Thursday, March 31, 2005

Lousy day

The wife smashed up the Oldsmobile Thursday morning. Nobody hurt, at least not seriously, but the Olds got a lot older.

Lousy day

The wife smashed up the Oldsmobile Thursday morning. Nobody hurt, at least not seriously, but the Olds got a lot older. And I spent a frantic day trying to teach a class, deliver papers and tutor writing between ferrying her to the hospital.

When I got home at 8 p.m., just before falling asleep at 8:20 p.m., she said the doctor had given her a few days off work.

"Can I get a doctor's excuse?" I asked.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

New kid on the block

I'm adding a link to another new Montana blog, Dirt Between Light Bulbs, which appears to be interesting and well written. So I might as well go ahead and disagree with it right off the bat. Demosthenes argues that because Republicans won the popular vote for the Legislature 50-47, they should have been expected to win a 50-47 margin in the House (with three up for grabs).

T'aint so. If districts were perfectly apportioned, then the side that won just over 50 percent of the total vote (which Republicans did) would win 100 percent of the House seats. That detail matters if you are curious, as I am, about whether Democrats gerrymandered the districts before the next election. I don't dispute that Democrats tried to do it; I just wonder whether they succeeded.

It's a trickier calculation than you might at first suspect. Presumably, the purpose of gerrymandering is to create districts in which the votes of Democrats (in this case) are maximally effective while the votes of Republicans are discounted. So you try to construct districts in which Democrats win all the close races while Republicans win large victories in districts where a Republican win can't be avoided.

So did Democrats in fact win the close races while losing the lopsided ones? I actually spent a couple of hours trying to compute this for Yellowstone County in the last election, but it got too complicated, and I gave it up. To really nail it down, you would almost have to compute it on a precinct-by-precinct basis, comparing 2004 results to results from previous elections.

Even then, lots of things can go wrong. Plotting a strategy to win close races appears to be sound, but it can easily backfire. You can't afford to cut your margins too close. Did, for example, Carol Gibson lose her bid for re-election because Democrats got too clever for their own good? Hard to tell.

So did Democrats in fact successfully gerrymander the new election districts? I don't know, but I would sure like to see somebody come up with the answer.

UPDATE: For some reason, I can't link directly to the post. You'll have to scroll down to March 27.


I see that all the other panelists on last night's blogging show on Yellowstone Public Radio have weighed in with comments already. I do have an excuse. Tuesday night is production night at The Outpost, so I had to go crank out a few pages after the show (and after Pug Mahon's).

We made a noble effort to finish this week's edition before the show but didn't quite make it. So I put the finishing touches on this week's Outpost while under the influence of two pints of Guinesss Stout. Cheers! All libels will be cheerfully retracted.

The show itself was fun, and good, I hope. It's always hard to tell when you are in the middle of it. Good calls, and Ken Siebert was really well prepared. It wasn't as journalism-oriented as I would have preferred, but that's not a criticism. Ken wanted a show that would be of interest to bloggers, potential bloggers and the what-the-heck-are-bloggers crowd, and I think he pulled that off.

One thing that struck me was how different my motives are from the other bloggers on the panel. Maybe I've been writing for a living for too long, but I have trouble even conceiving of writing a blog as a hobby or for personal satisfaction (which is not to say that it doesn't provide elements of both). I'm just so obsessed with figuring out a way to use the blog to help me make a living (and have so little time to devote to it) that it sort of becomes another beast to be fed. That may explain why I'm not better at it.

It certainly would be appealing to toss aside the dead-tree edition of The Outpost and become a full-time online journalist. I could actually do journalism a few hours every day instead of spending most of my time keeping books, delivering papers and holding the fort together.

A pure online Outpost actually was an idea we kicked around one rainy (remember rain?) Sunday afternoon before we started The Outpost in 1997, but we decided it was too early for such a move. When the bust came, we felt pretty smart. I don't feel so smart anymore.

UPDATE: Fame is so fleeting. My wife called me at the office last night to make sure she knew when the program would be on so she could listen. This morning I asked her, "So how was the show?"

Her reply: "What show?"

Monday, March 28, 2005

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Happy Easter

If religious conservatives had their way, Jesus never would have died for our sins. He would still be on life support.

Nonsense on the web

Writing about "The Coming War on Blogs," James D. Miller is way off target. He speculates that blogs pose a threat to existing media; therefore, MSM will fight back by using their lobbying power to pass laws and regulations that will thwart bloggers in three areas:

1. Campaign finance reform.
2. Libel law.
3. Copyright law.

I believe he is correct that bloggers will be challenged on all three fronts, but he is whistling in the dark if he thinks those challenges will all come from MSM. Campaign finance challenges will come from political parties, candidates and activists, and they will be based on the sort of abuses practiced by South Dakota Politics. Nobody in MSM wants judges defining bloggers vs. legitimate media.

Libel law challenges will come from people who have been libeled. Bloggers can't argue that they are important and influential but that they should be exempt from libel law. And it's just nonsense to say that MSM can handle the burden of defending themselves from libel suits more easily than bloggers can. Libel is finely tuned to the resources of the defendant. The more money you have, the more the plaintiff will ask for. Most bloggers are, in fact, less exposed to libel than MSM because most bloggers (1.) don't have large enough audiences to causes significant damages and (2.) don't have enough resources to pay for the damage they do cause.

