Monday, May 31, 2010

Editorial: We forget heroes at our own peril

The unnamed Courier editor waxes adjectival today: "we need to remember that more than 1 million American men and women gave their lives in steaming jungles, freezing forests, rancid flooded trenches and desert furnaces to win us the freedom to go where we want to go, choose the work we want to do and buy the things we want to buy."

The things we want to buy?


I'd just like to put in a word here for the large proportion of those dead, and many more maimed and emotionally destroyed, who knew going in or learned in the process that what our leaders asked them to do was stupid, pointless or designed only to further enrich the rich, but they still did as they had pledged to do before they lost their innocence about war, and they did it with valor in the fight, generosity in victory and concern for the horror they were helping visit on the innocent.

The best way we can honor their sacrifice is to do all we can to end the institution of war.

PS, Tuesday:
Just what is the "peril" in the headline supposed to mean, I wonder? Could it be something like this?

Change of the guard

Proving my hunch in February, the paper announced the retirement of Executive Editor Ben Hansen on Friday, and the weekend masthead shows Tim Wiederaenders as Editor (rather than Managing Editor) and Karen Despain as Managing Editor.

The quality of copy editing and proofing rose substantially when Karen started "filling in" during Ben's recovery from surgery in the spring, and drifted back down a bit since. Karen goes back a long way with the paper, and I hope her influence helps bring its 'local, local, local' mission back into focus and its use of English back up to snuff.

With Tim's elevation to the helm I expect that the editorials will be a little better thought-through and researched. Tim has less extreme reflexes politically, but I rather doubt that editorial positions will change much. I do hope that he will do more to reduce evidence of those political biases on the news pages.

I'm encouraged slightly to find the announcement of the new team in the business section rather than on page one. The big pics and double headline above the fold are still immodest, but it could be worse.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Phoenix-area hospitals fight toxic 'supergerm'

MSM coverage of this sort of thing frequently leaves out important facts that the public really should be more conversant with in understanding the problem. Taking this story at face value, the reader might reasonably infer that the bug is invading hospitals from somewhere else and it's just a wild, unpredictable mutation out of control. An accident. Act of gad.

What the AP story doesn't tell us is that this bug has been manufactured in hospitals from our normal gut flora due to the overuse of antibiotics. The story implies that treatment with antibiotics is the best course, when it appears that the normally effective course is withdrawing antibiotics and replacing depleted gut flora to rebalance the system.

Hospital administrators and public health authorities have understood these mechanisms for decades, yet there has been almost no effort to curb the use of antibiotics, let alone public policy in that direction -- probably because the drug companies would instantly gin up TV campaigns accusing public advocates for such policy of working to kill off grandma to reduce the deficit.

An important part of the responsibilities of journalism is to ask the questions that the press release raises, and look beyond the curtain to the deeper issues. This story takes a nasty tumble on that score.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Editorial: Obama simply doesn't get it

The unnamed Courier editor has two complaints about the President, which he rolls into a conclusion that he is "not leading" and "can't govern." One is that he isn't going to Arlington to lay a wreath this weekend, and the other that he "hasn't done much" to fix the oil leak in the Gulf.

On the first, a couple of commenters are already ahead of me on the fact-checking, pointing out that the editor is plain wrong in calling the wreath-laying "a task every American president has performed every year since 1868." I'm still looking for the editorial calling for the President to respect the troops and keep them out of unnecessary and illegal wars. I'll let you know if I find it. I also wonder what the editor would write if the President were to come to Prescott to speak at the vet's cemetery -- as he is doing in Chicago.

On the second, I've heard a lot of this criticism in the media from the President's political opponents, and I've heard essentially nothing about what he was supposed to do better or faster. I wouldn't be surprised if the bureaucracy has been slow -- that's a weakness of every large organization, and I notice that the MMS director was fired this week -- but I haven't heard that the orders from the administration have been slow or confused. I'd love to hear specifics. Gad knows this is a disaster of epic proportions. But there are also practical limits on what can be done, particularly given that the regulatory structure has been thoroughly gutted by previous oil-loving administrations. Perhaps the editor is holding back something he knows. On the other hand, it seems a little more likely that the authoritarian mindset simply imagines that elected officials are kings or superheroes, who can simply order a thing done and it is done. But I'll take another slice with Occam's Razor and bet that the editor hasn't thought any more about this than what his Fox News heroes are ranting.

