Archive for February, 2010

Perception vs. reality: Democrats' scorecard

Vice President Joe Biden, an experienced authority on foreign policy and national defense, hit back hard recently at former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is suggesting the administration is weak when it comes to the war on terrorism. The military has scored many recent successes against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, including killing or capturing top leaders of the groups.

Ron Crouch has an encyclopedic knowledge of statistics. What the man knows and can remember when it comes to numbers is almost incredible.
The longtime director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville, Crouch is one of my favorite speakers, even though his talks are usually a variation on the same theme: that there’s often a wide gulf between perception and reality.
Whether the issue is crime, the effects of suburban sprawl, government spending, economics or sexual promiscuity among teens, Crouch can cite numbers to prove that what the majority believes is often wrong.
In an article he wrote for the American Association of Museums newsletter in 2004, he said that “We are a news-addicted society; what happened today is our usual frame of reference. But it is important to analyze trends over time to determine if something is getting better or worse. Sociologists have found that our perceptions often don’t change at the same time as reality.”
I was thinking about Crouch’s views on reality vs. perception recently when I was reading a Washington Post op-ed by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
The article, called “The Best Congress You’ll Ever Hate,” said that while the current Congress is one of the most unpopular in decades, it has also been one of the most efficient in getting things done.
This echoes a recent editorial from The Courier-Journal, which cited a Congressional Quarterly study showing that not since Harry Truman has there been a president as successful as Barack Obama in getting legislation he supports passed by Congress.
Granted, those legislative accomplishments haven’t been in the same class as Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Economic Opportunity Acts of the mid-1960s. But if you were to believe what you hear on talk radio, you would think the president and the Democrats haven’t accomplished anything.
The facts tell a different story.
Ornstein points out in his article that the $787 billion stimulus package has not only rescued banks and Wall Street, but expanded broadband Internet service, fostered school reform in many districts, invested $70 billion in energy and environmental programs, and improved health information technology, among other things.
Other legislation has helped car dealers, allowed the FDA to regulate tobacco, and the House has passed historic cap-and-trade energy legislation and far-reaching financial regulations to try to prevent the kind of meltdown we’ve experienced recently.
Both the House and Senate passed their versions of the most comprehensive health care reform legislation since the creation of Medicare, and likely would have passed a final bill had it not been for the untimely death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was the most effective advocate for health reform in the past century and the 60th vote needed to override a Republican filibuster.
It’s interesting to consider that, for all the right wing rhetoric about “socialized medicine,” the Democrats’ approach to health care reform is similar to what the Republicans offered as an alternative to President Clinton’s ill-fated health reform proposal in 1994.
It’s also not unlike what Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and the Massachusetts legislature enacted a few years ago in that state. It’s ironic that Republican Scott Brown, who supported the Romney health plan, rode the wave of anger about health reform to the United States Senate.
Then there are taxes. The Tea Party movement (the acronym stands for “taxed enough already”) would have people believe that Obama is a big “tax-and-spend liberal,” but as the pragmatic president noted in his recent State of the Union message, he hasn’t raised anyone’s income taxes “one dime.” In fact, the $288 billion of tax cuts in the stimulus bill is one of the biggest reductions in recent history.
There is also the perception that the president is “weak on defense” and the war on terror. But Obama, who kept President Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, and chief general, David Petraeus, has expanded U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Lately, the military has also been successful in capturing major Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. One must certainly give the Bush White House its share of the credit, but the current administration is winning the war on terror, which will last for many years, no matter what we do.
If I may return to Crouch’s observation that it’s important to look at the long view before making an honest assessment of something: I think it’s important that we consider the successes that this president and the Democratic Congress have had, and understand that when a country faces problems as large as the ones President Obama inherited, they can’t be fixed overnight.
It took Abraham Lincoln five years to save the union and initiate the abolition of slavery. It took Franklin D. Roosevelt more than a decade to save our country from the Great Depression and the world from the threat of fascism.
The challenges President Obama faces are not as great as those Lincoln and FDR had, but they aren’t small. It isn’t realistic to think that he could save the world financial system from collapse, end the recession and unemployment and bring the troops home from Iraq his first year.
We should give him and his party a reasonable amount of time. And we should give them credit for what they have done.

