Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Special "a plague on both our houses" issue

We may be on the verge of decimation.
(Full disclosure: cried wolf about SARS too)

The bad news:
Bird flu could kill up to 50 million people, claims WHO (or 100 million, depending on who you read)

The helpful advice, worth every penny you paid for it:
  • Sell your house, restaurant, cafe last month; use the money to start a business making fashion face masks and hand sanitizer gel in cheerful colors.

  • Give away your pet ducks, which "display no symptoms of the disease but shed huge amounts of the virus in their faeces"...

  • Persuade the unwell around you to avail themselves of oral saline spray:
    ...roughly half the population - 6 of 11 individuals in their study - may produce more than 98 percent of all potentially pathogenic bioaerosols.

    The researchers found that a six-minute inhalation of aerosolized salt-water solution, often used in the treatment of asthma, can markedly reduce the number of bioaerosol particles exhaled by these "high-producers" for up to six hours.

  • Hide your nose in a book - fiction (The Last Flight of Dr. Ain) or not (A Journal of the Plague Year (1665) ).

  • From the latter, a recommendation that you air your stuff:
    • Airing the Stuff.
      'For sequestration of the goods and stuff of the infection, their bedding and apparel and hangings of chambers must be well aired with fire and such perfumes as are requisite within the infected house before they be taken again to use.'

A general complaint about "doom is on its way" stories: Why don't reporters ask the 'experts' to provide their best-guess probabilities too, to wring the maximum information content from them (along the same lines as the floated-but-discarded Terrorism Futures market)? If the goal is to inform the public, why not inform said public of the likelihood of doom and not just its worst-case scenario? Admittedly, experts might not be too keen on this idea since they don't want to look like fools when they inevitably get it wrong, but perhaps a number of them could be polled and a summary result provided?

Added Dec. 2:
Reassuring words from Tyler Cowan on our upcoming economic doom; rather less reassuring words to the effect that India, China and Russia are on the brink of AIDS epidemics to parallel those in Africa.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Left and right

Dec. 2: I've linked to these before, but they're must-reads in this context:
Britt Blaser on conformity enforcers vs diversity enhancers, and Ed Cone's Don't Talk While I'm Interrupting.

most of the following links are old, in fact they might already be stale.

Dec. 1, Added stereotypical hors d'ouvres:
Deliberately exploiting and furthering defamatory...stereotypes is racism...
The racism isn't in printing the images or reporting the facts, it's in the deliberate use of them to promote racial stereotypes.
...consider this ad: "A new scientific study proves that []s get rich faster than any other group. (Picture of rich []ish family)"
"Visit our website and donate money to overcome America's wealth inequality. (Picture of poor [] family)"
Completely factual -- and completely racist. Any editor who printed this sort of ad wouldn't deserve to keep his job.
If it's not ok to make group-level generalizations (even if factually accurate) based on sex, religion or race, what about based on culture? socioeconomic status? political orientation? (no answers here, just questions)
vs. Debra Dickerson:
One reason for bigotry's maddening intractability is that a determination-however knee-jerk, superficial, or unthinkingly made-that something or someone is racist ends the discussion.

(bringing this to mind)

with the above moral confusion firmly established, here's the main course:

A comment illuminating how left and right don't play by the same rules:
Do we cut Rush [with his drug problems] more slack than we would cut Al Franken? You bet. Because Rush is one of ours. He is our leader, our hero, our champion. We take care of our wounded first. Only afterwards do we worry about the enemy wounded, if we worry about them at all. *
Once at a child's birthday party, the very smart (teaches at a NY area medical school, for what it's worth) rather non-political father of one of the part-goers asked me why people were willing to put up with obvious lies and equally obvious bad policy choices, even cheering the perpetrators on. Half seriously, I told him that an awful lot of people seem to view politics as a team sport. No matter what else may happen, you want your team to win. If the game is lopsided, it is a good bit less exciting, and it is annoying to see your guys breaking the rules over and over, but still, it is the final score that matters most. *
[Research shows that] conservative editorial pages are far less willing to criticize a Republican administration than liberal pages are willing to take issue with a Democratic administration *
...even if someone isn't really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies. *
Seen somewhere recently -
We are what we fear in others.
Conservatives have more nightmares.
There's an interesting pattern going on. When I write a political column for the Chicago Sun-Times, when liberals disagree with me, they send in long, logical e-mails explaining all my errors. I hardly ever get well-reasoned articles from the right. People just tell me to shut up. That's the message: "Shut up. Don't write anymore about this. Who do you think you are?" *

From a characteristic reaction to research on personality correlates of political orientation:
I'm sorry. I really wanted to say something incredibly clever about how dumb I think a new study from Berkeley is....what is it about this that makes me think of bovine flatulence? Well, everything. Scientists spend millions of taxpayer dollars...Whatever their reasons, they think it's important work
I tend to be basically conservative in my philosophy and my politics. This is not due to any strict religious beliefs. It is just a pragmatic viewpoint. Traditional values have stood the test of time. A culture based upon them works. ................. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. *

In discussions with conservatives...I always come away with the same nagging sense that I'm attempting to reason them away from a deep-seated gut feeling. This accounts both for their self-described moral "clarity" and their immense defensiveness and paranoia. They don't "believe" conservative "philosophy"--they are conservatives. It is viscera you attack when you argue with them, it is their very identity, and they react accordingly.
But here's the rub: the fact that these positions are rooted in aesthetic preference makes them stronger, not weaker, in today's media culture. Liberals persist in clinging to reasons and rationales...What's happening is a competion of symbols, of myths... *

Sunday, November 28, 2004


The Union's editor is correct that the term "bully pulpit" has been misused recently, but the misusers have plenty of company.