As for the President's ability to govern, I have to point out that neither disaster-management nor wreath-laying have anything at all to do with governance. I admit this might be a bit too subtle a point for the editor.

National news is not your beat, editor, it's not your forte and it's clearly not even of particular interest to you. Stick to your knitting.

Followup: WSJ, today

Update, Saturday: This comment really stands out for me, from "Phoenix Journalist": You are a small community publication, and while that may be cause for lower distribution and salaries, it doesn't equate to lower standards. If you don't understand a subject, and you don't have staff with the skills set needed to research it, either don't write about it or hire staff with well-established experience. Your audience may have certain biases and perhaps you are simply playing to those, but you do it a greater disservice by creating or encouraging false reports and distortions of the facts. Truth in journalism is paramount to a free society.

Update, Sunday: Could it be that the editor is calling on the administration to nationalize BP America?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Editorial: Needs, not wants should rule plans

Once again we find the unnamed Courier editor arguing against something he doesn't like by asserting that he is the best judge of what the city "needs." Yet he does not bother to build an argument for why this particular expenditure would be a luxury, other than an utterly spurious dichotomy comparing it to manhole covers.

I happen to agree that spending a quarter million clams to remodel the old clubhouse for event rentals is dumb on several fronts, not least because the City should not be in the event-rental business (any more than it should be in the golf-course or restaurant business, but that's a rant for another day). I know something about that building from when the City tried to trick my struggling nonprofit into paying for the asbestos abatement a decade ago. The location is awful, the neighbors will adamantly oppose any new traffic, and the market for rentals is already oversupplied and will be for another dozen years. The City needs to give up on that albatross -- which it made redundant by building the new clubhouse ages ago -- pull it down, clean up the site and move on. (What the City Manager and golf-course manager really want is more office space, but they have to keep that ambition sub rosa.)

The Courier isn't arguing from practicality or economic sense, instead the editor offers only sloppy thinking, propaganda techniques and uninformed personal prejudice. This is no way to inform the public or convince anyone. Do your research, editor, think through your argument, and try to spend a little more time on your editorials than I put into a blog post.

Related: City should shift money to needs

Search for fugitive leads to 3 unrelated arrests

I'm sure that there's a lot more to the story behind this transcribed police report, but what's here raises red flags.

Three Hispanic men drive by a sheriff's deputy, from all accounts minding their own business. The report says the deputy thought one of them looked like the white teenager who's accused of having sex with another teenager and is on the run from the law as a result. That's a whole 'nother level of stupid, but I'll stick with the story in front of us, as the Courier should have done, other than to say that if the deputy was profiling these guys as illegals, it's a likely cover story.

The deputy orders them out of the car, but they don't raise their hands as ordered, and I have to wonder whether they didn't understand what he said. One panics and pandemonium ensues, we're left to speculate why. Two of them are illegals.

I'll go over the cliff and predict that we won't hear a single word more about this case in the Courier. No one will question why the deputy chased these guys down, nor whether he did something that might have caused the panic and the charges. I'll also bet that there will be more stories like this, and the Courier won't ask followup questions.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Immigration: Documentary draws small, receptive audience

Whatever your political take on it, how does a film that draws 12 people rate coverage on the front page above the fold with pic? Could it be that the Courier editors hope to drum up some more angry comments (read: page hits) over nothing?

Followup, Monday: Ten comments -- almost as many as the film's viewers, not bad!

Editorial: Boycotts aren't a mature tactic

The unnamed Courier editor characterizes the call for boycotts of Arizona in defense of civil rights as immature. I have to wonder what the editor would consider a mature tactic other than the sort of approach one takes in a dinner conversation with someone of a different political persuasion: don't talk about it.

Of course, for the editor there's nothing at stake. He believes that an open season on brown-skinned people for lawnforcement is a perfectly reasonable response to unsightly men seeking marginal work on a certain street corner. Why fight about it?