Boy Scouting: It's about character

The purpose of Boys Scouting is to shape boys into leaders and men of principle.
But don’t tell the boys that. They’re too busy having fun.
Speaking to the Winchester Kiwanis Club on Feb. 10, J. Kelly Hampton, Scout executive and CEO of the Bluegrass Council, described Boy Scouts as one of the best mentoring programs for youth.
“Why Scouting? What’s special about it?” he asked. “The whole reason we exist … is to build character in young people.”
The Scout oath, he said, sums up Scouts’ responsibility to God, their country, other people and themselves: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
The Scout law has to do with being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
“Everything we do is about that,” he said. “It’s really a simple recipe for how to live a life.”
But to a 7-year-old boy just becoming a Scout, those things are probably furthest from his mind.
“I can tell you, you don’t join Scouting to have your character built, you join it to have fun. But somewhere along the way, those other things come about,” he said.
Hampton, who was a Boy Scout himself in North Carolina, and whose father was a Scout leader, said it was a valuable experience for him, as it has been for millions of boys down through the years.
Scouting is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month, and the Bluegrass region, and especially Clark County, have a strong Scouting heritage.
Scouting has changed since Hampton was a boy. Scouts still hike, camp, canoe and engage in other outdoor activities, but they may also play indoor games and do things other kids do.
They also engage in community service activities. In fact, it is the largest youth service organization in the country, he said.
It is, however, smaller than it used to be. There is still considerable growth in the younger boys’ organization, Cub Scouts, but at a certain age, some boys feel there is a stigma attached to being a “Boy Scout” because some kids think it isn’t cool. But for those who stay with it, it can be a rewarding experience. Those who attain the highest rank of Eagle Scout are especially proud of their accomplishments as leaders.
Hampton mentioned that local Kiwanis clubs sponsor more than 1,000 Boy Scout units and about 29,000 Scouts. Other civic clubs are also important sponsors. But the biggest sponsors are churches, and that’s a good fit, because there is a spiritual aspect of Scouting, he explained.
While this is the 100th year of Scouting in America (it actually started in 1907 in England), 2010 is also a year of other anniversaries here in this area. It is, for example, the 75th anniversary of Troop 75 in Winchester, which some members of Winchester Kiwanis have been members of or are associated with as volunteers. And it is the 50th anniversary of Camp McKee, the Bluegrass Council’s camp near Jeffersonville.

See The Winchester Sun Feb. 26 for our Boy Scouts centennial anniversary special section.

FDR on an ethical economy

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Lately I’ve been reading about the causes of the current economic crisis and thinking and talking with others about how the root of the problem is an erosion of old-fashioned values such as honesty, concern for workers, customers and communities, a commitment to hard work, sensible spending and responsible business practices. This is also the theme of Jim Wallis’ new book, “Restoring Values.”

This isn’t the first time that a culture of opulence and excess — of focusing too much attention on the bottom line and not enough on bedrock values, such as the common good and personal integrity — has caused a near economic collapse. It underscores, I think, the need for more, not less, government regulation.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address in 1932, spoke eloquently, using biblical imagery, in his criticism of those who caused the Great Depression. If only there were leaders today who had the courage to speak so plainly. I came across this passage from Roosevelt’s speech in Wallis’ book:

“Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and where there is no vision, the people perish. Yes, the money changers have fled from the high seats of the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

The dark side of freedom of speech

A recently created Facebook page spoofing the tragic death of 17-year-old Shawna Taylor of Winchester is extremely cruel and indecent and should not be considered protected speech.

It used to be said that newspaper and broadcast journalists were the “gatekeepers” of information.
We used our professional training and values to determine what was credible, what was important for people to know, and what was “in good taste.”
We encouraged a robust debate on real issues, and vigorously defended the First Amendment rights of those who used our media because we believed, as the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote, that free speech “may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”
But that was then.
Now there are gatekeepers, but there are no longer gates.
The Internet allows anyone to publish unedited, unverified and unconscionable comments at will.
For some contemptible Web browers with too much time on their hands, called “trolls,” the goal isn’t to stir people to anger in order to improve conditions, it’s to provoke anger for anger’s sake. They post offensive comments on sites like Topix, social networking media and even newspaper Web sites. And under current federal communications law, there is little the host media can do except remove those comments or try — often with little success — to block the users.
This week we saw an extremely hateful example of this kind of abuse.
On Tuesday, a beautiful and likeable 17-year-old girl, Shawna Taylor, died when the car she was driving struck a utility pole.
Within two days, someone had created a Facebook page to make fun of this tragedy and post the most horrible comments about her.
By 7:30 p.m. Thursday more than 100 people had joined the group. Probably most of them were not Clark Countians. Facebook has millions of users who are connected to millions of others. And some George Rogers Clark students joined the page only so they could comment on how disgusting it was.
Still, it’s hard to see how anyone could be so heartless. This child was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s friend. The survivors’ grief is already beyond measure. What these young people have done is pour salt into a fresh wound.
Have they no compassion or sense of decency? Have they no shame?
This is the dark side of free speech — a right that in the age of the Internet has been stretched far beyond the original intent of the authors of the Constitution, who wanted to protect religious beliefs, freedom of political dissent and the journalistic duty to inform — not to protect obscenities like this.
Facebook and other social media must do a better job of monitoring and removing such content.
Those who loved Shawna Taylor are in the thoughts and prayers of many today, even those of us who didn’t know her.
Maybe in this time of Lent, we should also pray for the repentance of those who are so sick and corrupted by evil that they have no pity for those who are hurting.

