Saturday, October 26, 2013

Reporting and editing errors happen

In 33 years in the newspaper business, I made plenty of mistakes, but I was never fired over a mistake. I also dealt with a good number of mistakes made by reporters and editors who worked for me, but I never fired anyone solely because of a reporting or editing error.

It is the nature of the news, that "first draft of history," that mistakes are made in the rush to get the news out quickly (and before competitors beat you to it). Most of the errors are inconsequential. Sometimes the errors are substantial, and occasionally (rarely), they are egregious. Once the newspaper is printed and out the door, or the news is broadcast on radio or TV or posted on a website, you can't take it back. You can't "unring the bell." The best you can do is correct the error and apologize. As a newspaper editor, I adopted a practice of trying to make the correction as visible and prominent as the error. A front page error got a front-page correction. An inside error got an inside correction. You adopt a protocol for limiting errors, especially significant errors. Editors need to read carefully and ask questions: Is this address correct? Did you doublecheck that name? Did you give (the accused party) a chance to comment? Do you have this (explosive) quote on tape? How do you know this is factual?

Still, errors happen. It's the nature of the business.

Because errors are so common, it's surprising that a respected Associated Press reporter in Richmond would be fired, along with two editors, because of an error. The error, claiming that a gubernatorial candidate had lied to an investigator, was egregious, but it was quickly corrected, and, in the broad scheme of things, didn't amount to much. It was, perhaps, the equivalent of reports that Lyndon Johnson had also been shot on Nov. 22, 1963, or that Jim Brady had died from a gunshot in the 1981 Reagan assassination attempt. Neither was true.

AP reporter Bob Lewis' mistake could have been avoided by more cautious reporting, fact-checking and editing. His mistake was one of those things that fall through the cracks and can't be readily explained after the fact. Was his mistake and two editors' failure to demand documentation so egregious that all three should be canned? Most Virginia politicians and many AP employees seem to think not. The mistakes were serious enough to be punishable, no doubt. A suspension or a written warning would have been more acceptable and probably sufficient to avoid further missteps.

Because the error was not deliberate and was, in some sense, understandable, a lesser punishment would be more appropriate. The Associated Press, which has maintained high standards of performance and accuracy for generations, is sensitive to the lack of respect journalists hold in the public's mind. An overly severe punishment is unlikely to raise the level of public respect.

Lewis had earned the respect of Virginia politicians (no easy feat for a reporter) of both parties, but his reporting career might be over because of what apparently is his first serious reporting error. Few organizations will be willing to hire him after the publicity this incident has generated. Because of AP's firing, more than his own mistake, Lewis is damaged goods. Lewis' only hope may be an appeal of AP's action and his hope to be reinstated, chastened but still skilled, knowledgeable and respected.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A temporary dodge of long-term issues

The economic crisis might be over. The Senate has voted 81-18 for a compromise plan to get the federal government running again and raise the debt ceiling so that economic chaos doesn't befall the world by the weekend. Assuming the recalcitrant House of Representatives can find a majority in favor of the Senate bill, the crisis will be over.

Popular opinion has it that the Republican Party lost this battle. Speaker of the House John Boehner said as much. The pointless crusade against the Affordable Care Act resulted in the shutdown of the government and a too-close brush with default on the national debt, but the GOP got no concessions on health care. They got a temporary continuation of the funding sequester, but the entire Senate bill is temporary. Funding of the federal government will go on for a couple of months. The debt ceiling will raised enough for the government to pay its debts a little longer. But the long-term problems in Washington have not been addressed.

The Republican delegation had a point that the government cannot continue on its path of borrowing to pay for 30 percent of its expenditures each year. Our deficit spending tops $1 trillion a year, and the federal debt has climbed to about $17 trillion. A bipartisan conference from both houses of Congresses is supposed to meet to resolve this issue in the next few weeks. Such conferences have been tried before. The Bowles-Simpson Commission offered a reasonable but painful route to solvency, but neither the president nor Congress wanted to take the medicine. A super committee two years ago failed to come up with an acceptable budget plan, resulting in the "sequester," which was never supposed to go into effect but only be a frightening consequence no one would allow.

