Monday, October 29, 2007

Free speech or free pizza

Numerous Montana bloggers have written about the Aaron Flint case at the University of Montana, particularly George Will's column on it. If you haven't kept up it, you can start here and follow the assorted links.

I may have missed a post or two, but I haven't seen that anyone has mentioned this analysis at the Volokh Conspiracy. As a guy who sells newspaper ads for a living (if you call this living), my sympathies lie with Will's position. But I have to admit that Volokh makes a pretty compelling case that he is wrong.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Drug war claims another casualty

This wasn't suicide. It was murder by government.

Ms. Prosser's last letter the Outpost appeared just a month ago. You can find it here.

Billings Bull*!@&

The Outpost is one of the media sponsors of the Billings Bulls this year, so we grabbed a couple of free tickets Saturday night and went to our first game in the Centennial Ice Arena.

On the whole, not a bad experience. Centennial lacks the big-league atmosphere of MetraPark, but it makes up for it in intimacy. There are truly no bad seats in this house.

Play was ragged, but the game was close, and I found it increasingly absorbing as it went along. Even with tons of penalties, a pointless fight and two overtimes, the game moved along quickly enough that we were able to catch the first inning and the last two of the World Series game on TV.

In typical bush league fashion, the music that came up every time a whistle blew was too loud and too bad -- sort of '80s style big hair rock music of no discernable pedigree. Jim Larson, who also was there, said the music apparently was chosen to match the crummy acoustics. On the positive side, the most annoying aspect of the Bulls experience -- the Pizza Scream -- is logistically impractical in Centennial, and its absence was welcome.

But one ugly aspect of the game just about ruined the whole evening for me. The rink and stands are almost totally dark before the game, and it was in that darkness that Bulls management chose to introduce the visiting team, the Bozeman Icedogs. The players were nothing more than dark shadows, they were introduced so fast they all wound up skating to mid-ice practically simultaneously, and behind it all over the loudspeakers were playing the lyrics to the Beck song: "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?" The Bulls, of course, got full spotlight treatment.

Sorry, but I can't root for a team that shows such poor sportsmanship. Geographical ties don't trump bad behavior. I had to root for the Icedogs all the way.

Here I am getting into old geezer mode again, but it seems to me that such behavior would have been universally condemned when I was kid back in the '50s. An iconic image of my childhood was a film clip of a college football player slamming into an opponent, then reaching out a hand and helping him to his feet. The message wasn't just that this was proper conduct on the football field but that this was the American way. You played to win, but you played by the rules, and you treated your opponents with dignity and respect. Such thinking carried us to victory in two world wars.

No doubt readers with long memories can come up with plenty of examples of when that ideal was breached. But the ideal itself, in my memory, was never questioned. You didn't talk trash, you didn't cheat, you didn't showboat. This Saturday night, instead of the image of a football player helping an opponent to his feet, we got the image of a Bulls player skating around the rink with one arm raised, celebrating to a roar of approval the penalty he got for fighting.

His opponent nearly didn't get to his feet. The two were fighting helmets off, and when the inevitable scuffle to the ice came, the Bozeman player banged the back of his head against the ice. He lay there for several minutes, a potential calamity that was allowed to take place to the utter indifference of the other players and referees.

This may all seem like exceedingly small beer. But I don't think that it is. To me, it is a very short mental leap from degrading a sports opponent to degrading an enemy. One minute, you are trashing opposing hockey teams; the next, you are torturing innocent people.

Some days, I think this is not the country I was born in. I am permanently on the visiting team now, and everything looks dark.

An opposing view

In this week's Outpost, T.J. Gilles takes a contrarian view on the closing of a half-dozen Farm Services Agency offices in Montana.

I can't say that I'm knowledgeable enough to endorse T.J.'s position, but I do find it a bit refreshing to see someone occasionally challenge the idea that whatever farmers have, they should keep in perpetuity. No lobby, not even the gun lobby, is so powerful as agricultural interests, and politicians line up willingly to oppose every perceived threat to farmers. As T.J. suggests, maybe it shouldn't be that simple.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Wake me when it's over

I have been trying to wait a decent interval -- say, until after the election -- to complain about how much I hate the mail-in ballot for the municipal election, but I can't hold back any longer. I hate it.

Here it is, a week or two before the actual election -- whenever it actually is -- and I am just about to the point where I normally would begin to take interest. But quite likely, it's already all over. My mailed ballot sits along with the bills and credit card scams in a pile in the foyer. Voting used to be a pleasure; now it's just another form to fill out. Maybe I will bother; maybe I won't.

Is it really just me, or is there less excitement, anticipation and general all around interest in this election than in any election we've had since the last mail-in ballot? Elections used to be one event that pulled people out of their thick shells for at least an hour or so a year of civic activity. Now we shrink ever deeper into our tiny domains, lost to the world and to public discourse.

The only real argument I have heard for mail-in ballots is that they increase turnout. For most people, that seems to settle the matter. But it isn't clear to me how adding up the opinions of a bunch of people too lazy to drive a few blocks to a polling place strengthens democracy.

