Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Thirty years ago, a new title

On Saturday, April 1, I will observe the 30th anniversary of my promotion to editor of The Wilson Daily Times. I had been managing editor for seven years, and when Roy Taylor retired, he pushed for me to succeed him, rather than bringing in someone from outside.

With that 1987 promotion, I changed desks and earned an actual office with a door that could be closed, instead of a desk in a corner of the wide-open newsroom. My work changed relatively little from what I had done the previous seven years. I wrote editorials, as I had done part-time as M.E., and I hired a city editor to directly supervise reporters, but I still kept close tabs on local news coverage, editing and newsroom standards. I retained supervision of the sports and lifestyle departments.

The next few years were the most satisfying and rewarding of my three-decade career in newspapers. James J. Kilpatrick, the late Richmond editor and columnist, once wrote that being a newspaper editor was the best job in the world. I cannot argue.

At the WDT, we worked hard at giving our readers the best news coverage we could provide. We broke some good stories, and we covered two devastating hurricanes in 1996 and 1999, each of which was a "story of a lifetime." At the same time, we battled the readership and advertising changes that sent the newspaper industry into a near-death spiral. Consultants hired to "fix" the newspaper offered desperate and sometimes contradictory solutions that ultimately failed to repel the societal and technological trends that wiped out newspapers' long-successful business model.

Desperate to stay afloat, newspaper owners shed employees by the dozens at newspapers across the country, and tens of thousands of newspaper jobs disappeared nationwide. I became one of those statistics after 33 years in the business and 29 years at the same newspaper. I chose not to be bitter about that and to seek a new career rather than mope.

On this anniversary, I prefer to remember the good times, which were many.

Monday, March 27, 2017

All Supreme Court nominations are divisive

"A pox on both your houses," Shakespeare might say, were he around to observe the U.S. Senate's "advise and consent" duties in recent years. 

The Senate is headed toward a filibuster over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Democrats say they cannot in good conscience approve the nomination of such a man. The Republican leadership appears ready to eliminate the Senate's cloture rule, which has been around since the first years of the Republic, in order to get Gorsuch approved.

President Trump's nomination of Gorsuch came a year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a year in which the Republican-controlled Senate refused to even hold hearings on the nomination by President Obama of moderate Judge Merrick Garland. The Republican rationale was that voters might elect a Republican to the White House in 2016, and that president might nominate someone more conservative and more to their liking. The reasoning they presented to the public was that the 2016 electorate should decide who fills that Supreme Court seat; it shouldn't be filled by the 2008 and 2012 electorate that chose President Obama or by a president who has held office for seven years. It didn't matter whether anyone accepted their thinking, the Republicans controlled the Senate and got their way.

My hope was that Hillary Clinton would win and take revenge by nominating someone far less to Republicans' liking, such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. (Check with William Howard Taft about the willingness of former president to accept appointment to the Supreme Court.)

(Not that I wanted Hillary Clinton to be president -- I simply wanted the GOP leadership to learn a hard-earned lesson. I thought voters might punish Republicans for obstinately blockading a qualified nominee, but I was wrong.)

What I've heard of Gorsuch's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and what I've read about Merritt persuades me to believe that both men are well qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. A court with five Gorsuches and four Garlands, or five Garlands and four Gorsuches, it seems to me, would be a good, reasonable court.

Consider this: A recent poll found that more than half of Americans surveyed could name even one current Supreme Court justice. It's true that Supreme Court justices serve for decades and almost always influence events long after their sponsoring president has left office. But most voters don't know a single justice.

Judicial nominations have not always been so partisan. When Robert Bork was nominated by President Reagan, it was assumed that the old rules would apply: a qualified nominee would be approved by the Senate in deference to the president's preferences, so long as no ethical or competency issues arose. But Bork's nomination unexpectedly faced a concerted effort by Democrats and interest groups to stop him. Hence, the verb "borked," meaning to be demonized unfairly by lobbying and media campaigns, was born. Suddenly, Supreme Court nominations became national elections without a popular vote (by people who can't name a single justice).

The nomination of Clarence Thomas by George H.W. Bush took a similar path, but he eked out an appointment, 52-48, after an extremely emotional and divisive hearing.

Since then, the partisanship has extended even to federal district court nominations, prompting Democrats, who then controlled the Senate, to change the time-honored rules and stop debate on lower-court nominations, but not Supreme Court nominations. 

Now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears ready to use the "nuclear option" and halt debate with a simple majority vote on Supreme Court nominees. If that happens, the Republic will not fall, but this change will likely only make the nomination process more partisan and divisive.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Freedom Caucus sells out constituents

The House Freedom Caucus succeeded yesterday in stopping a vote on the Republican bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. Even after President Trump met with the coalition and begged them to come around and allow the bill to pass, the caucus refused. They wanted more concessions. Already, they had wrangled enough concessions out of the GOP leadership to frighten some more moderate members of the party.