Each year of trillion dollar deficits makes a solution even harder. Compromises must be found in "entitlement" programs such as Social Security, Medicare and programs for the poor. These programs are growing faster than the government's revenue can keep up. Federal money can be found in almost every governmental activity, from municipal housing programs to state highways to farmers' choice of crops. Reducing the federal role in many of these areas could help reduce the deficit. The rate of increase in Social Security and Medicare can be reduced without severe consequences for beneficiaries.

And broader, more sensible taxes should be part of the solution. Fixing this problem will cause pain that should be shared by everyone, and small tax increases can ensure that everyone pays.

To prevent future crises brought about by members of Congress who have carefully drawn safe voting districts, Congress should require that congressional redistricting follow municipal and county boundaries wherever possible, that voting blocs not be packed deliberately to achieve sure victories for one side or the other and that truly bipartisan independent commissions, not state legislatures, draw the congressional districts. With a little more camaraderie and a little less electoral certainty, members of Congress might discover that compromise is better than stalemates.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Four-wheel objects of desire

When I first heard that the N.C. Museum of Art was hosting a Porsche exhibit, I knew I wanted to go. I had to lusted after Porsches for years, admired them from afar, dreamed of what it would be like to drive one, but never got my hands on one.

Now I've been to the exhibit and have seen the remarkable collection of beautiful automobiles from the 1930s to today. Of course, I still haven't gotten my hands on one — touching the exhibits is not allowed at museums. And I haven't satiated my desire for a Porsche. If anything, it the desire has grown.
 Racers like this one dominate the exhibit.

Ferdinand Porsche designed beautiful cars with advanced aerodynamic styling and compact engines with exceptional power. The Museum of Art exhibit makes all that clear, and the show is a great attraction well worth the time to walk through the array of vehicles. If I had a disappointment about the show, it was that the exhibit concentrated on race cars rather than production cars that you or I could (theoretically, at least) buy and drive. There are "famous" cars, like Steve McQueen's 356 Speedster, and the original Porsche design, which had to be hand-made. There was also the 2014 Porsche Carrera that the museum is raffling off — just $100 per ticket. Since I couldn't afford the taxes if I won, I didn't bother.

                                    That is Steve McQueen's 356 Speedster (below).

 The 914 gets no respect in the museum show.

I was also a bit surprised that there was no mention in the exhibit of the Porsche 914, a model that I once thought I might be able to afford. It was the "baby Porsche" with a small engine and cheaper production from the 1970s that attempted to make the Porsche name affordable. I suspect that the omission was deliberate in an exhibit titled "Porsche By Design," the boxy 914 didn't quite fit in with the swooping aerodynamic designs of the 356, 911, 904 and others. Ultimately, this was an art exhibit, a design exhibit, not a car show.

This Carrera is being raffled off.
It's still worth your time. Go here for details.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dear Readers (if you're out there),

This blog has a new feature. Instead of finding the web address to see a new post, you can subscribe by email. Just click on the link at the top left of the page, enter your email address, click "submit," and you'll receive every new post by email. If you'd prefer, you can still look on the website, and you can go to the website to read that backlog of 800+ blog posts written in the past five years, if you should want to do such a thing.


The Erstwhile Editor

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Our dystopian future

Dateline: The not-too-distant future:

It was a stalemate in Congress that initiated the collapse of governing authority, but the basic reasons for the incident goes back further than the unending bickering across party lines in the House and the Senate. Political scientists had already pointed to the computer-based gerrymandering that established uncontested House districts packed reliable voters of one party or the other all across the country. Their safe seats made it easier for these incumbents of either party to push further to the right or left, confident that they couldn't be challenged by an opposition candidate.

And then there was the money in politics and all of the tax-exempt organizations pushing their agendas. It was the nature of these platforms that they grew more and more extreme in an effort to attract attention and followers. They demanded ideological purity and were not afraid to attack their own leaders, should they veer from the extreme policies the organization demanded. As one side ramped up its criticisms, the other side followed suit. These criticisms escalated as the opposing factions' words devolved into personal attacks against their antagonists. Soon, neither side would even consider compromise because compromise came to be viewed as weakness, or even betrayal. Compromise had become a slanderous term.

