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July 23, 2014 / jeffnward

What isn’t news part 3 – ya gotta ask yourself, “So what?”

Though I never intended this topic to become a trilogy, ya gotta go where the evidence takes you. But before we continue down this path, let me clearly state for the record that my recent critique of the local press is an effort to ensure their survival and not to seek the opposite.

Because if those smaller newspapers really do fade away, all those suddenly elated city councils will immediately revert to freezing out the public and doing whatever the bleep they want.

Of course, the irony is, those charged with “encouraging” elected officials to improve their behavior generally don’t take it very well whenever that constructive criticism is redirected at them.

So, just to be on the safe side, before I put fingers to keyboard, a former long-time managing editor and I discussed what we’re about to discuss for a full 45 minutes. And even though we came at it from two very different directions, we both ended up in the same place.

I said the local press doesn’t know how to pick their battles and he said, “Forget the five W’s – who, what, where, when, why and sometimes how – too many journalists forget to ask the question, ‘So what?’”

Both statements basically amount to the same thing.

But moving on to the subject at hand, this time we’re talking about the out-of-the-blue Courier-News story on the Attorney General’s determination that the Elgin Council did not violate the Open Meetings Act when they went into executive session to decide whether they’d fill former alderman Anna Moeller’s vacant seat.

Hearing-ECN-112011

The first problem is, I read that piece four times and, with no context, couldn’t figure out what the heck the reporter was trying to say. Part of it was the writing, but it seemed kinda strange to answer a question that nobody asked.

In pursuit of clarity, I called Mayor Kaptain who explained that, as a result of Councilman Terry Gavin’s “persuasion,” the Courier and Daily Herald questioned the City as to whether it was appropriate for the council to go into executive session to discuss the process of appointing an alderman.

While the Open Meetings Act certainly allows you to kick everyone out of the room to discuss a person or persons, you cannot close that door to debate policy or take a final vote.

Elgin Corporate Counsel Bill Cogley did his best to convince both papers that the council did, indeed, discuss specific aldermanic applicants, but that didn’t stop one or both of them from going to the Illinois Press Association (IPA). Though, oddly enough, the Courier makes no mention of who actually took it to Lisa Madigan’s office. One would assume it had to be the IPA.

And the fact that all of that information was missing from the story is somewhat strange.

Then, once the Courier and/or Daily Herald picked this battle, they refused to fight it. I suppose you could choose to take something to the IPA based solely on the fact you think it’s a violation, but given the papers’ precarious staffing situation, that seems like a waste of time.

So you read the story and say “So what?”

Ah! But if you realize that real battle was the Elgin City Council majority probably used the letter of the Open Meetings Act law to minimize Councilmen Gavin and John Prigge’s insistent chest thumping, self-aggrandizing, and time wasting efforts by taking it indoors, well, now you’re on to something.

To be perfectly clear, were I on that city council, I would’ve done the same goddamn thing because what regular folks don’t understand is you have to fight blatant obstructionism with every goddamn tool in the book. And this executive session was a great way to do it.

But without being willing to stake your claim and provide that background, once again, before you pursue this “violation” – or run a story on it – ya gotta ask yourself, “So what?”

And for the City to be exonerated of all charges with no real newspaper context ever being offered makes the local press look kind of inept.

Enlightened by our three day analysis, I can suddenly see why politicians and elected officials are so frustrated with the local newspapers. Stories run that aren’t really news while the real news doesn’t get covered nearly enough. Bad news generally gets hyped while the good news doesn’t make it in and reporters’ efforts sometimes seem somewhat random.

So my short-term final word to all those hardworking reporters and their editors out there is to pick your battles. And, as my former editor friend said, the best way to do that is, whenever you’re considering a story, forget about the five W’s and ask yourself, “So what?”

