the company that committed history’s largest Medicaid fraud.

No links with this one, just a thought: What if the Obama Justice Department had put as much effort into investigating banksters as it has into investigating FIFA?

Relatedly, no, South Africa, I’m sure your 2008 payment of $10 million had nothing to do with your getting the 2010 World Cup and was in no way a bribe. Perish the thought.

Every so-called “gay-conversion” operation in this country needs to be sued. Saying you can “convert” someone who’s gay is like saying drinking motor oil can cure cancer.

This week’s revamp of U.S. national security laws was a sorely needed first step — and never would have happened without Edward Snowden. So why is Snowden still a wanted criminal?

The first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have a problem. The U.S. government doesn’t want to admit that we have a problem with killer cops.

After seeing her in “Easy A,” I would watch Emma Stone in just about anything. But even I thought casting her as part-Asian in “Aloha” was boneheaded. Better late than never, director Cameron Crowe agrees.

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory is staking his re-election effort in 2016 on $2.8 billion in transportation and infrastructure bonds. The only reason I’m not saying that the legislature is throwing McCrory under the bus by refusing to put them on the November ballot is that legislative Republicans don’t believe in mass transit.

And our lite gov, Dan Forest, is a moron. (Previously. Also previously.)

Speaking of morons, the legislature has overridden McCrory’s veto of HB 465, the “ag-gag” law. A court will toss it out eventually, but a lot of animals, and quite possibly some people as well, are likely to suffer before that  happens. So much for McCrory’s attempt to position himself politically as a moderate keeping the Visigoth right at bay. I would say that the legislature threw McCrory under the bus on this one, but that would imply that legislative Republicans favor mass transit.

And the Lege has given committee approval to a bill that will gut background checks on private in-state pistol sales by 2021, a bill so bad that many of the state’s sheriffs opposed it.

And lastly, my local paper and former employer, Greensboro’s News & Record, has laid off a bunch more people, including some true stalwarts, one of whom was just months from retiring. At this point, I think it’s fair to conclude that BH Media is no longer even trying to cut its way to profitability. It is now simply milking what it can for as long as it can, at which point it will shut down the papers one by one and sell off the real estate, some of it quite valuable, that those papers sit on. And it’s past time we in Greensboro start thinking about who or what will be able to provide the journalistic firepower to truly hold the powerful accountable in this community.

 

 

 

 

Monday, June 1, 2015 7:38 pm

Odds and ends for June 1

So the Orange County (CA) DA’s office handled a slam-dunk murder case so corruptly that all 250 prosecutors in the office have been barred by a judge from having any further to do with the case. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, which is a big ol’ ugly ball of law-enforcement and prosecutor malfeasance so big that all sorts of very bad types may be set free before they should’ve been, or may never face trial, because of it. Coda: If you think that’s the only place this kind of cheating is going on, you’re kidding yourself.

Quasi-relatedly, we don’t just have cops killing unarmed African Americans, we now have repeat offenders.

Some of the most intrusive parts of the Patriot Act expired at midnight last night and ZOMG SHARIA LAW OH NOES!!11!!1!!ELEVENTY!!1! Wait, what? That didn’t happen? Oh. (pause) OK. But this could.

Presented, without snark, some seriously hopeful news about treating cancer.

Microsoft will release Windows 10 — for free — July 29. But you’ll take away my Windows 7 Pro when you pry my cold dead hands from it stop offering security upgrades for it like you stopped for Windows XP, I guess.

Airlines aren’t just greedy, they’re also stupid. Exhibit A: United Airlines.

Gosh, an elected official in North Carolina can’t even engage in a little public bigotry anymore without people complaining about it.

The mayor of Belhaven, N.C., Adam O’Neal, is walking almost 300 miles to Washington, D.C. — again — to — again — try to draw attention to lack of health care in rural areas.

An American tourist visiting a lion preserve in South Africa rolled down her car window just like she’d been told not to do and got mauled to death. Commenters on the article are overwhelmingly in favor of the lion, and I’ve got to say, so am I. Lady, what part of “nature, red in tooth and claw” didn’t you understand?

The News & Record unveiled its newly redesigned website today. It’s still butt-ugly and it still doesn’t have RSS feeds. Bright side: They resurrected the URL Greensboro.com, which they never should have stopped using in the first place.

92-year-old Harriette Thompson of Charlotte finished a marathon Sunday, so I really don’t want to hear about your bad back or your sore feet.

 

Friday, April 10, 2015 8:54 pm

Odds and ends for April 10

Vox.com 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.

Thursday, April 9, 2015 8:22 pm

Odds and ends for April 9

Sorry, guys, I was on the road today, so I ain’t got much.

The Rhino Times commissioned a push poll by a conservative chop shop to make it appear there is more support for a measure to redistrict Greensboro City Council than there actually is. Doug Clark at the N&R calls them out on it.

Meanwhile, some Wake County voters have sued over the recent changes to the Wake Board of Commissioners imposed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

In other popular stuff carried out by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, a lot of middle-class North Carolinians saw their state income taxes go up this year. But hey! Tax cuts for the wealthy and big bidness!

