Monday, October 31, 2005

Done and done

Finished my big freelance piece on Brian Schweitzer last night and shipped it off in the e-mail. Hallelujah. It'll be out in December, I think.

Getting the piece done was tough sledding with my schedule, but enjoyable all the same. I wish I could afford to write for a living.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


From the indispensable Jackie Corr comes word that Matt Vincent, formerly of the Montana Standard's Rat Pack column, has quit the Standard and started a new column for our Butte colleagues, the Butte Weekly. The popular Rat Pack, so Vincent tells us, was canceled by the Standard in part because a couple of advertisers objected to an item. Vincent writes:

Congratulations to those two pompous advertisers and a spineless publisher - you sure showed us. And The Standard also showed everyone that core principles like freedom of the press and censorship are debatable if it means being potentially unpopular or unprofitable in the eyes of a few crybaby advertisers - in this case ones that don't even spend enough money to worry about losing.

Vincent goes on to allege that Standard Editor Gerry O'Brien removed citizen commentary opposing the cancellation from the Standard's website and that the Standard has failed to run some letters to the editor defending the column.

Opinions get more expensive every day.

Readers' choice

Reasonable people can disagree, and so can unreasonable ones. So I would never find fault with the Gazette's Readers' Choice awards. After all, we were told that the response was "wonderful," which must mean that at least somebody responded.

But in all seriousness: Applebee's for Best All-Around Restaurant? Wendy's for Best Hamburger? Let's set aside the possibility that either of these establishments could have won a plurality of votes in these categories. Does even one person seriously think that Applebee's is the best restaurant in Billings? Or what it would say about the state of Billings cuisine if it were?

And I can't imagine that even Wendy's thinks it makes the best hamburgers in town. Heck, Applebee's makes better hamburgers.

Come on, Applebee's and Wendy's fans. If you are out there, make your case.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Never apologize

When we called up City Council candidates this week in a last-minute attempt to round up some political ads, Ron Tussing turned us down. His reason: He said that I am “an apologist” for Al Garver.

I can’t think of anything I wrote in The Outpost that would deserve that label, and I assume he wasn’t referring to this. So it must have to this, in which I labeled a loaded question posed by a Tussing supporter as a “cheap shot” and “dumb.”

Since Tussing ran a couple of 2-by-4 ads before the primary, and since we charge a flat $10 per column inch for political ads, my comment may have cost me $160 or so. That makes it the most expensive opinion in the history of the Montana blogosphere, I’m guessing. Can anybody top it?

I’m working on a freelance piece that, with luck, may pay me 20 cents a word. My three-word “apology” for Garver may have cost me $53.33 a word. If Larry Kralj had to pay those kind of rates each times he gives offense, he would be bankrupt after a paragraph or two.

I wrote the offending lines about 13 hours into a 22-hour day. If I had been a little less tired, I might have been more circumspect. But after considerable reflection and discussion, I haven’t found a reason to doubt my initial judgment about the question. It was dumb. And, since the bill already has been paid: dumb, dumb, dumb.

At any rate, this development has put a serious crimp into the profitability of this blog. The latest P&L:

Hosting $0
Compensation to author $0
Total $0

Gross income $0
Intemperate opinion penalty ($160)
Total ($160)

Total net income: ($160).

As usual, my business plan appears to have some holes in it.

The oddest thing is that Tussing seems to think I have something against him and his campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth. I need him in the public eye. Until he came along, I was Donald Cyphers’ public enemy No. 1.

Heck, I probably should apologize. But then Garver might pull his ads. I don’t think I can afford any more apologies.

Hockey time

As it happens, I have a fairly substantial number of free hockey tickets for tonight's and Saturday's games. If you want any, please send me an e-mail at and you're welcome to them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sell dirt cheap

The cheapest housing market in Montana? Right here in Billings (thanks to Ed Ulledalen for the link).

Monday, October 24, 2005

Buying local

Heard a radio ad the other day for a fairly prominent Billings business urging residents to buy from Montana-owned stores. Bravo for that.

The thing that rankled was that we have been trying for eight years to get that particular business to buy an ad in this Montana-owned newspaper. Not one nickel has come our way. Maybe the owners should listen to their own ads.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Garver-Tussing update

My entry on the debate Tuesday between Al Garver and Ron Tussing spurred quite a bit of discussion below, much of it on the question of whether Garver improperly funneled campaign funds through his consulting business. I asked Garver about it yesterday, and he said that he incurred some expenses, including printing and miscellanenous items, before his campaign fund had been properly set up. He charged those expenses to his consulting business, then reimbursed the business when his campaign was up and going.