And if you can’t answer that question…

July 22, 2014 / jeffnward

It’s time for the 7/24 Left, Right and You promo…

…and you can listen to the voice version right here:

For you folks who prefer going the text route, we’re thrilled to have 14th Congressional District Democratic nominee Dennis Anderson join us for the first part of the show. Larry may disagree, but it’s time to dispense with incumbent Randy Hultgren who doesn’t really have anything to offer. We look forward to hearing what Dennis has to say!

anderson

Then, Elgin YWCA CEO Julia McClendon will come on to discuss her agency’s effort to get women to run for local office. I’ve been saying that for years because women generally aren’t as crazy as men. Why, they’ll even be offering an October seminar on the subject with yours truly as one of the speakers.

So please join Larry Jones and me on WRMN AM1410 from 3 to 4 p.m. this (and every) Thursday for another insight packed episode of Left, Right and You!

You won’t be sorry.

July 22, 2014 / jeffnward

What isn’t news part II or how not to cover a murder

Since we’re already on the subject and to prove the DH isn’t the only paper I pick on, let’s discuss the Courier-News’ coverage of the recent murder of an 85 year-old East Dundee woman.

But first, please let me offer my sincere condolences to her family. Clearly, no one should have to meet this kind of untimely end in their own home.   Courier-News-Logo

And even though the Courier isn’t the only one, given their increasing reliance on abysmally paid “stringers” (free-lance reporters) and downtown folks who’ve never set foot in Elgin, they are certainly the worst newspaper in this regard.

It starts with sensationalizing these murders by making them appear to be a completely random event. But the truth is, they virtually never are and even the worst reporter knows that 80 percent of homicide victims knew their attacker.

Given that a neighbor noted this woman always locked both of her doors, it’s even less likely there’s some sort of serial killer out there. But that kind of analysis, though accurate, isn’t nearly as exciting as the loony on the loose theory.

And once you’ve riled your readers up, now you want to move on to embellishing the cause of death with something like this:

“East Dundee Police Department personnel and members of the Kane County Major Crimes Task Force were called to the scene at that time to begin a possible crime and crime scene investigation. The post-mortem exam resulted in a determination by the forensic pathologist that the death was the result of blood loss due to a stab wound.”

Call me crazy, but doesn’t, “Police determined the victim died of a stab wound,” do the same thing?

Which, by the way, is further evidence the victim knew her attacker and let him or her into the house without incident. Extrapolating a little bit further, I’d be willing to bet she was killed with one of her own knives after an argument of some sort, likely with a relative.

The fact that nothing was taken combined with the single stab wound clearly indicates an amateur striking out in fit of rage and fleeing once they realized what they’d done. Though I can’t guarantee that’s what happened, I can guarantee you the East Dundee Police are focusing on the family first and they already have someone in mind.

So why make it sound like it something else?

This sad story requires just two entries – one reporting the murder and another covering the arrest – but the Courier just had to run a “Neighbors react to East Dundee murder” piece to further promote the serial killer theory and convince nearby families they immediately need to hide in their basements.

First, what are the neighbors gonna say? “She was a real bleep who had it coming to her?” Of course not! They’ll offer the obligatory, “We can’t believe this happened here and we can’t imagine anyone ever harming this great lady,” which is the lowest of all the low hanging fruit because it adds nothing to the story.

And how do you know one of the neighbors didn’t do it and you’re tipping ‘em off? Why do I need a newspaper to tell me what regular folks are thinking? I can just step outside for that kind of thing.

So my advice to reporters and their editors is this:

1. Stop trying to turn these murders into arbitrary occurrences because you know that’s rarely the case and it’s utterly disingenuous to do so.

2. Stop sensationalizing these homicides. In the words of the great John Donne, “…any man’s death diminishes me because I am part of mankind…,” so we really don’t need you to go all Quentin Tarantino on us.

3. Stop interviewing neighbors about these tragedies, that’s what the comments section is for and that’s why I avoid the comments section We want to hear a seasoned voice weigh in on these kinds of events.

