Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Relevance, Community Character & Animal Stories

Peter Funt, one of our local Opinion Page columnist, nailed it with his piece today about local newspapers.

Funt is partial to The Newseum's online presentation of daily front pages from newspapers across the United States.

"Every Saturday morning, just for fun and without spending a dime on gas, I take a trip to roughly 100 American cities and towns," he writes. After scanning the various newspapers across the country, he concludes that local newspapers still capture our remarkable diversity.

I know what he means. I can't imagine rolling into a new town anywhere in this world without picking up the local rag. If I'm a citizen of this planet and interested enough to actually visit a region, I like to know what makes the area tick. The local newspaper is my best guide.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors has launched a series of columns, written by newspaper editors, in an attempt to bust the myth that newspapers are a dying breed.

According to the doom-and-gloomers, newspapers were supposed to have disappeared by now.

(N)ewspapers still have a lot going for them," insists Margaret Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News in New York. "As sources of news and information, especially in the role of government watchdogs, they continue to outshine Web and broadcast outlets."

In her ASNE column, profits and readership are down, but local papers will plug along as long as they remain committed to investigative journalism and rigorous reporting. That's the service local newspapers provide for a community that can't be duplicated anywhere.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Neighbor

Juanita Keenan of Prunedale wrote this week to note that The Herald has spent much effort covering the treasurer-tax collector campaign, particularly regarding candidate Ron Holly's unfortunate statement that he's a lawyer. The Herald published a story about the controversy last week, I wrote a column about the situation on Saturday and The Herald endorsed Mary Zeeb on Wednesday.

Keenan also believes that "something is fishy" because I happen to live near Lou Solton, the incumbent treasurer-tax collector who is not seeking reelection. She believes I should have excused myself from the editorial review board when we did the treasurer-tax collector endorsement.

"I don't know Holly from Zeeb, but I would like to before I vote!" Keenan wrote. "Apparently, your being a good neighbor to Solton outweighs your responsibility to your employer and to the readers of your paper. You owe it to both to find out the whole story and let us make up your own mind."

The whole story in a nutshell: Holly's official campaign statement declares he's a lawyer. He is not a lawyer.

If a newspaper editor thinks that a story about a candidate who issues misstatements on his election papers is not a legitimate news story and an issue deserving of comment, the editor should be sacked.

Solton is indeed my neighbor. Since we've all got to live somewhere, sometimes we end up with neighbors who happen to be somebody. Should the guy who runs KSBW have excused himself because he's the sheriff's neighbor before airing his furious defense of the sheriff against a story The Herald published that was critical of the sheriff several weeks ago? I don't think so. And I won't be surprised when KSBW endorses the incumbent sheriff.

Fun side note about being the tax collector's neighbor: Since I'm the treasurer of the small water cooperative in our neighborhood, I get to demand payment from him. Not-so-fun side note: I wasn't real enthusiastic about the proposed (and, thankfully, now dead) water project in North County that Solton was promoting to his neighbors.

So, yeah, Solton and I are friendly neighbors. We talk about things. Usually, when he talks about government finance, municipal bonds and other subjects unfit for neighborhood conversation, my eyes glaze over and I steer the conversation to our shared gopher problem. And when I talk about the scary twists and turns of the newspaper business, his eyes glaze over and he steers the conversation to pickup trucks. (We live in Prunedale, if you haven't guessed by now.)

I've got other neighbors, too, incidentally, with whom I never talk business. In fact, I'm reasonably certain that my nearest neighbor has no idea that I work for a newspaper. It never comes up. Why should it? Good neighbors are neighbors who don't yammer on about the crap that happens at work.

Anyway, getting back to Holly and conspiracy theories . . . Keenan is correct that we've run more stories about the treasurer/tax collector race than is typically seen for an "office most people don't care about," as characterized by Keenan.

Because it's inconvenient to her conspiracy, Keenan doesn't mention that The Californian — not The Herald — broke the story about Holly's lawyer problem. The Californian beat us to the story. I hate to admit it, but The Californian scooped us. Dammit! I'm embarrassed about it. I'm pissed about it. I never want The Californian to scoop us. But they beat us with that story and we had to chase it.

As it happened, our editorial review board interview with the treasurer candidates was scheduled the very morning The Californian ran its story. We naturally asked Holly about the lawyer issue. His inability to explain himself plausibly left us dumbfounded.

Example: "Did you ever attend law school?" our opinion page editor asked. "Yes ... well, no," was the answer.

Another example: Holly took full responsibility for the foul-up, but then wondered aloud, accusingly, how Zeeb managed to find out he wasn't really a lawyer.

