Monday, February 27, 2006


Some of the newest Lee Enterprises employes, those at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, aren't happy.

Read far enough and you'll see that Lee's circulation fell in the last fiscal year.

Honesty in advertising

According to Jason Klindt, Sen. Conrad Burns' newest radio ad contains this line: "Today, through his experience and seniority, Sen. Burns has secured over $2 billion in federal funds for Montana – while voting to lower taxes."

Is that a campaign ad or a confession?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

So maybe, sort of

The Gazette editorial board gives a weak endorsement today of the Billings school board's decision not to renew Superintendent Rod Svee's contract. The thrust of the opinion appeared to be this: If eight of nine board members agree, they must be right.

The editorial defends Svee from allegations that he spends too much time in Helena and that he delegates too much. It agrees that Svee communicated inadequately, but praises him for keeping his "rift" with the board from the public. Lack of communication seems to be OK, so long as it's the public that doesn't know what's going on.

Svee's "lack of commitment" to a more transparent budget process also is cited. Trustee Malcolm Goodrich also cited that in his interview with me, and I don't doubt the sincerity or legitimacy of his concern. But I have trouble seeing why that's not a fixable problem.

Considerations that seem more important to me aren't given their due. For example:

1. The district has an image problem that is not of the superintendent's creation nor within his power to repair. The problem arises from the board. Getting rid of the superintendent doesn't solve the problem; it exacerbates it.

2. Svee argues, persuasively to me, that the real work of the superintendent isn't to be, as the Gazette puts it, "communicator, leader, innovator, negotiator, cheerleader and healer." The ephemeral dream of finding all of those qualities in one package guarantees a history of superintendents with brief and troubled tenures. I've covered quite a few school boards over the years (though never this one, on any consistent basis) and I have never known a superintendent, no matter how capable, who could fill the Gazette's job description. The position needs to be cut to a manageable size, and Svee, I think, tried to do that.

3. Svee's departure will inevitably mean another long period of transition and training. Can we afford it? As the Gazette notes, crucial issues lie before the school district. If the district can navigate those issues with a lame duck superintendent, a novice superintendent, or no superintendent at all, then maybe it doesn't really matter so much who, if anybody, gets the job.

3. Odds are quite good that whoever replaces Svee will also fail, in important respects, to meet the board's expectations. Superintendents nearly always do. Measure Svee's flaws -- communication style, interaction with the board -- against his strengths -- unquestioned integrity, decency and competence -- and it's not hard to imagine that we could wind up a whole lot worse off.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Still wondering

My somewhat truncated take on the decision not to renew the contract of Billings Public Schools Superintendent Rod Svee can be found here. It's hard to squeeze in much reporting on production day.

I should add that two board members who did not immediately return my phone calls eventually did: Karen Moses and Katharin Kelker. Mary Jo Fox indicates on a comment on the story that she would have talked to me but did not get my message.

I still haven't talked to Moses or Kelker (I'm out of the office a lot these days), but I did talk to Svee on Wednesday. As in all of dealings with him, dating back to when he was superintendent in Hardin and I was covering the Indian beat for the Gazette, he was courteous, patient and candid.

He said the board's action took him by surprise.

"I had no clue that they were going to do it," he said. "It was obvious that something had been talked about, and something had been planned. I just wasn't privy to it." (I didn't see the meeting, but others who have said the board's action appeared to be orchestrated.)

He said that he feels good about his tenure as superintendent and believes that the district is running well. He defended his emphasis on delegating and building the district from within rather than publicly touting the district's achievements.

"You can't sell a product if the people don't believe it," he said.

He said that he would have been willing to accept a one-year contract without the nonrenewal provision. That would have been true even if the contract had noted philosophical differences with the board and called for an end to his tenure, with no further evaluation, if those differences could not be resolved. But he wouldn't accept a "lame duck" contract.

What about the notion that superintendent really isn't a viable job anymore?

"If they [the board] functioned, and let the administration do its job, like most school districts, rather than run it all through the board, it might work just fine."