I understand that reporters can’t speculate like we did here, but that doesn’t absolve them from this absurd embellishing either. Because any time any newspaper engages in this kind of pointless reporting, the end of the local print media comes that much closer.

July 21, 2014 / jeffnward

What is and isn’t news and why local newspapers are failing

Before we start, I want to make it abundantly clear that, not only do I enjoy engaging in my regular and civil journalistic debates with reporter Jim Fuller, but when it comes to news coverage, the Daily Herald generally does a pretty good job of applying the appropriate discretion.

To sideways quote Elaine Benes, not everything is print worthy.

Tom Hartwell

Tom Hartwell

So the fact that Jim and I just disagreed on the merits of one particular DH story is nothing more than a disagreement on the merits of one particular DH news story. Ah! But when it comes to the philosophical ramifications of our dialogue, they go so much further.

The article in question covered Kane County Circuit Clerk Tom Hartwell’s hiring of his out-of-state adult math teacher son to do some office scanning. In the end, the gig pays $9 an hour with no benefits and runs for a maximum of 235 hours.

Now, if you’re a purist like Jim, this is a problem because any elected official who hires any relative automatically exudes the appearance of impropriety. That is hard to disagree with. Were I the aforementioned Mr. Hartwell, I would not have pursued this purely on that basis alone. There are more than enough distractions out there as it is..

But the problem with purism is that purism is always a problem. Because if you fail to take mitigating circumstances into account, then it comes across as crying wolf. And once you start calling out absolutely everything, it all becomes white noise.

This job pays barely above minimum wage, I’d rather be forced to watch the grass grow, working at the windowless Clerk’s office is no one’s idea of fun, and it’s terminally temporary.

Not only that, but having been charged with securing temporary scanners for the other Clerk’s office, I can personally attest that the job market must be much better than some pundits say because my attempts at finding willing similar salary folks frequently felt like pulling chicken teeth.

There’s this too, when it comes to vital or court records, you can’t hire a screw up because that’ll come around to bite you in the butt too.

So Tom Hartwell hired his son for minimum wage because he was a known quantity for a time sensitive project. To kinda quote Harry Chapin, it’s certainly ain’t the kind of thing to make the folks write home.

Jim also rightfully posed the “where do I draw the line” quandary, asking, “Isn’t it better just to cover everything?”

First of all, no newspaper can cover everything. The manpower isn’t there. But beyond that basic limit, I would argue that editors draw that bleepin’ line every single bleepin’ day.

To wit, every last Kane County office, elected or not, is about as incestuous as it gets. Not counting the folks who met at work, the number of married couples working for the County is so far beyond the scope of random probability that it’s not even funny.

When you get past the family member thing, depending on the office, the rest of the hires are 80 to 90 percent political. Give me any department roster and I will tell you exactly which camp each employee came from. So where’s all the coverage?

Like Bill Daley said on the radio show, “not all patronage is bad,” and most editors and reporters understand that. Regardless of what we all like to say about government employees, Kane County works. So newspapers tend to avoid covering this kind of thing until a hire doesn’t work.

Thus, this is only a news story if Tom’s son screws up.

Ironically, this light patronage methodology works better than the private sector does because of the built in feedback loop. If an employee lets their “sponsor” down, that sponsor’s future recommendations are relegated to the trash bin and they know it.  So they don’t generally put forth idiots.

The third purist conundrum is that the implicit equivalency requirement sets up a virtually impossible standard.

When a previous County administration hired an utterly inexperienced, but well-connected Animal Control director at a nearly six-figure salary, no one said boo. It wasn’t until former reporter Dan Campana and I caught on to those hires that the local papers started picking up on it.

This is another really good reason you don’t want to sweat the small stuff because it looks really bad when you already missed the big stuff.