Hearts heavy for Haiti

Emily Hampton, left, and Caroline Duncan, both of Winchester, hope to return to Haiti in April.

Occasionally I have an opportunity as a small-town journalist to do a story that really touches me and gives me hope.

My interview last weekend (published Monday) with siblings Emily Hampton and Caroline Duncan of Winchester, who have been doing mission work in Haiti for many years and are about to go back there to deal with the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake, was one of those kind.

These young women are collecting cloth, underclothes, house dresses, toiletries and other items for the young mothers and elderly people at the Northwest Haiti Christian Mission base there. They need our help to help others who are in dire need. Please read the story from The Winchester Sun, then give as you are able.

'The greatest of these is love'

We think of Valentine’s Day as a day to celebrate romantic love, and it is, but its origins have to do with love of all kinds. This morning I happened to remember these words from the beginning of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin’s 2004 book, “Credo,” and thought it might be appropriate to share them. With the approach of Lent and Easter, it is also a good time to remember the greatest love of all.

Here, in the author’s words:

“Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Descartes too was mistaken; ‘Cogito ergo sum’ — ‘I think therefore I am’? Nonsense. ‘Amo ergo sum’ — ‘I love therefore I am.’ Or, as with unconscious eloquence St. Paul wrote, ‘Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ I believe that. I believe it is better not to live than not to love.”

“Make love your aim, not biblical inerrancy, nor purity nor obedience to holiness codes. Make love your aim for

‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels’ — musicians, poets, preachers, you are being addressed;

‘and though I … understand all mysteries, and all knowledge’ — professors, your turn,

‘and though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor’ — radicals take note;

‘and though I give my body to be burned’ — the very stuff of heroism;

‘and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing’ (1 Cor. 13:1-3 KJV)

“I doubt that if in any other scriptures of the world there is a more radical statement of ethics. If we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”

— William Sloane Coffin

The Sun still rises

It was late in the afternoon last Wednesday when we in the newsroom first heard that The Winchester Sun was going out of business.
Specifically, the rumor was that our the employees had all been called into a meeting Tuesday night and were told the newspaper would be closing.
Of course there wasn’t a bit of truth to it.
It reminded me of a famous quote by another newspaper editor, Mark Twain, who said, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
I used that in a Facebook post and on our Web site as soon as I heard the rumor. It was quite fitting, I think.
The irony is that, while small newspapers — and most small businesses — have suffered from the Great Recession that began in 2008, things are looking up for the Sun.
Our managers have had to make some hard decisions regarding efficiency and consolidation within the company, but the result, coupled with the improvement in the economy in recent months, is that our business is looking stronger than it has in a long time.
January is usually not a good month for small newspapers because sales slow down after the holidays and businesses don’t buy as many ads. But this January was good, and we came close to making our budget for February within the first week of the month.
The day after the rumor, one of our readers suggested that maybe it was time for the Sun to start publishing biweekly or even weekly.
I found that ironic, too, because the day he made that statement, the Sun was crammed full of local news — 26 out of 37 stories or photo spreads were about Clark County or its people — more than 70 percent. And many of the non-local stories were from nearby towns like Richmond, Frankfort and Lexington.
I get weary of hearing that the Sun isn’t as “local” as it used to because that is demonstrably untrue. We’re putting more emphasis on local content than this newspaper has in at least the 35 years I’ve been reading it.
I would challenge anyone to find another daily paper in the Bluegrass region that devotes more of its space to local content than the Sun does — despite the fact that our staff is much leaner than it has been in a long time.
It’s true, we’re publishing fewer pages now, but what newspaper or news magazine isn’t? And we make up for some of that slimming down by offering more on our Web site, including photos you won’t find in the print edition, slide shows, videos, ad searches, online polls and comments from readers.
We’re doing more with fewer resources, and it isn’t just on the news side. The same day, Feb. 4, we had a healthy ratio of news to advertising within the pages of the paper itself, and we had five multi-page glossy inserts from department stores and other advertisers.
If we were to go weekly, as our reader suggested, it would likely be an 84-page weekly because that’s about how many pages we print each week — not counting special sections. And the paper might have 20 or more inserts.
But the Sun isn’t going to go weekly, contrary to rumors that have been circulating in this community for many years.
And we aren’t going out of business.
We’ve survived 132 years, the Great Depression, two world wars, the age of radio and television, the era of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. We will also survive this recession, and we will thrive — because as long as there are small towns there will be a need for small-town newspapers, and we’re determined to make your hometown paper the best it can be.

February 2010
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