Listening to the copy editors:

Officious and bemused don't mean what you think. And convince and persuade aren't interchangeable.
A colleague asks why the word abbreviation is so long and phonetic isn't spelt with an f. *
"We know it's wrong, but it's consistent with what we've written before. If we change now, readers will be confused and we'll look bad." *
...remember, if you want to make them look good, paraphrase most of it; if you want them to look like a complete idiot, quote verbatim.*

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Book quotes

Nov 28: added a few more
  • The Elements of Editing
    by Arthur Plotnick
    p. 31:

    [addressing a class of writers]
    Communication...is your reason for being - not nourishment of ego, not praise of colleagues, not money, not love of generations to come. You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you -
    And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.
  • Stalking the Feature Story
    by William Ruehlmann
    p. 73:

    Writers who recount events sometimes need reminding that they are historians, not autobiographers.
    p. 121:

    Remember: writing an effective story is like facing a mean drunk twice your size. You'd better get in the first punch, and it had better be a damned good one...

  • The Craft of Interviewing
    by John Brady
    p. 89:

    If [the interviewer] fails to ask tough questions when he must, then he is risking the fate of many smalltown journalists who serve as news clerks rather than as newsmen.
    p. 119:

    "what do I think about beauty pageants?" Clark said. "I think they're ************. And besides, ************************."

    Startled, I said, "But you're the master of ceremonies."

    "**********," Clark explained. ... "Of course, everything I say is off the record."

    "Of course", I said.

    [on "jugular journalism"]
    But there have been slip-ups, too, in some reporters' search for wrongdoing. Rush jobs. "the point is to make your case, says Clark Mollenhoff of the Des Moines Register. "Getting evidence that's admissible in court is what it's all about...every time you neglect that, you cut into your credibility."...
    Motto: Verify before you vilify.
    p. 200:

    We speak in fits; we plague our sentences with grade-school interjections, grammatical wreckage, aborted half-thoughts. To commit a man's inconstant speech to permanent print without allowing him to tidy up his syntax is cruel punishment; it is like shoving him before the TV cameras before he can get out of his pajamas.
    p. 208:

    The following interview [by Smith, in dressing room of a beaten boxer] ensued:

    [Q:] "Did he hit you hard?"
    "Holy Jesus!"

    [Q:] "Do you want to fight him again?"
    "Holy Jesus!"

    [Q:] "Do you think you could lick him if you fought him again?"
    "Holy Jesus!"

    [Q:] "Does your head hurt?"
    "Holy Jesus!"

    [Q:] "Do you think Baer can lick Schmeling?"
    "Holy Jesus!"

    ..."I was well satisfied," reflected Smith. "It was one of the most revealing interviews I had ever had. I was quite astonished, however, to read [other reports]...One of them quoted Carnera as having said:

    "Max's blows were very hard. He hurt me several times - I'll have to admit that. But I sincerely believe that I could defeat him and I would like to have another chance. I want to regain the championship."

    p. 213:

    "[Logan Pearsall Smith?] once said that the true test of a person's love for his vocation was his capacity to tolerate the drudgery it involved."

  • The Reader over Your Shoulder (a handbook for writers of english prose)
    2nd ed., by Graves and Hodge
    p. 151:

    ...the worst is that the reader feels himself written at, not written for

  • The Writer's Guide to Conducting Interviews
    by Michael Schumacher
    p. 85:

    Archival interviews and oral histories are unique because they are intended to be lasting statements. Newspaper and magazine articles have limited shelf lives, but archival interviews and oral histories are intended to be "position statements" that could last for many years. Under these circumstances, and interviewee may rightfully expect to see the words as exact as he or she intends them to be.

    ...as [Jay] Rosen noted parenthetically, "What bloggers call their archive, newspaper journalists call the morgue." This continuity and forced memory is something traditional journalists avoid. As we always said at the newspaper, "No matter how bad we screw things up tonight, we start with a blank slate tomorrow."
    not any more.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The Union's website - what's changed, what hasn't


The Search page is no longer silently defective; it now warns that it has problems.

Thanks for adding the alert, which should help to prevent misunderstandings like the one in this election letter:
Who would you prefer as a representative to plead our cause...A councilor who has certified skills in dealing with people, or an officer who refers to his opponents as "leftist and left-leaning functionaries," and "braying asses?"

I realize these quotes are taken out of context. I would refer you to The Union's Web archives for the context, but Nate's Other Voices articles have been removed. I asked why, but received no reply.
The articles hadn't been removed (they're here and here ) but when a search no longer brings them up, it's reasonable to assume they're gone, particularly if no one explains otherwise.

The North Star House Series page now contains links to the more recently published articles. Content of articles is still not obvious from perusing the page, but apparently that's a limitation of the software:
> The "crowd defends land trust" article is still not linked to from
> the "North Star House Controversy" webpage, on The Union's website.
> Is this an oversight? if so, when will the link be added, and will it
> be clear from the "blurb" that no wrongdoing was found?

The North Star page just hadn't been updated with some of the more recent
stories. I added them today. The "blurb" is generated by the content
management system. It uses the first paragraph or a limit of characters,
depending on which it reaches first.


Still true:

The "search by date" functionality still doesn't bring up "election letters", contrary to the editor's stated intent.

The "election letters" classification still includes letters that simply contained the word "elections", even when the thrust of the letter was entirely different.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

You be the judge

The photos:
[Bush and Kerry photos]

The letter to the editor:
...[The photo] makes the one look cool, calm, determined, and, with only one hand in the air, decisive, while making the other look, with two hands in the air, unsure. The only thing worse than such a silly journalistic prank is just how opposite the truth really is...

The editor:
We had a chuckle in The Union's newsroom last week over the reader who looked at the photos...and saw an anti-Democrat conspiracy.

President George Bush was gesturing with one hand, which according to the letter writer signaled calmness and determination, while Senator John Kerry had palms up - obviously a journalistic prank, said the reader, to make him look like a flip-flopper.

Our chuckle was for several reasons...[it's against our principles]; [it's silly to think that we look for the exact perfect worst image, we're too busy]...ridiculous...[besides, we get the same comments from the right]... maybe it's just that folks read their own bias into photos or stories, but cannot recognize it...

Related commentary:

Mark A.R. Kleiman:
A newspaper photograph of a political figure is less an image of the politician than it is of the editor's political prejudices.