Another problem with “the same standard applies to everyone” theory is that you can no longer, as my sainted mother used to say, “consider the source.” Is the Circuit Clerk’s “crime” really the same thing as Cook County Assessor Juan Berrios hiring multiple family members at exorbitant salaries?

No it isn’t! As any judge will tell you, past history always has a bearing on the issue at hand. This, of course, means that, with the exception of the most egregious malfeasance, different standards almost always apply whether you say they do or not.

Which brings me to my final anti-purist point! If an elected official feels that a reporter is not being fair or reasonable – they’ll never forget it – so you can kiss that relationship goodbye. And a relationship-less reporter never gets the real goods.

Despite our differences, I will give Jim credit for taking a stand here because I’ve seen far too many reporters who, out of fear of future silence, become nauseatingly obsequious. But he completely missed the real story here.

And the real story is Circuit Clerk Hartwell spent only $6,863,232.24 of his allotted $7,958,359 FY2013 budget. That means he just put $1,095,126.76 right back into the Kane County coffers and that ain’t chump change.

Please take all the time you need to come up with one at least other county, state, city, school board, or township elected official who came in 14 percent under budget in the last decade… Can’t do it, can ya?

Trust me, I know that previous good deeds never absolve anyone from future screw ups, but isn’t the real news here the savings to taxpayers? And the reason I got it and the local newspapers did not was, though I’ve certainly written some tough stuff over the years, I have a reputation for a willingness to listen and being fair.

In that same regard, the one qualm I do have with the Daily Herald in general, and Jim specifically, is they tend towards the contentious and negative side of a story even if it doesn’t don’t really demand it.

So if they really felt the need to wade in on this one, what the DH should’ve done is run an editorial that acknowledged the good that Hartwell’s accomplished, the aplomb with which he’s run his office, and then said they expect more from a politician of his caliber.

But a headline that reads, “Kane County Circuit Clerk puts son on payroll*” for this non-story? That just makes a reporter’s life far more difficult and undermines the newspaper’s long-term cause.

 

* I want to make it clear that neither reporters nor columnists choose the headlines – the editors do!

July 19, 2014 / jeffnward

A response to a Christian reader

I thought this reply was very interesting and relatively reasonable enough to move it up to the front and post a response. I have NOT edited the content, but I did fix a few minor errors because I simply cannot stop myself from being an editor (it drives my wife nuts). So here goes:

“Jeff you still are hell bent to bash Christians. NO ONE IS PERFECT! We all make mistakes, we all wish we could do things differently all the time. Why bash just Christians? Don’t you know almost every person who goes to church calls themselves a christian? Why not then bash every single person who wont take in as many people as they can into their house and support them?

Here’s a idea, because we cannot afford to. I consider myself a Christian but I can barely make ends meet and pay for my own way yet you DEMAND that I have to help others because according to you if I’m not helping others then I’m not a Christian, I’m not loving my neighbor.

Yes there is solutions to this mess, yes corporations should be paying more taxes and shouldn’t be getting tax breaks but that’s because Congress and BOTH GOP AND DEMS ALLOWED it! So if you want to play the blame game blame EVERYONE. We are some 17 trillion dollars in debt in this country and yes we can go after the corporations and the rich to pay off that debt.

But name me one congressmen from either side that is willing or has come up with ANY plan to fix the problems. and then show me how they are FIGHTING to implement that plan and working across the aisle to get that plan passed.

All YOU have done is point the finger at everyone else as to what they are not doing. What have YOU done to help the poor and those who need help? I’m so tired of the blame game and that’s all you’re doing is to blame others, we need to stop the blame game crap and get off your butt and FIX it, come up with a solution on how to CHANGE the problems we have.”

My reply:

1. Christian bashing. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Much like you asked me to hold all politicians’ feet to the fire (we’ll get to that), I’m simply doing the same thing with Christians. It’s one thing not to help, but for conservative Christians to turn around and denigrate the poor or immigrant children in the process cannot go unchallenged.

