Friday, July 30, 2010

Library Trustee issues SOS

The great thing about the Web is you can generate a dispatch of distress, turn it into a PDF and instantly email it to those gatekeepers of all things news and get the scary story out to thousands, almost overnight.

Jones Library Trustee Chris Hoffmann is just such an example: Click on his report below.

Chris Hoffmann reports

Library under fire



No, it's not a First Amendment book banning incident or federal request for a patrons reading habits, this time it is an outright coup d'├ętat, orchestrated by cutthroat Carol--Gray that is--and her band of merry women, otherwise known as the "Evaluation Committee" a subcommittee of the Jones Library Trustees, elected officials who "govern" the library which is separate from the day-to-day management.

Of course this subcommittee will not even allow fellow elected members of the Jones Trustees at their little secret pow wow where they are fine tuning their attack on Jones Library long-time director Bonnie Isman, mainly because she stands in the way of their grab for power.

Kind of like Brutus meeting with his boys in a Roman Senate chamber to secretly sharpen their daggers while awaiting Caesar's arrival.

In fact, the power mad subcommittee seems to think they can invoke a contract clause to fire the director without even bringing it up before the full board of Trustees.

You would think Ms. Gray, a former Public Defender, would have a tad more sympathy for someone she is now putting on the hotseat and prosecuting as though Ms. Isman was a dangerous felon.

It's going to be a lot harder to find capable professional staff in the People's Republic if this travesty is allowed to occur, because management personnel like to manage and not be continually second guessed by volunteer do-gooders who always seem to think they can do a better job.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Now that's more like it


So apparently the Schools attorney had second thoughts after firing off the previous letter to Regional Chair Farshid Hajir and sent a kinder, gentler note not too long after:


From: Gini Tate
Date: Fri, Dec 18, 2009 at 7:43 AM
Subject: Our conversation
To: Farshid Hajir
Cc: Kathy Mazur, Maria Geryk

Hello Farshid,

Thank you for the frank and open discussion the other night; I think it was very helpful.

The purpose of this email is to confirm our discussion of Wednesday, December 16th. During that discussion, I indicated that if the Committee were to review the firm, its services, costs and accessibility in good faith with an open mind, and if the Committee felt that despite everything that has transpired, it could have and/or develop trust with my firm, such that it would be a viable attorney-client relationship, then the firm would be willing and interested in being one of the firms reviewed by the legal services subcommittee.

Gini

Regina Williams Tate
Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane, LLP

Friday, July 23, 2010

Yet another shake up in the schools?

So our School Committees are rethinking expensive legal services for the four-town Regional High School (Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury) and Amherst Schools (comprising over 75% of the Regional) and, you know, wish to seek proposals for their lucrative "business" which state law requires for any supplies or service over $5,000--except of course for attorneys or superintendents who coincidentally all seem to cost taxpayers well over $100,000 annually.

The current firm, who has been handling legal advice forever, balked at the idea of entering a competition to maintain their lucrative contract; attorney Regina Tate sent (12/4/09) an "I object!" insubordinate letter to at the time newbie Region Chair Farshid Hajir, who apparently rolled over like a beaten puppy.

"I received your emails dated November 19,2009 in which you indicated that the school Committees are engaged in the periodic review of the services and costs of legal counsel, and you asked for the submission of materials. In view of the fact that none of the School Committees has ever engaged in a "periodic review" of legal counsel services and costs during the entire time this firm has represented the school districts, I have assumed that the School Committees are actually searching for new counsel.

On behalf of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane, I wish to inform the School Committees that the firm will not be applying to continue as counsel."

She goes on (and you gotta hope she did not bill us for her time producing this insubordinate missive): "It is clear to me that the positive relationship which I have enjoyed in the past, and which enabled me to produce excellent results for the Committees, is probably not possible."

A small business owner would not have gotten beyond the first paragraph before picking up the phone and bellowing Donald Trump's patented line, "You're fired!"