Copyright law challenges will come from writers, artists and, yes, MSM. Assuming that bloggers profit from their parasitical relationship with MSM (MSM reports, bloggers pontificate) existing media will look for ways to be compensated for the expensive, difficult work of reporting that fuels so much of the blogosphere. Rather than organize to defend their right to profit from the work of others, bloggers would be wiser to start doing their own reporting.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The sorrow and the pity

Dan McGee lets us know that he doesn't hate homosexuals, he pities them. And no wonder. They throw around words like "straight" and "fundamentalists"; they have chosen perversion, just a pedophile does; and they cannot love. The upside: The Democratic Party "supports and promotes homosexuality." Now if homosexuals could just get some support from the majority party.

World's dumbest columnist reflux

So, as I was fixing to say, Cal Thomas appears to be auditioning to take over Joseph Perkins' title as World's Dumbest Syndicated Columnist. In this column, which appeared this week in the Gazette, Thomas belittles the Project for Excellence in Journalism for reporting that opinions sometimes infiltrate news reports. As he so often does, Thomas totally misses the point.

Thomas notes, correctly, that his employer, Fox News, was singled out for opinionated coverage. As the project's annual report on the news media put it, "On Fox News, the journalists themselves offer their opinions, without attribution to any reporting, in seven out of ten stories. That happens in less than one story out of ten on CNN, and in fewer than three stories out of ten on MSNBC."

As the report makes clear, the point of the study wasn't to determine whether opinions exist in journalism. It was to measure the extent of those opinions as systematically as possible. Such studies inevitably require some subjective judgments, and independent thinkers should be skeptical and critical of them.

Thomas' response? He ignores the evidence. He doesn't even defend Fox's reporting. Instead, he cites a few anecdotal examples of what he considers opinion on other news networks. He concludes, "If they had been truly reporting and not indoctrinating, there would be no Fox and no bloggers to study." He doesn't even bother to try to explain why viewers who are turned off by "indoctrination" would therefore turn on the network that features the most indoctrination.

In short, he responds with clueless drivel. Joseph Perkins must be turning over in his hammock.

World's dumbest columnist redux

I've been having a hard time posting: My posts disappear, the computer freezes up, posts get lost in draft mode, etc. Earlier this week, I totally lost one of the most incisive posts in all of blogdom. You'll have to trust me on that.

This is just an experiment to see if I can get this thing to work again. If it does, I'll be back.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Bloggers need not apply

Had a great time this morning talking to Walt Gulick's ethics class about media ethics, such as they are. The usual question was asked of about 20 students: How many of you read blogs? The usual answer came back: zero. At least this time, I didn't have to explain what a blog is, although I suspect some were wondering.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Schweitzer for prez

Brian Schweitzer and Barack Obama? Hey, I didn't say it. It's in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Obits for free

The New Mexico House wants newspapers to print free obituaries. Those already are available in The Outpost, of course, and in The Billings Gazette for decedents who are willing to settle for a "pine box," with no usable information that would help identify how that person fit into the community.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Billings Olympiad

First, scroll down to the last item under Sports News on "Stories to Watch." Then scroll up to the top right of the screen and read the disclaimer.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Rant spoken here

Warning: This could become a rant.

The discussion about Natelson's column at City Lights, referenced below, has taken a few odd turns. Some are now arguing that I am somehow guilty of a journalistic felony for even printing Natelson. I don't get that. The Outpost prints a range of opinions, including my own column, Clawson, Siegner, occasionally Todd Wilkinson and fairly frequent guest columns. Perhaps none of those is as reliably liberal as Natelson is conservative, but it strikes me as a fair mix. And Natelson's critics get free rein (see, for example, this week's letter to the editor).

I like Natelson not because I agree with him but because he makes arguable assertions that can be tested in the marketplace of ideas. Obviously, his interpretation of why certain schools have higher test scores is open to challenge. I would challenge it on certain points myself. But I think the evidence that small schools work bigger than big schools is fairly persuasive. And while I don't know much about the evidence that religious schools work better than private schools, it sounds like a credible argument to me. I have never attended a religious school, but I have taught at them, and I have had brothers who attended them, and it seems to me that those schools both attract and nurture qualities in students that cause them to be more successful in traditional measures of academic achievement.

The point is that Natelson lays his evidence out there, open to challenge and interpretation by anyone. To me, that's the job of an alternative paper: to present evidence and ideas not readily available in other media. It doesn't matter whether those ideas are conservative or liberal or somewhere in between. As I have argued before, notions of liberal and conservative in 21st century America border on the nonsensical. George Bush is arguably the most liberal president since FDR: big spender, big deficits, intrusive government, little respect for states' rights and an interventionist foreign policy that ignores two centuries of tradition. Yet he gets a pass from conservatives because he's a Republican. How does that make sense?

Real conservatives, like real liberals, don't fit easily into either party. That's why this paper gives a voice to people like Natelson and Molnar. And Hurdle and Toole. I like politicians who place principle above party at either end of the spectrum.