I thought about those two columns for six months. I talked to the pastor that married my wife and me at length about where I wanted to go with this. Before either of the two columns ran, I read them to the same pastor. Today and tomorrow (7/20/14), those two columns will be the centerpiece of the sermon at Geneva Lutheran Church’s 5:30 p.m and 9 a.m. service.

So please don’t tell me I’m bashing Christians.

The only Christians who feel my efforts are the equivalent of “bashing” are the ones who’ve fallen so far short of the ideal that my challenge makes them very uncomfortable. The bottom line is, I wouldn’t have wasted my time if I didn’t believe Christians could improve.

2. Feed the Poor. I’m not demanding anything. I’m simply pointing out hypocrisy. Jesus demanded that his followers feed the poor. And Jesus didn’t say feed the poor only if you can afford it or if you have the time or if you think they deserve help. He said “Feed the poor” – no exceptions.

But what He didn’t say is how much you have to give or how much time you have to allocate. I have been broke and know exactly what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. But no matter how dire my situation was, I’ve always given something even if it was only five bucks a week.

Again, I didn’t make those rules, but that doesn’t mean, like so many pastors, that I’m just going to let them slide either. Like I said, Christianity is a really tough standard.

3. I’m only bashing Christians. Dear reader, we’re just talking about two columns here. As my other long-time readers will eagerly attest, no one is immune from the foot fire holding – including myself. I regularly excoriate Democrats and liberals for having absolutely no plan and failing to counter this Republican obstructionism.

But if there’s one excuse I’ve heard over and over again throughout my 10-year writing career it’s, “Oh yeah! But they’re worse!” The problem with that is, the fact that someone else is also misbehaving in no way mitigates our responsibility to improve.

So even if I did blame everyone, it really doesn’t change a thing I said.

4. Blaming. I didn’t blame anyone for anything in those two pieces. I simply pointed out that conservatives, who regularly cite their Christian beliefs as a main motivation, aren’t living up to some of the more serious stipulations. Then I added that Christian pastors who let those conservatives slide on that aren’t living up to their calling either.

There’s a vast difference between blaming and holding up a mirror and I will continue to ask Christians to more carefully consider their own reflection.

5. What have I done to help the unfortunate. This makes me really uncomfortable because of the whole pharisee in the temple thing, but given the circumstances, I think it’s only fair to answer the question.

I’ve been sidetracked by other causes, but for years I gave $100 a month to the First Baptist Church of Geneva for prison ministry. I currently give $100 a month to Lutheran World Relief because, though I’m not Lutheran, they get the job done. I also give $50 to $100 a quarter to the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

I help support a college student who’s parents divorced and they’re having a really tough time. One of my cleaning ladies was in Poznan during Chernobyl and got cancer 20 years later. I got her free treatment at Del Nor, but she did not survive. She asked me to look after her daughter and I always have.

My co-host Larry and I will promote any charitable event on our radio show at no charge. I look after a number of neighbors who are getting up there or are in a single mother situation. Given that I have a snowblower that could puree a brick, I take care of a number of neighbors each winter.

And the thing is, I really should be doing more. Having done so in the past, I need to get back to volunteering.

6. Solutions. I would encourage you to read my entire body of work. You can find a lot of it here and more on the Net. I talk about solutions all the time. In fact, that’s the only reason I write.

And the solution I’m asking for here is for conservatives to stop bashing the poor, to make a better effort to live up to the Christian ideal, and if they don’t, for their Christian brothers and sisters (and pastors) to call them out on it.

July 18, 2014 / jeffnward

Conservatives aren’t really Christians part II

My two previous column contentions certainly stirred up some lively, yet generally civil conversation, as I hoped they would. But despite putting on their best defense, I remain steadfast in my assertion that conservatives really can’t call themselves Christians and the clergy that quietly watches them subvert their religion are even worse.