The sharply divided Congress could not pass a budget, or even a continuing resolution to keep the government afloat, so a partial shutdown led to a broader shutdown with layoffs of thousands of federal workers. The economy began to crumble without the hundreds of billions of dollars of federal salaries and contracts. Restless laid-off federal workers turned bitter and angry. Soon, some of them turned violent. Acts of sabotage against government agencies began. Peaceful protests against the shutdown turned violent, and bank robberies, as well as other forms of thievery, rose suddenly. Understaffed police could not stop or even investigate these crimes, which multiplied exponentially.

Then the debt ceiling impasse forced the United States into default, and the American crisis spread around the world. International trade collapsed because sellers were afraid to accept suddenly suspect American dollars. Banks shuttered their doors, and government deposit insurance in several countries could not meet its obligations. Individuals lost their life savings. Pension funds stopped paying benefits, and Social Security's inflated dollars were not enough to buy food for retirees.

The Constitutional Convention called for by a bipartisan group of senators seemed to be a sensible remedy, but it, too, collapsed into bickering. The group proposing the Constitutional Convention saw it as a way to get the decision-making process away from Congress, which was no longer functioning. The bipartisans proposed just two changes to the 225-plus-year-old Constitution: A clarification that the First Amendment's free speech rights applied to individuals, not to corporations; and a new amendment requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent bipartisan panels without consideration of incumbents. The thought was that these two changes would eliminate the dominance of political debate by corporations, unions and political action committees, and nonpartisan redistricting would make the U.S. House competitive again, forcing compromises.

It didn't work. The Constitutional Convention was taken over by a secretive group that wrote a new convention eliminating all federal departments except Defense and State and eliminating all of the Bill of Rights except the Second Amendment. The convention also struck the 14th Amendment but retained the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery and the 15th and 19th Amendments granting the right to vote to non-whites and women. It also eliminated the Supreme Court and made federal judgeships elective offices with two-year terms. In the end, the new constitution failed to win ratification by three-fourths of the states, several of whom no longer had a functioning legislature.

By then, much of North America and Europe had become ungoverned with well-armed survivalists ruling small areas and subsistence farmers desperately trying to hold onto the food they had grown for their families against bands of urban marauders roaming rural areas for food and supplies.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Long needles coat the yard

Overnight, the landscape had changed. The green grass, sprinkled with broad-leafed weeds, had taken on a new coating.

The longleaf pine needles had fallen with the timing of a theater curtain. All leaped to their deaths together, a mass suicide of the pine needles. The shrubs and the lawn all wore a new coat of brown needles that gave the yard the look it takes on after an unexpected snowfall, but with brown needles instead of white flakes. The needles clung to the juniper and the azaleas. They coated the lawn and formed a brown carpet over the asphalt. No Winter Wonderland, this was an Fall Fling, a takeover by the needles that usually hide in plain sight high up in the longleaf pines. It was a coating as thorough as any early snowfall.

"Here's to the land of the longleaf pine," goes the state toast, and in the eastern half of that state, the longleaf pines still thrive, though not in the masses that once covered the Coastal Plain right down to the shoreline. The tall, thin trees are worrisome to some residents, who know they can snap in hurricane winds and fly like a javelin through a bedroom wall. These trees need a forest where they can cling together against the wind. A yard tree all alone cannot hide from the hurricanes. Chain saws eliminate the possibility, no matter how remote.

I've paid men with chain saws and trucks to take out diseased trees whose needles had all fallen, and limbs and bark, too. But I've nurtured the other trees, and this Monday, after a weekend away, I find my yard turned brown, coated like a cake with too much brown frosting, dripping and uneven over the shrubs.

With a rake, I coax the needles into piles, from which they will mulch flower beds and herb gardens. I find the green still there beneath the needles, and the driveway's black beneath its brown cloak. The needles will find their place, though my labor. Here's to the land of the longleaf pine. Grab a rake.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Five years after

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the end of my newspaper career. Early in the afternoon, the publisher walked into my office and told me he was laying me off. He gave me two choices: I could leave immediately and receive two months' severance pay or I could work through the end of the year and not get severance pay. Pretty easy choice. I worked through the end of that day, came in and worked all of the next day and carried my pictures, personal papers and mementos to the car and left.

