Sunday, May 29, 2005

Memento mori

I don't know how many obituaries I've written or edited over the years. It's in the thousands, probably tens of thousands. Mostly they just roll by, more grist for the endless copy mill that newspaper work is.

Occasionally, one stops me cold. Usually, it's a kid. Not hard to figure why that is. Sometimes, it's a photo that does it. I remember an obit a few months ago at The Outpost for a woman who had been a nurse for the troops during World War II. I don't know what she looked like when she died, but the photo proved that she had been one stunningly gorgeous nurse. Any soldier who woke up in a hospital with her leaning over the bed would just have to get better.

Sometimes one sends me into a blue funk for no good reason at all. Maybe somebody who died with no survivors. Or who was sick for many years before dying. Or, for no reason at all that I can detect, just out of the blue one or another gets to me.

A few minutes ago, it was an obit for a 34-year-old waitress. She graduated from Senior High School. She had two kids. She died of breast cancer.

Zap, it hit me. Damn. You come into life with no guarantee except that one day you will leave it, and that's fair, I suppose. But sometimes it just doesn't seem right.

So here I am having my own private Memorial Day for somebody I never knew, other than through a half-dozen paragraphs in the paper. In a way, it feels like I knew her forever.

Friday, May 27, 2005

'Diezmo' redux

Since my comments on "The Diezmo" drew so much attention below, I wrote a full review for the Outpost. Also, the last thing you will ever need to read about the Bauer-Tussing dispute.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


OK, I give up. I've read this story three times now, and I still don't see where it says what effect, if any, the designation of Michael Gulledge as a vice president of Lee will have on his job at The Gazette. We are told that he plans to stay in Billings, which would seem to be unnecessary information if we knew he was staying on as publisher. But we don't know that.

Help! What the heck does a vice president do anyway? I was at Lee for five years, and I can't recall that I ever heard of a vice president doing anything. Maybe he's the guy who goes around and fires publishers who don't make "plan." Not much of a job, but somebody has to do it.

The mission

Billings Outpost Delivery Day Bumper Sticker of the Week: "Quagmire Accomplished!"

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Keep your hands out of my pocket

Here's why I think the government shouldn't be in the economic development business. Not only do they want to spend my money, they don't want me to know about it.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Prescient Molnar

Public Service Commissioner (and former Outpost columnist) Brad Molnar stopped by and pointed out that the guts of this Great Falls Tribune story showed up in The Outpost back in September 2003.

What's the dirt?

So what's up with Dirt Between Light Bulbs? I've been plotting a column on the prospects for a good blogging war in the next political campaign, and figured these guys for a prominent role. But when I go there these days, the latest thing I see is an April 11 entry. How can I shape the news to fit my preexisting biases, complete with mandatory "he said, she said" dueling quotes, if you fellows won't cooperate?

Political blogging in Montana can't live by Matt Singer alone. And is threatening (perhaps idly) to cut back on posting. Dave Budge may have to become my go-to guy for conservative posts.

Blasting Burns

Outpost readers have plenty to say about a letter to the editor this week blasting Sen. Conrad Burns' position on wild horses.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


Matt Welch makes quite reasonable points about news media and the war, to which Instapundit responds in characteristically lame fashion. Welch notes that if Americans think the press is "on the other side" in the War on Terror, then Americans are wrong, and Reynolds does neither the press nor press freedom any favors by feeding that false perception.

Reynolds responds that nobody believes reporters actually want to lose the war (with one possible exception). But he says they act "almost as if" they do. When my first-year students write something like that, I pull out my marking pen. To say that I almost won a Pulitzer Prize is just another way of saying I didn't win a Pulitzer Prize. Write what you mean to say, I tell them, not what you almost mean to say. So if Reynolds agrees with Welch that reporters aren't disloyal, why does he call Welch's argument "weak"?

