Monday, April 10, 2006

Word of the day: Gutlessness

Yesterday's lead editorial makes me despair for the C-J editorial board. They don't trust themselves, they don't trust their readers and they don't have the nerve to make a clear statement in an editorial.

Here's the link:

Walter Reed Army Medical Center - Twice victims
Walter Reed patients shouldn't be harassed for the arguable sins of Americans
Published Sunday, April 9, 2006

Arguable sins of Americans? Yes, I know that many C-J readers view homosexuality as sinful but there isn't any room in an editorial for this kind of mealy-mouthed nonsense. What does the TCJEB think?

I think we can all agree that the WBC picketing military funerals and now, wounded soldiers, is despicable. Apparently the TCJEB isn't prepared to risk an assumption that all WBC pickets are.

Here's the principled stand they take:

If it's true that homosexuality is a sin -- and Americans don't agree on that -- the patients and staff of Walter Reed aren't the ones who should be picketed.

I'd prefer an unequivocal statement. Wimps. I'm imagining a german op-ed from 1938:

If it's true that the Jews are blah-blah-blah -- and Germans don't agree on that -- then blah-blah-blah aren't the ones who should be blah-blah-blah.

The Capital-Journal allows for the possibility that there are people that the WBC should picket. Singling out some who shouldn't be is as brave and clear as the paper dare's be. If the paper thinks picketing queers is fine, then they should say so. If they don't, they should should say so and damn the consequences. If they can't, they should have the sense to shut the hell up.


Friday, March 31, 2006

Letters to the Editor (an offer)

If you BCC on your submissions to and they're not in poor taste, germane to nothing at all, a total grammatical or syntactical train-wrecks, or defamatory or libelous, I will post them to this site on a weekly basis.

It's important that you use BCC. I need to see that the original recipient was and you need to have the fact that you sent it to me be private. If you don't know what BCC is, ask a computer geek.

I hear that it can be pretty difficult to get a letter published in the paper. As the letters I post here appear in the paper, that will be noted retroactively.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Another lunar eclipse.

Just when I think Chris Moon can't generate yet another blog item, the immense shadow of his own bias blots out the rays of his last glaring act of partisanship.

Today, Moon reported on the controversy surrounding Representative Jim Ryun's (R-Kan)Washington DC home purchase involving what may prove to be $61,000-saving sweetheart deal from a Jack Abramoff front operation.

Ryun says home buy wasn't sweet deal
Published Thursday, March 30, 2006

Moon did nothing but give Ryun an opportunity to defend against the charge without any critical examination of the facts on their merits and compounded it by making no effort to examine Ryun's claims, simply giving them an uncritical airing.

This will get tiresome before it gets funny. Mr. Moon, cut it out.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Discontented reporter strikes again

My dear C-J, please make Chris Moon a columnist. He's clearly unhappy as a reporter. He can't resist commentary, though his commentary never rises to the level of analysis.

How does the paper justify the second graf in today's lead story?

Senate to take up schools
Sebelius would 'happily' sign funding plan OK'd by House
Published Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The snide, single sentence that makes up this paragraph reads:

"Never mind that the Legislature hasn't figured out a way to fund the proposal."

How would you characterize this? Snotty? Me too.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Well, at least it's not illegal.

Congratulations to the C-J Business section for it's willingness to deem any scummy, money-making scheme as praiseworthy as long as it's "entrepreneurial."

More than memories
Entrepreneur turns profit by giving product away
Published Sunday, March 26, 2006

You can read the glowing puff-piece about the successful vanity press with a marketing model that falls somewhere between a dope dealer (the first hit's always free) and that of Ryan O'Neal's "Paper Moon" bible grifter, and about how schools have been enlisted to help leverage the exploitation of familial devotion, for dollars.

What's next, a Religion piece praising the Church of Scientology for helping get kids off of Ritilin?


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Heart on its sleeve

Yesterday's (Friday, March 24, 2006) headline, "Land grab amendment crashes," is an editorial, independent of what the subsequent article actually says.

Just sayin'.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Page one propaganda

Shame on you Chris Moon and shame on your editors.

In a stunningly egregious example of naked bias, today's front page was led by this coverage of Governor Kathleen Sebelius' veto of two bills.

Gun, worker bills vetoed (Published Wednesday, March 22, 2006)

In the lede, Moon characterizes the vetoes as a "power move." later he refers not to "the Governor, a Democrat," but merely to "the Democrat." Subsequently the sylish prose of Mr. Moon describes her actions as having "chopped" the bills.

