August 25, 2006
Local life as it is
Letter writers took us to task for two items on our Aug. 24 front page – a story about grain-alcohol sales at state liquor stores and the lead photograph of a young man on a rope swing above the river in Penacook. The complaints were similar: The readers accused us of encouraging behavior dangerous to young people.
The story covered Executive Councilor Peter Spaulding’s efforts to stop state liquor stores from selling 190-proof grain alcohol. A reader in Henniker wrote:
“So, how many students, college or otherwise, will now try and get a hold of grain alcohol?
“I understand your need to inform the public about these types of issues, but is this type of article going to really help?
“Shall we hold the Concord Monitor responsible for any future injuries or deaths caused by the consumption of grain alcohol?”
Of the lead photograph of the rope swinger, a Webster reader had this to say:
“You did it again! . . .
“The young person is in a place he is not supposed to be, therefore trespassing, ignoring the signs and the law. It looks like so much fun. That’s what any other teen would think and some young ones as well. A copycat thing to do. . . .
“This is a dangerous practice, and your photographer, Lori Duff, should use some common sense.”
These readers underestimate young people, overestimate the Monitor’s power to influence behavior and misunderstand our mission.
Young people are bombarded with bad behavioral role models every day: foul and violent lyrics in music, harsh images in video games and movies, cheating and steroid-gobbling athletes, an ad culture that uses sex to sell and values appearance over substance. Somehow, with the help of parents and educators, most kids make it through all that.
You’d have to be a naïve young person not to know that there are a lot of rope swings over our local rivers. Or that there isn’t potent liquor out there. I don’t buy the idea that the Monitor should ignore these things because showing them will somehow give kids ideas they haven’t already had.
We try to make the newspaper a mirror of the communities we cover. It is the job of our reporters and photographers to record life in our area as they find it. We can’t ignore common behavior like kids swinging on ropes because it is dangerous or illegal.
Making such acts off-limits to our photographers would not prevent rope-swinging any more than ignoring a story on grain alcohol would keep young people in the dark about some new evil.
August 23, 2006
Nothing like it
I am wary of analogy. When someone begins a comment with “X is like Y,” I automatically think, “No, it’s not.” Nothing is quite like anything else.
In recent days I’ve heard a particularly troubling analogy twice. I won’t name the speakers because analogy is a common rhetorical device. I’m sure if I looked back on all the dumb analogies I’ve made over the decades, I’d wince plenty.
The analogies that troubled me were to terrorism. In separate conversations I’ve heard people in the political realm compare both the nation’s health-care and environmental challenges to terrorism. The point was the same: Dealing with those issues is just as critical as dealing with terrorism.
Here’s what the speakers said: The single mother with a sick child and no health insurance? Terror. The environmental havoc that global warming will wreak? Terror.
These are bad arguments. Yes, some people without health insurance feel a desperation bordering on terror. And if the power of Hurricane Katrina was indeed an early sign of global warming (a big if, I think), the results in New Orleans and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast were truly terrible.
But to compare these or any other political issues to terrorism is unhelpful and misleading.
Terrorism is the deliberate slaughter of innocent human beings for a fanatical purpose. There is nothing like it. Certainly there is no political issue like it. To use it as a point of comparison will always diminish it.
Health care and the environment are important issues. But issues should be discussed, and positions defended, in their own right. I hope the effort to use the tragedies caused by terrorists to raise public interest in other issues is not the trend I fear it is.
August 22, 2006
Still a classic
This is the season for reading at the camp where my wife and I live in the summertime. Not that it isn’t always the season for reading for us, but it is easier in summer after a morning walk to while away the hours on the porch poring through newspapers and books.
Because I commute to work in summer, I also listen to books on tape. Over the last week or so, I have been reintroduced to an old friend – Paul Baumer, the narrator and lead character in All Quiet on the Western Front.
Since my youth, I have loved the literature of World War I – the great poems Of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sasson and others, the diaries and memoirs of Vera Brittain and Robert Graves, the histories by Martin Gilbert and others, even the recent trilogy by the novelist Pat Barker, the third of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.
I first read Owen in earnest during the Vietnam War. The distance between the rhetoric and the reality of war seemed universal and timeless.
That thought came back to me as I listened to All Quiet. When American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq speak about their wars, it is easy to see what a challenge it is for them to relate their experiences on the ground to the objectives laid out by political leaders far removed from the front. I wound up thinking that All Quiet should be required reading for any young man or woman considering enlisting in the military – and for any national leader before he or she decides to send a nation to war or to expand a war. The wars we think we are about to fight seldom turn out to be the wars we thought they would be.
Erich Maria Remarque, a World War I veteran and a sports writer from Lower Saxony, wrote All Quiet on the Western Front during the 1920s. It is the story of a group of schoolmates who, in the flush and naïveté of youth, enlist together and grow up, suffer and die as German soldiers on the Western Front. The book was published in January 1929. Eighteen months later, it had sold 2.5 million copies in 25 languages.
As Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s, the book was banned and burned in Germany. Nazis disrupted the premiere of the film, also a masterpiece. Remarque eventually lost his German citizenship and became an American.
Listening to the book last week, I found its power undiminished. Obviously, technology has changed warfare since World War I, for better and for worse. But in clear, powerful prose, Remarque relentlessly destroys any mystery or romance a young person might associate with soldiering. His is a riveting book – a classic for its time and for ours.
August 17, 2006
In June I listened to the arguments before the state Supreme Court on the latest challenge to the way New Hampshire pays for schools. This is the never-ending Claremont case. It was impossible to know how the court might rule on the question before it.
But the core of Claremont – the terrible inequity among districts’ abilities to provide a sound public education – still burns hot.
I am reminded of this every time I edit a letter to the editor from Mary Paradise, the head of teacher contract negotiations for the Pittsfield School Board. On behalf of the board and the teachers’ union in Pittsfield, Paradise is sending the Monitor a series of letters making the case to the town’s voters for a one-year contract that the two sides agreed to last month.
Paradise’s latest letter, which will appear in tomorrow’s Monitor, is an eye-opener. Consider just one fact from it: During the school year just past, a beginning teacher with a family insurance plan had a before-tax income of $17,564.
Work a little overtime, and a kid can make that much flipping burgers.
Pittsfield was an original plaintiff in the Claremont suit, and it has received some relief from the court’s rulings. But if the court needs a jolt to stiffen its backbone on Claremont, the teacher contract in Pittsfield should provide it.
Like other poor districts, Pittsfield struggles to pay competitive wages and retain good teachers. Its teachers pay 50 percent of their health insurance costs. Even before benefit differences are included, veteran teachers make between $5,000 and $9,000 less annually than their counterparts in comparable districts.
Those who argue that Pittsfield taxpayers are chintzy and do not support education might want to take a look at the property tax base Pittsfield works from. Just to cite two nearby towns, Barnstead has more than twice as much taxable property per student, Alton more than six times as much. The properties on just two coves in a big-lake town probably exceed Pittsfield’s entire tax base.
The differing tax burdens among towns were at the heart of the Claremont decisions. If anything, that disparity is widening.
Overtaxed though they are, I hope Pittsfield voters approve the one-year teacher contract at a special district meeting later this year. I hope the board and the union press on on salaries and benefits, as they have vowed to do.
But the problem here is beyond the ability of a Pittsfield or an Allenstown or a Claremont to solve. That’s why the Supreme Court ruled against the state in the Claremont case, and that’s why the court should strengthen its earlier rulings when it decides the current case.
It is a travesty and a tragedy that the state of New Hampshire continues to ignore its constitutional obligation and to turn its back on the children of poor towns.
August 15, 2006
Are we safer? Wrong question
I have a bad feeling about the coming political season. I foresee an argument about a question to which there is no satisfactory answer: Has the George W. Bush presidency made America safer?
You’ve already heard the answers.
From the Democratic side: Of course not. Bush has led us into a quagmire in Iraq. His policies have created more terrorists, not fewer.
From the Republican side: Of course we’re safer. Isn’t it a great relief that we are fighting the terrorists over there rather than fighting them here?
The Monitor editorial board heard a version of the Republican argument this morning from Gov. George Pataki of New York. It’s better to have our soldiers fighting them there than our civilians fighting them here, he said.
But Pataki also used an analogy that resonated with me. He compared the War on Terror to the Cold War, in the sense that ideology was at the heart of both. Much as the Cold War was a fight between freedom and rigid state control, our current war is a fight between freedom and Islamic extremists who detest freedom. Without criticizing any past actions of the Bush administration, Pataki called for creating international alliances to join the United States, Britain and our few other allies in the fight.
On the drive to work this morning, I listened to The Exchange, the New Hampshire Public Radio talk show. The subject was the 45th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. This was a defining moment of the Cold War. Laura Knoy’s guest, Jackson Janes, a German studies professor from Johns Hopkins University, commented on whether people in the ensuing years thought the wall would ever be torn down. Someday, they said, “but not in my lifetime.”
I lived through the entire Cold War. Janes's “not in my lifetime” comment was apt. When the wall actually fell and the Soviet bloc disintegrated, I remember thinking that the mind-set of my generation had been stripped away. It was so sudden. One day, all world events had to be viewed through the East-West prism. The next day, the prism had disappeared. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History whose title and ideas struck a chord with us old Cold Warriors.
But of course history did not end. A new enemy found us: Islamic fundamentalists bent on destroying the West and all that we stand for.
As I listened to Professor Janes talk, a question occurred to me: Were the fears spawned by the Cold War – principally the Strangelovian madness of nuclear annihilation and the state control over individuals at the heart of the communist regime – more potent and present than the fears spawned by the War on Terror?
I don’t know the answer. Frankly, although I did duck-and-cover drills as a boy and served two years right at the Iron Curtain as a young man, I don’t remember ever being afraid. I can’t say the same about the War on Terror, but that may simply be that I know more now than I knew then. Or that my worries now are more focused on future generations - my children's and my grandchildren's - than on my own.
What I am sure of is that the politics of fear are empty, whichever side they come from. “Are we safer?” is the wrong question. It is also the perfect question for a political campaign – one with no clear answer and one bound to be polarizing.
I’m not quite sure what the right question is for the coming campaign and the 2008 presidential race, but it might go something like this: Which political leaders are best equipped and most inclined to persuade other free nations that the War on Terror is their fight, too?
August 14, 2006
My daughter-in-law tells a riddle about parenthood that goes like this:
Why do you put 2-year-olds to bed at 7:30?
The answer: So you can go to bed at 8.
More than two decades after we last had a 2-year-old of our own, my wife and I spent this past weekend taking care of our grandson, Jackson. Alone. Just us and Jackson.
People in the office have heard me refer to Jackson (lovingly, of course) as “Bruiser,” “The Linebacker” and “Pinball.” He is ripped: big shoulders, bulging chest, all muscle, no fat. One of his favorite words is “run,” and off he goes, a miniature Forrest Gump. “Pinball,” by the way, refers to the way he bounces off things and seems to gain speed and energy from each collision.
During the weekend, when we weren’t out harvesting blueberries and blackberries, for which Jackson has an extraordinary capacity, I spent the good part of the weekend trying to divine the mind of a 2-year-old. I mean, what is going on up there? At times, the boy seemed charming, loving and perfectly normal. He put the plastic flamingo on the letter “F,” aped animal sounds on command and counted to 13 over and over. But then, suddenly, he would zone out and slip off into the next room in search of an electric socket or, more likely, do precisely the opposite of what we had told him to do. And do it again. And again. "Tantrum" might be too stark a word for his most headstrong moments, but probably not.
As far as I could tell, there were no logical connections between the responsive Jackson and the devious Jackson. Only one thing gave us comfort in these personality flips: They were accompanied by expressions very reminiscent of those that crossed his father’s face 28 years ago. These were familiar expressions, even though Jackson seemed to be just trying them out: the Clinton-lip pout, the evil eye, Don’t Tread on Me.
When you first become a grandparent, other grandparents tell you how wonderful it is to spend time with grandchildren – and to send them home to their parents. I’ll admit I had this thought last night when my wife drove away with Jackson and peace returned to our domain.
But that is not the thought that lingers from his visit, nor was I left thinking about the few difficult moments of his stay with us. Rather I woke up this morning thinking what an amazing challenge it is for his parents to guide him through this phase of his life. Also, how this adorable little tyke brings to the world such a headlong desire to grasp life and how we, as grandparents, have the high privilege of watching him become.
August 11, 2006
The real man from Hope
We met the real man from Hope when Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas came by for an editorial board yesterday. Huckabee, a Republican whose first career was as a Southern Baptist pastor, is considering running for president.
President Bill Clinton left Hope, Ark., as a young boy and grew up in Hot Springs. Huckabee, who is nine years younger than Clinton, was born and raised in Hope.
Huckabee made a joke about this that he has no doubt told a hundred times during his political career. Clinton, Huckabee said, used the line “I believe in a place called Hope” because it sounded so much better than “I believe in a place called Hot Springs.”
As I listened to Huckabee, I heard a politician comfortable in his skin as an Arkansan who was trying to figure out what from this repertory would work on the national stage and what he would have to invent. Although he and I are far apart in our thinking on many issues, I liked him.
For one thing, Huckabee is a governor. Governors who want to be president are usually far more down to earth than senators who want to be president. As a governor, you have to deal with real people and real issues. You have to get things done. The meaningless prattle of Washington does not pollute your speech.
Huckabee’s most appealing quality is humanity. When he said that his first reaction in dealing with Katrina refugees in Arkansas was to feed and house them and worry about the cost and the paperwork later, he was totally believable. When he spoke with passion and urgency about health care, you could see how his own heroic conversion from an obese man to a trim one had led him to look outside himself. Certainly one of his most practiced answers was his take on why his background as a pastor is not a political liability but an important qualification.
“There is not a social pathology in this world that I couldn’t put a name and face to,” he began. Soon he was detailing the human misery – alcohol problems, money problems, marital problems, unwanted pregnancies – that he regularly dealt with as a preacher. This experience, he said, led him to be more understanding of the human condition.
“If faith is real, it does affect what you do” as an elected official, he said. Asked to name his party’s biggest flaw, he said that while Republicans had been keen on seeing that their policies helped those at the top, it had not been sensitive to people on the bottom. When he began to analyze the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the difficulties of the middle class, he sounded like a Democrat.
Huckabee is one of a large cast of characters whom New Hampshire and Iowa voters will see a great deal of during the next year and a half. He has a lot to learn. Although I came away with a good first impression, he was fuzzy on the war in Iraq and unresponsive on Social Security.
If he decides to run, he will profit greatly from grassroots campaigning in New Hampshire. He will have a good touch for it, too, shaping his positions by what he hears from voters.
August 04, 2006
Boys will be boys
Brownbag lunches at the Monitor give our staff an opportunity to hear from experts. We’ve had many poets, writers and journalists speak with the staff over the years. Later this month, Bill Chapman, the paper’s lawyer, will give a lunchtime seminar on the Right-to-Know law and libel laws. And yesterday, Peter Francese paid us a visit.
Peter is a genial and knowledgeable demographer who lives in Exeter. Although reporters often call him as a news source for their stories, he last spoke with our whole staff three years ago. His charge then was to help us lay the groundwork for the Monitor’s content-driven redesign, which continues to this day, by telling us about our readers.
Peter’s main message in 2003 was that New Hampshire had a large and growing elderly population. One result of this session was the creation of a reporting beat at the Monitor on the issues of aging. Meg Heckman has ably filled it from the start.
During yesterday’s session, Peter gave us more of the same with a new twist: New Hampshire’s burgeoning elderly population is accompanied by a mass exodus of young people. Our state is getting older both because people over 55 are moving here in droves and because people 25-44 are leaving. I’ve written a column for the Sunday Monitor Viewpoints section about the consequences of this demographic shift.
While we had Peter here, we also touched on another troubling subject: the falling percentage of young men going to college. For years, the proportion of males to females in colleges and universities has shrunk. I asked Peter why. Here is what he said:
1. Eighteen-year-old men can make pretty good money in the job market – for 18-year-old men. Thus, for them, the short-term cost of attending college is greater than for girls.
2. Boys mature later than girls. Many young men say when they graduate from high school that they’ll go to college someday, but they never do.
3. College is generally seen as leading to office jobs. To an 18-year-old man, “working in an office sounds like some form of slow death.” (Women form 47 percent of the American workforce but 52 percent of the whire-collar workforce.)
4. The cost of a college education has grown disproportionately.
The problem with this trend is that whatever short-term benefits young men may enjoy in not going to college, the long-term costs are far greater. As Peter told us, there are more and more young men out there who really should have gone to college.
July 27, 2006
We spent part of our July vacation in Florida. In all the years I lived there as a child and a young man, I had never been to Sanibel and Captiva, the two gulf islands just off Fort Myers. The islands are connected to the mainland by a causeway and to each other by a short bridge.
I’m sure old-timers would say Sanibel and Captiva aren’t what they used to be, but they’re still pretty cool. They’re famous for shells, birds and flora. Apparently they lost their cover of Australian pines, the long-needled evergreens that I remember well from my youth, to Hurricane Charley in 2004. But in many places the vegetation remains thick, tangled and close to the ground.
We stayed at a resort on Captiva, ’Tween Waters Inn. We were there for a mini-reunion with several members of my high school class. As it turned out, one of them, Cynthia Cohlmeyer, had a special connection to the inn and the islands. Her connection made the visit special for the rest of us as well.
In high school, we knew her as Cindy Darling. Her grandfather was Jay Norling “Ding” Darling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who lived from 1876 to 1962.
I knew nothing about Ding Darling, but more than 40 years after his death, his presence is everywhere on Captiva and Sanibel. We first noticed this when we saw that his cartoons and wildlife paintings graced the walls of the main restaurant at ’Tween Waters Inn.
Darling was not only a fine editorial cartoonist (his cartoons appeared on the front page of the Des Moines Register for decades) but also a conservationist of the first order. Long before the environmental movement took hold in this country, many a Darling cartoon depicted human disregard for and mistreatment of the Earth.
Darling was a Republican and a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist, but he wound up in the administration of the other Roosevelt. FDR appointed him director of the U.S. Biological Survey. He started the duck stamp program, among other good deeds, designing the first stamp himself. He also got private financial backing to bring several sportsmen’s organizations together as the National Wildlife Federation, believing – correctly – that this would strengthen the voice of conservationists.
Most impressive for a visitor to the islands that Darling loved, a foundation formed after his death carried on his work. One of his favorite bird-watching locales is now the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In its visitors’ center, one exhibit is built around his drawing desk and another includes the colorful work of the young artists who compete each year to design the duck stamp.
Every time I visit Florida’s Gulf Coast, I am amazed by the high-rises that blot out yet another beach. I’m sure Captiva and Sanibel have lost much of the wild charm that first attracted Ding Darling to them, and no doubt developers have further designs on the islands. But it retains at least vestiges of the old Florida.
Along with a resolve to return one year in winter and spend time in the refuge, I departed with this thought: What an amazing personal legacy for one human being. Known during his day as one of the nation’s great editorial cartoonists, Darling is even better known today by his posterity as a protector of nature.
July 06, 2006
Mike's blog is taking a break. See you soon.
July 05, 2006
The new neighbor
I spent much of the Fourth of July working on writing projects on the back porch of our camp. Writing is a natural act to me, and it feels especially natural in the still of the dawn’s early light. Although my eyes were fixed on the screen of my laptop, they were also alert for animal movement around me.
The air was a little murky, a little yellow, the pond morning gray. I saw a great blue heron swoop in and land on a rocky peak that rises maybe six inches out of the water near our shore. I saw a mink swim toward our boulders with its catch. Then a raccoon walked right through the backyard. I stood for a better look, and the raccoon heard me, stopped and looked back. We made eye contact for two seconds before it bounded into the woods.
During the weekend I had seen a large bird in a deadish tree at the pond’s edge. Leaves obstructed its head from my view, but I saw that its body was a mottled brown, and I saw it at a distance in flight. It seemed to be about gull size. I guessed that it might be an osprey, but T.C. Cutter, who lives across the pond, didn’t think so. I know most of the birds on the pond, and maybe they know me, but this was a new neighbor.
I took a break from my work just after lunch. As I did, I looked out and saw our friends, Judi and Rich Locke, in their thankfully quiet aluminum launch, idling 20 feet from shore. Rich had on his goofy Fourth of July hat, a real attention-getter when the Lockes tour the pond, and Judy held her hand to her forehead as a visor. They were peering up into the tree at the bird I had seen. They kindly offered to pick me up and take me around for a better look. I grabbed my binoculars and climbed aboard.
The bird did not seem to mind the intrusion. It sat there while I catalogued its traits: leg color, eye color, beak shape. Clearly this was no raptor; it looked like a heron.
As we prepared to leave it in peace, the bird began to stir. Suddenly it defecated, and copiously, sending a white stream splashing into the pond below. “Must be a male,” said Judi Locke.
My brain hung onto the bird’s characteristics until I got back to the porch, but I didn't need them. I picked up my bird book and quickly found the bird’s spitting image. It was as though the photographer had shot the bird's picture right in that tree, 30 feet from where I sat.
It was an immature black-crowned night heron, a/k/a Nycticorax nycticorax. Bird literature says many unkind things about this species. They are the squat members of the heron family and do not assume the look their name implies until they turn 3. They are sluggish hunters, one guide says, mainly just standing there waiting for a fish or frog to happen by. They rob the nests of gulls and other heron species, gobbling their chicks. They eat just about anything, including garbage.
One guide describes their table manners this way: “Prey is shaken vigorously until stunned or killed and then juggled about in the beak and swallowed head first. They have strong digestive acids that can dissolve even bones. Their feces are white and limey because of the dissolved calcium.”
Well, I am always elated when I see a bird new to me, and it didn’t bother me one bit that the black-crowned night heron is a bad actor.
About the “night” word, incidentally, only speculation in the guides: Generally these herons do not begin to feed till dusk. Other herons are prone to attack them by day, but after breeding season, perhaps feeling safer, they are sometimes seen in broad daylight.
Later yesterday afternoon, Greg Chase, another pond friend, sailed his Sunfish to about the point where I had first seen the Lockes. Greg had heard about the heron and come to see it, but it was gone. We chatted, and I told him what I had found out about the bird and said I was sure it would be back.
“Good to have a new neighbor on the pond,” Greg said, and he swung his sail to catch the wind, and off he went.
July 02, 2006
Biden hits the ground running
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware is making the rounds in New Hampshire. He’s running for president, he says.
Biden is a man with a hole in his reputation, which, on a practical level, makes his candidacy an exercise in self-delusion. It is beyond me why anyone would want to go through repeated questioning on the speech-lifting problem that disqualified him from the presidential chase nearly 20 years ago. And if no one is asking this question – why did you do that, senator? – Biden can be sure his candidacy is not being taken seriously.
Plus, Biden is the quintessential United States senator, with more than 30 years of legislating to muddy the meandering stream of his rhetoric. He’s not Bob Dole, referring to bills by shorthand and reminding people of decade-old subcommittee votes. He’s smoother than that. But Biden is quick to sink listeners in the mire of policy history, with an emphasis on his seminal role. In the latter respect, he lacks Dole’s modesty.
And yet one of the enduring values of New Hampshire’s presidential primary campaigns is the opportunity they give the parties – especially the out party – to figure out where they stand. In this respect, Biden deserves a careful hearing.
The senator gave the Monitor editorial board a long interview on Friday. The next day we published Monitor reporter Lauren R. Dorgan’s excellent account of the highlights of the interview.
The Iraq war is the stickiest issue for every presidential candidate. There is a temptation to seek a position on one of the poles, creating the false impression that the choice is war vs. surrender.
Biden knows it’s not that simple. He has not only followed the war every step of the way as an insider but has also made repeated visits to Iraq to assess the situation on the ground. As he describes it, our future policy there rests as much on the realities of troop strength as on presidential resolve. The force level will have to be reduced substantially in coming months because it cannot be sustained. Any sense of how to proceed in Iraq, Biden says, must begin with that realization.
The current debate on the airwaves – and, I might add, in the run-up to the midterm elections – is cut and run vs. stay the course. This Rovian scenario is a Republican dream, and so far the Democrats are playing right into it (see Connecticut, and the party’s crusade to do a Bob Smith-ectomy on Sen. Joe Lieberman). Dems have plenty of issues on their side – the administration’s deadly incompetence after Katrina, its ocean of red ink and, above all, its woeful post-Shock and Awe performance in Iraq. But their schism over the war prevents them from presenting a unified front on anything.
Biden’s knowledgeable, reality-based views on Iraq, and his guarded optimism about the outcome there, provide a strong direction for his party. Whether they will do anything for his own prospects for 2008 is beside the point. Taking to the stump in New Hampshire as an avowed presidential candidate provides a bigger megaphone for Biden’s positions than he would otherwise have. That in itself is good for both his party and his country.
June 30, 2006
Muddled thinking, Kos, et al.
The Daily Kos, a hot political blog, is coming down hard on the New Hampshire primary. Check it out.
Here's what I think about Kos's case:
It wasn’t an unfair system that gave the Dems their nominee in 2004. It was a poor field. New Hampshire wasn’t a rubber stamp; New Hampshire voters just saw the same thing Iowa voters did. To be crisp but cruel about it, Dean crumbled in the spotlight, Lieberman had no pop, Clark was an amateur, etc., etc. Kerry was the best of the lot – and the best prepared to be president. He would have been president, too, if he hadn’t pulled a Dukakis when the Swifties came after him.
All this foolishness about trying to strip Iowa and New Hampshire of their traditional roles in the nominating process is just the Democrats stressing about something that doesn’t matter while they waffle about what does. What’s the Dems’ answer to “cut & run,” “the white flag of surrender” and “he was for the war before he was against it?” If they can’t agree on an alternative message that resonates for 2006, the Rove political ethic will continue to reign.
The problem for Dems in 2008 is not what state gets an early caucus or primary. It is this: Who is going to lead them in figuring out what they stand for?
I was on a panel yesterday before a journalism student group at Franklin Pierce College’s Manchester branch. The subject was press coverage of the New Hampshire presidential primary, and along with practical advice, we panelists peddled our campaign tales.
My favorite came from Kevin Landrigan, veteran political reporter for the Telegraph in Nashua. Here’s how it went:
As a young reporter for the Eagle Times in Claremont in 1980, Landrigan had a chance to ride on Ronald Reagan’s bus one morning. Reagan was trying to rescue his candidacy after George Bush I’s victory over him in the Iowa caucuses. The scuttlebutt Landrigan had heard from the national press corps suggested that Reagan was slow on the trigger and too old to be president. Landrigan prepared his questions diligently, but he worried that if what he had heard was true, Reagan would be particularly unresponsive at 7:30 a.m., the time of the interview.
Landrigan got on the bus and asked his questions. Reagan’s answers were crisp and on point. The interview went by faster than Landrigan had imagined. Before he knew it, Reagan was asking him questions: Where had he grown up? How long had he been a political reporter, and why had he chosen that career?
Kevin Landrigan’s story had many facets. It was about the education of a young reporter: See for yourself, don’t swallow the conventional wisdom. It was about Ronald Reagan: He made the adjectives used to minimize him – too old, too slow-witted – seem plain silly. And it was about the New Hampshire primary: This is where would-be presidents must connect with regular people – even 20-something reporters.
Postscript (another point of view)
Like my last blog entry, today’s Wall Street Journal editorial concerns the decision of the Journal, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to publish the story of the government secretly accessing financial records.
June 28, 2006
Question No. 9
In response to my blog entry last week on The War Tapes, a reader asks:
“I’m curious if you have any opinion on the recent controversy over the newspaper reports detailing a secret but legal government program which scans bank records. Were the various newspapers right to report on this program? Did you agree with Bill Keller’s letter to his readers? Or is it only newsworthy if a secret program is illegal?”
This is foreign ground to me as the editor of the Monitor. In my career I’ve had to deal with government officials who didn’t want things published but never on national security grounds. So my opinion is based only on many years of following such issues.
Jack M. Balkin, a blogger whose column appears on today’s Concord Monitor Forum page, makes clear that the Bush administration is as good as or better than its predecessors in playing the leaking game. This consists mainly of leaking information it thinks will be to its political advantage and crying “national security” when something is leaked that it doesn’t want out.
This administration does have an advantage its predecessors did not. This consists of two elements. The first is a Greek chorus, masquerading as journalists, that is quick to take up its tune, often thoughtlessly but with much tumult and shouting. The second is a communication system – the internet and 24-hour news networks – that amplifies the howl from a reliable administration perspective.
Three newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, found out about and published stories about the government scanning of bank records.
This raises two questions for me: First, if three newspapers found out about it, how secret was it? And second, how come most of the press’s critics left the Wall Street Journal out of their plaint?
I believe in a vigorous press and have a great deal of faith in the editors of big newspapers to make the right decisions in these cases. I am never surprised to hear an administration – this one or any other – wage a “national security” defense. And ultimately, although my faith is often sorely tested, I believe the public has the ability to look beyond the political hubbub and figure out who is right and, more important, what is right.
Finally, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, did a superb job explaining why the Times went with the story. I’ve pasted the crux of his argument below, but you can read the whole thing at the New York Times website, nytimes.com.
"The Administration case for holding the story had two parts, roughly speaking: first that the program is good – that it is legal, that there are safeguards against abuse of privacy, and that it has been valuable in deterring and prosecuting terrorists. And, second, that exposing this program would put its usefulness at risk.
“It’s not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far. A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don’t know about it.
“We weighed most heavily the Administration’s concern that describing this program would endanger it. The central argument we heard from officials at senior levels was that international bankers would stop cooperating, would resist, if this program saw the light of day. We don’t know what the banking consortium will do, but we found this argument puzzling. First, the bankers provide this information under the authority of a subpoena, which imposes a legal obligation. Second, if, as the Administration says, the program is legal, highly effective, and well protected against invasion of privacy, the bankers should have little trouble defending it. The Bush Administration and America itself may be unpopular in Europe these days, but policing the byways of international terror seems to have pretty strong support everywhere. And while it is too early to tell, the initial signs are that our article is not generating a banker backlash against the program.
“By the way, we heard similar arguments against publishing last year’s reporting on the NSA eavesdropping program. We were told then that our article would mean the death of that program. We were told that telecommunications companies would – if the public knew what they were doing – withdraw their cooperation. To the best of my knowledge, that has not happened. While our coverage has led to much public debate and new congressional oversight, to the best of our knowledge the eavesdropping program continues to operate much as it did before. Members of Congress have proposed to amend the law to put the eavesdropping program on a firm legal footing. And the man who presided over it and defended it was handily confirmed for promotion as the head of the CIA.
“A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorists to change tactics. But that argument was made in a half-hearted way. It has been widely reported – indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department – that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash.”
June 27, 2006
Singing with the Chicks
My Fathers Day present from my daughter-in-law Melissa was the new Dixie Chicks album, Taking the Long Way. She’s a big fan. I’ll bet she and Grace, my 5-year-old granddaughter, can already sing along with the new songs.
I first heard the Chicks a few years ago while riding shotgun in their family SUV. I’m long past the age when I pay much attention to popular music, but I liked what I heard. For one thing, I’m a sucker for Vietnam War songs (Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon,” for example) and the Dixie Chicks’ sentimental ballad “Travelin’ Soldier” stuck in my mind.
That Christmas, Melissa gave my wife and me Home, an earlier Chicks album. It mixed well with other folk-country music we sometimes play: the Subdudes, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, the Traveling Wilburys, Greg Brown. The Chicks struck me as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in skirts.
But of course, since those days, the Dixie Chicks have transcended the pop music world. In March 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, the Chicks’ lead singer, Natalie Maines, a Texan, said at a London concert: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
This created a firestorm. People smashed their Chicks’ CDs. Red-state country stations banned their music. People wrote them threatening letters. On the Comedy channel one night, I saw a redneck comic do a truly nasty routine trashing Maines and the Chicks. It was red meat to the crowd.
From a marketing standpoint, going political was a dumb move for Natalie (may I call her Natalie?). And she wasn’t exactly a profile in courage when she realized the consequences of her words. A few days after the blowback began, she said: “I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful, and whoever holds that office should be treated with respect.”
The anti-Chick crusade rolled right over this non-apology apology.
Three years later, the controversy is background buzz to the new album. It was the story line in the reviews, and it landed the Chicks a gig on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. There they got to talk about how the reaction to Natalie’s remarks turned their world upside down. This was great marketing. Fresh Air is an NPR show whose audience is likely to be sympathetic to Natalie’s original statement, supportive or her First Amendment rights and susceptible to buying the Chicks’ new album just to spite the evil Red Staters.
But for me, it’s all about the music. Truth be told, in the slivers I had heard, the music sounded over-produced and over-orchestrated – not raw enough for my tastes. After my Fathers Day present arrived in the mail, I slipped Taking the Long Way into my car stereo with some trepidation.
I’ll tell you what: I’m liking several cuts, none more than “Not Ready to Make Nice,” in which Natalie and the Chicks answer their critics. It’s rare that a pop song rises above sentiment to convey emotion, but this one seethes with defiance and resolve. Already I find myself singing along to its slow opening and listening closely to make sure I’m catching all the lyrics when they get fast and angry. It’s a song that forces you to listen actively, and it isn’t the only one on the album I’d say that about.
I haven’t sent my daughter-in-law a thank you card for the Fathers Day gift yet. I guess I’m hoping this blog entry will do the trick.
June 23, 2006
Early in the Iraq war, the country struggled with a crucial question: Could a citizen oppose the war and support the troops? Last night at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, I saw the answer right before my eyes.
The occasion was the New Hampshire premiere of The War Tapes, the movie shot by soldiers from a New Hampshire unit and directed via the internet. Afterward, I moderated a panel discussion with Director Deborah Scranton, Executive Producer Chuck Lacy, Maj. Greg Heilshorn and the three stars of the movie, Mike Moriarty, Steve Pink and Zack Bazzi.
I say stars, but the three men were also grunts – infantrymen. From Humvee escorts to profane needling to s--- detail, the movie the three men helped to shoot had no role for glory. Cynicism, humor, resignation, danger, brutality – yes – but no glory. Their unit, Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Mountain Infantry Division, had a job to do, and the men did it and survived and came home changed.
When the lights came up after the movie last night, I sat on the stage surveying the crowd. I knew many people there. If someone had polled the crowd, I’ll bet at least 60 percent would have said they either opposed the Iraq war from the beginning or had serious reservations about it. But only one thing flowed from the crowd to the soldiers onstage: appreciation. And it flowed from the soldiers back to the crowd as well. They appreciated being appreciated.
The first question from the audience came from a woman who wanted to know how to help her 20-year-old son through the aftermath of his tour in Iraq. Give him time and space, the soldiers counseled. The next questioner was a Vietnam veteran haunted by the parallels between their war and his. These young Iraq war veterans said they could not understand how a country’s citizenry could blame the soldiers of the Vietnam generation for the unpopular war in which they fought.
This exchange struck a chord with me. There is a point in the film when the men touch down at Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey. They have made it home. Soon they are on buses passing the blue sign welcoming them to New Hampshire (a cheer from the Cap Center audience). A throng of relatives and friends has gathered to greet them. Thirty-five years ago, I returned to McGuire from two years overseas. Once I had been bused to the Philadelphia airport, my fellow Americans greeted me with cold stares and disgusted looks. I couldn’t wait to get out of my uniform.
What I saw last night was that the public can separate the policy from the men who volunteer to carry it out. Yes, the audience had just seen a compelling documentary in which Moriarty, Pink and Bazzi bared their souls. But the warmth the audience projected was meant not only for them personally but also for all the men and women who put on the uniform.
One moment I’ll not forget from this event came at the very end. In fact, it came after the end – after I had closed the questioning and the audience and the soldiers had applauded each other. A beefy man with close-cropped hair came to one of the microphones, and the crowd hushed. I thought: Uh-oh. The man identified himself as a Marine and explained that Marines don’t necessarily follow the same rules as everyone else. Then the man said he had only one message for the soldiers on stage, and he popped to attention and drew his right hand to his brow in a salute.
June 21, 2006
Fields of dreams II
No story this week has drawn more response from Monitor readers than Eric Moskowitz’s piece Tuesday on the forfeiture of a youth baseball playoff game. Several letters will appear in tomorrow’s paper.
I must put in my two cents.
I know of the incident only what I’ve read in the paper. I coached in the 10-12-year-old playoffs more than 10 years ago. It was intense, and I loved it – even though my team lost in the league finals and I had to console a bunch of teary-eyed boys. (There is crying in baseball.)
Here’s what I think:
It is hard to believe a veteran coach did not know his own daughter was ineligible to pitch. But what is more disturbing is that some adults are arguing in letters to the editor that the rulebook doesn’t matter. What kind of lesson does that teach kids? I understand from the coach’s letter that the rulebook also says forfeits should be rare in the league, but the power to interpret the rules is not his.
Here’s what the coach should have said to the team (and maybe he did say it – I don’t know – I wasn’t there): I made a mistake, and I’m sorry. The umpires and the league president have the authority to enforce the rules, and we have to accept their decision and move on. This is nobody’s fault but mine.
Baseball is supposed to be fun, and there's no doubt this rhubarb took the fun out of this particular game. But it also created a teaching moment. The worst thing that could come of it is not the loss of a ball game; it is a child losing respect for the rulebook and the system put in place to enforce it.
June 19, 2006
More on that photo
At the risk of offending with too much defending, I’d like to respond to a couple of comments readers made about “The war hits home.” This was my entry last week about our use of a photograph of the girlfriend of Russell Durgin crying as she watched a television news report of his death in battle in Afghanistan.
Here are excerpts from the comments:
“The photographer must have returned with a variety of other shots that would have added visual impact to the story without displaying for the world a family’s moment of grief. The current trend in mass media to seek out and display the most private, painful or tragic aspects of human emotion . . . diminishes our respect for each other and our society.”
“The true test of journalists should be, can they paint a picture in the mind’s eye without the use of a visual aid? . . . A picture of his girlfriend on the front page being depicted as devastated is shameful, invited or not.”
The true test of journalists is to use all the talent and judgment they have to convey to the public the reality of what happens. A photojournalist’s job is to capture THE moment that encapsulates an event. Yes, to some extent it is the reporter’s job to “paint a picture in the mind’s eye,” but the words and pictures should work together to tell the story.
As for the current media trend being to convey “the most private, painful or tragic aspects of human emotion,” there is nothing new or recent about it. It has been part of what the media do for as long as there have been media. I would only add that this tradition also includes the responsibility to capture the other end of the emotional spectrum – the joy, love and surprise of human events. There was no joy in the photograph in question, but there was love, and there was caring.
And far from diminishing respect for each other, publishing that picture should only enhance readers’ respect for Michele Dougherty, the Durgin family and the sacrifice of Russell Durgin. The photograph was the farthest thing from a gratuitous appeal to base emotion.
As far as I am aware, there was no internal dissent at the Monitor over publishing this picture. But there are news photos over which we argue. Dan Habib, the photo editor, usually knows when a photo might be too graphic or raise other issues of taste. In such cases, we always discuss the pros and cons openly and make the best decision we can. And while we know many of our readers see – and even seek out – graphic images on television and the internet, the standards we employ are far higher than the standards of those media.
That said, as a rule, I would rather that when we err, we err on the side of publication. We would not be doing our job if we withheld vital information, including images that wrench the heart, for fear of offending some readers.
June 16, 2006
I am a lucky father. I still have my father, who is 89 and takes a short walk every day. And I have three sons, two of whom are loving fathers and all of whom seem determined to be self-sufficient and useful. We are a scattered family, but this is the American way.
I see in my family the seasons of fatherhood. From afar, my father enjoys news about his grandchildren and the arrival of his great-grandchildren. My sons, meanwhile, discover both the joys and challenges of fatherhood. And I am in the middle, trying to bridge the generations and worrying about both my father and my sons.
I don’t think my father did much to prepare me for fatherhood. In fact, our relationship was burdened by that very real 1960s phenomenon known as the Generation Gap. We fought about nearly everything when I was in my teens. Fortunately, when the reconciliation came later, it was at least as profound as our differences had been.
I vowed I would be a different kind of father, but I’m not sure I was. I am sure I was blessed with a different kind of sons. We actually had relationships when they were in their teens. These were not always easy, but I knew it was important even during the rough patches that we keep talking, and we always managed to so.
That said, I’m not sure I did any more to prepare my sons for fatherhood than my father did to prepare me. And now I have reached a point in life where I have a hard time keeping up with the boys. They are extremely helpful to us when they visit, and we have nice, easy times when we see each other. But they don’t e-mail or call me often enough for me to keep track of what they’re thinking or what really matters to them. They are men. Men go it alone.
I’m not complaining about this; I have nothing to complain about. I couldn’t be prouder of my sons. One is a computer engineer who will soon move to Bermuda, where his wife has been posted with the Foreign Service. One began his life as a doctor this week at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. And one just finished his first year of law school.
When I brag to friends about our three sons, I often say I regret that my wife and I didn’t have a fourth child. I mean, it’s great at our age to have free computer help and medical and legal advice, but where’s the dentist?
The most astonishing thing about the seasons of fatherhood is how quickly they pass. I hope you make the most of yours.
Happy Fathers Day.
June 15, 2006
The war hits home
In a letter that will appear in tomorrow’s paper, a reader criticizes the lead photograph on today’s front page. This is the picture of Michele Dougherty crying as she watches a television news report about the death of her boyfriend, Russell Durgin, who was killed in Afghanistan. Here are excerpts from the reader’s complaint:
“Is it actually news to anyone on the planet that people are in anguish when a loved one dies, especially so young and unexpectedly? Does a newspaper really need to report the fact that his girlfriend is devastated? I wonder how the person who took that photograph, and the editor who decided to use it, would feel if they were the ones on the newspaper’s front page at the moment of their most personal and deepest pain. To me this isn’t journalism, it’s exploitation, and I’m disappointed in the Monitor. Leave the sensationalism to the tabloids. This brave young man deserved better, and so do your readers.”
I disagree with the writer, and I want to explain why and to share the circumstances of our coverage of Durgin’s death, including the photo in question.
To me, the photograph and the story brought the war on terror home in a way that nothing else to date has. I mean in no way to diminish the deaths of other soldiers, but Durgin was known not only to his loved ones and to the townspeople of Henniker and Weare but also to Monitor readers – and to some Monitor staffers.