He said he submitted an invoice of the expenses to the commissioner of political practice when he filed his campaign report. That, he said, is why the commissioner dismissed a complaint filed against him without even bothering to notify him: There was simply no problem.

The conversation took place too late in the day for me to verify his account with the office of political practice, but that's his story.

In Tune?

The all-time roster of Tuney Award winners for the best in Billings music is located here. I'm not a huge music fan, but I found the list pretty interesting in not quite definable ways.

I also enjoyed the Tuney Award celebration itself, especially the soulful and rustic performance by the Smoothgrass Boys. Afterward, a few fancy-pants modernists (who shall go here unnamed) complained that the Boys weren't exactly in tune. Harumph.

I grew up in steeped in old-timey gospel music. Give me a few minutes, and I could sing you the first verse of at least 100 gospel songs, without getting a single measure in tune. That ain't the point.

My father, the itinerant preacher, hauled us kids to meetings in South Texas churches so rural that even locals hadn't heard of them: Ezzell, Nursery, Fordtran, Bazette, Prairie Point. The notion that singing should be in tune was not only foreign but mildly suspect, unAmerican and possibly even ungodly. My church permitted no instrumental music, and I remember serious theological disputes over whether the use of a pitch pipe to get the congregants in tune violated the will of the Lord. The pitch pipe backers won out, leading directly to the breakdown of the family, pornography and George W. Bush.

In my later youth, a friend and I shared a Sunday pulpit in Fordtran, Texas, halfway between Victoria and Halletsville. One Sunday after church, we decided to take a ride through the community of Fordtran itself, up the road from the church. We drove around aimlessly for a half-hour or so, then pulled up by a boy in bluejeans who was standing all alone on a road bounded by barbed-wire fences and flat, treeless pasture stretching as far as the eye could see.

"Where's Fordtran?" we asked.

"You're in it," he said.

But when Wesley Stevens led the singing on Sunday mornings, his powerful voice blasted through the open windows and echoed among the pecan trees. We grabbed our songbooks and just held on. And when the whole Stevens clan gathered on Sunday afternoons for a full-fledged singing, the sheer musicality of it was the talk of Victoria County. But was everybody always and exactly in tune, following some dictatorial priniciple laid down in hymnal law? What are you, some kind of communist?

My friend Tony Rohne put it best, years later and in a different context, during choir practice for the Methodist church.

"Those notes," he said, "those notes are just guidelines."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Free at last

A couple of minutes after the Astros hauled in the final fly ball last night to win their first-ever trip to the World Series, my phone rang. I didn't have to check caller ID to know who was calling: It was my brother, checking in from Texas, about the team we began following in 1965, when I was 14 and he was 13.

"It's been 40 years," he said. "Forty years. And now I have seen the Promised Land."

The Astros haunted us for decades. We began listening on the radio when the Astrodome opened, getting hooked while spending spring nights on cots on the screen porch as the Astros played a series of exhibition games against the New York Yankees, then still starring Mickey Mantle.

It wasn't just the baseball. We grew up out in the country in South Texas, and the Astros opened a window on a world that we could only imagine: We followed an ongoing storyline -- mostly futile, sometimes absurd -- night after night, city after city, to St. Louis, San Francisco, New York, Chicago. On West Coast swings, when games started about the time we had to go to bed, we would fall asleep with the radio turned down low in the dark. I remember lying half asleep one night in extra innings as Willie Mays, then still in his prime, fouled off pitch after pitch, waiting for just the right one before driving the ball out of the park to end the game.

Finally seeing the team live was an experience I recall more clearly than any game I have ever seen since. That game was against the Cardinals, too, and the Astros won it, 4-3, when Bob Aspromonte hit a line drive single that split the third-base line with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th.

When the Astros finally were on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time, in 1980, they went into LA with a two-game lead on the Dodgers and three to play. The Astros lost the first two, and my phone rang after the final out of the second game. It wasn't my brother but a sportswriting buddy, whose first words were, "This is the suicide hotline. We had a message to call here." But the Astros won that third game (the headline in the Los Angeles Times: "Astros win first prize, two days in Philadelphia; Dodgers win second, winter in LA") and played the best post-season series ever against the Phillies, but the World Series remained elusive.