During the course of the story, Moon quotes four lawmakers that disagree with Sebelius' vetoes and fails to present even a single voice in support of them.

The story also contains an astonishing non-sequitur of a paragraph that reads:

"The question now is how embarrassing a veto override on the gun bill would be to a governor who is expected to seek re-election this fall."

Is that really the question now? Really? The question now is whether this is a news report about policy making or political analysis. That's the question now.

The other question now is whether or not Mr. Moon has already filled out his concealed-carry permit.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Burying the lede

In newspaper jargon, the "lede" is the key element of a story. ..the hook. Generally, the lede should lead. When it's doesn't, one speaks of "burying the lede." Sometimes this is done for affect, though rarely in hard news. If the lede is buried in a hard news piece, either it's the result of incompetence or there is an agenda at work.

Last Thursday, the Capital-Journal ran an Associated Press wire story under the headline, "Board to consider abstinence ed." Here's the lede:

"Having told school districts they must get written permission from parents before enrolling children in sex education classes, the Kansas State Board of Education soon will consider requiring abstinence-only courses."

A headline should be a reflection of the lede, and as you see, in this instance, it is. But there's a problem. The abstinence education angle, while certainly a story, is not the story. The story is that the Kansas State Board of Education moved from having student participation in sex education curriculum from something that parents can opt their children out of, to something parents must opt their children into.

Why, you ask, is this significant? I'd hoped you would. Let me lay out some of my o-fact-ions for you.

  1. People are lazy (or busy or confused or for whatever reasons, prone to being disengaged). As a result when something requires active engagement in order to proceed, a lot of will not proceed.

  2. Most people are willfully ignorant and in denial about things for which they have deeply held but unsupported views. They will believe what they wish to be true, to be true, in spite of any evidence to the contrary.

  3. Sex education leads to promiscuity and its consequences in precisely the same manner that driver education leads to reckless driving and it's consequences.

That's why this matters. That's the significance of the legislature's action. And that's the reason I'm concerned about the Capital-Journal burying the lede. Who's agenda was being served?

My searches of for this very AP story turned up four instances of the abstinence-ed lede and 118 instances of the piece with the focus on opt-in/opt-out. I intend to gather more information from John Hanna, the author of the story about the story he filed and how it diverges from the story as presented by the Capital-Journal.

It is not inherently inappropriate for a newspaper to edit wire copy but bad journalism can come from the how and why of it.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

What is a reporter?

Probably not Phil Anderson.

Phil is a good guy. He writes well enough. But he's not my idea of a reporter. He's a Christian and he's sincere about it without being a jerk. But he's got an agenda and a free hand.

He reports fine when he reports. To his credit, he covers other faiths frequently, in an informative manner and with his biases in check. But his biases are never more than a column away.

One expects any beat reporter to get a little "inside baseball" now and then. When the baseball writer becomes a booster for the home team it's not a big deal. It's just sports. A lack of objectivity can cost credibility but it's not like a blind eye to the Royals' problems will have a deleterious effect on public policy. But you don't want your cop reporter to become a cheerleader and you sure wouldn't want him or her to be writing your law enforcement columns.

Anderson seems to be C-J's all-purpose "religion writer." There's no effort to differentiate between his roles as reporter, critic and columnist. One must simply take a deep breath, start reading and figure out what sort of piece you're into as you go along.

In the typically neither-fish-nor-foul item in today's C-J, headlined "Author updates a brilliant book" (not on-line), one would expect such a value judgment to indicate an act of criticism. I suppose it is if the single comment "reads as fresh as the e-mail that just popped up on your computer screen" is a review. If it's not a review then it's just a context for Anderson to offhandedly characterize, in his words, "the inevitable suffering that is so prevalent in a fallen world."

I'm sorry, but I'm no more comfortable with the religion writer describing the state of the world as though the view through his spiritual filters were consensus reality, than I would be if the reporter covering city government was openly using his or her party affiliation as a baseline reference point.

I credit the editors at the Capital-Journal with the mental acuity to understand why this is problematic. In our region, the godly, Christian nation bias plays very well and the free hand Anderson has to promote his theological views is allowed because a craven calculus suggests it comforts more readers than it alienates.

This is right if the only measure of journalism is a contented circulation manager. By any other measure, it's not a good thing.