Why Stephen Curry, and not James Harden, should be this year’s NBA MVP. (I mean, besides Davidson. Duh.)

Friday, January 30, 2015 7:22 pm

Odds and ends for Jan. 30

You know, I’ve thought about taking these odds and ends and doing something with them on paper.li. And then I think, “That’s what you have a blog for.” Duh.

There probably aren’t five people reading this blog who care about this, but it tickles me, so bear with me here. The new owner of The New Republic brought in someone to do basically a truth-and-reconciliation-commission-type take on that magazine’s attitudes toward race during the past couple of decades (under the previous owners, in other words). Those attitudes, under the guise of D.C.  “contrariness,” actually were pretty damned smarmy, and the guy who wrote the report puts welts on Marty Peretz and Andrew Sullivan that will show for the rest of their lives.

My friend Susan Ladd continues making local bigots’ heads asplode. Good on her, and good on the News & Record for giving her a platform. Somebody needs to stand up to this shit.

You call yourself a voyeur? Amateur.

Sunday, January 25, 2015 11:03 am

Odds and ends for Jan. 25

I’ve had trouble finding time to blog at length about anything lately. (Working two jobs will do that to you.) So instead I’m going to return to the birdshot approach I’ve used under similar circumstances in the past. Blogging experts will tell you this is not how to maximize your audience, but blogging experts usually have only one job.

The News & Record’s Janice Carmac, a part-time employee to whom the paper wisely grants column space to from time to time, has a well-grounded, understated column today on the literally life-and-death importance of health insurance in general and the Affordable Care Act in particular, based on her family’s experience. Naturally, the paper didn’t put it online. UPDATE: It’s now online here.

Also in the N&R and of particular interest to Greensboro folks, columnist Susan Ladd righteously dopeslaps both Earl Jones and Mike Barber for their egregiously ill-intentioned dialogue over the International Civil Rights Museum and the larger issue of race in Greensboro. This is one of the few times where “both sides do it” really is accurate and contextual criticism.

My Davidson Wildcats beat George Mason on the road in OT last night to go 5-2 in the Atlantic 10 and win their second straight game (the first was against No. 22 Dayton) without their starting point guard. Someone remind me again how the ‘Cats were supposed to finish in the conference cellar this year.

If I were in charge of the Republican Party’s presidential-election efforts, I think I’d be doing everything short of human sacrifice to make sure that the first good look the nation got at my candidate pool wasn’t watching the richest of them suck up to two sociopathic billionaires right out of a James Bond film followed by watching the lot of them pile out of a clown car to genuflect in front of Iowa’s batshit insane religious-right GOP base.

Even as a final Supreme Court decision likely affirming the constitutionality of same-sex marriage approaches, some politicians — primarily Southern Republicans — continue to fight, pardon the expression, rear-guard actions against fairness and equality, as by threatening the state salaries of public officials who facilitate such marriages. The heathen rage for they know the end is near. And although I know that anecdotes are not equal to data, I must say that my own, different-sex marriage appears to have been remarkably unaffected by the advent of same-sex marriage here in North Carolina.

My Braves appears to have written off 2016, perhaps in hopes of fielding a strong team in 2017 when they move to a suburban stadium. No link; this is  just my (very disappointed) impression.

Politics 1, science and the future of humanity, 0: The U.S. Senate pretended not to be insane by voting 98-1 for a resolution stating the climate changes is real, then spoiled the effect by failing to approve (60 votes were necessary) a resolution saying that it is largely driven by human activity.

“Why do people in positions of power ask so many stupid questions?”

We’ve finally got teleporters. But still no jet packs. Grrr.

That’s all I’ve got. Time to work. A good week to all.

Friday, December 26, 2014 3:50 pm

Letters to the Editor, edited, for a change

As someone who has criticized the News & Record on multiple occasions for allowing writers of letters to the editor to spew fanciful notions as if they were fact, I feel obliged to recognize the paper’s efforts to correct such misimpressions not once but twice today.

First, in his LTE regarding the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Mark Underwood of Eden incorrectly stated: “The police officer said he told Rice to ‘put his hands up’ three times before shooting. This hasn’t been officially disproven so far.” The accompanying editor’s note read, “According to the police video, the Rice shooting took 1.5 seconds.” Here’s the video; feel free to use your own stopwatch. And ask yourself: If you were to tell a suspect three times, “Put your hands up!” and allow even the briefest moment in between repetitions for the suspect to comply, how long wold that have taken? Five seconds? Longer? Longer, certainly, than the time it took the police to shoot Tamir Rice upon their arrival.

Then, Ramon Bell of Stokesdale states of the death of Eric Garner from a chokehold by New York City police: “This should never have been classified a homicide. It was caused by the acts of Garner and existing medical conditions only he knew about; i.e., severe asthma, something the arresting officers had no reason to know.” I’m not sure where Bell, a retired Greensboro police officer, got his medical degree — Kmart, perhaps. But, as the editor’s note points out: “The medical examiner concluded that a chokehold caused Garner’s death, but added that asthma, obesity and cardiovascular disease were contributing factors.” If the chokehold caused Garner’s death, then this was a homicide — whether justifiable or not is up to a court to decide, inasmuch as chokeholds are banned.

