Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Excited Crowds Greet Obama

Cutline1: Arcadians shout excitedly as president Barack Obama passes by in his motorcade Tuesday in DeSoto County, although he could not be seen from inside his limo.

Cutline 2: An excited crowed laughed, danced, waved their hands and supportive signs, took photos and chanted, "Obama! Obama! Obama!" as his presidential motorcade turned the corner where they gathered in Arcadia.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Losing the News" Local Chapter: Puppies and Pop Warner

The man who owns the biggest press and the most ink in these parts used his column Sunday to review Alex Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “L0sing the News.” Derek Dunn-Rankin recapped Jones' 300-year history of the popular press and “its role in shaping the world’s longest running democracy.” Dunn-Rankin tells readers he learned from the book that the “iron core” of the newspaper’s job is not letters to the editor, sports or celebrity gossip: “ It is hard news that can only be generated by expensive reporting. It is news produced by time-consuming digging, fact gathering, and analysis. It is the news generated at the state legislature or the local sheriff’s department ...”

Old Word Wolf hopes Dunn-Rankin’s isn’t just arm-chair philosophizing but plans to use this new knowledge to set the tone for his own newspapers.

Long before Dunn-Rankin read Jones' book, the journalist's sense of purpose and ability to do that traditional job were long lost here in Arcadia and, apparently, in other Sun Coast Media zones, as well.

The day before the owner’s column ran, news editor Christy Arnold, lost it, big time. Her Saturday column became a self-defensive rant built on sarcasm and bad analogies before getting around to screaming at her readers. In five lines of capital letters (“GET A HOBBY. GET A DISTRACTION IN YOUR LIFE THAT MAKES YOU A LITTLE HAPPIER AND A LITTLE LESS NASTY TO OTHERS...”) she tells everyone to go away and stop bothering her about spelling errors, their personal opinion of the president, and the amount of a “bad news” they are forced to read.

Arnold’s reasoning is “we do the best we can.” Specific examples support her claim: “Want to announce your child’s 6th birthday? We’ll put it in the paper. ...Want to announce your wedding anniversary? We’ll let all your neighbors and loved ones know...” She goes on to list honor rolls, Pop Warner football, fundraisers and pet photos as exhibits D, E, F, and G in her we-do-it-all-for-you defense.

What she omits, however, is more interesting than either her display of bad temper or her feel-good examples. There’s no mention of covering city government, county commissioners, monitoring school district operations, keeping an eye on the public budgets – those little journalistic jobs that that help keep open government open. Old Word Wolf used to complain that biweekly school board news has been essentially rehashed agendas. As it turns out, those were the good old days. DeSoto readers don’t get even that anymore because a photo of pet goldfish (her example, not mine) is her priority. She’s doing the best she can.

Meanwhile, DeSoto readers are left in the dark about how “citizens’ boards” are chosen and when and where their meetings are held. How are background checks weighed when someone with a dubious life story is appointed by friends in high places to positions of power? How many husband-wife teams teach at the schools, staff government offices and make it difficult to impossible to take corrective steps when necessary? Where are the reports on all these “informal” meetings held at eateries and from pickup trucks, local commissioners leaning window-to-window ... to talk about what? Why does the school board vote unanimously, week in and week out with not one member initiating a public discussion about thousands of dollars of expenditures? Why do school board members say, at meetings, “we are not required to respond” when a man with a polite but potentially embarrassing question takes the podium? Christy Arnold's column tells readers that “doing the best we can” means “we’ve been intimidated by the powers that be so we're going to stick to Pop Warner and puppies.” We're doing the best that we can.

I hope Derek Dunn-Rankin plans to have a chat with Editor Arnold about what a newspaper’s job really is -- “Digging ... information .. that lets us better understand the world around us" is his choice quote. I hope he shares with her his vision about a paper that upholds traditional journalistic values: "accuracy, balance, holding government accountable and the separation of news and editorial viewpoint.”

And then I hope he has the same chat with Arcadia Editor Susan Hoffman.

And then I hope he will forgo his yacht-club membership for a year to put a real reporter – not a family friend or relative of the local hospital administrator – in charge of being democracy’s watchdog in our little town. We're doing the best we can -- but the "journalists" aren't helping much.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Short-Change Complaints from One Gondolier Reader Increase

The headline: “Short-change complaints showing an increase.” But, the story doesn’t report this or anything remotely similar.

To say something is on the increase, real editors require (a) a report of how many events occurred last week, last month, last year – some base for comparison, and then (b) a report of how many events occurred this week, this month, this year.
“Crime Scene Columnist” Ken Kleinlein gives no such data. What he does offer, however, is a five-year-old urban legend as “news.”

Kleinlein claims “a potential victim from Texas, wrote” him (doesn’t say when). Now, Kleinlein is a retired cop in Sarasota. Unlike an actual journalist, Kleinlein doesn’t feel the need to name the “potential victim,” which might add some credibility to his story that Walmart customers are secretly charged for cash they didn’t ask for.

And a dash of credibility is sorely needed. The long letter Kleinlein puts inside quote marks is riddled with cop-speak: A supervisor “responded,” and “after the second transaction,” and “at this point,” just doesn’t sound like an irate “potential victim” describing his near-loss of $40 in a cash-back transaction at Houston Walmart.

The scam Kleinlein claims to be warning readers about is a five-year-old urban legend that has been pretty much debunked by the nice folks at Snopes, a Web site that looks into rumors and puts the results on the Internet for all to see – even Ken Kleinlein and Venice Gondolier editors. The urban legend claims Walmart employees secretly add “cash back” transactions when ringing up purchases. Snopes reports an early story circulated in November 2004, followed by a story from Milford, Del., and then a similar one from Houston, Texas – the city Kleinlein claims his correspondent contacted him from.

Kleinlein reports “Walmart Security is intensely investigating,” but he fails to tell who gave him this information or what intense involves.

Not to worry. Snopes investigated and found Walmart says clerks' registers are not equipped to add cash back transactions. Clerks cannot initiate cash-back requests. Only a customer can do this in a two-step process that includes pushing a “yes” button at the customer terminal and then selecting an amount. Furthermore, cash-back transactions are restricted to debit cards; the urban legend stories all involve credit card users.

Apparently the rumor is in revival. Just last month, a a real reporter in Traverse City, Mich., wrote on the same topic. The difference is, the Michigan reporter actually went to Walmarts, made phone calls, interviewed knowledgeable people, assembled facts, went to see with his own eyes how things work, and named and dated his work. The result: same as Snopes; the rumor is just there to scare you, folks.

How did this baseless rumor get started? Snopes says one reasonable inference is customers are “misplacing the blame for their own errors.”

As a juicy scare, the story gets legs every time a retired cop would rather sound knowledgeable than be knowledgeable. His ego error is compounded when the amateur writer’s editors don’t check their “columnist” against the basic standards of their profession. The only scam here stems from a newspaper that apparently doesn't see the need for accountability.

So, back to the headline. Is there an increase in “Short-change complaints?” Absolutely –- from Gondolier readers who crave genuine news instead of five-year-old fiction from five states away.