For those of us who understand the fragility of civil rights and the lessons of history, however, the law is a breathtakingly large hole in the wall of legal protections against official abuse. Sure, it's popular here, as was Jim Crow in its day and segregation in its. But growing outrage in the better educated parts of the country brought it down. That will happen for Arizona as well, and far faster, I expect, as the courts have more practice at this now.

The editor can't avoid this fight by wishing it away -- a truly immature tactic. Whatever you think of the specifics of the law, it's clearly on the wrong side of history.

And what's the big "no" sign supposed to mean, editor? Could it be the new logo of your preferred political party?

Update, Tuesday: “Abominations such as apartheid do not start with an entire population suddenly becoming inhumane. They start here. They start with generalizing unwanted characteristics across an entire segment of a population. A solution that degrades innocent people, or that makes anyone with broken English a suspect, is not a solution.” -- Desmond Tutu, today

Taxes rising, where's the outrage now?

I notice on page three a legal announcement by the county that residents of the Community College District can expect to see a small increase in their property taxes. This is exactly what I've been predicting since the fraidy-cat Legislature turned in its deficit budget -- what the Legislature won't provide, the counties will have to raise anyway. And you can bring a lot of money in on small increments of obscure property taxes.

Given the level of recent rhetoric I might hope to see the tea-party crowd down at the public-comment meeting threatening armed rebellion against six bucks a year to keep the county's potholes filled. But they won't -- they take their orders from the Fox nutbars, who don't really care about the nuts and bolts of actual governing.

Hint: there will be more of this.

Catch-22: Perp-walks and race, again

I held off talking about the Courier's biannual "Catch-22" feature until all the journalistic perp-walks were done and I could compile them statistically. Each time this thing comes through there are accusations in the comments that Yavapai Silent Witness is unfairly favoring coverage of violent Latinos on the list, and the political implications are obvious. I've had this feeling myself, and this time as I watched the grainy old photos and tedious story reruns go by, I wanted a more objective take.

This was the fourth run, done each May and December (why those months, I wonder?) for a couple of years. The first run isn't fully archived. We've seen 14 of these names at least three times, and only three are new.

The results are interesting. Of the 22 names, 13 are Latino, not a statistically significant preponderance in a sample this small (unless you're looking at it as relative percentages of the larger population). But when I break them out by offense category, a quite different picture emerges, in which the violent criminals are almost exclusively Latino.

I separated the violent crimes (murder, mayhem, domestic homicide and sexual assault) from the non-violent (drugs, theft and administrative charges). In this group of 22 there are 15 alleged violent criminals, and 13 of those are clearly Latino. Of the two non-Latino exceptions, Travis Brewer is featured for ordinary assault and as caught already, and Adam Stevenson was a 26-year-old accused of "sexual assault on a minor female," meaning one between 16 and 18.

The rest of the violent scale is reserved for Latino suspects, reaching back as far as 1998. Further, of the 14 names appearing three times on the overall list, only three are non-Latino. I don't see how an ordinary reader could come away from this with any feeling other than that violent criminals are almost all Latino.

But this is a list specifically of people that police are seeking, so a thoughtful person might instead infer logically that our police agencies could simply be less competent at catching violent Latinos than violent non-Latinos. The nearby international border adds some weight to that inference.

Is Yavapai Silent Witness cherry-picking violent Latino suspects to present a racially slanted picture, or is it just allowing that picture to form out of what it doesn't say? The only way to get a handle on that would be to show us who's not on the list -- a breakdown of violent crime for the entire ten-year period by race and prosecution outcome, including acquittals. I think that would be a very illuminating piece for the Courier to present as a followup. In the context of deep public concern about crime by illegal immigrants, I'd also like to see that breakdown include immigration status, which is entirely absent from the Catch-22 features, thereby allowing scared people to see what they want to see.

Finally, I'm struck that with space for 22 violent criminals, we only have 15. I think it says something very positive about our county when a third of our Most Wanted are non-violent offenders, including a teenage sneak-thief, a bail-jumping drug mule and a drunk driver.

Here's my breakdown.