The N&R has been punked many times by letter writers both sincerely misguided and flatly dishonest, as well as having published a number of Internet chain emails that were never independently verified. It’s good to see the paper attempting to sort through the dross to enlighten its readers, if only for a day.

Sunday, September 28, 2014 12:55 pm

The News & Record and batshit Mark Walker, redux

After I took the News & Record to task for normalizing the grossly abnormal candidacy of Mark Walker for the 6th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House, reporter Joe Killian wrote a column today on Walker, saying, among other things, “I’ve seen him in a lot of different situations. I’d tell you if he was crazy. He’s not.”

Killian, who’s covering the 6th District race, summarizes:

Crazy people may be crazy, but they generally believe the crazy things that they’re saying.

Mark Walker does not think Barack Obama may declare martial or Sharia law. He does not really believe the president has been spending billions of dollars — with a B! — on family vacations. He doesn’t actually have no qualms about bombings at the border that could start a war with Mexico.

But he still says these things. Why?

Because there’s something in him that wants to please a crowd, be it a Tea Party rally or a small clutch of cynical journalists. He can’t help himself. He gets carried away. And that makes for some great performances — but it doesn’t help you understand who he really is, what he really thinks.

Being a United States congressman shouldn’t be like being a stripper. You do not want your representative in Washington driven by the excitement of the crowd, the adrenaline rush of approval. You don’t want him doing the policy equivalent of a fevered bump and grind routine to Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” while lobbyists, corporations and political action committees shove sweaty fists full of dollars into his campaign G-string.

Metaphorically.

I still think Walker is batshit. But Joe has spent more face time with Walker than I have, so I’m not dismissing his take out of hand.

But whether he is or isn’t crazy, the larger fact remains: He is manifestly unfit to be my next congresscritter, but he almost certainly is going to be anyway. FML.

 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 8:49 pm

Whitewashing; or, How the News & Record foists batshit insane candidates onto the electorate.

Let the record reflect that when I predicted on Facebook that the News & Record would never cover the recent batshit comments of Mark Walker, the 6th Congressional District GOP nominee, I was wrong: The News & Record published an editorial on the subject today.

Let the record also reflect, however, that that editorial bent over backwards to whitewash Walker’s comments and to shield him from the consequences of what he said in a way that is fundamentally inconsistent with the mission of an honest news outlet.

Walker said at a campaign event in June that the U.S. should launch a war against Mexico to ensure its border security, saying that “we did it before. If we need to do it again, I don’t have a qualm about it.”

First, the editorial tried to pretend that what happened didn’t happen, claiming, on the basis of zero evidence, “It’s reassuring that Republican 6th District congressional candidate Mark Walker does not want the United States to launch a war against Mexico.” The paper apparently, and inexplicably, is willing to accept at face value Walker’s claim that his comment was “tongue in cheek.”

Then, just in case that whitewash didn’t work, the N&R did what the lawyers call arguing in the alternative, saying that it wasn’t necessarily a joke but was merely pandering, a case of Walker saying something he didn’t believe in order to curry favor with, to be kind, low-information voters. Again, in point of fact, there’s no evidence in the record that Walker was saying something he didn’t believe.

Indeed, what little evidence there is inclines a fair-minded person toward thinking that Walker said exactly what he believed.

He also, as the editorial pointed out, has said that President Obama should be impeached and that Obama might declare martial law and sharia law to keep himself in office after the 2016 elections. Once again, the N&R took the position that Walker was saying things he didn’t believe, in the face of zero evidence that that was in fact the case.

The paper said that the controversy arose after video of Walker’s comments was posted to a “left-wing website,” as if the remarks weren’t controversial, and newsworthy, in and of themselves. (Indeed, where was the N&R when the remarks originally were uttered?)

And it noted that Walker’s Democratic opponent, Laura Fjeld, has called Walker “crazy” but, again, in the face of exactly zero evidence, concluded that that can’t be true.

The kindest thing that can be said about the N&R’s approach to this issue is that it is allowing the GOP to benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations. What’s closer to the truth, I think, is that the N&R knows good and goddamn well that Walker is crazy but has decided to ignore the fact out of fears of being labeled “liberal.”

Well, welcome to the real world, guys: Republicans are going to call you liberal no matter what you say, so  you might as well speak the truth. And the likeliest truth in this case is that Walker meant every damn word he said.

Does Walker really think, after what happened to George Allen in the Virginia senate race a few years back, that his remarks won’t be videotaped and distributed? And does he really think he can just call something “tongue-in-cheek” and not be held further responsible for it?