He was one of seven lacrosse players at John Stark High School whom Monitor reporter Meg Heckman profiled three years ago, just after the war in Iraq began. All had joined the military after high school. Heckman is an alumna of John Stark. Her brother Jim was the co-captain of the lacrosse team and stayed in touch with Durgin after graduation.
Heckman spoke with Durgin again for a story on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, and then told her editor she felt too close to the former John Stark lacrosse players to cover them any longer.
We are working on a project on the experience of New Hampshire soldiers in the war on terror. As part of this project, reporter Chelsea Conaboy was assigned to do an update on the seven Stark men.
At the beginning of May, Conaboy spent 2½ hours interviewing Jean Durgin, Russell’s mother. Michele Dougherty, Russell's girlfriend, was present, too. This past Tuesday, Conaboy interviewed Sean Durgin, Russell’s twin brother, who is in the Air Force and expects to be deployed soon.
The next morning, Heckman called Conaboy to inform her that Russell Durgin had been killed in Afghanistan. Conaboy’s first reaction was disbelief. Then she went to work.
Not wanting to call Jean Durgin for fear that she might not yet know that her son was dead, Conaboy called the National Guard and John Stark High School seeking more information. Then her phone rang. It was Michele Dougherty, making sure the Monitor knew about Russell’s death and inviting Conaboy and a photographer to Jean Durgin’s house to cover the story.
Russell’s family was open and accommodating to Conaboy and Brian Lehmann, our photographer, and so was Dougherty. Conaboy spoke with them all, including Lester Durgin, Russell’s father. They all thought it was important that we get the story right.
Back at the Monitor, Lehmann and his editors chose the photograph of Dougherty to lead today’s paper. Because it was such a strong and personal image, Lehmann decided to call Dougherty and describe it to her before we ran it in the paper. She did not object.
This morning, Dougherty told Conaboy she appreciated the Monitor’s coverage.
I’m proud of the way our staff handled this story. Our job as journalists, even in the most horrific circumstances, is to hold up a mirror and show what really happens. The anguish that a distant war death causes on the home front is important news. To cover it is neither exploitation nor sensationalism, especially when reporters and photographers act with sensitivity and courtesy, as ours did yesterday.
I am grateful to the Durgins and to Michele Dougherty for their openness during a time of unthinkable loss. I believe they have done a public service by sharing their grief and their thoughts, including the family’s conflicting views about the war itself.
I am deeply saddened by Russell Durgin’s death – more so because the family has helped me to know him.
June 13, 2006
Mmm-mmm . . . DO-nuts!
I got carded last weekend.
Well, not exactly.
I got asked. I went to Dunkin’ Donuts, and the fellow behind the corner, a cheerful young man who looked like he had taken full advantage of the fringe benefits of his position, asked me if I qualified for the discount.
I was perplexed by the question, thinking there must be some kind of discount card for regular Dunkin’ Donuts customers. I’m not that regular a customer, although the coffee rolls (microwaved 45 seconds with a pat of margarine on top) rank near the top of my wife’s and my guilty pleasure list. I was there mainly to get a chocolate frosted donut with sprinkles for Grace, our perfect 5-year-old granddaughter, and glazed donuts for Jackson, our he-man 2-year-old grandson, neither of whom we spoil in any way when they stay with us. Naturally, as long as I was at DD, I also ordered coffee rolls for Monique and me.
When I acted confused about whether I qualified for the discount, wagging my head somewhere between a nod and a shake – I mean, who wants to volunteer too readily that he doesn’t qualify for the discount? – the counterman rephrased his question.
“Are you over 55?” he said.
I grinned and said, yes, I was.
On the way home, several things occurred to me, none of them worth the 76 cents I’d saved on my purchase.
The first was that once upon a time people said I looked younger than my age. Maybe they were just being kind, but it’s certainly not true anymore. If I didn’t look over 55, the counterman wouldn’t have asked. I mean, it wouldn’t do Dunkin’ Donuts much good to have its employees asking 51-year-olds if they were over 55.
My second thought was that this particular discount had a cruel twist – a cruller twist, you might say. So what Dunkin’ Donuts is offering here is a discount intended to entice me to eat more donuts. And the more donuts I eat, the sooner I . . . expire, to use a euphemism that always gives me a chuckle.
But the third and final thought was even worse than that. I turn 60 next month, so unless Dunkin’ Donuts just started offering this deal, I’ve missed nearly five years of discount coffee rolls.
Some days it only seems like you win.
June 12, 2006
And in this corner . . .
To cut to the chase, here is the last quotation from a Christian Science Monitor story on the paper’s editorial board meeting with the noted pollster John Zogby:
“This could be Nixon redux – 1968 – for Al Gore. This could be his moment.”
Nixon, ’68: That’s when Richard Nixon, after losing the 1960 presidential race and the 1962 California gubernatorial race and telling reporters they wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, won the White House.
The comparison is intriguing in some ways. Gore’s narrow presidential defeat will be 8 years old in 2008, just as Nixon’s was in 1968. Nixon was a two-term former vice president and the out-party candidate during an unpopular war, and he ran on a serious domestic issue: law and order. Gore is a two-term former vice president from the out party, and he is championing a serious issue: global warming.
Of course, there are differences, too. Nixon was a political animal in ways that Gore is not. Nixon was also obsessive and brooding; Gore simply seems uncomfortable in his skin – unable to be himself in public. (I’ve got nothing against beards – I’ve had one nearly all my adult life, but when Gore grew one after the 2000 election, all I could think of was Floyd Patterson wearing that silly fake beard after the 1962 loss to Sonny Liston.)
So what about Gore in ’08? We ran a George Will column today encouraging him to run, but anything Will says on this subject is suspicious. Most people – even Democrats – respond to the idea of a Gore candidacy with groans. I mean, in 2000, he ran as a near-incumbent on an eight-year record of peace and prosperity, and he lost.
My own view? First, please recognize that as a New Hampshire editor, at this stage in the quadrennial cycle, I am an official greeter. My philosophy about the first primary has always been the more, the merrier.
That said, Gore ought to run for president. New Hampshire is a place to test ideas, and Gore has a big one. New Hampshire also tests people. Gore isn’t the same person he was in 2000. As Zogby suggested, we had many new Nixons – why not a new Gore? If he’s learned, if he’s grown, if he’s come to know himself, this is the place where all that will show – and where the voting public will recognize it.
If not, what’s lost?
June 08, 2006
The right of rights
As a warm-up for the Fourth of July, by which date I fully expect the rains to have ended
around here, I’m going to turn the blog today over to another Concord editor. His name is Nathaniel P. Rogers, and he died 162 years ago. In the 1830s and 1840s, he ran a paper called The Herald of Freedom in Concord.
The Herald was an abolitionist sheet, and the excerpt below, from an essay called “Free Speech,” was written to exhort abolitionists to speak freely and openly in spite of the unpopularity of their position.
Even though that issue was settled long ago, I hope you’ll bear with Editor Rogers. His point is as important in America today as it was when he wrote it:
“The right of speech – it is the right of rights – the paramount and paragon attribute of our kind. It is glorious among brutes, when it is free. The roar of the lion – it is majestic and sublime in his native desert. Not so, when he grunts under the stir of the poker, in the menagerie. The scream of the eagle, in the sky – or on the crag, where he lives and has his home – how unlike his most base croak, when they withhold his allowance in the cage that you may hear him make a noise. The one is free speech, in ‘free meeting.’ The other, speech-making, under chairs, boards and business committees. How different the wild note of the fife-bird, in the top of the high pine, when the setting sun awakens her throat after the shower, – how different from the chitter of the poor caged canary, in the pent-up street of the city. But illustration fails. The glory and beauty of freedom cannot be illustrated. It must be witnessed – experienced and felt.
“Speech is the only terror of tyrants. It is the thing they cannot control or encounter. Brute force has no tendency to match it. ‘Four hostile presses,’ said Bonaparte – the most formidable brute the modern world has seen – ‘are more to be dreaded than a hundred thousand bayonets.’ So, he might have said, is one hostile press, if it is free. And if it is free, it will be hostile to tyranny. . . .
“It is the uttered word that awakens the dead and that moves mankind. Words are the storm that “awakens its deep.” Words revolutionize society and nations, and change human condition. Monarchy builds its bastiles to imprison them. It erects them amid the silence of the people, and it is only Speech that can throw them down.”
June 07, 2006
Win some, lose some
As state politics heads for its summer snooze, there are both good tidings and bad about what we’ll wake up to come fall.
The bad news first: It’s disheartening that Doug Scamman is stepping down as speaker of the New Hampshire House. Scamman wasn’t having as much fun in the job as he used to. That’s because he’s a throwback to a more bipartisan and compromising way of creating state law. Scamman didn’t say so, but a large bloc of Republican reps is rigid in its thinking, unyielding in its stances and unpleasant for a moderate Republican speaker to work with.
Scamman's departure does not bode well. His leadership helped make the House a progressive foil to the more conservative state Senate.
But events concerning the Senate’s possible future softened the blow of Scamman’s announcement.
The coverage of last weekend’s state Democratic Party convention focused mainly on the presidential candidates who spoke there. I found this worrisome. The downside to the primary is that national candidate star power can blot out more vital matters.
Specifically, I worried that when filing for the fall elections opened today, the Democrats would still be without strong candidates in many districts.
False worry. As you can read on tomorrow's Monitor front page, several good ones have signed up already, meaning that voters will have choices for a change. And perhaps the 2007-08 Senate will moderate as a result, with Democrats cutting into the lopsided GOP majority.
June 06, 2006
The reviews are in
The War Tapes, the film about a New Hampshire-based infantry unit's year in Iraq, has drawn mainly positive reviews. It was shot by the soldiers themselves.
"Powerfully distressing," one critic calls it. Another says the film takes the concept of embedded reporting "pretty much right inisde the soldiers' brains."
The exception is the Village Voice reviewer who chastises the soldiers for their “mercenary self-regard” and calls the film itself the “cinematic equivalent to a ribbon magnet.”
The reviews are collected at the Rotten Tomatoes site.
The film has its New Hampshire debut at Concord's Capitol Center for the Arts on June 22.
Fields of dreams
I just have to weigh in on Concord’s tee-ball debate. I have some experience in this realm, ancient though it may be.
For those who didn't read Eric Moskowitz’s original story and follow-up in the Monitor, the question is whether to call outs when 4 and 5-year-olds play baseball. After a rebellion among some parents, the league has ruled that for the few days remaining in the season, there will be outs.
When I coached tee-ball, I think the youngest kids in our league were 6 or 7. We had outs and kept score. But two memories of those days illustrate the two sides of the current debate.
One was that my team had players at shortstop, second and first who were adept at turning double plays, a great rarity in our league. We were supposed to move players around each inning, but I resisted. I told myself that these abler kids belonged in a higher league, and the least I could do was give them a chance to hone their fielding skills. Besides, some of the less able kids might have gotten hurt playing infield.
The second rationale had some legitimacy, and my favorite moment in eight years as a coach supported it.
During a game at the White Park field, there was an annoying buzz in the distance toward left-center, but I didn’t know what it was. At some point I decided my outfielders needed to play deeper. When I turned to holler to them, all three were standing stone-still with their backs to the infield. They were mesmerized by a remote-control boat speeding across the surface of the White Park pond.
I was wrong about leaving my double-play combo in place most of the time. My ulterior motive was competitive; I wanted the team to win. By trying to push my team to the best result on the field, I’m sure I deprived some kids of opportunities to learn and enjoy the game. I knew all along that it was the adults, not the kids, who caused most of the problems in youth sports. I just didn’t realize until later that in some ways I was one of those adults.
I have loved baseball my whole life, and it is important that it be played right. But most adult coaches are much too serious about both lessons and outcomes. The most important thing an adult can give a tee-baller – or any really young player – is the chance to have fun. At that level, and even some higher levels, whatever rules maximize the pleasure of baseball are the rules to employ.
I know – easy to say from an armchair far from the fields of dreams. But I’m pretty sure about this.
June 02, 2006
In time of war
The surprise hot topic of the week was Memorial Day.
Monitor readers were full of opinions: Concord’s parade was too short. Too many people ignore the purpose of the holiday and turn the weekend into a three-day barbecue. Antiwar veterans should have stayed home from the parade. Antiwar veterans had every right to march. Political expression dishonors the dead. Politicians have ulterior motives for marching in parades. The state’s official observance on the traditional May 30 is the real Memorial Day. Or is it?
There are several reasons the debate was sharp.
To deal with the most basic one first, it is a shame there is not a single Memorial Day. I prefer May 30, but we have lost that fight. New Hampshire should adopt the federal holiday even though it leads to a three-day weekend. Having two holidays dilutes the meaning of Memorial Day even more than observing it on Monday.
The real problem is participation. Memorial Day should not be observed mainly by brothers and sisters in arms. Every American should make time to honor those who have sacrificed their lives for our country.
This year’s debate went well beyond the perennial issue of when Memorial Day should be.
In part, that is because the deaths of soldiers are so fresh in mind. Memorial Day 2006 was about deaths long ago, but it was also about mourning – and questioning – deaths that are occurring now.
Things in Iraq and Afghanistan are going badly. America’s active participation in World War II lasted from Dec. 7, 1941, until Aug. 15, 1945 – three years, six months and eight days. If we date the current war to 9/11, an event often compared to Pearl Harbor Day, the war on terror has now lasted four years, eight months and 21 days. And in Iraq at least, its end point is as uncertain as its cause is murky.
I thought invading Iraq was a mistake from the start, but I still try to put the best face on it. The other day, I found myself telling someone that for all the blood and treasure our country is expending there, maybe 20 years from now Iraq will be a better place. Then I thought: How pathetic! Is that the best I can do?
My darker side tells me our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is creating more, not fewer, enemies and making our future worse, not better.
I’m sure many people have things over there figured out much better than I do. My point is that the Memorial Day debate reflects our differences about the war. Those who want to keep the day pure – to limit its focus to honoring the nation’s war dead – believe that introducing arguments about the current war taints that purity. Veterans who paraded against the war believed their protest honored soldiers both dead and living.
I see both sides of this debate, although I come down strongly on one side.
The feeling for Americans killed serving their country is strong. They deserve their day.
But I also know that some men I buried as a soldier on funeral detail during the Vietnam War opposed the war. It is a misperception to think that all who make the supreme sacrifice believe in – or even understand – the cause for which they die. The stones in a military cemetery may line up in neat rows, but in life the people who lie beneath them possessed all the variety of thought and opinion of the human condition.
As a journalist, of course, I cherish freedom of expression. I applaud the Veterans for Peace for marching and making their point. I don’t see how a protest against the war in Iraq interferes with the ability to have solemn feelings for the war dead. I wonder if those offended by the protesters have thought enough about our mission in Iraq.
We’d all be better off if Memorial Day were observed on a single day and if more of the public showed up to observe it. And while we’re honoring our dead, we’d all be better off if, instead of quietly acquiescing to our national leaders, we used the occasion to engage in more debate about a policy that continues to send our men and women to their death.
June 01, 2006
“The machine in Washington is broken, and Charlie Bass is a cog in that machine.” Bass “is a nice enough guy who has been ground up and spit out” by Washington.
“Charlie Bass has a record as a strong independent voice for New Hampshire.” He is “an agent of change.”
These were the opening words in the most important political campaign this year in New Hampshire. They were also a sign that the silly season has begun – the time when challengers stick labels on incumbents – “a cog in (the) Washington machine” – and incumbents resist them – “a strong independent voice for New Hampshire.”
The speaker in the first case was Paul Hodes of Concord, the Democrat who lost to Bass in 2004 and announced yesterday that he was going to try, try again. The speaker in the second case was Bass’s spokesman, Scott Tranchemontagne.
What today’s Monitor story about this race did not mention was the war in Iraq. On that issue the race will be decided.
Bass has been a rubber stamp for the president on the war. From Bass’s “independent voice,” his constituents have not heard a peep of doubt or disapproval.
It remains to be seen how Hodes will position himself on the war. It won’t be enough to tie Bass to Bush. Voters will want to hear a clear alternative.
And since one congressman can do only so much, the real question is what the Democrats intend to do about the war. So far, they haven’t offered much of an alternative – or they’ve offered so many alternatives, from staying the course to pulling out now – that they’ve given voters nothing to fasten on. This is not an easy issue.
Bass has been so safe in this district for so long that many observers say he’s safe again in 2006. I don’t think so. Fair or not, his fate is tied to Iraq – and to whether Hodes and his party can make a plausible case for what the country should do there.
May 25, 2006
Maybe you read the quotation in today’s paper from New Hampshire author Howard Mansfield about his interview yesterday for C-SPAN-2’s Books TV program.
“You always come away from these things rewriting what you said in your mind,” Mansfield said.
I was one of the other authors interviewed at Gibson’s Bookstore, but it had been a while since my last such appearance. I had forgotten this “what I should have said” aspect to the process. Of course, it washed over my brain right after the interview.
But this was my fault, not the fault of the process. I was talking for the first time to a reporter about a book I have been working on for three years in my spare time, a book that is due at the publisher next week.
What I had failed to do was prepare. Preparation in this case means distilling what the book is about and the two or three most important points you want to make about it before an interviewer asks you about it.
Shortly after yesterday’s interview, I knew just what to say.
Since I probably won’t get a second chance on radio or TV for months, please allow me to rehearse here.
The book is Too Dead To Die: A Memoir of Bataan and Beyond. I am the co-author with Steve Raymond, who actually survived the Bataan Death March and 3½ years as a POW of the Japanese.
The theme of the book is survival. Steve endured horrific hardships. He ate bugs, rats, silkworms and rotten fish guts in hopes of getting protein in his diet. He suffered cruelty, desperation, illness and indifference and witnessed death so often he became inured to it. He was in Japan when B-29s rained bombs on its major cities. And he lived to tell about it.
The Bataan story is an old one, but rising generations probably know little or nothing about it. Steve kept a diary during captivity and first drafted his memoir beginning in 1946, before time had smoothed over his memories of the experience. When I first laid eyes on the manuscript, its authenticity and immediacy jumped off the page. I knew I had been entrusted with a historical account that should be not only preserved but also published.
World War II soldiers are dying off rapidly, many without having shared their stories. This is one that will soon be told, and I am grateful for the chance to help make it happen.
May 24, 2006
My year as a blogger
I recently celebrated my first anniversary as a blogger by not posting an entry. Lazy me.
But this is my 149th entry since my first posting last May. I expected to do more, but life got in the way.
Here are five thoughts from a year of blogging.
1. It isn’t easy.
By nature a blog is quick writing. Readers don’t expect fine-tuning and polish. But as a journalist and writer, I cannot lower my standards too much. For one thing, my favorite high school English teacher reads my blog. To borrow a phrase from Robert Graves, she’s the reader over my shoulder.
The secret of writing well is to make it seem effortless. And that takes a lot of effort.
2. Reader response is gratifying.
I knew this from writing for the paper. But after a blog entry, it’s fun to hear from people I know and people I don’t, people from around Concord and people from any of the many and ever-shifting communities that frequent the internet.
Although fewer people write than I’d like, I’ve posted more than 200 responses during the year, so in sheer numbers readers were more productive than I was.
3. Readers like the personal stuff best.
I don’t have the emperical data to support this assertion. In fact, personal entries in the blog sometimes draw negative comments (“Save it for your diary!”) if they draw any at all. But when I hear about the blog from readers close to home, it is almost always after entries about a swim with loons, leaf-raking or my granddaughter Grace's first day of preschool.
4. Blogging is a good way to explain newsroom decision-making.
I’ve made entries here about suicide coverage, photo selection, front-page story choices and many other issues of news judgment. I like the two-way immediacy the blog provides: the ability to recount a decision almost as soon as it is made and the chance this gives readers to share their thoughts.
I wish there were more back-and-forth, but I thank the readers who have weighed in.
5. I’m still not sure what a blogger is.
I don’t read enough blogs to be an expert. Based on a year’s experience, I’d say my blog is a hybrid: an inside look at the Monitor, a little politics, some personal stuff, reflections on the news (and sports), mini-book and movie reviews.
In terms of writing the blog, several oughtas occur to me often. I oughta report more. Shoe leather is never to be underestimated. I oughta link to more other things on the web. I’m not sure any reader has ever clicked on any of the links I’ve provided, but linking seems like an important aspect of blogger world.
And, most of all, I oughta write more often.
Or maybe not, you’re thinking.
May 19, 2006
What makes news?
Visitors to the Monitor are often curious about how we decide what is news. Everyone knows a flood is news, but what about when there are no floods? What about when editors and reporters have some discretion over what makes it into the paper?
Between raindrops this week, editors had two meetings that might shed light on this question from very different perspectives. One dealt with our coverage of arts, entertainment and lifestyles, the other with mental health care in our city and around the state.
With leadership and good work from editors Allison Steele and Vanessa Valdes, we’ve been talking about arts and lifestyles coverage for months. It is an important phase of our content-driven redesign. Like other phases, this one began with a questionnaire asking readers what they wanted. We learned a lot about where local people go and what they do for entertainment. Readers also told us what they enjoy reading.
Next Thursday and Friday, we’ll debut the new sections, which are titled A&E and Friday. Mark Travis, a longtime Monitor editor, will have a column in Sunday’s paper giving some details about what readers can expect.
This week’s meeting was a brainstorming session. We kicked around ideas about the content of the first few weeks’ sections. While it’s important that the sections be informative, we hope readers will have as much fun reading and looking at them as we did planning them.
A somewhat different group of editors and reporters met the day before to talk about mental health coverage. This was a logical follow-up to a session several days earlier with three officials in the field, including Louis Josephson, who runs the Riverbend Community Mental Health Center in Concord.
What we learned during that session startled us – or it startled me anyway. Years ago, to its great credit, New Hampshire went from a state that was warehousing mentally ill people to a state that was a leader in community-based treatment. We are a leader no longer.
Too many mentally ill people cannot get the care they need when they need it. Too many are on long waiting lists for housing that is too scarce. Too many are homeless. Too many very young people who may be mentally ill are waiting too long to be diagnosed and treated.
Our meeting at the Monitor this week was another brainstorming session to answer this question: How can we best inform readers about this major public issue? We wound up with a good list of story ideas and a resolve to fit them in over the next several months.
I wish we could focus even more attention on this issue and move more quickly to inform readers about it. But in this business, there is always more to do than we can get done. That is both a joy and a frustration.
May 17, 2006
Flutie to Phelan
It is a play every New England football fan has seen so many times it is hard to know whether we really remember it. Doug Flutie to Gerard Phelan, Nov. 22, 1984.
Flutie retired the other day after a 21-year run as a pro. He is one of the class acts in sports. A Heisman Trophy winner, a 40,000-yard passer and three-time Grey Cup champion in Canada, a Patriot three times, a scrambler, a runner, a thrower, the last – or latest, at least – of the drop-kickers, a little man in a big man’s world.
Off the field, he started the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. He was as well-spoken, wholesome, candid and interesting as an athlete can be. For New Englanders, it was hard not to root for Flutie, even when he came to town wearing the wrong colors.
For all that, it is the Miracle in Miami that fans will never forget.
He and his roommate Phelan had come to the Boston College team as a quarterback and a running back at the bottom of the depth chart. As Phelan told the Daily News at Brandeis University last year, after a linebacker knocked the wind out of him, an assistant coach asked if he wanted to switch to receiver. When the coach told him he would be fifth-string, Phelan figured it was a promotion.
Flutie and Phelan were fanatics about practice and conditioning, and by their senior year, their work ethic and talent had made them stars.
The game against Miami, the defending national champion, was a doozie. When it reached that fateful final play, Flutie had already completed 33 passes for 428 yards and Phelan had caught 10 for 178. Six seconds remained and BC trailed 45-41. Flutie lined up the Eagles at the Miami 48.
Here is how Gerald Eskenazi of the New York Times described what happened next:
“In the huddle, Flutie called the ‘Flood Tip’ play. In theory, there would be two other wide receivers besides Phelan in the end zone. Phelan’s job was to tip the ball to them. Flutie scrambled back, all the way to his 37, and then, under pressure, went to his right. . . .
“Phelan, one of several receivers lined up right of center, was 1 yard past the goal line when the ball arrived. In front of him, three defenders tumbled over one another, attempting to get to the ball. But the other receivers were not nearby. So Phelan caught the ball himself.”
In memory, it is impossible that little Doug Flutie heaved the ball so far. It is impossible how long the ball hung in the misty air. It is impossible that Phelan had broken free just past the goal line or that the ball Flutie threw was the same one that descended into Phelan’s hands. And it is impossible that Phelan’s soft hands received the ball and held it, almost seeming to do so without touching it.
Flutie will be missed, but we fans will always have Miami.
Two entries ago, I wrote about the most popular content on Concord Monitor Online and how knowing what online readers like influences our news judgment in the daily print edition.
I used the May 10 numbers as an example. On that day, the story on our American Idol panel was at the top of the list with 2,833 readers. The second-place story had 2,295.
We’ve been watching reader use of the Monitor website closely during the floods.
On Monday, the four most popular online stories were flood-related, topped by the governor’s declaring a state of emergency, with 6,170 readers.
Yesterday, the 16 most popular stories were flood-related. Thousands of people used our interactive map of flood events. The No. 1 destination that day was “Our pictures, your pictures.” This is the collection of flood-related photographs shot by both our photographers and our readers. It provided a quick way to tool around the area and see the damage. On that day alone, 4,677 users of Concord Monitor Online did just that.
Thank you to the many visitors to the website. Y’all come back.
And thanks again to all the readers who sent us pictures. We’ll be asking for your help in the future. It’s good to know there are so many of you out there.
May 15, 2006
Thank you, Sherrel Sandoe. Thank you, Dick Hanson. You, too, Dale Roy. And Mallory Parkington, Lenny O’Keefe and Ry Amidon. Thanks to all who, like these people, contributed flood photographs to our website yesterday. And, please, keep them coming.
Today was an extraordinary day in the life of the Monitor. But then it was also extraordinary for many of our readers. Flooding forced people to evacuate their homes. Impassable roads closed many schools. The police, fire and rescue radio crackled all day long, sending public servants to deal with all manner of troubles. At St. Paul’s School, rising waters threatened historic buildings and caused what may be millions of dollars worth of damage. Students there were sent home two weeks early.
The newsroom was alive with the challenge of covering this huge story. Our photographers – Photo Editor Dan Habib, veteran staffer Ken Williams, freelancer Alan McRae and intern Brian Lehmann, who just flew in from Nebraska over the weekend and was working his first day – fanned out throughout the area. Artist Charlotte Thibault set to work on graphics to help tell the story.
Reporter Meg Heckman rode a school bus with evacuees. Annmarie Timmins toured Concord and covered the flooding at St. Paul’s School. A regional team – Walter Alarkon, Laurie Dorgan, Anne Ruderman. Joelle Farrell and Liz Walters – checked out the towns around Concord. Chelsea Conaboy, who covers the environment, reported on why the drenching rains of the last few weeks had caused such a calamity.
Editors became reporters. Allison Steele went to Hooksett, Manchester and other hard-hit areas south of our circulation area. Managing Editor Felice Belman gathered material to assemble what we call the roundup for tomorrow’s front page – our effort to put the big picture in a single story. Ralph Jimenez hit the road to collect color for tomorrow’s editorial.
Our director of product development, Mark Travis, directed the development of the online edition on the fly. All day long he and Don Hollen posted live updates on the flooding. Along with reporters in the field, staff writer Margot Sanger-Katz fed them material. Travis also used a new feature to collect photos from readers – and they responded. You can link to their contributions from our home page.
You can also link to an interactive map, which was primarily the work of Geordie Wilson, our publisher. If you click on a highlighted spot on the map, you can find out what happened there and, in some cases, link to photographs. Here, for example, is the link attached to the pointer to St. Paul’s School: “St. Paul’s School is sending students home. The rector reports significant damage to the Kittredge complex, Ohrstrom Library, Clark House, the Post Office and Hargate. The central heating plant is underwater and has been shut down. The sewage pumping station is also underwater and not functioning. See photos.”
Our night desk arrived in mid to late afternoon to figure out how to play the material our staff had gathered in tomorrow’s paper. The challenge is bigger than on most days because the story is so huge. The night editors’ job will be to decide photo play, help the reporters shape their stories and put it all together in a cogent package that encapsulates the day.
As I write, Dan Barrick is working on the front page and the local pages inside the A-section, and Nick Kershbaumer is doing the B section, with the cover page devoted to flooding coverage. The night wire editor, Jeannette Beltran, was evacuated from her apartment in Newmarket, and Belman told her to take the night off. (Beltran did feed Belman material from east of here that will be in the roundup tomorrow.) Bill Platt, pinch-hitting for Beltran, is assembling, editing and laying out the world and national coverage inside the A-section. Habib will be back after dinner to help lay out the photos.
We see our website as a great new tool for carrying out our mission of giving readers timely and reliable information that affects their lives. Stories like today’s are a crash course in learning to use Concord Monitor Online. What we can do with it, Travis told me late today, seems limited only by our imagination and by how much time we devote to it.
We’re still a small newspaper, and covering a story like this flooding is a huge challenge. We’re doing our best to use the new technology to augment the old, but the ethic that guides us remains the same: We come to work each day knowing that readers will judge us by tomorrow’s paper.
May 12, 2006
Voting with your fingertips
Most days, I get a report of which Monitor stories are most read on this website. You can see a less detailed version of this report on our homepage under the label “Most read stories.” The only difference in my report is that it lists the number of readers for each story. For instance, the report for Thursday began like this:
Our ‘Idol’ panel checks in (05/10/06) 2833
Who’s afraid of Stephen Colbert? (05/09/06) 2295
Ready for a mega-store in Hooksett? (05/10/06) 1326
Man sentenced in drunken driving death (05/10/06) 1234
Fire chief put on leave (05/10/06) 1154
Gas – and a niche (05/10/06) 1115
. . . and so on. My list had 20 more entries, including six obituaries and two letters to the editor. The one common denominator was that every story was local. While Concord Monitor Online is a different medium, its core mission shares one all-important value with the mission that the print newspaper has always had: Local is the franchise.
As editor, what do I learn from seeing what is most read on the website each day?
First, and you wouldn’t know this from seeing one day’s list, our online readership is going up, up, up. We like that, especially since newspaper circulation is also rising. We’re in the information business, not just the newspaper business. The more readers, the better. We’re trying to add web-only content that pushes this trend along.
Second, readers flock to stories about fires, accidents and crimes. In this, they are no different from traditional newspaper readers.
Third, shopping and other consumer-related stories are extremely well read.
Fourth, people like to know what their neighbors think about things that matter to them. That’s why the Monitor’s American Idol panel is at the top of the list. It’s why the letters that make the list tend to be the sharpest opinions on the hottest topics.
Fifth, the readership numbers are prone to the quirkiness of the web. That’s why Katy Burns’s column last Sunday on Stephen Colbert remained second most read on the website four days after it ran. Colbert’s performance at a Washington correspondents’ dinner made the talk-show circuit, and Burns’s commentary about it struck a nerve. Someone out there in cyberspace found it and shared it widely. I don’t have the data to prove it, but I’m certain most of the many thousands of web readers of the column were from out-of-state.
I read other things into the story rankings, but those are the main ones. Overall, I see the list as a good, if imperfect, guide to what readers want. And what readers want is an important component in deciding what we give them in the daily paper.
I’m aware of the danger of pandering to readers. Local television news does this to a fare-thee-well with its drumbeat of violent deaths, arrests and accidents interrupted briefly for self-promotion and feel-good features. This coverage gives viewers a sense of local life that is very different from what most of us experience every day. It also contributes precious little to the informed citizenry upon which democratic government depends.
There is no danger that the Monitor will take a similar ratings-driven approach to the newspaper. In our content, we’ll remain heavily invested in public affairs, from politics and government to education to health care to business. We’ll continue to provide a forum that allows a wide avenue for public discussion of issues that matter.
On the other hand, we can’t ignore the online readership numbers. As I suggested above, web readers are no different in their druthers from traditional newspaper readers. They are voting with their fingertips, and we’d be foolish to dismiss what they’re telling us about our content.
May 11, 2006
A dark and stormy night
Abe Rosenthal’s obituary in today’s New York Times included the adjectives “stormy,” “combative,” “self-centered,” “intimidating” and “abrasive.” This was no surprise to me. I first encountered – I won’t say met – Rosenthal in 1985, when he addressed my class of Nieman Fellows. He was the executive editor of the Times, and I was on sabbatical as editor of the Monitor, finishing an academic year of soaking up all I could at Harvard.
Rosenthal came to dinner one night, and we fellows, all journalists, expected a cordial but frank discussion with one of the lions of our profession. Instead, Rosenthal was cranky. He also probably drank a little too much wine at dinner, even while crabbing about its quality.
When we sat down afterward to talk, Rosenthal had no opening remarks. He just wanted to answer our questions and converse with us. Or so he said.
Joseph C. Goulden interviewed several of us about this session for his 1988 book, Fit to Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times. Rather than relate what happened that night from memory, I’ll just quote Goulden's passage about it:
“The nastiest exchange of the evening began when Ed Chen of the Los Angeles Times asked Rosenthal if he had read a recent New Republic article by Fred Barnes saying The New York Times had become neo-conservative. Rosenthal said he had not read it, then he ‘flew into a tirade about how no one had called him, and how dare anyone venture an opinion of the Times without calling him,’ Mike Pride recollected. Howard Simons [curator of the Nieman program and former managing editor of The Washington Post] sent for a copy of the article, and Rosenthal skimmed part of it. . . . This guy never talked to me, he repeated, and we would never do a thing like this in The New York Times without talking to the head guy. That kind of journalism would never appear in The New York Times.
“To the surprise of most persons in the room, Pride spoke up. The other fellows considered him the most mild-mannered member of their group, the unlikely person to challenge Rosenthal, especially given Rosenthal’s visibly mounting temper. But Pride had heard enough.
“ ‘It occurred to me that what he was saying was absurd. I said to him, ‘Hey, wait a minute, your newspaper runs play reviews, book reviews, without talking to the authors. You run political commentaries, opinion pieces, without talking to the principals. Although I haven’t read the Barnes piece, it seems to me The New Republic is a journal of opinion and commentary. . . .
“ ‘I don’t think I got all this out before he turned on me. His denunciation was loud and personal. “Maybe that’s the way you do it in your newspaper, but we never allow that kind of crap in The New York Times.”
“ ‘I tried to restate my question, but he shouted me down, so I just sat back, a little red-faced, and clammed up. . . . There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before Howard Simons jumped in to cool things down and change the subject.’
“The evening broke up, and several fellows commiserated with Pride. ‘I didn’t see much reason to take Rosenthal seriously. He had no basis for criticizing me or my paper.’ Simons called the next day. ‘He said Abe had asked him to apologize to me. Howard said Rosenthal knew he had gotten out of hand and wanted me to know he was sorry I had borne the brunt of it. I thanked Howard and told him not to lose any sleep over it.
“ ‘For me, the editor of a 21,000-circulation newspaper in the rock and ice of northern New England, this was a humorous outcome worth the moment of discomfort the night before. Here was the former managing editor of The Washington Post calling the editor of the Concord Monitor to apologize for the executive editor of The New York Times over an argument about an article neither of us had read.’ ”
In the ensuing years, I had other more positive encounters with Rosenthal, but of course this is the one I remember best. Reading his obituary today, I recognized that his testiness and imperiousness that night were typical of his authoritarian management style. Some might say that this style, combined with his ambition, brilliance, experience and principles, served him well in transforming the Times. I think he’d have been even better without it.
May 09, 2006
Here is a paragraph from a letter to the editor that will appear in tomorrow's Monitor responding to Katy Burns’s column in today’s paper. Burns’s subject was Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the recent White House Correspondents Association's dinner in Washington, D.C. Here is what the letter writer had to say:
“Colbert was equally justified in his criticism of the mainstream media, which enjoys full lapdog status. Never has it seemed less independent, less committed to the discovery and reporting of truth or less willing to be healthily skeptical of what it is told by those in power. In short, it accepts truthiness over actual truth. Its cravenness is confirmed by its tsunami of twaddle about whether Colbert was funny while it frantically flouts calls for self-examination.”
I had two reactions to this statement.
First and foremost, the writer is dead wrong about the lapdog press. During the last year, newspaper reporters have exposed the Jack Abramoff scandal, chased the corrupt Rep. Duke Cunningham out of office and found massive corruption in Ohio state government. Reporters have shown how badly FEMA works and how ill-served the flooded Gulf Coast was by government at all levels. They have risked their lives to get to the truth in Iraq, an increasingly difficult and dangerous assignment. They have covered the human costs of the war. More to the letter writer’s point, reporters have told the public about Bush administration policies that include a string of secret prisons and the secret wiretapping of American citizens.
Lapdogs? I don’t think so.
But . . .
It has long seemed to me that the White House press corps is much too big. I’m talking about the people who travel with the president and follow his every move. I understand why metropolitan newspapers all want to have their own reporters at the White House (ego, partly), but it is a great waste of talent.
I’ve known and respected a few White House correspondents. It’s a big job that people earn through succeeding in other beats. But when I see a huge roomful of reporters quizzing the president at a press conference, at least three-quarters of them are superfluous. Their readers would be better served if they were elsewhere digging up important information.
So, lapdogs, no; misused talent, yes.
May 08, 2006
Sight and sound
In June’s high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.
I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reaching for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.
“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.
“You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.
This is “Summer Kitchen” from Donald Hall’s new book of selected poems, White Apples and the Taste of Stone.
On Friday, I drove Hall down to Cambridge. This was our annual pilgrimage to a session with the Nieman Fellows at Harvard. I am the chauffeur and introducer, and Don reads poems and talks with the Fellows about poetry. “Summer Kitchen” was one of the poems he read.
During the discussion, Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman program, mentioned how much like a painting the poem seemed. To him, it was a scene told through the poet’s eyes, much as an artist might observe and paint it. I thought this was a keen observation. The poem made me think of certain Dutch and Flemish artists of centuries past. I could see Vermeer looking into that kitchen in the light of late afternoon and painting a woman licking sauce from her fingers. Like Hall’s poem, Vermeer’s paintings often portray women who seem not to know they are being watched. The artist is not so much a voyeur as an observer stopping time to preserve a domestic act that a lesser eye might not even see.
Hall’s answer to Giles surprised me. No, Hall said without a pause, he remembered how this poem had begun and what had driven it, and it had nothing to do with the scene in the poem or even with the sense of sight. For Hall, it was all about sound. Without referring to the text, he rattled off “high, light, wine, sunshine.” He spoke of how he worked “candle” and “miracle” into the rhyme scheme. He mentioned that fellow poet Hayden Carruth had suggested that he add the word “her” to the last line of the second stanza, even though it introduced an extra beat. Originally the line had read: “And tasted sauce from fingertips.”
I have heard Hall talk about sound many times. He once scoffed at a well-known biographer who had written a life of Keats without discussing the sound of his poetry. Thomas Hardy is one of Hall’s favorite poets, and he often quotes from a Hardy poem to demonstrate the way a poet uses sound.
What I liked about the discussion of “Summer Kitchen” was the way Bob Giles’s perception of it and Hall’s perception of it both seemed right to me. That is one of the joys of poetry. You can go back to a lovely little lyric like this again and again and see it in different lights. As good as it is to know that Hall was obsessed with sound while creating it, the reader needn't stop there.
If you’ve ever wondered how our local good gray poet plays outside of New Hampshire, a couple of clues showed up in print recently. The poet Billy Collins gave Hall's White Apples and the Taste of Stone a warm and thoughtful review in the Washington Post last month. And in The New Republic, Rochelle Gurstein’s joint review of memoirs about their late spouses by Hall and Joan Didion reminded readers that the real recent masterpiece on mourning was Hall’s book of poems on Jane Kenyon’s death, Without.
May 04, 2006
For at least 20 years, I’ve been collecting funny names. Funny to me, that is. Not necessarily funny to those who have to live with them. Which is why, in spite of an itch to do so, I have not uttered a public peep about my list. Until now.
Here’s what changed. A friend forwarded me a blog about a New York lawyer named Sue Yoo. Funny, eh? At least as good as the Car Talk guys’ fictitious Dewey, Cheetham and Howe, and Sue Yoo is an actual lawyer.
The blog about Sue Yoo suggested that there is a whole class of names, called aptronyms, that inadvertently describe their bearers’ occupations.
After adding Sue Yoo to my list, I quickly spun through it in search of other aptronyms. I found a few. And I found some close calls. And I thought, heck, let the readers decide.
Ernest Shepherd, the onetime Concord minister, is surely an aptronym. At the time of Carol Cordial’s listing, she worked in support services in the governor’s office; assuming she was indeed cordial, her name might be an aptronym.
But what about the board of plumbing nominee Wayne A. Fishpaw or the beer industry lobbyist William Pitcher? Or nurses Cheryl Woundy and Nicy Ladd? Or Lt. Col. R. Geoffrey Pine-Coffin, who led a British parachute unit on D-Day?
I’m pretty certain Texas A&M economist Tom Saving is an aptronym, but I wonder about Hope Butterworth, the angel who has run the Concord soup kitchen for so many years.
On my list, there is a starting nine for a baseball team, chosen entirely for their names. I don’t think they’re aptronyms. Closer to onomatopoeia but not quite that either. For one thing, only two of them are or were real ballplayers. Can you guess which two? Here’s the lineup:
Bart P. Snarf
And, warming up in the bullpen, Wacko Hurley.
(The manager is Brick P. Storts III.)
There is the travel writer Sandy Shore, which may be an aptronym, and the PR specialist Rebecca Wind. Because the names of copy editors Karl Muench and Gary Ruff doubtless do not reflect the quality of their work, they are probably not aptronyms.
Crystal Ball might be an aptronym if she read palms. Alas, she is – or was – a North Country restaurateur. Polly Ester, a lifeguard, could be one, too, but you’d have to see the suit.
Then there are John Minor Wisdom, the judge, Kelly Blizzard, the spokesperson for highways, and Woody Fogg, who tracked hurricanes for the state. And how about Caroline Welcome, the cemetery trustee? Not quite aptronyms, do you think?
There are situational rather than occupational near-aptronyms, too. I think of Maureen Nix, who protested a spending article at a school meeting, and Lance Lalumiere, who was arrested for arson.
That’s enough for now. Maybe more names another day, if the opportunity presents itself. I’ve become more selective over the years, but my list is nearly 200 names long. As I said, I collect them for fun and don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. On the other hand, there are plenty of categories – a list of mellifluous names like Florville Larmony and Miranda Fulleylove, for example. Or, shall we say, Victorian names like Cantwell F. Muckenfuss III, Cromwell Schubarth and Tewksbury (Tooky) Crapster. Or names with risqué connotations like . . .