What is a newspaper?

And, what's its purpose?

In my estimation a newspaper is several things and serves several purposes. Some of these function in tension with one another and some, directly at odds.

The idealistic view is that a newspaper is a compendium and journal of news and information which exists to serve the needs of the community and to promote an informed and critical-thinking populace in an unbiased manner. At best this is lightly clung-to, animating goal of the journalists, editors and publisher. At worst it is an utter myth, cynically held up like an illuminated icon by people with no such motivation.

Here's the bottom line. A newspaper is a business. A newspaper is an economic enterprise.

A newspaper has content so that people will buy it and read it. That is the reason there is anything written for or paid for as syndicated content. The only true pressure to maintain anything like balance or objectivity, to be inclusive in it's coverage or to attempt to be comprehensive is because to fail to do so too dramatically, in one direction or another will reduce circulation.

The business of a newspaper is to develop and maintain readership and then sell access to that readership to advertisers.

What a newspaper is willing to do to build and maintain circulation is up for grabs and is at the mercy of a number of factors.

Any business has as its fiduciary responsibility, generating profit for those that hold equity in the enterprise. One should never imagine that this does not take precedence over any concept of responsibility to readers or community. In the universe of the hometown newspaper, the newsroom is performing well if circulation goals are met and readers are not angry.

On the other hand, let me not suggest that for those with authority over the content of the newspaper, no value is found in the printed word. It's been said that freedom of the press belongs to those that own the presses. The control of a newspaper is possession of a bully pulpit. To what extent this perk is exploited varies.

The owner, the publisher or the managing editor may interject an op-ed piece at any time with little or no scrutiny or oversight. The editorial board may be a reflection of the community or an expression of the will of management. Your newspaper has an editorial writer. This person has the primary responsibility for composing editorials that the editorial board has decided should appear in print. The thrust of an editorial is determined by committee, then this writer must satisfy that vision. Being the person with fingers on the keys gives this individual subtle power. How well or poorly a certain point of view is promoted can be colored by how much or how little the writer agrees with the position. It's important that this person be compliant and willing to suppress his or her own views in deference to those of greater authority.

Being a large business with a manufacturing infrastructure and a large workforce, as well as stakeholders with revenue expectations, it's probably futile to expect your daily paper to strike a pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-corporate transparency stance. Your paper may have to cover both "sides" of that dichotomy but it resides firmly in one camp, itself. And don't expect a lot of content that will get the publisher a cold shoulder in the locker room at his country club.

A newspaper is not a product that is reproduced day after day. It's a product that has to be reinvented every day. 24 hours is not a long time and there's a whole bunch of space to fill.

Stories become stories in a variety of ways. Some are assigned by editors to reporters and some are pitched by reporters to editors and get the green light. Assignments can be innocuous. Someone's going to the city council meeting. Someone is covering the grain elevator fire. Some pitches are innocuous and just good news judgment. If a reporter hears that some kid is training for the Olympics it would be remiss not to bring that to an editor's attention.

Every reporter, photographer and editor is a human being with a unique constellation of values and biases. These humans are drawn to stories and images for a variety of reasons. You and I read or skip their work similarly.

One person might be drawn to a story about AIDS hospice care, another by someone inventing a new baseball bat. There's space to fill and if the story isn't time-sensitive, both will be written. In this way, reporters, photographers and editors not only color how stories are covered, but what is covered within the bounds of protecting circulation. What constitutes controversy and how controversy is dealt with is a moving target. Remind me to tell you about John Bell and C-J's coverage of the Phelpses in the early '90s, sometime.

Sometimes, a "reporter" can get away with journalistic murder with a blind eye from management if it serves the economic interests of the paper. Sometimes it's murder one may presume is approved of by a majority of the readership. This is cynical pandering and can allow an individual use the newspaper as a personal pulpit, literally.

That's my next entry.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Hitting the road

I'll be incommunicado through the 14th. Blog amongst yourselves.


Keeping the red pencil still...

Several days ago I wrote about a variety of situations where poorly constructed prose might come to appear in the daily paper and about how it's possible to manipulate it to subtly create certain impressions. Today's column by Glenda Overstreet illustrates that I omitted at least one relevant scenario.

It is possible that someone without the skills to express him or herself clearly with written English could be offered a position as a regular columnist for a newspaper. I find that very disturbing on a number of levels.