No, the likelier explanation is that Walker meant every word he said, and the only sane conclusion that can be drawn from that fact is that the nominee of one of the two major parties for the 6th District seat in the U.S. House is crazier than a bag of bugs. If the N&R won’t say it, I damned well will and dare Walker to prove otherwise. The News & Record was wrong and Laura Fjeld was right.

And what the News & Record appears utterly ignorant of is that not just Walker but also dozens, if not hundreds, of GOP candidates for office, from president down to county commissioner and city council, have uttered stuff just as batshit insane as what Walker said, and in many cases worse. The News & Record seems oblivious to the fact that one of our two major parties has succumbed to a virus of unadulterated batshit insanity and appears unwilling to hold the party as a whole or its individual candidates accountable for their feverish words.

I shouldn’t have to tell a building full of writers this, but words have meaning. The default response to a political candidate’s comments ought to be to assume that he/she means exactly what he/she said. If a candidate can’t speak extemporaneously (or, worse, from prepared notes) without later having to repeatedly claim that he/she was “speaking tongue-in-cheek,” then that candidate isn’t fit for elected office at any level.

And if the News & Record had the balls God gave a billy goat, it would say so.

 

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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 9:00 pm

Still a few bugs in the system

Filed under: Fun,Geek-related issues — Lex @ 9:00 pm
Tags: , ,

A number of local folks, including the editor of the N&R himself, have written lately about the problems the N&R is having with its new website.

Well, just moments ago, I found, and got a screen shot of, evidence that bad things can happen to anyone:

GoogleInvestorRelations

The outage, if such it was, lasted only a couple of minutes, but it was quite real. I hope this makes everyone feel better.

Saturday, May 5, 2012 6:40 pm

Fire Robin Saul.

My friend Ed Cone has ragged on the News & Record in recent days because of its (lack of) coverage of Amendment One, the proposed amendment to our state constitution now before North Carolina voters that would deny legal recognition to any union except the marriage of one man and one woman. (If you’re not from around here and want to know more about the proposal, Google is your friend.)

He’s particularly annoyed that it hasn’t taken an editorial position on the issue. I’ve been annoyed, too, but only a little. First, the referendum isn’t ’til Tuesday, so I figured there was still time for the paper to take a stand. (Which stand is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion, although obviously I have a preference.) Second, I left the N&R more than three years ago, and while I miss the people, I don’t miss the job. So I don’t worry overmuch about its internal politics. Third, the place is so short of resources now that major gaps in its coverage no longer surprise me.

So I wasn’t inclined to get involved in online discussions about the N&R’s coverage. What prompts my involvement now is that apparently, in the past few days, multiple people contacted media blogger Jim Romenesko, who for years covered media for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies before going out on his own several months ago. Could Jim inquire, they asked, why the N&R hasn’t yet run an editorial on Amendment One?

So Jim did.

This is the email I sent to [publisher Robin] Saul and editorial page editor Allen Johnson III:

Good afternoon Robin and Allen,

One of my readers sent this email:

“I would be grateful if you could get publisher Robin Saul on the record regarding whether he has banned editorials on ‘moral issues,’ including but not limited to the upcoming referendum on Amendment One, which would add a ban on all civil unions besides heterosexual marriage to North Carolina’s constitution.”

I’d appreciate a response to this.

Johnson sent this reply:

Jim, thanks for your note.

Here’s an official statement:

The News & Record editorial board could not come to a consensus on the marriage amendment issue. Therefore, we’ve elected not to officially support or oppose it. We’ll leave this highly personal decision to individual voters.

Note that the statement does not address the alleged “moral issues” ban.

* * *

I have a number of problems with the response Romenesko got. To explain why, I’ll provide a short bit of background for non-newspaper folks, starting with an explanation of what a newspaper editorial board is and does.

That board is the people who, at most medium-sized and large papers, determine a paper’s editorial position on an issue. (At smaller papers, it might be just one person — editorial-page editor, executive editor, even the publisher — who does this.) Who’s on the board varies from paper to paper, but at most papers with boards, the board includes everyone who writes editorials for the paper — the unsigned opinion pieces that represent the opinions of the paper as an institution. And it also typically includes the publisher. Some publishers take part in the daily discussion, some just want to know what the rest of the board has decided before anything goes to press, and some fall somewhere in the middle. Each paper and each publisher chooses the arrangement that seems to work best for the institution’s unique circumstances.

Editorial boards, particularly large ones dealing with complex issues, commonly fail to reach a consensus. But if the issue or election is of any import, lack of consensus is just a step in the process, because from the standpoints of journalism, ethics and business, ignoring the issue is not an option. The culture of newspapers says that on big issues, you find out all you can and you render a considered, informed opinion based on the facts and what you see as your public’s best interests because that’s why Jefferson, Madison et al. put freedom of the press into the First Amendment and the First Amendment into the Constitution.

So the board haggles until it reaches consensus, or the majority wins, or in extreme cases the publisher may break a tie or even overrule the majority. All these mechanisms are accepted and considered ethical in the business as mechanisms, even when a publisher overrules his united staff. People might disagree bitterly with the publisher on a particular issue, but everyone knows that he has the right to impose his viewpoint as the official, institutional opinion of the paper. What’s not an option, what’s not OK, what’s never acceptable, is to let a major issue slide by without comment and just hope that nobody notices.