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shake up in the Regional School Committee

Sir Richard Hood (rt) Baer Tierkel--the Wizard behind the curtain (left)

UPDATE: Friday 7:15 AM

So Mr. Hood (guess I can't call him "Ricky Boy" anymore) is now Regional School Committee Chair after only a few months as member of the venerable Amherst School Committee (and by extension a member of the Region) thus culminating the fastest rise to power since Princess Stephanie assumed the throne of the venerable Amherst Select Board. Must be the power of their blogs.

The vote was 5-4 so Mr. Hood voting for himself made THE difference (all his colleagues on the Amherst School Committee voted for Irv Rhodes.) Catherine Sanderson was voted to remain as Vice Chair by the same 5-4 vote.
##################################
Original Post early Thursday evening
So Regional School (Amherst, Leverett, Pelham, Shutesbury) Chair Farshid Hajir, after only a year at the helm, is about to be replaced because his fellow Leverett School Committee members did not reelect him as representative to the Region this past Monday; although he will stay on--as Chair of course--until tomorrow night when a new Regional Chair will ascend the throne, quite possibly Amherst School Committee newbie Rick Hood, who was recently by cited the Northwester District Attorney for using email to violate the Open Meeting Law.

Apparently Amherst's most seasoned representative and current Regional Vice Chair Catherine Sanderson, is a tad too uppity.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Save the trees, damn the bike path

So the illustrious town Select Board voted last night to oppose a waiver from, you know, the state on widening--but mainly repairing/rehabilitating--the Norowottuck rail trail which produces flat tires way quicker than those industrious beavers build dams.

Years ago the state built the bike path using recycled glass. Except they forgot to grind up the glass. Did not take long for shards to work their way up threw a thin layer of asphalt and wreak havoc on tires that require air pressure. Gotta wonder if it was the same engineering firm that designed the $10 million Umass heating plant that never threw a BTU of heat.

Finally, they want to make amends and do the job right. And since it is kind of a sunk cost getting construction equipment into out-of-the-way areas, they figured why not expand the width of the bike path by 25% creating a safer travel experience for more people.

Not in the People's Republic of Amherst. Losing trees is just too much to bear. So we will have more delays, more expenditure of tax money and eventually the job will get done--beavers and trees notwithstanding.

As usual the 45 minute meeting with this item the only one on the agenda was almost entirely one-sided, although Princess Stephanie did allow 45 seconds for another viewpoint. Hardly fair and balanced.

video

Media relations: scorpion and the frog

An Anon source used Public Documents Law (although they would have had to I.D. themselves in the original request) to acquire email exchanges from public officials in the venerable Amherst Regional School system.

Yeah, you would think by now they would know better.

I suspect it was the same Anon who asked me a while back how to do such a request (and they wondered if only bloggers and print journalist are entitled to such a magic wand). If so, I'm glad I gave them the exceedingly simple 'how-to' instructions.

They anonymously snail-mailed the results to a friend who, in turn, snail-mailed them to me. And I kind of wish I had them a week ago, so I could have incorporated them into a "final paper" for my online journalism ethics class.

The infamous A-Rod affair:


As some of you may remember, I broke the story of highest paid School Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez taking abundant time off (with pay of course) by publishing the document he casually tossed to the School Committee at the 2/9 School Committee meeting outlining his upcoming days off, vacation and sick time; and then only 8 days later, I broke the story of his sudden departure.

And yes, journalistically speaking I only had one solid source--but it was ultra-solid (and a secondary, slightly squishy, source for corroboration.) The Gazette eventually caught up four days later and they too only had one solid source for their front page story.

But they beat me cold turkey on the A-Rod strikes back front page above the fold story a few months later, moments after A-Rod picked up his final check from the taxpayers of Amherst, where he wanted to "set the record strait" by lambasting the town and highlighted his "accomplishments" over a very short, expensive, tenure.

The June 9 article headlined "Ex-School chief fires on Amherst, questions commitment to diversity, change" by Nick Grabbe, played the classic he said/she said with A-Rod hammering the schools, Regional School Chair Farshid Hajir defending the schools honor and transparently loquacious School Committee member Catherine Sanderson agreeing with the former Super's important points.

All very interesting in a Peyton Place sort of way. No wonder it made the front page, above the fold and was jealousy guarded by the Gazette during production. It also stimulated some fascinating behind-the-scenes emails.