I can understand printing a letter to the editor or a quote that wouldn't pass muster in a stack of middle-school homework assignments. What I can't endorse is giving a byline to someone without the skills necessary to produce the work.

I have nothing against Ms. Overstreet and I applaud the notion of including the president of the local branch of the NAACP on the roster of columnists. It's inclusive and provides an opportunity for the readers of the Capital-Journal to benefit from views they might otherwise not. But her struggles with setting her views down undermine her ability to get them across.

If the newsroom management haven't got the spine to insist on helping her with a strong editorial hand, they're doing her no favors. The "Norm Crosby" malapropism and the horrid grammar do not serve her intentions at all. These things needlessly add confusion, frustration and dismissal to the process of digesting her work. It shouldn't be that difficult to read a newspaper and in my opinion she needs editorial assistance or replacement.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Word of the Month: Mystification

Mystification: The activity of obscuring people's understanding, leaving them baffled or bewildered.

Okay folks, I've been planning to blog on this subject for a while and I've been doing some research in preparation. Unfortunately, the luxury of time was lost with an editorial in today's Capital-Journal and so I'll jump into this now.

Here's the piece, in its entirety:

Published Thursday, March 9, 2006

Tolerance -- Good timing

By The Capital-Journal editorial board

The Character Word of the Month has won favorable reviews from many in Topeka since the international program was first implemented here. It consists of 49 positive characteristics to be given emphasis, one each month.

This month's word, "tolerance" couldn't have come at a better time. However, the definition given to the word by the international organization falls short of the kind of tolerance needed in Topeka now.

The program defines the word as "realizing that everyone is at varying levels of character development."

That seems to put the onus on the people to be tolerated, rather on those needing to be tolerant.

Just because someone annoys us with his views or some other characteristic that is different from ours doesn't mean that other person is flawed. It just means he's different.

Webster defines "tolerate" as "to recognize and respect others' beliefs, practices, etc., without sharing them."

That's what Topeka needs more of.

Well that's just fine except for one thing, the Capital-Journal is one of the major sponsors of this program in Topeka, outside of the city government. As such, this accurate (if brief) and overdue examination of the program is both welcomed and mystifying.

It makes me wonder if there is a factional skirmish over the program at 6th and Jefferson. One day I'll talk about the tension at a newspaper, between journalism and commerce...newsroom and sales department. Perhaps the editorial board may be the third leg of this stool.

The Capital-Journal presents the program at You'll notice that they have ommited the definition discussed in the editorial in favor of these other bits from the support materials:

Tolerance vs. Prejudice
Tolerance is:
• Not confusing what is right with what is popular
• Expecting the same of myself as I expect of others
• Looking for ways to help others mature
• Accepting my own unchangables and the unchangeables of others
• Listening before I form an opinion

The editorial identifies the issues I'd been preparing to discuss. These are, the laughable definitions of the words and the agenda these definitions expose upon close examination.

I've been disturbed by the billboards since they first appeared. What dictionary are these people using. Here is last month's installment:

Resourcefulness: Finding practical uses for that which others would overlook or discard

I may not know much, but that's a really bad definition for resourcefulness. It might work for "frugality" but when I think of resourcefulness, I think of creatively solving problems with limited means. offers, "Able to act effectively or imaginatively, especially in difficult situations." I'll buy that.

I'll assume that many of you, like myself before I began researching, know little, if anything about the program. The "City of Character" program is a product of the International Association of Character Cities, based in Oklahoma City, and an offshoot of something called the Character Training Institute.

In Silja J.A. Talvi's excellent examination of this program and it's purveyors, he singles out the first "character" word that raised my eyebrow:

Obedience: Quickly and cheerfully carrying out the direction of those who are responsible for me

Elsewhere in the company's literature Talvi finds this definition for the same word:

"Obedience" is defined as the "freedom to be creative under the protection of divinely appointed authorities. All legitimate authority comes from God. He is the One who sets up rulers and takes them down. ... God ordained government to carry out his will in matters of justice."

See where these people are coming from? Talvi has one company representative on record as saying, "We use this because we can't take religion into schools and government. But it's all based on the same thing."

How much are taxpayer paying to promote this thinly camoflaged religious agenda?

Talvi's research is an eye-opener. I highly recommend reading his work. I can't possibly improve upon it

For a bit of added perspective, here's what Phil Anderson, the Capital-Journal's "Faith" reporter wrote about the program two years ago:

Program makes mark in Topeka

Let's hope some people at C-J are ready to give this program a serious examination.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What's with -30-?