So that’s the editorial board. Now a little bit about the job of publisher. Being a newspaper publisher in a market this size is a pretty sweet gig. Even as your paper in particular and the industry in general circle the drain, you get paid very well, and among the local establishment you’re considered a player, which is a benefit if that sort of thing matters to you. If you make your numbers, then generally you can keep the job as long as you like, and as long as you don’t actually commit fraud, no one whose opinion matters to you is going to care much how you make your numbers, even if it means destroying the paper’s credibility and laying a lot of people off and ruining their lives. Sucks for your employees and your readers, but for you, life, in short, is good.

But once every few years, a candidate or an issue comes along that a newspaper simply has to take a stand on — in its news pages, its editorial pages or both — or else it is committing malpractice and undercutting an intangible but very real part of its already-dwindling financial net worth. And that’s the one time when being the publisher can get sticky. The guy who runs the bank or the insurance company or the factory has his own problems, but at least he doesn’t have to deal with this one.  The newspaper publisher does, and in most of those situations, no matter what he does, he’s going to make a lot of people very angry, and some of those people may be quite wealthy and powerful. Most of the publishers I worked for during a quarter-century in journalism did a more than fair job of this, which is why, in general, I’ve never particularly begrudged the publishers I’ve worked for their pay and perks.

With that background perhaps you can begin to see where Robin Saul has gone wrong.

First, the decision not to publish an editorial on this proposal is cowardly. (As Ed notes in the comments on Romenesko’s piece, the story of a blanket ban on editorials on “moral issues” appears to have been just that: a story, and one intended only for internal consumption at that.) Amendment One is the most important statewide ballot initiative in my 52 years of living in this state; it could have serious and negative everyday implications for my fellow citizens and appears likely if enacted to generate a whole passel of lawsuits. As I just noted, newspaper publishers don’t get a pass on things like that.

But Robin Saul did just the opposite (and I’ll explain in a second why I single him out rather than blaming the paper as an institution). He took a pass. He chickened out. He dismissed as a “highly personal decision” what is in fact the most important public-policy issue to go before my state’s voters in more than half a century.

That’s bad enough. What’s more, by issuing the statement that the paper did, Saul is trying to deceive readers in such blatant fashion that one can’t avoid the inference that he thinks his readers are idiots. Now, here’s why I say this:

First, recall what I said above about editorial boards and their duties. Now note that the News & Record’s editorial board, according to the box on page A10 of Thursday’s print edition, consists of only three people: Robin Saul, editorial page editor Allen Johnson and editorial writer Doug Clark. Nobody else. Allen and Doug have taken individual stands in their respective signed columns. And those stands agreed. Therefore, if the editorial board “failed to reach consensus,” it was because Robin Saul disagreed with Allen and Doug and is overruling them not by making them run a pro-Amendment One editorial, which at least would be consistent with industry ethics, but by making the paper sit this one out.

That’s being a coward.

For Robin not only to obscure his role in this dynamic but also to dismiss Amendment One as a “highly personal decision” suggests that he thinks readers are stupid.

And if he had stopped there, that would have been bad enough. But he didn’t. Instead of taking a stand himself, accepting the responsibility that goes with the pay and perks, he sent Allen Johnson out to lie to Romenesko and the world for him.

That’s being a bully. Indeed, to paraphrase a federal prosecutor in the closing arguments of televangelist Jim Bakker’s fraud trial, it was the kind of thing only a person who is used to exploiting, manipulating and humiliating human being after human being, without ever suffering any consequences, would even have had the guts to try.

I haven’t talked to Allen about this. But he and I worked together for 22 years, disagreeing often but respectfully. Allen is smart, proud, dignified and honest, and I don’t care how bad things are at 200 East Market, he deserves better than this. What could he possibly have done to make Robin choose to humiliate him in this way?

Of course, almost no one will care. Journalists like to pretend otherwise, but the truth is that no one much cares what goes on in a newspaper office as long as the paper arrives on time, dry and accurate, and most days that’s only for the best. But this is not one of those days.

We now have incontrovertible evidence that the man running the News & Record is a liar, a coward, a menace to the human resources he is paid to steward and a man who believes his readers are idiots.

I quit mourning for the News & Record and the journalism business a long time ago; most of their wounds were self-inflicted anyway, and they started long before Robin Saul came to town. But outrage at bullying is an evergreen for me, one that transcends era, job, industry, geography, race, class, gender and all the other things that divide us. Bullying enrages me as much at age 52 as it did at age 12. And almost everything that’s wrong in this country today and that has gone wrong throughout our nation’s history essentially boils down to bullying, whether it’s slavery or driving the Cherokee to Oklahoma or robosigning mortgage documents or, for that matter, arrogating the power of a secular state government to tell gay couples they can’t have the same rights you enjoy, because the Bible says so.