Miguel Franco: murder, 2006 3x
Claudio Lopez: murder, 2006 3x
Domingo Valdez-Anguiano: murder, 2004 3x
Joel Medina-Ortiz: murder, 2006 2x
Manuel Dera: homicide, 1998 2x
Valentine Hernandez: vehicular assault, 2003 3x
Luis Florez: vehicular assault, 2000 3x
Joel Vidrio: assault with a deadly weapon, 2004 3x
Pablo Arredondo-Herrera: att. murder, agg. assault, kidnapping 3x
Carlos Pimentel: home invasion, 2007 3x
Travis Brewer: assault 2x
Ruth Cardoso-Gomez: negligent homicide, child abuse 3x
(sexual assault)
Jose Herrera-Martinez: child molestation 3x
Adam Stevenson: sexual assault on a minor female, 2004 3x
Ernesto Romero-Salcedo: sexual conduct with a minor 2x
Tony Thomas: "drug-related charges" 3x
Robert Michaels: aggravated DUI 2x
Kory France: drug mule, jumped bail new
Kristen Martin: meth possession and auto theft, 2005 new
Jason Niedermeyer: theft and burglary 2x
David Dehart: failure to register 3x
Herschell Scott: failure to register new

PS in defense of the language: "Catch-22," invented by Joseph Heller for his novel, expresses the bureaucratic weakness of creating conflicting or self-referencing rules that effectively prevent sensible action. Using this expression as a catchy (sorry) slug for a wanted list is illiterate and ironically ridiculous, and erodes understanding among the reading public.

From December: The Catch-22 list again, ack

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A failure of political courage

Yesterday afternoon I was talking with a younger guy who's lived here since '74, and he admitted that at that point he still hadn't decided how he'd vote on the sales tax. He's running a small food business, and understood that the higher tax would be hard on other retailers, if not him. He could not be convinced that the tax will expire. He understood the immediate impact on schools, etc. of non-passage, but believed none of those programs are run well and there is still lots of waste to squeeze out of the system. Overall it seemed to me that he was mainly angry at the government for putting him in the position of having to decide.

I think that anger is fully justified. Our legislators have known for many years that our fiscal house is built on sand, but refused to deal with it out of fear that the anti-tax crusaders might say nasty things about them in print. Gov Napolitano wasn't any more forthcoming about this issue either, although it's understandable given that for her, speaking up would have accomplished only her unelection. With their clear and longstanding majorities in both houses, however, and their hype about fiscal responsibility, Republicans should have stood up like adults and undertaken the hard choices to avert the disaster they should have seen coming. Instead they've passed the buck, leaving the voters to wipe up some of the mess with this nasty dishrag of a tax increase.

What's important to understand about this vote is that it doesn't fix anything. It will probably depress retail sales (and jobs) somewhat, and it will stave off truly awful consequences and cuts in important programs, but it does nothing to address the structural problems that got us here or make our economy any more sustainable. Doing that will require the sort of vision and political courage that's become vanishingly rare in the state capitol.

So think about this sales-tax vote, and the political failures behind it, when you're considering your votes in September and November. We desperately need serious, high-quality people in office, across the board. Don't settle for party labels, slogans or your pet issues. Seek out the public forums, get in close and talk to the candidates so you can gauge them as people. Do the research necessary to learn what they've done in the past and, importantly, how they've done it. Then gather up your own political courage and vote for those who exhibit intelligence, maturity, strength of character and real concern for the community.

Let's aim higher this time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


For readers who saw the band listings for last weekend in the arts section, we have not changed the name of the band. It's still Big Daddy D and the Dynamites, and "Dynomite" is still only a reference to a truly awful '70s TV show.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Column: 'Free' health care bankrupting system

I have little to add to Tom Cantlon's comments on the scattershot 'argument' presented by Dr Eck here. But there are a few notable factors that readers have yet to note.

First, it's not noted in the footer that Dr Eck and her husband are not only practicing physicians, but they're set up a Christian nonprofit to provide free health care to the poor, running it on donations and volunteer labor. She has also been an activist working to eliminate government programs from health care for many years, and is particularly alarmist about the recent health-care reform, quite freely making up her own facts in print.

Notice her anecdote about the Liberian missionary? Apparently she thinks the US should have just let him in and given him free health care too, like the unspecified tourist in the previous story. She seems to be complaining that we don't let people access health care for free if we know they're coming in sick. Or maybe that we should be doing that for everyone except Christian missionaries.