He noted that one board goal when he was hired was to calm the waters following the teachers' strike. Now the board seems to want a superintendent who will be more activist and stir things up.

Now what do they do, he asked, when they need someone to calm the waters again?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


A customer who paid his bill late sent in this note with his check: "Howdy, Sorry it took me so long. Been dancing in spagetti."

Best excuse for a slow pay I ever heard.

Gift to rioters?

Ed Kemmick aptly opines that the decision in Austria to send a historian to prison for denying the Halocaust is a gift to rioters angry about Danish caricatures of Mohammad.

This country will give rioters an even bigger gift if it ever passes a flag-burning amendment. I wouldn't want to have to explain to a devout Muslim why protecting a purely secular symbol from desecration is so important that we had to amend the Constitution to protect it, but religious figures are fair game.

Bad call

This strikes me as a very bad decision. With my various jobs, it's impossible for me to follow the board closely, and I haven't had time to do any reporting on this yet, but I am struck right out of the chute by a couple of things:

1. Svee's biggest job was to calm the waters after the strike. He did that well and deserved to be rewarded for it.

2. The staff gave him much better evaluations than the board did. When the staff and board disagree, the staff is usually right.

3. His highest marks were for ethical behavior, personnel matters and accepting responsibility. Those marks should carry disproportionate weight.

4. Fruit basket turnover every three years is a lousy way to run a school district. I've been saying this for a long time, and it seems truer now than ever: City administrator and school superintendent have become impossible jobs. It would be better to get rid of the positions altogether than to keep hacking away at the hopeless dream of finding the perfect candidate. The district could buy a punching bag for a lot less money.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Savage but untrue

Michael Savage just said on KBLG that Bill Clinton, speaking in Pakistan, called for the conviction of European publishers who printed caricatures of Muhammad.

Say what? I'm guessing that Savage got his information from the notoriously unreliable World Net Daily, which printed this story. That story, in turn, probably came from this account or a similar one. But the BBC version omitted the inflammatory quote.

Whom should we believe? Consider the stories that make the claim: They are all similar in quotes and structure, which may indicate they are not independent reports. Several contain this quote or a variation: "the media should be disallowed to play with the religious sentiments of other faiths," wording awkward enough to indicate that there may have been a language barrier. One quotes Clinton as saying, "Media should avoid to publish that things which create gap among different religions." Even Clinton's bitterest enemies would have trouble believing that sentence ever escaped his lips.

Perhaps most suspect is the utter lack of any followup. If Clinton made such a remark to newsmen, wouldn't someone have asked a question? When an ex-president calls for the repeal of the First Amendment, even in other countries, you'd think somebody would ask why.

All of which would be fairly inconsequential if Savage hadn't just told millions of listeners that the story is true, without the slightest doubt or qualification. New media, indeed.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Tony on the prowl

I was idly wondering what Tony Lewis has been up to, so I wandered over to Republican Asshats and found it no longer in operation. Then I went to Not Always There and found this.

Considering how easy it is to piss Tony off, he's going to be a very busy man.

Friday, February 17, 2006

He writes!

The editor has finally written an Editor's Notebook. With a cartoon!

UPDATE: When I wrote this column, I didn't realize that one of the newspapers that has reprinted an image of Muhammad is The Northern Light over in Molt. The Light apparently was responding to a Christian Newswire story that quoted Christian Newswire Director Gary McCullough as saying, "I ask you to publish the controversial cartoon of Muhammad to send the message; 'We will not be censored by treats [sic] of violence.'" (At this writing, the caricature still does not seem to be in the online edition.)

UPDATE 2: David Summerlin posts a thoughtful response to the Stranger.

Overblown Cheney

So I was driving around delivering papers Thursday, and Sean Hannity kept talking about how the liberal media were overplaying the Dick Cheney shooting story. He tossed out the topic off and on for a couple of hours, then promised a complete update on "Hannity and Colmes" Thursday night.

