Sad Days for Foreign Correspondents

Just in case you missed it, several foreign correspondents have died recently covering Syria. I read this today, written by Anthony Shadid, one of the deceased. He will be missed.

For more. And more.

Advertisements

Close Call

A school board member with a long history of holding student athletes to high standards almost got wrongfully smeared in the paper today. So did his son. The close call was a good lesson on just how much you have to look into things before you put them into print.

Every day I get a copy of the police dispatch logs from the days before, which including information about what police and firefighters had to deal with over the last 24 hours. Among the call log are also the arrests, and in one from last week was the 17-year-old son of a school board member.

The son had been arrested for driving after his license was either suspended or revoked. He got handcuffed, put in the back of the police car, formally arrested and bailed. The parent is the school board member who has long said student athletes who misbehave off campus must be held accountable on campus. That had us asking all sorts of questions, since the son kept playing basketball after the arrest.

We were all set to point out the hypocrisy of the school board member’s position, since no one reported the son’s arrest. It was getting close to a banner story.

Then I called the cops, who told me the whole thing was an administrative error. The Department of Motor Vehicles incorrectly had the son’s license as suspended. The arrest will appear on his arrest record now, the police said, but it was not his fault.

I immediately took the boy’s name out of the police log and called all the people we’d contacted who were connected with the story to make sure they had the full information, but it was that close to a story. The official police records said there was an arrest, and there was no backstory on how it was essentially an erroneous arrest. Think about how that would have looked in tomorrow’s paper.

That was the second story dealing with that same school official where everything pointed in one direction but some key phone call or piece of information tipped the scales in the opposite direction. Both would have been monumental errors on the paper’s part, made someone look bad and in no way left any recourse for those hurt.

These are the dangers of three-quarters journalism. The evidence may point in one direction, but that may be only 90 percent of the evidence. The other 10 percent may make it clear that what the other 90 percent points two is inconsequential. It isn’t about what the evidence points to, it’s about the truth, and for that three-quarters (or even 90 percent) isn’t good enough.

Close calls are a reminder of why solid reporting is so important. Banner stories die because you do your job well. Sometimes it feels great to kill them.

More Lawyering

This week I was in charge of attorney issues. We finally got the documents from the court case we won, but tons and tons was redacted. I had to get on the phone with two attorneys and argue why what they did overstepped the court order. I was happy to be able to successfully negotiate this one away seeing as the other option was going back to the courts, but considering all the holes in the paperwork that would have been a viable option.

And then there was the matter of abolishing the budget committee and whether that violates Conway’s charter. I was on the phone with the town attorney, asking if he thought the ballot question to transform the budget committee from a board with statutory authority into advisory-only was legal when I pointed out a way the voters could wind up eliminating the budget committee all together, which would put the town in violation of its charter. The town attorney’s response: “That’s a good point.”

I’m not sure what attorney’s get to talk to me, but I know what I get to talk to them and it isn’t much. Sometimes its fun to push people outside your paygrade.

That is essentially what journalism is, I guess — asking people who ought to know the answers basic questions to test them. Late last year I got to challenge candidates vying the U.S. Presidency. One of them makes more in a day than I make in a year (guess which one). If that isn’t quizzing above your pay grade I don’t know what is.

The nice thing about being a reporter is you aren’t being paid by any side. You are being paid to find the truth. Press every side, then press them again, and if something that appeared right before goes sour press it until it pops.

I had back-to-back hour long conversation/arguments this past week about the court case we won, both of them on the phone. Coworkers were stealing glances my way, wondering who I was sparing with. At the end someone said they wanted to buy me a coffee because I’d had such a rough couple of days. I, however, couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Pushing like that is why I do the job. Who wants to be an attorney — those guys are paid to defend their client. I’m paid to defend whoever is right.

Budget Time, and Public Office

Local government is an amazing thing. In New Hampshire, the Live Free or Die state, the goal is to put control directly into the hands of the voters for the most part. That means elected officials sit before citizens and have to answer direct questions directly. Imagine if the same were true on the national level…

I’ve been caught up in the budget debates in recent weeks, from how much teachers make to grant applications for police officers. The only thing that seems to be missing, however, is the public.

Last night I was at the public hearing for the town of Conway budget, which just passed the 10,000 population milestone. There were roughly six members of the public in the audience. Everyone else was an elected official. Tonight it was the town of Bartlett budget public hearing. There were 10 people there, including the fire chief and the police chief. While proportionately better (Bartlett has about 3,000 residents, I think) it was still a dismal turnout.

The day before I was at a Conway selectmen’s meeting. A local neighborhood association had urged people to come out and voice their position on an issue, but there were less than five people that heeded that call. A couple other people who were there for unrelated reasons shared their opinions, but overall it was a flop (there may have been a few emails sent to town officials, however).

I wrote about this problem years ago in Berlin — Where is everybody? Local government gives people a lot of control over how decisions are made, but first people have to show up. And they don’t. When they do, like at last year’s school deliberative meeting, they can exert amazing force, but in day to day governance boards and commissions are left on their own. It’s sad to see.

And yet people complain. They write to the paper and post to Facebook about how much local government sucks. They may not realize the level of power they could wield, accustomed instead to federal elections where one vote is a drop in the bucket.

If there is one thing I’ve learned by covering hundreds of public meetings (literally) it’s show up. And run. Get involved. Try running things and you’ll probably criticize a lot less. Or at least you’ll be able to do something about it.

AND WE WIN!

The ruling out of superior court showed up recently on the Right To Know case I filed and then argued late last year. Apparently my argument as to why exactly the Conway School Board must release documents pertaining to the behavior of one school board member was more compelling than the two attorneys’ arguments as why the papers should not be released. The courts favored disclosure, as we hoped they would.

Here is the story about the ruling, which came in just last week. We had been waiting and waiting to hear, and then the publisher found it among the junk mail.

The order itself raises a number of questions, like why there was no action taken by administrators who knew the school board member was acting inappropriately. I’m looking forward to getting the documents themselves to see just what they say, and then continuing the story into how bad behavior was allowed to continue for years.

It was my first case, so to speak, and I won. Hopefully all of them in the future work out so well.