This treatise is remarkably free of solutions to the problems it trumps up, and more than a little alarmist about those devious foreigners out there -- leaving aside that if hospitals and health-care providers really have a problem with indigent care, the vast majority of it is related to serving legal Americans, and that's a clear argument in favor of public reform.

The Courier editors are very happy to fan the flames with an alarmist headline that's patently untrue and a photo in the online version prominently featuring people of color in a waiting room. The message is blatant and ugly.

It also has no connection with our area. You might think the editors could find a similar polemic by a Yavapai County author, but they either couldn't or didn't bother.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Editorial: ADOT should do the right thing

When I read on Monday that ADOT had destroyed the memorial obelisk that stood at Prescott's entrance for 55 years without so much as a by-your-leave, I was aghast. It then struck me that for over a year I'd been under the impression that the agency moved it out of the way of construction at the intersection and would put it back when that was complete. How did I miss the news that it wound up as rubble in a dump truck at 5am, skulking out of town? With a little research it appears I missed it because the Courier didn't tell anyone.

In every article over the past year, primarily about rededicating the park, the paper wrote about the obelisk, but failed to mention its actual condition, i.e. pulverized. You'd think that would be news at some point.

It takes the veteran's groups agitating for a replacement to wake the unnamed Courier editor up on this act of official vandalism by ADOT.

Anyone who's had a home or business located near an ADOT project is familiar with the agency's habit of wrecking first and not apologizing after. Ask the merchants of Tlaquepaque, for instance. But to discover that this attitude extends to historic monuments and public property ought to raise an eyebrow for everyone.

I'm not going to say that the obelisk was especially beautiful, but it was old, it was ours, and ADOT just sent its yobbos in and smashed it. This ought to raise calls for a lot more than replacement cost. Public scrutiny ought to extend as well to the City bureaucracy that allowed this to happen and has apparently done nothing in response. Or is that yet another question that the Courier has failed to ask?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Editorial: Speeders likely to kill photo radar

One of the oldest tricks in rhetoric is to characterize your opponent in a certain way, then argue against that caricature, avoiding a more difficult contest over facts. It's called the straw-man argument, and we see it used extensively (albeit amateurishly) in yesterday's editorial.

In this case the unnamed Courier editor characterizes everyone who opposes photo radar, particularly those working the initiative process to ban it, as heedless speed demons who are only trying to avoid paying tickets. This of course completely sidesteps the very serious issues of due process, habeas corpus and community character that are the hard core of this issue. The editorial is clumsy and an embarrassment to my profession, regardless of its political intent.

In his flailing the thought-free editor manages to squash his own argument: "The safety advantages of the system became obvious early on, however. Phoenix television stations frequently showed film snippets from the cameras of people going through the camera at 120 miles per hour." Does anyone else notice that in this example, the criminal speeder does not at any point slow down? He'll get a ticket later, maybe even a summons if the court allows it, but the actual improvement of safety in the moment is nil. Frequently. on the other hand, put a patrol car in that situation and watch what happens.

This is just one more example of the editor's schizophrenic political philosophy: libertarian for himself, authoritarian for everyone else.

Sales tax followup

I've noticed a few comments accusing the Courier of favoring passage of the temporary sales tax boost in its coverage. Looking back, it appears that apart from letters, the op-ed page has carried only pro-tax comments since Senator Pierce's TOMA on April 30. News-side coverage has been about predicted impacts of non-passage, and I have to reiterate that writing about things that haven't happened yet is not news, it's opinion. So, strictly speaking, those commenters have a point.

I'm not sure how the editors could change the coverage to satisfy the anti-tax crowd other than to come out against the tax editorially and carry nothing about the possible consequences. But if you're going to wade into a political question, you've got a responsibility as an editor to balance your coverage, even on questions far clearer than this one. A few more guest columns against the tax would be apropos.

Blogpause for new album

Blogging's been slow to none recently while I work on other projects, including producing a new album by Big Daddy D and the Dynamites. That's about to go to pressing, so keep an eye out for the album release party at the band website.