Well, as I said, maybe another time.
May 02, 2006
John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, spoke last week to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Seattle. Carroll is now with the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
As Carroll says in the speech, he’s been pondering the state of American journalism. The speech contains some inside baseball aimed at Carroll’s fellow editors, but he also discusses issues that we editors worry deeply about. They are issues that good citizens should also worry deeply about, including the erosion of daily journalism as a vital check on government.
Here’s a link to Carroll’s piece.
In a somewhat related exchange, here are two more links: one to a Wall Street Journal editorial critical of what the Journal sees as "the unseemly symbiosis between elements of the press corps and a cabal of partisan bureaucrats at the CIA and elsewhere in the 'intelligence community' who have been trying to undermine the Bush Presidency"; and the other to New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller’s response to the Journal editorial.
May 01, 2006
Questions 7 and 8
Two questions posed last week in a blog response and in letters to the editor:
No. 7, from the blog: “I know that newspapers are concerned about attracting young readers. That was my thought when I got over my shock at seeing an article on the front page of the Concord Monitor announcing that a readers’ panel had been formed to comment on the American Idol competition. C’mon – since when should the Monitor stoop to this kind of pandering?”
I disagree with the premise of this question. There has long been more to the Monitor’s front page than war, politics and crime. We always try to put at least one story out there to lighten readers’ day.
Sure, the American Idol panel is frothy stuff. But we know from listening to readers that the opinions of their friends and neighbors are important content. And American Idol is a hit with the young at heart as well as the young.
It’s hard for me to fathom, but 47.5 million calls were dialed to vote after last week’s competition. I’d never call myself, but I do like the show. I’ve learned from it that to become a star takes more than just being able to carry a tune in the shower. Singing isn’t easy even for people with talent. In this celebrity culture of ours, the show also demonstrates how people grow or recede in the spotlight. My favorite episode was the American Songbook two weeks ago, and my thinking is that the competition will come down to a duel between Katharine McPhee and Chris Daughtry.
Maybe the front-page play of the Monitor’s panel is pandering – pandering to the editor. But it isn’t pandering to readers.
Question No. 8, also from a front page last week: Why did you allow a picture showing the body of a drowned man to appear on page one?
This was the case of a man who left his car late one night, jumped over a fence and fell down a rocky cliff into the Suncook River, where he drowned. In the photograph, shot from high above the scene, rescuers in wetsuits were about to retrieve his body, which was just below the surface.
The main reason we chose the picture was that it showed better than any other we had what had happened – and what was happening. The cliff, the river, the sad work of the rescuers: It was all there.
And one more thing: The body was hard to see. You had to look very closely to see it. When editors reviewed the photograph and others at the news meeting the day of the drowning, many of us could not make out the body until Photo Editor Dan Habib pointed it out to us. Even then, people could barely see it.
To use the photo was something of a close call, but we decided it was a grim picture that conveyed grim news, not a picture that sensationalized it.
The news decision was as simple as that, but another thought lurked in the back of my mind. Almost every spring in and around Concord, people (usually young men) do foolish things and wind up drowning in a river or lake. If, after taking a close look at this sobering image, just one young person thinks twice about being reckless on or near the water, using the picture would be worth whatever objections readers raised to its publication.
That is not why we used the picture, but as the editor, I admit to having the thought.
April 28, 2006
Who says young people are spurning newspapers?
Jan Smith’s combined class of kindergartners and first and second graders from Concord’s Kimball School toured the Monitor the other day with Managing Editor Felice Belman and Human Resources Director Tracie Wajer. Belman also helped them put out their own newspaper. The children wrote her thank you notes sharing some impressions of the day. Here are excerpts from a few of them, as written:
“Hooray we got to go to the Concord Monitor. It was the best day of my life. We saw a humungous stack of newspapers. And a truck that was carrying a box of newspapers. It was humungous, too. It was incredible.” – Sammy
“A factory! We went to the Concord Monitor. I saw a spinning wheel and people were putting magnets on it. Then we went down stairs and Tate and I saw a huge ramp that was connected to tanks. The paper went down the ramp and into slots and you put the advertisements in the slots and, TADA!, you have a newspaper.” – Jacob (This one came with a drawing of Tate and Jacob, the stairs and the inserting machine.)
“I could not imagine how much paper there was. I learned it took 7 rolls of paper to make one news paper.” – Peggy
“Bumpitety, bumpitety, bump. Down the roads we went. But then finally we got to the Concord Moniter. . . . Wow! Look at all those big machines and computers and print pressers. I learned that there are alot of different groups. Some are reporters, some are editers that look at the reporters writing to see if they need any corrections, others control the metal machines.” – Colin (This one came with a line drawing of a “print presser.”)
“I learned that it takes a lot of money to get the machines.” – Tyler
“Boy it is noisy. Machines made extreme amounts of noise. I could bearly even hear the teacher. . . . The printing press is very big and correspondingly noisy. The only thing that isn’t noisy is the computer. It’s really quiet.” – Eliot
“I was excited to see my writing in the newspaper. Thank you, Ms. Belman.” – Kaya
“Ms. Belman put all of the Veterans writing and Rookies illustrations on the computer and made them as a Concord Monitor Newspaper! It wasn’t the real newspaper though.” – Sophie M.
“The workers stay up until 3AM in the morning. I don’t think I could stay up that late.” – Samuel
“We made a funny news article on the fire at donkin donuts. I got (to) think up (a) headline. I choose Fire Stikes Back in bold letters. I learned about the six questions a newspaper reporter asks: who? what? where? how? when? why?” – Aidan
“We got to see the funnys which will come out on Sunday, and we were the only ones! I felt excited when I saw the news paper that Ms. Belman gave us. ‘Is my work in the newspaper’ I wondered. When I saw the first page I knew it was everybody’s work. I felt proud.” – Srilekha
“I was about to burst with excitement. I was amazed when I saw all the machines. . . . Ms. Belman gave us a tour. She worked so hard on printing and fitting our multi-age news on three peeces of paper. But don’t think it was easy and you could do it in 2 seconds because there were 24 news articles! Thank you Ms. Belman. I learned alot!!!” – Della
And thank you, tomorrow's readers . . . and reporters.
April 27, 2006
You can read Concord Hospital’s response to my Tuesday blog entry by clicking on “Comments” at the end of it. Other than to say that I stand by what I wrote in “Missing voices,” I don’t want to get into a public back-and-forth with the hospital. But I think it is worth adding a few words on the way I think our relationship with the local medical community should work.
I say this, I believe, as a representative not only of Monitor journalists but also of the public. Readers of the Monitor and patients of Concord’s medical community are the same people. As editor, I try to put readers first. They have an interest in Monitor reporters having good access to Concord Hospital doctors.
When the Monitor reports on a medical development – say a story from the New England Journal of Medicine on a new asthma or autism study – the paper’s readers want to hear what local physicians have to say. It would be a simple matter for a reporter to call the Family Health Center or Penacook Family Physicians and leave a message at the desk that she would like to talk to a local doctor about the new study. If the doctor had time to call back, she could. If not, we’d go without.
The same is true for our Sunday story about patients’ increasing use of the internet to research their medical conditions. The reporter could call 10 primary-care practices. She would get a range of responses. Some wouldn’t call back, some would say they had no time, three might return the call.
Over time, the reporter would develop a source list: primary-care physicians who are accessible and don’t mind discussing medical issues publicly. This is the way reporters on all our other beats – from politics to business to education – do their job, and it serves them and the public well.
I appreciate the need for a PR office at the hospital. The professionals there – and they are professionals – have sometimes helped us gain access to report on medicine as it is practiced in Concord. When we have a complaint about a simple matter like getting the condition of an accident victim, they respond promptly and helpfully.
I understand that they -- and we -- have to work with patient privacy concerns. I understand that there are other restraints on access. But filtering every request for a conversation with a Concord doctor through the PR office is burdensome and unnecessary. It obviously causes more work for the PR office. And clearly, in many cases the PR office has more important things to do than find a physician willing to talk to a reporter.
The system hasn’t worked for us, and it is not in the public interest – the reading public or the health-care-consuming public. It is hard to see how it is in the medical community’s interest either.
April 24, 2006
“Concord Hospital declined to make any primary care physicians in hospital-owned practices available for this story.”
Maybe you noticed this sentence near the top of Anne Ruderman’s story in the Sunday Monitor on patients’ increasing use of the internet to research their own medical problems. It is hard for us to know how readers react to such a statement, so I thought I’d provide a little background.
It is unusual for us to include a statement of this nature in a story that is essentially a consumer-oriented news feature. More often, you’ll see us saying we could not reach a person for a story when a reader would expect to hear from that person – a public official criticized for a position she took, for example.
Some months ago, we determined as part of our content-driven redesign project that one subject on which we needed to improve our coverage was health care. We created a medical beat and assigned Ruderman to it.
Obviously, the most important institution on this beat is Concord Hospital. This is especially true because many formerly private medical practices in Concord are now owned by the hospital, and their doctors and other employees are employees of the hospital.
But Concord Hospital forbids its doctors to talk with Ruderman or other reporters unless the reporter first goes through the hospital PR office. And the PR office generally does not respond in a timely manner to requests for interviews with doctors.
Doctors are busy people. They need to spend as much time as possible with patients. But a call from a professional reporter takes little time. Ruderman isn’t looking to pester the doctors she calls. She just wants to tap into their expertise, and she’s proficient at doing so.
It is also an important duty of Concord’s biggest medical institution to help inform the public, through stories in the Monitor, about health issues. Certainly we would rather quote Concord physicians on these issues than physicians outside of Concord, many of whom Ruderman can easily reach.
The story on patient use of the internet as a source for medical information is a case in point. Every primary-care physician has dealt with this issue in recent times. A big part of Ruderman’s job in the story was to give examples, positive and negative, of doctors’ experience with this phenomenon. Quoting more local doctors – and Ruderman did quote a few, including one ICU doctor she contacted through the hospital PR office – would have made the story more relevant to readers throughout the Monitor’s circulation area. The hospital did not make one of its 63 primary-care physicians available to her.
This was not a deadline story. Ruderman made her first contact with the hospital’s PR office on April 10 and made several subsequent attempts to reach primary-care physicians through the hospital. The story did not appear until 13 days after that initial contact.
In the end no interviews were set up. We thought readers might wonder why no Concord primary-care physicians were quoted in the story. That’s why we included the sentence saying the hospital had declined to make this happen.
April 22, 2006
Kerry's bold stand
I wrote yesterday about the lack of Shermanesque defenses of the New Hampshire presidential primary against Democratic efforts to dilute it. Today’s Union Leader carried a story on just such a defense from 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry. Check it out.
Kerry won the 2004 primary. He also carried the state in the general election – New Hampshire was the only state that switched from red to blue. And I’m pretty sure Kerry would like to win the New Hampshire primary again in 2008. But his stand on the primary will not endear him to top pols in the states hoping to stick it to New Hampshire. So, whether you like his defense of the primary or not, at least you can’t say he loved the primary before he hated it.
April 21, 2006
Driving the lane
Here’s a novelty: A U.S. senator from Oregon showed up at the Monitor yesterday, and (apparently) he wasn’t running for president.
He was Democrat Ron Wyden, a one-time college basketball player. He had come, he said, because to score you have to drive the lane, and in national politics New Hampshire is the lane.
Wyden did not give us the Shermanesque defense of the New Hampshire primary that we crave from all Democrats these days. But then neither did John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential candidate, who was also in Concord yesterday.
We’re stressing here about Democratic Party efforts to front-load the nomination process even more by jamming a couple of state caucuses between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in 2008.
This is being done in the name of diversity, and it’s hard for Democratic contenders to speak against diversity. So they whisper sweet nothings about New Hampshire’s sacred role in the process but won’t criticize efforts to undermine it.
Still, they honor us by their presence.
Wyden’s over-arching mission, he said, was to say that Democrats won’t get anywhere next fall or in 2008 merely by trashing President Bush. The party needs a positive message, he said.
His hope is to wrest tax reform from the Republicans, who have fallen silent on the issue. The main features of Wyden’s plan are to reduce the brackets to three (15, 25 and 35 percent), to treat all income the same and to simplify filing. His appeal is to the middle class, a phrase he utters every other sentence and a group he defines broadly. If you’ve seen your income stagnate in recent years while more affluent people around you benefited from Bush’s tax cuts, Wyden wants your ear. And did he mention that his tax-reform idea is much like Ronald Reagan's of 20 years ago?
It’s hard to tell from Concord whether Wyden has any support even within his own party for his proposal. But his overall idea seems right. If, in the mid-term elections, Democrats want to take advantage of Bush’s drooping popularity, they need to arm themselves with policy alternatives that appeal to voters.
As for our parochial interests, it would be nice if Democrats realized that they can’t, on the one hand, praise New Hampshire’s record as a place where all presidential candidates get a fair shake while, on the other, seeking to undermine the state’s role in the nomination process. More early caucuses won’t get Democrats a better nominee, but wedging them in will diminish the value of the New Hampshire primary in testing how well candidates for president connect with real voters.
April 19, 2006
A cab driver from New Jersey asked me last Friday what it was like to live in Concord. We were in heavy traffic on the way to Penn Station, and he had told me about his visits to a friend in Vermont. Trees, small towns, fresh air – the usual bucolic amenities that we who live in northern New England sometimes take for granted.
I filled in a little bit: good schools, a pleasant downtown, a short commute to work, interesting politics at every level, Concord’s 64-square-mile area and the many long walks you can take in the woods without leaving the city.
When I got home that night at about 8:45, a rock-’n’-roll band was playing behind my house. I like all kinds of music, but this was unusual in my quiet neighborhood. When I walked in, it was the first thing I asked my wife about. In response she showed me a strip of paper she had found tucked into our screen door. Here’s what it said:
“Dear friendly neighbor,
“Tonight from seven (7) to nine (9), there will be a small show featuring a few high school bands, held at 20 Pine Street. This notice is to give you some warning about the noise occurring during this time. I hope this doesn’t cause any major problems. If there are any questions, you can contact ---- ----- at --------.”
Now, if this had happened the weekend before, I would have known exactly how to answer the cabbie’s question about life in Concord: This is a city where people care about other people, and if you don’t believe me, get this . . .
April 18, 2006
Free? Think again
Because my wife is a teacher, my radio alarm goes off before 6 on weekday mornings. One recent morning, the first New Hampshire Public Radio news story I heard was about Jim McGonigle, the Allenstown police chief and Concord city councilor. In a few sentences the news reader explained that McGonigle was under investigation and on leave from the Allenstown job and had decided to resign from the city council.
This was not news to me. I knew from the Concord Monitor’s news meeting the day before that this story would be above the fold on page one of that morning’s Monitor. The story had been reported and written by our city reporter, Sarah Liebowitz.
The radio station had done no reporting. It had merely picked up the news from our website, our front page or the Associated Press and read the report as though it was the product of the station’s own work.
I’m accustomed to this. It is part of my morning ritual to curse rip-and-read local news reports that do not credit the source of the reporting.
I’ll spare you my diatribe on this subject and get to the point: To quote Jim Amoss, editor in chief of the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, getting the news to the public is “a mission that is sacred to us.” The event that occasioned this statement was the two Pulitzer Prizes the Times-Picayune had just won for its Katrina coverage, but the mission Amoss described is in the soul of every newspaper journalist every day.
The big news in our industry is that the economic model that enables newspaper journalists to carry out their mission is breaking down. Technological advances have created an atmosphere that says the news is instant and free (even though consumers pay for cable, cell-phone and internet access). Newspapers are struggling to get the most out of the old economic model while adapting to a new and ever-changing one. Their future depends on creating new revenue streams to support their core mission.
This year’s Pulitzer Prizes are a statement of how much that mission means to American society. I agree with Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times. In telling his newsroom what he thought the Pulitzer results meant, Keller said: “The country has never needed us more than it does today.”
You can check out the list for yourself (go to this site and click on "What's new"), but allow me to cite just a few examples.
It was newspapers that got to the bottom of widespread congressional corruption last year. The investigative prize went to the Washington Post for an “indefatigable probe of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.” This coverage led to the downfall of Tom DeLay and showed how money trumps the public good. The San Diego Tribune and Copley News Service won the national reporting prize for work that led to the disgrace and resignation of U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, whose vote was, quite literally, for sale.
The Bush administration’s extremes in pursuing the war on terror were the subject of two other winners. Dana Priest of the Washington Post uncovered a program under which the United States secretly imprisoned terrorism suspects in Eastern Europe. James Risen and Eric Lictblau of the New York Times exposed the administration’s program of secret domestic wiretapping.
This work and that of other winners – Nicholas Kristof’s campaign to keep the Darfur atrocities in the public eye, the New York Times reports on the harsh, unstable Chinese legal system and David Finkel’s brave look at U.S. efforts to sow the seeds of democracy in Yemen – helped Americans understand their country and its role in the world. These journalistic efforts held elected officials to a high standard. They applied a reality test to the rhetoric in which politicians clothe their actions.
For the Pulitzer winners and all newspaper journalists, the traditional newspaper economic model has created the ability to do their work without commercial considerations. Yes, a reliable news report produced over time for an interested auduence will have economic benefits for the newspaper. Yes, newspaper editors have budgets. But no reporter goes to Darfur or Iraq or Yemen – or develops a story on Jim McGonigle’s problems in the Concord area – thinking about whether his or her work will make money for the paper. In fact, good news coverage costs money – a lot of money.
That’s why I get irked when a radio or TV station repeats a condensed version of one of our stories without saying where it came from. In a world in which all news seems instant and free, the casual listener doesn’t think twice about where the story actually came from. Almost always, it originated with a newspaper.
April 17, 2006
I'll be posting further thoughts about the Pulitzer Prizes, but for today just two links:
- First, to Final Salute, Jim Sheeler's Rocky Mountain News winner in feature-writing. The photographs with this amazing series, by Todd Heisler, won the feature photography Pulitzer Prize.
-- Second, to David Finkel's series for the Washington Post on a grant awarded to help implant democracy in Yemen. Finkel's work won the Pulitzer Prize in Explantory Journalism.
April 16, 2006
And the winners are . . .
Tomorrow is a big day in journalism. It is the day the Pulitzer Prizes are announced.
I am a member of the board that selects the winners. I have pored over the finalists in all 14 categories. That is a total of 42 entries with as many as 20 stories per entry.
I am glad to be finished with the reading but even gladder to have seen once again the undiminished quality and importance of American newspaper journalism.
The problems of U.S. newspapers – flat and declining circulation and advertising, squeamish investors, even great metros in peril – make the headlines. But these are not simply newspapers’ problems; they are also the public’s problems. That is because the work newspaper journalists do remains absolutely essential to the republic.
And, as reading the Pulitzer finalists each year reminds me, they are doing it amazingly well. Newspaper journalists go where bloggers and flap-jaws never do. They dig into public records, hold politicians and government agencies accountable and report and write stories that people in power would prefer to keep quiet. They risk their lives to uncover hard truths.
Until the winners are announced, I’ll have to put off a discussion here of the winners and finalists, but I will tell you a bit about the process by which the Pulitzer are chosen (for a fuller explanation, see the Pulitzer web site).
Between 2,000 and 3,000 entries are submitted each year for Pulitzer Prizes in letters, music and journalism. Juries of distinguished writers, historians, composers, critics and journalists review the entries and select three finalists in each of the 21 categories.
The board that decides the winners comprises 18 voting members and the chairperson of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, where the prizes are administered. Board members generally serve three three-year terms – nine years. I have just finished my seventh year.
The board that met last week to decide on the winners included several names that you might know. The chairman was Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard humanities and literary scholar; the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman; Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford historian David M. Kennedy; Nicholas Lemann, the Columbia journalism dean who also writes for the New Yorker; and Donald Graham, chairman of the Washington Post.
The bulk of the board’s membership comprises working editors like me. I won’t name them all, but they include Ann Marie Lipinski of the Chicago Tribune, Amanda Bennett of the the Philadelpia Inquirer, Greg Moore of the Denver Post and Anders Gyllenhaal of the Star Tribune in the Twin Cities (Anders is the uncle of Jake and Maggie).
In December, board members receive the first of the finalists in the letters categories. Between then and early March, we must read 15 books and three play scripts (we also see the plays if they are in production) and listen to the music finalists. In early March, the finalists selected by the journalism juries arrive in large, stapled, xeroxed sheafs. Increasingly journalism entries also include components from the newspapers’ websites. We receive the photography and editorial cartooning finalists on CDs, but we also look them over during our meeting in traditional portfolio form, which shows us how the competing newspapers used them.
Then the board meets to decide the winners. We started last Wednesday night with dinner and, for most of us, a trip to one of the drama finalists. Then, during 12 hours over the next two days in the World Room at Columbia, we argued over and decided on the winners.
In part because the board meets in secret, it has for many years been subject to criticism about insider trading and other sins. All I can tell you about that is that last week – as in my previous six times at the April meeting – the board took each category seriously and individually. Following a long-standing policy, anyone affiliated with a nominated entry left the room during the discussion of its category. Allies in one category became adversaries in the next. In each category, the board’s purpose was to hear out everyone’s praise and criticism and arrive at the best choice. And we all won some and lost some.
If experience is any guide, we then went home brain-dead on Friday night, savoring the winners and swallowing the disappointments. And one more thing: marveling at the quality of American journalism.
March 31, 2006
The judges have spoken
What readers think of us matters the most, but in a profession known for hard work, weird hours and low pay, peer recognition makes a difference. Journalism awards matter, too.
It probably seems shamelessly self-serving to some readers when we report the results of newspaper contests in the Monitor. If you’re one of those readers, you might want to stop reading this blog entry right now. My purpose is to elaborate on a few recent awards won by Monitor news staffers.
Last November, for the second year in a row, a Monitor staffer was chosen as the Community Reporter of the Year by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. This is the top local reporting award in the region, and only one is given each year. The winner is chosen on the basis of a portfolio of work.
The winner for 2005 was Eric Moskowitz; he succeeded 2004 winner Annmarie Timmins. We have yet to decide which reporter we will enter when the 2006 contest deadline arrives this summer, but we’ll definitely be going for the three-peat.
Possibly you saw the report in today’s paper that a story by Monitor Sports Editor Sandy Smith was judged the best sports feature in the nation in 2005 for a newspaper under 40,000 circulation. This was Smith’s poignant account of how a dying fan, Bill Goldsmith, inspired the Concord High girls’ softball team to win the 2005 state championship.
Two weeks ago, several Monitor staffers went to Boston for the annual luncheon of the New England Newspaper Association. The organization’s most coveted individual prizes are known as Public Occurances Awards, named after the first multi-sheet newspaper in America (published in 1690, when both "public" and "occurrences" were apparently spelled differently).
In both reporting and photography, the judges, a panel of Nieman Fellows from Harvard University, award up to a dozen prizes for the best journalism in New England during the previous year. Newspapers of all sizes compete with one another, from metros to weeklies.
This year, the Monitor won a Public Occurances Award in each category. Reporter Joelle Farrell won a reporting award for chronicling the death of Beverly Leo, Concord's former longtime SPCA director. Lori Duff, who worked with Farrell on that project, also represented the photo staff at the luncheon and picked up the Public Occurances Award for our Monday photo feature, “Teen life.”
“Teen life” also won an award of excellence for our photo staff in a national content known as Pictures of the Year International.
There was even better news out of this contest, which is sponsored by the University of Missouri. Dan Habib, our photo editor, was judged best in the nation at photo editing for newspapers under 100,000 circulation. The Monitor’s use of photographs finished second best nationally.
The National Society of News Design also gave its prizes this month, and the Monitor won four awards of excellence. Those named as honorees were Habib, Duff and Preston Gannaway from the photo staff, artist Charlotte Thibault and page designer Vanessa Valdes.
I’m proud of these award winners. It is especially gratifying to see the Monitor recognized in all phases of journalism: reporting, photography, editing and design. The Monitor is small – just over 20,000 circulation daily, 21,000 on Sunday – but we think big. And we never rest on our laurels. Just as readers judge us on a daily basis, contest judges next year won’t care - or even know - what we won this year.
March 27, 2006
On Saturday, I’ll be rooting for the Florida Gators to beat George Mason University’s men’s basketball team. And comfortably, please, lest I blow a gasket watching.
Why? I have been a Gator fan since 1952. Who knows how something like that gets into your blood at age 6. It just does. I’m not even a Florida alum. I went there – twice, in fact. To use the common euphemism, I wasn’t ready for college. But sing a verse of “We are the boys of old Florida” and watch me weep.
I got the chance to cover the Florida basketball team for the Tampa Tribune in the mid-’60s, near the end of the all-white era. As a sports writer, I witnessed the way integration improved the game. I also got to see Pat Riley and Rick Barry play and to interview Adolph Rupp in his 36th year of coaching at Kentucky, the national runner-up that year.
I was pleased beyond belief a few years ago when Concord’s own Matt Bonner chose Florida. I even went to see him play at the O’Connell Center, the arena across from Florida Field, a/k/a The Swamp.
I enjoyed that game so much that while we were visiting my dad a few weeks ago, my wife and I drove to Gainesville to see the Gators’ last home game of the regular season. The atmosphere was electric - the bright lights, the constant motion, the youthful energy, all that orange and blue. The O Center is definitely not Alligator Alley, the dingy gym of my college days.
This turned out to be a special night. Joakim Noah, whom the rest of the country is just getting to know, was playing for the first time before his grandfather, Zacharie. A one-time professional soccer player from Cameroon, Zacharie Noah arrived late for the game with his son, Yannick, the retired tennis pro.
Joakim Noah responded by scoring 37 points. This included 19 of 22 free throws. (I scratched my head yesterday during the Villanova game when the announcer Billy Packer complained that Noah’s free throws spun sideways. Noah was 7-for-7 from the line at the time and finished 13-for-15.)
I saw more good signs that night in Gainesville. Taurean Green, Florida’s indispensable point guard, tossed an Alley Oop pass that Corey Brewer slammed home. Brewer looks like a wisp on the court, but he is strong, and on this play - you'll have to trust me - he flew. The Gators’ power and size inside were also apparent.
But sloppy Florida play allowed a mediocre Georgia team (10 losses at the time) to come within three points late in the second half. This colored my assessment of the Florida team.
To paraphrase, I wrote in my journal that night that this was a team of sophomores (every starter but Lee Humphrey, a junior), full of promise but prone to a loss of energy and concentration. In short, a team with potential that would not go far in the post-season. I also repeated the nagging question of us Gator fans of the Donovan era: Billy can recruit, but can he coach?
Recent events have upset this conventional wisdom. But still, even as the Gators were thumping top-seeded Villanova yesterday, I saw in each of their many errors the beginning of the end. I got so hyper my wife had to leave the room. It was either that or turn off the TV, and I'd simply have died if that had happened.
One of the Gator websites I frequent, GatorZone.com, ran a poll last week asking readers to choose between being satisfied that Florida had made the Sweet Sixteen and being greedy for a national championship. Do I have to tell you which side I took?
So now comes George Mason, the giant-killer. It’s only natural that most fans are rooting for the underdog, the little guy, the No. 11 seed, the tournament's Cinderella. I was rooting for the Patriots, too, and marveled at how they recovered from a last-second shot by Connecticut, regrouped and won in overtime.
That was yesterday. Now I say the slipper doesn't fit after all. George Mason is Gator bait.
March 24, 2006
Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!
Somehow “retirement” and “the age of 28” don’t belong in the same sentence, especially when the subject is Jerry Azumah.
Azumah retired from pro football Thursday after a successful but too brief career with the Chicago Bears. He had been slowed by injuries and surgery – to his neck in 2004 and his hip last year. He had surgery again in January.
I recall many afternoons in the slanting orange sunlight of autumn watching Azumah run the ball for UNH. My son, Yuri, was a classmate of Azumah’s and covered the Wildcats for the Monitor.
Yuri and I commiserated on the phone today about Azumah’s retirement. Unlike many athletes, Azumah won Yuri’s respect on and off the field. He worked hard, preparing for a life with or without football. One of Yuri’s regrets is that when he saw Azumah on graduation day, he didn’t think to have his picture taken with him.
Azumah, who came from Worcester and whose parents were from Ghana, played on UNH teams that would have been mediocre, or worse, without him. He was not a big man – about 5-10, 185 – and opposing teams could key on him all game long. Even so, Azumah rushed for 6,193 yards, an NCAA Division 1-AA record.
Yuri’s best single memory is a 95-yard touchdown run. Azumah lined up at about the goal line. He took the handoff, burst through the line, dodged a defender, cut toward the sideline and streaked to the opposing goal. Yuri looked up at the clock. Twelve seconds had elapsed. That’s a man running more than 100 yards in pads and a helmet, on chewed-up turf, in 12 seconds.
As a Bear, Azumah played defensive back.
“I couldn’t figure out why I rushed for more than 6,000 yards, and all of a sudden I’m running backward,” he joked at his retirement press conference, according to the Chicago Tribune. “When I first came in here, I didn’t even know what a backpedal was. And then all of a sudden, I was covering Randy Moss.”
Azumah had 10 interceptions and broke up 42 passes. He retires as the No. 3 punt returner in Bears history. As a kick returner, he made the Pro Bowl.
At UNH, he is known as more than an ex-football player. He is also the youngest alum to donate more than $100,000 to the school, a gift to improve weight-training equipment for UNH athletes. In his playing days, he was renowned for his work ethic in the weight room.
In Chicago, according to the Tribune, he started a foundation, the Azumah Student Assistance Program.
Some might say Azumah could afford to give back. After all, he made millions. But his career ended before he qualified for status as an unrestricted free agent, which would have meant an even bigger contract. In my book, he is an exemplary citizen.
While Yuri and I – and surely other Azumah fans – lamented his early forced retirement, Azumah himself was upbeat. He called Thursday “not a sad day (but) a good day” and impishly challenged the assembled sports writers to a 40-yard dash.
“Chapters end,” he said. “And other chapters open.”
Talk about going out in style.
March 23, 2006
Here are a few links for more on the recent visit of U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel's trip to New Hampshire:
Monitor reporter Lauren R. Dorgan's account of the editorial board interview with Hagel.
The Monitor's editorial on Hagel's views of the Iraq war.
Laura Knoy's NHPR interview with Hagel.
March 22, 2006
Plain speaker from the Plains
The moment was not exactly like Saul’s conversion on the road the Tarsus, but it determined Chuck Hagel’s direction in politics. As he told the Monitor’s editorial board yesterday, he was sitting on top of a tank in Vietnam in 1968 casting his first ballot. He marked Richard Nixon’s name and voted a straight Republican ticket.
His point in telling the anecdote was to say that the party of Nixon, the party he chose, stood for fiscal restraint and limited government – ideals that Republicans still trumpet in word but have abandoned in deed. “We have come loose from our moorings,” he said. As evidence, he cited the escalating federal debt, President Bush’s education program and the new Medicare drug benefit.
By contrast, Hagel, a U.S. senator from Nebraska, has not strayed from the ideals that drew him to the party. He voted against both No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Plan D. He thinks entitlement reform is the nation’s most pressing domestic issue. While appreciative of Bush’s push on Social Security last year, he says the president erred in casting his main message as personal accounts rather than the dire need for reform and in not putting a plan on the table.
Hagel is in New Hampshire this week for obvious reasons: to see how a presidential candidacy might suit him. We spent most of our hour or so talking with him about Iraq, another subject on which he does not conceal his differences with the White House. But in assessing his own potential as a national candidate, Hagel is realistic. He knows that events beyond his control – how the party does in the midterm elections, what happens in Iraq – will determine whether his views might catch the voters' interest during the 2008 campaign.
If he does run, Hagel is bound to get an attentive ear in New Hampshire. The state has wavered between red and blue during recent presidential elections in part because so many Republicans are with Hagel on the issues. They appreciate Bush’s political success but are skeptical of his disregard for a balanced budget, his championing of big federal programs and his war in Iraq.
New Hampshire was, and remains, Nixon Country – not the Nixon of Watergate but the Nixon of fiscal restraint and limited federal government. These are the ideals the 21-year-old Hagel signed up for while sitting on a tank. Now, he says, the party has become “skillful at saying one thing and doing another while blaming the Democrats” for whatever goes wrong.
Whether or not such plain speaking serves a candidate’s ultimate aim, our primary has a long tradition of providing a national platform for it.
Bienvenue au New Hampshire, Sen. Hagel. Live Free or Die.
March 21, 2006
Another escape plot
Pardon my skepticism, but when I hear a politician say precisely the opposite of what his proposal intends, I always wonder which fairy tale he’s been reading. Is it Alice in Wonderland or Pinocchio?
Ted Gatsas, the Senate president from Manchester, has put forth yet another constitutional amendment aimed at freeing the Legislature from Supreme Court oversight on paying for public schools.
Here’s what Gatsas told a Senate committee yesterday: “It is not my intent to remove the courts.”
Here is what he wrote on today’s Monitor Forum page: “CACR 43 (his proposed amendment) is not attempting to take away the power of judicial review.”
Gatsas is a good guy, relatively new to the school funding frontlines. He wasn’t a key player in the last umpteen efforts by legislators and governors to erase the constitution’s mandate that the state pay for an adequate education for all public school students and do so through a fair tax.
So maybe Gatsas gets a pass. Maybe he’s not Pinocchio.
But can he – or any of the senators who passed this proposed amendment out of committee yesterday – really think it has a chance of succeeding?
I mean, read it:
“The Legislature shall have the authority to make reasonable determinations of the content, extent, funding and delivery of public education.”
Help! As a legislator or a voter, I’d stop and just say no at the key weasel phrase, “reasonable determinations.”
But it gets worse after that. Gatsas not only wants the Supreme Court out of the Legislature’s hair, but he also wants the Legislature to have more power over local public schools. This “authority to make reasonable determinations” would give the Legislature the power to pay less, forcing local communities to pay more. And it could do so while expanding the state’s power over the “content, extent . . . and delivery of public education.”
“Delivery,” of course, is a euphemism for vouchers and charter schools.
So what would stop the Legislature from reasonably determining that charter and parochial school students should get local aid while also reasonably determining that the state had no obligation to reimburse the cities and towns for this?
But I digress. The real issue is that the amendment is one more shot at persuading the public to trust the governor and Legislature, without court oversight, on school funding. They have not earned this trust.
Under their various unconstitutional plans and legislative manipulations of recent years, the gap between the have school districts and the have-not districts has grown again. Even in good times, and even after promises to the contrary, local aid rises and falls unpredictably, causing chaos in school budgeting. Even after repeated reminders by the courts, legislators haven’t defined the “adequate” education they are constitutionally obliged to pay for.
Gatsas’s amendment does exactly what he says it doesn’t: It aims to take the court out of the picture and leave the governor and Legislature to do as they please in determining the funding, content and delivery of public education.
That may not sound so bad at a time when the state’s revenue picture is bright and a benign governor sits in the corner office. But how good would you feel about the prospects of public education under this amendment during a penny-pinching budget season with, say, Craig Benson as governor?
Even if the Senate passes this amendment, the House should bury it in the expanding graveyard of Claremont escape plots.
March 16, 2006
A hard death
On today’s Monitor Forum page, Mike Green, president and CEO of Concord Hospital, responded sharply to the Monitor’s editorial on the death of John Arsenault. In a letter accompanying Green’s “My turn,” June Williams, a cousin of Arsenault’s from Boston, wrote that Arsenault was not homeless, as reported in the Monitor. Rather, she wrote, he was living with family.
Arsenault is the man whose death we first reported on March 7 under the headline “For homeless man, a mysterious end.” Sarah Liebowitz, the reporter who wrote that story, was working on a series on Concord’s homeless population. When Arsenault came into the emergency shelter at the First Congregational Church, where many of the homeless sleep on cold winter nights, Liebowitz just happened to be there.
This was on March 3, a Friday night. Arsenault arrived at the shelter by taxi from Concord Hospital. He had been released from the hospital, apparently because he did not meet the hospital’s standard for inpatient care, medically acute. He could barely walk when he got to the shelter, and his condition rapidly deteriorated. About six hours later he had become so ill that an ambulance took him back to the hospital, where he died.
Our editorial last Sunday was headlined “Homeless man shouldn’t have died this way.” The editorial quoted a spokesperson as saying Arsenault “was cleared to leave because his condition was not considered acute.” It went on to say: “That diagnosis was obviously wrong.”
The editorial also criticized the hospital for not being more forthright about the details of the Arsenault case. “The hospital may be blameless, but no health-care provider should be allowed to bury its mistakes behind a wall of privacy,” the editorial said. “The public policy issues at stake are too great.”
It was these issues to which Green responded in today’s paper.
He also wrote: “The Monitor seems to believe Concord Hospital should become a housing facility for the unfortunate frail. This is not realistic.
“At the inception of the predecessor organizations to Concord Hospital, the role of the hospital was to provide housing and compassion along with clinical care to the sick, oftentimes at the end of their lives. Today the role is oriented much more toward the healing of the sick and injured.”
I’m glad Green clarified the hospital’s role. But if the hospital’s policy is no longer to provide care and compassion to people at the end of their lives, surely the hospital must have a strong policy in place to make certain that those who are very ill do not end up going straight from the hospital to an emergency homeless shelter.
At this point, I cannot answer some of the questions the Monitor’s critics raise about the Arsenault case.
Sarah Liebowitz is working on a follow-up story that I hope will give readers more details about his situation at the time of his death. She will also attempt to learn why, if Arsenault was a repeat patient at the hospital, as Green’s piece implied, he was put in a taxi and sent to First Church.
Please stay tuned.
March 14, 2006
On the Wildcat beat
We’re about to enter a terrific stretch of the sports year. March Madness starts Thursday. The Monitor has Ray Duckler down in Florida pounding out columns about the Red Sox while Preston Gannaway shoots pictures to go with them. If you want a sense of Boston baseball tradition, check out Gannaway’s poignant picture of Johnny Pesky signing autographs on today’s sports page. Can Opening Day be far behind? And then, early next month, the Masters.
But I want to focus today on Dave D’Onofrio, one of our sports writers, and on another classic sports event that we hope will unfold during the next couple of weeks. That would be the UNH hockey team’s post-season run. Dave covers the Wildcats.
Dave grew up in Wakefield, Mass., with the normal loyalties: Celtics, Bruins, Patriots, Sox. During college, he interned at both the Lynn Item and the Boston Globe.
He came to the Monitor in 2003 after graduating from BU, where he had been the editor of the college paper and covered the hockey team. Since UNH will be playing BU Friday night, Dave will enter the Fleet Center with divided loyalties. But I defy anyone to detect bias in his game coverage. He’s not afraid to interpret and make judgments, which any sports writer must do, but his story will be arrow-straight.
Dave is one of the Monitor’s six full-time sports people. This is a talented, hardworking bunch. There are ever more sports in our culture, and when we survey readers about what they want us to cover more, the answer is always: “Everything!” Everyone on our sports staff wears several hats.
When Dave arrived, he was not an auto racing fan. Naturally, we made him our auto racing writer. On Thursday, the day before the UNH-BU game, he will pull together his informative, often opinionated auto-racing column for the Sunday Monitor. And this summer he’ll enter his fourth year as our lead writer at the New Hampshire International Speedway, where he’ll churn out stories, sidebars, profiles and columns without missing a beat – or a deadline.
He was a novice in 2003, but now he knows auto racing and respects Nextel Cup drivers. To those who contend that the cars do all the work and the drivers aren’t really athletes, Dave has this to say: “The more I learn, the more I appreciate how difficult it is to do what they do.” Their work – total concentration from start to finish, sometimes in 110-degree heat – may be harder than that of any other athlete. Teamwork is important, but in Dave’s view, it is the driver that makes the difference between winning and losing.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here . . .
How about Hockey East this weekend, Dave? Who’s going to win? And what are UNH’s chances of making it to the NCAAs?
Dave says that after a sluggish early season, the Wildcats have come alive. The key moment occurred when seven players turned themselves in for a rules violation and Coach Dick Umile benched them for a big game in Maine. What was left of the Wildcat roster didn’t win that night, but the team gave the Black Bears a fight. The Wildcats have played with toughness and resolve ever since.
Most UNH players think the team has to beat BU Friday night to make the NCAA tournament. Dave isn’t sure. He thinks the Wildcats might get in anyway. But winning would erase any doubt, and Dave says the ’Cats have a good shot.
Win or lose, you can count on Dave D’Onofrio to see that the game gets its due in the Saturday Monitor.
March 08, 2006
No can publish
We try especially hard to run letters opposing our editorial positions, but here’s an excerpt from one you won’t see published:
“The March 4 article on the child support bill to treat fathers more fairly is one of the best things I have read in the paper all year. I have personally witnessed the court system and how unfair it is to fathers – not only with the money but also with the visitation.
“My fiancé and I went through a custody battle that lasted a year. We had to pay $158 a week for his 4-year-old daughter. Not one cent of that went to his daughter. It all went into her mother’s arm. She is a heroin addict.
“It killed us to pay that much money and see how it was being used. The judge never cared.”
The letter was written by a local woman who gave her name and hometown, as required. But as often happens in letters on divorce and child support in particular, the writer made assertions that characterized people on the other side of a particular case. Although she did not name the person she accused of being a heroin addict, people who know the writer and her fiancé will know whom she is talking about. That makes the letter potentially libelous, meaning the Monitor can’t publish it.
But, you ask, isn’t a letter to the editor an opinion, and isn’t publication of opinion protected by the First Amendment?
I’m not a lawyer, but here’s my answer: Opinion is indeed protected speech, but just because something appears on the Opinion page or is labeled “opinion” does not make it opinion.
Take a look at the excerpt above. When the writer praises the article as the best thing she has read all year, that’s an opinion. When she says the court system is unfair to fathers and the judge never cared, those are opinions.
The letter is not all opinion, however. It includes several statements of fact. Whether they are actually facts, we don’t know. The $158 a week, the daughter’s age – statements of fact. In editing the letters, we don’t have the time or staff to double-check such statements. Unless we see a statement of fact that we know is wrong or that seems outlandish, we give letter writers wide berth.
Readers are smart enough to understand that our accuracy standard is lower for letters than for news stories. The lower standard has the benefit of allowing for a freer public discussion of issues in the letters columns. Letter writers may – and frequently do – correct or question the assertions of other letter writers.
