Sunday, November 27, 2005

Serious stuff

The post below may have been trivial, but this is serious stuff. This BYU prof argues that the way the buildings collapsed on 9-11 is much more explicable in terms of physics if one presumes that the collapse was caused by explosives, not by crashing airplanes.

I know, it sounds crazy to me, too, and I've dismissed most of this kind of stuff out of hand. But while I don't have the physics to evaluate the merits of this guy's position, his fundamental point seems hard to argue with: The theory that explosives caused the collapses is testable and falsifiable, so why not test it? He calls for the release of 6,899 photographs and more than 300 hours of video footage for review by an international, cross-disciplinary research team that would consider all options.

To his credit, he avoids speculation about who would have planted any such explosives or why.

UPDATE: Here's one pretty thorough argument against his theory. Other responses I read fell predictably into liberal and conservative camps. Why a purely scientific question should become a political football illustrates pretty well how poisonous the national climate for debate is.

Raving loonies, revisited

I've been a good boy lately about staying out of discussions on blogs run by people who buy their hats a size too small. But this one sucked me in.

Warning: You have to wade through a long, self-congratulatory post about bloggers doing journalism (Look! I have e-mail! Look! I can use a telephone!) before getting to the nub, which appears to be the writer's belief that exercising news judgment is in itself a violation of the journalist's obligation to be neutral and objective. I couldn't quite believe what I seemed to be reading and said so in the comments.

In his response, the writer pointed out, quite sensibly, that I am a dipwit, snotty, lame-assed, whining, wussy, loudmouthed pustule, lying, agenda-driven, pathethic loser of a jackass who operates a socialist cesspool of a blog.

True enough, as far as it goes, but is he serious when he links news judgment to Nazi propaganda? Apparently he's trying to be. Pretty sad.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

What was I thinking?

For a day or two, I have been mulling over comments to my "Newspapers today and tomorrow" post asking what goals I had for The Outpost when I started. I don't think I can answer that in 30 words.

For starters, I anticipated that by now we would be a much more vigorous and stronger independent voice. I've always thought that a weekly with just a couple of reporters could drum a daily on a regular basis. So much energy at a daily is dissipated in the sheer dailiness of it -- the endless meetings to cover, cops and courts, sports agate, photos to take, pages to lay out, the holidays and vacations -- that it seemed reasonable to believe that while we could never be as comprehensive as the daily, we could break stories, anticipate stories and write stories that hit closer to home just about every week.

I thought we would be able to link up with other weeklies in the state to create a truly independent statewide source of news. For example, we might have been able to share a Capitol reporter, go in together on investigative projects of statewide dimensions, and so on. We might even have a built a statewide advertising network to give customers powerful alternatives to the behemoths.

Instead, we're all struggling. Even the Missoula Independent, the gold standard among Montana alternatives, has managed to survive only because it has found buyers at crucial times who could cover the ongoing losses of its early years.

The rest of us, undercapitalized and understaffed, fight a Catch-22: We can't attract advertisers without readers, we can't attract readers without stories, we can't pay for stories without advertisers. We tried to break out of that trap in 2003 with the insertion of a shopper inside the Outpost, but while the experiment temporarily greatly boosted revenues, it was not a money maker and it alienated many readers who just wanted a newspaper.

So now I still can't afford two reporters; I can't even afford me. So I'm holding down three part-time jobs while also trying to publish a weekly with editorial expenses as close to zero as possible. And it shows. It's a trap from which we have been unable to devise an escape.

Why hasn't it worked better? I would need 30,000 words to empty my mind on that topic. Obviously, newspapers are hurting as an industry; our timing may have just been bad. Obviously, I've made my share of mistakes. Obviously, this is a tough town; I've never believed that a conventional alternative could make it here, but finding the right niche has been a difficult challenge. Obviously, Lee Enterprises has taken some hard shots at us at crucial points.

We have had a great deal of vital support from loyal readers and that has kept us going. But getting the larger public to see that their interests are ultimately best served when they have access to thriving Montana-based alternatives to the corporate behemoths has been the most difficult part of this venture.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Got Wal-Mart?