Then Glenn Beck came on, and he was absolutely livid about how the liberal media have overplayed the Dick Cheney shooting story. He talked about nothing else for 45 solid minutes, when I switched him off to listen to the news on NPR.

NPR! The hotbed of liberal media excess. Now I was going to get to hear the real thing, live on radio: The Dick Cheney shooting story overblown by the liberal media itself.

Except, it didn't happen. In the hour that I listened, the Dick Cheney shooting story drew maybe a minute of air time, most of that devoted to the brief remarks President Bush had made about the story earlier that day.

Hard to figure, except for the obvious hypocrisy of Hannity and Beck. Like every other media type on the planet, they knew that the Dick Cheney shooting is great talk radio material: pithy, with a clear-cut plotline, and with rich opportunities for humor and punditry. They couldn't pass up the story, but, as card-carrying conservatives, they couldn't let on that somebody at the White House might actually have screwed up. What to do? Blame the messenger, of course. They milked the story for ratings for at least three hours between time, all the time blasting the MSM for their coverage.

Such inconsistencies heighten my skepticism about commenters below who have such unshakable confidence that this story would have been played differently if Cheney had been a Democrat. Certain stories have a power of their own that pull the media along whether they really want to go or not. While it is easy to say, as commenters have pointed out, that this is not a world-altering story, it is, however, one of those stories that everyone will read or listen to, and nearly everyone will talk about. That sort of widespread appeal trumps media bias every time.

UPDATE: If this topic interests you at all, go read this.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Shooting critters

Several online readers looking for Dick Cheney hunting stories have stumbled across this 2004 column by Roger Clawson. Bottom line: "maybe the Veep just likes to shoot holes in critters."


Stephen Joseph Tokarski, 89, the father of Steve and Mark Tokarski, a frequent commenter here and on other blogs, has died. Funeral Mass will be at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Pius X Catholic Church. Details will be in Thursday's Outpost.

UPDATE: The Outpost obituary is here.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Change drug law

Dave Budge has an important post urging readers to contact members of Congress to repeal the law denying federal financial aid for college to people with drug convictions. No law has ever better defined the word "stupid" when it comes to this nation's drug policy: Let's take people who have made a dumb mistake and deny them the education they need to avoid making dumb mistakes. Insane.

National disgrace

I was glad to see that Ed had an update on this immigration case in today's Gazette. I wrote about this case in 2001, as part of a series of pieces on abuses by immigration authorities in Montana. The fascinating part was the admission by what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service that it had erred initially in allowing Mr. Zirotti a visa. Then, after allowing him up to uproot his family and move to America, devoting himself to building a risky and irreplaceable business, the INS decided to correct its error and send him back overseas.

Money quote, from INS attorney Ann Tanke: "If you're not very familiar with our administrative process that may seem horrible." No kidding.

Most of what I wrote proceeded from my pursuit of the Wolfgang von Eitzen case. There are too many stories about that to link them all, but this may serve as a summary. I still hear from von Eitzen now and again, and he is still fighting from Germany. He will never win.

I thought his case was about as clear-cut an instance of American injustice as I have ever encountered. Longtime resident, American family, straightforward in his INS dealings. Some people say, well, the law's the law, but that isn't true. At the time von Eitzen was deported, INS rules specifically allowed authorities to overlook technical violations in the interest of simple justice to people who had deep roots in the United States and who had tried to jump through all the hoops.

As in the case Ed described in the Gazette, the government's conduct was loathsome and inexcusable. Congress' bipartisan failure to fix the problem is a disgrace.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

What a show

We went to the see the Outpost-sponsored concert last night by John Gorka and Susan Werner. I had never heard of either of them, and we had trouble even giving our comp tickets away. What a loss.

Gorka was good, a more or less conventional folksinger with some nice tunes and very funny patter. But Werner was sensational. The woman can do it all: a lovely voice, fine piano work, a nice touch on guitar and a terrific sense of humor and audience rapport. Best of all were her songs, which paid tribute to classic composers like Gershwin and Cole Porter without stealing from them. Each song was indubitably her own: clever, tuneful, wonderfully thoughtful and cogent.