But to say, as this writer did, that not one cent of the child support went to the daughter and that the woman was a heroin addict are also statements of fact, not opinion. And if they are false, they would defame someone who, though unnamed, could be identified.
That is why we can’t publish letter. If the defaming statements were false, both the letter writer and the newspaper could be subject to a libel suit.
Lately, because the Legislature is considering legislation that would change child support rules, we’ve been receiving – and publishing – many letters on this issue. Some agree with our editorial position opposing this legislation, and some disagree.
But we’ve also had to spike several of these letters because the writers made their points by vilifying their adversaries in court cases. The best tactic for those who want to write for publication about divorce and custody issues is to stick to the overriding issues and save your claims about ex-spouses for the courtroom.
March 07, 2006
At the risk of seeming grandiose, I sometimes fancy myself a political junkie in the mold of Alden Whitman. Whitman was the New York Times obituary writer famously profiled by Gay Talese years ago. Talese described how Whitman carefully scanned an audience at Carnegie Hall looking for people “about whom he might be particularly curious someday soon.” These, of course, were famous people on whom age and infirmity were gaining.
I, on the other hand, am constantly on the lookout for future presidential candidates. This is not a wholly conscious obsession. It is simply the result of having been an editor in New Hampshire for a long time. Even in the stretch between primaries (too short for you, too long for me), I scout.
Thus I spent part of my Florida vacation last week reading more than I wanted to about Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s little brother. Jeb has said he doesn’t want to be president. Nevertheless, his name is Bush. He is about to leave the Florida governor’s office after two terms that, by his standards, have been phenomenally successful. He just turned 53 last month, and it is hard to imagine he is ready for the boardroom life, much less a rocker on the porch.
To my good fortune, the St. Petersburg Times devoted plenty of ink Sunday to speculating about both Bush’s political legacy for Florida and a possible political future for him. The writer of both pieces was Tim Nickens, the paper’s deputy editor of editorials.
The commentary “Jeb Bush’s long shadow” showed how far Bush had moved the Florida Republican Party to the right. Its point was that many of his accomplishments would handcuff his successor(s).
The nature of those accomplishments will come as no surprise to those who have watched Big Brother on the national stage: tax cuts, standardized testing and school grading, school vouchers, privatized prisons and tougher sentencing laws, abortion restrictions, a scaling back of affirmative action in hiring.
Nickens’s column inside the paper was headlined “Run, Jeb, run!” No, not for another term as governor (he's term-limited) and (alas) not for the White House. Nickens suggested that Bush run for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson.
The current GOP frontrunner is Katherine Harris of 2000 vote-count renown – or notoriety, depending on your point of view. Among other problems, Harris is in trouble over illegal campaign contributions. Nickens pronounced her “not a credible challenger to Nelson” and asserted that Republicans deserved one. His choice: Jeb Bush.
Bush has shown no more interest in the U.S. Senate than he has in a run to succeed his brother.
But I’m staying tuned. The name “Bush” might not be a golden asset at the moment, but things can change fast in politics. One thing can lead to another, as in two-term big-state governor pulls upset, wins Senate seat, eyes White House.
March 06, 2006
Thank you to the several readers who answered my last entry’s call for comments on the state of Americans’ historical knowledge and the teaching of World War II. I’m sorry it took so long to post the responses, but I was in Florida, purposely out of computer reach. Please take a look at those thoughtful responses to “Don’t know much about history?” and add your own commentary if you’d like. If I get time later this week, I may take up a point or two in a new entry.
But I brought back fresh material from Florida, and I want to get some of it down before my job swallows me up again. Here are a few headlines:
– Bait-and-switch hits Grapefruit League
– Whither Jeb Bush?
– Gulf beaches’ sellout accelerates
– Joakim Noah leads Gators’ super sophs
I could go on. About once a year, I visit family and friends in the area where I grew up, and I always come away with many snapshots. I’ll try to put the stories to the other headlines during the days ahead, but let’s begin with baseball.
Six or eight weeks ago, I arranged to see two Grapefruit League games. I had visions of needling my Red Sox fan friends (no shortage of them around here) about early glimpses of Johnny Damon in pinstripes. On Friday and Saturday, I saw the Yankees in Clearwater and Tampa. No Damon. No A-Rod. No Jeter. No Williams. All were gone to the World Baseball Classic, as were players from the opposing Phillies and Reds.
Although you’ll never catch me complaining about sitting in sunny high-70s weather in early March watching baseball, spring training has become a huge enterprise, creating high expectations for sell-out crowds. Fans know that winning matters little and that the No. 71s and 93s will take over in the fifth inning, but they buy their tickets to see the stars. When minor leaguers start at third base, in center field and in left and utilitymen get the call at short and in right, it’s hard not to feel cheated.
The World Baseball Classic is a good idea, but it comes at the wrong time.
Now that that’s off my chest, here’s a non-secret to people who pay close attention to baseball (including, I imagine, all the fantasy leaguers). The Phillies’ first baseman Ryan Howard is a more agile, somewhat lankier David Ortiz with the tools to be a superstar. During a 4-for-4 day against the Yankees Friday, he hit two homers to right center. There is a grassy hill out there where fans can picnic and take in the game. Howard’s first homer, a high drive, cleared the fence easily. His second was a moon shot. As it rose to pea-size against the azure sky, the fans on the grassy incline skittered toward the back fence of the stadium. My seat was along the third-base line, so as Howard trotted around the bases, the backdrop for me was the backs of all those fans peering into the distance wondering if the ball would ever come to earth.
And Howard was just recovering from the flu.
February 24, 2006
Don't know much about history?
If you don't read readers' comments on this blog, you missed two interesting ones about American history in response to "Sneak preview," my entry on Ken Burns and his World War II project. I'll copy excerpts of those comments below, hoping to spur more comments from readers -- positive and negative -- about the teaching of American history. Please chime in.
Reader one: "When I was in high school, back before there was electric lighting, my history teacher sort of back-loaded the agenda. He got so carried away with old history that he never got to new history, i.e., the 2d World War. I suspect that this same thing is true today. . . .
"It's sad how little the average American knows of his country's history or governing traditions, and that lack of knowledge can help to erode those traditions."
And reader two: "My son, a sophomore at CHS, was studying last night for a history test on WWII. His brother is a junior at CHS who took 'Land of Promise' (American History) last year. Neither knew who the Axis powers were. My son the junior couldn't identify where D-Day took place, even though every night he plays 'Medal of Honor' a computer simulation game from WWII. He wasn't sure what decade it occurred."
February 22, 2006
Work in progress
Sen. John E. Sununu came to the Monitor for an editorial board meeting today. You can read about the substance of the interview in the paper, but I walked away from the meeting thinking about what kind of senator Sununu has become - or is becoming.
The question that prompted this musing came from Ari Richter, our opinion editor. He asked Sununu to assess his Senate colleague, John McCain.
McCain, Sununu said, is passionate about his work and more intense than most senators. He can turn his passion into action. “He understands how to use his skills to be an effective senator,” Sununu said.
I regret that we did not follow up by asking Sununu to assess his own performance. But here are my impressions on the basis of both the interview and a decade of watching him in public office.
Sununu has just finished his third year in the Senate. He is a party regular most of the time, but when he runs with an issue, he does so from conviction. Most recently he bucked the White House on the Patriot Act. Before that he became an outspoken leader on Social Security reform, an issue the White House was pushing.
I disliked Sununu’s plan for Social Security privatization, but he is right about runaway entitlements. Based on his reading of coming election cycles, it could be six years before a president or Congress moves Social Security to the top of the national agenda again.
Not that anyone should go tilting at windmills, but I’ll be disappointed if Sununu doesn’t find ways to keep both Social Security and Medicare in the public eye. He could make entitlements reform a signature issue, as Sen. Warren Rudman did with deficit reduction.
Sununu’s biggest positive is that he is brainy and serious. I had a puckish fondness for Bob Smith, whom Sununu bumped out of office in a hot GOP primary in 2002, but Sununu brings much more to the table than Smith did. Although Sununu can be as excruciatingly deliberate in speech as he is cool in demeanor, he has a strong grasp on the facts behind the issues. This is true whether you’re talking about Hamas’s prospects in the Middle East or alternative energy sources.
The Monitor endorsed Jeanne Shaheen against Sununu in the 2002 election. I strongly believe the country would be better off with divided government, that is, with the out party in charge of at least one chamber of Congress. I disagree with Sununu on fundamental issues, from his support for the Iraq war to his pro-life views on abortion rights. I wish he were more independent of ideology.
All that said, there are worse things than having a really smart U.S. senator who keeps his ego in check and sometimes takes principled stands and follows through on them.
February 21, 2006
Ken Burns’s latest mega-project is World War II. He and his company have been working on a 15-hour documentary to be aired next year.
Yesterday at St. Paul’s School, where his daughter was once a student, Burns showed excerpts from a rough cut. He told the students they were the first people outside his Walpole studio to see any of the work.
Why World War II? In speaking with the students, Burns cited two pieces of polling data about American perceptions of the war. If the data is correct, half of Americans believe the wars in the European and Pacific theaters were fought in different time frames. Four in ten think the United States fought as Germany's ally against the Russians.
Will Burns do for World War II what he did for the Civil War? Will he put his distinctive stamp on the war? Will his documentary stir the public to talk and read about the seminal American event of the 20th century as he stirred it to talk and read about the seminal American event of the 19th century?
More than 15 years has passed since Burns’s Civil War documentary aired. I’m not sure anything on television this side of the grand finale of American Idol can capture the kind of audience that Burns’s Civil War did. That series truly became a national experience, connecting the public with its history in a way that no other television event has.
The public should have even more personal reasons for watching Burns’s World War II documentary. Even more than 60 years later, most of us have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who lived through it -- or didn't.
As a subject, World War II also has some technological advantages over the Civil War, the main one being moving pictures. The snippets screened for the students at St. Paul’s yesterday showed the bodies of U.S. Marines bobbing in the surf off the beaches at Tarawa. Such images tell a story as no still picture can.
No doubt Burns knows more about story-telling than he did in the 1980s, when he made his Civil War film. But even then he knew the importance of telling such a big story chronoligically. He is committed to this approach for World War II, which should give viewers a sense of just how global the war was for their forbears.
To narrow that approach to particulars, he has chosen to tell the story from an American perspective through the experiences of four municipalities: Mobile, Sacramento, Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn.
From the little bit of the film I saw, and from what Burns said, he plans to do much more than follow the fascinating stories of veterans and others from those four places. He will also show the distant social and economic milieu of that time. He will tell the story of race (a favorite theme, whatever his subject), of the internment of Japanese-Americans, of the place of Jews in our society and of how the Holocaust dawned on the American conscience.
Something else might happen as a result of the Burns film. It could be that editors like me all over the country will look for ways to tell their communities’ and states’ World War II histories in conjunction with the documentary’s showing. Burns appears to have chosen his communities well, but this is a big country, and World War II dominated life in every community.
Anyway, it was a privilege to get an early peek at Burns’s project. I hope he succeeds. I hope he reawakens Americans to their history. What happened then matters now, and the better we understand it, the more confidently we can face the future.
February 17, 2006
Question No. 6b
A blog respondent asks:
Why are Republicans who are in the middle often labeled “moderate” while Democrats who are in the middle often labeled “conservative?”
I’ve always disliked such labels and counseled journalists at the Monitor to avoid using them. I also dislike characterizations like long shot, dark horse and frontrunner in news copy during election campaigns.
But they do sneak into print. The reason is not so much that the news media aim to pigeonhole politicians. Rather, it is in the nature of our business to try to inform people in the quickest and most concise way possible. Labels can be convenient shorthand in a complex story.
That said, I’m not sure I buy the premise of the question. Centrists in both parties are often referred to as moderates.
And “liberal,” "moderate” and “conservative” don’t mean what they used to. Unless Goldwater conservatives of 1964 have changed with the times, which many no doubt have, some would be seen as moderate today. The evolving meanings of these labels is another reason to avoid applying them to politicians in print.
February 15, 2006
Question No. 6a
The questioner in yesterday's entry responds:
"Do you think the media favors moderate/dissenting Republicans over conservative Democrats? For example, Joe Lieberman rarely seems to enjoy the type of generous coverage that Hagel, McCain, Chafee, et.al regularly receive. When Lieberman crossed party lines recently to support President Bush on a several issues related to the war in Iraq, I didn't see any editorials or profiles championing his brave stand against Harry Reid.
"President Clinton complains in his autobiography of suffering from a similar phenomenon, especially on welfare reform and deficit reduction.
"Are conservative Democrats just less enticing subjects than maverick Republicans?"
I don't think so. Just to cite the Lieberman example, the story of his pro-Iraq war stance did get widespread play. Not all of it was unfavorable. The Monitor editorial on the subject appreciated Lieberman's sincerity and consistency on the Iraq war while disagreeing with his position. It also said the Democratic Party needs to be big enough to include Lieberman and his views.
Further on Lieberman: He got extensive coverage during the 2004 Democratic primary. I mean, he literally moved to New Hampshire for that campaign. But for voters it proved not to be a case of "the more I see Joe, the more I like him." Press coverage, and editorials, reflected this.
On Clinton: The only thing he has to complain about is too much coverage on certain subjects. I think his complaint in the biography was that the media didn't give him enough credit for deficit reduction and welfare reform. His administration produced balanced budgets, but because the economy was booming, how much credit he should get for that is open to question. Clinton may well deserve more credit on welfare reform, which was a smart direction for him, the party and the country. But that's just my opinion, and opinions on this varied widely during and after the debate.
I don't think the conservative Democrats vs. Republican mavericks comparison is the right one. Almost everything depends on political skills and strategy. And, of course, if you're looking for a conservative - or at least moderate - Democrat who attracted heavy media interest from the get-go, Clinton is exhibit A.
February 14, 2006
Question No. 6
My Sunday entry touted Joe Lelyveld’s profile of Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible Republican contender for president, in Sunday’s Times Magazine. In response, a reader suggested that the story might be “yet another example of the mainstream media’s bias towards non-mainstream Republicans.” He asked:
“As an editor, do you think the media is biased towards figures like McCain, Bruce Bartlett and Hagel? Do reporters gravitate towards these politicians because they are skeptics of the Iraq war, or support condoms in Africa, or occasionally oppose Bush? Or is it just that their unpredictable quotes make good copy?”
Through my experience here during seven presidential primary campaigns, I’ve come to think that, in general, candidates get the coverage they deserve. This also applies beyond New Hampshire in presidential races.
I understand what the reader is suggesting, but I don’t buy his premise that journalists operate out of political bias. Rather their decisions on who gets what coverage depend on how accessible, candid and interesting the candidates are. Especially in a grassroots campaign like New Hampshire’s, the media are just that: media. They convey to interested, savvy voters what – and how – the candidates are doing.
The example that might best speak to the reader’s question was the 2000 New Hampshire race between Sen. John McCain and Gov. George W. Bush.
At the time, the definition of “mainstream Republican” was in flux. The Gingrich revolution had petered out, and the party had been out of the White House for nearly eight years. Bush was certainly the establishment candidate – he had all the money. But his positions on the major issues facing the country were mostly unknown.
Bush used the money, in part, to insulate himself from the populace. His campaign events in New Hampshire were staged, infrequent and business-oriented. He did not use New Hampshire’s grassroots tradition to define himself and to meet the public and answer voters’ questions. Nor did he allow much media access.
McCain, meanwhile, rode around New Hampshire on a bus called the Straight Talk Express. He did 114 “town meetings” in which he usually stayed until the last voter's question was answered. He was almost always available to the media and, as advertised, at least seemed to say what he meant and mean what he said.
The media’s coverage of the two candidates had little to do with ideology. Rather it reflected the way they ran their campaigns. Reporters are paid to be perceptive. They know when a candidate is dodging them or delivering canned lines. They like it better when a candidate is available and willing to talk.
Of course, along the campaign trail in New Hampshire you’ll find the gravestones of plenty of straight-talking one-time media sweethearts from both parties who did not become president. These include McCain, Bob Kerrey, latter-day Bob Dole, Bill Bradley, the late Paul Tsongas and the likable Patrick Buchanan.
Now, about Hagel, Lelyveld and 2008.
I don;t know why Lelyveld chose Hagel as a subject, but it might have started with the Nebraska connection. In his memoir, Omaha Blues, Lelyveld writes about his parents’ sending him, at the age of 9, to live with strangers on a Nebraska farm. Hagel’s dirt-poor, knock-around childhood in Nebraska is a riveting segment of the profile.
On politics, Hagel, like Bush, is pro-life, pro-defense and pro-tax cut. I took from the profile that Hagel has three big differences with the president. He had doubts from the outset about the wisdom of invading Iraq. He thinks even a person with strong religious convictions can – and usually should – separate those convictions from his or her public life. And Hagel believes Bush’s big federal programs – No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit – were mistakes.
Yes, Hagel’s old-fashioned notion of separation of church and state will be a problem with the religious right. But do his positions really put him outside the Republican mainstream? I hope not.
It’s way too early to handicap the next presidential primary, much as I wish the campaign would start tomorrow. Lelyveld’s profile raised the right question at this stage: If McCain runs, will Hagel?
February 13, 2006
Old-fashioned love songs
I have a friend with an odd hobby. I have never heard of anyone else with such a hobby. But it is a wonderful hobby, and Valentine’s eve seems like a good time to mention it here.
My friend’s name is Al Hutchison. I have known him for more than half a century. When I was a tyke, he was the best friend of an older cousin of mine. Later, our paths crossed often throughout our careers. I occasionally wrote for him when he was a Sunday magazine editor. He hired me as an editor in Florida and later recommended me to the Monitor’s publisher. We were both editors of northern New England newspapers when he retired six years ago.
But Hutch’s hobby (alter-ego, actually) has nothing to do with journalism. He is a closet deejay. For nearly 20 years, he has made programs and mailed them to his friends, first as tape cassettes, now as CDs.
The programs consist of 16-20 songs with Hutch’s commentary in between. He knows music – classical, jazz, blues and swing especially, but also some folk and country and even a little rock. He has introduced me to many terrific performers that I might never have heard without him, including the late Eva Cassidy, the late Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, and Mark Knopfler in his non-Dire Straits personae. He’s also made me appreciate such before-my-time greats as Etta James and Nat King Cole.
Often Hutch ties something going on in his life to the music we listeners are about to hear. Occasionally his programs have a theme. He has done memoirs and travelogues, for example, and made several programs of New Orleans jazz and Zydeco after Hurricane Katrina devastated the state.
Hutch calls his station WKIT – an acronym for “We’re Keeping In Touch” – and he emphasizes the “we.” He wants feedback. A side benefit for his audience is that some of us (though far from all) have known each other in past lives. Some are even related. When he hears news from a listener, Hutch often finds a way to work it into his next program, multiplying the notion of keeping in touch.
Valentine’s eve seems like a good day to mention Hutch’s unusual hobby here because his CD for the holiday was listeners’ choice. He borrowed an idea (from NPR, I think) and asked each listener to let him know his or her favorite love song.
This was a harder question than it seemed. Over a couple of days, two dozen songs riffed through my head before I settled on Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream on,” which I knew from Sleepless in Seattle (Greg Brown’s “This Band of Gold,” Elvis’s “Loving You” and Cole’s “Unforgettable” were other finalists).
Anyway, with thanks to my friend Hutch, here’s the play list for one of the two CDs he made for WKIT listeners for Valentine’s Day 2006:
Art Garfunkel – Disney Girls
London cast, West Side Story – One Heart, One Hand
Louis Armstrong – A Kiss To Build a Dream on
Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Bing Crosby – Let Me Call You Sweetheart
Eva Cassidy – Yesterday
Andy M. Stewart – A Fond Kiss
Barbra Streisand – Evergreen
Ray Price – For the Good Times
ABBA – The Dancing Queen
Willie Nelson – Harbor Lights
The Spitfire Band – At Last
Patsy Cline – Crazy
The Four Aces – Love Is a Many Splendored Thing
Jo Stafford – If I Loved You
Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey – This Love Of Mine
Ella Fitzgerald – Every Time We Say Goodbye
Michael Buble – The More I See You
Patsy Cline – I Fall to Pieces
Frank Sinatra – My Funny Valentine
Diane Schuur – My One and Only Love
February 12, 2006
Check this out
Today's New York Times Sunday Magazine has a terrific profile by Joe Lelyveld of Sen. Chuck Hagel. It's one of those early introductions that New Hampshire presidential primary watchers feast on in the long off-season.
Hagel's a conservative Republican and Vietnam combat veteran who has been critical of the Iraq war and President Bush's big domestic programs. He's not committed to a run for the presidency, but he's thinking hard about it and visiting all the right places, including a trip to New Hampshire next month.
The profile is fascinating. Check it out.
February 09, 2006
In my mail stack yesterday was a letter from Irene Ackley of Concord. Here’s how it began: “In 1939, Vincent Lombardi was hired to coach football at my small high school – St. Cecelia’s – in Englewood, N.J.”
Regular readers of the Monitor will quickly guess why Mrs. Ackley was writing to the paper about her brush with the man whose name adorns the Super Bowl trophy. Her account will soon run on page B1 as part of “Seeing stars,” our irregular series in which local readers tell us about their encounters with famous people. The latest in that series – Tom Laurie’s two-hour 1974 conversation with Jimmy Stewart – ran earlier this week.
I can’t imagine readers not enjoying these personal accounts. As time goes by, I expect we’ll receive many more letters and calls with stories like Mrs. Ackley’s.
“Seeing stars” appears in what it known internally as “the rail.” This is the one-column strip down the left side of lead Local & State page. Before we introduced our new type faces last November, that column was called Noteworthy. Just one problem with that: Little noteworthy ever showed up there.
As we worked on the Monitor’s content-driven redesign, we set out to make the rail a must-read – something readers would look to even on their busiest days to be informed and entertained and to learn something new about their neighbors and their place. Sometimes a short piece of interesting breaking news appears there, too.
But the key has been to turn the rail into a variety show. We want readers to come to it with high expectations but to be surprised by what they find. Yesterday, in our “5 questions” series, the subject was a woman who had gone swimming for charity (br-r-r-r) last weekend. Some days you’ll see an unusual New Hampshire eBay item in the rail. Others you might learn an interesting tidbit of local history.
The Ed Sullivan of our variety show is Hans Schulz, the Monitor's longtime city editor. With plenty of help from the entire staff and contributions from readers, it is up to him to keep the rail fun, informative, quirky and interactive.
When we introduced the rail four months ago, some of us – including Hans – worried about whether we’d be able to keep it up. So far, so good.
And as we move forward with our overhaul of content in the Monitor’s arts and entertainment coverage, you can bet we’ll be trying to involve and engage readers in similar ways.
February 03, 2006
Question No. 5 (We get letters)
How do you decide which letters to print?
During public appearances and meetings with readers who visit the Monitor, this is the question I am almost always asked.
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the Monitor devotes more space than most newspapers to letters. The second, a logical partner of the first, is that Monitor readers are so outspoken, well-spoken, sharp, cranky, warm, funny and thoughtful that their letters get high readership. Every survey we have ever done confirms the popularity of the letters columns.
I have been handling Monitor letters to the editor for nearly 25 years, and it is one of my favorite tasks. In an age when fewer and fewer people write letters, I get more than a dozen almost every day. Increasingly they come by e-mail, but that makes my job easier. It means we can publish letters in a timelier manner, and it tends to mean – note the “tends” – that the letters are shorter. Most people see e-mail as a medium for quick notes.
From my perspective, short is good. Less is more. The more you can boil down your point, the sharper you will make it and the more readers you will attract.
Now, to get to my point . . .
We publish almost all the letters we receive from within the Monitor’s circulation area on issues on public interest. This is a wide berth, and when in doubt, we err on the side of publication.
I edit most letters, which means I fix spelling and grammar, correct obvious errors and break up overlong sentences. Nearly every letter you read in the paper has been cut. The main purpose for this is to create more room for other writers.
We have a couple of dozen regular letter writers. This does not trouble me as long as they are not repetitious. I am relatively strict in enforcing the rule that no writer may appear in the paper more often than once every two weeks.
We publish some letters from elsewhere in the state. These are almost always on state issues. Often they are about Monitor content since that content is now available online.
We publish a few letters from outside the state, especially those that comment on Monitor content or make a good point that I have not seen in other letters.
Occasionally, a national interest group floods us with letters, presumably after someone has linked members to a Monitor story through the group’s website or a blast email. This has happened most recently with the anti-Justice Souter gang and with divorced fathers angry about custody and child-support issues. We run only one or two such letters to give readers a flavor of the mail.
And occasionally, at the editor’s (my) whimsy, we run letters from far-flung places. Even though the internet is no longer a novel technology, I remain amazed by how many corners of the Earth the Monitor reaches.
Dec. 29 was a red-letter day in this respect, as, one beneath the other, we published letters from Thunder Bay, Ont., and Nakhon Pathom, Thailand.
February 02, 2006
Et tu, Moskowitz?
In one hoot of a letter to the editor, Rep. Steve Vaillancourt of Manchester pronounces Monitor reporter Eric Moskowitz:
– Guilty of liberal bias.
– A demonizer (of Vaillancourt, of course).
– A willing dupe.
– A fellow traveler.
That’s a mouthful even for Vaillancourt, whose words often get away from him.
Moskowitz’s fine reporting needs no defense from me, but in case you missed it, here is the item from Moskowitz’s Sunday Capital Beat column that set Vaillancourt off. And even if you didn’t miss it, I thought you might want to refresh your memory before reading Vaillancourt’s letter, which I’ve pasted in below it and which will run in tomorrow’s Monitor.
Fightin’ words, left at the beep
Manchester Democratic Rep. Jean Jeudy, the first Haitian-American in the House, was honored recently at the first annual Lionel Washington Johnson Dinner, held in memory of the late Manchester lawmaker and NAACP leader.
The controversial Al Sharpton was the keynote speaker – prompting Rep. Steve Vaillancourt to leave the following message on Jeudy’s answering machine:
“Lionel Johnson was a friend of mine, Lionel Johnson sat in front of me for many years in the State House, Lionel Johnson would be rolling over in his grave to see that people like you – supposedly honorable people – would share a stage with that charlatan from New York City, that racist who happens to be black but is equally vile as any white racist, Al Sharpton! Shame on you, Representative, for sharing the stage in the name of Lionel Johnson with that bigoted racist Al Sharpton.”
The message was extremely upsetting to Jeudy’s wife, Elvire, who was the first to hear it, and who suffers from heart problems and high blood pressure. Jeudy was not amused.
“My wife is my life, so that’s why I am really mad,” Jeudy said. “I told (Vaillancourt), ‘For me, this is harassment,’ and I told him, ‘Don’t call my house anymore. You’re not my friend.’ . . . This is the first time in Manchester somebody disrespected me like that.”
Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, said he was just trying to give Jeudy notice he would be slamming him on his cable-access TV program.
“Before I criticize anybody on my show, I feel that I should let them know what I’m about to do. I don’t feel like you should just randomly or wantonly criticize somebody.”
And here's Vaillancourt’s letter:
Every time I begin to think it’s wrong to accuse the media of a liberal bias, along comes a piece like your columnist Eric Moskowitz wrote last week, and it becomes clear the bias is alive and well.
I took a half hour to explain to Moskowitz why I was appalled when Manchester Democrats chose to honor my friend the late Lionel Johnson by bringing in a despicable demagogue like Al Sharpton. I provided Moskowitz with backup documentation, a piece in which Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jakoby accused the media of giving Sharpton a pass.
Sharpton has incited riots that have led to numerous deaths.
Moskowitz ignored all that and tried to demonize me for pointing out Sharpton’s record. Manchester Democrats should have apologized for bringing Sharpton in, but instead they decided to use Moskowitz as a willing dupe. As Zell Miller was fond of saying, “A hit dog barks,” and this dog was yelping to high heaven!
Moskowitz went out of his way to make it seem like I was “harassing” Rep. Jean for noting his unfortunate participation in the Sharpton dinner. He even brought Rep. Jeudy’s high blood pressure into the equation.
If Jeudy cannot take criticism when he does a vile thing like appearing with Sharpton, he should either get out of the kitchen we call politics or tell his wife not to answer the phone.
I get numerous calls far more critical of me and do not run off to the liberal media trying to hide behind someone’s skirt. Jeudy compounds his shame of being involved with Sharpton, and your young Moskowitz proves that there are indeed fellow travelers in the media.
February 01, 2006
Thanks to a five-star recommendation from Barry Steelman, Concord’s Movie Man, I saw Hustle & Flow last weekend and was pleased yesterday to see its star, Terrence Howard, nominated for an acting Oscar. Barry had predicted as much.
I stopped liking violence on the screen long enough ago that I’ve never seen Braveheart or Gladiator. And I’ll admit to a certain reluctance to rent Hustle & Flow as well as a rush of anxiety when its climax approached. As it turned out, I had to close my eyes for only a few moments.
If I hadn’t rented the film, I’d have missed a truly fine performance.
Howard plays a small-time Memphis pimp, drug dealer and wannabe rapper. Considering this occupational profile, it’s hard for me to believe what a sympathetic character his DJay was – how American, how resourceful, how striving, how responsible, how tender. Howard acts with his face, his voice, his body and his every movement.
I haven’t watched any of the other Oscar-nominated actors, but if any of them beats out Howard, I want to see the picture.
January 31, 2006
Avery Blodgett was a wisp of a boy with stooped shoulders and a vague look on his face. He wasn’t much of a ballplayer, but no one on Bill’s Enterprises looked like a future David Ortiz. Often, John Fensterwald and I, who coached Bill’s in one of Concord’s T-ball leagues in 1990, looked out into the outfield at White’s Park and saw our outfielders standing with their backs to home plate.
But Avery was different. He didn’t care about winning or losing or baseball. He seldom spoke, had no friends and hid his emotions. The only time you really noticed him was when he was doing something mean or destructive. It might be as simple as jumping in a puddle to splatter a teammate with mud. Or he might tug on the shoddy chain-link fence behind the bench until a sharp stray wire was pointing out at chest level.
John Fensterwald, the Monitor’s editorial page editor at the time and my longtime pal, often sat on the bench speaking quietly and patiently with Avery. Many of the children on our team came from affluent families, and although we knew little specific about Avery’s home life, we knew he did not. But with a dozen or more other children to look after, neither John nor I felt like the time we gave Avery did much to compensate for whatever might be missing from his life.
I found it frustrating to talk with him. Five minutes after I;d tell him to stop poking another player with a stick, he’d be back at it again. More than once, John and I told each other that Avery was going to wind up at prison someday. And we meant it. A coldness in his behavior and our inability to connect with him gave us this sense.
And so, although my heart sank, I was not surprised when I read last week that Avery had been indicted on bank robbery charges. He already had a record, including the brutal 1999 home-invasion robbery of an elderly couple in Dunbarton.
I’m certain that in the years after that one season on our baseball team, Avery was the beneficiary of many second chances and special educational opportunities in Concord. And it was predictable that nothing worked.
I’m sure veteran local teachers pick up each day’s Monitor with a combination of hope and apprehension, knowing that they will see their own predictions for their students confirmed. Many former students will make productive adult lives for themselves, even after hitting bumpy patches as teenagers. And a few will wind up in trouble with the law. Of these, the teachers will tell you they knew way back when that this was going to happen.
On the basis of my experience with Avery, I now know how sad and bitter this feeling is. You do what you can for him when he is 8. If you live in community like Concord, you know that many adults more capable than you will try to help him find his way in the years to come. But you are pretty sure, even when he is a small boy in a Little League T-shirt, where his life is headed.
January 30, 2006
If it bleeds, it leads?
Ted Koppel, late of Nightline, had a terrific piece in the op-ed section of Sunday’s New York Times. It appeared under the headline “And Now, a Word for Our Demographic.” Koppel wrote that television news was in “decline and distress.” Gone, he wrote, were the days when “the audience for network news was made up of everyone with a television set” and networks protected their news divisions from the pressures of the market so they could do ambitious reporting. I can’t link to the whole piece because the Times considers it premium, meaning paid, content, but here are excerpts that convey its essence:
“Most television news programs are . . . designed to satisfy the perceived appetites of our audiences. That may be not only acceptable but unavoidable in entertainment; in news, however, it is the journalists who should be telling their viewers what is important, not the other way around. . . .
“Right now the main agenda is to give people what they want. It is not partisanship but profitability that shapes what you see. . . .
“Now television news should not become a sort of intellectual broccoli to be jammed down our viewers’ unwilling throats. We are obliged to make our offerings as palatable as possible. But there are too many important things happening in the world today to allow the diet to be determined to such a degree by the popular tastes of a relatively narrow and apparently uninterested demographic.”
The struggle Koppel describes has its counterpart in newspapers. More than ever, economic conditions press editors to give the readers what they want. What should be our lead story: new efforts to preserve open space in New Hampshire or the day’s testimony from a lurid murder trial? The governor’s State of the State message or the local teacher caught stealing money?
In each of those pairings, we know which story will attract more readers. We know which one, placed at the top of page one, is likely to lead to a slight bump in newsstand sales the next morning. But which has more substance? Which should – as opposed to would – matter most to readers?
We know which strories attract readers not just from intuition and experience but from a new tool: our online edition, on which we can track how many readers call up particular stories each day. Partly these numbers are driven by the display on the front page of the web site. Our online editors are not obliged to follow the choices we make on the actual front page. They generally give good display to what they think will draw the most readers and lesser display to stories like State of the State addresses and land conservation. Overwhelmingly the Monitor’s online readers choose mayhem, celebrities and sex over politics and policy.
Does this mean we should alter our news judgment on page one on the printed paper? Many papers are doing it. If you haven’t checked out the Union Leader lately, give it a look. The UL’s front page has gone whole hog into the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality that guides local television news.
As editor of the Monitor, I’ve got my finger in the dike on this trend. Sure, we cover crime and fires – it’s the news – but it is important to resist the tidal wave of sensationalism in the news business. When I see a Union Leader front page with a story lineup that includes a rape, a murder, a police chase, a fire and a sex scandal, my first thought is that this page does not mirror the state I know. It’s probably wishful thinking, but I also wonder if the public really has an appetite for this and only this.
I hope you can find a copy of Koppel’s thoughtful commentary. His subject is television news, and in the piece he lays out an interesting short history of that particular institution. But Koppel’s concerns apply across the spectrum of media from which you get your news every day.
January 27, 2006
King of the blues
I celebrated Mozart’s 250th birthday a day early last night by going to see and hear B.B. King at Concord’s Capitol Center for the Arts.
Reading the program notes, it struck me that if King had died at the same age as Mozart, you might never have heard of the King of the Blues. He was in his 40s when he hit the mainstream charts. Mozart died at 35.
Because music is more peripheral in my life than I wish it were, the program notes told me several other things I was embarrassed not to know. I had no idea where the B.B. came from. Well, he originally called himself Beale Street Blues Boy, shortened it to Blues Boy and shortened it again to B.B.
I’m sure his show isn’t what it used to be. He is 80 years old, has diabetes and can’t stand up to play and sing. He’s a good talker, but my guess is he talks a lot more during shows now than he used to.
I saw Elvis Presley perform not long before he died. The show was a disappointment not because Elvis was bloated and slow afoot but because he never sang a song all the way through. Everything was a medley or a short version of a song that wasn’t all that long to begin with. King’s show suffers a bit from this tendency.
But hey, King has not lost his magic. Lucille, his Gibson guitar, still speaks his distinctive language, marked by his signature “sliding ‘bent’ note,” as the program calls it. In smirks and winces and grins, his facial expression dances to the music.
At the Cap Center, he sat center stage, a Buddha figure with a slice-of-moon smile and a shock of white hair. When he first leaned toward the microphone to sing, I wondered if age and wear would tell in his great blues bellow of a voice. No such thing. King was King, and the house was his.
It was probably his anyway. He could have belched and the audience would have whooped and applauded. I didn’t count how many times saxophonist Melvin Jackson shouted out that B.B. King was “THE KING OF THE BLUES.” That’s part of the show, I know, but it wasn’t news to the people who came to see him.
My guess is that if he returns next year, which, between Viagra jokes and frequent compliments to “the ladies,” King promised to do, he’ll fill the house again at 81.
What an inspiration.
January 26, 2006
“The year of feeling powerless.”
That is the way a reader of my entry on the cancellation of The West Wing characterizes 2006. I am tempted to say, “Please, it’s only January,” but I know how the reader feels.
For those who see George W. Bush as a president leading the country in the wrong direction, and I count myself among them, hardly a day passes without depressing news. What makes me feel so powerless at this moment is that it is almost pointless to object.
Anyone out there want to write the editorial against the Alito nomination? What’s the point? Bush said Justice Antonin Scalia was his model for Supreme Court appointments, and a majority of voters gave him a new term – and a Republican Senate. It’s too early to be certain, but it is possible that the Supreme Court will soon have four Scalias, making center-rightist Anthony Kennedy the new swing vote. And who knows how long Justice John Paul Stevens, who turns 86 in April, will hold out? Among other things, I think Alito’s appointment is a giant step backward toward the days when abortion rights were afforded to only rich women and their daughters. But apparently this is what the electorate wanted, and any protest against it is a whimper in the wind.
Anyone want to write the editorial challenging Bush on his claiming of executive privilege to keep secret what the White House knew about Hurricane Katrina and when it knew it? Be my guest. Bush established a regime of secrecy in the White House at the start of his first term when his vice president met privately with energy bigshots to establish the administration’s energy policy. Five years into Bush’s presidency, it’s hard to believe the public would judge Bush’s energy policy a success. But the electorate gave him a second term, so secrecy it is.
Anyone want to write the editorial pointing out that this conservative administration has meddled to ill effect in local education and in big federal social programs? Or that these conservatives have abandoned fiscal responsibility? Or that the Bush White House’s claims of bringing democracy to the Middle East are inflated?
If you think these are partisan observations, I disagree. I see no leadership among the Democrats – no eloquent voice presenting an alternative that will turn heads. There is not the slightest sign that the November U.S. Senate elections will produce some check on presidential power. Instead the Democrats give us boilerplate opposition and ceaseless trimming.
The White House, its compliant Congress and its increasingly compliant Supreme Court are sucking up all the power. Those who oppose their ideology and their policies have every reason to feel powerless.
January 24, 2006
The end is near
I am a West Wing diehard. All television shows run their course, but it pained me to hear that NBC was canceling this one at the end of the season.
The reasons for the show's demise are many. Some characters ran out of gas, one literally died, and fans looking for romance surely gave up long ago on Donna and Josh.
Also, the series could not duplicate a vital aspect of the genius of America: the peaceful transition of power.
The West Wing isn’t ER. You can’t just plug in another doc or nurse. Once the Bartlet presidency began to wind down, the writers of The West Wing failed to create a quick and compelling transition to a new and interesting president.
Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, two high-powered actors, have been running for president longer than an actual campaign, if you can believe that. If one of them actually won, the whole Bartlet White House would have to go. Same show, totally new cast – fat chance that would work.
I’ve enjoyed The West Wing for several reasons.
One is that Bartlet is from New Hampshire. This may seem parochial, but the real fun was watching for New Hampshire gaffes on the show – things about our state that the writers didn’t get quite right.
Another plus is plot complexity. The writing is excellent, and while I can’t follow every twist, it strikes me that the show is more life-like than some others because so many different things are going on at once.
Third, until the Bush presidency grew too pervasive to ignore, The West Wing created an alternative universe – a one-hour flight from reality.
In recent times, however, it hasn’t even been possible to guess when and whether The West Wing will be on. This seems to be the way of television these days – viewers are left to surmise because of spotty scheduling that a show is in its death throes. And the spotty scheduling can’t help but accelerate the demise.
Meanwhile, a pretender has arisen: the Geena Davis presidency. I like Davis as an actress. I think her show, Commander in Chief, is doing as much as popular culture can be expected to do to make the idea of a female president more plausible.
But by West Wing standards, the plots have been simplistic. The first few reminded me of the Roadrunner, with Davis as the roadrunner and Donald Sutherland as Wile E. Coyote. Of course, President Allen always overcame whatever Acme trick the cynical Sutherland had in his bag.
Now the show has changed tactics. The last episode I saw had Davis saving the world from nuclear war. A little subtlety would go a long way in the writing of this show.
At any rate, I’ll miss The West Wing. President Jed Bartlet filled a need I haven’t even mentioned. He lightened my psychic load, giving me hope that someday someone other than Franklin Pierce could actually be elected president from New Hampshire.
January 20, 2006
An "ordinary citizen"
Next Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, which took the lives of Concord teacher Christa McAuliffe and six astronauts. This morning I watched a tape of the program CNN will air in observance of the anniversary. Nearly all the images from 1985 and 1986 were familiar to me. I was present for some of them, and I directed the Monitor’s coverage of all of them.
The center of the CNN program is Framingham, Mass., the city McAuliffe came from, not Concord, the city where she lived and where her space mission became one of the biggest news stories ever.
CNN addressed the reason for this directly: Steve McAuliffe, Christa’s widower, wanted to live his life and bring up his children in privacy. The community respected his wishes and even, to a large extent, followed his lead. Framingham, by contrast, openly celebrates its first daughter. The film prominently features Christa’s mother and siblings, but Steve is present only in old clips and photographs.
As editor of the Monitor, I dread when these anniversaries roll around. There is little new to say, and it is a challenge to say the right thing. But there is no choice but to report on the anniversaries. Christa and the Challenger are still a Concord story, and the Monitor is Concord’s newspaper.
I respect Concord’s attitude about the disaster. Those of us who were here in 1986 all have our private memories and thoughts. The events of that time touch emotions that are at once deep and near the surface. The loss of Christa still seems unbelievably sad and senseless. For me at least, one of the dreams that propelled her – space as the last frontier – died with her.
But we are proud that Christa was such a great teacher, parent, humanitarian, feminist and communicator. She was so Concord – everything we strive to be, all the qualities we want to see in ourselves.
And yet the telling of her story, whether by CNN or the Monitor or any other media outlet, cannot help but portray her as a saint, a hero, a symbol. By contrast, much was made at the time of the Challenger mission of Christa as an ordinary person. Steve had these words engraved on her gravestone: “America's first ordinary citizen to venture toward space.”
Christa was ordinary in the best sense of the word: one of us, sharing and embracing our interests, striving to make the future better, but also human, with human flaws.
In one scene, the CNN documentary captures her attempt to retain her ordinariness despite her celebrity. This comes during her farewell address to Concord High: If I can do this, you can achieve your dreams, too, she tells the students.