It went on and on like that.

Dumbfounded is not the correct word for it. Outraged is. In fact, the vehemence of the outrage among the rest of the editorial review board in regards to Holly was unanimous and unprecedented.

The Herald traditionally streams our editorial review interviews with candidates online, and we post the interviews on our online opinion page. When planning for this particular interview several weeks ago, we figured that the treasurer-tax collector candidates would be an especially boring lot, so we didn't book Wave Street Studios. Boy, were we wrong, and now we're kicking ourselves that it wasn't recorded for the world to see.

In the end, we knew we couldn't support Holly. So we went with Zeeb, for reasons stated in our editorial. Personally, I think John McPherson is a perfectly reasonable alternative who would likely do a good job if he's elected. But the entire board settled on Zeeb.

For the record, I don't give a rip who Solton supports, except in the context that he doesn't support Holly despite what Holly was telling people. Just like I don't really care if Solton supports some North County water deal that I don't want to pay for.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Big Al, The Deniers & The Basement

Random thoughts about Al Gore's appearance at the Panetta Institute lecture series on Monday:

* I accepted an invitation to serve on the question review team for Gore's appearance. The question review team, usually comprised of local journalists, wades through questions written by members of the audience and selects the best. From the dozens or even hundreds of questions submitted, the celebrity host interviewer usually gets about a half-dozen of them asked.

* For Monday's program with Gore, the institute also invited several scientists to participate on the question review team. They included Stephen Palumbi, director of the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove; Chris Scholin, president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing; and Robert Danzinger, a local scientist, consultant, entrepreneur, musician and bon vivant. We dug through the questions from the funky confines of the Golden State Theater's basement.

* The Panetta Institute changed its usual format for Gore. Typically, the institute finds good intellectual folks representing both sides of a particular issue, folks who are willing to engage in good debate instead of screaming matches. Gore was the only fellow on the card, and it was up to CNN newshound Frank Sesno to serve as a foil. With that in mind, the question review team felt duty-bound to push through more of the critical questions, and we were relieved that Sesno asked them.

* Gore answered the critical questions candidly. He didn't seem too hesitant until Sesno pushed him about losing the presidency. "This is beginning to sound like Oprah," Gore said. The former vice president said that losing the 2000 election was not half as bad as the trials and tribulations that most people in the world endure. "I've long since moved on," he said, adding that "you win some, you lose some . . . and there's that unknown third category."

* Gore is accomplished at the talking points of his climate-change issues — and the frustrations that science has become a political football. "Before we solve the climate crisis, we need to solve the democracy crisis in the United States," he said.

* Regarding the latest environmental crisis, the Gulf oil gusher, Gore minced few words. "I know a cover-up when I see one," he said. Gore criticized officials at BP for refusing to allow the scientific community to determine just how much oil has gush into the Gulf of Mexico.

* The usual suspects arrived outside the Golden State Theater in protest of Gore's appearance, so folks showing up to see Gore had to run the insult/chant gauntlet to get inside. The protesters seem to be convinced that evidence which leads scientists to conclude that Earth's climate is changing is an elaborate hoax. The protesters (they were referred to as "deniers" inside the theater) are also convinced that Al Gore is public enemy number one for perpetrating the hoax. During a 20-minute audience with the question review team earlier in the day, Gore said he hopes and wishes the deniers are correct, but he's not convinced the science supports them.

* Al Gore's critics will need to find a new personal blemish to insult him with. It looks as though he's lost a lot of weight recently.

Friday, May 14, 2010

I Don't Even Play One on TV

I was an altar boy and learned Latin at St. Mary's School. So now I'm a bishop.

I played a lot of baseball and now I'm the starting first baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays.

I can balance a checkbook, so I suppose that must make me a certified public accountant.

Ron Holly took correspondence classes from a non-accredited diploma mill of a law school, so he's a lawyer.

Okay, I'm not the bishop, a ballplayer or a CPA. And Ron Holly is not a lawyer. According to Holly, he's only the sort of lawyer who gave legal advice when he was at the Securities and Exchange Commission and, you know, people who do that may as well be referred to as a lawyer.

I've watched politicians and bureaucrats in Monterey County for almost 30 years now. And I don't believe I've ever been more insulted than when I heard the evasions and excuses emanating from Ron Holly when he and two other candidates for the Monterey County treasurer-tax collector showed up at The Herald on Thursday to seek our editorial board's endorsement for his candidacy.

On his official candidate statement, Holly lists himself as a lawyer. Seeing as he's not a lawyer and that candidates must swear an oath under penalty of perjury that the information on the statement is correct, the statement seems fraudulent. I won't call it fraud, though, because I'm not a lawyer. And neither is Holly.