The Freedom Caucus leaders criticized the GOP replacement for the ACA as "Obamacare Light." They wanted more than just a halt to some of the essential elements of the ACA; they wanted every vestige of the 2010 legislation ripped from federal law. A ban on pre-existing conditions as grounds for refusing coverage? Out! Allowing 26-year-olds to remain on their parents' insurance? Gone! Coverage of contraception? No! Coverage of mental health as well as physical health? Nope! Limits on higher premiums for older people? No way! Ending limits on lifetime coverage? Out!

The Freedom Caucus is getting its way (even as Republicans in and out of Congress work to find a way to shove their bill through the House), but Republican candidates everywhere might rue the day when the Freedom Caucus succeeded. For all the criticism of "Obamacare" and the GOP's ridiculously redundant votes to repeal "Obamacare," much of the legislation in the ACA has been quite popular. As Americans pay more attention to the details of the law that is being eliminated, it is growing in popularity, even as conservatives in Congress try to eliminate any clause that has any resemblance to the ACA. 

Republicans have a quandary. They can vote to destroy every whiff of "Obamacare" and hope the electorate does not rebel against the loss of decent health insurance coverage, or they can leave the ACA or popular parts of it in place and face questions about why they wasted time voting against the ACA dozens of times but couldn't pull the trigger given the opportunity, at last, to destroy it.

The Freedom Caucus, a basically Libertarian organization, has taken an odd role as the defender of insurance companies' profits. Instead of quashing government intrusions into personal lives (the Libertarian philosophy) and cutting federal spending, the Freedom Caucus is demanding changes that hurt individual taxpayers and benefit wealthy insurance companies.

Have the high principles of the Freedom Caucus been sold out to the insurance industry's billions in campaign donations?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

House Committee begins search for truth

I listened to part of the House Intelligence Committee hearings yesterday as I drove back from a meeting in Raleigh. For a few minutes, dazed by the monotony of that familiar ribbon of U.S. 264, I imagined I was listening again to the Watergate hearings or the subsequent impeachment hearings.

The partisan divide was in place. Republicans seemed unconcerned about the apparent attempt of Russia to interfere with U.S. elections, just as their predecessors had been unconcerned about apparent illegal activities by the Nixon administration — break-ins, using federal agencies for political purposes, lying under oath, disregard for individual rights and so on. Democrats were more attuned to what they saw as the larger — much larger — issue. While Rep. Trey Gowdy listed the names of Democrats in the Obama administration who might have had access to information that had been linked — a suggested sort of guilt by awareness — some Democrats sought to pull the issues out of the partisan divide.

Rep. Adam Schiff offered a Barbara Jordan-like speech that urged the committee to get to the bottom of the Russian influence in the U.S. election. He saw this attack as a threat to democracy. Jordan, if you don't remember, was the Texas congresswoman who gave a galvanizing speech that laid out the absolute necessity for the House Judiciary Committee to bring a bill of impeachment against a president guilty of utter disdain for moral limits on his power.

Where all this will lead is unclear after one day of hearings, but it is encouraging to see the House tackle the matter and seek the truth, not the "alternative facts" that have twisted the nation's moral compass.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Health care for all has only one option

After dozens of votes to repeal "Obamacare," Republicans in Congress have gotten their wish. They have the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they now face the reality that repealing the act does not improve health care. The repeal leaves huge gaps in health care and eliminates many popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act, such as protecting patients from being punished for having pre-existing conditions.

The reality has hit the GOP leadership: They can't just repeal Obamacare. They have to replace it. A proposed replacement was rolled out this week, but the Congressional Budget Office has found that the GOP health care plan leaves an additional 24 million Americans without health insurance. That figure frightened some less ideological Republicans, and votes to pass the GOP plan are dissipating.

The GOP plan is under attack from the left, as Democrats decry numbers of people who are left out of the new plan, and from the right, as far-right Republicans complain that the new plan is just warmed-over Obamacare.

Maybe this is an opportunity for a bold new approach. Both the Obama plan and the new GOP (Paul Ryan) plan are built on an inherently flawed premise — that America has to keep its network of employers paying premiums for employees and insurance companies paying the bills (or part of the bills) for U.S. healthcare. This system leaves out the unemployed, under-employed and just plain unfortunate. Obama's plan, like the one Hillary Clinton tried to push through during her husband's first term, tried to force the uncovered into buying insurance. Obamacare used tax penalties and government subsidies to make people get health insurance. It increased the percentage of people with healthcare but still left many people uncovered. The new GOP plan uses the same basic strategy but uses incentives to get people to buy health insurance rather than penalties and subsidies. It would leave even more people uncovered.

Perhaps the time is right for a new strategy — one that was rejected in earlier debates, but the only one that will truly cover "all Americans," which President Trump promised the GOP plan would achieve. That option is "single-payer," which is the model nearly all Western democracies use to provide truly nationwide coverage. In this option, all Americans would pay into the system, just as we all pay into Social Security and Medicare, and a federal agency would disburse payments to health care providers. Overhead would be sharply cut with just one agency handling accounts payable rather than hundreds of insurance companies, many of whom pay their CEOs multi-million salaries.