Of course, I was accused of “bashing” both Christianity and conservatives, and while I may have resorted to a little bit of hyperbole – something right out of the rightwing playbook – nothing could be further from the truth. What I’m really doing here is pointing out some pretty blatant inconsistencies.

Because if you’re going to ditch the Affordable Care Act, then Medicare has to go as well. If you’re going to take on the “takers,” then that list has to include corporations who reap $100 billion a year in government welfare. If you’re going to talk about the 47 percent, then you might also want to mention the 40 percent of profitable Fortune 500 companies that pay absolutely no federal taxes whatsoever.

conservative2

If you’re OK with banks borrowing money at a 0.75 percent interest rate, then shouldn’t college students get the same benefit? If you firmly believe in teaching a man to fish, then where are the inner city training programs to do just that?

If you’re willing to denounce the President on the basis of taxes and spending (though both are at historic lows), then you might want to consider going after the local taxing bodies who take a far bigger chunk of your paycheck – and those boards are almost always unanimously Republican.

Lastly, if you’re going to consistently cite your religious beliefs as the basis for your frequent pronouncements, then it’s only fair to note that those same rules apply to you.

Though I believe it was slightly disingenuous for my conservative friends to cite the non-biblical “teach a man to fish” concept, especially in regards to immigrant children who can barely control their own destiny, they did raise some interesting points.

At what point does charity or welfare engender dependency? Simply taking these children into this country will not solve the underlying Central American problem. We do not have the resources to take care of the entire planet. And we certainly have plenty of people right here who could use a helping hand.

These questions clearly demand discussion, but they are another argument entirely. Therefore, simple statement remains that, Christianity is a very tough standard and the best Christian tenets come with no exceptions.

Yes! As some readers aptly noted, the Bible can be open to interpretation and I don’t have a monopoly on the truth. But I see no wiggle room in stipulations like, “love thy neighbor,” “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers” and “feed the poor.”

So if you say you’re a Christian, then you’re bound by these precepts. And while I certainly understand some imperfection in this regard, I’m troubled by the ease with which so many conservatives toss those notions aside as if they didn’t even exist.

What makes this lapse so much worse is the right’s ongoing demonization of the poor and these sad immigrant children. Of course, we should have the discussion, but I can’t understand why conservatives insist upon demeaning, debasing and denigrating people who’ve had the simple misfortune of being born in the wrong country?

It certainly ain’t Christian and I got a Pope who happens to agree with me.

Jesus didn’t say, “Feed the poor if it fits into your busy schedule and the folks in question meet your rigorous criteria for help and it won’t engender dependency.” He said “Feed the poor.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Too many conservatives mistake the blind luck of their circumstances for talent.

As far as taking in these children, it will be tough on some of us. But if you really are a Christian, then you have to have faith that, by doing the right thing, it will all work out in the end. I think Jesus had something to say about that too!

So here’s the bottom line! I’m willing to make a deal with all you conservatives. If you will finally admit that, by they very nature of your actions and words, you’re not really Christians, then I will relent.

But until that happens, I guarantee you that your feet are get a heck of a lot warmer.

 

July 17, 2014 / jeffnward

Another Voice: Todd Martin on the current immigration crisis

This split is buried deep into American culture. There is fear that uncontrolled immigration will leave the U.S. a third world country. This fear is so strong that our country is unable to recognize broader needs or the problems this fear perpetuates.  

Todd Martin

Todd Martin

Our population is aging. We have a Boomer crisis looming. Money and corporations can flow freely anywhere in the world. People on the other hand are largely restricted. As a result, we offshore jobs to low wage countries. Tyranny thrives on tight borders.

In my opinion, we should follow Europe’s example and work to remove borders. Start out by removing barriers between the U.S. and Canada. Then do the same with Western Europe. Human rights are not part of a zero sum game. As human rights broaden, our economic and cultural base grows. We shouldn’t be afraid of children; we should welcome them.

And that my friends, is a real Christian.

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