To do so, he has to strain logic. He says that "leading representatives" of journalism are loyal not to the United States but to journalism. I'm no "leading representative," but I've been an American for 54 years and a journalist for 25. I've yet to detect any meaningful conflict between my citizenship and my profession. The only conflict Instapundit cites is a hypothetical one that actually is rather easy to answer but takes time that I don't have right now. Journalism, practiced properly, serves the cause of truth, and truth serves the cause of freedom, so the better the journalism the stronger the country. If American soldiers are flushing Qurans down the toilet, then Americans ought to know about it because Americans are ultimately responsible for the behavior of their soldiers. If soldiers aren't flushing the Quran, then nobody should be reporting that they are. The question is strictly one of competence, not of loyalty.

Instapundit then tosses out a few sloppy characterizations. First: "You go out of your way to report bad news, and bury the good news." Yes, reporters do go out of their way to report bad news because almost no bad news would get reported if they didn't. Big companies and the government pay people to make sure the good news gets out. Because reporting bad news is harder work than reporting good news, and because readers tend to react more strongly to it (imagine how much attention Instapundit would ever devote to a story Newsweek reported accurately), bad news is often overplayed. But that's the nature of the beast and irrelevant to the larger point about loyalty. Second: "[You] treat all positive news as presumptive lies." That's just presumptive bunk. To give just one of thousands of possible examples: Voter turnout in Iraqi elections. Positive news, right? Presumptive lie? Who says?

Finally, Reynolds offers an interesting comparison to coverage of racial issues. He notes, correctly, that the press changed the way it reported on minorities in response to an understanding that the old way of covering race was destructive. What he doesn't note is that the change took a very long time. When I was a cub reporter, it was still common to get calls from people who wanted to know whether an accused criminal was black or white, and who couldn't understand why we wouldn't print that. In the late '70s, we were still struggling to overcome habits of thought and mind that had ruled the press and the nation for well over 100 years. And the change came only after a couple of enormous national convulsions that finally forced the press and the public to face up to their attitudes about race.

The point is that the press (with some honorable exceptions) didn't exactly lead the way in shaping public attitudes about race. The press reflected what the public thought, which tends, unfortunately, to be what the press typically does. For Instapundit to latch onto that as a model for covering the War on Terror shows how weak his grasp of these issues is.

To accuse reporters of wanting the terrorists to win is essentially to accuse them not only of a suicidal impulse but also of treason. And to accuse them of acting "almost as if they" wanted terrorists to win is to accuse them of "almost treason" or, perhaps, to "almost accuse them of treason." If Reynolds has the courage and the evidence to make the treason charge, then he should do so explicitly, naming names and preparing legal briefs. If he lacks the courage and the evidence, then he should do what Newsweek ought to have done: Shut up.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Tussing gone

Just got a news release from the city of Billings announcing that Police Chief Ron Tussing has resigned "following a buy-out of his position today by the City of Billings."
Approval of the settlement is to be considered on Monday.
My take on last week's hearing is here.

Blue streak

The editor of The Outpost talks dirty to his readers.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Flushing the Quran

Sarpy Sam invites comment from Ed Kemmick and me (as the "professional journalists" of the Montana blogosphere) on Newsweek's Quran-flushing fiasco. Ed responds here; as Sarpy Sam speculates, I don't have much to add to the discussion.

I will say that I felt a bit heartsick at news of the error. When honest mistakes crop up in news reports, I nearly always feel bad for the reporter because I know how that feels, and I know how easy it is to make mistakes. I expect to make a few today. Beyond that, it's not too hard to see how the error occurred. Such allegations had been floating around for a while; the information came from a source that had been reliable in the past; and the whole thing amounted to just a single sentence.

But it does appear the sourcing was sloppy -- in exactly the same way as the CBS forged documents story was sloppy. In both cases, reporters floated the story by government officials; when officials didn't shoot the story down, reporters took that as confirmation. That ain't smart.

BONUS OBSERVATION: Before news of the error broke, Bill Maher said that the most interesting aspect of this story was the remarkable capacity of the toilet. He said he can't even get a Jehovah's Witness tract down his toilet.


John Clayton cites a couple of unfavorable and one favorable review of Rick Bass's new novel, Diezmo. I just finished the book this morning, and I can say, without equivocation, that I agree with all three reviews.