And while Jesus had nothing to say on gay marriage, he was clear on bullying. He said the most important thing you can do is to love God, and that the way that you love God is by loving that part of God that is in every other human being you meet, even — especially — the people who are lower on the totem pole than you. That’s as clear a ban on bullying as you can find everyanywhere. And everything else, he said, depends on that, nothing else you do or refrain from doing matters unless you do that, and he made it that easy to understand because he knew how hard it would be for us to do, how very much against our paranoid, selfish, fearful, clannish, sinful natures it would be for us to obey those two simple laws.

And he was dead serious about it: When he came into the temple and found the banksters of his day ripping off the devout, the Prince of Peace put his sandaled foot up their asses.

I have no idea what religious beliefs, if any, Robin Saul holds. But if he thinks of himself as a Christian, he had better pray that Jesus doesn’t come back tomorrow. Otherwise, the fact that he ought to be fired will be the least of his problems.

Thursday, December 15, 2011 6:30 am

He’s back

Filed under: Salute!,Y'all go read this — Lex @ 6:30 am
Tags: ,

John Robinson — my longtime boss, editor, co-conspirator and friend — left the News & Record recently after 27 years, almost 13 of them as the paper’s top editor. He was among the nation’s first and most prolific blogging newspaper editors, and although the project ultimately fell victim to a resource crunch tied to the Crash of ’08, his leadership on the N&R’s Town Square project got national attention not just in the industry, but also in such general-interest publications as the The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.

JR believes in sharing credit, and he backs his people to the hilt. Any good reporter from time to time will have to write unflattering things about powerful people with thin egos, thinner tempers and the resources to make life difficult if they choose. Any good newsroom employee, regardless of discipline, also, in this day and age, must spend time looking around corners for what the next important thing in the news business might be. I did a lot of both, and slaying those dragons was much easier knowing that no matter the stakes, as long as I was prudent and ethical, JR had my back. He took a lot of crap over me, and he never once complained to me about it. And during my dad’s final illness, when I spent the better part of a month bedside in an ICU 100 miles away, the only thing he said was, “Do what you need to do. The office will still be here when you get back.” That’s not just the mark of a great boss. That’s also the mark of a great friend.

I mention all this because, now that he’s shed of the News & Record, JR has started a new, personal blog, called “Media, Disrupted.” (I’ve added a link to it in the blogroll on the lower right side of this page, to0.) Go check it out. And keep an eye on him. Even if he wanted to retire, which he doesn’t, I’m pretty sure Susan wouldn’t let him. So I’m betting that shortly after the new year, he’ll be into something new, different and very much worth watching. And he’ll still be tweeting (@johnrobinson).

 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 6:27 pm

Robert Klippstein of Greensboro, you, sir, are a goddamned idiot (and I’m not real happy with my former employer, either)

I don’t know Robert Klippstein of Greensboro. But today, in a letter to the editor of the News & Record supporting the requirement of a photo ID for voters, he writes, “Voting is a privilege, not a right.”

Leaving aside for a moment any discussion of the constitutional, legal or practical merits of requiring photo ID to vote, oh, screw it, Jesus H. Christ, why is this man not locked up in a room somewhere where he can drool on himself without the rest of us having to be bothered?

Voting isn’t a right? What about “taxation without representation”? What about the civil-rights marchers, some of whom were beaten by police for pursuing — say it with me, kids — the right to vote? What about — oh, screw it. Just. Screw. It.

Oh, and News & Record? As I’ve already told editorial-page editor Allen Johnson privately, I of all people realize that running a Letters to the Editor column means presiding over a wretched hive of scum and villainy (and not in a FUN way, like, say, running Fark.com) and giving writers wide latitude. But at some point, if you’re going to run a public forum, you have to institute some level of quality control. You wouldn’t let a letter-writer claim, with respect to an important public issue, that 2 + 2 = 22 or that gravity is “only a theory” as if that meant you could step off the roof of the Lincoln Financial building with impunity. So why would you let someone assert as a fact something this stupid and dangerous? Allen, to his credit, copped a plea, but as Roch Smith has documented, this has not been an isolated problem.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 10:21 pm