Michael DeChiara, chair of the Shutesbury School Committee (yes, the same one who wants to shut down public officials who blog--mainly Catherine Sanderson) emailed the Gazette:

"In the on-going coverage of Amherst schools, I along with others have come to wonder about the objectivity of reporting by Mr. Nick Grabbe. Today's June 9 article give further rise to speculation that the Gazette has become a mouthpiece for one particular view from the Amherst school committee. This is concerning given the responsibility newspapers have to reasonable coverage and the Gazette's role in the community. I would hope internally there is some discussion about how to address serious issues in a way that promotes public discourse rather than ends up fanning flames by promoting one-sided stories."

And if that was not a mouthful, he continues. "Why was a statement from a possible disgraced Superintendent who held the position for only 8-months receive 'front page, above the fold' coverage if not to highlight issues that promote one side's agenda?"

And then of course we get to the real source of his irritation: "Why is Ms. Sanderson repeatedly quoted rather than the Chair of the committee, Irv Rhodes? While it is known that Ms. Sanderson is a regular source for Mr. Grabbe, given that this is an article about the Supt. one must wonder thy the Chair was not asked to respond."

Yeah, like committee chairs are right up there with God.

Mr. DeChiara also forwarded the missive to Regional School Chair Farshid Hajir who instantly responded:

"Here are some facts I plan to include in a letter to the Gazette to be published; if they don't do it, I will send it to the Republican.

Grabbe sent me the Alberto polemic only under the condition that I would discuss it with nobody, he specifically said if I discuss it with the school committee he would refuse to quote me in his article and he would refuse to allow me space to respond to the article."

He continues, and once again we get to the crux of the irritation: "At no time did Grabbe drop any hint that he had shown it to Catherine Sanderson or any other member. He told me that he had shown it to me as chair of the region so he could get an official response, that he trusted my word."

Although in closing Hajir does admit, "In retrospect, I dropped the ball on this: I could have secured a promise from Grabbe that he would not talk to anyone else, but I just didn't think of it because he was being so secretive and because she is not the chair of anything. I should not have underestimated the coziness of their relationship."

Let's hope Mr Hajir has learned a valuable lesson: never play poker for money until you know the rules of the game.

Mr. Grabbe's article

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Satire is hard, stupidity is easy

I think satire and parody require their own special font. Once again we have a "conservative" commenter--Mark Williams-- jumping into deep shit with an idiotic attempt at satire by posting on his blog a letter from a "colored person" to President Lincoln that he penned somehow thinking it was a creative way to counterattack the NAACP that accused his (now former) political organization with being "racist". Yikes!

Be careful how you use the term "colored person," careful how you use President Lincoln and even more careful how you combine the two.

I'm reminded of my young friend Max Karson getting arrested three years ago for comments made the day after the Virginia Tech massacre about how he could see himself doing that. Of course Max made these comments in a "woman's study" class and Max had previously distinguished himself by getting suspended from Amherst Regional High School for writing about masturbation and gayness and god knows what else.

Naturally the Daily Hampshire Gazette (a puppy to the powers that be) editorially supported the draconian reaction of Boulder, Colorado officials, rather than defending the rough and tumble world of the First Amendment.

But yes, if I were in the Tea Party establishment (and it may come as a surprise to some of you that I'm not a card carrying member) I too would have ejected this idiot for what he wrote on his blog. And if it was just fine, why did he delete it--a cardinal sin for bloggers.

The BIG difference is that Max was arrested and faced jail time from government officials in Colorado for exercising his First Amendment rights, this nitwit Williams was axed by the privately run Tea Party.

I'll drink to that.

NY Daily News (a conservative paper) reports


Max Karson retrospective

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Open Meeting violations continue...

The District Attorny once again rebuked chatty Amherst public officials for using email to deliberate in violation of Open Meeting Law. The email in question from School Committee member Rick Hood opens with "I know this email is bordering or across the line on Open Meeting Law, but I will also say this tonight..." No wonder the Gazette figured it out and passed it along to the DA.