The book doesn't read much like a novel at all. The fictional narrator is annoyingly inert, and even larger-than-life characters like Bigfoot Wallace seem diminished. Bass seems to have been torn between making things up and sticking to the facts, and wound up writing a book that reads more like an extended essay than a work of fiction.

But what an essay. The book chronicles the Mier Expedition, a chapter of Texas history with inextinguishable appeal for natives of the state. It was a sordid affair, a violent episode of border looting and murder during the days of the Texas Republic, but it draws me for several reasons:

1. I read a biography of Bigfoot Wallace when I was a kid, and it has stuck with me forever.

2. The infamous black bean episode, in which Mexican soldiers decided which 10 percent (hence the novel's title) of Texan prisoners to execute by having them draw beans from a bag containing 10 white beans for each black one. Those who drew black beans were immediately shot. One legend is that Bigfoot Wallace drew a white bean, then gave it away as a gesture of kindness and drew another. Bass doesn't repeat that story, but does say that Wallace lingered over the bag, feeling among the beans for the smallest one, which he believed would be white. It was instead a mottled color, and his captors had to rule it white to spare his life.

3. My father preached for seven years at La Grange, Texas, which is best known to most people as the home of the house of ill repute immortalized in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. But it also is near Monument Hill, a sheer bluff rising out of the Central Texas prairie where the men of the expedition were buried overlooking the Colorado River. We spent many lazy Sunday afternoons on that bluff, playing and gazing on the burial vault in which those men lie.

I was pretty darned excited when I learned that Bass had written about the expedition, and while I can't praise it highly as a novel, I found it very, very hard to put down.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Attack dog

Even moderate Republicans are getting turned off by the persistent nastiness and partisanship of the MT GOP Ebrief. Pete Hansen, who describes himself as "35 degrees left of the far right," sent me his response to a May 10 Ebrief that started this way: "Our petulant little tyrant of a governor has struck again, giving us a third example of the complete lack of respect that he has for his office."

Pete responded, in part: "Could we possibly have a little less of the 'Junkyard Dog' rhetoric and a bit of moderation? The party, of which I am one, is taking on the appearance of a small dog snapping at the ankles of both the Governor and the Democrats in toto at any opportunity! Frankly, you're not making a lot of friends among the electorate and, if continued, your actions will continue us as a minority party in years to come. Many folks I talk to, from both parties, are fed up with the 'Them and Us' actions of the legislature thus far."

To which Chuck Denowh of MT GOP responded: "I'm not sure what you mean. When the Democrats do something bad, we have to call them on it. I'm not about to let them skate through unchecked. Keep in mind that our email newsletter is for our Republican base. I wish it were more widespread and that more of the independent electorate were engaged enough to read it, but that's just not realisitic. There's nothing wrong with partisanship - but there is plenty wrong with hypocricy."

Let's see. A party member complains that divisive rhetoric is turning off reasonable people in the middle, and the party defends divisive rhetoric by arguing that reasonable people in the middle aren't engaged. Can Denowh really be this clueless?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Grapette gone bad

The good news: Grapette, one of the joys of my tender years, is back. The bad news: You have to go to Wal-Mart to get it. Even worse news: The distinctive bottle shape (see photo) isn't coming back.

Oh! Lost youth.

Grapette Posted by Hello

Friday, May 13, 2005

Tussing on trial

I spent most of today at the due process hearing for Police Chief Ron Tussing. I won't take time to report on it now, but here are a couple of general observations:

1. If it's fireworks you were after, forget it. Kristoff Bauer didn't appear, sending an assistant instead. Tussing was there, but his lawyer, Michael Rapkoch, did all his talking for him. Tina Volek, sitting in for Bauer, showed less animation that a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Rapkoch, who has been ill, wore down as the day went on, although he got off a few good shots, mostly in defense of the chief's First Amendment right to speak out. But at one point, about six hours into the proceeding, he acknowledged that for spectators the hearing must have been about as exciting as watching paint dry. At the instant he said that, a glorious image of a picket fence, covered in bright paint, glistening in the sun on a warm spring day, drying to beat the band, leapt into my mind.