Odds and ends for 11/24

  • Memo to college football’s Bowl Championship Series: Hiring Ari Fleischer to improve your image is like hiring Jenna Jameson to be the spokesbabe for abstinence.
  • Just a few questions for the global-warming deniers who claim the recent hacked scientist e-mails prove global warming is a hoax: “Which studies were compromised, how? Be specific. Cite papers and data sets. What is the evidence? Where is it? What work is affected? How? Show me the evidence that says so. This supposed scandal involves perhaps a half dozen people; how does it affect the work of the 3,000+ others whose work makes up climate science? How does it affect the work that was done before the alleged culprits graduated from university? The work from before they were born? Of the 30,000(ish) studies that make up climate science, which ones are undone? Where is the evidence? Be specific … show us exactly how and why?”
  • BONUS: Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment ‘thinking’
  • And relatedly: “The number of Americans who believe global warming is occurring has declined to its lowest since 1997, though at 72 percent, it’s still a broad majority. The drop has steepened in the last year-and-a-half — almost exclusively among conservatives and Republicans.” And this Republican invites you deniers to just go right on fooling yourselves.
  • Did I see that right in the paper this morning — that Detroit’s 80,000-or-so-seat Silverdome was sold for $583,000? Yup. I saw that right. Wow. There are more expensive houses within two miles of mine. The thing cost $55.7 million ($222.7 million in 2008 dollars) to build back in the 1970s. I don’t think Detroit real estate can go much lower.
  • Robert Reich, in a nutshell, on what’s wrong with health-care reform without a real public option: “Our private, for-profit health insurance system, designed to fatten the profits of private health insurers and Big Pharma, is about to be turned over to … our private, for-profit health care system. Except that now private health insurers and Big Pharma will be getting some 30 million additional customers, paid for by the rest of us.”
  • Your stupid: Let me show you it: A Democratic Senate aide suggests that people who favor a public option are being “stupid” by criticizing Democratic senators who don’t. With support for a public option at 72%, BuggyQ at First Draft explains who’s really being stupid.
  • Your stupid: Let me show you it, The Sequel: Ezra Klein points out a basic flaw in the argument that the health-care reform bill will increase the deficit so we shouldn’t pass it: “I’m confused by the budget hawks who that take the line: ‘This bill needs to cut the deficit, and I don’t believe Democrats will cut the deficit, but since the actual provisions of the bill unambiguously cut the deficit, then I guess Congress won’t stick to it.’ People who want to cut the deficit should support this bill, and support its implementation. The alternative is no bill that cuts the deficit, and thus no hope of cutting the deficit.(Emphasis added for the C students out there.)
  • Asked and answered; or, Your stupid: Let me show you it, Reloaded: Michele Bachmann, the batsh*t insane congresscritter from Minnesota, asked the other day why Democrats didn’t support her. Because she seemed genuinely puzzled, the kids at TPM put together a photo essay.
  • Strange: I don’t know what’s stranger — that Lincoln, Nebraska, is the second-strangest city in the country or that Nawlins didn’t even make the top 75. (Raleigh was #34, not all that far behind LA at #28; Florida was the strangest state, which will surprise no one who has ever read Carl Hiaasen; and N.C. came in 48th out of the 50 states plus D.C.)
  • Stranger: If Santa got drunk and started Twittering, the results might look like this.
  • I’ve got your newspaper war right here. (Photo NSFW) As my friend Jon Lowder, who tipped me to this, said, “Somehow I don’t see this kind of action breaking out in the heated battle between the N&R and the W-S Journal, but we can dream.”

In fact, I think that’s what I’m going to go do right now. I may or may not blog again anytime soon this weekend, so if I don’t, Happy Thanksgiving to all.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009 12:29 pm

The final edition

Filed under: Housekeeping,Journalism — Lex @ 12:29 pm
Tags:

If you follow me on Facebook or the work blog, you know that Jan. 2 was my last day at the News & Record. The company offered voluntary buyouts several weeks ago, and I took one.

This obviously was a tough decision. My gut reaction when the announcement of buyouts first went out was, “You need to take this.” But I thought a lot about it, and talked to a lot of people, before pulling the trigger right before the end of the year.

My thinking went something like this, although I can’t swear it went in this order.

First, as even a lot of non-newspaper people now know, the newspaper industry is in a lot of financial trouble because circulation has been dropping more or less like a rock in most markets. A lot of places have laid off a lot of people. I won’t bore you with the details, nor will I belabor the point with statistics. But it’s grim, and the prospects of a substantial turnaround anytime soon look dim.

Historically, the N&R has weathered economic downturns better than a lot of places. During the 1990-91 recession, for example, there were retirement buyouts, but no layoffs, at a time when a lot of other newspaper chains were shedding jobs. Not being a stockholder in the paper’s parent (privately held) company, I didn’t know exactly what the numbers were for the N&R. But I knew they weren’t good. I also knew, and some of you will remember, that the paper laid off a number of people in mid-2007.

The details of the buyout are confidential, but as most such offers do, this one hinged on tenure with the company. I’d been with the N&R just shy of 22 years. With no guarantee that there wouldn’t be more layoffs sometime soon (with severance packages not nearly as generous), the math looked pretty compelling.

Finally — and I don’t want to use this to try to make me look noble or anything, but it did cross my mind — I figured that my taking the buyout might buy a little more job security for someone who couldn’t. I talked to a number of people who wanted to take the buyout but either hadn’t been with the N&R long enough for the money to be much help or who couldn’t leave because they would lose health insurance. And, of course, I talked to people who wanted to stay no matter what.