I have a better one, however, but I'm not going to bother the DA--or these days--the Attorney General, since they don't seem to do much. It concerns the same issue which brought Mr. Hood over the line: the Union 26 affair, where Amherst School Committee members are considering leaving the 100+ year old alliance with Pelham because the balance of power is tipped exceedingly in Pelham's favor.

From: Maria Geryk
To: Tracy Farnham, Kathy Weilerstein, Nora Maroulis (Pelham School Committee)
Date: 4/9/2010 11:13 AM

perfect!

Of course the School Superintendent, who obviously benefits from the Union 26 status quo, was responding to the ENTIRE Pelham School committee about an email from Kathy Weilerstein to Nora and Tracy (there's another violation) suggesting wording of a possible PR response should a reporter call concerning the Amherst School Committee meeting to discuss leaving Union 26.

Now I'm sure if a blogger/reporter called to ask about this they would try to use the old "housekeeping" exemption, whereby a quorum or the entire committee can discuss among themselves "procedural" items.

But since the Pelham School Committee did not have a meeting scheduled and they were simply chatting about a possible Public Relations spin response for the media, it clearly crosses the line.

In fact, Kathy Weilerstein writes to Nora and Tracy (4/9/2020 10:20 AM)
"This looks great, I just have a few small comments. I have put my suggestions in ( ). Are we posting this or sending it somewhere?"

Chair Tracy Farnham responds: "Thank you so much! Wonderfully done! I will keep this on hand in case I receive any questions."

The resolution/statement they finally arrived at after trouncing the Open Meeting Law:

"Unfortunately, we the Pelham Elementary School Committee were not formally notified about the Amherst School Committee's decision to review it's participation in the Union 26, the governance structure that articulates the partnership between Pelham and Amherst elementary schools which has functioned successfully for years. Nor are we fully aware of what prompted the decision to review the partnership at this time. Naturally , it would be our hope that the spirit of fair and balanced partnership with which the Union was created, rather than the politics of the day, would inform any discussion of the Union and its continued success."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

ARA update

Yeah, we met again this evening (at least Town Hall is air conditioned) and Jeanne Traester was MIA, but the rest of us troopers reported for duty--that evil duty of development. And of course we four were outnumbered 2-1 by "concerned neighbors."

Former Amherst Redevelopment Authority member Nancy Gordon, who was elected to the ARA a few years back (when we were dormant) could not make the meeting but sent along a letter of concern. We are trying to schedule a "field trip" to Storrs, CT. to view "Husky Village" which is a development project along the lines of what we are considering for the Amherst/Umass Gateway project.

She writes: "Although I have never been to Storrs, CT, both my sons have so I asked them for their opinions of the proposed "model" being talked about in Storrs. Here is what they had to say:

Son #1: Although he had not been there often, he recognized the part of the Storrs campus being referred to, and he told me that he understood that was the area of Storrs where most of the student unrest has occurred. Is this perhaps "Hobar Lane #2?

Son #2 has been to Storrs on more than one occasion, I suspect in connection with his band, and he laughed when I mentioned the area. That, he said, is where "all the strip joints are." Is that what we want in Amherst?"

Back when I toiled in Town Meeting the ultimate boogeyman used to sabotage any zoning change was "gas station." Folks would "rise in opposition" saying if we change this zoning now for the current owner with this lovely plan to open a flower shop or veterinary clinic they could suddenly drop dead and some evil republican robber baron could absorb the property and turn it into a, gasp, GAS STATION.

Well I guess we've come a long way. The boogeyman has morphed from a "gas station" to a "strip joint." Heck, that sounds like progress to me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

By any other name



Gotta wonder how Amherst state Senator and Umass bodyguard Stan Rosenberg is going to handle this vote.

The House passed by 126-21 and sent to the Senate a bill allowing six state colleges to change their designation to universities: Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Framingham, Salem, Westfield and Worcester.

Of course, now hard pressed students will be more inclined to shop on price when comparing Umass/Amherst to these former "colleges."

Tree huggers unite!

So the uber-left, anti-development crowd is in a full-court press to get Denise Barbaret reappointed to the Planning Board after Town Manager Larry Shaffer failed to reappoint her when her term expired June 30.