Ordinary is how Christa McAuliffe was known in our community even before she was chosen as teacher in space. Part of the loss Concord still feels is in the way the events of 1985 and ’86 erased that part of the story.
(The CNN program, Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars, is scheduled for broadcast Sunday night at 8 and 11 and next Saturday and Sunday at 6 a.m. and 3, 8 and 11 p.m.)
January 19, 2006
Question No. 4
In the Local & State section of today’s Monitor, you published a story about five Concord teenagers arrested for vandalism. Yet only one of those arrested was named and had her picture in the paper. Why?
As the story points out, the identified girl is 17 and the four others are younger – one 16, three 15. In New Hampshire, 17-year-olds are treated as adults by the court system, those under 17 as juveniles. In reporting criminal cases, it is the Monitor’s practice to name adults when they are arrested.
That said, we had a discussion at today’s news meeting about this story.
The story came in late yesterday. It was not on the news budget at our 4 p.m. news meeting. Thus I was surprised to see it in the paper this morning. I reacted to it as both a veteran editor and a veteran parent.
The picture in particular gave me pause. The story was about five arrests, but I thought the picture made it seem to be much more about one arrest. I appreciate that the police department gives us photographs of crime suspects. They add a great deal to our coverage. And I know the rules – 17 and older and the law considers you an adult, under 17 and you’re a juvenile. But experience tells me that a child’s 17th birthday does not necessarily confer adulthood on him or her. Some 15-year-olds are more mature than 17-year-olds, and even the brightest and seemingly most responsible teenagers do stupid things. It also seemed to me that, while destructive and perhaps even malicious, the vandalism was essentially a dumb prank.
All I have just written, I have written with hindsight not available to the editors making the decisions last night. When we discussed the issue at today’s news meeting, there were several opinions around the table. I think if I had had all the facts before me beforehand, I would have run the story as written – with the 17-year-old named – and as played – across the top of the Local & State section. It was, after all, a strong news story. But I would not have run the picture.
My hope after today’s Monday morning quarterbacking is that if something similar happens in the future, the editors will have a lively internal discussion of all the factors, call me or Managing Editor Felice Belman if they need another opinion and make a sound decision.
Whatever editors decide on such questions is a judgment, and thus open to criticism. We all learn from the process.
(Footnote: When we report on motor vehicle violations or accidents, the names of the drivers are public record even if they are 16, and thus we publish the names.)
January 17, 2006
Sometimes the best response to a really bad idea is to shut up about it. But sometimes not.
The effort to “take” U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s house in Weare is a really bad idea. Nevertheless, the nature of the media today assures that at town meeting time, the proposal will draw TV cameras and shock-talk yahoos out of the woodwork.
The anti-Souter crusade began in June after the Supreme Court upheld the decision by New London, Conn., to use the power of eminent domain to seize residential property for a commercial redevelopment project. Logan Darrow Clements, a California man unhappy with Souter’s vote with the majority in this case, proposed taking Souter’s home and building the Lost Liberty Hotel in its place.
If you’ve been reading the Monitor’s editorial and forum pages in recent weeks, you know that people in Weare who support Clements's idea are actually trying to wrest credit for this publicity stunt from him. Their fear is that Weare residents will deep-six the proposal if they think outsiders instigated it.
Never mind that townspeople will deep-six it anyway. Souter is Weare’s favorite son and most famous resident. If it had been entirely up to him, he never would have left the place. The vast majority of residents will support him even if they think he was wrong in the New London case. Judges make judgments, and judgments guarantee disagreement.
Besides, the grounds on which Clements and his local posse are operating are beyond foolish. The New London ruling upheld states’ rights and local control – values dear to libertarian hearts. The court did not approve the taking of residential property for a hotel; it approved local citizens’ rights to decide such questions for themselves without a federal bigfoot stepping in to stop them.
There is more wrong with the effort to seize Souter’s home. It is tinged with anger. It turns political disappointment into a personal vendetta. It is the height of phony populism. “If we are unable to acquire Souter’s property, the nation will see that the elite and powerful are exempt from the rules that govern the rest of us,” wrote one local advocate. And while purporting to advance the American dream, this effort ignores the bedrock on which that dream is founded: the rule of law.
The vast majority of the people of Weare will do the right thing when this issue comes before them. Even those who disagree with the New London ruling will see this grandstanding for what it is.
January 16, 2006
A winter's tale
When people weren’t talking about the Patriots’ demise today, they were talking about the weather. We’ve all heard the old saw that if you don’t like the weather in New England, just stick around for five minutes. Maybe outsiders don’t quite get it, so let me tell you about my weekend.
My wife and I decided to get a cabin-fever inoculation. We like art, and I saw on the web that the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass., was in the final two days of a Winslow Homer show. Because Robert Sterling Clark, the founder, was an avid Homer collector, we knew it would be a good show. We also wanted to see the modern art museum in North Adams, known as Mass MoCA for short.
We set out late Saturday morning in a drizzle. At some points during the 2¼-hour drive, the drizzle became a downpour. The rain sped the melt of the snow cover, and a mist hovered above the ground. It was a dark and gloomy drive through rolling country that is normally lovely. The car thermometer peaked at 53 degrees, a breathtaking number for mid-January.
We had a good time at Mass MoCA, spent the night at a hotel, and visited the Clark the next day before heading back to Concord in mid-afternoon.
By then, a big wind had swept in a storm that left three to six inches of snow. I had heard the storm whistling and rattling the window panes as I watched the Patriots late Saturday night on the sixth floor of the Holiday Inn in North Adams.
But what a contrast to the drive the day before! Saturday’s rain had frozen on the roads, making it difficult for the crews to clear them. The wind whipped the snow into clouds of bright white spray along the way. It also caused drifting, meaning uneven layers of snow capped the ice sheet. There was little traffic, but the going was slow. In the hilly backroads of Vermont, the temperature on the car thermometer never made it up to double digits, bottoming out at 4 degrees – 49 degrees colder than just the afternoon before.
On the other hand, the landscape was beautiful – quintessential northern New England. New snow weighed down the limbs of the fir trees and covered the fields, houses and barns. Plumes of wood smoke dulled the sky. In deep woods, the sun’s rays cut through leafless branches and splashed on the snow bed.
In only 24 hours, the place had been utterly transformed. This is one of the things I have come to love about my home, although it does not seem totally rational. I mean, it was 4 degrees, the wind was cutting, and a snow-shoveling job awaited me back in Concord. But somehow this meeting a northern winter on its own terms makes life seem dear.
January 13, 2006
Question No. 3
From a longtime (and careful) reader: In your Jan. 12 story on the arrest of Concord City Councilor Red Brochu, you reported that “neither Brochu nor his lawyer . . . returned repeated phone calls.” Why not the more neutral language “could not be reached for comment?”
As a city editor for many years, I always asked my reporters to use “could not be reached for comment.” In most cases I still think it is a good practice. The only problem with it is that it gives the reader no indication of whether the reporter called once and got a busy signal or was persistent in trying to reach a person named in the story. Particularly when the person is a public figure, as Brochu is, the more specific phrase “did not return repeated phone calls” is both fair to the subject and more informative to readers.
In a letter to the editor published in today’s paper, a reader complains that the story on Brochu’s arrest was sensationalism. I disagree. No matter how good a citizen or public servant Brochu has been, the arrest of a public official was news. The difficulties caused by potential conflicts of interest in prosecuting a city councilor made the story even more newsworthy, as did the apparent reluctance of public officials to talk about the case. The story’s play at the top of the Local & State section was just right.
January 12, 2006
It does take a village
Over the last three nights PBS stations aired a six-hour documentary following two teenage boys in David, Kentucky, through their high school graduation and beyond. It was a disturbing story – not at all the kind of coming-of-age tale that books and movies prepare us for. You know the ones I mean: stories where young men and women overcome the dark family secret or the traumatic event or the raging father and live happily ever after. Usually such stories are told long after the fact, after the protaganist has gone on to a productive life. In Country Boys, the young men’s futures remain daunting.
The boys are Cody Perkins and Chris Johnson. Cody’s mother died when he was young. His father remarried, but when Cody was a boy, his father shot his stepmother and himself. Chris grew up in a trailer with a nervous, unhappy mother and an alcoholic father.
Cody and Chris both attended the David School, where the faculty goes to extraordinary ends to help its struggling students through. Despite an overlay of Baptist morality in the classroom that plays naturally in Kentucky but would never play in New England, the principal and the teachers are the stars of this story. They are the last chance for wayward teens in a dead-end town. They provide Chris with direction, gumption and even a place to live. They give Cody a bright shining moment that propels him into the world.
To boil the story down to its essence, Cody has one thing Chris doesn’t: unconditional love. He lives with a reserved step-grandmother who gives him the combination of freedom and guidance he needs. He has a steady girlfriend who is solid beyond her years. And he has the church, including a pastor who takes a big-brotherly interest in him.
Although Chris often gives up school in frustration, he excels academically and even has a shot at college. But without a loving family to support him, he remains fragile. Once he leaves the David School, his first setback freezes him in his tracks. Perhaps something good will happen to revive his hopes, but as the film ends, his lack of self-esteem has landed him in a dead-end life.
The powerful story of these two boys left me with many thoughts.
One was how foreign life in the Bible Belt seems – at least as it is lived in this one small town in Kentucky. A teacher at the David School has no problem leading a class discussion to ludicrous ends to put down the theory of evolution. The class openly raises – and, of course, ridicules – the notion that Jesus was a monkey. During a discussion of incest in another class, one girl bravely raises her hand when the teacher asks if anyone thinks a girl should consider an abortion if her father impregnates her. The teacher responds with the assurance that there is a good chance in such cases that the baby will turn out just fine.
I do not mean to put down Bible Belt religion. Cody’s salvation from the demons of his childhood – the violent deaths of his parents – is his belief. God has vanquished Cody’s anger and replaced it with love. Without this belief, he would have little chance of escaping the dark hole in his past.
One final thought: Those who ridiculed Hillary Clinton’s assertion that “It takes a village to raise a child” should be forced to watch this documentary. Even though the epilogue suggests that Cody is on the right track, it is disquieting to contemplate the future these two young men face in this difficult world. But without strong institutions and caring strangers to support them during their growing-up years in David, that future, through no fault of their own, would be far bleaker.
January 06, 2006
Here are two more links about the issues surrounding suicide coverage - in this case teen suicides.
The first is to Barbara Walsh's 2004 series on a teen suicide in Maine.
The second is Walsh's commentary discussing reporting and writing these stories.
More on Belmont suicide
Because of increased competition for readers' time and declining daily newspaper circulation, editors are under more pressure than ever to take advantage of opportunities to boost newsstand sales. Here is an internal memo from Mark Travis, a longtime editor here who is currently working with the staff to improve the Monitor's website:
Because Thursday's story mix had such stark choices between 'serious' state house and Medicare news and 'sensational' suicide and DWI mom stories, and because of Mike's blog on suicide sensationalism, I was very curious to see how readers voted with their website usage. As you probably noticed, I put the mom arrest and the suicide on our online front page yesterday, displacing the two wire stories we ran on the print front page.
Usage results from our daily stats:
1) Mom arrested for driving drunk: 4,079 readers
2) Man kills himself with guillotine: 2,996
3) Housekeeper swiped jewelry: 1,152
4) Truck bursts into flame on highway: 936 (and never on our online front page)
5) Beastie the cat is back: 920 (front page only after 5 p.m.)
13) Seniors going without drugs as plan debuts: 568 (our lead online story all day)
22) Session starts with ethics feud: 438 (lead print story, on online front page until 5 p.m.)
To those numbers I'd add this additional info: Yesterday's online readers spent the most time on the site (5.2 minutes on average) and read the most articles (5.2 page views on average) of any single day over the past month. Both figures were the highest we've seen in 30 days.
I'd never argue that reader interest should be the only factor in determining A1 play, and as someone whose life has been touched by a suicide I share Mike's concerns about how we play them. But based on these numbers I'd also say this: We had a paper Thursday with very strong single-copy sales potential, and that paper we put on B1 instead of A1. On the other hand, the B section was surely read like few others!
A reader responds
As a follow-up to yesterday's posting about our coverage of the Belmont suicide, here is the letter I mentioned from the victim's sister, Nancy Preisendorfer of Boscawen:
I am the sister of the deceased. I know you were not the first to print this story and only followed the lead of the others. I thank you for leaving out some of the details included in other coverage. I understand based upon the sensationalism of the story it could not be passed up.
Unfortunately, it will be how some of the relatives I have not yet had the chance to contact will learn of my brother's death. It would be considerate if the media would recognize the position of the victim's family and leave out names. The sensationalism would still be there.
I feel it is important for the public to know my brother was a talented, widely loved individual who suffered from severe depression. He was frequently alone even when he was with friends and family. He struggled for much of his life to be happy and kept himself secluded when he felt his sadness would infringe upon others.
I am troubled by the emphasis being on the way he died. I understand the media appeal. The focus must be put on making the public more aware of the signs of mental illness and of the treatment options that exist. People need to try everything they can to seek treatment for depression in themselves and their family members.
We all loved Dave and tried throughout his life to reach through to him and pull him out of the sadness. It just wasn't enough.
I regret that the Concord Monitor chose to point individuals toward finding online instructions for making guillotines. It might be a better idea to direct them toward internet resources for learning about and dealing with mental illness. It might be the lifeline they need.
January 05, 2006
I winced at our news meeting yesterday afternoon when the local news budget included a story about the suicide of a Belmont man who had made a guillotine and planted explosives in his house.
It was a sensational story - as one editor said at the meeting, the one story that all readers would read. When I came in this morning, another editor told me it was the only story that he had read from beginning to end.
At the news meeting, I decided the story did not belong on page one. I said to the editors that we needed to be careful how we covered suicide and how and where we played it in the paper.
Boiled down, the reasons for this care are three: Suicide is almost always the result of mental illness. Sensational news play further injures the families of suicide victims. And suicide stories can lead to other suicides.
My position reflected a longstanding journalistic practice. We generally do not cover suicides unless they are committed in a public place or as part of a murder-suicide or by a public figure. There are other exceptions, and probably the bizarre nature of the Belmont suicide made it newsworthy.
But for the most part, I think we’re right to under-cover and underplay suicides even though doing so runs counter to our responsibility to portray life and death in our coverage area fully and accurately. Below I’ve attached excerpts from an article in The Oregonian of Portland arguing that newspapers need to revisit the issue of suicide coverage. (For the full story, click here.)
We gave the Belmont suicide story prominent play on page B1. If I had followed through in directing its placement, we would have played it even more modestly.
The Union Leader, by the way, led page one with the story under a large bold headline: “Man dies in grisly suicide.”
I often consider whether what we play above the fold on the front page will help newsstand sales. Any editor must do this in these difficult times for newspapers. But until someone convinces me otherwise, I’m still old-school on the subject of suicide.
(A letter to the editor from the sister of the suicide victim protesting aspects of our coverage will appear in tomorrow's Monitor.)
Excerpts from the story in The Oregonian:
“Like newspapers across the country, The Oregonian is cautious in reporting suicides, typically writing about only those that occurred in public places, particularly if they drew public attention, or that involved a well-known person.
“The newspaper chose to report extensively on the death of a girl who killed herself in the parking lot of Yamhill-Carlton High School in part because the death was so public and caused so much pain to a small community. But the newspaper did not write about the death of a man who killed himself in the parking lot of Beaverton City Hall, partly because the death in a vehicle did not draw much public attention, despite its location.
“Suicide poses ethical conflicts for journalists.
“The privacy of individuals and families argues against stories about suicides. Also, research indicates certain suicide coverage might spur other deaths.
“But newspapers have the responsibility to reflect accurately what is occurring in the community and the potential to provide a public service in explaining what contributes to suicide. . . .
“A study of suicide rates and media coverage in six cities reaffirmed past research indicating that coverage can potentially influence other suicides, particularly among younger, vulnerable people.
“Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says the research findings, which are to be published in 2006, also emphasize that the way suicide is covered is critical.
“That’s why he and other experts do not say don’t cover suicide; they argue for covering it with care and in ways that educate people about the causes. He says coverage should avoid glorifying or detailing the act and should not be sensational or prominent. Coverage also should recognize that most suicides involve people who are clinically depressed, and care should be given not to link it to a recent breakup or job loss.
“In reviewing hundreds of suicide stories, Romer says he has seen what readers of The Oregonian see – a skewed portrait that shows suicides occurring in public, as part of murder-suicides or with well-known people.
“A more-detailed portrait might lead to helping the public address suicide. More coverage might lead to more public discussion of the glaring need for mental health services, particularly for adolescents suffering from depression.”
January 04, 2006
A daily snapshot
Last night before I left the Monitor, I stopped by the news desk and suggested that the night editors keep an eye on the story of the trapped West Virginia coal miners. We didn’t have the story scheduled for page one, but I wanted the editors to move it out there if the miners were found, dead or alive.
At home, I was soon mesmerized by the Florida State-Penn State football game. I’m not sure why because I dislike the Seminoles. I’ve been a Florida Gator fan since the leather-helmet era. But this was great defensive football, with tenacity, athleticism and determination on display through three overtimes. During commercials, I usually flip to another channel to check the news, but last night I was reading a book, my favorite form of multi-tasking.
Early this morning my wife and I got up for our walk. The first thing I heard on the radio was news that all but one miner had been found dead after earlier reports that all but one had been found alive. I wondered aloud during our walk whether the Monitor had been caught in between on this story. In other words, had the story of the miners being found alive broken in time for the press run and the awful truth come later?
Sure enough, the lead headline in my paper read: “Dozen miners found alive, families say.”
I was glad the headline included the attribution “families say” and that the story, a combination of wire reports assembled by Monitor editors, pointed out that there was no official confirmation that the miners had been found alive.
I was also reminded that while many things have changed in the news business, an essential thing about the daily newspaper remains true: It is a snapshot of a day’s events. The last deadline – the moment the press rolls, or in this case, the moment a diligent editor replates the front page to get in the latest news – is the shutter snapping on the day. If something happens between 1 a.m. and morning to change events, so be it.
I’m guessing most readers could easily piece together the sequence of events that led to the outdated headline on today's page one. As for the editors, the final headline was anything but outdated when they wrote it. Even though I’m sure they groaned when they awoke to the news today, they made the right call and did a good job with a late change.
Some readers, incidentally, received an earlier edition of the Monitor with the headline "Miner found dead; hope for others fades." Ironically, this earlier story would have held up till morning.
Technology does not require the Monitor's other arm, our website, to be a daily snapshot. We posted the real story at the top of the site's front page first thing this morning.
A couple of related points about the news choices we made for today's paper:
The mine story had originally been scheduled to go inside the paper. To make room for it on the front when the news changed, the editors moved the story of the guilty plea of Washignton lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Today’s other page-one wire story was about Dick Clark, who, despite the effects of a stroke, had hosted the ABC New Year’s Eve telecast from Times Square. Certainly the Abramoff story was bigger news than the Clark story. But having seen Clark myself Saturday night and winced at his slurred speech, I figured many people would be interested in the human story behind his TV appearance.
Four other factors made it easy to move the Abramoff story:
1. It had been in the news most of the day, thus many readers already knew about it.
2. The main new information the public wants about the story is which members of Congress and their staffs will be caught in the Abramoff web. Today’s story includes nothing new on that.
3. We could give the Abramoff story strong play on page A2.
4. With our new format, we could put a headline above the nameplate on the front page directing readers to the Abramoff story.
December 27, 2005
Question No. 2
A reader from Franklin called to ask: Why did you allow a writer to use the word “rag-head” in a letter to the editor?
To refresh your memory, the letter was headlined “Bent on self-destruction.” Its writer described what he saw as a serious flaw in an
editorial cartoon by Mike Marland. The cartoon depicted a man walking past a sign consisting of the contoured letters of the National Security Agency, NSA. Both the sign and the man cast long shadows. With a worried expression, the man was looking over his shoulder at his.
The letter writer thought the man in the cartoon should have been different – not a white male but “a rag-head, Islamic, Muslim terrorist (or, as the liberal media portray them, an ‘insurgent’).”
“Rag-head,” with or without the hyphen, is an ethnic slur, the caller from Franklin said. Would you allow a letter writer to use the n-word? Just what are the rules?
This is a tough one. In deciding what to publish in letters to the editor, we do our best not to cross the line into censorship. We do edit for taste, and we eliminate gratuitous personal slams. But the public is best served when letter writers are allowed the widest possible latitude to express their views.
When it comes to epithets and stereotypes, context is the key. We might publish the n-word as part of the public debate about the use of the word but in no other context that I can think of.
A better analogy in the case of the “rag-head” letter is the wide berth we have allowed anti-gay rights letter writers in recent months and years. Some have described homosexuality as a perverse choice and gay people as immoral, for example. I happen to find this an ignorant and mistaken view. I think it is a modern-day cousin to the stereotyping of African Americans as mentally inferior or women as too delicate to operate in a man’s world. But I also think that in the current debate, the public’s opinions of gay people and their rights need as open a forum as possible. I even prefer to have negative views out in the open, where people who think otherwise can do as I have just done and express an opposing viewpoint.
In the letter at hand, had the writer said, “All Arabs are dirty rag-heads,” I would have edited it out as a gratuitous ethnic stereotype. Maybe some readers saw it as such a stereotype anyway, but I didn’t. It seemed to me that the writer used “rag-head” both to describe how he thought the man in Marland’s cartoon should have looked and to characterize terrorists. The word also conveyed the strong feeling behind the reader’s opinion.
Given this context, and given the public debate about secrecy in government in which Marland’s cartoon made a pointed comment, the letter writer’s use of “rag-head” fell just within the bounds of public discourse.
December 23, 2005
The other night, as my wife and I made the korv, the sausage for our annual Swedish Christmas Eve dinner, someone on the radio asked occasional callers for their Christmas memories. The question brought to mind Evert F. Nordstrom, the grandfather who made the korv with the same recipe many years ago. I called him Bappa.
The memory was not altogether sweet.
It was Christmas 1966, and I was home on leave after Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. As usual, family and friends, including uncles, aunts and cousins from afar, gathered to laugh and talk, to catch up with the family story and to gorge on Bappa and Nana's Swedish meal.
Many years before, I had told Nana a white lie. Not wanting to offend her, I had said how much I liked her pickled herring, called sill, even though, in fact, I could barely get it down without gagging. So, in 1966, as she stood watching, I filled my blue Depression glass plate with chunks of sill. At least it was a small plate.
As far as I could tell, Bappa, called Grandpappy by the cousins from afar, was his gleeful self that night. Although he had retired to Florida, where this particular dinner took place, he was my New Hampshire connection. He was born in Bedford in 1894 in a farmhouse built in 1776. I'm not sure how far he went to school, but he entered the workforce young, possibly because of the early death of his father. His expertise was in refrigeration instruments, including thermometers. He sold them, and he wrote a book about them.
Like many other literate first-generation Americans, Bappa was a student of his country's history and an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. These interests, along with baseball, became our special bond, skipping a generation. He took me to the Polo Grounds in 1954 and Yankee Stadium in 1958, and I still have the brochure, with his handwritten note on it, from his 1942 visit to the Gettysburg battlefield.
Unwittingly, Bappa was also the way I learned the truth - or one truth anyway - about Santa Claus. When I was 7, my mom was in the PTA, and she must have recruited her father as Santa Claus for a visit to my school. I could not mistake his eyes behind the cotton beard. I asked an older boy named Cappy Lingo about this, and he said that of course it had been my grandfather. Cappy grinned and told me there was no Santa Claus.
By Christmas 1966, I was no longer a boy. I was a man, a soldier happy to be done with endless marches in the morning damp and lessons in "the spirit of the bayonet." But I was also happy to be home, in the fold of family. And I woke up the morning after the Swedish feast with a boy's anticipation of Christmas.
But sometime during the night, Bappa had suffered a heart attack and died. He was one day shy of his 72nd birthday. Christmas was also Nana's birthday, magnifying the calamity.
I am the grandfather now. This means that when I think back on that Christmas, I no longer dwell on the shock or the loss or the pall that Bappa's death threw over our holiday. Instead I think of Evert F. Nordstrom alive. I see him as the loving grandfather with the shock of white hair and the broad ruddy face. I consider the kindness with which he touched my life. I think about how he did it and how I might be a good grandfather, imparting something to my grandchildren that their parents cannot.
The other night, as I ground the meat, barley and spices into the pig casings to make the korv, I looked down at my hands and saw Bappa's hands. I smiled as I remembered his laugh, and his singing voice, and his grand appetite for life.
He made a good Santa Claus, too, even though the costume could never disguise those kind eyes of his.
December 21, 2005
Go, Johnny, Go
I know you’re dying to know what I think of the Johnny Damon deal. It was the talk of my office all day long. If you’re reading this anywhere between Presque Isle and mid-Jersey, I’ll bet it was the talk of your shop, too.
A fellow who wrote a short piece for the Monitor's editorial page tomorrow spoke for many when he bitterly blamed Damon for leaving the loving embrace of Red Sox Nation for Gotham greed. The other thing I kept hearing was the lament that now two up-the-middle stars were gone, a reference to the hole left earlier by the departure of Edgar Renteria, Boston's shortstop.
As a Yankee fan, my first reaction to the deal – other than to put cotton in my ears – was to think of the position Damon has been hired to fill. Center field at Yankee Stadium is sacred ground. DiMaggio played there, and Mantle. Bernie Williams was a quieter presence, but with his good first step and his galloping gait, he upheld the tradition.
On balance, I think Damon will, too. He’s not in the mold of DiMaggio, Mantle and Williams. He’s a stopgap. If he stays healthy, he’ll roam that vast green pasture for three or four years while Yankee fans await the next young star who was born to the job.
On offense, what’s not to like about Damon? The Yankees haven’t had a classic leadoff hitter in years, although Derek Jeter is certainly no slouch. Like Jeter, Damon gets on base a lot, hectors pitchers when he does, can hit for power and hits in the clutch. I purposely avoided reading today about what the Yankee lineup might look like in ’06, preferring just to dream about it. I mean, Damon, Jeter, A-Rod, Sheffield, Matsui, Giambi, Posada, Bernie (or another DH), Cano. The Yankees should score some runs.
The Yankee pitching staff remains a work in progress, and team chemistry is the essential question mark, but the Red Sox have even farther to go. Less than two months before the pitchers and catchers report, I think we've got the lead.
As for all that talk about the button-down pinstripe culture, Sox fans shouldn’t forget that baseball is a business. I mean, it was a businessman, Theo Epstein, whose cold, brilliant business decisions in the middle of the 2004 season broke the Curse of the Bambino. If the Sox don’t get down to business soon, the memory of that magical year will fade faster than you can say Johnny Damon.
December 20, 2005
Principled but practical
To those of us who were around for his father’s tenure as governor, it should not be surprising that U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu is cutting his own political path in Washington.
As New Hampshire’s governor for six years beginning in 1983, John H. Sununu talked a tough fiscal line and bullied the Seabrook nuclear power plant to completion. But he was in no sense an ideologue. He served in flush economic times, and when state revenue swelled, he used the extra cash to build a new state prison and a new state mental hospital. An engineer by training, he paid attention to detail. My favorite photograph of Sununu from this period was of the governor sticking his head in the door of a legislative hearing, like a parent checking to see that the kids were behaving.
The acorn did not fall far from the tree. Earlier this year, John E., a first-term Republican senator, became a sales agent for Social Security reform. His pitch was not ideological. He knows the country must face this issue squarely, and he did his homework on the individual accounts proposed by the president and others. That Social Security reform failed was no fault of Sununu’s. When the issue comes round again, as it must, Sununu will be in it up to his elbows.
What New Hampshire and the nation have in Sununu is something rare. Sure, he votes the party line most of the time, but he is also true to his principles. That is what we see unfolding on the USA Patriot Act.
Sununu studied the act in detail and decided that certain provisions unnecessarily violated the civil rights of Americans. He tried to persuade his party and the administration to amend the act to remove these violations. When he couldn’t, he opposed reauthorization. But he also favored leaving the act in place for three months while Congress and the White House tried to reach a compromise.
Principled but practical: What constituent could ask for more in a senator?
Taking a cue from the president, rightwingers are howling about what they see as Sununu’s apostasy. This is part of the administration’s full-court press to justify increasing power and secrecy in the White House.
As Bush mounts the bully pulpit, he brings a huge advantage to the argument: There have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11. Of course, the nation appreciates the security this attack-free stretch of more than four years represents, and it gives Bush credit for it.
Nevertheless, Americans should take special care in considering the executive branch’s accrual of power and secrecy. The president says consitutional checks and balances are working. This is a dubious claim. As a constitutional check on his powers, the president cites periodic secret reports about extralegal infringements on individual liberties. Is this really enough?
Rather than react instantly in the established shades of blue and red, Americans need to think hard about this question. Our country, at great cost in blood and treasure, is seeking to create the conditions for democracy in a nation recently ruled through ruthless power and secrecy. It would be ironic if, in our own democracy, we did not recognize the threat of overreaching executive power.
As citizens consider the facts and decide what they think, may Sununu’s studied and responsible stance on the USA Patriot Act be an example to them.
December 16, 2005
Question No. 1
Questions I imagine readers asking, No. 1
How is it possible that the Iraq election story didn’t make your front page today?
It was a busy news day locally, but when we came out of our news meeting at 4:45 yesterday afternoon, the Iraq election was one of five stories scheduled for the front. The others were the Concord teachers deciding to cut back on what they do for students to protest the lack of a contract, the first personal look at the victim of a fatal fire in Concord, new information about a local man charged with a 20-year-old murder and a feature (a reader, we call it) about a reality television show that visited a New Hampshire household.
Then, shortly after we walked back into the newsroom, we heard that there was a verdict in the Tobin election phone-jamming trial, which we had followed closely for two weeks. This was clearly our lead story.
Our options: Add a sixth story to page one or move a story off. Adding a sixth story would have hurt the impact of the page on a big news day, so we decided to replace a story. Why not replace the reader? A good choice, but it was funny. We decided something funny was a plus on such a newsy day.
So why did the Iraq story move? It didn’t exactly, as I’ll explain, but my reasoning was that it was the one story we had scheduled for page one that most readers would already know about. The time difference between the eastern United States and Iraq means that news about the election had been buzzing on television, radio and the net throughout the day. By the time readers saw it in the next morning’s Monitor, the story would have been around for 24 hours.
Also, there had been two big developments: the election in Iraq and President Bush’s signing of anti-torture legislation put forward by his old rival, Sen. John McCain. We decided that our new design would allow us to give these stories real prominence without putting the stories themselves on page one. We put two bold headlines at the very top of the page – in what we call the skyboxes – giving the news of the election and Bush’s signing of the torture bill. These headlines directed readers to page A2, an open page where the stories got far stronger play than they would have on page one.
December 15, 2005
A question of trust
I can trust my newspaper for the ball scores every morning, but can I trust anything else I see or read in the media?
With that question, Dick Hesse of the Franklin Pierce Law Center opened a wide-ranging discussion yesterday at the Monitor. The participants were a media panel and this year’s class of Leadership Concord, a group of businesspeople, nonprofit leaders and public servants who learn about the city’s institutions through a series of visits and classes.
Many of the Leadership Concord class members had come to the Monitor the previous few days to observe our 4 o’clock news meeting. That is where we decide the tentative lineup of stories and photos for the next day's page one. Those decisions in turn determine which world/nation stories will go inside the A-section and which local stories will run in the Local/State section. The meeting is the handoff between the day editors and the night editors and the starting point for the production of the news sections.
My participation in this program always reminds me what a lousy job newspapers do in explaining themselves. That includes the Monitor. Here was a group of intelligent, involved regular readers of the paper. Their probing questions after the news meetings and during the panel discussion made clear that they had a strong desire to understand the values we bring to deciding what to cover, how to cover it and where to play it. Their questions also made clear that we had done little in the paper or any other venue to explain these values or their practical application.
This is a particularly troubling lapse because our values and our standards define not only us but also the newspaper we publish. They distinguish us from a media culture of shock talk, partisan blather, fake government news and heedless internet posting. The internet is a vast new medium on which I rely daily to check all kinds of facts, but I do so with great care because it is also a vast sea of misinformation. Wikipedia’s recent libel of the journalist John Siegenthaler should give users a clue that even a much-used and supposedly respectable site must be approached with great caution.
Why are newspapers any different? What about Jason Blair, or the columnists who made up stories, or the misjudgments that motivated Judith Miller’s reporting on weapons of mass destruction?
Well, yes, these were terrible lapses. They tainted us all. They are one of two big reasons that Dick Hesse’s lumping all media together – “Can I trust the media?” – was not entirely off-base.
The other reason is that the false division of the country into blue and red states, driven by partisan bigmouths who are not really journalists, has affected the way people read newspapers. Readers are suspicious. They think we are manipulating the news to reflect a partisan point of view. We are transparent in laying our opinions on the table on the editorial page, but can readers trust us not to allow those opinions to affect what we cover on the news pages and how we cover it?
I’m going to make it my mission in this blog and in the paper to do a better job of explaining why we do what we do. I welcome any questions from readers in this vein, but as I learned from the questions posed by the Leadership Concord class, it is easy to identify story and photo play, and even broad policies, that we should be explaining.
In the meantime, let me close on a brighter note and with a statement of belief.
This country is blessed with more sources of information and more access to it than any other country in the world. Citizens can find out what’s going on from dozens of sources at any time. If Americans are uninformed, it is generally not because information is not available to them.
More than ever, the challenge is to use this freedom wisely. “I don’t trust the media” – the premise behind Dick Hesse’s question, and a sentiment widely expressed today – is a copout. What the public should bring to the marketplace of ideas is not distrust but a healthy skepticism.
December 13, 2005
Leave it to the Democratic Party to want to fix something that works.
Again and again, the New Hampshire presidential primary has been a weathervane for Democrats, pointing in the right direction whether the party chooses to move in that direction or not. It has performed this service not just in selecting presidential nominees but also in guiding political philosophy.
Let’s recap, and I’ll comment only on the Democratic primaries I’ve witnessed during my years at the Concord Monitor.
1980 – A palace revolt, as Teddy Kennedy tries to unseat the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Kennedy's candidacy proves to be the next-to-last gasp of the New Deal, and it is a weak gasp at that. Carter beats Kennedy without even campaigning. Lesson: The New Deal is dead. The Democrats need to move toward the center. They also need to stick with a winner, as the divisiveness of the nomination fight provides aid and comfort to Ronald Reagan.
1984 – Gary Hart upsets Walter Mondale. Lesson: The New Deal is dead. The Democrats need to move to the center.
1988 – Michael Dukakis wins in a crowded field. Lesson: The Democrats are learning the lesson, as they pass over Bruce Babbitt, who – literally – stands up for taxes, and Richard Gephardt, who appeals to the old FDR coalition, mainly the trade unions.
1992 – Despite a rollicking final stretch in which Bill Clinton takes hits on both womanizing and draft-dodging, New Hampshire sends him forth as the Comeback Kid. He joins a tradition of second-place finishers who, due to circumstances, are perceived as winners. Lesson: Voters – including Independents and Republicans – like a centrist Democrat who charms them, talks (and talks) the issues and hits back on the campaign trail.
1996 – Clinton rocks.
2000 – Wooden Al Gore limps past anesthetic New Deal throwback Bill Bradley. Lesson: Despite eight years of peace and prosperity, the party is in trouble again.
2004 – John Kerry sweeps away a large field. Lesson: Kerry’s flaws are obvious, but he’s the best the party has this time around.
Some of these results were bitter pills, but taken together, they’re impressive. They show the power of an engaged electorate – Democrats as well as Independents – to give the party precisely what it should be seeking in the first presidential primary: an honest critique of the candidates and guidance on direction and message.
Why would the Democratic committee examining the nomination process want to muck that up with a bunch of early big-state caucuses?
Because they're Democrats, I guess.
December 12, 2005
In the fall of 1968, I was in the Army in Germany. Voting for president for the first time, I wrote in McCarthy's name. My calculation was simple. I didn’t trust Richard Nixon, and Hubert Humphrey, the vice president, had failed to break the shackles of his boss’s Vietnam War policy. McCarthy was the peace candidate; I was a peace voter. That was all that mattered to me, even though I knew McCarthy’s candidacy had foundered after his 41 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary drove President Lyndon B. Johnson out of office.
Looking now at the 1968 general election results, I see that mine was one of just 25,552 votes cast for McCarthy that November. He finished not only behind Nixon (31.8 million), Humphrey (31.3 million) and George Wallace (9.9 million) but also behind Dick Gregory and Eldridge Cleaver. Heck, he even lost in a landslide to two Socialist candidates, Henning Blomen and Fred Halstead.
Twenty years later, McCarthy had become something of a perennial candidate for president. It was hard to tell why – simply to bask in the afterglow of 1968, probably. But by 1988, I was the Monitor’s editor and welcomed the chance to meet the man for whom I had cast my first ballot.
It proved to be a sad awakening. McCarthy had little relevant to say and no charisma. He seemed insular, halting and given to tangents. I had interviewed and scouted an array of presidential candidates during the preceding weeks – Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Bruce Babbitt, Jack Kemp, Alexander Haig, Pat Robertson and more. McCarthy was not in their league. I concluded he would have made a feckless president had he been elected in 1968.
But in my journal that night (Feb. 4, 1988), I did not focus on McCarthy's performance. Instead, I wrote about how, just after he left the old Monitor building on North State Street, I impulsively raced down the stairs after him. It had been snowing all day, and when I reached street level, I looked left and right in the misty white streetlit night. McCarthy, a tall form even with age bending him at the shoulders, wore a trenchcoat and a tan broad-brimmed hat. Walking alone, he was just disappearing around the corner.
I caught him a few steps up Pleasant Street. I told him he was the first person I had ever voted for for president. “Good man,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get in this one and give you a chance to write me in again.” I knew by then how electric New Hampshire primary politicking could be, and I could imagine how surprising and energizing it had been to be Eugene McCarthy in the winter of 1968. For me and many others of my generation, he soon became the wilted flower of idealism. But as he and I shook hands in the silent empty street 20 years later, with the snowflakes fluttering between and around us, I felt lucky to have such a fulfilling moment.
December 09, 2005
How could we even suspect?
Most of us – I hope – can see the cynical politics at play when the leader of Iran expresses doubt that the Holocaust occurred. But as the last of the Holocaust survivors die off in the next few years, I have a great fear that Holocaust deniers will find too many willing believers among new generations.
This thought was sparked not only by news reports of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vile propaganda aimed at kicking the Jews out of Israel. It was also reinforced when my colleague Mark Travis pointed out a news item on an old Monitor front page taped to a poster board in his office. Hazen Smith, a longtime employee here, had pointed it out to Mark.
The newspaper is dated July 3, 1940, and contains a wonderful mishmash of news, in the style of old-time journalism. There is a story about the bonfires that will be set in Rolfe and Rollins Park the next day to celebrate the Fourth – the 50-foot flames licking the sky in Penacook and out-climbing the 35-footers in Concord. There is a story about a Laconia steeplejack who has been hired for $1,400 to regild the eagle on the State House Dome. In all, there are 29 stories on page 1!
It was one of the stories at the bottom that caught first Smitty’s eye, then Mark’s, then mine. The headline reads: “Hungary Ban On Jews Is Drastic.” In three inches of type, the story lays out new restrictions introduced by the Hungarian Nazi Party in Parliament on that day.
Among these restrictions, Jews may not:
– Drive automobiles.
– Buy books unless they are written in Hebrew or Yiddish.
– Marry, unless they are their families’ eldest sons or daughters.
– Retain Hungarian names; they must instead take “Hebrew” names.
– Hoist the Hungarian flag.
– Employ Gentile women under 40 years of age.
– Ride in regular railway cars.
– Buy anything from a peasant.
– Sign any legal document.
The lead story on the same page, a roundup of events in the war in Europe, contains this paragraph:
“Bloody anti-Semitic rioting spread throughout Rumania after disorders last night in which scores were injured and many believed killed. Many wealthy Jews fled to the country and others remained inside their homes as police and troops failed to bring the disturbances under control.”
This paper hit Concord doorsteps as people prepared to celebrate Independence Day in 1940.
Maybe you read in your history books that America’s leaders didn’t know about the Holocaust, or that reports of it were too fantastic to be taken seriously. But here, in plain words, Americans could read of Hungarian Nazis passing laws restricting the procreation of Jews and Rumanian authorities standing aside while Jews were killed and routed. How great a leap is it from these acts to the attempted extermination of the Jews?
Whether America could – or should – have done more to help the Jews of Europe is a complex issue. That’s not my point here.
What concerns me is how easy it was, when news of the Holocaust became widely known after the war, for people to say they had no idea anything like that was even possible, much less going on. And how easy it will be, once the Elie Wiesels of this world are gone from our midst, to persuade emerging generations that perhaps the Holocaust didn’t happen after all.
December 08, 2005
Where's our senator?
Those war protesters arrested this week at U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg’s Concord office have a point. Gregg is a hard man to get a hold of. The protesters have been trying in vain for months to hear from him on the Iraq war. They’re not alone. Gregg has been stiffing the Monitor’s editorial board for years, and he seldom makes himself available to the public to answer questions and explain himself.
Obviously he doesn’t have to talk to his constituents. He won the last two elections by a landslide over token opposition from the Democratic Party. He’s busy, too, as the point man in the Senate for the Bush budget. And he’s a senator, not a congressman, meaning he answers not to a particular district but – theoretically at least – to the whole state.
So why isn’t Gregg more responsive to the public? Guessing at motives is a bad idea, but I do think his hiding out hurts his reputation. I interviewed him several times earlier in his political life. While I see him as somewhat remote from human concerns, he does have a solid, consistent philosophy of government, and he has remained true to it for at least three decades. He can defend it vigorously, too. And he can articulate his views with both clarity and the nuance that comes only with long experience.
He’d help himself by holding a string of town meetings, by meeting with the Monitor’s editors and – yes – by sitting down with those war critics and telling them why he thinks they’re wrong.
In fact, he owes it to us.
December 07, 2005
On Pearl Harbor Day
On this Pearl Harbor Day, I can’t help but think about the passing generation for whom Dec. 7, 1941, changed the world. Or about the day nearly 60 years later, Sept. 11, 2001, that was so often compared to it in the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers.