Yes, I know, I'm old and grumpy and helplessly stuck in the past. But you've got to say one thing for us geezers: We vote. And we don't need a mailed invitation to do it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

10 years old

With my trip to Texas and all the Tuney Award hoopla, I nearly neglected to notice that the Billings Outpost turned 10 last week. The first issue came out on Oct. 16, 1997.

None of the years have been easy, but the 10th has been one of the toughest. To recap: We struggled through the startup years and made a small profit in 2002. In 2003, we were approached by nearly the entire Thrifty Nickel staff about coming to work for us. We took them on, expanded dramatically, and took a beating. Since then, we have been trying to recover, and we essentially got back to break-even point last year.

But the expansion left us saddled with debt, and we have been struggling to work out from under it. This year, we lost some people, and had some illness that knocked out a key person for a couple of months. Our printing bill went way up; through September, we have spent $7,000 more on printing than we did last year, although we have printed fewer pages. The landlord just jacked up our rent by 12 percent -- and he wants a $100 late fee because I couldn't get around to paying this month's rent before we had to head to Texas for the funeral.

Just last week, I learned that our mailing service has tripled its charge for handling our weekly mailing of subscribers' newspapers. Apparently, it is trying to shed small customers. Of course, we have been hit hard by Albertsons, which allowed the nation's most predatory newspaper chain, Gannett, to charge us to be in their grocery stores. An advertiser just stiffed us for $1,500 worth of ads. And our aging computer equipment is starting to cost us money.

Add to all of that the growing uncertainty over whether newspapers in general have a future, and these are not fun times. Yesterday, I looked through the masthead of the Missoula Independent and saw 23 names listed, with at least one spot, that of editor, open. On Friday, I wrote paychecks to three Outpost employees -- not counting me; I couldn't afford a paycheck for myself. So the Independent is printing roughly twice as many pages as we are with about six times the staff. No wonder I'm tired.

Friday night at the High Plains BookFest, I talked briefly to Dennis Swibold, whose Copper Chorus looks at the rough-and-ready past of Montana's press. We talked a bit about the hard times for the press today.

"Well," he said, "you're doing the Lord's work."

If that's the case, I told him, I wish the Lord would help out a little more.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tuney wrap

Nice wrapup of the Tuney Awards here. It was a heck of a show, which I can say with particular pride because I had almost nothing to do with it.

I was like Yossarian in "Catch-22," who considered the officers' club he didn't help build in Pianosa "a sturdy and complex monument to his powers of determination." Yossarian never lifted a hand to help build it, but then went there often when it was built. "It was truly a splendid structure," Joseph Heller writes, "and Yossarian throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his."

It was a good time. Jim Larson, Scott Prinzing and Cindy Moore all got some stage time, but credit also should go to Jim; Paula Close; and my wife, Pat, for counting the ballots. Through no fault of their own, they wound up having to do the whole job in one day, working late into the night, Paula after pulling a day shift at the office, Pat after flying back from Texas for the funeral, and Jim after holding down the office almost singlehandedly most of the week. Without their efforts, there would have been no Tuneys.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Who's biased?

Montana Headlines finds media bias in this AP story about Republicans buying up Democrat Linda McCulloch's domain name. MH wonders why the story was printed at all, then notes that a similar ploy against potential Republican candidate Bob Keenan doesn't appear until toward the end of the story.

Why MH thinks this might not be a story escapes me. It seems like a legitimate enough story, especially since Gouras pulls in national experts to discuss the phenomenon, which apparently is common in statewide races. I found it one of the more interesting state stories I have read in recent months. It certainly doesn't read like a McCulloch puff piece. If anything, she comes off as naive and shortsighted.

So why didn't Keenan get higher play in the story? I can't know what was in Gouras' mind. I don't have the mind-reading capacity that media-bashing conservatives seem to possess in great measure. For all I know, Gouras worships a bust of Ronald Reagan before he goes to work every morning. But regardless of Gouras' political beliefs, I can think of a few reasons why he might have played the story the way he did.

1. The news about McCulloch was fresh. News about Bob Keenan's website chicanery had appeared as far back as August.

2. In McCulloch's case, Republicans took an existing domain name. In Keenan's case, Democrats took an unclaimed name. So discussion of what happened to Keenan fell naturally within the cybersquatting section of the story, rather than the part about swiping existing names.

3. Gouras' story followed a classic journalistic form: start with a specific incident, show how the incident fits within a broader context (aka the nut graph), develop the broader context, then provide a sense of closure by leading back to the original example. The Wall Street Journal writes stories using that basic structure every day. For Gouras, Keenan's story made a perfect transition back to Montana. Put Keenan too early, and you risk burying the nut graph. Gouras could have mentioned him early, then come back to him later, to keep Montana Headlines happy, I suppose, but the story would have lost a little zing. Sometimes you just have to make tough calls about how much MH's happiness is worth to you.

4. Maybe Gouras is so far beyond partisan bias that it never occurred to him that people would read the whole piece in a Republican-Democrat context. After all, if Republicans are acting like 4-year-olds, then citing evidence that Democrats act like 4-year-olds doesn't make Republicans look any more mature. It just makes it look as if the whole state is being run by 4-year-olds. And that isn't news.