During his editorial board interview, Holly shrugged it off as an "honest mistake." Unfortunately for him, the more he explains the mistake, the more disingenuous he seems. And now he and his buddy, Supervisor Dave Potter, have the gall to accuse his opponent, Mary Zeeb, of smear politics for exposing it.

According to Holly's tangled explanation, he was not aware that the current Monterey County treasurer, Lou Solton, wasn't running for reelection until days before the campaign filing deadline. So he rushed into the Elections Office at the last minute to declare himself a candidate, and to file his candidate's statement by the March 12 deadline. Someone else — a "friend" — wrote his candidate's statement. Holly said his mistake was only in not proofing the sworn document well enough to see that he would be lying to the electorate.

(It begs the questions: Why would a friend believe that Holly is a lawyer? What else does Holly tell his friends? What other "honest mistake" might be on his candidate's statement?)

Not five minutes earlier, Holly had told the editorial review board that Solton had consulted with him several months earlier, asking if he'd be interested in running for the office. Solton's intentions were no secret. He announced early that he would not seek another term. The Herald had run a story — last August — saying that Solton wasn't running for reelection. Holly works in the county Auditor-Controller's Office. It strains credulity to believe that he hadn't heard about Solton's retirement in time to work on an accurate candidate statement.

Giving Holly the benefit of the doubt, the best conclusion we can reach is that he doesn't know what's going on around him and, given that he allowed an obvious lie to appear on his campaign statement, he apparently doesn't pay much attention to detail.

The job of treasurer-tax collector requires precise stewardship of a public portfolio worth hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. It's scary to think that votes might be cast for a guy who is either egregiously sloppy or a flim-flammer. It's also frightening to hear that the Board of Supervisors still supports this guy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

How 'Facts' Get Started

As one might imagine, we get virulent calls from dear readers who disagree with our editorial positions, with the opinions of our columnists, with the judgments of our letter writers and with the caustic nature of our cartoonists.

We often imagine the poor caller, sitting alone in the parlor, temples throbbing and teeth grinding. We are grateful for such calls, happy that we live in a society where disagreement is woven into our national fabric. We don't mind the debate, at least up to the point that the caller resorts to throwing the f-word around as though the f-word validates his/her argument and underscores his/her disgust.

Unfortunately, I wasn't in the office yesterday when one particular hostile reader called the desk to vent her spleen about an editorial we carried on Sunday about immigration. Immigration is an issue that sparks the sort of unrefined rage I have not experienced since I was in high school back in the early 70s, when I worked as a loader of bread trucks with a bunch of older white men who became particularly unpleasant whenever the topic of segregation came up, which was often.

Yesterday's spleen venter professed, with a certainty that was absolute, that at least 80 percent of the alleged felons rounded up last week in Operation Knockout were illegal aliens. She concluded that crimes and gang violence would virtually disappear from Monterey County if all the illegals were rounded up and sent back where they belong.

Everyone has an opinion, but I wondered how in God's name she came up with that 80 percent figure, to the point that she was confident enough to assert it as fact. With even my piddling knowledge of Nuestra Familia, the gang organization targeted by Operation Knockout, I was aware that the NF is populated by a multi-generational line of thugs who have been around for decades, and not the newbie gang thugs that only recently snuck across the border.

As it turns out, the percentage claim was a screwy rumor that got morphed into "fact" after someone mentioned it on a television news broadcast last week. The "fact" gained traction among the yammering spreaders of rumor and innuendo who lurk on online comment sites and radio talk shows.

We will be publishing a story Friday that clears up the assertion, a story that uses local law enforcement officers and immigration officials as sources. Jail and immigration officials say they know of only one of the arrestees who is an undocumented immigrant. Forty people were detained in Operation Knockout. That's more like .025 percent.

Unless law enforcement and immigration officials are part of some evil conspiracy to give illegal immigrants a break in the court of public opinion, I'm inclined to believe them.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Maldonado Moment

It was like Stephen Colbert didn't have a clue what Abel Maldonado was talking about.

For those watching who ever had the pleasure of attempting to communicate with Maldonado, Colbert's interview with California's newly-minted lieutenant governor last week was a deja vu moment. I suspect that virtually everyone — constituents, colleagues, journalists, his parents, his dog — comes away from Maldonado conversations with a WTF look on their faces.

After being asked about his proposal to open up primaries so that voters can vote for everyone on the ballot, Maldonado meandered aimlessly about helping people and sleeping under his desk. "What are you talking about?"

We've all had the same question.