The newspaper business was falling apart in 2008. I was not the first layoff that fall, and I would not be the last. One colleague got her walking papers the same day I did. Others would follow, particularly older, more experienced, higher-paid, loyal workers.

My second decision was almost as easy as the first. I would not leave Wilson, where we had lived for nearly 30 years, raised our children and settled into a home we loved. My first reaction to the publisher's news was, "I'll lose my house." I spent a month or more catching up on household maintenance that had been ignored as I worked long hours, and I turned to thoughts of what I'd do next. I wanted a new career, not just a job. I made a couple of stabs at self-employment, starting an editing, writing and public relations agency, or starting a free newspaper or news website. Neither came about, and at the end of my severance, I went on unemployment, which proved sufficient to pay the mortgage while I diligently applied for jobs within commuting distance of Wilson. I turned down an offer to edit a daily newspaper, because it would have demanded moving to the city where the paper was located. A newspaper editor has to live in the place he's covering. As my wife, whose job was supporting both of us, pointed out, "There's no point in both of us starting over."

There were hard times, times when I doubted my worth, regretted my 33 years in the newspaper business (29 years at one newspaper), and wondered whether my family and friends would be better off without me. When I finally got a job, a year after the layoff, I put all of that behind me and tried to learn new ways to be useful and make a difference in the community.

Five years later, I am especially grateful to the many former colleagues and old friends who contacted me to express their shock at my fate and to reassure me that I deserved better. Those kind words got me through the worst moments of that year when I fell into despair.

People have asked me whether I miss the newspaper business, and I tell them honestly, yes. It was an exciting, stressful, time-consuming, and often fun time, getting to follow closely the events in the community, getting to know some interesting people, and trying to make sense of the world for readers.

But that world no longer exists, and I am content with where I am, grateful for the past but eager for the future.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

You call that shutting down the government?

Congress can't do anything right. If they're going to shut down the government, then, by golly, shut the whole thing down. Don't piddle around with little barriers around the World War II Memorial and locking the Smithsonian museums. Let's really shut it down.

If the government is out of business or, as the House Administration Committee put it, suffering a "lapse in appropriations," then stop piddling around and really shut it down. For starters:

• Shut down Amtrak and put puncture barriers on every federally funded highway while you're at it.
• Send air traffic controllers home on furlough and shut down every airport in the country.
• Freeze all government grants, no matter how admirable.
• Stop Social Security checks. That's government, too, you know.
• Halt Medicare and Medicaid payments; if patients want treatment, they'll have to beg the doctors.
• Close all military bases, bring all ships in to port and tie them up at the dock, and put every military aircraft in hangars to await orders.
• End inspections at meat processing plants, which would soon shut down every supermarket and grocery store in the country.
• Renege on all federal education grants and loans; let the institutions of higher learning, both for-profit and nonprofit, figure a way to stay afloat.
• Turn off signals from every weather satellite in the sky. See how well the TV weatherman can forecast now.
• Turn off all GPS satellites in orbit. No navigation systems in your car, no locator on your phone, no way to find your way around. See if you can find an old map somewhere.
• Tell farmers across the country they're on their own — no price supports, no land set-asides, no agricultural agents, no crop insurance, no disaster aid. See how long the food lasts.
• Shut down FEMA and see what happens the next time a hurricane, tornado or earthquake hits.
• Stop enforcing regulations involving credit cards, mortgages, safe working conditions, and pay. Tell the people, "You're on your own, folks!"
• Close the Food and Drug Administration and see if people are willing to eat uninspected food or take untested drugs.

If the Republicans in the House of Representatives are willing to shut down the government because they oppose a law that was passed by Congress, signed by the president and approved by the Supreme Court, then, by golly, they should shut the whole thing down. Many of the Tea Party upstarts are simply opposed to government in all its forms and worship the private sector. So if government is so bad, put it out of its misery and see how that works out.

And one last thing: They should halt pay to all members of Congress and all employees of Congress, and they should turn off the electricity to the Capitol and congressional office buildings. Let them negotiate in the dark until they see the light of day.