Several people have asked. This is as good an explanation as I could find:

Whichever explanation satisfies you, it's in the newsroom where this archaic practice has endured.

I really like the idea of using "</30>" instead of "-30-" and I wish I'd thought of it.


Does it strike you as odd also?

It seems odd that the Capital-Journal is relying on wire service coverage of the Westar/Wittig and Lake story.

Westar to get some Wittig assets (Published Wednesday, March 8, 2006)

I guess when a story rises to the level of AP coverage the hometown scribes are off the hook.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Does CJonline care about the legitimacy of journalism?

I discovered this over the weekend and wanted to bring it to your attention. The Capital-Journal dead tree edition runs something they call the Business Review. You've seen the page. It's chock full of little ads and in the middle features promotional patter about one or more local business.

In print, this content is clearly labeled "An Advertising Feature of The Topeka Capital-Journal." It's not even listed on the front page index of the paper's content.

CJonline, however, just shovels this stuff onto the Web server sans any disclaimer of journalistic intent. It's presented as another news item and they list and present Business Review as just another content section of the news operation.

Now granted, if you read these pieces you'd think they were really odd little news stories and once you figured out that they're ads you might well be annoyed that you were suckered into reading promotional copy in this manner. Perhaps you'd even consider complaining to the paper and the merchants involved about this.

But, if you wrote like, actual news stories for the paper, I'd expect you to be justifiably pissed-off that this drivel is given equal stature.

Down the road I'll be writing about the blurring of the boundary between journalism and commerce often...oh, trust me.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Not sweating the little things

As a rule, I try to refrain from calling attention to spelling, typographical or grammatical errors unless they have an impact on meaning or clarity or appear in a headline.

Here ya go...

Auschwitz innmate recalls photographing the living dead


Addendum: I thought I'd check to see if this had been quietly corrected on-line and after much searching I've discerned that this story doesn't appear on CJOnline at all. Now it might not be that unusual for not every bit of wire service page filler to make it on-line but this was a very large piece, lengthy, two columns, large headline, photo and caption. Its exclusion is odd.

Here is that AP story as it appeared on another site.

Headline of the week

I'm initiating a "Headline of the week" contest for the staff of the CJ copy desk. At the end of each week I'll award the best Headline designation. Along the way I'll make nominations to myself.

To kick it off I'll nominate yesterday's gem:

DNA reunites area family, horse

I'd like to see that topped!

Feel free to comment with your nominations.


Saturday, March 04, 2006

Error-free CJOnline?

In Police official cites lack of accountability (Published Friday, March 3, 2006) as it appears currently on CJOnline, the 16th graf reads as follows:

"Human relations commissioner Georgia Shannon suggested Topeka could face major problems if it didn't do something about race-related issues. She asked Herman if police were prepared for a riot."

Yet today, the following appears near the bottom of the left column of page 5A of the print edition:

"Topeka human relations commissioner Georgia Shannon suggested at a meeting Thursday that Topeka could face major problems if it didn't do something about race-related issues and asked Topeka police Maj. Gary Herman if police were prepared for a riot. Friday's Capital-Journal incorrectly reported the identity of the human relations commissioner who made the statement and asked that question."

It's clear what happened here. Rather than publish the correction on-line, on Saturday as was done in print, the on-line version of the story was just quietly, retroactively altered to reflect the correction with no acknowledgement of the error.

This is policy at CJOnline. This is how it is always done. And--it--is--wrong.

Unlike print, the Web provides the technology to perform the correction in this manner. This action however, diminishes the stature Web as a medium. The refusal to exploit the malleability of the medium in this fashion would lend credibility to the reliability of the content CJOnline provides. By attemting to create the false and ridiculous appearance of flawlessness it sends a signal that the site can't be trusted. If I post a link here, will it say what it said when I posted it, when you read it?

The Web also provides an opportunity to handle corrections on-line differently than in print that would actually give the Web publication an edge in this area. In addition to posting corrections online as short content items just as they are published in print, the correction can be added as an addendum to the story itself, without altering the original text of the story as published.

An old copy of the print edition will always contain the error with no pointer to the correction that came after. Future readers of the story online could have the benefit of the correction and the confidence that the paper isn't burying it's mistakes and hiding from them.