I hate what has happened to the newspaper industry. What’s ironic is that I’m awful at prognostication — I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve ever even bet on a sports event, and I’ve never publicly predicted the outcome of any election. But I can’t say I didn’t see this disaster coming a long time ago. I was reminded of this recently when I popped an old floppy into my home machine to make sure the new drive was working properly and found on it a letter I had written to friends of mine in October 1994. At the time, I was leading the team that was creating Triad Online, the N&R’s first Web site. We were still about two months away from soft launch, but we were about to become one of the first 25 or 30 newspapers in the country to put up a more-or-less functional, news-delivering Web site. Here’s what I said to my friends:

One hidden blessing of my work with the online service is getting to spend a good bit of time on the Internet, exchanging ideas with people in my line of work and people on the outside looking in. It has aroused hope and despair — hope, in that I can see that the way things work in cyberspace is different and, in most ways, better than the way they work in most daily papers and offers a model for what we could become; despair, in that the newspaper industry does an awesome job of killing off its best thinkers early in their careers. If newspapers go on-line and try to stay there, either they will be abandoned by their customers or forced by them to become more open and responsive. The process of deciding “what’s news” will become more democratized, with fewer such decisions made by a closeted, small group of isolated, middle-aged white men. Reporters will be challenged by their online readers to find better source materials, better human sources. Editors who make stupid decisions about, say, naming rape victims will be forced by online readers to defend those decisions publicly — will be forced, in short, to do something they haven’t done in years: think about the news. Scary thought for a lot of them. But the scariest thought of all is that newspaper editors won’t make the change. They have invested too much time and effort to gain this power; they don’t want to give it up. And I think what will happen is that before they do give it up, their readers will give them up. Online doesn’t need to kill newspapers, but it probably will, and the newspapers will have only their own editors to blame.

As predictions go, this one was fair-to-middlin’. Newspapers actually did become more open; their online interaction with the public really did evolve in the way I described. The News & Record was a national leader in that regard, and I’m proud to have helped make that happen.

And, yeah, the industry’s editors were to some extent to blame for the dive the industry has taken. But the industry is getting killed not because of its content, although that’s a factor in some markets. It’s getting killed because its traditional revenue sources got siphoned off by competitors like Craigslist. Its business side never found a way to make money online in sufficient quantities to support a news operation, even at margins lower than print had historically achieved.

It was a bad scene, and just how bad it was was driven home to me as the word spread that I was going to be leaving the paper. The first thing every single person who had heard the news said to me on getting to talk to me about it or leave me a message was, “Congratulations!” I was starting to wonder if I should be developing survivor guilt.

I am at peace with my decision to leave, but that absolutely does not mean I regret any of the time I spent there. In my almost 22 years at the News & Record, I got to do a whole bunch of stuff I loved and had looked forward to getting the chance to do.

For one thing, beats at the paper defined certain minimum obligations but were not by any means intended to be confining. During my time as an investigative reporter, I got to do a big ol’ story on the resurgence of pinball, for example. (Obviously this was years ago; pinball is now basically dead except for computer simulations.) In addition to my beat responsibilities, I spent three years covering PTL and Jim Bakker. Later, I got to turn religion into a hard-news beat and then cover it that way, which was also educational, and I got to write a wide-ranging religion column while I held that beat — almost a blog in print, before I or anyone else in our newsroom had heard of blogging. I got to learn database analysis. As regional editor, I got huge satisfaction out of hiring good people and helping them grow and learn. As assistant features editor, I got to work with some of the most talented pure writers in the newsroom, a job that involved just as much learning as it did managing. I got to be an investigative-projects reporter. I got to lead an enterprise team. (And you haven’t lived until you’ve cut a reporter like Stan Swofford or Taft Wireback loose on a story. It’s the journalism equivalent of getting to drive a Ferrari.) I got to lead the aforementioned Triad Online team, a diverse and creative bunch who made sure we got our first Web effort off on the right foot. And as citizen-journalism coordinator, I spent 2005 neck-and-neck with Rob Curley in terms of who had the coolest newspaper job on the planet AND got mentioned in the New York Times. (I just wish Dad could have lived another month to see that.)

Even more important than that, though, were the relationships I built over the years, with co-workers and with people in the community. I even met my wife on the job. (She was working for another paper then, and she and I both covered the 1987 Klan march in Greensboro, the first one since the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings.) Those friendships have been amazing. Just one example: On the June day in 2005 when I returned from burying my father after having been out of town in the hospital with him most of the previous month, I pulled into the driveway and found photo director Rob Brown and his son there with a lawn mower, preparing to take care of the chores I hadn’t been there to handle. You think I didn’t tear up?

I started in the newspaper business on Feb. 26, 1984, almost exactly 25 years ago. On the twentieth anniversary of that date in a post that apparently has been lost to Blogger, WordPress, the Google cache AND archive.org, (UPDATE: Post is here), I composed a list of things I had learned after 20 years in newspapers. If I remember the last two correctly, they were something on the order of “I can’t imagine ever leaving newspapers” and “I know the day will come when I will have to leave.”

That day has come. I have nothing but fondness for the experience. And now it’s time to leave.

(I’ve tried to insert the *.pdf of the parody front page my colleagues gave me when I left, but WordPress isn’t letting me, even though it supposedly will handle *.pdf files. Anyone got any suggestions on getting it to show up? Thanks.)

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