Of course it was the town manager who first appointed her three years ago, and now apparently wants to "move in a new direction," as in the real world.

One of the major "goals" for the town manager outlined by his volunteer bosses the venerable Amherst Select Board is to enhance the tax base via commercial development.

And it's kind of hard to carry out that charge, when Ms. Barbaret votes against every economic development initiative to come before the Planning Board. And she always makes the effort to give Town Meeting a "minority report" (often where she was the only "nay" out of nine.)

This should be fun to watch. My prediction? The town manager holds firm; the tree huggers wither at the roots.
video

Monday, July 12, 2010

Glad it was the before shot


So our journalism ethics discussion this week covered graphic photos--and we all know how viseral they can be.

According to my Prof: "Finally, journalists must take great care with the use of graphic photos.We must be courageous enough to use them when the message they send is important, but smart enough not to use them to shock or for their sensational value. Graphic photos that illustrate the consequences of government policy are often used even if they might offend."

And to drive home the point her discussion question asked, "Can you think of a recent photo or video that you found disturbing or offensive? Was there a good reason to run it, even at the risk of offending people?"

I used as an example when the Gazette two years ago put an AP photo on page one of a small child's lifeless hand sticking up out of the rubble clutching a pen--which more than graphically illustrated the damage the earthquake inflicted on China's Sichuan province where schools, because of shoddy construction, collapsed like a house of cards.

Today's AP photo graphically illustrates the government policy in Iraq for animal control. No question about that. My only question is, did they have to use such a cute dog?

My previous complaint

Sunday, July 11, 2010

There but for the grace of God

My old time business acquaintance, Ross Scott, was busted recently for diverting $45,000 in employee pension money back into his faltering Holyoke based direct mail business, failing to provide the 3% match--but still claiming that amount as a tax deduction.

I first met Ross about 25 years ago when he was highly praised by another successful Amherst small business owner for saving him money on direct mail, mainly because he was super efficient about his services. And indeed he was...plus, a nice guy as well.

About then Amherst axed $4,500 late in the budget year (mid-April) for the July 4th fireworks. I instantly formed a committee and raised more than enough money to save the display that year, later turned it over the Amherst Chamber of Commerce who then returned it to the town's Leisure Services department, who continues to fund them via private/business donations somewhat competing with the July 4th Parade I'm now "somewhat" involved with.

The original business owner who recommended Ross ran a print shop so he donated 1,000 nice red-white-and-blue fliers (color was expensive back then.) Ross donated his mail services and paid the postage for a mailing to all Amherst businesses, almost instantly returning enough to cover the patriotic extravaganza.

But 20-25 years ago the direct mail business (like newspaper advertising) was booming W-A-Y more than today; now the Post Office itself is dying--all for the same reason: the Internet. Unsurprisingly, his once thriving ARA Strategic Mail Services went into a steady if not steep decline.

After my initial direct mail experience I liked it enough to purchase my own bulk mailing permit for Karate Health Fitness Center (although I took it out in my personal name so I could use it for other causes), thus I no longer required Ross.

But two years ago I sacrificed my long-time permit to save on the $150 annual cost of renewal just as I stopped all newsprint advertising (peak year approaching $15,000). The start--or more like final stage--of a downward spiral.

So this past February when Stan Gawle asked about using my (former) permit once again for a 4,000 piece anti-Override campaign mailer (as we did in squashing the 2007 Override), I looked up Ross and found him as efficient as ever. After all these years.

But knowledge, skill, bravado and endless hours only goes so far. You cut corners--at first you do it with a scalpel, then a butcher knife, then an ax and, finally, a chain saw. If every small business in America followed government regulations 100% to the absolute letter of the law, 90% of them would fail.

And yeah, if a business owner circumvents regulations to fund a fancy car, exotic vacations, gambling or prostitutes--that's one thing. But if they do it in order to keep the lights on--that's another. I suspect Ross, like a lot of recently deceased small businesses, occupies the latter.

Sounds like he informed his employees of his deception years ago (if they were that concerned they could have blown the whistle then) and probably told them it was either that or lay them off.