My recommendation is that CJOnline choose a location on the Web site where one may consistantly find any corrections and also amend the corrected story with an editor's note above the story along the lines of this:

Editor's note: Paragraph 16 in the article below contains an error and should have read, "Human relations commissioner Georgia Shannon suggested Topeka could face major problems if it didn't do something about race-related issues. She asked Herman if police were prepared for a riot." (correction dated March 4, 2006)

The appearance of perfection is incredible. Credibility extends from accountability.


The jaundiced eye.

Relatively few people can construct prose well. Many people that do so in a official, quasi-official or even a professional capacity fail to. This can create a kind of tightrope for journalists and copy editors.

One need only become a regular reader of letters to the editor to see the frequent, ungrammatical writing and the tortured syntax. A reader is often challenged to see past this to the eloquence or wisdom behind the writing. Editors do not, normally correct or massage such material, nor should they.

Reporters frequently gather quotes in the course of an interview for a story that just ain't pretty when written down. Sometimes the speaker has poor mastery of spoken English and sometimes someone that does, is translating a thought into speech off the cuff and gets a little diverted in the process. Speaking isn't writing, even when it gets written down.

This common occurrence makes it quite easy for a journalist to make someone being quoted in a story look foolish, if the appearance of foolishness would serve an agenda. Occurrences of this are thankfully rare, though sometimes subtle and not easily spotted. It's also exceedingly easy to simply misquote someone either through honest error, inattentiveness, laziness or deliberate misfeasance.

Sadly, it's also all too common to find embarrassing sentence construction in material written for publication by someone singled-out for that responsibility. It would surprise many poorly written press releases pass through the newsroom in-box or fax machine.

Educated writers and editors know when they're quoting a textual train wreck. When I see it happen, I want to understand what's going on.

In the March 4, 2006 Capital Journal the lead story (in print, not on the Web site...a discussion for another day) follows the coverage I discussed in yesterday's blog item:

Two officers disciplined

On the page nine "jump," comes the only quote in the story from the NAACP press release:

"because of the potential harm that could be exposed to the community."

Yes, we know what thought the author of that quote is attempting to convey but we can still mock and pretend we don't know whether the author is worried that the community will become aware of potential harm or if the concern is that potential harm should be protected from the community. The words simply don't mean what the author is clearly trying to express.

Are those 12 words the most important passage of the press release? Were they the only relevant portion to quote? Was the rest of the document similarly convoluted? Was some purpose served by singling out a passage that could invite ridicule and create an impression about the source? Without seeing the entire press release it's not possible to answer those questions.

I'd like to think this was the most important and only relevent quote and that it wasn't possible to identify another without flaws, but I'm finding that difficult.


Friday, March 03, 2006

It's called reporting. Report.

If you read this blog then you probably read the Capital-Journal and know about the row between Topeka NAACP chapter President Glenda Overstreet and Topeka Police Detectives Kenneth Eaton and George Campbell.

In short strokes, in her capacity as a Capital-Journal columnist, Ms. Overstreet wrote about a court proceeding which she viewed as racially skewed. Two Topeka police officers sent her some provocative correspondence that raised her hackles. She asked that they have their employment terminated. The officers have been placed on administrative leave. The city had a meeting.

Since this issue is political and its outcome has everything to do with public perception then it follows that the basis of that perception, matters.

Since it follows that in a circumstance such as this, news coverage combined with each individual member of the community's views on relevant subjects, including but not limited to, race, police authority, the first amendment, etc. is the basis for public perception, then it also follows that what is and is not included in the news coverage matters.

As I read articles, op-ed pieces and letters to the editor pertaining to this story certain begged questions come to be. One area of interest that remains unaddressed is in what context were the e-mails that the officers sent Ms. Overstreet composed? Were they sent from city e-mail accounts? Were they composed while on duty? Did the authors identify themselves as police officers?

Neither the city nor the department is speaking plainly about this aspect of the dustup yet and this is frankly understandable, if the investigation is still unfolding. The Capital-Journal has made it clear that the answers to these questions are not being made available by the city or the department.

What the reporting has not told us is what Ms. Overstreet could reveal about the context of the e-mails. She received them. She could show them to the paper. Has she? Has the paper asked to see them? The paper is not at the mercy of the city. The e-mails were sent to Ms. Overstreet in response to her writing for the Capital-Journal.

This is an important data-point in the development of an informed opinion. For the paper to devote as much ink to this issue as it has, and to not ask it's own columnist to clear up this point is a disservice and merits some explanation.