Dan Okrent:
Unquestionably, individual articles, headlines or photographs do cast one or another candidate in a colored light, either rosy or dark. Headlines are especially toxic because of their reductive nature.
I don't buy the argument...that because charges of bias come from both liberals and conservatives, the paper must therefore be doing things right. This makes as much sense as saying that a man with one foot on a block of ice and the other on a bed of hot coals must feel just fine.
passion is a distorting lens that makes it hard to perceive the shape of things...A Bush-hater will see a front-page picture of the confident president greeting enthusiastic crowds and shout "Bias!" much more quickly than he will remember the nearly identical photo of Kerry that ran the day before.
One famous psych study c 1951 showed students and Alum of Princeton and Dartmouth a film of a controversial game between P & D. It was a vicious game, lots of penalties. The loyalty of the viewers resulted in what can only be described as perceptions of a different game by Princeton fans and Dartmouth fans although they all saw identical footage.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Added some info to the "What's been going on with local politics" Nov 15 post.

In Nov 12 post, added link to Eric Engles's 300-word Other Voices column.

And - one large kudo to whoever came up with the headline for this story

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


Scott Rosenburg's extensive and excellent collection of quotes relevant to weblogs and journalism - example:
What's changed is the involuntary outsourcing of fact-gathering and -checking to a growing assortment of amateurs and professionals who are largely external to the profession. What we need isn't competition between blogs and mainstream news outlets, but a working symbiosis between the two....
-- Doc Searls

Research on trust:
Researchers found that people who are wronged in a business transaction may be more likely to say they would reconcile if the offender offers a sincere apology - particularly if the offender takes personal blame for the misdeed...a willingness to take blame and offer amends can have a positive effect, and may be necessary to help repair a loss of trust in a business relationship.

From Kevin Drum *:
Generally speaking, conservatives believe that our biggest danger comes from rogue states, those who support international terrorism. Thus the "axis of evil" and the obsession with Saddam Hussein.

Liberal analysts, by contrast, tend to believe that the bigger danger comes from failed states, those that are so chaotic that non-state terrorist groups like al-Qaeda can flourish simply because there's nobody around to keep them under control. Afghanistan and Sudan in the late 90s are good examples.

And, from his excellent post on red-state-blue-state patterns of crime and culture:
You can define ["Blue state" culture] in a variety of ways. I'd say it's based in modernity and tolerance. But once you see it in that light, is it simply a matter of the Blue States having an attitude of condescension toward the Red ones? The country has become sufficiently divided that there is a good deal of mistrust and animosity on both sides. And I think it is fair to say that that ill-will on the part of the Blue state America does sometimes express itself as condescension.

But the bad feeling of Red State America toward the Blue is just as often expressed as contempt, moral denunciation or simple rage. To the extent that one hears Blue Staters dissing Red Staters as holy-rolling trailer park denizens, the Red staters routinely portray their fellow countrymen as corrupt, deviant, rootless perverts who express their flipflopper-dom by oscillating between being limp-wristed whiners on the one hand and signing up to work for Osama bin Laden as terrorist fifth-columnists on the other.

Monday, November 15, 2004

What's been going on with local politics

Much that I did not know, about who's driving recent events in local politics, in Sac News and Review:
This year, Doolittle went so far as to lobby Nevada County supervisors to appoint a Republican activist to replace the retiring clerk-recorder. The board initially appointed the candidate, Fran Freedle, but later reversed itself after controversy arose about Freedle’s lack of experience.
One GOP political consultant, who did not want to be named, said it’s uncommon how Doolittle “controls people all the way down to school board.”

Added Nov. 17:

Something seems to be going around.

An intriguing piece on David Parker and his entourage:
A band of carousers has rallied behind its beloved bartender following his alleged firing from a Nevada City saloon, forming a rapidly growing drinking group called "Sparky and the Shifters."
Just weeks after losing his bar job, Parker also lost his seat ["21-year tenure on the Sierra College board of trustees"] in a bid for re-election Nov. 2.

Parker - founder of the Marching Presidents in the annual Constitution Day Parade - called his dismissal from Cooper's two months ago "a parting of ways" and would not comment on the reason. "It is personal. I don't discuss that," he said.

Neither would his former employer, Rick Mackenzie, who threatened to sue The Union if the paper wrote a story about Parker's exit.

"It is nobody's business," Mackenzie said. "If this is printed, you'd better have good legal counsel."

More on Doolittle - and background on the man who Parker lost to - in this Feb. 2002 Sac News and Review article.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Engles' letter to Swift, and its context

Short on time? Here's the link to Eric Engles' letter advocating publisher regime change at The Union.

Otherwise, keep reading...

Background and context:

The nice thing about blogging - you can judge for yourself. Please follow the links below, and form your own opinion.

The Union's publisher has long gone over the line, in the eyes of many local residents, most recently with an extended and one-sided pre-election attack on one candidate. (Jim Hurley nails it)

In response, Grass Valley resident Eric Engles writes a letter to Swift Newspapers Inc * requesting that the publisher be replaced, and sends it out with an email exhorting others to do likewise.

The Union's editor sees the email and letter, and appends a slanted and demonstrably inaccurate account to the end of one of his weekly columns.

A letter writer who responds to this with a call to replace editor too, receives a [legally] threatening email from said editor.

The Union's publisher makes light of Engles' points in one of his weekly columns.

When Engles requests space in the paper to respond to the publisher's and editor's columns, the editor offers "a word for a word" justice:
Since my reference to your campaign was 300 words tacked on the end of my column, I would be glad to accept 300 words from you in reply.