I tried to swear off the Astros over the years. It was always a lousy match, the Astros with their fake grass and Hawaiian luau jerseys and exploding scoreboard and me railing against aluminum bats and calling for a constitutional amendment to outlaw the designated hitter rule. I tried to adopt the Rangers and the Rockies, but nothing took. For me, it was the Astros or nobody.

And now they're in the World Series. I have seen the Promised Land.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Debate update

I'm just back from the moderating the mayoral debate sponsored by the Descro Neighborhood Task Force. With only two candidates, we experimented with a more interactive format than in most debates. Panelists Jim Van Arsdale and Royal Johnson took turns asking questions in four-minute blocks, which allowed follow-up questions on key issues and made for some interesting exchanges. Don't ask me what anybody actually said: I was too busy monitoring the second hand on my wristwatch.

Johnson asked some questions along these lines, and I was relieved to hear that both candidates seemed to have as much trouble sorting this issue out as I do.

But my impression was that Tussing did somewhat better overall than he did in the six-candidate primary debate. The longer format allowed more of his in-depth knowledge to surface, and his sense of humor showed through (before the debate, he suggested that he and Garver should just give each other's answers, since both had heard them often enough before). The format also forced him to answer some pretty tough questions about his agreement not to work for the city and his probable relations with city staff, and he answered those questions fully and without flinching.

Garver doesn't quite have Tussing's natural ease in front of a crowd, but he did OK, too, and he defended himself well from a cheapshot question posed from the audience by Mary Jo Fox, who essentially accused him of using his consulting business as a front to pump campaign funds into his own pocket. Pretty dumb.

So what difference does it make who wins? Not much, probably. More laughs with Tussing, no doubt, and possibly more public confrontations. That makes good copy. Garver might work harder and push more initiatives and projects -- maybe good, maybe not. Frankly, I'm still not sure how I will vote. Where's Bovee when you need him?

Pot, meet Kettle

From the latest Montana Republican Party e-mail: "Just look at what the Democrats’ tactics have been to this point. Lie, slander, throw mud, and attempt character assassination. That’s all they can do!"

Monday, October 17, 2005

Council update

The meeting with the Billings City Council this evening went about as expected. All the media representatives in attendance (Steve Prosinski and Kristi Angel, Gazette; Blair Martin, KULR-8; Jon Stepanek, Q2) pretty much saw eye to eye: Nobody wanted a media advisory council, and nobody really wanted to negotiate with the city on how to resolve open records disputes.

As presented at the meeting, the city's idea didn't sound quite as bad as in the letter. Apparently, Bozeman has adopted some kind of deal with the media (presumably, the Chronicle) so that disagreements about what is public go directly to district judges without a lot of legal formalities and briefs. The city says this would save money and time.

Perhaps that's so, on certain types of open records requests. But I think we all hoped to hear the city say that it has simply been wrong to fight some of the requests it has fought, and we didn't hear that. In any case, no media organization can make a deal that's binding on others, and even if we all agreed, any member of the public could still challenge the agreement, so I'm not sure what the agreement would solve when substantive legal issues were in dispute.

So I don't know that anything was settled. Vince Ruegamer said that if we don't like the city's ideas for improving things then we should come up with our own. But I agree with what Stepanek said afterward: A bit of an adversarial relationship is not a bad thing, and the existing system works OK, so long as everybody just tries to follow the law.

Q2's attorney, Bill Conner, wondered afterward why Cyphers wasn't there. Probably ought interviewing Tussing, he figured.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Damned to hell

I saw in City Lights that Ed Kemmick got a note from Marvella Orchard along with a copy of the Northern Light. I got a copy of the Northern Light in the mail the other day, too, but I couldn't find a note. Just now, as I was cleaning off my desk, there it was.

Marvella Orchard wrote: "I have read your personal attacks against Mr. Donald Cyphers and your bad words about the Montana News Association. You tried through unethical business tactics to destroy both Mr. Cyphers and Mrs. Kathleen Plumb of the Northern Light. Yet, as you can see, while you are declining, God is blessing and increasing their business and their influence."

I don't know what I did to "destroy" Ms. Plumb. Nothing that I can recall. And it beats me why Cyphers gets a pass for ripping people off while God punishes me for pointing it out.