Here are links to the stories to date.

Who will seek justice? (Published Friday, February 17, 2006)

Detectives, columnist feuding (Published Wednesday, March 1, 2006)

Officer advises caution (Published Thursday, March 2, 2006)

Police official cites lack of accountability (Published Friday, March 3, 2006)

Racism: A community forum (Published Friday, March 3, 2006)


Thursday, March 02, 2006

C'mon, put your ink where your mouth is

This op-ed piece from March 1, 2006:

Teddy Eck -- Another star

Is simply a rehashing of this bit of February 27 small-town news:

Ex-Topekan lands on 'Law and Order'

Only the addition of this final graf is new or transforms this into an editorial:
"So Topeka could puff out its chest a bit when Eck's name appeared at the beginning of the show, because the seeds for his talents were planted here. Thank goodness the school's and the community's programs for the performing arts were there to nurture them."
I'd be inclined to ignore this incredibly lazy act of recycling if, on a completely related matter, the Capital-Journal had done likewise. Where is the editorial reconfiguration of this February 28, 2006 article reporting on the complete defunding of the Topeka Arts Council:

Arts Council drying up



All it takes is an ill-considered adjective... order to abandon reporting in favor of editorializing.

Today's object of scrutiny is the article on the Legislature page, headlined "Bill condemns funeral pickets."

What we have here is another Phelps story (why must it so often be). This is today's item about the legislature's draft resolution, denouncing his message. I should probably get it off my chest that I think Phelps is an ass...Phelps is wrong...I won't shed a tear when someone veers off the road to turn him into a speedbump...that I understand the contexts in which he leverages his hatred for maximum effect, etc., etc.

I should also give you my standard civil-libertarian boilerplate about despising everything he stands for while defending his right to stand for it.

As such, I think this resolution is poorly-conceived and well-meaning at best, and unconstitutional, cynical ass-covering by our political class at worst. I don't believe the imprimatur of government should be used to condemn any constitutionally protected speach.

With that off my chest, back to the article...

In the fifth graf, Ric Anderson writes:
"The resolution came days after the Senate approved a watered-down version of a bill originally designed to create a protest buffer extending 300 feet from the entrance to a mortuary, church or cemetery where a funeral is conducted."
There are many, less loaded adjectives that could have been used in place of "watered-down" to express the idea that the bill had to be modified to satisfy whatever concerns needed to be satisfied in order for the Senate to pass the measure.

"Watered-down" indicates a diminishment and as such, reads like a value judgement. As soon as there is room in story copy for value judgements, it's an op-ed piece.


Friday, January 20, 2006

What's a couple of letters between friends?

Associated Press story in today's CJ begins, "Google Inc. is rebutting the Bush administrations demand for a peek at what millions of people have been looking up on the Internet's leading search engine..."

Really? Google is claiming the administration has made no such demand? Because as presented, that's what that sentence means. Of course the right word is "rebuffing." The only uncertainly is whether or not the AP got it wrong.


Those wacky CJ copy editors are at it again. Oddly, the headline has the word "rebuff" in it.

A Google news search turned up 221 iterations of the story online with the phrase "Google Inc. is rebuffing the Bush" in use. How many with "Google Inc. is rebutting the Bush?" ZERO. I guess that Google is pretty smart if it knows better than to include stories in the TCJ in it's search results.

Well, what's this? It's not wrong in the online edition? Nice segue to a future item...


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Headlines matter

On January 12, 2006 The Capital Journal published a story written by Hal Lockard about Topeka mayor Bill Bunten's letter to the mayor of Buckhannon, WV.

The background to this story is that following the deaths of 12 miners in that area, Westboro Baptist Church Minister, Fred Phelps announced his intention to bring a group to picket the memorial service that community had planned.

The story ran under the headline, "Mayor sends note of apology to W.Va." (registration required)
Now to me, the word "apology" has a fairly specific meaning, and frankly, in this context I found the headline quite provocative. As a resident of Topeka, while I view the behavior of Phelps as a noxious blot on our civic landscape and his ventures outside of our community never fail to provide poor public relations for our city. But I'm not responsible for his existance or his behavior and neither is my city. I do not apologize for him and I don't want my mayor apologizing on my behalf.