One of the 300 words is a link to this page. (Opposing views here and here)
Jan. 20 update: changed the 'title' tag for the link to publisher's columns.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Local relevance, from elsewhere

Comments sparked by a post last summer by Kevin Drum on government restrictions in rural areas:

Fact is, we are a lazy group we humans, and must be compelled to spend time or money on each other if the result does not attract fame, the opposite sex, or a happy meal.*
I can hardly think of anything upon which a national political party has less influence than local building codes. From my somewhat limited experience, the more conservative a community the more codes there are which apply to the things which are allowed or not allowed in that city. Forget septic tanks and electrical wiring, how about whether or not you can have a fence in front of your house or what type roof you can put on it? I have never heard of any example of the Republican party taking over a town and then immediately going to work on local building codes.*
I really think it understandable that a person growing up in the city, where close proximity makes for more rules that are necessary to keep people from stepping on and harming one another would have a less strident reaction to "invasion" of his privacy by regulation than a person whose family for generations has done what it damned well pleased on its own land.*
Some of the rural types who want the govmint off their achin' backs reside on federal farmland subsidy land and use federal- and state-funded roads to get to their government-funded schools and hospitals, powered by semi-public utilities, to get their farm products promoted by state-run agriculture departments.
They're often just speaking out in their own economic self-interest...*
country folk are *genuinely* social conservatives. Social conservativism may be used as a pawn of the Republicans, but that doesn't change the genuineness of the folk's social conservativism.*
Part of what building codes do is make a commodity market. I can buy fish out of the back of someone's pickup truck, I suppose, if the state didn't make the seller have a license and certain safeguards, and take my chances. I'm not buying much fish, then. But I can't expect a market to work efficiently if every purchase has to be tested by the buyer before it's finalized.*
When it comes to winning support from ordinary people, there is a big difference between reactive and proactive government measures. Government regulations intended to prevent crime, or forest fires, or home fires, or epidemics, or environmental degradation, etc. are very unpopular, and are seen as the government being a meddlesome nanny. On the other hand, when the government fights an existing fire, or crime, or environmental disaster, this is viewed very positively by almost everyone.*

Monday, November 08, 2004

Rocky mountain high

Nov 11: toned down the prose.

He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see

The web and Google will do that...

Kudos to Chris Cobler and friends at the Greeley Tribune:
Burlington, North Carolina's Times-News and Colorado's Greeley Tribune have similar circulations and hometown demographics. Yet while the staff in Burlington's newsroom is practically all white, Greeley’s is diverse. What does Greeley do that Burlington doesn't?
The persistent reader may be surprised.

A leader in the press community:
See Chris Cobler's post today, A Q&A on the Trib's teacher editorial, in which he responds to a reader, point by point, disagreeing, but with respect for the reader and with respect for the facts, thus engaging in a constructive public dialog with all his readers, and showing by example how it's done. And, as is his wont (and our want) he links to the pages being referenced, and to others on the same topic.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Swift Newspapers contact information, and our position

Yes, we do take reader requests. In response to the most recent request, we've pulled together all the Swift Newspapers contact information:
(copied and pasted from multiple places; 100% accuracy (e.g. of titles) not guaranteed)
Swift Newspapers, Inc.
500 Double Eagle Ct.
Reno, NV 89521

775 850 7676

President: Arne Hoel
President of the Board: Richard Larson
Personnel Manager: Debbie Spieker-Martin

With commitment to integrity
We bring light to truth
Excellence to endeavor
And strength to community

Our position, arrived at after some reflection:
NCFocus will not be joining in the call for publisher regime change. What Swift Newspapers decides to do is up to them. We do believe, strongly, that a community needs to have a news source whose publisher values and encourages civil community relations and problem-solving, but it need not be The Union.

Nonetheless, we would like to point out that the newspaper's current appellation does not epitomize truth in advertising.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Two quotes, one perspective, much irony

Nov.7: sorry, can't count, three quotes now.
Nov. 8: they're breeding like rabbits - four

Nov 8
Clarification: We wish to make it abundantly clear that sections of the paper, articles in the paper, whole issues of the paper are excellent! Do not take personally, please, ye of the infantry who valiantly sally forth and shed blood, sweat, tears to inform the public.

Publisher Stephen Waters:
We may "own" the local media, but we consider we hold it in stewardship for the community.

Most likely found over at Ed Cone's a while back:
"My father told me many times when I was growing up: 'Son, a community is never any better than its local newspaper.'

"I have come to find truth in Dad's statement, and I believe those of us who have the responsibility for managing newspapers must realize the vital role we play in the life, growth, tone and tenor of our communities. It is a sacred trust and we must treat it as such."

Doc Searls, touring the Santa Barbara News-Press:
Our tour guide, the photo editor of the paper, talked about how hard it is to get new subscribers when so many readers were getting their news elsewhere, or just seemed to give too small a sh*t. Yet he remained no less motivated, for the simple reason that daily papers remain highly civilizing forces for the regions they serve, and he felt privileged to be part of one.

Former Nevada editor:
I take my responsibility very seriously and I understand full well the responsibility we have to our community and to you, our valuable readers.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Confidential to Swift Newspapers

Two issues:

First, your archives have serious (new?) problems: at least two articles show the same (wrong) publication date of May 13, 2002: this one from The Union, and another from elsewhere in the Swift Newspapers chain. So presumably it's a much more widespread problem.

Second, we look forward to having our phone call returned.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Stuckey for Publisher

Nov. 5: added link to 1st letter which was published today; minor wording; renamed post to reflect current sentiment; appended Editor's comment on this post.

Here we present an email exchange triggered by The Union Editor RS's Oct. 30 attack* on Engles. If you don't have time for the blow-by-blow, skip to Ms. Stuckey's excellent second letter, which is awesome on all fronts. We need more of her ilk in the press.

(Added links, but restrained self from bolding the more interesting passages.)

Letter to Editor:
I have lived more than twenty-five years in small towns and more than twenty years in urban areas, with both left-leaning local papers and conservative-leaning papers. Yet in no community before this one have I seen so much personal attack pass for journalism.

Your report of Eric Engles's critique of this paper (10-30-04) was incomplete and inaccurate. That you misquoted his e-mail and dismissed his criticism without responding to, or even reporting, its substance defines the very term bully pulpit. You've only proved his point.

I join in the call for the resignation or dismissal of [publisher]--and [editor].