9/11 changed the world, too, but maybe not as drastically as it seemed at the time. Almost involuntarily, I paused my remote on Fox the other night long enough to hear Bill O’Reilly declaring that America is now fighting World War III and everyone should recognize that. He seemed to want to pin down his guests on this point, hoping they would disagree with him so he could question their patriotism, not to mention their intelligence.
But let’s leave that argument for another day. The story in today’s Monitor about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor discusses how popular culture – video games in this case, but the argument also applies to Hollywood – distorts what happened that day. The story quotes a veteran who says that as long as veterans of Pearl Harbor are around, they’ll give the public “the straight poop.” But how long will that be? And how many people care to read in any detail what historians dig up about this disaster?
This question is especially pertinent to me because I have been helping a man named Steve Raymond prepare his memoir for publication. Steve will turn 90 next June, but he wrote the memoir decades ago from diaries and notes he kept during three and a half years as a prisoner of war. He was not at Pearl Harbor but in the Philippines, which the Japanese also attacked.
His account of that day recalls the meager response of the unprepared American force and the utter shock and confusion of the troops. When General Edward King surrendered the American troops on the Bataan Peninsula four months later, Steve started on the Bataan Death March. Our working title for his memoir is Bataan and Beyond: My Three and a Half Years as a Slave. We’re nearing the finish line in preparing the manuscript, and I’m hoping the book will be published next fall.
Long passages of the memoir are relentlessly gruesome. Fake gore sells in video games and movies, but I wonder if the public has the stomach for the reality Steve and his fellow captives endured.
My main reason for working on the project is a belief in the importance of history. One man’s memoir is but a drop of history, but we should squeeze out every drop we can, especially while the people who lived it still walk among us. Whatever doubts we might have about the place of history in our culture, future generations who seek to know the past will find it only if we leave it for them.
December 05, 2005
One step back
On Friday, I started to write a blog entry about the report released the previous day by New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage commission. I was so angry I had to say something. Yet I knew from experience that I had to get past the anger to say what I wanted to say.
Then, halfway through the blog entry, I decided I wasn’t really writing a blog at all. I was writing the editorial for the Sunday Monitor. I went back and edited out all the “I thinks,” which were really scaffolding anyway, and assumed the mantle of the editorial “we.” (I don’t like the first person in an editorial, so I generally avoid the “we” whenever I can.)
So what’s the difference between a blog entry and an editorial?
I’m still an amateur blogger – who isn’t, with the exception of my friend Chad Finn, the Boston sports blogger? – but I have a few answers.
For me, blogging is fast writing. Although I don’t always make it, my goal when I write a blog entry is to stay under 400 words. A blog entry can be more personal than an editorial. I polish editorials, and at least one other editor reads them before they go in the paper. For better or worse, the blog is just me thinking out loud.
That doesn’t mean I don’t also think about how I say things in the blog. Words are my life. I try to treat them right, even though they don’t always treat me right.
Finally, in the case of the same-sex marriage commission, I knew in my bones after 20-plus years of editorial writing that this stance was important for the Monitor to take.
A few years ago, I read and admired the work of David Moats of the Rutland Herald, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials that helped Vermont find a path to gay civil unions. Out of fairness and in justice, New Hampshire needs to find a similar path.
Here’s the editorial, which ran under the headline, “New Hampshire is far better than this bigotry”:
It would be easy to go bonkers over the embarrassing report issued Thursday by New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage commission. In some ways, though, it is a relief to have this commission end. Here’s what should happen now: The governor should openly denounce this report, and the Legislature should repudiate it.
The report is prejudice codified. It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, such flaunting of bigotry is tolerated in the public halls. It is hard to believe that citizens who know better would not rise up in protest against their representatives inviting and expressing such loathsome claptrap.
Can you imagine a commission on women or on African-Americans producing a report like this? Its members would be tarred and feathered. At least they would be shut up. But gay men and lesbians are a small and only partly visible minority. Somehow, this makes it all right to allow bigots to rail away at them in public testimony and an official commission to take these bigoted assertions seriously.
The truth is, New Hampshire is a tolerant state. Yes, polls show that the public opposes gay marriage. But in part that is because public debate on this issue has not advanced beyond blind prejudice. It is painful to acknowledge that, but the commission’s work makes it crystal clear.
How many times have you heard it asserted – with no evidence whatsoever – that the real agenda of gay men and lesbians is to destroy the institution of marriage? The commission even says so in its report!
What gay men and lesbians want is the same thing straight couples already have: the right to commit officially and publicly to lasting, loving personal relationships, and the benefits that go with state-sanctioned marriage. It is not much to ask.
What they got instead from this commission was a self-fulfilling prophecy from people who began their inquiry with neither open minds nor humanistic intentions. The report asserts that “same-sex relationships are not based on the same concepts of stability and fidelity as marriage.” And this: “Gays tend to be measurably more promiscuous than their straight counterparts.”
These statements rise from bias. Coming from an official commission, they perpetuate bias.
New Hampshire is far better than what the representatives of the people have produced in this offensive report. New Hampshire is a place where most people take “Live Free or Die” to mean “Live and Let Live.”
If the gay-marriage report’s recommendations come to a vote, individual conscience will play a far greater role in the result than political log-rolling or partisan ideology. Even with an average age just south of Methuselah, the Legislature will reject the ideas put forth in this report.
The report is an aberration, part of the inevitable hangover from the one-term governorship of Craig Benson. That is why Gov. John Lynch should go out of his way to denounce it.
Lynch is politically cautious and has come out against gay marriage. But he owes it to New Hampshire’s citizenry to counter the public embarrassment that this report represents.
It isn’t the governor alone who should let his voice be heard. Other legislators and citizens, especially those who are not gay, must speak out as well.
New Hampshire needs to move forward on gay marriage or gay civil unions. But before it can do that, the same-sex marriage commission must be publicly scorned for taking a giant leap backward.
December 02, 2005
A reader of this blog wrote the following:
The people who pay the bills, NH Audubon members and donors, finally have a forum for their opinions.
Here's the link.
December 01, 2005
When you look at the Capitol Center for the Arts today, it is hard to believe that 20 years ago it was a rat-trap, literally falling apart. It smelled, it was unsafe, and the seats were beat up and uncomfortable. Backstage was, well, the pits.
Handicap accessibility was nil. When the great violinist Itzhak Perlman played there one winter, they had to put him and his wheelchair on a forklift to get him into the theater. The night he played, the heat didn’t work. Perlman wore an overcoat onstage.
A string of owners had done their best to keep the theater going, but none had the wherewithal to restore it. It was only a matter of time before it closed down. And then, in 1989, at the age of 62, it did.
At the first stirrings of community action to bring the theater back to life, I was skeptical. The dollar figures were enormous, the plans grandiose.
Cindy Flanagan, an early champion of the theater project, took the Monitor brass on a tour of the place to try to win the paper’s support. We stood in a dungeon with garbage all around us and wires hanging from the ceiling while Flanagan explained what a fabulous reception area this would make. She took us onstage and backstage and tried to make us see enormous potential in the dust and grime. Frankly, I was glad to get out of the place alive.
Community leaders pressed on. Paul Hodes, Marty Gross and others came to the paper with charts on how the financing could be made to work and architectural renderings that made the place look spectacular.
Although the Monitor cheered the project on, behind our editorials I’m sure the community could see that only one hand was clapping.
But Flanagan, Hodes, Gross and a large cast of others did it. They got the money, they captured the imagination of the arts community, the business community, the whole community, and they resurrected the old Capitol Theater. It was a miracle, one of Concord’s finest hours.
Yet no amount of community enthusiasm could make this risky venture go. Who would woo new patrons, book the shows, engage the community for the long haul, line up sponsors and keep them involved, make the Cap Center not just a venue for big names but a community resource, put the fannies in the seats? The last piece of the puzzle was an impresario.
The community found one in M.T. Mennino. For 11 years, she did all of the above and also helped lead yet another major renovation and addition that made this jewel of the community shine even brighter.
Mennino’s death at age 56 yesterday was a shock and a loss to Concord.
Now, in tribute to all that she accomplished, and with her model to guide them, the center’s board must find her worthy successor. There will never be another M.T., but if she were still with us, the first words on her lips would surely be: The show must go on.
November 29, 2005
At the start of the football season, I wrote an entry suggesting that fans keep an eye on the UNH Wildcats this year. I also made a plug for a new stadium. After Ricky Santos, David Ball & Co. turned in their terrific performance on Saturday (see the Monitor's coverage here, here and here), a reader of this blog found that entry and responded. I've posted the response with the entry ("Are you ready for some football?"), but since few readers are likely to find it there, here it is:
"I feel that if this state wants to keeps its good football team going, it better start forking over some money for a new stadium. I have heard many students tell me how the first thing they noticed was how pathetic our football stadium was and how their high schools had better fields.
"I also disagree with the comment that UNH should build acedemic facilities first because it is currently building a state of the art math center. A new football stadium will bring in more money for the university, allowing new chemistry facilities and other acedemic facilities to be built.
"And finally it is very embarrassing to see that Northern Iowa (the team that UNH will face this weekend in the quarterfinals) plays football in a dome that seats over 16,000 and UNH is just getting by with a stadium that seats 6,500. It is time for our 1940s stadium to be torn down and rebuilt."
November 28, 2005
A failure to communicate
The problems older Americans are having determining how to use the new Medicare prescription drug benefit represent a cautionary tale that goes beyond the issue at hand. They remind us that in our computer age the right words are more important than ever.
On today’s Opinion page, Victor Kumin of Warner wrote a short essay decrying the tangle of “information” he plowed through in his futile effort to figure out the prescription drug benefit. He reeled off a litany of dead ends, broken links and clumsy terminology.
Kumin is far from alone in being an intelligent person frustrated by the bottom line of the drug plan. Several people have written or called the Monitor to voice similar frustrations. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how much time you put in, they say, you can’t figure out what plan might be best for you. There is no there.
As a newspaper editor, I feel helpless about this. We’ve done some good local reporting on the prescription drug benefit, but if the companies offering the plans can’t provide clear, helpful information, how can we?
The confusion shows the value of communication skills. There’s a tendency to think the ease with which we can now transmit ideas and messages means it is also easy to get good information. But a smart society – a smart democracy – depends not on the fluidity or the volume of information. Rather it depends on the quality of the information and on the public’s ability to distinguish the good from the bad, the real from the bogus, the assertions from the facts.
We are a nation grounded in commerce. We know the marketplace is chaotic and can even be cruel, but we expect the interests of those selling goods to produce positive results. That is, in the present case, it is in the interest of health insurance companies not only to develop competitive products but also to be able to sell them. So why haven’t they?
There are only two answers. Either their executives did not come up with clear plans or they did but their PR people could not communicate them clearly.
Whichever is true, there are two lessons here that apply on a broader scale. There is a premium in the computer age not just on how to access information but also on how to process it. And in the marketplace of commodities, as in the marketplace of ideas, the ability to communicate is essential.
November 23, 2005
Still speaking his mind
I miss Warren Rudman. As a U.S. senator from New Hampshire during the 1980s and early ’90s, Rudman was a remarkably candid politician. He had strong views, which were not always party boilerplate, and he wasn’t afraid to express them. After interviewing him or seeing him on the stump, I always thought: This is what politicians are supposed to be like.
I was reminded of that quality last night as I watched Rudman share his views on Frontline, which did a fine investigative piece sorting out who was to blame for the botched emergency response in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. You can see the program on New Hampshire Public Television (Channel 11) tomorrow night (Thanksgiving) at 10, so I won’t characterize the bottom line other than to give you this hint: Brownie didn’t do a heckuva job.
Rudman is quoted on camera several times, usually as a truth-teller after a spin or a moment of ideological claptrap.
One theme of the documentary is how President Bush praised FEMA under Bill Clinton during the 2000 campaign, then, once elected, turned FEMA’s top office into a political plum for unqualified people. The agency was further degraded and demoralized in the post-9/11 reorganization that created the Department of Homeland Security. This, even though one of the three biggest emergency threats in the nation was a terrorist attack! (Another was a Hurricane disaster in New Orleans.)
Anyway, back to Rudman. Post-9/11, everyone realized that the greatest need in emergency preparedness was better communication systems among first responders. But even with buckets of money to dole out, Homeland Security failed to make grants to cities and states contingent on creating such systems. On the Frontline piece, after Tom Ridge, the first boss at Homeland Security, tries to defend this failure, which was a huge problem in New Orleans after Katrina, reporter Martin Smith asks Rudman for comment.
Well, says Rudman, of course the federal government can attach strings when it doles out money. Of course Homeland Security could have made up-to-date communication systems the top priority and made sure they were in place.
The uninitiated might think such candor comes only because Rudman is now a senior statesman (he’s 75!) rather than an officeholder. But we who have been around awhile know that Rudman has always had a refreshing – and rare – habit of saying just what he thinks.
Oddly enough, the voters always liked him for it, too.
Ten things I’m thankful for:
1. America’s women and men in uniform. May they come home safe and soon.
2. Family. Let us lift a glass to the generations, old and new.
3. Our new refugees and immigrants, who have joined us to share in the American dream. May we learn from them and appreciate the new perspectives they bring to our communities.
4. Susan McLane and Beverly Leo, who will be missing from their families’ Thanksgiving tables for the first time this year. Both lived exemplary public lives. May others pick up their torches.
5. The prosperity that has blessed Concord and New Hampshire for so many years. May our generosity swell to match it.
6. Our schools and our teachers. May we see them for the gift they are.
7. The woods, the mountains, the lakes, the streams. May we be their worthy stewards.
8. Books. Share one soon with someone you love.
9. Art and music. May we pause from our cares to let them lift us.
10. The plenty of our tables. To borrow a line from an old movie whose title I forget: Good food, good meat, s’getting late, let’s eat.
Those are my blessings. Feel free to add yours . . .
November 22, 2005
New York, New York
Each year since the planes flew into the World Trade Center, I have made three business trips to New York City. The latest was last week. I don’t want to overstate the case, but these sporadic visits have given me a window into the city’s rise from its trauma.
During my times there the year or two after 9/11, there were new things to appreciate. Every time I saw a cop on the street or passed a firehouse, it was impossible not to experience awe, sorrow and gratitude. But a terrible solemnity had befallen the place, and a visitor could see and feel it. It was like a thick fog.
Then, on a trip last winter, my wife and I stopped at a street vendor’s cart on 5th Avenue where pashminas were on sale for $5 each. It was a frigid day, but women mobbed the cart and raided the colorful stacks. When one woman found the pashmina she wanted, she asked the salesman if it came with a box.
“Lady,” he said, “if you want a box, go to Bloomingdale’s.”
You may think it odd, but it was at this moment that it first occurred to me that New York might be emerging from the fog.
Two months ago, when I made my reservations for last week's trip, I had trouble finding a room. Oh, there were rooms, but being a country bumpkin, I gagged on the rates. To be honest, even with my employer picking up the tab, the $190-$250 rates of the last few years have made me feel guilty. But suddenly, well in advance, the hotels I usually book wanted $400 a night. At that price I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
Eventually, I found a deal – or what passes for a deal in New York – on a cheap-tickets web site. But during our two-day stay, I quickly saw the good side of these high prices. They meant the city streets were crowded and vibrant. The cash registers were buzzing. Theaters, restaurants, department stores and museums were packed. New York was New York again.
Americans who lived through 9/11 will never be the same. Those who lost loved ones that day will live with the scars forever. But surely there is something to celebrate in the revival of culture and commerce on the streets of Manhattan.
November 17, 2005
A walk along Casco Bay
This past weekend, we visited our son and his fiancée in Portland. It was not quite Indian summer, but as we walked the streets in light jackets, we felt the sun on our faces. On Sunday we window-shopped and stopped at Emerson’s, a store with books, old maps and prints. Then we headed for the waterfront.
A walking and biking trail rims the peninsula along Casco Bay. You leave the restaurants, bars, fisheries and lobster pounds in the wharf area and soon encounter less dense residential areas. A narrow-gauge railroad track runs beside the trail, and the train that runs on it stops at a railroad museum. On this fine day, men were hauling yachts and lesser craft out of the water for storage.
Before long, in some stretches, the built universe fell away, and it was possible to regard the elements with few distractions. Two old forts lie in the harbor, the Homeland Security of a past age. The bay itself was still, not at all like the rock-crashing symphony that enthralled the aged Winslow Homer and other artists out along the coast.
As we reached the tip of the peninsula, we looked uphill to East Promenade. Beyond the grassy expanse of a park where a young man was struggling to launch a kite decorated with the skull and crossbones, the rooftops of large houses all in a row peeked over the horizon. The scene beckoned us upward. Walking along the promenade itself, we satisfied our curiosity about the grand old New England houses to our right and the panoramic view of the bay to our left. As is our habit, we stopped to read the historic markers, including one on a bench, a memorial to a man who loved to sit on that spot and take in view.
Our son pointed out the widow’s walk on one stately mansion; on another, he showed us where the widow’s walk had once been. I wondered if it had been removed because it outlived its usefulness or because a new owner disliked its morbid connotation. Or maybe the elements blew it ro ruin.
Soon we were headed down the hill and back into town. It was a long, lovely walk, and it made me think about our hometown, Concord on the Merrimack.
The river is accessible in some places in Concord, and there are walks along it. But these are nature trails. Because an interstate highway runs between downtown and the river, you could walk down Main Street and never know Concord was a river town (or an old railroad town, for that matter). The idea of creating river access from downtown has been mentioned during long-range planning sessions for highway expansion, but it seems impractical.
Our walk in Portland reminded me of the great benefit of connecting a city’s commerce, history and living space with its natural environment.
Of course, that was only one thought as we rested our tired bones in a seafood café. Another was whether memories of this stroll in the sunshine would carry us through winter.
November 16, 2005
Q & A
We have received plenty of feedback about the new look of the Monitor. A couple of readers responded to this blog, some wrote notes that we published and a few made comments not for publication. There were questions embodied in many comments, and here are answers to a few of them:
The paper has more to see and less to read. Haven’t you dumbed down your content?
That certainly was not our intention. The driving idea behind the redesign was just the opposite. We wanted to create an environment that allowed good content to sell itself. That is, we wanted the words, pictures and information graphics to take predominance over color and graphics used in an ornamental or decorative way.
We have encouraged editors and reporters to present information in new ways, but we’re trying to do two things at once: allow busy readers to get more from the paper at a glance without sacrificing the in-depth reporting on state and local issues that only a local newspaper can provide.
Why don’t you put important national and international news on the front and most of the local content elsewhere in the paper?
We pay a lot of attention to national and international news, but as a job candidate once said in a critique, and I paraphrase: It’s clear from reading the Monitor that page one is a showcase for local and state news while Bush and Saddam can duke it out on page A-2 or even further into the A section.
We hope our nation-world report is smart and extensive. For a small newspaper, we devote a lot of space to it. We are also quick to move nation-world stories out front when the news warrants it. But local and state news remain the Monitor’s franchise.
Why so much focus on disease and death in the first week of the redesign?
Our redesign is content-driven. We have created three new beats after speaking with readers and assessing our content. The beats are aging, health care and the environment, subjects that seemed under-covered in our local report. We planned several stories for the first week of redesign – last week – to highlight our new beats. Meanwhile, Beverly Leo, whose decline we had been following in a continuing series, died the day before the redesign debuted. This, I think, led to the impression among some readers that we had too much “gloomy” news on the front page during the week.
We hope readers won’t judge us on the basis of any particular week’s content.
What happened to the Sunday political column?
Capital Beat remains a staple of the Sunday Viewpoints page. At the moment we are between State House reporters. Dan Barrick, who covered the State House, has been promoted to a local editing position. Eric Moskowitz, our Concord reporter, is moving to the State House. Sarah Liebowitz will cover the city. Eric will soon be reporting and writing Capital Beat. Sarah will take over Eric’s City Limits column.
p.s. More questions welcome, here or at email@example.com
November 11, 2005
Real men (and women) don’t use leaf-blowers
At my house, one of the rituals of autumn is the raking of the leaves. The older I get, the harder it is on my arm and shoulder muscles, but part of me looks forward to it. One pleasure is in remembering raking with each of my sons, now off living their own lives.
This year, like nature itself, I was late. Weekend trips and guests, other chores and last weekend’s rain had kept me from the leaves. This would have been no problem except that in Concord the truck that comes around to suck up the leaves at the roadside comes only once, and you can never be quite sure when. At least I don’t know.
Yesterday, my wife Monique spotted the truck in the neighborhood. She had today off, so I enlisted her as my helpmate in a first-light assault on the leaves. We’d hardly begun when we heard the leaf truck one block over. I raked furiously while she lifted the piles of leaves into trash cans. Together we ran the cans to the curb, dumped them and headed back to the golden blanket of leaves in our back yard. All the while we listened for the truck and tried to gauge how near it was, how soon it might arrive.
Because of the speed with which we raked, I missed my normal reverie in this task. I missed concentrating on the sound of the leaves, although I smelled them in the sun and smelled their dampness in the shadows. There is always something interesting under the leaves, but today I paused only once over a discovery.
Near where we keep the trash cans, I was suddenly raking what I thought was broken glass. I called to Monique, asking if she knew what might have happened. Then I realized it was not glass but ice – a sheet of it that had formed on a trash can lid after the last rain and then slid off into the leaves. The work had heated us so that I was shocked it had been cold enough to freeze water and keep it frozen.
Of course, the ice sent the same message as the bare black maple branches pointing to the morning sky: It’s coming. Winter is coming.
The leaf truck was coming, too. We went in and made coffee, and when Monique looked out the front window, the leaves were gone.
It all went so fast.
November 10, 2005
As a military veteran, I’m in a small minority. At work, in town, most places I go, it is a rarity to run into another veteran.
I am proud to be a veteran, but I don’t belong to veterans’ groups or participate in veterans’ causes. Nevertheless, every year when Veterans Day comes around (Memorial Day, too), I can’t help but feel resentment.
I feel other things: the loss of friends and acquaintances from the Vietnam era, a reverence for my father and his fading generation, and gratitude to all Americans who lie in soldiers’ graves.
What I resent is that for nearly everyone, Veterans Day is just a day off, part of a three-day weekend. It doesn’t help that it is just another day at the office for me, but that is beside the point – or beside my point at least.
Veterans Day shouldn’t be a day off, especially for schools. Columbus Day (another bogus holiday) is just past, and Thanksgiving and its four-day weekend are coming soon, so it’s hard to argue that the kids need a break.
Schools could make Veterans Day meaningful by inviting veterans to history, geography and social studies classes and to general assemblies. The veterans could tell their stories and talk about what service to the country means to them. The students could ask questions and learn something about an aspect of life that few of them will experience but all of them should respect.
From my youth, I remember many encounters with old veterans. A contingent of World War I soldiers marched in Memorial Day parade, and my grandmother bought me a plastic poppie to wear in my buttonhole. As Cub Scouts, we once had a visit from a leather-skinned man in his 90s who had fought the Indians. This might not be a politically correct memory by 21st century standards, but for me it is a vivid connection with the past. As a boy, I often pestered World War II veterans for their stories, and was brushed off at least as often as I was rewarded. Many veterans lock their soldier past away.
I’m not suggesting that every kid will, or should, make the connections I did. But Veterans Day, like Memorial Day, is a lost educational opportunity.
November 08, 2005
Our new look
An invitation to those of you who’ve seen today’s Monitor: Please let us know what you think about it by posting messages on this blog. You can write letters to the editor or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, but I’d be glad to take comments here as well.
Today’s paper is the first based on a content-driven redesign we began more than two years ago. Both the content and design aspects are still works in progress (all the more reason for you to get in your two cents’ worth), but we know readers will see today’s paper as new because we’ve changed the typography. The last time we did that was in 1990.
Hope you like the new Monitor.
p.s. Whether you've seen the paper or not, you're welcome to have a go at the contest we announced today. All you have to do is click on the icon at the upper right of our web site and write a caption for the Mike Marland cartoon you'll find there. The best caption wins the original cartoon, in color, with the caption inked in by Marland -- not to mention the eternal glory of having the cartoon and caption appear in the Monitor. The competition will be tough, I should add. By this afternoon, we had a dozen contenders.
November 03, 2005
Not ready for primetime
I suppose it is a sign of the grumpiness of a geezer, but for all his promise, I don’t think Seth Cohn, the Free State Project candidate on Tuesday ballot for the Concord School Board, is ready for the job.
I’ll admit the board is too plodding and homogeneous. It has too many lawyers, and too many of its members live in the same neighborhood. The board could use an iconoclast like, say, John Stohrer, who used to challenge the status quo.
Maybe Cohn would do the same thing. During his interview with our editorial board, he did not come across as a bomb thrower – someone who wanted to abolish public schools, as some libertarian extremists do. He seemed smart, earnest and articulate, committed to Concord, serious about serving. And he was anything but conventional.
In years past, I’ve occasionally pushed our editorial board to endorse such a candidate, but several things stopped me here. The main one was the wrong assumptions behind many of Cohn’s solutions for Concord schools. To cite just one example, when we asked him about all-day kindergarten, he said that kindergarten was “day care in a lot of ways” and suggested that he might favor a charter school approach because it would cost less.
There are aspects of day care in kindergarten, but they’re minor compared to the main mission. Kindergarten is a year for acclimating children to school and assessing their needs, and it is vital to public education. Every study I’ve seen shows kindergarten makes a huge difference in making successful lives. Some kids come from families where the house is full of books and they are read to regularly; some have never heard of Goodnight Moon. Most need some formal school to prepare them for first grade. If I ruled the world, I’d institute two-year half-day kindergarten for 4 and 5-year-olds over one-year, full-day kindergarten. The point is that Cohn, who has no children, seemed cavalier and dismissive about kindergarten.
Like him, I like the idea of charter schools. But so far they have proved to be impractical in New Hampshire, many of whose politicians have embraced them without figuring out how to pay for them. Before he proposes charter schools as an answer for Concord, Cohn needs a plan for financing them. He says they’d be a cheaper alternative, but that is neither a self-evident truth nor a primary argument for them.
If Cohn loses on Tuesday, I hope he’ll do some homework. He’s already been diligent and perceptive in finding out about Concord schools without ever having gone to one himself or sent a child to one. But he needs to know more. And he needs to ground his political philosophy – more personal liberty, more individual responsibility, less government – in the actual circumstances of the city’s schools and the state’s tax structure.
With a little work, he could become the iconoclast the school board needs.
November 02, 2005
I’ve been reading The Secret Man, Bob Woodward’s short book on Deep Throat, the source who helped Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the scandal that sank Richard Nixon. W. Mark Felt, the FBI’s No. 2 man at the time, ended Washington’s long-running mystery early this year when he disclosed that he was Deep Throat.
The Secret Man is a good refresher course on how the scandal unfolded. It is also a fascinating account of the relationship between Woodward and Felt and of the factors that might have motivated Felt to help break the coverup. Some of his motives were noble, some weren’t.
I was already a newspaperman during the Watergate scandal. For a decade afterward, I read a Watergate book each year. There was no way anyone could keep up with all the memoirs and histories that rolled off the book presses, but I saw the scandal from many perspectives.
For me, the main thing new in The Secret Man is how central Mark Felt was to Woodward. He wasn’t just a source for the Watergate stories; in many ways he was their foundation. He was near the heart of the FBI's investigation of Watergate. Although his survival instincts could make him cryptic, he provided Woodward, Bernstein and the Washington Post with the assurance that their pursuit of the Watergate story was no wild goose chase. For months, it was a lonely, tedious, sometimes dangerous pursuit. The glory and the glamour came only later.
There was also a moment of resonance in reading The Secret Man. It was amazing to remember that Woodward and Bernstein were breaking stories damaging to Nixon right up until the 1972 election. In response, the White House denied the truth, threatened the Post and called the reporters liars and toadies for the Democratic Party. The coverup worked. Nixon won a landslide re-election despite all the despicable things he and his minions had done.
I heard an echo of this when I read E.J. Dionne’s column making the same point about the 2004 election campaign. The Bush administration did all it could in those months to cover up the unraveling of its case for going to war in Iraq and to slime those who were calling that case into question. The indictment of Scooter Libby last week was one result of the coverup. The first line of Dionne's column was: “Has anyone noticed that the coverup worked?”
November 01, 2005
During the last couple of weeks, the editorial board of the Monitor has interviewed 23 candidates for Concord’s city council and school board. Beginning Thursday, we’ll run editorials endorsing five candidates for the council and three for school board.
People often ask: Why endorse? Shouldn't elections be purely the voters’ prerogative, without the Monitor seeking to influence the outcome? Aren't endorsements obsolete – a throwback to the days when newspapers were party organs and any city of Concord’s size had at least one newspaper for each major party?
I think endorsements are a logical extension of what we do each day in the editorial columns: render opinions on matters of public interest. We are indeed trying to influence the election, but our editorials always seek to guide public opinion. Readers, of course, are free to skip or ignore the Monitor’s advice. They often have.
Our most important preparation for the endorsements is the interviews with the candidates. These are getting-to-know-you conversations that focus on the major issues facing the city and the schools. We are trying to determine whether the candidates, many of whom have never held public office, have the potential to grow into the job and why they hold the views they do.
One of our most important functions as an editorial board is to follow the council and the school board closely on an ongoing basis and to comment on their actions. Regular readers of editorials know our biases. For those who might not, we try to spell them out in the endorsements.
This year, for example, we’re wary of city council candidates who oppose the Langley Parkway. We think the appropriation for the parkway is likely to come before the council again in the future. In our view, the project is vital for the city and for two of its important institutions, Concord Hospital and St. Paul’s School. The years of delay caused by a few last-standers should not be rewarded with a council that will undo the super-majority necessary to make the parkway happen. We have editorialized in favor of the parkway for years, so this position should come as no surprise.
For both the council and the school board, Concord is blessed once again this year with a good field of candidates. There is little glory in these jobs – they are truly voluntary public service. Voters citywide will choose from among seven candidates for two at-large council seats and seven for three seats on the school board (the eighth, Pasquale Alosa, has dropped out). Wards 1, 2 and 7 have contested races for the council.
Whether or not city voters agree with the Monitor’s endorsements, they owe these candidates a good turnout next Tuesday.
October 25, 2005
Art from the American Century
The current exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester features four American artists and Alfred Stieglitz, the man who nurtured them. I love art, but I’m a word person, and sometimes even when the pictures excite me, I take away text from an exhibit as much as I take away images. I wrote down some of the words I took from this one, and I want to share them with you, but first a few words about the art.
The four artists are John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe, who were born between 1870 and 1887. Except for O’Keeffe, who was Stieglitz’s wife, they are not household names.
I’ve looked for Marin’s pictures in museums and galleries for more than 30 years. I was first drawn to them by Henry Miller’s account of a visit with the artist in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Marin is known as a watercolorist. Until Sunday, I had never seen his White Mountain landscapes or his later, larger oils of the busy Manhattan streets beneath buildings that bend like weeds. Nor had I known he was ambidextrous, which led me to see him as Edward Scissorhands waving his arms before his canvas with a brush in each hand. The three people with me, two of whom paint, looked closely at the canvases trying to discern which strokes Marin had painted with his righthand brush, which with his left.
Marsden Hartley’s Maine paintings are dense and wonderful. They literally take you into the woods or to the edge of the ocean. The O’Keeffes here show her range. There is a barn with straight true lines, a striking vista of a V separating two white cliffs and several vintage O’Keeffe works with their sensual shapes. The surprise of the show for me, and for my wife the star, was Arthur Dove. We spent an hour and half at the Currier, and I’ll bet she stood for half of it staring at his canvases. For the most part these are colorful abstractions, closer to the O’Keeffe than the Hartley, although it would be a mistake to see the painters in this group as a school. They might share the goal of favoring form and color to convey feeling, but the Stieglitz Circle was nothing like the Hudson River School, for example, in the sharing of technique and subject.
Seeing these artists reminded me that we are already moving some distance beyond the 20th century – the American century. It made me think about the vast number of artists, particularly in mid-century, who created American art. And it made me see the willed aspect of this burst of creativity. Or at least it was willed on the part of Alfred Stieglitz.
Stieglitz sold the pictures in this exhibit to a collector named Duncan Phillips, with whom he carried on a correspondence for many years. I don’t know that Stieglitz was 100 percent genuine in his letters to Phillips – I mean, as much as Stieglitz disparaged commercialism, he was writing to a good customer. But I chose to take him at his word, especially since the two quotations I’ll share from letters on display in Manchester were written 17 years apart. One refers to art, the other to the country itself – not just its art but also its moral place in the world.
From 1926: “You see, I have a passion for America and I feel, and have always felt, that if I could not believe in the workers in this country, not in the imitator of what is European, but in the originator, in the American himself digging from within, pictures for me would have no significance.”
And from 1943, with the country at war: “My fight becomes more and more for America, but not in the narrow sense but in the world sense. If we don’t lead the world I am afraid we are in for centuries of darkness, and don’t think for one moment I am speaking of America in terms of nationalism.”
October 21, 2005
We have a winner
A confession: I used to gamble. I cleaned up in a poker game in Army basic training once, taking a month’s pay from several pals. I felt terrible about it. Later, I cut the cards with a soldier buddy in Germany for a trip to the Oktoberfest, including airline tickets and hotel. I lost. I felt terrible about it.
I don’t play the lottery. This is not a matter of principle, even though I don’t think the state should raise money on behavior that can be addictive and destructive. It’s more that I’m a penny pincher. Plus, as the saying goes, the lottery is a game for people who failed math. At least when I cut the three of clubs and lost the trip to Munich, I had started with a 50-50 chance.
Now Sen. Judd Gregg, who’s good at math, and lucky in general, has won the lottery – half a mil after taxes. He is notoriously unresponsive to the media and spends little time with constituents, but after his lottery win, he suddenly loved microphones with the passion of Jesse Jackson.
I understand what New Hampshire voters like about Gregg, but there’s another side, too. He’s smart, honest, flinty and consistent, but he’s also stand-offish. His politics is artful. He talks like a fiscal hawk but walks like something else, playing for pork with the best of them and carrying water for a president whose attitude toward deficits keeps real conservatives awake at night.
Gregg has always been lucky. He was born rich. He is well educated. He avoided the draft. When he wanted to step up politically, opportunities opened up. When he was most vulnerable, his opponents faltered.
And now he’s won the lottery – not the big prize, but big enough. I think I know how his constituents reacted to this news. It gave a sinking feeling even to many people who have voted for Gregg every election in his 30 years in public life. I mean, if you made a list of people you’d like to see win the lottery, where would Judd Gregg’s name be on it?
No, the lottery is for the mother frightened about whether she’s going to be able to pay for oil this winter. It’s for the retired cop who umpires the Little League games. It’s for the teacher whose kid just got into Yale.
It’s a free country, but what’s a guy who won the lottery at birth doing taking money out of the pocket of someone whose life would be transformed by it? What’s a millionaire politician doing playing Powerball?
October 14, 2005
Although it is a plaint we often hear from readers, it is bad form for the editor to say at a news meeting: “Hey, how about putting some good news in the paper?” But I did say that one day this week as we were critiquing the previous day’s A-section content.
We try to give people a balance of news, reflecting what’s going right in the world and in our community as well as what’s going wrong. And our editors work hard to find world and national stories that will brighten a reader’s day.
But the news lately has been relentlessly grim. It’s not just the aftermath of Katrina or the endless sequence of death and chaos in Iraq. It’s 20,000 to 40,000 dead in an earthquake in Pakistan. It’s Guatemalan officials, after Hurricane Rick, abandoning buried communities and declaring them graveyards. It’s rising fear of an avian flu pandemic. And, in our own back yard, it’s a downpour that destroyed lives and property.
This last story hit close to home. On its much smaller scale, it was more shocking than Katrina. New Orleans is below sea level, its vulnerability to hurricanes a mystery to no one. But anyone who has driven the back roads of southwestern New Hampshire knows how permanent the dwellings and the landscape there seem. Or seemed. The roadside streams do rush and foam in April, but by mid-summer they have dropped off into a long, still nap. That they might run wild, sweeping away houses, crumbling roads and taking lives, was unthinkable until Sunday.
The floodwaters in New Hampshire compounded the idea that nature was somehow mocking human efforts to bring order to the world. A war gone amok, gas prices soaring, taxes sure to rise, bigger deficits looming, higher inflation a certainty, a run of natural disasters – I guess it is no wonder the news in the front section of the paper this past week seemed especially depressing.
It’s the Monitor’s job to cover these events and developments fully, but our readers’ lives are not all gloom and doom. Far from it. That’s why I don’t think asking our editors to make room for stories on the lighter side makes me a Pollyanna. Even in hard times – maybe especially in hard times – newspapers should show readers the big picture and provide them with some relief.
October 12, 2005
One challenge of the news business is deciding what is news. Journalists learn to use their brains and all their senses to answer this question.
My eyes tell me there is brown grunge on the maple leaves on trees near the roads in my neighborhood. My guess is road salt could have something to do with this, but I’m hoping a Monitor reporter will look into it. Maybe it will be a story (if it is widespread and new), maybe not.
Anyone’s eyes can see that autumn isn’t up to snuff this year. That realization led to the centerpiece story and photos on tomorrow’s front page.
Our noses tell us how successfully the city is combating the odor at the Concord sewage treatment plant. Unfortunately, especially for those who live near it or downwind of it, this is one of the city’s longest running stories.
Thanks mainly to readers, our ears lead us to many stories. Ken Jordan called today to make sure we had seen the obituary of Joseph D. Shields III. I had read it and noted that in addition to a successful medical career, Shields once played in the Milwaukee Braves organization. What Ken added that I didn’t know was that Shields was “the Matt Bonner of his time,” meaning Concord’s most celebrated schoolboy athlete. Ken thought our sports department might want to follow up. I passed his idea on.
Our reporter Meg Heckman had her ears open at a recent conference on covering aging. The first result was last Sunday’s fun look from Meg and photographer Ken Williams at how people define “old.”
Some content comes from thinking and talking. We aspite to give Monitor readers as many stories as possible that they won’t find elsewhere. For the Opinion pages, we’ve begun brainstorming about how to expand our local reach. We hope our latest talks will lead to local commentary on what it’s like to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, on a dispute over the flooding of local property and on the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Many stories are in the paper because they’re important news events that anyone would recognize. The terrible flooding in southwestern New Hampshire is a current example. But journalists have some discretion in what we write about, too. In exercising this discretion, we rely on our senses, our thinking caps and our readers’ good advice.
October 11, 2005
Going, going, gone
There will no doubt be some great baseball played over the next three weeks, but I won’t watch much of it. I’m somewhat relieved, as another Yankees-Red Sox series would have been a gut-wrencher for this fan. The last month of the season was already a grind. It seemed to be a grind for the players, too. By September, they had stopped looking like the boys of summer.
Frankly, neither team had the arms or the chemistry of champions in 2005. All summer long, conversations with both my Red Sox and Yankee fan friends never went far without someone saying how flawed the teams were.
Still, you hope against hope. For Red Sox fans, it was pleasant to bask in the glory of 2004 and to believe the old magic might reappear in the playoffs. Our Tim O’Sullivan took this view when Boston lost the opener to Chicago 14-2. The headline on his column read: “Relax fans, they’re looking ahead.” Even after the Red Sox lost the second game, our Dave D’Onofrio’s front-page column was headlined: “A bad spot, but it’s familiar.”
That second game was my first look at the Chicago reliever Bobby Jenks. With my East Coast bias, I had been saying that neither the Angels nor the White Sox scared me. Jenks scared me. Champions have lights-out closers. Jenks is one.
As for the Yankees, my gosh, what a strange ride. I’ve liked the Yankees since I was a boy. I grew up liking the Red Sox, too, but if you live in New England, you have to choose. You can’t root for both. The rivalry is too personal. But I find it hard to believe George Steinbrenner and his front office abandoned the formula that combined bought and homegrown stars with solid journeyman – Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez in his first tour. It is beyond me why the Yankee brass has to keep proving to itself that money isn’t everything.
The poster boy for this philosophy is Alex Rodriquez. For all the beauty of his game at times, how hard it is to like him. What an irony it will be if he wins the MVP. At crunch time, it is as though his $252 million contract is an anvil on his back. When he came up in the ninth inning last night, I muttered under my breath that Joe Torre ought to give him the bunt sign. Even though the Yankees were two runs down, and even though A-Rod had led the league in homers, I knew he was going to hit into a double play.
So now we fans – of the Red Sox and Yankees alike – face a long winter with nothing to taunt each other about. When spring returns and we emerge from baseball hibernation, we’ll be as eager as ever for the next chapter in the greatest rivalry in sport. Even so, there is so much wrong with these teams that it is hard to imagine either can make enough moves to hide or fix all the flaws.
October 07, 2005
As you’ll read in the Sunday Monitor’s Capital Beat column, Chairman Tony Soltani says his same-sex marriage commission is not finished yet. In fact, it was finished before it started.
The commission voted last week to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. How can a group so intent on crowing its prejudice come up with a thoughtful, judicious proposal on how New Hampshire should deal with this issue?
Soltani has bristled anytime anyone has suggested that he and his commission aren’t serious about their mission. Well, Soltani voted in favor of the amendment, too. What a leader.
This issue should matter to all who care about equal rights for minorities, but the prospects in the coming legislative session are poor. The governor says he opposes gay marriage, and Soltani’s commission is a joke. The constitutional amendment won’t pass, but it could be an effective stalling tactic. The best hope is that wiser legislators somewhere are quietly working toward a fair solution.
October 05, 2005
Justice in a vacuum
America’s Most Wanted at this point in our history is the non-activist Supreme Court justice. The ideal justice, an oft-reprised line goes, will put his or her personal beliefs aside and simply interpret the law on the foundation laid by James Madison and the gang. We heard Chief Justice John Roberts labeled as such a judge during his confirmation process – just an umpire, he himself said he would be. And we’re hearing the same thing about Harriet Miers.
In today’s Monitor, we ran a Washington Post story in which a man who knows Miers well describes her as a born-again Christian who believes that life begins at conception and that abortion is taking a life. He and others assert that as a Supreme Court justice, she would disregard her own views and rule only on the basis of the Constitution and the law.
Whatever her intentions might be, I doubt it. For more than 30 years, a Supreme Court majority has found that the Constitution bestows on women the right to decide for themselves, within clearly drawn restrictions, whether to terminate a pregnancy. If Miers believes abortion is taking a life, how can she possibly accept this interpretation of the Constitution? She would have to conclude that the Constitution condones taking a life.