I've seen references to showings of the new documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices" in Great Falls and in Helena (scroll to penultimate item). But I haven't heard of any showings here. Has anyone?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Newspapers today and tomorrow

If you read this, then read this, you'll have a pretty good overview of the state of Montana journalism today (thanks, as usual, to Jackie Corr).

Sunday, November 20, 2005


We got to talking yesterday about dictionaries, and I speculated that most of my writing students never look into a hardcover dictionary. If they can't get it through spell check or an online dictionary, I guessed, they look at most in a portable paperback. An unabridged Webster's Third sits on its own table in the writing lab, but I can't recall having ever seen a student peek into it.

Of course, it's the first place I look when I'm even mildly uncertain about a word. It isn't just that I consider it authoritative but that nearly every journey produces a happy accident or two. Just the other day, I ran across "knapsack problem" and "floccinaucinihilipilification" (a word, the dictionary informs us, used primarily as an example of one of the longest words in the language).

The web has its happy accidents, too, and maybe the students aren't missing much. But when I get papers, as I have recently, that use "threw out" for "throughout" or "per trade" for "portrayed," then I think that a few hours poring over the unabridged might not be a bad investment.

UPDATE: In the comments below, Larry Kralj mentions a letter to the Oupost that appeared in the Aug. 14, 2003, issue. Those interested can find it here.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Election update update

A few posts down, under Election Update, I said that a story Ron Selden and I wrote about alleged police wrongdoing was too old to be on the web. I was wrong. I just found it on Google while looking for something else. That means Tussing's response is probably floating out there somewhere in cyberspace, too, but I couldn't reel it in.

Early and often

The deadline is nigh for voting on Wulfar's Montana web awards.

Of course, I'm boycotting because he had no category for best weekly-sponsored site by a blogger of Texas extraction with at least three part-time jobs.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Good enough

From the Montana GOP E-Brief: "Today, the Montana Democratic Party is attacking Senator Conrad Burns on his vote to support Montana’s Law Enforcement through half-truths and omissions."

If half-truths and omissions are good enough for Burns, they ought to be good enough for Democrats!

Tina vs. Tussing

Newly elected Billings City Council member Joy Stevens is catching a lot of heat here for her Outpost column suggesting that Tussing's employment contract go before a judge. Some of the criticism is misplaced.

One thing some critics overlook is that the police chief's severance agreement was designed in part to protect Kristoff Bauer and Tina Volek from retaliation. Bauer's a dead issue now, but Volek isn't, and if the contract does in fact provide her some legal protection, then the council is obliged to demand that the contract be honored. That's true, I think, no matter what the public wants. You can't sign off on a deal to protect an employee's interests, then ignore it because you decide you don't want to be bothered.

The larger issue of whether Tussing is an employee I will leave to the lawyers. But as I understand it, Tussing has said that he agreed to the deal only because he understood that he could still run for office. If he's telling the truth -- and I have no reason to suspect that he isn't -- then why didn't the city understand that? It's not like Tussing was going to come back and apply to be landfill supervisor. Why wouldn't it have occurred to the city's lawyers to include the one provision most likely to blunt any threat to Bauer's and Volek's future employment?

On the other hand, I don't think much of a deal that would pay an employee a clearly merited severance only if he promised to sacrifice his right to seek public office. That has a definite odor. Could that be why the contract didn't specifically address that issue? Maybe the city hoped to dodge a bullet. Hello, bullet.


Evelyn Pyburn has a good piece on her efforts to get the Big Sky Economic Development Corp. to hold its meetings in public. The EDC is a branch of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority, which is taxpayer supported.

Attorney Tom Towe gave the EDC an opinion holding that it was a private organization required to meet in public only when matters involving public funds are discussed. Helena attorney Mike Malloy gave this succinct appraisal of Towe's position: "Hogwash."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Give til it hurts

You can now support The Outpost (and this blog) through Paypal over at the Outpost website. Just scroll down the right-hand side. Not that we're poor or anything, but it would be nice to be able to afford to give up a job or two.