Priscilla Stuckey

Editor's emailed response:
Ms. Stuckey:

Regarding your letter to the editor, sorry if you feel that I hurt Dr. Engles' feelings. Certainly, you are correct that I dismiss his criticism. Nor did I respond to it, because it was not addressed to me. However, you say I misquoted his e-mail, and I am curious as to where.

I wrote that Dr. Engles feels [publisher] is divisive because he has different views. The e-mail says [publisher] "doesn't just opine: he accuses, distorts, misleads, slanders and propagandizes." That is just a harsher way of saying he has different views.

I wrote that Dr. Engles keeps counterviews out of the paper. The e-mail says, I'm assuming in reference to [BC]: ". . . did he get to tell his version of the story and rebut the slanderous charges? Not in [publisher]'s paper!" Dr. Engles knows as well as I do - or should - that [BC] has had multiple opportunities to tell his story in The Union. And, by the way, your counterview will be printed as well, weak as it is.

I wrote that Dr. Engles said [publisher]'s role extends beyond the opinion page to include story selection, wording of headlines, etc. The e-mail says, "[publisher]'s abuse of his position as publisher of the sole local newspaper extends beyond the opinion pages . . . " and then goes on to list the ways. Again, of course, inaccurate.

Why would Dr. Engles distort the truth? Or for that matter, why would you? You tell me. (By the way, you may want to point out to Dr. Engles the difference between slander and libel - which, incidentally, you both are doing by defaming me personally in writing. Do you have a good lawyer?



Stuckey replies:

Dear [Editor]:

First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed a couple of your recent editorials [(columns)], especially Wrestling with the Myth of Objectivity (8-7-04) and Deconstructing Jacques Derrida (10-16-04). Thoughtful reflections on the history and theory of journalism are always welcome, and I take a special delight in them.
I also appreciate the conciliatory tone of today's editorial (11-3-04). After twenty years in the business of words (book editor and writing consultant), I put a great stock in the tone of words.

So I was terribly disappointed to see your editorial dismissing Eric Engles's critiques (10-30-04) and equally disappointed in your dismissive letter to me. Your suggestion that I may have thought you "hurt Dr. Engles' feelings" suggests that the worst disservice done was hurt feelings. Feelings are important, but the issue here is not feelings. Reducing the issue to feelings trivializes Eric's critique (and mine) and trivializes also the harm you can do through editorials like that one.

On these points your editorial was inaccurate:
- Eric does not add his credentials "even the most casual of e-mails." I've never known him to do it in an e-mail, and he doesn't even do it consistently in his columns. To say that he "affectedly" does so is to adopt a patronizing and ridiculing tone.

- Eric did not issue a call to "Dump Ack." His said "Dump [publisher]" or "Dump Jeff," and he referred to the publisher in his letter as "Jeff" or "[publisher]." Your misquote adds a belittling tone to Eric's letter that was not there.

- He didn't "demand" that [publisher] be fired. "I request that you consider replacing [publisher]" is the exact quote. A request is rather different from a demand.

- "Mr. Engles' declaration of his values . . . is that since [publisher] has different views than Engles, he is being divisive": This is just the opposite of what Eric said. He said he had no problem with opining but took issue rather with distortions and their like: accusations, slanderings, and propagandizing. That is not "just a harsher way of saying he has different views," as you claim. You are a man of words; you must recognize the difference between presenting an opinion and presenting an accusation.

One more example of inaccuracy. In your letter you say that I am defaming you. I believe one of the requirements for words to be defamatory is that the accusations are false. As you can see, I have evidence of inaccuracies. In a previous letter to the editor I did suggest that the paper was libeling [BC] by accusing him of wrongdoing before investigating the story, and I still believe that to be true. Accusations of wrongdoing that in legal terms amount to criminal misconduct, presented before any investigation and repeated after no evidence of wrongdoing is found: Please tell me what's not libelous about that. The ending of your letter to me-"Do you have a good lawyer?"-does nothing to disprove my claim (and Eric's) that the paper is being used as a bully pulpit. Bullying is hardly appropriate in private correspondence, either, especially from a newspaper editor to a reader who is criticizing editorial policies.

Last night I watched part of Barack Obama's victory speech. With regard to bringing people together, he said, "We found ways of disagreeing without being disagreeable."

In addition to the smearing and character assassinations of recent editorials, it's the disagreeable tone that disturbs me greatly. Words matter, and how we use them matters as well. It matters that [publisher] denounced [BC] as lacking in integrity before reporting the facts-it's unconscionable, in a publisher-and it matters as well that [publisher] riddles many of his editorials with derision-why? to up the entertainment factor?-rather than adopt a respectful tone of disagreement. It matters that your public response to Eric failed to present his criticisms, and it matters as well that it was patronizing and dismissive in tone.

Last night I took a break from election coverage to tune in to a book event on C-SPAN. In it, British author Jan Morris made a plea for kindness as the only thing that in the end matters. Is it possible to have a little more kindness in the official voices of the paper? Kindness needn't mean soft-pedaling or nicey-nice. It does mean, though, a level of civility and fair-mindedness that has been missing from many editorials (like [publisher]'s from yesterday, 11-2-03).

Civility from the powers-that-be at the paper would do two things: it would help defuse tensions (instead of inflaming them); and it would also allow people to absorb more of the real facts of an issue. Because, as we know, emotions running strongly can inhibit thoughtful reflections: readers who agree with [publisher]'s ridiculing, for instance, only end up laughing gleefully, while those who disagree only end up feeling shut out of the public dialogue. Is this deepening of existing divisions really what you want?

Words are serious business, and the misuse of them in the instances I have cited are serious business. I stand by my requests for changes in leadership at the paper. In my Letter to the Editor that you are taking issue with, I call for replacing you and [publisher], and if I see no changes in the paper, I will continue to call for that.

What I really want, though-and what I hear many thoughtful people throughout the community also wanting-are changes in editorial policy, toward greater civility, fair-mindedness, and accuracy as the bases for editorial opinion.

If today's editorial signifies such a change, I welcome it.