What's worse, losing a 6% retirement benefit somewhere W-A-Y down the road or losing your job now (which ends that retirement benefit anyway)? At least he always paid them their take home salary.

Who is worse off? Ross faces a possible sixteen month prison term and his business, his baby, his life these past decades gets filed in the dead letter office. Unlike his employees, he can't collect "unemployment insurance"--although he is not accused of reneging on that burdensome overhead.

Small business owners are the backbone of America--but they routinely engage in a high-wire act, working without a net. And even the Flying Wallendas took a tumble.

The Republican Reports


The Republican also reports Post Office problems

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I'm here from the government...


How many teachers, cops or firefighters could $5 million fund here in historic Taxachusetts? Or...just give thousands of state workers a couple days off and be required to pay overtime to those deemed "essential."

I'm a patriotic guy, and if state workers in Suffolk County all attended day-long educational teach-ins and a ceremony celebrating Bunker Hill Day (historically speaking they may want to teach that the battle mostly occurred on Breeds Hill and that technically the Brits won) or Evacuation Day (which sounds like a medical term for bowel movement) then maybe I could live with the $5 million tab...maybe.

But like Columbus Day, the "holidays" have lost any meaning. Even the most meaningful of holidays--Memorial Day--is lost on some clueless folks.

Unsurprisingly, Amherst's state government dynamic duo--Senator Stan Rosenberg and Representative Ellen Story voted to keep the hack holidays alive. After all, Amherst only has a pathetic 9.9% commercial tax base--thus taxpayer/voters gainfully employed by the private sector are in a distinct minority.

September 17 is Constitution Day. Since state and federal workers do not get it as a paid holiday, nobody seems to care. But the Feds, mainly due to Sen. Robert Byrd, decided six years ago that any publicly funded educational institution must have an teach in that day focusing on the most important document in our history.

Since the Feds decided not to come up with any extra money for this auspicious occasion, thereby making it an "unfunded mandate," you have to wonder what the adherence rate is here in our most historic of states?

Do any of the Five Colleges or the venerable Amherst Public School system hold a teach-in that day? We already know the Amherst schools ignore the requirement for reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance," so it's a pretty safe bet 'Constitution Day' falls into the same void.

But our state can continue to squander $5 million to "remember" two encounters that helped lead to the adoption of the Constitution, while not taking a little time remembering what the Constitution is all about. Only in Massachusetts!

The Republican Reports

Thursday, July 8, 2010

ARA update

So the Amherst Redevelopment Authority met again last night and started with an Executive Session to discuss land acquisition. While I can't go into the details of that privileged aspect of the meeting, I can say the update was good news and that the "Gateway" urban renewal project is coming along faster than I anticipated.

When Umass turns over the 1.83 acre undeveloped parcel (formerly Frat Row) things will then kick into high gear. Although that is going to require the okay of the state legislature.

One of the many advantages of having a powerhouse senator like Stan Rosenberg is he can shepherd that kind of legislation.

My previous report (liveblogged no less)

Monday, July 5, 2010

And the children shall lead...


The oldest continuous July 4 Parade in town kicked off this morning and the kids came on bicycles, carts, wagons and little four wheel peddle devices of all make and manor. And they proudly displayed the colors of the day: red, white and blue.

The South Amherst Bike Parade has been a patriotic staple for over 100 years. And is that not what freedom is all about. To ride your bike slowly down the center of paved road with friends and family cheering you on.

And they even had a marching band: video

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A birthday party to remember


So yes, the July 4th Parade went off without a hitch. Perfect weather, huge crowds in the downtown, a tight line of march with more marching units than ever. No protesters, no controversy. Life is good.
video

And yeah, the fireworks were pretty good too.


The Republican reports

Ch 22 TV reports

Let Freedom Ring

Today's Springfield Sunday Republican is a perfect example of the things print MSM does right even in this instant, always on Internet age: Tailoring articles to the moment--with the moment of course being the celebration of our freedom, the birth of our great nation.