I don't want to paint the commenters at City Lights with too broad a brush. Some make legitimate points. But some seem to fall into the trap of simply demonizing people they expect to disagree with. I'm amazed when liberal friends say they never read Natelson or Molnar. I thought the whole notion of liberalism was that you listen to and consider all relevant points of view.

It all reminds me quite unpleasantly of the lack of uproar that greeted Wolfgang von Eitzen's deportation to Germany. We practically made a crusade of that story. It was, to my mind, about as clearcut a case of systematic government abuse as I have ever encountered. Yet my liberal friends, with few exceptions, didn't give a damn. Why? Because Wolfgang was, in their minds, a conservative crank whose rights need not concern rational people. The only people I saw speaking out and demonstrating on his behalf were conservatives. I wish I could say that they did it out of principle, but I suspect that if Wolfgang had been a socialist, they would have been silent, too.

When The Outpost says that we "will hew to no ideological doctrine and toe no partisan line," we mean that seriously. We don't choose what to print on the basis of how well it fits our preconceptions of what the world ought to look like. Natelson challenges received wisdom, even when it estranges him from his own party, and he is welcome here.

As long as I'm ranting, here's one final note for Tony, who chides The Outpost for failing to cover stories in depth: Tony, you're right, sort of. Obviously, we don't have the kind of depth I wish we had. But our cover stories often run more than 2,000 words and sometimes hit 3,000. That may not sound impressive, but with our news hole it's a huge commitment.

The Outpost's entire editorial budget wouldn't pay the wages of even one Gazette reporter. Yet we get our shots in. We ran a two-part story about the Crow tribal chairman's sweetheart deal with a local car dealership a full year before the indictments came down. No other media outlet even touched that story until the grand jury acted.

We printed a long story about a local prostitution ring months before participants were arrested and brought to trial. Although I can't confirm this because of the nature of criminal investigations, I have been told that our story helped spur prosecution.

We broke the story about financial irregularities at Commonwealth University. The story about a massive firefighters lawsuit against the city that was in this week's Gazette? The Outpost had it in January 2003. We broke the story about the county public works director accusing a county commissioner of malfeasance. We broke the story about a huge lawsuit by West End landowners alleging that the city screwed up a sewer project. We broke a statewide story about the Montana government going to India for computer support. That story made the front page of the Great Falls Tribune, with credit to the Outpost. It never, so far as I am aware, made the Gazette.

I could go on. Just a couple of weeks ago, Natelson pointed out that the Montana Supreme Court's recent habit of issuing decisions without giving their legal reasoning specifically violates state law. Have other media picked this up? Maybe, but I haven't seen it. In next week's edition, I plan to break another significant story that you have not read or heard anywhere else. I won't tell you what it is, for obvious reasons, but it will be there. And our coverage of the media itself, such as taking a critical look at Lee's recent purchase of the Pulitzer chain, will never appear in Lee Enterprises papers. Ever.

Obviously, with our tiny resources, we take shortcuts, and we get beat on plenty of stories. Heck, I do most of our reporting, and I have had to take two other jobs just to stay afloat. But Tony, you've got elite media credentials and, obviously, time on your hands. If you don't think we're getting enough good stories, how about submitting some yourself? I will pay you exactly what the publisher makes. Or, of course, you could sit around and bitch.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Your free and independent press

Some people think that blogging technology provides all the alternative to mainstream media that readers need. But take a look at how the Missoulian attempts to block out competition and you realize just how badly needed alternative publications (ahem, like this one) are still needed.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Natelson gets graded

Lots of interesting discussion going on at City Lights about Rob Natelson's column this week. Only two thoughts from me:

1. When the list of schools with top scores is so dominated by small rural schools, and when large, urban schools are nearly all excluded, something must be going on besides how private/religious/conservative these schools are. I'm not sure what, but something. Class sizes, perhaps?

2. Rob writes, "western Gallatin County is a relatively religious area." Relative to what?

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Jackie gets the goods

Interesting piece here on Gov. Schweitzer at the governors' meeting in Washington. It was passed along by Jackie Corr, of course.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Now here's bias

I idly entered "iconoclast" into Google and landed at this column by Charles Krauthammer. He makes the usual case about liberal bias with one distinction: He cites a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that found the press far more critical of George Bush than John Kerry in the weeks before the election.

This is serious stuff, if true, because the Project for Excellence folks are serious people. So I went to the Project's summary of its study. Sure enough, Krauthammer was right. But what he didn't mention was that the results were almost exactly the opposite of coverage in 2000, when Al Gore took a press beating while Bush got off lightly. How does liberal bias explain that? The study attributed at least some of the difference in coverage to Bush's lousy debate performance.

Which goes to show, when you are looking for bias you can nearly always find it -- even in conservative columnists.

So long

The Worst Syndicated Columnist in America has now become the Worst Syndicated Columnist in America Emeritus. I think they should retire the title.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

More on New West

Here's more on the New West website I mention below. And to think: He only has a million bucks to spend.

By the way, I think the problem that some people have had leaving comments here may have been fixed. Try it and let me know.