The headline takes me into the story with a chip on my shoulder. Reading the story, only one, brief quote from the letter is provided:
"Please understand they are not representative of our community and we disavow in the strongest possible terms the hatred they espouse and their abominable activities in the picketing of funerals."
Mr. Lockard also provided several interview quotes from Mayor Bunten about the letter:
"It's not a policy. It's more a public relations thing," Bunten said.

"I talked to the governor's staff and told them I was concerned about what might happen, and gave them a heads up," he said. "We don't want them saying Topeka is Westboro Baptist Church."

So after reading the article, that's everything we know about the content of the letter and mayor's intent.

Do you see an apology? Me either. There is a major disconnect between the headline and the story that follows.

This is bad journalism. But lets be clear, there is nothing wrong with Mr. Lockard's work. This got botched at the copy desk.

Here's how it typically works...

The newspaper receives a copy of the letter from the mayor's office. An assignment editor puts a reporter on task to write a piece about it, perhaps giving some guidance about what is envisioned. The reporter reports and writes the story and submits it for editing. The editor reads it and and edits it as necessary and passes it along to the copy desk.

To this point the process worked. Here's where it broke down...

The copy desk is charged with a variety of responsibilities. They are the last line of defense when it comes to accuracy, spelling and grammar. They put together page layout and as such, often have to edit stories for 'fit the hole,' as it were. This can be done with or without the input of the reporter or editor. It's possible that content that supports the headline could be lost at this stage. The copy editor also almost always writes the headline. If the copy editor changes the story, there is no excuse for a disagreement between the 'hed' and the 'copy.'

When writing a headline, several purposes must be served. The headline's purpose is to entice a reader to begin reading the story. A headline must accurately reflect the copy. A headline is subject to physical space constraints. The challenge is to write a headline that advertises the story well while being accurate and fitting the space.

Endeavoring to find out, I spoke with Mr. Lockard and as suspected, he not only didn't write the headline, he hadn't seen it at the time of our conversation. Nothing substantial was cut from the article for space. Ipso facto, the headline is crap. Mystery solved.

All that remains is the question of whether or not the mayor did indeed apologize. Is it possible that Mr. Lockard simply didn't write about that aspect of the letter and that the copy editor knew things about it that were not reported? Yes, it's possible. It's exceedingly unlikely though. And in any case, this would in no way explain the disconnect.

I obtained the letter:

click to enlarge

There is no apology. Yeah, the Mayor is embarrassed on my behalf and he needn't be. He's expressing condolences for the communities loss and offering them information that will help them cope with the presence of the Phelps klan.

The point of discussing this is not that this example is a particular outrage. It's a good object illustration. This breakdown happens often. The simple fact that the hed and the copy disagree is a problem. After reading the article, I had no idea which was wrong. I was worse than uninformed, I now knew I didn't know things I needed to know...and that the paper wasn't telling me. This is a failure.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Not a manifesto.

I've been considering things.

I've been considering the motivation for launching this blog and I've been considering what I intend as its scope. I've also considered the consequences.

Let me be clear in the fact that it's the moments of disgust and outrage that reading my local paper frequently triggers, that animates the decision to go forward with this undertaking. But having made that decision it occurs to me that I wouldn't enjoy the creeping-curmudgeonliness that would ensue from an endless stream of cranky rants. As such, it's my intention to spotlight both the good and the bad. There is abundant, good work in the Capital-Journal. I will bring both brickbats and accolades to this page.

And though I've titled this blog 'The Red Pencil,' I am not really interested in being the paper's copy editor. I will only highlight spelling and grammatical errors when they are either egregious or...amusing. I fully expect my commentors to take me to task when I err. And I will. It's an area where I will try to employ a deft touch.

Factual errors are fair game. Yesterday (January17, 2006) , a story about the opening of the Johnny Canino's restaurant flatly stated that Tiramisu is lemon custard. Yeah...not so much.

Baseless or unsupported assertions come with a target painted on. Naked agendas will be noted.

I will welcome pointers from others to things I may miss. Reading and commenting on the Topeka Capital-Journal is not, nor will it become my mission in life. I won't catch everything.

I will also not limit myself to discussing the TCJ/CJonline. I may comment from time to time on other Topeka, regional or national media as well as other things Topekan. I may go off on a Chicago Cubs tangent...who knows...

There was an item in last week's paper that was the metaphorical straw that collapsed the apathy that was my camel. I have a document to scan then I'll write it up as an upcoming entry. Normally I'll try to be more timely than this but that occured just as my hard drive experienced its digital rapture.