Page one above the fold (written by a Managing Editor) featured a patriotic, advance teaser for the Barnes Air National Guard air show coming up in August and on the sports front break page a typical "give 'em Hell" column from outdoor editor Frank Sousa colorfully illustrating an incident from his Harry Truman like past where he kicks a protester in the ass for wearing an American flag on their butt.

Since I once got into it with Mr. Sousa 25 years ago on the Kennedy-Thurmond mailorder martial arts weapons bill and he still buys ink by the barrel, all I'll say is my journalism professor would probably not recommend a physical reaction to folks exercising their First Amendment rights, but I can't say I disagree with his sentiments.

I remember a still popular local TV news anchor once telling me he almost covered the flag burning incident at Amherst College five weeks after 9/11, but something came up at the last minute. A few Hampshire College kids and their professor crashed that patriotic rally and threw a flag on the ground and stomped on it while chanting "this flag doesn't represent us" as another protester (all dressed in black) ignited a American flag--with that searing photo appearing on the front page of the Boston Globe.

He said he would have put down his microphone and punched one of them. Again, can't say I disagree with his sentiments--just, maybe, the methods.

And not to be left out--as Amherst seldom is--another article later about the District Attorney turning over to the Attorney General the "investigation" into blogging by Amherst School Committee member Catherine Sanderson and how it could--they hope--violate the Open Meeting Law (dare I dub this "bloggergate"?)

But with the ACLU declaring OML--even if it did apply--trumped by the First Amendment, that most basic of American rights we celebrate today, I don't think Ms. Sanderson's husband will have to learn how to bake a cake with a hack saw hidden within.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Journalism Ethics #3

A modern day jet cockpit is a sea of dials, switches, and lights...time consuming to interpret individually while a plane is in flight. A good pilot knows how to efficiently scan, panning the scene, looking only for something out of the ordinary--like a flashing red light.

So it should be with Internet comments, in a reverse sort of way. Unfortunately, the routine is for rude, obnoxious, racially insensitive trolls to hide behind anonymity and spew their hatred for whatever joy it seems to bring them.

Like a good pilot scanning their complicated controls, casual readers should simply ignore those comments; the ones that should garner attention are thoughtful, add to the debate or bring up new and valuable information that demonstrates the writer has first hand knowledge about the events in the article. And, yes, those are often very few and very far between.

" The comments sections on many general-interest news sites lack both the carrot and the stick for encouraging responsible behavior. The carrot is the cohesion of a group you don’t want to disappoint, like Yoshimi25’s Front Burner community. The stick is the shame associated with having your real name publicly attached to embarrassing behavior. Without these two levers, the social contract breaks down." ('Inside the mind of the Anon online poster'. Neil Swidey, Boston Globe)

The Internet has revolutionized the dissemination of news and entertainment; now anyone anywhere in the world can instantly upload an observation, photo, video or full fledged novel for all to see.

"In the old days, we really were the gatekeepers, and if we said we aren't going to say the names of rape victims..we could make that come true. Well, newspaper editors can't do that anymore. We have to exist in a broader, more democratized, sort of rougher edged and less neat and controlled world." (Geneva Overholser, AJR 'Going Public')

Sure the Internet is still a tad rough and tumble, but when you attend an R-rated movie you should know what your getting into and not complain later about the site of a naked body or a little blood and gore. And of course, Internet news sites and blogs can be more like an NC-17 rating.

"The right to free speech and the unfettered practice of free speech are not the same. In a way we are all Robert Cohen ("F_ck the Draft") at Sunday dinner, with legal rights that may have to yield to practical, everyday restrictions on the expression." (Woo, Essay #3)

William Woo makes the reasonable point that just because you can wear a jacket in public with a vulgar word under the banner of free speech doesn't mean your grandmother has to put up with it at a family dinner. Fair enough.

But then, is grandma also going to ban all political talk--no matter how civil--at the dinner table? It's a very fine line. I let it all hang out on 'Only in Amherst' (my posts and comments), allowing the readers to decide what to consume and what not to waste time on.

After all, the First Amendment protects free speech of citizens from government suppression. So if grandma wants to institute stern controls at her house on Sunday she can, or if a privately owned newspaper industry wants to ban Anon comments on their news websites, they most certainly can.