2. I was amazed at how weak the city's case seemed to be. It really did seem that, as Tussing's written introductory remarks indicated, that Bauer is just out trying to cobble together evidence to justify a decision he already had made. When I wrote this column about Tussing's atheism remark, it bothered me that I might be blowing a pretty small matter out of proportion. But after sitting through five or six hours of the hearing, the atheism stuff seemed to be the strongest material the city had. It was one of the very few things Tussing admitted to having done wrong, and he apologized for it.


Jaci Webb needs to meet more people.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Revamping the school board

Considering the dismal turnout at last week's school board election, isn't it time to roll back the clock and get rid of single-member districts?

Not yet. At least not according to Jim Hartung, one of the driving forces behind the effort to split School District 2 into districts. I saw Jim at Artwalk on Friday (a good time was had by all) and he didn't seem the least bit disheartened. Lots of people still haven't figured out the change, he said (a depressing but probably accurate observation), and, anyway, enough good candidates surfaced to avoid a bad outcome.

True enough, I guess. I supported single-member districts for two reasons:

1. School board candidates running races across the entire school district were running in areas substantially larger than legislative districts. In a nonpartisan race for a nonpaying job, that's prohibitively difficult. Candidates either spent a lot of their own money or didn't spend much of anything at all.

2. Different areas of Billings really do have different interests and vote in very different ways. I documented that at considerable length in the Outpost a couple of years ago, but can't link because the site appears to be down for technical reasons.

Both of those reasons still make sense to me. But my big concern was that single-member districts would reduce turnout and make it harder to find good candidates. That concern is still intact.

UPDATE: The link is working now.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Schweitzer for the defense

Gov. Brian Schweitzer was on the phone this morning to defend his line-item veto of certain reporting requirements contained in the budget bill. I criticized the veto in a post below.

The governor essentially made two points:

1. The reporting requirements imposed by the Legislature violate the Montana Constitution, a point that even legislative attorney Greg Petesch has acknowledged may be valid. Petesch went on to hold that even if the requirements were improper, they couldn't be vetoed after the Legislature adjourned. The governor, naturally, disputes this assertion.

2. The legislative requirements would impose a lot of new and unnecessary paperwork that nobody would bother to read anyway. Schweitzer is more interested in proceeding with plans to streamline government, which he says could save $60 million. The House defeated his performance review proposal on a 50-50 party-line vote.

I think that's a fair summary of his position. I'm not totally won over because I don't see why it's worth a legal fight over information that the public (not to mention the Legislature) is mostly entitled to have anyway. But you have to hand it to Schweitzer: He's not afraid to go to bat right out loud for his positions.

Day off

Wow. In honor of Mother's Day and the end of the semester, I just took Sunday off. Well, not entirely off -- I spent a few hours grading papers -- but it was so close to a day off that it felt like paradise: sleeping until 10, a leisurely breakfast, afternoon in the hot tub, a nap, and then cooking a delicious (and spicy) hot chicken curry with a bottle of shiraz and strawberry shortcake for dessert.

It was my first day off since Jan. 1 and, I think, my first Sunday off in five years. Just carrying out the garbage seemed like an insane luxury -- pleasant, useful and undemanding labor that benefited no one but me.

Somewhere in mid-afternoon in occurred to me that there are people out there who spend every Sunday that way. Ain't life grand?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Going to court

Maybe I don't understand the issue, but it sure seems to me that Schweitzer is wrong, wrong, wrong on this one.

Even if turns out that he's right on the constitutional question, what makes this a fight worth having?

Indian giving

Lots of interesting comments this week on Roger Clawson's column about alleged government giveaways to Indians.

Some of them are even pro-Clawson. How often do you get to read something like that?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Beer bust

If I had known it was going to cause a national economic crisis, I wouldn't have cut back on my beer drinking.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


The hiatus on this blog will last a bit longer. I finished up classwork at Rocky last week, but still have a final and a lot of grading to do. I'll finish this week at MSU-Billings, then there's quite a bit to clear off the desk here at the Outpost, including monthly billing and some very difficult decisions about where this paper is going and how it's going to get there.

So it will be next week at the earliest before there's much to read here. So move along now.