The idea of some distinct, easily drawn line between a justice’s fundamental moral beliefs and how he or she interprets the Constitution is bogus. The big questions before the Supreme Court include assisted suicide, abortion rights, gay rights and church-state separation. These issues matter to all Americans. They also matter to the justices – personally.
To the cases that come before them, even justices who purport to be conservative, non-activist originalists bring their own morals, opinions, politics and life experience. We citizens should want them to. In eulogies to Justice Harry Blackmun a few years ago, friends observed that he recognized that there was life outside the court. The alternative is justice in a vacuum.
Americans are scratching their heads over President Bush’s stealth nominee. Many are doing as I just did and trying to assess how she would vote on Roe vs. Wade and other social issues. I don’t expect the Senate hearings to clear much up. I do expect that if Miers is confirmed, she will bring all her baggage to the Supreme Court. Hard as she might try to rise out of herself and interpret statutes by only the considerable light of the minds of the founders, she will not be able to do it.
October 03, 2005
Maybe the fall foliage is late - who really knows? But if you want an early taste of the colors of autumn, head for the Art Center in Hargate at St. Paul’s School, one of Concord’s hidden gems.
Until Oct. 15, the gallery features paintings by the White Mountain Artists. Benjamin Champney, a New Hampshire native who lived in North Conway and painted in the White Mountains for five decades, is synonymous with this group. But many artists spent at least some time working in the bracing air and amid the stunning vistas of the Whites during the 19th century.
We saw the Hargate exhibit on Saturday. Although the subjects are large – mountain landscapes – many of the paintings are small. This is part of their charm, as is the familiarity of the scenes to anyone who has spent even a little time in the mountains. You will swear when you see the bared tooth of Chocorua’s peak or the white cap of Mount Washington beyond the trees that you have stood where the artists stood. And perhaps you will be right. You will also ask yourself how these artists were able to contain such majestic views on such small canvases and boards.
Champney is well represented in the exhibit, and there are better known artists, too, including Albert Bierstadt. If you go, don’t miss the one small painting by Robert Scott Duncanson. He was born to a Canadian father and a free African-American mother in upstate New York in 1821. He did most of his painting elsewhere but stopped in our mountains long enough to join the ranks of White Mountain Artists.
The Hargate is a small gallery, and a tour of the paintings takes no more than a half hour. The gallery is open from 10 to 4.
September 30, 2005
I recently had a call from Beverly Leo, who for many years was a member of the Monitor’s board of contributors. As executive director of the Concord SPCA, Beverly wrote for our opinion pages about issues and legislative bills concerning animals. She once allowed our news staff to cover the putting down of a dog, including a photo sequence of the sad event.
Beverly, who retired several years ago, was calling to ask what I thought about the possibility of our covering her dying and death. She suffers from a rare lung disease and has beaten the odds she was given at diagnosis, but she is nearing death now.
I had to think about it. Nearly two years ago, Allison Steele of our staff chronicled a man’s death and its impact on his widow. They were a wonderful couple, and Allison wrote beautifully about them.
How would this story be different? What would readers glean from it that they hadn’t read in the earlier stories? The answer, of course, started with Beverly Leo herself. An articulate woman well known to our community is facing death. Through her experience, we hope to inform readers about medical decision-making and care-giving and to share with them the thoughts and emotions of Beverly and her family.
Reporter Joelle Farrell and photographer Lori Duff will have the first installment of Beverly’s story in the Sunday Monitor.
* * *
During the recent trial of a magazine salesman accused of raping a local woman, there was a quiet buzz of complaint about our coverage. It was too graphic, some readers said. It was too prominently played. It favored the accused.
There’s nothing easy about covering a case like this or deciding which details to include and which to omit. The first and by far most important decisions belong to the reporter, in this case Annmarie Timmins.
One challenge is how to tell readers enough so that they get an accurate account of the court proceedings without publishing details that would offend a wide swath of our readership. Another is to represent both sides fairly in what we choose to print.
On Sunday’s Viewpoints page, Timmins explains how she approached these challenges in the trial of Joseph Hannify.
September 29, 2005
All in the family
You may have read in yesterday’s paper that the Concord Monitor’s parent company, Newspapers of New England, Inc., is purchasing the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., and the weekly Amherst (Mass.) Bulletin. What does this mean for Monitor readers?
My answer might differ somewhat from the one the owners and publisher of the Monitor would give, but here it is:
In a time when newspapers, including ours, are struggling to grow circulation and ad revenue, the expansion of Newspapers of New England is good news. It is evidence that the financial health of the company is strong. You don’t go into the marketplace and make a significant purchase if you are struggling.
The purchase is also a victory for the forces of community journalism. Profit is vital to any company's stability, but Newspapers of New England is not a bottom-line chain. It’s not a chain at all, really – it allows its papers great autonomy and retains the best traits of family newspaper ownership.
I’m certain the owners of the Daily Hampshire Gazette chose NNE as the buyer because they saw an affinity among the Gazette, the Monitor and other papers owned by NNE. I don’t know the sale price, but I’m guessing a lively, respected paper like the Gazette would have brought more on the open market than NNE paid for it.
One other thing Monitor readers might want to know about this purchase is that it reflects the optimism of the new guard at NNE.
We underwent big changes at the top after the retirement this past summer of George Wilson, the president of NNE for many years and the Monitor’s publisher for many years before that. Tom Brown, the Monitor’s publisher for the last 18 years, succeeded George as president of the parent company. George’s son Geordie is the new publisher of the Monitor. Aaron Julien, George’s son-in-law, recently joined NNE as a senior executive.
The purchase of the Gazette is a sign that the new generation of family leadership is doing what new generations are supposed to do: not just accepting the torch but also running with it.
No one knows the challenges the future holds, but the bet here is that Monitor readers – and readers of the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Amherst Bulletin – can look ahead with confidence in their newspapers.
September 28, 2005
You go your way, and I'll go mine
Although I was an early Dylan fan, I never knew much about his life. He was purposely enigmatic, and it was his lyrics and performance that interested me, not what was behind the façade of celebrity. So I probably learned as much as anyone who watched No Direction Home, the superb PBS documentary on early Dylan (it airs again tonight at 7:30 on WENH, Channel 11).
It did not surprise me that as a young man Dylan was a liar and a bit of a thief. He lied about where he’d come from, an effort to pad his résumé, a great American tradition. He stole his friends’ records to drill Woody Guthrie’s songs and persona into his brain.
There is an amazing transition in Dylan’s career that remains just as mysterious to me after the film as it was before. This is when Dylan goes from gulping and aping the work of Guthrie, Lead Belly and others and suddenly becomes a song writer who performs his own work almost exclusively. And what songs! Yes, they have roots in the folk tradition, but they are like nothing that existed before them. They are at once raw and polished. There are so many of them, and they are so long and so complex and come so fast, that it is wonder Dylan could remember the lyrics, much less perform them with such feeling.
And while these songs fit – even defined – the moment, they have also stood the test of time. Sure, we boomers can all break out in a Beatles tune, but Dylan’s lyrics are something else again. Forty years later (ouch!), they remain alluring, mysterious and challenging. They call us back, they call us forward.
This is a blog, not a review, so I’ll add just one other point: I saw the film over two nights. The first part I found mesmerizing. The making of the artist, the evocation of the Village in the early 1960s, the interviews with Dave Van Ronk, another old favorite of mine, and others from that period – all great stuff. There were hints of the second part throughout the first, namely the British performance with the Band in which the electronic Dylan was booed and scorned.
I found the second part hard to watch – almost a chore. It wasn’t the music. I liked the electric Dylan as much as I liked the folk Dylan, although the sound quality of the electric performances was flat. But the division of the film into two parts reflected the sharp divide in the experience of the 1960s. For young people, there was a spirit of discovery in the early 1960s, a hopeful break with the past. The optimism and resolve soon crumbled. Things fell apart. Assassination, the draft, the war, drugs, racial strife and violence all moved front and center.
Dylan moved on, too, determined to follow his talent where it took him, not wanting to explain himself, make grand statements or join any movements. His contact with the world became surreal – fans groping at the windows of his limos, cynical reporters asking stupid questions. It was an ugly time for him and the start of an ugly time for the country.
September 26, 2005
During political campaigns, focus groups get a bad name. They’re the straw man when a candidate says that unlike her opponent, she’s not going to base her policies on polls and focus groups. Of course, then she does.
We’ve been working on a content-driven redesign of the Monitor for two years, and we are just over a month from our launch date. We’ve been soliciting reader opinion all along in making decisions. Last week, we showed a prototype of the redesigned Monitor to two focus groups, one of subscribers, the other of lapsed subscribers. You can learn a lot from focus groups.
Since you haven’t seen the prototype, it’s not possible to delve into specifics, but I will list five notions about newspapering that the focus groups reinforced for me:
– Readers are smart and they know newspapers. Anything these groups perceived as a dumbing down of content, they disliked. There were times when, unprompted, group members talked about fonts, anecdotal lead paragraphs and column rules, sounding much like the editors who had pored over these same pages.
– Readers are good at multi-tasking. They read letters to the editor to see what the neighbors are saying but also “to see what whack jobs they are.”
– Readers are pressed for time. They want stories that get to the point and organization that makes sense. They want like news items in one place. They want to be able to tell at a glance the difference between news and ads.
– Readers form strong habits. Leave a regular feature out of the prototype, and they’ll ask where it is.
– Subscribers and lapsed subscribers differ on some things, creating a dilemma for us as we go forward. Regular readers like national and world news, lapsed subscribers less so. Readers don’t necessarily want more coverage of television and popular culture; lapsed subscribers do.
The bottom line for both groups was that the new design is cleaner than the current Monitor. On content, both groups liked the ideas we stressed in the prototype, but they also reinforced the idea that our mission hasn't changed: They expect strong local and state news from the Monitor.
All in all, we read the focus groups' views as a green light. They're willing to accept change as long as they see change as improvement.
September 23, 2005
Are you ready for some football?
After years as a well-kept secret, the UNH football team burst into the spotlight last year. The Wildcats won their first postseason game and a date with Montana, a perennial powerhouse in their class. The Griz mauled the ’Cats, but not before UNH’s spirited, talented team had captured the attention of sports fans all across New Hampshire.
The only embarrassment was that the Wildcats’ field in Durham was deemed unfit for a home game in the postseason. The Montana stadium, by contrast, was a gem. Both it and the Georgia Southern stadium, where the ’Cats had won their first tournament game, drew more than 20,000 people. The UNH stadium seats 6,500, but attendance averages less than 6,000.
The success of the team and the inadequacy of the field started talk about building a new stadium for the Wildcats. Of course, this being New Hampshire, the problem was – is – money.
Today at noon, after two road wins, the Wildcats will play Dartmouth at the UNH field. It’s early, but this UNH team seems to be as exciting as last year’s.
The question is whether the enthusiasm of the fans will translate into good crowds. If it does, the idea of building a new stadium may have legs. If it doesn’t, forget it. The Rick Santos-David Ball years will soon fade away, just as the Jerry Azumah years did.
But let’s stay optimistic. Tomorrow should be a lovely early fall day – perfect weather to drive over and see what the ’Cats are all about.
September 22, 2005
My back pages
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see the PBS airing of No Direction Home, the two-part film on Bob Dylan (Channel 2 is running it at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Channel 11 at 7:30 Wednesday). Megastar that Dylan is (or was), nearly everyone in my generation has a personal history with him. Here are three episodes from mine.
No. 1: Dylan invaded my consciousness in 1965, when I was a college sophomore. My roommate, Jon Wilson, had Dylan’s early albums. We listened to them until they were scratched and worn, but their deterioration just enhanced the old-time folky feel Dylan was after in the first place. Lines like “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” became planted in my brain. They seemed so bold and – pardon my saying so – relevant. But the best thing was that Dylan made me laugh at the world. I mean, who else could pull off a lyric that included a string bean, a parking meter and Anita Ekberg?
No. 2: In 1969, after a year in a small farm town in Germany as an Army linguist, I was transferred to my unit’s main base. I went to the NCO club for cheap beers the first night back. Someone was playing the same song over and over on the jukebox. I liked it but didn’t know who was singing. I asked a fellow there who it was. Oh, he said, that’s “Lay Lady Lay” – Bob Dylan. When I heard the rest of Nashville Skyline, especially the new “Girl from the North Country” duet with Johnny Cash, I couldn’t believe how different it was from early Dylan and electric Dylan. The times were a-changin’ again.
No. 3: This was the best. I was in Florida in 1976 when the Rolling Thunder Revue passed through. As I walked into the concert, the ticket-taker handed me an envelope. Inside was an invitation to show up the next day at 1 p.m. at a grand old hotel. The invitation didn’t say why. Outside the hotel, I joined a long line as it snaked through the lobby and into a ballroom with scaffolding on one side, a stage on the other and a floor in between. A small portion of the previous night’s crowd had been chosen as the audience for a television special with Dylan and Joan Baez. Dylan wore a big white hat, and the director told him to take it off. Dylan said no. From maybe 30 feet away, I watched Dylan and Baez and their band sing and play for two hours. The program never aired, to my knowledge. In memory it remains my own secret jam session with Bob Dylan.
September 21, 2005
“Tempers flared over skyboxes, unity emerged with a Poynter quote-out, and one editor said the new color gray made him want to eat fish.”
In a playful e-mail, Deputy City Editor Danielle Kronk suggested that this might be the first sentence of the story if a reporter were covering a meeting we had today at the Monitor. I won’t bore you by explaining what it means. The point is that today a group of editors and designers continued their arguments about the minutiae of what the Monitor will look like in a few weeks when we introduce our new typography.
When passions cool over these issues and the decisions are made, we’ll share them with you.
In the meantime, I’d like to call your attention to work already under way on the content of the paper. It was a content review, after all, that started us down the road to redesigning the paper.
I’ll focus on two areas: community news and opinion.
We publish community news inside the Local/State section. The challenge is to make this feature even more vital and informative.
Rebecca Tsaros-Dickson, the new community editor, has already begun to report more fully on certain items and to expand on what we publish. A former reporter, she is taking a proactive approach, seeking out news rather than just publishing what people send us. Becky would love to work with correspondents from local high schools, for example, to get more school news on the pages – especially news with names and faces.
We’ve also retained our Town Criers, community volunteers who write for the Sunday paper. There are towns without criers, incidentally, and we would like to remedy that.
Now, about opinion. It has always been the goal of our editorial pages to be a community forum. We have opinions, and we put them in editorials, but these take up just a fraction of the space. We want to increase dramatically the number of voices who use our opinion pages to discuss the issues of our state and communities.
Opinion Editor Ari Richter has joined Editorial Page Editor Ralph Jimenez to develop a broader forum. Among other things, this entails e-mail interviews with newsmakers and pro-con presentations on issues. It includes excerpts from speeches and public testimony. It means soliciting more public response on major events as they happen.
People around here have never been shy about sharing their opinions. The result is a rich public debate. One goal of our redesign is to stir up even more of it on the Monitor’s editorial pages.
Please stay tuned!
September 19, 2005
I grew up in the South and knew plenty of guys who spent more time under the hoods of their ’57 Chevies and 327 Impalas than they did with their girlfriends. As a young sports writer, I covered small-track stock-car racing at an old-fashioned speedway and sprint cars on a dirt track at the Tampa fair. But even with two big races a year a dozen miles from my house in Concord, my interest in NASCAR is more professional than personal.
Yesterday was an exception. Between the little-boy petulance on the track and the suspense at the finish, the Sylvania 300 in Loudon was a great race. I tuned it in on TNT while sitting on my couch paying my bills.
With just over 100 laps to go and the caution flags out, Michael Waltrip ran Robby Gordon into the wall. Gordon exited his smooshed car, took off his helmet and waited for Waltrip to come around again. When he did, Gordon walked out among the racers and slammed his helmet into the driver’s side of Waltrip’s car.
Gordon’s next stop was a TNT microphone into which he referred to Waltrip as “a piece of ----.” As Gordon stalked away, the nonplussed announcer apologized and I wondered, “Can they say that on television?”
Back on the track, the thrill of the Chase, the 10-driver, 10-race grand finale that decides the Nextel Cup, soon overshadowed the bizarre – and perilous – feuding between Waltrip and Gordon.
Two drivers in the Chase, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, were running 1-2 with 16 laps to go. As they entered each curve, Stewart dropped down the bank and tried to pass. Newman fended him off until just eight laps remained.
Then it was Newman’s turn to try to squeeze by Stewart. On the next-to-last lap, he did it – a miracle finish on the Miracle Mile.
“We raced clean, we raced hard, we had fun,” Newman said afterward.
Stewart had less fun. He was surly, turning away from the microphone with the same disgusted look Gordon had worn after his tiff with Waltrip.
The private jets flew out of Concord airport into a blue late-summer sky late yesterday afternoon as the NASCAR caravan headed out for the next stop. But anyone who watched this race – in person or on the tube – had to acknowledge that the oft-maligned Loudon track had provided the setting for one of the circuit’s better shows.
September 16, 2005
Don’t tell my doctor, but I’ve started to run again. It’s been 12 years since a medical condition forced me to give it up. I have short legs and a stocky body, but I used to run five miles three times a week and 10 or 12 miles on some weekend days. I had done my first 10k road race a few days before chest pains doubled me over, the first sign of the condition that stopped me in my tracks.
My aims are modest now. I’ll be running slower, if that is possible. I’m hoping I can build up to a two-mile habit. And because I dislike indoor workouts and swimming pools and never developed a yen for skiing or skating, I want to run again in winter.
My official reason for sharing this personal story is to say a word of praise for the track at Memorial Field. What a community asset! Some days I wish it had a dome over it, but even though the resurfacing job is several years old, the track is much better than the crumbled asphalt I remember from my running days.
During the last month or so, my wife and I have spent many early mornings there walking and running. Sometimes we have the track to ourselves. There are never more than three or four other people there.
More should come. Lanes are going unused. And for people like me, who want to avoid hills while working themselves back into shape, the track beats city streets.
As we circle, we often see a community of dog walkers gathering nearby (though not on the track, where they are forbidden). There’s a black dog with a white face, a couple of reddish dogs that are probably setters, and pound dogs of various shades and patterns. The dogs are friendly and fast, and their owners are responsible and seem to enjoy one another’s company as much as their dogs do.
Crows sometimes watch us on the track. One in particular perches on a light stanchion on the north side of the football field. I tell my wife it’s the same one every day – I can tell by the caw. She’s doesn’t believe me. But I know it’s the same one because when it goes caw-caw-caw, I hear, “Run, Mike, Run.”
At first I took this as encouragement, but then it occurred to me that this was a crow talking, and I began to wonder.
September 14, 2005
Two readers whose letters will appear in tomorrow's Monitor criticize our coverage of the rape trial of magazine salesman Joseph Haniffy in Merrimack County Superior Court. One complains about the headline “Woman says she danced for rape suspect” on Tuesday’s story. The other says we are giving the story too much play and questions our naming the defendant but not his accuser.
The complaint about the headline mentions the 1988 movie The Accused. Jodie Foster plays a rape victim in the movie, and her behavior before the rape becomes an issue at trial. As I remember it, the movie was disturbing and challenging.
Although all the details in the Concord case are not yet known, it parallels the movie in some ways. The Haniffy defense is that the sex was consensual. Considering the testimony, the jury will clearly have to consider the accuser’s behavior before the sex.
I did wince when I saw our headline “Woman says she danced for rape suspects,” but on reflection I thought it accurately conveyed the most important aspect of the previous day’s testimony.
Likewise I believe our play of the story reflects its importance. When the story was first reported, it was absolutely chilling. Public interest in the case remains great, and not for prurient reasons. The public needs all the facts it can get to evaluate the investigation, the decision to bring charges, the testimony and other evidence, the conduct of the lawyers and, ultimately, the jury’s verdict.
Whether newspapers should name accusers in rape cases is the subject of ongoing debate. The Monitor follows tradition here.
We do name the accused even though they are innocent until proved guilty. Readers know an arrest is not proof of guilt, and they have a right to know who has been arrested, not just that someone has.
Unless the accusers in sex crimes request to be named, we grant them anonymity in print. Society still attaches a stigma even to those who allege such crimes. And, as in the current case, questioning the character and the actions of an accuser is standard defense procedure. If we named accusers, fewer victims would come forward.
People I respect in journalism make the opposite case, arguing that not naming rape victims actually enhances the stigmatization and makes it easier for defense lawyers to assail their character in court (for more on this argument, click here). Philosophically, I can see the logic of this point, and as a journalist, for the sake of credibility, I would prefer that we name everyone we write about.
But practically – especially in a small community – I think naming accusers would hurt them more than it would help readers.
September 12, 2005
'A Woman in Berlin'
Not entirely by design, I spent nearly all my leisure reading time this summer on diaries and memoirs. I started with Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, moved on to Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time, delighted in Russell Baker’s Growing Up, and spent hours digging into the early Cold War period in Drew Pearson’s diaries. All these books I came by at library book sales, to which I am addicted.
Then, in mid-August, I read a rave review of A Woman in Berlin, a diary written by an an anonymous woman during the Russian capture of Berlin in 1945 and its immediate aftermath. It is a stunning book, in part because of the writer’s candor about surviving a regime of wanton rape and utter defeat.
As I read it, I did wonder about two things. First, the writing is beautiful – nuanced, thoughtful, reflective as well as descriptive. It seems polished for a diary, particularly one written under such desperate conditions and supposedly transcribed from scraps of paper. Second, I wondered why the book was published anonymously. In the review I read in the New York Times Book Review, Joseph Kanon wrote: “Anonymous died in 2001, but she remains officially unnamed, a private woman who has bequeathed us an extraordinary public legacy.” I choked a bit on the word “officially.”
Then, in yesterday’s Times Book Review, Christoph Gottesmann, a reader from Vienna, had a letter addressing just these two points. The author of A Woman in Berlin, he said, was presumed to be Marta Hillers, a German journalist. Gottesmann also recounted what he knew of the history of the handwritten diary, beginning with its transcription to a typed manuscript a month after it was written.
The controversy over these issues – the naming of Hillers and the possible editing and revising of the diary – broke out in Europe in 2003, when A Woman in Berlin was republished in Germany and became a bestseller. (Germans rejected the book when it was first published in 1959, complaining that it impugned the reputation of German women.) A German literary critic disclosed Hiller’s name, and the essayist who had republished the diary slammed the critic (for a fuller account, click here).
I think the introduction to the new American edition should have named Hillers. I also think the publisher should have disclosed all that is known about the process Hillers’s words (presuming she wrote them) went through between the spring of 1945 and the new English edition in 2005. I would not mind if the original was cleaned up and polished; I would just like to know it.
In spite of the controvesy, A Woman in Berlin is a fine book, at once troubling and enlightening.
Of course, its revelations are unwelcome in Russia. Antony Beevor, the historian who wrote the introduction to the new edition, is the author of a 2002 book, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, recounting the Russian takeover. He estimates that Russian soldiers raped 100,000 women in Berlin. The Russians have denounced the claim.
September 09, 2005
With the Guard
Our photographer Preston Gannaway and reporter Dan Barrick have spent the week in and around New Orleans with members of the New Hampshire National Guard. If you’ve followed their stories and photographs, you know that each day they have gotten closer to the heart of this great disaster.
Barrick’s story today describes the smelly water in the city as “dark brown with an oily sheen” and the smell of “rotting garbage, diesel fumes, sewage and decay.” To get close enough to record these sensations – and for Gannaway to shoot pictures – the two rode into the city on a four-seat Jet-Ski.
Previously, a five-ton Army truck had transported them so they could report on the work of New Hampshire guardsmen in bringing security and comfort to people in distress.
One story quoted Sgt. John Evans, who returned home in the spring after a year in Iraq. He had mixed feelings about that assignment but not about being sent to Louisiana. “This is the kind of thing the Guard was meant to do,” he told Barrick. “I’d much rather be helping other Americans.”
The Monitor journalists are scheduled to return tomorrow, but they have more coverage in the works. The Sunday A-section will feature a two-page photo spread on the Guard at work and play. On the Viewpoints page, we'll run a personal commentary about the two journalists' experience. Barrick’s e-mail with editors about how to shape this piece included these sentences:
“When I arrived at New Orleans Naval Air Base with some 500 troops from the New Hampshire National Guard last week, I was superbly unprepared for military life. I have never been camping. I do not own a sleeping bag, a backpack or numerous other necessities of the rough life. I enjoy a daily shower. I am also very cranky. These are not promising characteristics for a soldier.”
We’re grateful to local National Guard leaders for giving us a chance to cover their mission and to bring readers a firsthand look at this national tragedy. We hope our stories and pictures have been useful to readers.
September 07, 2005
Legacy is a big word. Some are applying it to President Bush’s two appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge John Roberts and a player to be named later. Certainly these are important appointments, but Bush’s legacy? Check back with me in 20 years. Maybe we’ll know by then which direction Roberts took the court and whether the Bush justices turned the court at all.
When Chief Justice William Rehnquist died on Saturday, no one called him Richard Nixon’s legacy, even though Nixon appointed him. You could make a better case that he was Ronald Reagan’s legacy. Reagan’s elevation of Rehnquist to chief justice was a defining moment for the conservative movement.
The odd thing is that when Rehnquist died, nowhere did I read a reference to George W. Bush as Rehnquist’s legacy. There’s a good argument for it. No Rehnquist, no President Bush, at least not in 2000.
This is a legacy forged through irony. Rehnquist and his court majority violated their own judicial philosophy to award the presidency to the candidate of their party.
Florida’s 25 electoral votes were decisive in the 2000 election, but the outcome there was in dispute. After days of piecemeal recounts, political bluster and lawsuits, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a recount. Bush, who led by 327 votes in the state, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On the basis of their core belief – call it originalist, strict constructionist or states’ rightist – there was no way Rehnquist and the court’s other four conservative justices should have accepted the Bush appeal. But they did.
Here is Linda Greenhouse’s account of these events from her Rehnquist obituary in the New York Times:
“On Dec. 9, the day after the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new recount, the chief justice and Justices Scalia, O’Connor, Kennedy and Thomas voted to issue a stay, freezing the recount that had just begun. They also accepted the Bush appeal and scheduled argument for Dec. 11. Through the night after the argument and the long day that followed, the country waited for the result. At 10 p.m. on Dec. 12, the court issued its ruling. An unsigned opinion by the same five justices held that a lack of uniform standards for counting ballots from county to county meant that the recount would violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. There was no time to fix the problem, the majority held, so there could be no further counting.”
If anyone’s legacy came into focus during the last few days, it was Rehnquist’s. In Bush v. Gore, he abandoned his disdain for the encroachment of federal power on the states. This elected Bush, a man likely to choose judicial nominees to his liking. And now Rehnquist’s president has appointed Rehnquist’s one-time clerk to succeed him as chief justice.
Legacies can be tricky, but who could ask for a better shot at life after death?
September 01, 2005
First day of school
Grammy and I enjoyed talking to you on the phone last night about your first day in pre-kindergarten. We are glad you made a new friend and drew a picture for us.
You’re going to be a terrific student. We saw that again last weekend when you wouldn’t let us stop reading books to you. Your daddy called me a sucker because we read so many, but don’t listen to him. How many did we read? Ten? Twelve? More, I think. (I don’t know about you, but my favorite book was about the little rabbit who thought he didn’t like carrots. I hope you eat your carrots.)
After we read all those books, I told Grammy your mind was like a Xerox machine. You listen and look so carefully, you take everything in, and you can spin it right back out. Sometimes when it’s a book we’ve read before and I’m not sure you’re paying attention, I stop in the middle of a sentence, and you quickly fill in the next words.
You have too much on your mind to think beyond the excitement of starting school – finally – but our talk last night left Grammy and me thinking about your future. You will be going to school for the next 16 years, maybe longer. Wow! In that time, the world will change so much!
You’ve got great parents, and this has given you a big head start. You’ll keep learning from them all your life.
Your teachers have a big job, too. I admire good teachers more than any other people (and I’m not saying that just because Grammy is a teacher). Teachers do the most important work. They offer children like you what they need to become successful and fulfilled adults. It is so amazing that year after year, at schools all around the country, teachers give so many children, small and big, the chance to grow.
You’re going to have a great time in your pre-K class. You’re going to learn new things every day. It won’t even seem like work. And before you know it, you’ll be reading to Grammy and me.
Be nice to your brother. We know you will.
August 31, 2005
I grew up on Florida’s Gulf Coast where hurricanes were a regular threat. When I was a teenager, my friends and I loved to hear that a tropical storm was headed up the gulf. Unlike the oceans, the gulf is calm and peaceful. The approach of a hurricane meant a great opportunity for body-surfing.
Later, when I was a journalist in Florida, I took a more responsible view of hurricane threats. When one was headed our way, we invariably quoted Dr. Neil Frank, director of the National Hurricane Center. He was a doomsayer, always predicting the worst. Only rarely did the damage match his warnings.
Last year, with four major hurricanes hitting Florida, something had obviously changed. This week’s horror on the Gulf Coast – cinderblock buildings simply disappearing in Gulfport and Biloxi, New Orleans inundated – was exactly what Frank worried about all those years.
My friend Jim Amoss is editor of the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper. Through heroic efforts, the paper is being published online. The staff evacuated the newspaper building yesterday. If they had a way to print a newspaper, there would be no way to deliver it and few people to whom to deliver it.
The online edition includes sections where local readers can share information. Two are titled “Missing persons” and “What’s happened to my neighborhood?” Today’s lead headline tells the magnitude of the tragedy:
LEVEE BREACH SWAMPS CITY FROM LAKE TO RIVER
Population urged to leave; years of cleanup ahead
Gwen Filosa, a former Monitor staffer, works at the Times-Picayune. She is one of many staffers there who lost their homes and possessions. She wrote an e-mail a couple of hours ago to inform us at the Monitor of her situation. It reads:
“We evacuated the paper, 20 at a time, in the backs of delivery trucks, and made an 8-hour trek to land in Baton Rouge (usually a 1½-hour trip). We’re in Baton Rouge, taking over LSU’s journalism dept. Just wanted to say hello and let you all in New Hampshire know I’m okay. We’re all working, for now. I’m still a renter, and pretty much lost everything I owned, but as soon as we waded out of New Orleans, where lawlessness is reportedly hitting all-time lows, I was relieved. I feared people, 7,000 inmates next door to our paper, more than the water.”
(We’re running a longer account from Gwen in tomorrow’s Monitor.)
What an enormous tragedy Katrina has wrought. We can only hope that it is an anomaly, a storm of the century like the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Unfortunately, the evidence points another way.
August 29, 2005
I hope you read Annmarie Timmins's excellent Sunday Monitor story about the visiting room at the state prison for men in Concord. When the late Ray Barham wrote a column for the paper, I often visited him there. He’d tell me about the prisoners at the other tables, especially those who had committed grisly crimes. The rules forbade me to speak with other prisoners, but I was curious about them and their visitors. Annmarie’s story satisfied this curiosity.
At least one prisoner who might have been in the story was omitted, and thereby hangs a tale.
To report the story, Timmins went to the visiting room with Jeff Lyons, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections. She approached prisoners and their visitors and asked if they were willing to be interviewed. If the answer was yes, Lyons came to the table with a consent form that said the department would share information about the prisoner with the Monitor.
While Timmins was writing the story, a family that had signed the form objected to her intention to include the prisoner’s crime in the story. He was a sex offender, and his family said publishing the information might endanger him in prison. But prisoners’ offenses are a matter of public record, and we knew readers would want to know the crime committed by each prisoner in the story.
Timmins and her editors discussed the family’s concerns. We checked with people in the know about whether inmates generally know each other’s crimes and whether sex offenders are mistreated. The answers conflicted.
My view was that we should go with the information. The family had signed a form and spoken with Timmins. The crime and sentence were public information. Case closed.
But when the issue is ethical rather than legal, an editor is often an adviser, not a decision-maker. The decision is the reporter’s – especially when the reporter is a veteran like Timmins.
She decided the family had a point. The consent form they had signed said nothing about our including the crime. And if they felt publication might hurt the inmate, who were we to disregard that fear? Besides, in every other case, Timmins had discussed the crimes with her subjects during the interviews. In this one instance, it was only during a follow-up call to the family that she had raised the issue.
So she dropped the inmate from the story.
Reporters make decisions daily about what to put in their stories and what to leave out. This one provides a window into how complex such decisions can be.
August 26, 2005
Casualties of war
In summertime I commute an hour to and from work each day, and many evenings I listen to Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. Last night, Gross interviewed Kayla Williams, who served five years in the Army as an Arabic linguist, including a tour of Iraq. She’s written a book about her experience as a soldier called Love Me, Love My Rifle.
Toward the end of the interview, Williams told Gross about her marriage to a soldier she had met while stationed in Iraq. He still has shrapnel in his brain from a wound he suffered there. Williams described the initial care he received as excellent but added that the military seemed unprepared for the large number of traumatic wounds American soldiers are incurring in Iraq.
Kevlar vests and helmets have saved the lives of many men and women in Iraq who would have died in previous wars. The downside is that their wounds tend to be more severe than wounds in some earlier wars – amputations, head injuries, disfigurement, burns.
Williams’s discussion of these issues (click here to hear the interview) got me thinking about numbers. I’ve heard many commentators during the war in Iraq use the terms "deaths" and "casualties" interchangeably. “We’ve suffered more than 1,800 casualties,” they say, when in fact they are referring only to deaths.
That number grossly undercounts the American lives that have been lost or damaged by the invasion of Iraq. As of today, the official U.S. military death count is 1,874, but 13,877 have been wounded. The casualty count is thus 15,751.
And as we have seen in recent days from the duel between the antiwar parents called to action by Cindy Sheehan and the counter-forces mustered to cheer on President Bush, a casualty affects far more people than the soldier killed or wounded.
From the beginning, citizens have wanted to believe – and have been encouraged to believe – that the Iraq war’s human costs to American families were minimal. Iraq is no Vietnam and no World War II in this regard, but the casualties are mounting. The death count you hear every day doesn’t tell the whole story.
August 24, 2005
We've got game
In my mail today was a copy of a personal letter to the Monitor’s sports editor, Sandy Smith. I won’t disclose the writers' names, but I will quote briefly from the letter. The writers are an athlete’s parents who have seen Smith working the local sports beat for three years.
“(We) watched the incredible dedication and enthusiasm that you bring to your profession,” they wrote. “. . . How many sports editors attend games an hour away on their day off? How many writers know the players by name and are known by name to these athletes?”
Even outside of Concord, the writers said, the Monitor’s coverage of sporting events and athletes is known to be “THE BEST.”
It makes me blush to pass on such high praise, but I agree with the writers about Sandy and her department.
The kind words come at an opportune time: The sports staff is gearing up for another year of high school coverage. Maybe you read Tim O’Sullivan’s column in today’s paper on three football teams – John Stark, Newfound and Gilford – that are about to enter their second season. Tim also previewed Class L girls’ soccer. More previews lie directly ahead.
Our sports staff – Sandy, Tim, Jeff Novotny, Ray Duckler, Dave D’Onofrio and Donovan Burba – will soon be in the thick of it. We cover 22 high schools, and there are nine fall sports. On a typical weeknight, we’ll write up 40 games.
The sports staff has two kinds of help in meeting this challenge. We have long relied on local coaches to call us on deadline with scores and details. And we typically have a crew of part-timers – “monkeys,” we affectionately call them – who take calls and write game accounts. Some of the “monkeys” are high school students. I have a soft spot for them because this was my own first job in journalism back in the dark ages of hot metal and letterpress printing.
The demands on our sports department have grown immensely in recent years. New Hampshire International Speedway, the Quarry Dogs, the Fisher Cats, the Monarchs, the success of the Boston pro teams, interest in UNH hockey and football – these are only a few of our burgeoning coverage challenges.
High school sports have been the biggest growth area of all, and they remain the heart of our sports mission.
Let the games begin!
August 22, 2005
In the Aug. 22 New Yorker, Hendrick Hertzberg takes a rip at President Bush's statement that intelligent design should be taught in public schools. I’m a member of the choir Hertzberg is preaching to, but I doubt his Menckenesque scorn will persuade anyone who isn’t.
What intrigued me was his decision to quote Bush word-for-word on the subject. On Aug. 1, the president had a roundtable with Texas reporters in which he was asked whether both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in public schools:
Bush: “I think – as I said, harking back to my days as my governor – both you and Herman are doing a fine job of dragging me back to the past. Then, I said that, first of all, that decision should be made by local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.”
Reporter: “Both sides should be properly taught?”
Bush: “Yes, people – so people can understand what the debate is about.”
Reporter: “So the answer accepts the validity of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution?”
Bush: “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought, and I’m not suggesting – you’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”
Of course, the president is quoted all the time. But the tendency in journalism is to use bits and pieces of speech, helping any speaker say what he means without sounding as fumbling as most of us do from time to time.
The Associated Press story on this exchange quoted Bush this way: “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes.”
In the actual exchange, the president first misspeaks, saying, “harking back to my days as my governor.” In the final answer, he seems to realize mid-sentence that he wants to evade the actual question – are intelligent design and evolution both valid scientific theories? – yet give a definitive response. The result is a convoluted statement.
So was Hertzberg being unfair in quoting Bush verbatim?
I don’t think so. He’s writing an opinion piece, not a news story. And how Bush said what he said is important here. This is a politician groping to please a particular constituency, not a man giving an honest, thoughtful answer.
August 19, 2005
On Teen Life
One of my favorite features in the Monitor is Teen Life. It is immediate, surprising and human. The immediacy comes from our photojournalists allowing the subjects to tell their own stories in their own words. The surprise and humanity spring from the variety and unpredictability of what people choose to do with their lives.
Among other subjects in this photo column, we have profiled a camp counselor, a volunteer who works with refugees, a smoker trying to quit, a boy having his Bar Mitzvah, a rock band, an inmate at the women’s prison, male cheerleaders, a carnie, a blogger, a bride, a ballerina, a soldier and a lifeguard. Monday’s subjects are young people helping out the firefighters in Hopkinton.
This week’s column, headlined “You can find all different types at the mall,” wasn’t the first in the series to draw a reaction from readers. Letter writers wagged their fingers at the subjects, two girls who spend a lot of time patrolling the mall, and criticized the Monitor for giving them the ink.
I’m fine with the criticism, of course. It goes with the territory.
But I liked Elyse Butler’s photograph, and I appreciated how forthright the subjects were. The column was longer than most in the series, but I found myself reading it to the last word. Like most parents, I rolled my eyes at what matters to these two girls and how they spend their time, but in many ways, I realized, their values reflect the culture in which they live. I suspect a lot more young people out there identify with these values than most adults would like to acknowledge.
Our mission as a newspaper is to show people as they are. Teen Life is one place where we accomplish this mission nearly every week. The feature on the girls at the mall was no exception. If it provoked discussion of the girls’ behavior (or the Monitor’s), all’s the better.
August 18, 2005
Words that still ring
James F. Lowe, a reporter at the Argus- Champion, wrote a fine front-page obituary of Ed DeCourcy, publisher and editor of the Argus from 1961 to 1982. DeCourcy died last week at 93. As Lowe described him, DeCourcy was an editor who thought globally and acted locally.
My favorite part of the obituary was DeCourcy’s signature moment. It occurred during the Republican congressional primary of 1962. The candidates included James C. Cleveland, who won the seat that year and went on to hold it for nine terms, and Bert Teague, later a Concord legislator.
Teague was a native of Goshen and a popular local figure in Newport, where the Argus was then published. DeCourcy considered Cleveland the best candidate in the field and decided the Argus should support him. In response, several advertisers threatened to boycott the Argus. DeCourcy held his ground. He made his case in words that still ring today – words sure to stir the heart of anyone who cherishes the First Amendment. Here they are:
“A publication that would surrender to any financial pressure, however great or small, to espouse a cause in which it did not believe, to remain silent on an issue about which it had convictions, to withhold legitimate news, or to publish material that had no news value, is not a newspaper. It is a prostitute.”
August 17, 2005
Will Brown’s obituaries will be filled with well-deserved tributes to his work as a conservationist, a Democratic political activist and a Dunbarton town official. He was a public servant in the best sense of the word, firm in belief, gracious in behavior.
For all that, my best memory of Will has nothing to do with politics or conservation. Nor does it pertain to his many quiet, well-reasoned letters to the editor, which he always carried in by hand. Rather I remember the time I saw Will leading a group of developmentally disabled citizens in a sing-along at the Concord Community Music School. This was four or five years ago, so Will was in his mid-80s.
Peggy Senter, the school’s founder, was leading three of us from the Monitor on a tour. She showed us the new rooms where instructors taught prodigies and thumpers alike how to improve their playing. We stood in the wings of the former church sanctuary while chamber musicians practiced.
Then Peggy led us into a large room where a cacophony of voices was singing “Row Row Row Your Boat.” There at the front of the room was Will Brown, mouthing the words loudly and making rowing motions with his arms. It was a late autumn day, and Will wore his trademark flannel shirt, buttoned to the top, and red suspenders. Madonna-like, he had a microphone clasped to his head.
Some of the people in the room sang lustily, in tune and out. Some leaned and lurched and tried to figure out how to follow Will’s lead. And some sat silent, lost in their own worlds.
The song changed to “Old McDonald.” With great animation, Will flapped his hands beside his head like donkey ears or mooed like a cow. He had a deep, hoarse voice, and he seemed not to have a self-conscious bone in his body. His whole purpose was to cajole his audience to sing along.
I took this lesson from Will’s performance that day: One secret to a long life is to stay active even as your physical abilities decline, to set aside the inhibitions that grow like barnacles with age and to seek out good works that need doing.
It’s hard for a community to lose a Will Brown, but if others follow his lead, he stays with us.
August 15, 2005
Swimming with loons
In the mid-afternoon heat on Saturday, my wife and I took a long swim. To avoid swimming directly into the sun, we followed a triangular route – east across the pond, south along the far side and northwest back to our camp.
On the final leg – the hypotenuse – two common loons appeared directly in front of us perhaps 75 yards away. We are blessed with loons on our pond almost every day, although they do not nest there. Their calls are magic, day or night. They sometimes fish within 10 feet of our shore. They have become so accustomed to sharing the pond with people that they do not necessarily flee when they happen to rise from a fishing dive and surface within a few feet of the bow of a canoe.
As we swam toward home on Saturday, we stopped talking and tried our best to breathe through our noses and not to splash with our strokes. We hoped to get as close to the loons as we could. They were not fishing. Instead, they were riding high in the water, their heads held erect. We could see their checkerboard backs and white breasts in the slanting rays of the August sun.