Cobb Field

The new (and slow-loading) Cobb Field Feasibility Study is up here. Comments can be sent to park planner Mark Jarvis at

Saturday, November 12, 2005

End times

Before the election I meant to post a contest asking for predictions on the headline that the Montana News Association would use to describe the result if Tussing won. What a letdown: The headine was "Final election results."

I was going to bet on "Satan rules city."

Election update

Mary Jo Fox gets a few things wrong in comments below.

For one, she suggests that my decision to play the City Council results on Page 3 indicated pro-Garver bias. Nonsense. Regular readers know that we typically play election results on Page 2 or 3. There's a simple explanation: Tuesday is Outpost production night, so I don't have time during elections to do more than gather bare results. By the time the paper comes out on Thursday, I figure that everybody who is even a little interested knows the bare results. So I play them inside. It's utterly unrelated to who wins or loses.

For another, she still seems to be under the illusion that my early pick of Al Garver to win the mayor's race indicated a pro-Garver bias. This is just weird. I picked George Bush to win the Montana vote for president in both 2000 and 2004. Does that mean I wanted him to win? Uh, no.

Third, she still can't figure out why I objected to a question she posed at a mayoral forum I moderated. I swore I wouldn't write about this anymore, but let me add just this bit of perspective: To me the question resembled the flier attacking Garver in the final days of the campaign. It wasn't that the issues raised in the flier were illegitimate; it was that they were late, inflammatory and likely to backfire. I think that kind of stuff undermines democracy, and it irritates me.

Finally, she suggests that Ron Tussing's problems with The Outpost relate only to my woefully inaccurate prediction. Actually, his problems with us go back a good deal further, at least to an October 1999 story that detailed allegations of improper police conduct (sorry, too far back for a link, but I'll send you a copy for 50 cents plus $1 shipping and handling). The allegations were aired at two public meetings about police behavior, and we reported them at length. If memory serves, no one else covered the meetings.

The chief and I had a heated discussion about the story, and he wrote a detailed response, which we printed in full the following week. I didn't really blame him for being angry for several reasons:

1. I wish we had done more reporting to try to nail down the allegations better. But when people are alleging that authorities are acting improperly, to what authority can one turn to validate their claims? Still, if I could edit the story again, I would do it differently.

2. I like it when a boss stands up for his people. I wish I knew a few more who did.

3. His written response gave me a strange epiphany. It began, "The Outpost has apparently digressed from its efforts to become an alternate news source to becoming an alternate reality source." It was a good line, which I have often quoted. He went on to say many less kind things. That week was a lousy one in terms of revenue for The Outpost, and on publication day, it occurred to me that there I was, out delivering papers for 10 or 12 hours, all for no money, just so I could let the police chief tell the citizens of Billings what an irresponsible jerk I was. I can't imagine that any business but a newspaper would do such a thing, except under court order.

While the specific allegations we reported may have gone nowhere, allegations that the police department doesn't handle complaints adquately were recently reiterated by Montana People's Action and sustained in the Reiter report.

Still, we've never questioned Tussing's competence or intelligence, and we were seriously considering endorsing him this year until he talked us out of it. The man can hold a grudge. Which is why I've wondered whether he was the right guy to be mayor, a position that demands diplomacy, tact and a long fuse. Maybe he will do fine. Until I know for sure, I'll stay out of shoving distance.

Veterans Day 2005

I almost took Friday off. Classes at MSU-Billings were out for Veterans Day, and I've always wanted a Veterans Day off sometime before I died. It's been 32 years, so I thought I'd better grab one while I could. Until now, it's always seemed like the real reason I served my country was so bankers and post office workers could get another day off in November.

It wasn't quite a full day off. I graded some papers, washed dishes and straightened the house. But I didn't go the office or check e-mail, and I did watch a Marx Brothers movie, play some bridge, stretch out in the hot tub and cook a rice casserole with Andouille sausage. Mighty tasty.

Mike Royko was the first pundit I knew of who argued that veterans should always get Veterans Day off, and I have taken up the call from time to time. Consider my own case, not because I'm especially deserving but because I am about as undeserving as veterans come. Few people had easier duty than I did: Fifty-six weeks learning German in lovely Monterey, Calif., short stints in Missouri and Texas, then a year and change working four day shifts and drinking beer and Jaegermeister on the East German border. I had it made.