Priscilla Stuckey, PhD

Note: Editor RS responded to this last missive with a quite cordial email, the meat of which was this:
My purpose in tacking a few paragraphs [attacking* Engles] on the end of my column was only to open Eric's campaign to public scrutiny, and to clarify two points - the openness of our opinion page to all views, and the separation of Jeff [publisher] from the news operation.

* Note II, added Nov 5: Editor RS disagreed with the wording above, saying this:(reprinted with permission)
I think you're overreaching to call my few paragraphs at the end of an unrelated column an "attack" on Dr. Engles. It was more in the nature of turning over a rock. If I wanted to actually attack him, I would start a community effort to have him fired from whatever job he has.

Suggestions from the blog culture:
1. You gain status if you provide your readers with access to the content that you're criticising.
2. Keep your words sweet; some day you may have to eat them.
3. Threatening legal action in response to reader criticism is not going to look good.

On letters and credibility

Minor correction and clarification: election letters page is still online, your correspondent is a moron. However, it's still true that once they scroll off that page, they can only be found by keyword search.

Added Nov.15, incorrect statement regarding availability of election letters 'by date':
from editor's Sept 4 column New election letters policy launched:
All election letters - including those that appear in print - will be found online easily online, either by date or through a word search.

Here's what happened to JD's missing "oust publisher" letter to the editor (JD email:"They deny deep sixing it...I checked every day and never saw it."...[RS]:"even though your letter calling on him to be fired had been published on The Union's web site Dec. 2"):

It got published online on Oct 2, and is available here.

But guess what? It wasn't published in the newspaper. It was only published online, since it's an Election Letter.

JD probably thought his letter was about firing the publisher; it mentioned no candidates. But no, since he used the word "elections" ("gross attempts to dictate the winners in supervisorial elections are just the latest in this pseudo-journalist’s demagoguery.") it is an election letter.

So the letter presumably got published on the [no longer extant] "Election letters" page of The Union's website, from whence the letters would scroll off the page and into invisibility after a couple of days (as described here). At this point, no, you cannot find them by browsing, or by using the Archives' "Search for a specific date" (other letters will show up, but not yours) - no, you have to "Search by Keyword". Yes, the same "Search by Keyword" that's silently defective in finding older articles.

Informing the readers is a priority. But which priority is it?

It certainly didn't help The Union get good PR.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

O for directly addressing reader concerns

Yes, there was an election. Results were ugly, coworkers were ugly, friends were lost, NCFocus will deal with it some other time.

Minor edits below, plus Swift Newspapers phone number.

For this week, the Union's publisher writes his column about Engles' letter advocating publisher's departure. He didn't address the substance of Engles' complaints; as far as I could see, the column is all humor and digs.
Now there's a guy in town named Eric (he knows his last name) who says he's got a Ph.D. and wants all of us to know because he uses it every time he writes his name.
Et tu, Brutus...Come on, boys, you used to be reporters; unless you know for a fact that something is true, don't say it. It's your own opinions you're entitled to, not your own facts.
[Engles' letter says that] Mr. Ackerman (that's me)...plays fast and loose with the facts...

I've been working with my boss [ Arne Hoel ] for maybe 15 of the 20 years I've been with the company. This isn't the first time someone has asked him to fire me.

From the Swift Newspapers ( 775 850 7676 ) website:
Our newspapers are run with local autonomy by publishers and management teams who are leaders in their communities.

How does "local autonomy" differ from "lack of accountability"? Is it true that as long as advertising revenues are healthy, Swift Newspapers allows the publisher free rein to treat the community as he pleases? What does it mean to be a leader in one's community? Is it merely a statement of fact - that one has power? Or does it imply that the publishers and management teams are to be responsible community leaders?

Arne, enquiring minds need to know.


We got traded.

NewsInc, 3/25/2002:
Publishers: In Nevada, Peter Starren has been named publisher of the Nevada Appeal in Carson City. Starren, the former publisher of The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., has also been named general manager of the Tahoe-Carson Area Newspapers cluster of Swift Newspapers Inc. of Reno, Nev.

Jan. 10 2002: Ackerman to replace Starren as The Union publisher

Mission: Succession (1997):
Corporate execs describe Jeffrey E. Ackerman, publisher at Carson City's Nevada Appeal, as a "wild man," "competitive" and quick to act. Swift Newspapers of Reno bought the property in mid-1995, amid a border skirmish with the neighboring Reno Gazette-Journal. It ain't over yet.

"This is a war, war is hell, that's what's going on here," Ackerman mutters...

Confidential to "war publisher": the scorched earth policy does not go over well with the locals.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Behind the curtain

Nov. 4 and 8 updates are at end of post.

"The nice thing about blogging - you can judge for yourself."

The correspondents:
JD: Master of ceremonies, pillar of the local arts community
JA: The Union's publisher
RS: The Union's editor

The supporting cast:
CF: The Union's entertainment reporter; also the witness
DR: The Union's readership editor
BC,FF: Local citizens recently in news

The event:
The Haute Trash fashion show featuring a cornucopia of stunning outfits, including dresses and miniskirts fashioned from wine corks, yogurt tub tops, a biodegrading copy of Be Here Now, a deteriorated hammock, foam from the Ananda garbage dump, discarded eighth place ribbons from the Draft Horse Classic, an entire projector reel of the 2002 blockbuster hit Bruce Almighty, and Nevada County's newspaper, The Union.

As the paper-clad model paraded onstage, Master of Ceremonies J.D. deviated from the original script, describing her dress as follows:
(verbatim, from tape)
Well, what's black and white and read all over...It's The Union newspaper!

Elise makes The Union look good, which is hard to do, in this three-piece collegiate apparel. It's the best use of The Union we've seen in years - next, of course, to feed for the worm pile, fodder for the paper wasp nest, or lining for your kitty litter box.

The pleated skirt, short waist jacket top and necktie turns The Union from a rag into riches.

Now in all fairness, wedoappreciate ouronlylocalnewspaperfocusingonlocalnews withmoremajorhappeningsonthehomefront.

And The Union sure uses its power to create disparity; wouldn't it be wonderful for The Union to remember their name and create community too?

[from Elvira Mental Werks, thank you Elise! oh, yummy...]