"But it’s the wrong move, the proverbial rocket launcher employed against a housefly. The collateral damage it would bring — a contrived quieting and flattening of the debate, and a closing off of the sorts of scoops and expansive discussions enabled by anonymous commenting — wouldn’t be worth it." ('Freedom of Screech', Jesse Singal, Boston Globe)

Catherine Sanderson, an elected Amherst School Committee member with a refreshing attitude about transparency, recently instituted "comment moderation" on her blog. She posts comments as long as they are somewhat civil, on topic and free of personal attacks on private citizens. However, she still allows Anonymous comments as long as they meet those minimum requirements:

"The key thing is that there are people who WANT to share their thoughts, but can't do so if they will be identified. This includes parents who worry their kid will experience a negative outcome if they criticize the schools, and teachers who worry that their comments will create negative consequences for them if they criticize the schools/their colleagues/parents. I believe those voices are really important to have, and thus I've continued to allow anonymous posters."(Catherine Sanderson, 'Only in Amherst' blog Comment)

On my blog I have chosen to grin and bear abusive Anon comments, but never resist the opportunity to point out how cowardly the mechanism is when relied upon simply to heap abuse. I only delete spam, double posted comments (delete one), libel (I know it when I see it) or certain words that I think should be forever banned from the lexicon of human language: C-word, N-word, but since the Supreme Court has said the F-word is okay, I grudgingly accept it.

What surprised me about the current "No Comment" American Journal Review editorial ( "It's time for news sites to stop allowing anonymous online comments.") is that the stunningly obvious concern over tips from sources who need the protection afforded by a cloak of anonymity was completely ignored.

Recently the Buffalo News (after only allowing comments for just over a year) joined the "G-rated" minority of papers banning all Anon comments from their website. The editor, obviously easily offended, explains:

"Quickly, though, the practice degenerated into something significantly less lofty. Particularly on stories about inner-city crime — but not only on those stories — reader comments can be racist and ugly. In fact, we’ve been shocked at how seemingly routine stories can elicit comments that veer off into offensive territory." (Margaret Sullivan, Buffalo News, 'Seeking a return to civility in online comments'.)

A hyperlocal news site in their readership territory quickly responded:

"While it's disappointing that The News is running away from this issue, it's not at all surprising. The paper has been slow to adapt to the changing media landscape as management continues to hope the world goes back to 1975. They want the internet to go away, but it won't." (Buffalo Rising, 'Buffalo News tells the internet to go away'.)

The real world can be ugly indeed. Journalism is supposed to hold up a mirror to reflect that. And yeah, sometimes the language can be a tad salty.

According to recovered flight data recorders, pilots about to die tend to exclaim the word "shit!" As stunned NY firefighters watched the first plane impale the North Tower on the morning of 9/11, their instant reaction was "Holy shit!"..."Holy shit!"

Holy shit indeed!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Not to mention that other $275,000

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So if you watch our illustrious town leaders, otherwise known as the Chair of the Select Board and the Town Manager you would think the only thing given Atkins Country Market (a perennial top-ten employer in town) for a little bit of land required to complete a huge, expensive infrastructure improvement project in their front yard was this modest property tax break: $79,000 over the next ten years.

Of course the Select Board just a few months back approved the last beer-and-wine license in town to Atkins (a somewhat low-cost license to mint money.) And the town is also currently in the process of giving them another $275,000: $258,000 worth of paving to their private parking lot courtesy of the DPW, plus $17,000 in cash.

Umm, must have just slipped their minds.

Taking "news" seriously (Yes folks, this is parody)

So you gotta love the sendoff moments of the sendoff edition of "Student News", not affiliated with the Amherst Regional High School except all the major players involved attend.

Josh does the Walter Cronkite/Edward R. Murrow rolling up of the sleeves, loosening of the tie (although he probably could have gone one step further by repeatedly removing and replacing his glasses or simply fired up a camel cigarette), and then the two co-anchors do the "chicken dance."

Yes indeed, the future of journalism is in such good hands.
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Ashes to ashes...