Taxes would rise, but health insurance premiums would be eliminated for both employees and employers. How much does the average worker pay for health insurance? $500 a month? $1,000 a month? How much do employers pay? That amount (or less) would be collected in taxes and used to pay for health care of everyone. The uninsured, who are a drain on the system now, would be eliminated. Taxation could be designed to be fair to all, with the lowest-income paying lower taxes and the most affluent paying more. Making the healthcare tax a separate form of tax on both employees and employers just like Social Security and Medicare, would keep the system transparent. Some co-pays would be appropriate to keep the public from abusing the system.

This is the only way everyone would be covered. Everyone would share the risks in a risk pool of 300 million-plus people. Insurance companies would fight for their survival, but the advantages of this system is too great to allow one interest group to sabotage it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Fake news" comes from an official source

"Fake News"? It's a real phenomenon — inaccurate, misleading, outlandish, incredible, mendacious — but out there.

Where does it come from? Turns out it's not just from frustrated, anti-social millennials sitting in their parents' basement in their pajamas or entrepreneurial Macedonian techies making a lucrative living by dreaming up wildly enticing stories that lure people to click on their social media posts. Fake news also comes from ... the majority leader of the N.C. Senate.

Phil Berger, the majority leader, has posted grossly exaggerated and mean-spirited headlines on his official Facebook page with links to actual news stories from legitimate news sources, including the News & Observer. Caught and challenged about his practice, which violated Facebook's terms of use policy, Berger was unrepentant, accusing Facebook of misinterpreting its own terms of use.

Any astute user of social media should recognize Berger's wildly accusatory headlines as unprofessional and beneath the standards of the news organizations his posts link to. But Berger knows that many people won't click on the link or read the actual headline, much less read the straight-news story without Berger's partisan twist to it. He knows the headline does its damage, accusing Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, of all sorts of malfeasance.

What is most disturbing to the legitimate news sources, such as the N&O, the Charlotte Observer and WBTV, is that they are listed as the source, the link, below the misleading headline. Experienced Facebook users will often check the source before clicking on a link. Berger's fake headline makes it look as though honest-to-goodness real news organizations (the "mainstream media") have the goods on the Democrats. Berger's fake news make its Democratic target and the news media both look bad.

For Berger, that's a perfect combination, a two-for-one score. No wonder he sees nothing wrong with fake news.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Trump presidential mask doesn't last

Whatever good President Trump had done for himself in his speech to Congress last week abruptly fell apart early Saturday morning, when he tweeted angry, unsupported accusations at former President Obama. Trump claimed, without any evidence or even any rational strategy, that President Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.

Government officials quickly pointed out that the president does not have the authority to order wiretaps. That action has to go through the Justice Department and a federal court established to review and limit wiretapping of American citizens. FBI director James Comey and others treated the accusations with the lack of credibility it deserves, as the equivalent of claiming Obama was intercepting Trump's brain waves through telepathy.

Trump was his old self Saturday morning, lashing out incoherently at perceived enemies. But his target, Obama, made the irrational claims even more distasteful. Since his election, Trump had praised Obama for his cooperation and advice as America transitioned from one administration to another. Obama, who strongly opposed Trump during the campaign, was overwhelmingly gracious and graceful toward the president-elect, promising him full cooperation from himself and everyone in his administration and offering insights and advice Trump. Trump thanked Obama with apparent sincerity for his cooperation and advice.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress six days ago, Trump carefully read from the teleprompter and appeared more presidential than at any time during the campaign and presidency. Then, four days later, it all imploded as the Twittering Trump lowered the boom on his predecessor without any evidence or corroboration but with plenty of malice and mendacity.

As Trump himself would say: "Sad." 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Trump who stays on message

President Trump's address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night surprised me. He seemed rational, even thoughtful. A few times during the speech, he reached out to Democrats and others with promises to protect clean air and water, to provide paid family leave, and to allow at least some of the 11 million illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. He even channeled John F. Kennedy with his reference to a torch of liberty handed down from generation to generation. Kennedy in 1961 had said, "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, ..."

What he didn't do is even more important. He didn't lead his supporters in the chamber to shout "Lock her up" or "Build the wall." He didn't insult and call names the members of the press covering his address. From my observations of Trump's administration so far, none of these repulsive actions would have surprised me. In the past year, he has dismissed or insulted members of the military and their families. He called the press "enemies of the people." Tuesday, he led an extended applause for the widow of an American sailor killed in a raid. The lingering focus on her and her grief must have been agonizing for this widow of only a month, tears streaming down her face, which was contorted by grief.

Trump demonstrated that he could stick to a script, that he could use a teleprompter without wandering off message or striking out at perceived enemies or distorting some perceived slight. This was Trump's best, most presidential speech. It will help him with independents and Democrats without hurting his standing with his loyal base.

The question for the next few weeks will be whether the president has turned over a new leaf. If he has, a Trump presidency might not be nearly as bad as so many detractors (as well as mainstream Republicans) have feared. If not, if Trump reverts to his campaign mode, it will be a long four years.