The loons did not seem to notice us until we were about 20 feet from them. Even when they saw us, they did not bolt. Their distress seemed only slight as they watched us and prepared to give us wide berth. We did the same, swimming around to their right as they swam to ours.
Then they began to call, first one, then the other. The call was not a wail. It was a soft, repeated, two-note song. We saw the caller’s beak, then saw the other loon’s beak scissor as it replied in kind.
We swam on, and the loons swam on, their calls becoming softer as the distance grew between us and them.
I remember many years ago going to the Connecticut Lakes in far northern New Hampshire and seeing loons for the first time. I stalked the shore trying to follow them, but they seemed wary of humans. With good reason, I am sure.
Loons are more common in our state now, but to me they still have a strong and mysterious attraction. Their size, their appearance, their behavior, their calls – we are lucky to share our waters with them.
August 12, 2005
My gas tank holds between 15 and 16 gallons. I filled up this morning on the way to work, and the price at the pump came to $38.27. On my car radio I heard a story about the runaway U.S. trade deficit. It said gas prices were a factor but not the only factor in another big leap. The per-barrel price of oil hit a record $67.
Who’s to blame?
That’s the question everyone is asking. The usual culprits are the oil companies, the sheiks and, if you’re a Blue American, the oilman in the White House.
I have no insight into the actual answer. Knowledgeable people say that the emergence of China as an economic power and other effects of the global economy are driving up demand for crude oil beyond what the earth can produce. If they’re right, the price is only going to keep rising.
A more optimistic view is that the market will correct itself. Demand will fall as people forgo travel and otherwise economize. People will turn to alternative fuels, buy smaller cars, weatherproof their houses.
Although gas-price crises have come and gone since the 1970s, I’m in the pessimists’ camp on this one. The effects of high oil prices always ripple through the economy, and I don’t see how we’re going to escape the inflationary effects of gasoline at $2.49 a gallon.
There seems to be little political will to encourage conservation or alternative energy. Maybe the new energy bill will make a difference, but as far as I can tell, it asks little of the public. There is no election this year, so there is no pressure on politicians. At least an election would be a forum for public debate about causes and potential solutions.
We in New England are in for a long winter. Fuel-oil prices last year were off the charts, and this year’s will probably be worse. For low-income people, especially older people who resist asking for help, this could mean a real crisis.
$38.27 for a tank of gas. Wasn't I paying just over half that a year ago? Something tells me, though, that I’ll be happy if $38.27 is all I have to pay for my next tank.
August 10, 2005
A new beat
We’re trying something new this summer. With the Legislature out of session and no state election campaign this fall, we’ve detached one of our two State House reporters, Meg Heckman, to spend a few months developing a beat on the issues of aging. Maybe you’ve seen some of her stories already, including today’s on the difficulty many older people are having in understanding changes in Medicare benefits.
Even though this is a temporary assignment for Meg, we’re excited about it. When we embarked a couple of years ago on a content-driven redesign of the Monitor, we identified several subjects we hoped to cover better. Aging was one of them (we’ll be introducing others soon). The age range we’re covering in the beat begins with people preparing to retire and runs to the end of life.
Speaking of this new beat, the Sunday Viewpoints page will feature a first-person commentary by a Texas doctor dealing with his father’s long, slow, difficult decline. It is truly an eye-opening account – one that I’m sure will raise familiar issues with many readers. Familiar but frightening, I should add. The issues of old age – or old old age, as this physician calls it – comprise a national problem that will only grow more immense in coming years.
August 09, 2005
As editor of the Concord Monitor, I run into many of the heavyweights of the news business. Except in a few cases, I can’t say I know them or they know me, but our paths cross. Some of them seem to me to be gracious people, some self-absorbed boors – just like the populace at large.
When I heard about Peter Jennings’s death, I immediately recalled my one encounter with him. It happened during the winter of 1991. The first gulf war was several months old, and ABC News decided to check into three or four communities across the country to see how it was playing. Concord was one of them.
ABC brought a crew into the Monitor newsroom and interviewed me at length.
We had reported and published many stories taking the community’s pulse about the war. We had run accounts of local military people in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq and covered the ways their loved ones on the home front were coping. My job as an interview subject was to be a mirror of community opinion. How were the letters to the editor running? Were there peace demonstrators in town? How much traction were they getting? To what extent was the Vietnam War, then still a dark shadow over American military policy, a factor in local people’s thinking?
I enjoyed the interview and, for better or worse, looked forward to seeing myself on television.
The day the segment was supposed to run, Iraq accepted a ceasefire. The war was over. ABC scrapped its local-reaction story. So much for my 37 seconds of fame.
The next morning, Peter Jennings called. He apologized for putting me through the hassle of the interview for a story that never ran. I told him I was in the news business, so I understood. He thanked me and said that when ABC did stories like this one, he was always impressed with how well communities across the country were being served by their local newspapers. He said that if I was ever in New York, I should phone ahead and stop by for a cup coffee.
Of course, I never did, tempted though I was.
I never had more than that first impression of Peter Jennings, but he treated me with the same grace and professionalism that marked his delivery of the news to America’s living rooms.
July 13, 2005
It came as no surprise here that U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg won mention the other day as a possible Supreme Court nominee. He has been loyal to President Bush from the beginning. He is a lawyer. He is capable and experienced. He is conservative.
Well, when the words Judd Gregg and Supreme Court appeared in the same news headlines, longtime New Hampshire political observers surely flashed back to 1989, Gregg's first year as governor.
At that time, the state’s 1848 abortion statutes were in effect. If Roe vs. Wade were ever overturned, the state would revert to these archaic laws, which made abortion a crime. To fix this potential problem, the staunchly Republican Legislature passed a bill striking the 1848 statutes from the books.
Gregg had said nothing about this issue during the campaign. When the bill came to his desk, he vetoed it. He gave little in the way of explanation.
Moderate Republicans reacted to this bolt from the blue with surprise and disappointment. They had thought Gregg was one of them. It took eight years and the election of Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen to get the laws off the books.
There is no gleaning from this morsel of state history how Gregg might vote on abortion cases if he were a member of the Supreme Court, but it’s a good guess he wouldn’t be a home run for pro-choicers.
Of course, the chances we’ll ever find out how Justice Gregg might rule on Roe are slim and none. Not that he isn’t qualified and not that he isn’t a Bush favorite, but he’s already got a big job chairing the Senate Budget Committee. And if Gregg did rise to the court, New Hampshire has a Democratic governor who would just love to appoint Gregg’s successor to the Senate. Neither Bush not Gregg will let that happen.
It was Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, who suggested Gregg as a possible Supreme Court justice. As much as Reid might yearn for another Democrat in his Senate minority, he ought to be careful what he wishes for.
July 12, 2005
Bloggers won praise from some quarters during last year's presidential campaign, especially for breaking the story that sank Dan Rather. The story behind that story, of course, was President Bush's Air National Guard service.
Journalist Corey Pein, who investigated the Bush-Rather story for Columbia Journalism Review, has written an interesting perspective on blogs. Blogs is the title, and Pein's commentary was published in the lastest issue of Global Journalist, the magazine of the International Press Institute.
Wait till next year
Fireworks on the editorial page, more than a week after the Fourth of July: Who would have guessed it?
The fireworks at Memorial Field have long been one of the city’s great social events. Families relax on blankets and in lawn chairs, Nevers’ band plays Sousa, friends greet old friends, the darkness gathers, booms echo in the night, and a fog of gunpowder falls over the fields. The fireworks are a show of patriotism, yes, but also a show of community.
This year’s fireworks disappointed many. Today’s Monitor editorial makes the case for doing it better next year. Three more letter writers also weigh in on the issue.
It might seem odd that the paper, like city hall itself, gets as much reaction to a low-impact fireworks display as it does to a fat tax increase. But what matters to residents is what they see and experience. Keep the roads smooth and clear and make sure the trash is picked up and you’ll be re-elected mayor or retained as city manager. Don’t and you won’t.
The fireworks display might not seem quite so central to the city’s life as these basic services, but clearly residents think it is. Like anything worth doing, fireworks are worth doing well. The bet here is that next Fourth of July will be one to remember at Memorial Field.
July 11, 2005
A soldier's memory
Among other things, Hillary Nelson’s column in Saturday’s Concord Monitor touched on whether soldiers during the Vietnam era were actually spat upon and vilified as baby-killers. The conclusion you draw from her column is that this is mostly myth, that few incidents of spitting and name-calling can be verified.
Nevertheless, the column reminded me of a memorable day in my life.
I never went to Vietnam, but I served four years in the Army, 1966 through 1970. Two of those years I spent in West Germany, where my job was to gather and analyze information about Soviet military activity in East Germany. I returned to the United States in February 1970, landing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
I was disillusioned about my country. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated while I was gone. Urban rioting and racial unrest were rampant. It seemed like the Vietnam War, which I had always opposed, would never end. And I had grown fond of Europe, where I met my wife and got to know new cultures.
Gone two years, I had no preconceptions about how my fellow citizens might see me.
We returning soldiers were loaded into buses at McGuire and driven to the Philadelphia airport, where we were to make our way to our next assignments. It was about 9 a.m. I was in uniform, of course.
As I walked through the airport, I could see disgust toward me in the expressions of many people I passed. When I sat to wait for my flight, people stared at me so hard they seemed to be looking right through me. Some averted their eyes, but seldom without a hint of scorn.
These people were not hippies or protesters. They were middle-class citizens in polyester leisure suits with loud ties. They were mothers of three and men with briefcases.
Although I heard more than one person mutter under his breath that morning, no one spat on me or called me a baby killer, at least not to my face. I think it is true that these exact things happened to very few men in uniform during the Vietnam war. But I also believe what I felt that day in the Philadelphia airport was a common experience for returning soldiers.
It was as though my uniform stood for everything that had gone wrong. It was as though I was the problem personified.
July 08, 2005
The stuff of history
A few weeks ago, my Monitor colleague Mark Travis and I drove up to Lancaster to visit Faith Kent. Mark and I spent much of the 1990s researching My Brave Boys, our history of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers under Col. Edward E. Cross, the state’s best known Civil War hero. Faith was the granddaughter of Cross’s best friend, Henry O. Kent. For our book, she let us use a stack of letters Cross had written to her grandfather.
The book came out four years ago, but I stayed in touch with Faith. Each time I wrote her, I asked if she was ready to part with the letters. She had told me she wanted to give them to the New Hampshire Historical Society someday, and I pestered her about whether someday had arrived.
Now it had. On our visit last month she handed me three manila envelopes containing some 70 letters Cross wrote to Henry Kent. Today, after making sure my own Xerox file of the correspondence was complete, I delivered the letters to David Smolen, the special collections librarian at the Historical Society.
The letters begin in 1850 and end in 1862, several months before Cross’s death at Gettysburg. Cross was in his teens when he took off across the country as a printer, journalist, explorer and militiaman. Often in a breathless voice, his letters tell Kent, the young friend who stayed at home, about the marvels of an expanding country. I’m hoping that one of my retirement projects will be to edit and annotate the prewar letters for publication (the wartime correspondence has already been published).
For now, though, I’m so grateful to Faith Kent for following through on her good impulse to donate the letters to a public archive. Of such material our state’s, and our country’s, history is made – but only when it is available to historians.
July 07, 2005
Trinity and beyond
I’ve been researching and writing a story on Victor Kumin, who worked on the Manhattan Project and witnessed – from a distance – the flash of the first atomic bomb. The story will be in the Sunday Monitor.
Victor lives in Warner with his wife, the poet Maxine Kumin. It was at her 80th birthday party in Concord last month that I learned of Victor’s brush with history. With the 60th anniversary of the Trinity bomb test coming up on July 16, the story seemed timely.
My research prompted me to re-examine my thinking about the atomic bomb. As you’ll see from the story, Victor hasn’t changed his mind about the subject in six decades. And as I worked on the story, I realized I hadn’t either.
Victor and I are on the same page about the Manhattan Project: Considering the times, it was necessary and right to make the bomb and to use it. I don’t know if the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives, but the United States was in a brutal world war and our leaders were obliged to pursue any weapon that might shorten it. The bombs shortened it. As for the theories about warning the Japanese or allowing them to witness a test, the facts of the situation refute them.
I arrived at these conclusions at least in part because of my own circumstances. I wasn’t even alive in 1945, but my father was an Army lieutenant in Manila that year. It seems likely he would have been part of the invasion force if it had been necessary to take Japan by conventional military means. I’ve read his letters to my mom from those days, including one that welcomes the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. I’ve talked to him about the bomb as well.
I listened carefully during the Cold War to arguments against dropping the bomb. While researching the Victor Kumin story, I read several web sites that made impassioned moral cases condemning the bombs, especially the second one, which was dropped on Nagasaki. (It was the detonation method for that bomb on which Victor worked.)
In the end, I think these arguments make the mistake of presentism – applying today’s ideals to the past without giving enough weight to the context in which historical events occur.
My story on Victor is a news feature, so I’ve kept my opinion out of it. But I don’t mind expressing it here, along with my appreciation to Victor for both his service to our country and his willingness to share his story with Sunday Monitor readers.
July 01, 2005
The 9th Commandment
Here is the first of what may be several entries stolen from Luckiest Man, Jonathan Eig's excellent new biography of Lou Gehrig.
Joe McCarthy became the Yankee manager for the 1931 season. He brought his 10 commandments along with him. Here's No. 9:
"Do not fight too much with the umpires. You cannot expect them to be as perfect as you are."
Happy Fourth of July!
June 29, 2005
Burden of the past
I have tried to avoid the “another Vietnam” syndrome in thinking about the Iraq war. I am always suspicious of historical analogy in the first place. Time marches on. Historical context is ever changing.
And yet we are all prisoners of our own past. When I hear our leaders talk about the strategy of turning things over to the Iraqis – a wonderful thought on the face of it – I can’t help but recall Vietnamization. This was the way we got out of the Vietnam War, by teaching the Vietnamese to fight for themselves. But, of course, everyone knew that once the Americans withdrew, resistance to the North Vietnamese would collapse and South Vietnam would fall to the Communists.
Lots of things are different in Iraq. This is not a proxy war between two great world powers, as Vietnam was. There are not two competing armies representing distinctive geographical areas, as there were in Vietnam.
But, in fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two American interventions. We are trying to plant democracy from the outside in a culture with no tradition of democracy. Both societies have social customs and religious and ideological traditions that we Americans poorly comprehend. Insurgents gather and stage actions from just beyond the borders. Sometimes the enemy is a mere child with a bomb. And then there is the crucial question: Are the native forces we are training really loyal to the new regime?
A china shop warning sign has often been used as a metaphor for the U.S. obligation in Iraq: You break it, you own it. Even many who did not support invading Iraq now believe we own it and must stay the course. That’s my opinion, too.
I just hate this nagging Vietnam hangover. We broke South Vietnam, and we owned it. And then we stayed the course at great cost in blood, treasure and social and political unity. The way out, we decided, was to turn ownership back over to the Vietnamese. For whatever reason – a commitment that was too weak, a country that was too broken – it didn’t work.
Maybe things will be different in Iraq. It is hard to see it, but I hope so.
June 27, 2005
On Capitol Street on Saturday, we went to the farmers’ market for fresh lettuce and left with much other good stuff. A quick stop turned into longish one during which we chatted with friends and neighbors.
We were late, but we got the lettuce – one of the last heads in the basket of a vendor who gave us the good news that he’ll have fresh peas next week. It was also our good fortune to buy absolutely the last loaf of cinnamon-raisin bread from Abigail’s Bakery of Weare. We bought bay leaves, chives and oregano from the spice lady.
Then our impulsive buying spree brought us to a table lined with bottles of wine. The winemaker was Jewell Towne Vineyards on the Powow River in South Hampton. Two college students, interns at the vineyard, stood behind the table. One was a student at Emory University in Atlanta, the other a senior-to-be from the Whittemore School of Business at UNH.
We’re no connoisseurs, but we have made a few vineyard tours over the years, and we worried that the product before us might taste like vinegar. But the marketing major sounded smooth and not too dry when she broke into the wine lingo, so we took a chance on a bottle of white and a bottle of red. Saturday night, we chilled the Cayuga White American Table Wine and drank it with dinner. Excellent. May the red be just as fine.
Possibly the most fun we had at the market was when we ran into several friends, including Kay Sidway, godmother of the Children’s Place in Concord. Kay’s a neighbor, but it had been much too long since we caught up with each other.
I’ll spare you the details, but consider this a plug for farmers’ markets. Concord’s runs from 8:30 to noon on Saturdays adjacent to the State House lawn. There are farmers’ markets throughout the state. There are many reasons to support one (or more) near you: to help local food producers, to chat with old friends and, of course, to eat well.
June 24, 2005
You may have read in last week’s Sunday Monitor about personnel changes in the newsroom. If you’re like me, you probably wondered about the story behind the story: What’s really happening?
Sorry, there's no juicy hidden agenda. But after watching several colleagues try out their new roles for a week, I thought I'd share a little more about our aims.
In case you missed it, we moved Managing Editor Ari Richter to the new position of Opinion editor and Sunday Editor Felice Belman to Ari’s job. Ric Tracewski switched from features – mainly the daily D sections – to news editor. Danielle Kronk became deputy city editor and Jen VanPelt feature editor.
Nearly two years ago, we set out to evaluate our content and to redesign the Monitor accordingly. We found much that needed improving. We also realized we had embarked on a never-ending challenge: We could remain true to our mission only if we were constantly adjusting our content to meet changing reader needs.
The new newsroom lineup will help us achieve several aims during the next few months. For example:
– Better story planning. For some time we have liked the idea of news-feature centerpieces for the main hard-news pages – A-1, A-2 and B-1. We’re counting on Belman’s planning skills and Tracewski’s design talent and news judgment to help us improve in this area.
– Better integration of daily and Sunday content. Kronk and City Editor Hans Schulz have taken on this task.
– New typography. Look for this in the fall. Most of the editors have been working on it, along with some reporters and Charlotte Thibault, the newsroom artist.
– An improved report on area towns. This is also a work in progress, but I have confidence in our reporting team and the leadership of Kronk and other editors.
– More opinion content on state and local issues. We identified this as a goal early in the redesign process. I’ll be working with Richter and Editorial Page Editor Ralph Jimenez to make it happen.
– New feature content and design. We’re in the early stages of developing this. When we hatch a plan, VanPelt will lead the effort. We have brought in a new design editor, Vanessa Valdes, to help.
Please stay tuned. As usual, we’ll be bouncing major ideas off readers before deciding how to proceed. And we’ll do our best to see that the coming changes are pleasant surprises, not the other kind.
June 23, 2005
Then and now
My pal Michael Birkner, a Gettysburg College history professor who was editorial page editor of the Concord Monitor years ago, visited us last week. While researching Sherman Adams, Dwight Eisenhower and the New Hampshire political culture of the 1950s, he ran across a couple of letters from Jim Langley to Styles Bridges. He shared the letters with me.
Langley – James M. Langley – was owner, manager and editor of the Monitor for more than 30 years beginning in the 1920s. Bridges was a U.S. senator from New Hampshire from 1937 until his death in 1961. The excerpt below is from Langley’s April 28, 1954, letter to Bridges. Bridges, it appears, was feeling him out about a possible assignment in the Eisenhower administration and Langley, though interested, was letting Bridges know how much he already had on his plate.
I have long known Langley was involved in many activities outside his responsibilities at the Monitor. To name three big ones, he was publicity chairman for Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign in New Hampshire, helped negotiate the Laurel-Langley trade agreement between the United States and the Philippines and served as ambassador to Pakistan.
This excerpt shows the range of local activities in which he also participated:
“I am willing to do public jobs for which I believe I have any talent and the subject of which interests me. I have, at this particular time, quite a few obligations of this sort here at home . . .
“I really have to see the hospital building job through, at least until it is more nearly finished and the new director has become completely familiar with it. . . . I also am in the process of getting a local regional industrial development job done. . . . I am president of Blue Cross. . . . I am chairman of the Bow school board, where we are building an addition to be completed in September. . . . I am president of School Union 19. . . . And I am chairman of the interim tax commission and feel that up to the point where we button up a report I could not quit. Besides these chores I have others, such as service on two bank boards, etc.”
Journalism has changed so much. I cannot conceive today of an editor taking part in any public processes that his or her newspaper is covering. But obviously a different ethic governed the behavior of editors half a century ago.
June 21, 2005
Tomorrow’s Monitor editorial will be on a possible lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the latest school funding plan. Again.
The Legislature has been ignoring the law since 1997, when the court said it is the state’s responsibility to pay for an adequate public education for all New Hampshire children.
So if you and I have to abide by the law, how can the Legislature get away with breaking it? For 7½ years and counting no less!
The reason seems to be that the court rendered a ruling that it cannot enforce. Usually when the court says what the state constitution means, you and I obey the ruling or pay the consequences. There is an “or else.”
In year 8 A.C. (After Claremont), we have a governor who was elected on a plan that is just as unconstitutional as the last few the Legislature has passed. His plan failed not because the Legislature wanted to do the right thing but because it wanted to stick it to the governor.
The “Gatsas plan,” which is about to become law, is just as unconstitutional as the governor’s plan. From Gatsas’s perspective, it has one great virtue: It gives more money to Manchester, which Gatsas represents.
It seems likely that school districts that Gatsas does not represent, and that thus fare poorly under the Gatsas plan, will sue the state. This will send school funding back to the Supreme Court. Unless it has become sick of the game and overturns its own Claremont decisions, the court will have no choice but to strike down the Gatsas plan.
But so what? Won’t we just enter yet another round of politicians pretending the constitution does not say what the justices say it says?
Here’s an alternative. Call it the grand “or else.” The court could ditch Gatsas and give the governor and Legislature one year to craft a constitutional plan, or else . . . the court would seize state liquor, toll, lottery and business-tax revenue until it had enough to pay for an adequate public education for all New Hampshire students.
Of course, the court might have a problem determining just how much that amounts to since the Legislature has never even defined adequacy. But the total spent on public education in 2004-05 is a good starting point for adequacy, so the court could just use that figure.
Then we’d be getting somewhere.
June 20, 2005
Quiet on the Cape
We left Concord early Saturday morning for Cape Cod, giving ourselves an extra hour for traffic. We reached the circle and bridge at the entrance to the Cape by 10. We had perhaps a one-minute jam-up there, but otherwise it was easy going. Coming back early Sunday afternoon, the wait to get off the Cape was no more than 10 minutes.
We were happy to escape heavy traffic, but we wondered what was up. The weather wasn’t the best, but there was no rain forecast (and none fell). Some high schools were still in session or holding graduation, so the summer season wasn’t in full swing. But everywhere we went, people worried about the small crowds.
Everyone blamed the red tide. Local clams and oysters are inedible, and of course these are famous fare on the Cape.
We stayed with friends in Wellfleet. We could see a few people tending the oyster beds and mud flats arrayed beyond the beach, but the ban on eating mollusks kept them from their real work.
At 6:15 p.m. on Saturday, our host went out to the local seafood restaurant to pick up boiled lobsters for our supper. The restaurant employs several people full-time for the season. “I don’t know if they’re going to make it,” he said when he returned. He had been the only customer.
He and his wife told us people were wary of all seafood even though the red tide affects only mollusks. It is safe to swim, but some people are even afraid of that.
The Cape depends on tourism, so livelihoods are at stake. It is as though during early October in New Hampshire, the leaves all turned an ashy gray instead of orange, yellow and burnt red.
Maybe things will turn around for the Cape. Several people expressed hope that the red tide’s effects would dissipate by August and part of the season might be saved.
On the other hand, if you’ve long wanted to walk the national seashore or visit the sights on the Cape but have been scared off by the horrendous weekend traffic, this might be the summer to go. Just don’t expect clams or oysters.
June 17, 2005
The editorial we didn’t write this week was on Iraq. The subject came up during our informal meeting on editorial topics, but we couldn’t agree on what to say.
The Monitor’s basic position is this: We opposed the war, doubting both the wisdom of it and the evidence used to justify it. But now we hope the occupation succeeds in restoring stability and setting Iraq on the road to a sound constitutional republic. Whether we agreed with going there in the first place, Iraq is our problem now.
Obviously, the Monitor has no reporters in Iraq. Like the rest of the public, we depend on the wire services, the national newspapers, the wire services and television and radio for information. Still, we feel obliged when there is a major story or a shift in circumstances to render an opinion.
But just a skim through the week's news on Iraq conveys a sense of how confusing the situation there has become. Some members of Congress want an exit strategy for U.S. troops, and they aren’t all Democrats. U.S. troops act aggressively to stop the insurgency, but they are still far from making the country safe for Iraqis or for themselves. Suicide bombers hit their targets. Marines die. Innocent people die. Insurgents return to areas that were cleansed of them just weeks ago. On the front page of today’s New York Times is a story about Sunnis and Shiites reaching a compromise on how the Sunnis will be represented in the new parliament. On the front page of the Wall Street Journal is a story about long Sunni-Shiite friendships that have been shattered by the conflict.
We couldn’t figure out what was meaningful from these conflicting reports, so we waited. No editorial this week.
Maybe next week, we will settle on some observation we trust, some observation that we think is constructive. Iraq is a huge test of our country, much as we might like to close our eyes to the whole mess. A local newspaper's job -- on both the news pages and in its editorial columns -- is to work against this natural tendency.
June 14, 2005
Not guilty or innocent?
A reader responding to "A note on standards" asks why newspapers often use "innocent" rather than "not guilty" when a criminal defendant is acquitted. He suggests that "innocent" is inaccurate because the acquitted defendant may well have committed the crime. In other words, journalists can't know a defendant is innocent just because a jury finds that defendant not guilty.
What I know about the tradition of using "innocent" instead of "not guilty" is what I was told when I became a journalist a few decades ago. We were instructed to use "innocent" because just a typo or a dropped word could turn "not guilty" into "now guilty" or "guilty." I had the same objection then that the blog reader expresses now -- that the terms should not be interchangeable because "not guilty" does not mean "innocent."
I was a city editor (boss of the local reporters) in 1974 when computer editing in the newsroom replaced mechanical type-setting in the composing room. In that newsroom, we began then to use "not guilty" instead of "innocent." I can't say we didn't slip now and then -- we were creatures of habit working on daily deadlines -- but we tried to be consistent.
But old habits die hard, especially convenient old habits. For one thing, "innocent" fits better than "not guilty" in headlines -- a count of seven vs. eight under the obsolete system of measuring headline length.
As the blog reader suggests, however, we should not call an acquitted defendant "innocent." In today's wire coverage of the Jackson verdict in the Monitor and elsewhere, the terms used were "cleared," "acquitted" and "not guilty." Perhaps the absence of the word "innocent" suggests that the journalists involved had some doubt about Jackson's innocence in spite of the "not guilty" verdicts. Viewed less cynically, perhaps journalists, for the sake of accuracy, are finally retiring the fiction that "not guilty" means "innocent."
June 13, 2005
A magnificent sight
As is my habit when we stay at our summer camp, the first thing I did when I got up Saturday morning was walk out to look at the pond. The camp is on the northwest shore with a view of the west slope of Mount Sunapee. It had rained hard during the night, and mist hovered above the pond. I stepped out on the porch and said something to my wife, who was behind me.
Suddenly I heard a flutter from the boulders a few feet to our left. This is not uncommon. A great blue heron often fishes from the rocks. This heron, unlike some others I have observed, is wary of humans and ever quick to flee their sounds. But as I turned toward the flutter, first my ears and then my eyes told me the bird taking flight was far more substantial than the spindly heron.
I saw the white head on the dark body and knew instantly it was a bald eagle – an adult male. I watched it rise from the rocks on powerful wings and saw its white tail bob as it pumped into the mist and across the pond. Just before it reached the trees on the other side of the pond, it turned right – south – and sped off and out of view. The whole sighting took perhaps 20 seconds.
Years ago, my friend and colleague Jim Graham took our family on a canoe trip to Lake Umbagog, where we saw the nesting bald eagles. They had been brought there in 1989 in the hope that they would mate and lead to a resurgence of bald eagles in New Hampshire. Although the species remains rare here, bald eagles have been sighted relatively often in recent years. But I had never seen one so close by.
Later, when we went down to the pond to swim, we saw the blackened, dried-out head of a horned pout on a flattish stone six feet from the pond. I surmised that my morning entrance had interrupted a meal, but I can’t be sure.
I left the fish head on the stone, hoping the eagle would come back for it. Next morning we rose at about the same time. The only thing on the boulder was the fish head.
June 10, 2005
Honor the flag
Newspaper editors do not write letters to their members of Congress. But if I were writing such a letter today, here is what it would say:
Dear senators and congressmen:
You will soon have a chance to vote on the flag-burning amendment, which would make it a crime to desecrate an American flag in protest. Please vote no.
Old Glory is America’s special symbol. One of the most important things it stands for is the right of free expression. This is embodied in the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech, a free press and free worship.
Burning or otherwise desecrating the flag in protest is a vile act. Fortunately, it is also a rare one. But when it does happen, it is almost always an act of political expression. Especially during a time when we are trying to show the rest of the world that America remains the great beacon of human liberty, it makes no sense to erode our freedoms.
Proponents of the flag-burning amendment may have good intentions, but they are supporting a bad idea. If Congress passes the amendment, it will weaken, not strengthen, the flag and what it stands for.
A vote against this amendment is a vote for one of our dearest rights as citizens. The way to protect the flag is to foster freedom, not limit it. Please vote no on the flag-burning amendment.
Thank you for considering my point of view.
June 09, 2005
The absent face
On the way back from a trip north of the Notches today, I stopped at the Old Man viewing area to see what I could see. Or couldn’t see.
It is the same 600-yard walk as ever from the parking lot to the viewing area. But two years after the demise of New Hampshire’s symbol, some of the signage reads as though the Old Man is still there.
At the viewing area, two new machines have joined several old coin-operated binoculars. The old ones blink open for a few seconds for 50 cents a pop; the new ones cost only a quarter and offer a before and after perspective.
Whichever way you point the new one on the left, you see an enhanced photograph of the Old Man of the Mountain. A bit cartoonish, it reminded me of the pictures in the old ViewMaster cardboard discs of historic places. The machine on the right gives you an impressive high-powered look at the empty spot on the shoulder of Profile Mountain.
This was my first trip to the viewing area since the Old Man’s demise, and it made me think.
It’s a good thing the committee charged with deciding what to do at the site took a minimalist approach. As much as I admire the Old Man’s profile on road signs and toll tokens, our state’s symbol is gone and nothing people can do will bring it back.
Even without the Old Man, Franconia Notch State Park is a lovely place. Sheer rock cliffs, jagged peaks, mountainsides carpeted in green – there are lovely sights everywhere you turn. Look closely and you’ll surely see rock formations with craggy noses, foreheads and eye sockets.
Like anyone else from New Hampshire, my family took many visitors to see the Great Stone Face. Much as they enjoyed the visit, most were surprised at how small it was. In the imaginations of those who visit the spot for the first time now, the Old Man can remain larger than life.
Decades hence, no one who stands where I stood today will have an experience similar to mine – and yours if you ever visited Franconia Notch during the Old Man’s long reign. I didn’t need the two new binocular devices to compare what was with what is (or isn’t). We who actually looked up to the Old Man have something the visitors of the 22nd century will never have. Our loss is our gain.
June 06, 2005
Some nights after my wife falls asleep grading papers on the couch, I watch old fights on television. My wife loathes boxing. She sees the sweet science merely as one person trying to hurt another, and what’s to like about that?
But on Friday nights when I was a kid, my dad and I watched Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Bobo Olson, Emile Griffith and scores of others feint and parry on our black and white TV. Now, some of those fighters, along with replays of the Johanson-Patterson trilogy, Clay-Liston I and II and many others that were not on TV at the time, are prime-time regulars. I’ve lost touch with today’s boxing world, but I like the old fights.
And I’m a sucker for boxing movies. I couldn't wait to see Cinderella Man. I’d breezed through James J. Braddock’s biography at a bookstore coffee shop a month ago, so I knew the story. I had also seen reviews of the film, including one in which a cynic poked fun at Renée Zellweger’s line to Russell Crowe: “Jimmy, you’re the champion of my heart.”
Indeed, the schmaltz is thick. Crowe’s Braddock is good, his opponents evil. While other men grow surly as the Depression leaves half of New Jersey without food, heat or electricity, Jimmy Braddock never gives up on the American dream. He’s the perfect father, Zellweger the perfect mother and wife.
This is no Million Dollar Baby, with its mid-script detour into real life. Cinderella Man is a boxing movie from start to finish. That means the boxing isn’t really boxing; it’s movie boxing, a la Rocky. The actor-fighters constantly throw haymakers and expose their jaws to them. The flurry sequences would leave Sugar Ray Robinson wheezing.
Plus, it costs too much to go to the movies, even to a Saturday matinee. Fourteen-fifty for popcorn and two soft drinks! Can you imagine?
But forget all that. If you can overlook a manipulative plot twist here and a half-baked subplot there, Cinderella Man is good old-fashioned Hollywood escapism. If you worry that this cynical age has destroyed the last shred of your sentimentality, Crowe, Zellweger and their raggamuffin kids will put the question to the test. If Jimmy Braddock doesn’t become the champion of your heart, well, what can I say?
My wife closed her eyes during the ring scenes, but she liked the other 90 percent of the movie a lot.
Two thumbs up.
June 02, 2005
A note on standards
We’re still getting letters objecting to our handling of a rape arrest in Hopkinton in a May 25 story. I answered one letter in the paper. The writer had criticized the reporter of the story. I defended the reporter because it was not she alone who had decided what details to include, and I thought readers should know that.
Otherwise, we have simply let readers have their say. That’s what letters to the editor are for.
But since we did not deviate from our standards in the coverage or play of this story, I thought it might be helpful to readers to explain just what those standards are.
This is an adult felony charge, not a juvenile case. That is why we identified the alleged perpetrator. Some readers have suggested that we should wait until after a guilty verdict to report the name of a person accused of a crime. Such an approach would be neither realistic nor healthy in an open society. The public needs to know who has been arrested for what.
We have not identified the alleged victim in this case because the allegation is sexual in nature. That is a near-universal standard in journalism. It is often revisited and debated, as it was most recently in the Kobe Bryant case, but I think it is the right standard.
Our May 25 story included several details from an affidavit in the case. Readers’ most basic questions in a story like this are: What happened? Why did it result in charges of aggrevated felonious sexual assault? The details we published provided the best answers we could to these questions.
When a crime of this nature is alleged, we also try to tell readers what we can about the person charged. This is standard journalistic practice. We followed it for this story, publishing the details the reporter could find out by deadline.
We played the story on page one because it was big news, not just in Hopkinton but throughout our circulation area. Fortunately, rape charges are rare among local high school students. What is rare is news. Although we knew the story would be widely read, we played it at the bottom of the page. Reader interest is an important factor in story placement, and we probably would have sold more papers on the newsstand had we made this the lead story on page one. Because the charges were sexual in nature, we decided not do so.
May 31, 2005
Today’s Monitor editorial lavishes praise on Daniel Okrent, the New York Times’ first public editor. Judging from the response in Sunday’s Times to Okrent’s swan song, the praise was nearly universal. Editors especially liked the way Okrent took on the major questions facing our profession and dug into them.
So if a public editor or ombudsman, as the job is known at other papers, is such a good idea, why doesn’t the Monitor have one? Wouldn’t readers benefit from an independent reporter with the power to delve into what we report and how we report it?
The answer is yes, but . . .
One part of the “but” is money. The Monitor has a generous news budget for a paper its size, but we could always use more. Yet an ombudsman would be pretty far down the list of what we’d spend it on if we had it. Readers would be far better served if we hired more reporters. I’d start with someone to cover health care full-time. Next I’d hire someone to cover the court system. Then I’d look hard at the way we cover issues involving young people, perhaps adding a second schools/youth reporter. I’d try to add content that appealed to a younger audience and interested an older one.
I could go on.
There’s another reason an ombudsman wouldn’t be high on my list: There are already plenty of ways in which we are far more accessible to readers than the New York Times. It is one of the advantages of being small. Readers are not shy about criticizing our coverage. They call us every day, and we listen. When they write, we go out of our way to publish their criticisms.
When readers ask us in letters to the editor why we did something a particular way, we generally give them an answer. As we work through our content-driven redesign, a project that is taking longer than we thought it would, we don’t make a move without consulting readers first. Occasionally, another editor or I write a column explaining a thorny issue.
Finally, one reason I started this blog is to give readers one more point of contact to ask why we do what we do.
May 27, 2005
I’m an amateur blogger, having read The Wonkette and several other political types during the 2004 presidential race and only a few others. But one I like is former Monitor assistant sports editor Chad Finn’s sports blog, with its heavy Boston pro sports focus.
Chad works for the Boston Globe now. At the Monitor a few years ago, he wrote a series of front-page columns tracking the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run. When you read one of Chad’s columns on game-day morning, his insights into the players’ strengths and weaknesses made the game more fun. His crystal ball was magical, too, telling readers not just that the Patriots would win but often how and why.
Chad’s recent postings include one predicting who should go and who should stay on the Celtics’ roster. After Reed Johnson’s walkoff homer against the Sox the other night, Chad compiled a list of the “subpar, non-descript and just plain lousy ballplayers who have tormented the Sox in recent years.”
You can check out Chad’s blog at touchingallthebases.blogspot.com
Thanks to those who have responded to the first
postings on Mike's blog. As a follow-up to comments on
the "Church and State" entry, you might want to check
out a story in this week's New Yorker magazine on the
concept of "intelligent design."
May 24, 2005
More on Blackmun
I reviewed Linda Greenhouse's new book on the late Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe vs. Wade decision, in the Sunday Monitor. It was headlined "A slice of history that's still hot."
On Monday, the Supreme Court surprised a lot of people by agreeing to take up New Hampshire's parental consent law. That made the review seem timely indeed. No clairvoyance on my part, just dumb luck.
If you're as interested in the Supreme Court's inner workings as I am, there are plenty of good Web sites that provide commentary on Blackmun and his 24-year tenure. One intriguing one is David J. Garrow's article in Legal Affairs magazine on his own conclusions after reading Blackmun's papers. He argues that Blackmun "ceded to his law clerks much greater control over his official work than did any of the other 15 justices from the last half-century whose papers are publicly available. Whether any current justices are similarly abdicating their responsibilities will not be known until their case files are opened in the future."
May 23, 2005
Saturday was graduation day at UNH, a proud day for many families, including ours. I hope I have time this week to write a column about our experience for the Sunday Monitor. We owe UNH a lot.
But before the memory of the day itself fades, I want to record a few impressions that I’ll bet are not mine alone.
We arrived at the football stadium 20 minutes early. It was an overcast day, chilly and gusty but blessedly dry. The stands were full enough that we didn’t think we’d find five seats together. We headed for the field, where the long podium and risers stretched nearly from sideline to sideline at the east goal line.
We found five vacant folding chairs a few yards in front of the west goal posts. From there the dignataries on the podium looked slightly larger than ants. This did not matter because our view was mainly of the backs of the heads of the people in front of us.
There were many speakers. Clearly they had mined the Internet, today’s faster, vaster version of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, to find words of wisdom for 2,300 graduates and their thousands more relatives. They quoted everyone from Mother Teresa to Yogi Berra. The commencement speaker, Tom Werner, TV producer and part-owner of the Red Sox, shared his interpretation of the demise of Icarus. Despite what you might think, he said, the story’s real moral is that you should fly as high as you can. But first make sure you have the right equipment.
Maybe two hours into the ceremony, doctoral degrees were conferred individually to perhaps 30 students. The crowd began to thin. Next, in the large area where the bachelor’s degree candidates sat, there began a semi-orderly scramble to parade up and collect diplomas. These were not actual diplomas but diploma cases containing sheets promising that the real diplomas would soon be in the mail. Many graduates, presumably with their families, departed immediately after receiving these diploma cases.
The ceremony still had about 20 minutes to go. The final speakers were brief and determined, but three-quarters of the seats were empty by then.
We diehards took a few pictures in the cold and walked to our cars. We were dry and proud and glad it was over. We’ll always remember the day as a happy one. But by next May, UNH should figure out a way to make its commencement exercise as personal and meaningful as the achievements it celebrates.
May 20, 2005
Church and state
This is my first blog entry. In coming days and weeks, I’ll be doing more like it that deal with issues that come my way as editor of the Monitor. But I plan to write about lots of things: books I’m reading, places I go, people I meet, sights I see around the area, ideas I find on the web that I think might interest Monitor Online readers. In the spirit of the blogosphere, I welcome your comments.
When I started editing the letters to the editor years ago, I had a strict rule: I did not allow letter writers to use citations from the Bible to make their points.
My reasoning went like this: A daily newspaper is not the place for the endless argument about what the Scripture means or whether particular passages should dictate the mores of Jews and Christians today. It also seemed to me that the Bible could be interpreted to support either side of almost any modern-day argument.
In recent times I’ve relented a little. I still spike letters that are just strings of biblical quotations, complete with citations. Generally, those strike me as boring. But I have found myself letting more biblical interpretations slip through the gate and into print on the editorial page.
Why? Religion has reasserted itself in American public life. I don’t like this much. I thought the Creationism debate ended in 1925. To me, beyond “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” I don’t think the Bible has much useful to say about homosexuality. I nearly walked out of church on a Sunday in 2000 when the priest told the congregation how to vote.
My own belief is that it isn’t that difficult to separate one’s spiritual life from one’s political life and that we are better off as a country keeping the two separate. Starting with the president, whom I respect as generally able to be ecumenical despite his personal faith, I think we have taken more than one step backward from John F. Kennedy’s famous declaration in 1960 on separation of church and state.
I’m usually skeptical of the old slippery-slope argument, but we’re on one now. It isn’t just the obvious issues like gay marriage, abortion rights and stem-cell research that draw debate with a religious cast. It is also the Iraq war, capital punishment, the filibuster. I heard a self-described Christian leader hold forth on television the other night on the kinds of judges who should be seated. It sounded as though he thought their job was to interpret the Bible rather than the Constitution.
So if you read the Monitor’s letters to the editor, you’re seeing some letters in which readers argue the issues through the prism of religion. I should say the prism of Christianity, since that is what it has been so far. And occasionally you’re seeing a biblical quote – and perhaps a few days later a biblical quote fired back from the other side of the issue.
I still believe the letters section is no place for arguments about biblical interpretation, but I see no choice but to roll with the times.