Maybe I've spent too many Sunday mornings at St. Mattress.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Fighting privacy

Mayor Chuck Tooley has invited me to a workshop Monday on city-media relations. His letter proposes (with some paraphrasing):

1. That when the media request information that may jeopardize individual privacy, all parties will agree to seek and abide by a judge's ruling.

2. The City Council won't act on any such matter until the judge has ruled.

3. The council wants to create a committee of members of the media to review requests that the city considers burdensome and then make recommendations.

These might be matters worthy of serious consideration, but since I have my blogging hat on, I'll just dash off a few leather-headed opinions.

1. I don't want to have anything to do with this. I want the city to grant all legal requests and deny the rest. It's my job to protect privacy when warranted when I decide what to publish, but it's not my job to help the city control access to information.

2. If I were to serve on the committee the mayor has proposed, my recommendation in every case would be that the city comply promptly and fully with both the letter and spirit of the law. Since I'm not the city's legal adviser, my advice would never go beyond that.

3. It doesn't really matter to me whether requests to the city for information are made in good faith or bad, with pure motives or corrupt, in service of the greater good or not. My only concern is whether the requests are legal. If they are, then the information ought to be released.

4. I can't afford lawyers. If the city improperly denies me information, I want to be compensated.

One for Tussing

I don't have a Ron Tussing banner on my blog, but I still think he comes out the big winner in this exchange. Al Garver sounds both petty and naive, a deadly combination in a prospective leader. And Tussing's response was dead on: "It's not my job to give Al Garver ideas."

I'm not backing off from my prediction that Garver will win this, but I'm also not doubling up any bets.

Rack update update update update

My latest piece on the rack situation is here. But actually there has been a later development since I wrote that. It looks as if we will be allowed to leave our papers on Albertsons racks without signing a contract. That's not the same as being free, and it doesn't mean that we can't get kicked off, but it feels like a victory, no matter how small.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Rack update update update

I've finally written my long overdue update to our rack distribution problems. But do you think I will let you read it for free here? No, you'll have to wait until Thursday and read it for free in The Outpost. Short summary: It ain't over yet.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

News from Bizarro World

Here's a marriage made in -- well, maybe not exactly heaven -- but somewhere south of there. The Northern Light, a monthly based in Molt, and the Montana News Association, an online publication based in Never Never Land, have joined forces.

The latest issue of the Northern Light includes a letter from MNA Editor Donald Cyphers welcoming Light Editor Kathleen Plumb as an MNA member. He writes, "The Montana News Association, together with our many state, national and International media partnerships, pray for your success in Christ and that you will be abundantly blessed with His direction, protection and peace." Ms. Plumb adds, "May God bless our efforts."

God may stay out of this one. Cyphers, despite his Christian orientation has -- how shall I put it? -- some integrity management issues (see, for example, here, here, here and here.

Plumb, despite her Christian orientation, has -- how shall I put it? -- some reality management issues. See, for example, here and my response here.

So this ought to be interesting. I just hope nobody gets hurt. At least, I hope Ms. Plumb doesn't get hurt. But here's the bright side: The Northern Light's latest issue reprints an MNA piece about Ron Tussing that refers to Ed Kemmick's "lack of any semblance of logic" and his "irresponsible cavalier attitude." Ed's overjoyed response is here.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Doggone it

The last comment on the Tussing Tussle thread below is pretty doggone hilarious. Well, it may not be the last comment by the time you get there, but you'll know you found it when you start chuckling.

And speaking of doggone, Brian Schweitzer dropped a "doggone" into a radio interview with national talk show host Glenn Beck last week. Gov. Schweitzer's discussion of coal liquefaction on Thursday just about charmed the pants off Beck, who was particularly struck by Schweitzer's "doggone" terminology and used it half-a-dozen times in the next 5 or 10 minutes.

After the interview, when the conservative Beck's sidekick reminded him that he wasn't supposed to like Democrats, Beck said, "Well, doggone it, I want to like him."

It all struck me as especially funny because I had just interviewed Schweitzer for an hour, finishing up not more than five minutes before the (apparently pretaped) show aired. I have a freelance story in the works about the governor.

Naturally, I used my interview to get a dig in at the governor -- after he took a dig at me for my lacksadaisical blogging habits. When he asked how The Outpost was doing, I told him it had been a tough year. A year ago in October, I told him, was the best month The Outpost ever had.

"Then you got elected," I said, "and everything went to hell."

Which actually is true. Not that I'm saying the two are connected.