Still, it was three years of my misspent life, mostly in an atmosphere uncongenial to a guy who hates wearing uniforms and taking orders. If I live to be 80, and were to get every Veterans Day off, I would still get back less than two months of my 36-month enlistment. Is that too much to ask? And if it's not too much for me to ask, then why not for the millions of guys who actually paid a heavy price in service of their country? Aren't they as worthy as bankers?

Thursday, November 10, 2005


So here I am, acting as Al Garver's apologist again.

As I've said before, I had no horse in this race, and I doubt that it will much matter in the long run who won. But the worst thing about this troubling election was that so many people let Garver's religion influence their thinking. I heard from an amazing number of people who thought Garver was out to lead the city down the road to conservative Christianity.

Trouble is, I heard the guy speak on a number of occasions, interviewed him at some length and talked to him quite a few other times. I never once heard even the slightest hint that theocracy was anywhere in his political ideology. It was a slur, pure and simple, as far as I could tell.

Someone told me that a lot of people were saying they would leave town if Garver were elected. "Good," I said. "Good riddance."

Fitness for office should not be judged on the basis of religious affiliation. It isn't constitutional, and it isn't right.

I never heard Tussing suggest anything about Garver's religion, by the way, so I'm not blaming him. And while I'm not terribly happy about having a mayor who dislikes my newspaper, I can live with that. All things considered, it's better to have a feud with a mayor than with a police chief.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

An election worth having

Wulfgar is conducting a poll on Montana websites.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Trashing Garver

The GOP E-brief, put out by the Republican Central Committee, traces the anti-Garver hit piece to the Big Sky Democrats. The E-brief says, "We're still gathering evidence to build this case, but there is much to suggest that the organization responsible for the defamatory campaign flier and the illegal auto-dial messages is none other than Barrett Kaiser's Big Sky Democrats."

The E-brief goes on to urge voters to cast their ballots for Al Garver. So now the race has become a surrogate for both political parties. Nice.

UPDATE: The Big Sky Democrats respond.

UPDATE UPDATE: More on the tactics of the Big Sky Democrats from the Washington Post (scroll to the bottom of the page, while murmuring thanks to Jackie Corr).

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: Garver is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the prosecution of those responsible for stealing his campaign signs. "I just hope the voters can see who the good guy is in all this mess,” he said in a news release.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Come again no more

Hard times at Lee Enterprises.

Garver catching up?

My delivery tour of Billings on Thursday seemed to show that Al Garver had cut heavily into the mayoral race sign gap. This week he seemed to have as many, and possibly more, signs up than Tussing, and many of them were in better locations.

I should note that my opinions about sign coverage aren't as useful as they used to be. I used to deliver 140 Outpost stops over about 10 hours, from the far end of Lockwood and the Heights to Shiloh Road. Nobody in Yellowstone County saw more political signs than I did.

My route is much more restricted now -- I don't enter the Heights at all, for instance, or go west of 24th Street West -- so I don't get a complete picture. But that's how it looked to me. Perhaps someone else can offer a more comprehensive view.

This whole race continues to puzzle me. Here we have two intelligent, articulate guys, both well informed about city government and both saying mostly the right things, running for a job that probably requires only a small fraction of the skills they have. So why don't I feel better about these choices? And why do so many people I talk to feel the same way?


So the Gazette gives me just enough Sudoku puzzles to get me mildly addicted, then it cuts back to "very easy" and "easy" puzzles with the occasional "medium" thrown in.

The medium puzzles are OK; it takes 15 or 20 minutes for me to do one, and that's about all the time I can spare anyway. But the others are at connect-the-dots level.

What's the Gazoo trying to do: Drive readers to an alternative publication that could provide a more challenging puzzle?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Garver-Tussing again

Just for the record: If someone at the mayoral forum I moderated had asked, "Do you think it's ethical for candidates to encourage their supporters to make donations that violate campaign laws?," I would have thought that was a dumb question, too.