UPDATE: In the original post, I forgot to link to Montana Headlines. That has now been fixed.

UPDATE 2: After I rattled on for a while longer in comments, another thought occurred to me. Montana Headlines, Ed in comments and I all seem to be proceeding from the same assumption: that the practices described in the story make the political parties look bad. But neither Montana party seems to think it has done anything wrong, and both apparently are in accord with national trends and practices.

So isn't Gouras just as liable to a charge of conservative bias as to liberal bias? Why does he give Montana Republicans credit in the opening graph for adopting this technologically savvy technique but fails to note until deep in the story that Montana Democrats are equally up to date?

Fact is, I'm so persuaded this is a sleazy practice that it didn't occur to me until now that other possibilities might exist. That persuasion arises from my own deep biases -- in favor of openhandedness, fair play and general courtesy -- and I suspect that Montana Headlines and Ed share those biases. I think these are conservative biases, but it's hard to know for sure anymore.

And I still don't know about Gouras' biases. Maybe he thought he was doing Republicans a favor.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tuney Awards on Sunday

Don't forget the Tuney Awards on Sunday, from 4-8 p.m. at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. Garage Pub. It should be the best show ever, with a long list of bands lined up to play.

And, of course, I will be performing my famous a cappella rendition of "There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea," but only after 30 beers.

Tuckered out

I thought Tucker Carlson was supposed to be a smart guy, but he sure wasn't on Bill Maher's Real Time last night. He was obstreperous, constantly interrupting to take bizarrely contrarian viewpoints.

The strangest was during a discussion of Blackwater, when Carlson attacked Paul Krugman, who was also on the show, for criticizing the use of mercenaries when the New York Times Baghdad bureau is protected by private contractors. Krugman repeatedly attempted to make the simple point that there is a distinction between private companies hiring private security to protect their private interests and the federal government hiring mercenaries to pursue military goals. Carlson, an alleged conservative, either refused to see the distinction or never heard it because he was so busy interrupting everything Krugman said.


The evening's highlight was Maher's take on Barack Obama's decision not to wear an American flag lapel pin. Maher said that Sean Hannity had to go see a doctor because his fake-outrage hard-on didn't go down within 72 hours.

Friday, October 12, 2007

That's It for Huckabee

Shane Mason has a great post on this week's Republican presidential debate. Most revealing are comments by Mike Huckabee that essentially call for repeal of the U.S. Constitution. No force, not even Congress, can stop a president who wishes to start a war, Huckabee says.

Ron Paul appears to be the sole voice of sanity. "Why don't we just open up the Constitution and read it?" he says.

The silent conspiracy by both political parties to repeal constitutional provisions on the power to declare war continues to baffle and appall me. And the one candidate who appears to understand what the founding fathers intended, and why they intended it, is routinely dismissed by both parties as a kook.


Monday, October 08, 2007

That's it for Romney

Any chance that Mitt Romney had of getting my vote ended here. It isn't that he is wrong on the issue; I would expect Republicans (although not conservatives) to be wrong about medical marijuana. It's that he doesn't have the guts to look the man in the eye and tell him that he would rather throw people in jail than allow them the medical care they need. Wrong and gutless -- a fatal combination (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan).

Strange words

Dave Budge links to an American Spectator post that makes it sound as if Democrats aim to use government power to go after conservative talk show hosts. But the wording of the linked post is a bit suspicious. It implies that Henry Waxman plans to make an FCC case against Rush Limbaugh, but it doesn't say that explicitly. Instead, it juxtaposes two factual assertions, leaving it to the reader to presume that they are related.

Using Limbaugh's own words against him is fine (although taxpayers should not have to pay for the research). Talking to the FCC chairman about the Fairness Doctrine is fine, too. Trying to bring federal pressure to silence Limbaugh and his ilk is not fine -- and it wasn't fine when Republicans did it against either. That dog should have been kept on its leash.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

I'm back

Just back from a whirlwind five-day trip to Texas to lay my mother to rest. The experience was similar to that three years ago when my father died: Same funeral home, same church, same preacher, even pretty much the same meal following the service. Later that evening, a pretty hilarious discussion of why none of the Crisp brothers can dance.

Then, on Saturday, the same long drive to North Texas for burial in the Prairie Point Cemetery at Bazette. This time it was overcast and raining and humid. My shirt stuck to me like a cocklebur. Afterward, we even ate at the same place: Sam's, in Fairfield, Texas, where I used to eat during my days covering high school sports.

Everything went about as well as could have been hoped for. My mother died peacefully, with my sister-in-law reading Psalms to her and love letters that my father, Clifton, had written to her just before they married. My mother was unconscious, but Linda said she was sure that Mom was aware, at some level, of what was going on.

And this odd moment: A few days before she drifted into unconsciousness for the last time, my mother asked my brother: "Did you see Clifton?" He had just been there, she said, stopping by to visit.

A delusion? I suppose. Or maybe just an early welcome home.