Winning a standing ovation out of an Alberta Bair crowd isn't that tough, but Susan Werner earned hers. What a talent.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Preserving Montana

Good thoughts here about what makes Montana worth saving (by way of Headwaters News).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Squaw no more

Good letter in this week's Outpost by Robert S. Cooper calling for a change in the name of Squaw Creek Road. Also a lengthy but quite interesting response by Mike Price on the origins of the word.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Blogging time

KULR-8's new story on blogging says that two in five teenagers read blogs. Hmmm. Every fall, I ask my journalism students at Rocky about blogging, and I never get anywhere near that response. In fact, I don't think I've had a single student who read political blogs, and I can recall only one who had a blog of her own. I guess there are lots of ways to define what constitutes "reading" blogs. And I suppose it's possible that blogging is coming along so fast that even college students are behind their peers just a couple of years younger.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Wanzenried for Senate

Dave Wanzenried, the Democratic leader in the Montana House, has announced for Senate District 49 on the west side of Missoula. He gives the usual reason for switching houses: term limits.

Bond. Julian Bond

I briefly got involved in this discussion about a speech that NAACP Chairman Julian Bond gave in Fayetteville, N.C. The post goes on a bit, so I'll summarize: Brendan Loy essentially argues that local media overlooked Bond's inflammatory remarks out of liberal bias, conscious or otherwise.

Risking my blogging credentials, I took a radical step: I asked the reporter, Alice Thrasher. She sent me this link, which indicates that at least some of the remarks were less inflammatory than had been reported in World Net Daily, which relied on third-hand sources.

All of which interests me only because of the speed with which certain elements of the blogosphere jump to factual conclusions that match their prejudices, especially when an opportunity presents itself to trash mainstream media. If there is anything that reporters (and someday bloggers?) ought to know, it is that truth rarely breaks down in such simple terms.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Burns away

Occasionally people decide that what they have to say is more important than what the Outpost has to say, and they think the Outpost should pay for their speech. So they cover up our papers on our racks with papers or handouts of their own.

In such a way I came across a stack of pages copied from the American Free Press, a publication that among other interesting positions calls the Holocaust an "establishment hoax." Before throwing the pile in the trash, I noted one article that listed Montana Sen. Conrad Burns as a cosponsor of the Constitution Restoration Act. Could such a thing be true? Yes, it could.

The bill is stuck in committee, but if it were to pass, it would prohibit federal courts, including the Supreme Court, from reviewing any case involving a government officer or agent's "acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government."

Exactly what that might mean isn't clear, at least not to me, but it seems to leave open the possibility that, say, a state judge might cite the sovereignty of God's law as grounds for overturning or ignoring manmade law. And that decision could not be appealed to federal court.

Conrad, Conrad. What are you thinking?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Burns down

I still haven't seen the Democratic TV ad attacking Conrad Burns, but I have finally seen his response. I thought it was incredibly lame, in at least three ways:

1. One way to gauge the severity of a scandal is by how strongly the affected candidate reacts. Burns' rather sweeping reaction suggests that people like me who have had trouble grasping the significance of the Abramoff scandal in Montana should be paying more attention. OK, I will.

2. In the ad, Burns suggests that the Democratic ads should be dismissed because they came from people who took money from Abramoff's clients. But if those ads should be dismissed, then so should his. He took more than anybody, and from Abramoff himself.

3. The ad provides no reason that I could detect for suggesting that Burns should be re-elected. His good looks? His grin? His hat? The message that he isn't as crooked as Democrats imply doesn't sound like an election winner to me.

Taken all together, the ad makes me wonder if there's something to the rumor that the GOP is ready to sacrifice Burns on the Abramoff altar. Party bosses may figure it's worth a few thousand bucks of advertising to help pave his way out.