When [publisher] resigns I'll buy a newspaper.

With JD's permission, we offer the resulting exchange of emails without comment.

(We are extremely tempted to comment - we find some of the accusations and appellations fascinating - but for your sake we are making every effort to keep our big mouth shut.)

Email from Editor RS to JD:
Mr. D:

It has come to my attention that on Friday evening you used your role as emcee of the Haute Trash event at the CftA to launch a vicious political diatribe against The Union.

With Prospector [entertainment section] editor CF - who had featured the event on the Prospector cover - in the audience, you used your position to further a vendetta against publisher JA, even though your letter calling on him to be fired had been published on The Union's web site Dec.[actually Oct.] 2.

Mr. D, I understand that in your tirade you scolded The Union for its lack of civic responsibility. In fact, The Union shows more civic responsibility in one day than you could accomplish in your lifetime, and has done so for 140 years. This is the same newspaper and publisher that offered repeated support and praise for the very CftA in which you chose to unleash your crowd-pandering harangue.

When our Readership Editor, DR, suggested to you by phone this morning that the occasion of your outburst was inappropriate, you replied that it was your "right" to do so.

True, we're thankful that in this country we have the right to an opinion, and I'm not going to call on you to be fired for having yours. However, we also have the right to choose with whom we wish to associate.

That's why I have asked that from here on, requests to The Union for coverage of any events with which you are involved, beyond [text-only several-line blurb] mention in our community calendar, be screened through the editor first. That screen, you can be assured, will include assurances that your personal jeremiads be reserved for a more appropriate time and place.

JD responds:
Mr. S,

Surely you are aware that your publisher's "editorials" have stirred much controversy and that he is widely seen as someone who is partisan and who is using his position to tip the election.

If stating "I'll buy a paper when JA resigns" constitutes a political diatribe, then so be it. If stating that "The Union should remember its name and foster union in the community rather than be a divisive force" strikes you as vicious, then I suggest you re-read the rhetoric which appears in your own paper.

As I told Ms. R, I take full responsibility for my comments and hope they will in no way reflect on the CftA or Haute Trash. I also told her I found your own editorial standard much more judicious than Mr. A's, and that, as she urged me to do, I would separate the paper and its staff from Mr. A in my future statements. It appears, however, that you too are enamored of your bully pulpit, and that your overt threat to blacklist events in which I am featured provides overwhelming evidence of The Union's heavy handed foul play.

The letter to the editor which Ms. R and I discussed that was deep sixed was sent a couple weeks ago, not a letter that may have been published on the website only Dec. 2.

I'm sure you won't mind if I share this your letter and my response with friends.



From Publisher JA to Editor RS, presumably cc:ing JD:
Thanks for sharing, Rich.

Mr. D is among those who confuse divisiveness with opinion. I suspect that anything Mr. D disagrees with, such as, "BC violated (at the very least) the spirit of the conflict of interest statutes when he created a job for himself with your public money," is "divisive."

I suppose he doesn't consider Michael Moore "divisive." Nor, I suspect, did he think we were "divisive" when we called on the supervisors to recind their decision to appoint FF to the Elections Office post because of her connection with the GOPs. Nor, did Mr. D screech when I called the GOP Central Committee Chair on his e-mails regarding a planned Quaker meeting at the superintendent of schools office.

Why? Because Mr. D is a hypocrite. The worst kind, really.

His screeching - and that's the best way to describe his rants - is typical of the kind of bully tactics he and his "friends" use. They've been bullying this newspaper for years and they finally met someone who is not going to cower under their howels.

Too bad Mr. D hasn't called to chat about his issues, preferring instead to perform on stage in front of his "friends and associates." Probably because he is unable to articulate a reasonable argument.

Some might even call that kind of behavior....well...chickenshit.


Updates from the principals:

JD, in Nov. 4 email:
...Haute Trash for me is a cabaret act. The character I portray as the MC is over the top. In fact, two years ago, I challenged [publisher] to a duel from that very stage...

Editor, in Nov. 8 email: (by permission)
I only spoke up about the Engles thing to defend freedom of speech, but [publisher] can defend himself. I got in [JD]'s face to see how he liked having some nut threaten his livelihood (he apparently didn't like it at all), but in fact have no interest in worrying about [JD] or Engles or any of those folks. I encourage you and them to fully exercuse your constitutional right to voice your opinion.

Monday, November 01, 2004

"Dump Jeff" letter from Eric Engles PhD

Also available: Engles' "cover email" (which he sent to his email list, introducing the letter)

Here is the letter (advocating a change of publisher) that The Union's editor criticized in his most recent column (emphases and links added):
Debbie Spieker-Martin
Swift Newspapers, Inc.
500 Double Eagle Ct.
Reno, NV 89521

Dear Ms. Spieker-Martin,
According to Swift Newspapers' mission statement, the publishers who run your various newspapers are "leaders in their communities." In complete agreement with this laudable goal, I feel compelled to express my concern that Jeff Ackerman, publisher of The Union, is not running the paper in a way that befits a community leader.

A publisher who is also a community leader would strive to gain the respect of both conservatives and progressives. He would be fair-handed and civil, focus on issues instead of personalities, give those he disagreed with the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity for rebuttal, not react defensively in the face of criticism. Mr. Ackerman does none of these things. His tenure as publisher has been bad for the citizens of Nevada County, and, as I'll argue below, bad for Swift Newspapers.

As the only local newspaper in western Nevada County, The Union has a key role in disseminating information about the issues facing our community and being a forum for public discussion of these issues. Under Mr. Ackerman, the paper is handling this responsibility very badly.

Mr. Ackerman feels free to use the paper as his "bully pulpit" for preaching his politics, helping out his influential friends, and advancing his version of reality. Of course it is Mr. Ackerman's prerogative to express his opinion in his own signed columns and the paper's editorials-and if that's all that he did I would have no quarrel with him, despite that fact I disagree with his political positions most of the time. The problem is that Mr. Ackerman doesn't just opine: he accuses, distorts, misleads, slanders, and propagandizes. And he does so in an intellectually dishonest way, using self-righteous sarcasm and sleazy innuendo, playing fast and loose with the facts, refusing to acknowledge alternative points of view, and selecting only those pieces of evidence that fit his version of any story.

In the last few months, Mr. Ackerman has seen fit to get even deeper than before into the business of character assassination. One case involved a Grass Valley planning commissioner who organized, through his church, a community forum on growth, probably the #1 issue in western Nevada County. The intent was explicitly educational, and people with varying opinions were invited to speak. Mr. Ackerman got hold of a pre-event document designed to elicit feedback, and immediately launched into an attack on the organizer and his cohorts, accusing them of using "fear tactics," calling the event a "political rally," and arguing that discussion of the four proposed large development projects was somehow premature (this latter claim was patently ridiculous; the Union itself had reported, more than a year previously, that the city of Grass Valley was "getting down to details" on the proposed projects). In his writing about this issue, Mr. Ackerman managed not only to denigrate a well-meaning and honorable member of the community, but also to actively discourage what our community needs the most-for citizens to become better informed about community issues and get more involved in making decisions about them.

In another more recent case, Mr. Ackerman has blatantly acted as a media hatchet man for his conservative power-broker friends. For almost a month, he has engaged in a relentless smear campaign against one of the candidates running for a county supervisor seat. I know this candidate as a highly principled man who has made a career of working tirelessly in the public interest. He has very strong support in the community. Knowing that it would be less effective to attack this candidate's policy positions-they enjoy wide support-or to champion one of his two opponents, Mr. Ackerman resorted to attacking the man himself. He dredged up a two-year old issue-one of those stories that can be told in two entirely different ways-and proceeded to tell (and tell again, and again, and again) the slanderous version, the one full of innuendo, half-truths, and unfounded accusations. The alternative interpretation of the events would show the candidate acted in good faith throughout, at worst making a few errors of judgment-but did he get to tell his version of the story and rebut the slanderous charges? Not in Mr. Ackerman's paper! [Actually, he did once, back at the start.]

[Presumably this is the paragraph that gave The Union's editor fits.]
Mr. Ackerman's abuse of his position as publisher of the sole local newspaper extends beyond the opinion pages. In the selection of stories, the choice of whom to quote, the wording of headlines, and all the many journalistic practices that can give a slant to the news, the Union all too often practices politics rather than news delivery. Although there are now some good, balanced and objective pieces in the paper (thanks to the hiring of some competent reporters), there are other pieces that clearly show Mr. Ackerman's influence.

Mr. Ackerman's editorials and the paper's journalistic practices increase the divisiveness in our community. We certainly hold strong and disparate opinions anyway, but we also share many common values, such as a desire to preserve our quality of life and rural, small-town lifestyle. Mr. Ackerman has moved the paper in a direction that makes it increasingly difficult to use these common values as a basis for constructive dialogue.

Constructive dialogue depends on both parties treating each other as real people-acknowledging their concerns, taking seriously their feelings and fears. Under Mr. Ackerman, the Union works directly against this goal by feeding conservative misconceptions about the goals and values of progressives and environmentalists. (In his columns, all advocates of managed growth are "NIMBYs" or "chicken littles," anyone who cares about the environment is a tree-hugging hippie, and so on.) At the same time, the paper takes seriously-and thus works to legitimize-the paranoid fantasies of right-wing extremists [URL?]. As a result, each "side" sees the other as a caricature of its real self, and all we end up doing is yelling at each other.

Under Mr. Ackerman, the paper also works to squelch public involvement in government. Because of an emphasis on "fluff" stories, people don't have access to the information they need to feel properly informed, and Mr. Ackerman's columns and editorials make it clear that if you get involved you risk becoming the object of his sarcastic ridicule.

In all of these ways, Mr. Ackerman has managed to completely alienate a large segment of the community during his few years as publisher.

I know dozens of people who have cancelled their subscriptions or refuse to subscribe to or even read the Union because of the ills I listed above. (I have not cancelled my subscription only because my involvement in local politics requires that I keep abreast of what's going on, and the Union's version of current events, as flawed as it is, is the only one available.) I regularly hear people criticize the Union and Mr. Ackerman in particular, and scoff at any suggestion that they read it or take it seriously. At a recent event attended by many in the local arts-and-literature community, a biting criticism of Mr. Ackerman by the master of ceremonies received a warm reception from virtually the entire crowd (and when notified of this, the thin-skinned Ackerman and his editor initiated an exchange of emails
with the master of ceremonies, a well-respected and popular figure, calling him at one point a "chickenshit" and threatening to essentially censor any event he was involved with).

The Union has made it clear that it is attempting to grow its readership, modernize, and become more like a big-city paper. Mr. Ackerman is clearly handicapping this admirable goal. He has angered and offended literally thousands of people who might otherwise be subscribers-and the majority of these folks are of that demographic most coveted by advertisers: they are well-educated, literate, and culturally sophisticated, and have healthy disposable incomes.

What's more, this demographic group-dominated by left-leaning urban refugees who can't stand Mr. Ackerman-is growing rapidly in Nevada County. A recent study by the Fannie Mae Foundation documented that Nevada County is now one of 24 "cappucino counties" in the West. These are counties that, in contrast with "cowboy counties," are being rapidly transformed by an influx of well-educated professionals, artists, engineers, computer programmers, self-employed people, and other "cultural creatives" involved in the new economy. These people are bringing with them new values, tastes, buying habits, and political views; any business that wants to grow cannot ignore them, and it certainly can't afford to actively alienate them.

With Mr. Ackerman at the helm, The Union can never be more than a small-town, parochial newspaper, and it will become increasingly anachronistic as Nevada County changes. I encourage you to consider replacing Mr. Ackerman with someone who can gain the respect of the entire spectrum of Nevada County residents. Nevada County, The Union, and Swift Newspapers will be the better for it.


Eric W. Engles, Ph.D.
cc: Jeff Ackerman, publisher, The Union
Arne Hoel, president, Swift Newspapers, Inc.