Archive for April, 2014

Storytelling can be a means for good

Saturday, March 29, 2014


At a recent seminar on human trafficking, Marissa Castellanos, a social worker for Catholic Charities of Louisville, said something that resonated for me as a journalist.

“There’s really nothing more powerful than hearing someone’s story,” she said.

She was talking about Holly Austin Smith, who had just shared her experience as a victim of child sex trafficking. Smith talked about how she had been lured into prostitution at the age of 14 and her work as an advocate for others in that situation.

Earlier in the week, I had interviewed Smith about the upcoming seminar and her book, “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery,” which was published the next day. That kind of reporting — shedding a light on society’s problems and efforts to fix them — is the part of my job that gives my life the most meaning and satisfaction. Some would call it advocacy journalism. I say it’s helping people tell their stories and letting the readers make up their minds about it. If I’ve got a good story to work with, and I’ve gotten it right, then maybe it’ll make a difference. That’s my hope.


A story I wrote last month about a former radio reporter and prison chaplain now living in Bardstown seems to have helped him.

Gregg Anderson, whose journalism career spanned the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977 and the Carrollton school bus crash of 1988, was scarred by what he had witnessed during those years, and it was his compassion for the hurting that led him into Christian ministry, notably as a chaplain for the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville for three years.

Gregg was trying to discern where God was calling him next. Soon after the article was published, he told me that as a result, radio station WBRT called him to offer him a talk show, and he was offered the position of associate pastor of the church he’s been attending.

I think I can understand how his time as a reporter affected him. There’s nothing I dread more than covering tragedy, but somebody has to do it, and if you care about the people involved, you can do it better than if you don’t.

Like Gregg, I’ve thought about quitting newspaper work and getting directly involved by working for an organization like the Christian Appalachian Project or Kentucky Youth Advocates. But journalism can be a kind of mission work or public service.

Stories can be powerful agents of change — and I’m better at telling stories than talking to audiences or asking for money.


I’ve been here in Nelson County long enough now that some of the people I’ve written about have passed on, and I’m honored to have known them briefly and helped them tell their stories.

One man I never had the privilege of meeting (except on the phone), but who touched my life for a moment was Robert Lionel Baker, a gifted artist from Oxford, England who immigrated to this country many years ago. He died March 18 in Bardstown at the age of 87. It was his wife, Donna Rose Baker, who told me.

During the Christmas season, I had come to work one day to find a package on my desk. When I unwrapped it, it was a beautiful work of Celtic calligraphy that included “An Old Scottish Blessing.” He had painted it and given it to me in response to a column I’d written, “Will Scotland Turn its Back on Britain?”

It hangs above my desk at home as I write this column. Although the words are not his, the thoughts they expressed were, and to honor him and his art, I think they bear sharing again:

“My friends, life is short, and we haven’t much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be quick to love and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you always. Amen.”

In defense of the ‘mainstream media’

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Journalists are not objective.

Since the rise of talk radio 20 years ago, critics of what they’ve derisively labeled the “mainstream media” have challenged those of us in it — reporters and editors for newspapers, public radio and the old television network newscasts —to admit it, and so I’ll oblige them.

Reporters aren’t objective because we’re people, and people aren’t objective. Each of us has prejudices and experiences that color how we see the world around us, the same as any teacher, farmer or factory worker has. We all bring our own baggage.

Those of us trained in the craft of reporting and editing the news, however, are taught to be aware of our predispositions and take care that we are not blinded by our opaque views. We also strive — to use the motto of Fox News — to be “fair and balanced.” But that doesn’t mean we give equal weight to truth and travesty.

If CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow had given equal time to the Nazis on the eve of World War II, his listeners would have thought him unfair — and probably unbalanced.

Similarly, no thinking person would have considered David Halberstam of The New York Times a credible witness if he had treated the Ku Klux Klan with the same consideration as the Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle 50 years ago.

It’s the method of journalism that is objective, not the messengers. As with the scientific method, you look at the evidence and where it leads, then try to solve the puzzle; you don’t try to find scraps of evidence to piece together into a collage that reflects your preconceived notions.

That’s the difference between the mainstream media (which I prefer to call the real news media) and the alternative media of talk radio blather, cut-and-paste blogs and propaganda sites such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars or Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.

Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovach, in their superb primer, “The Elements of Journalism,” make the argument that the idea of journalistic objectivity has changed and is now misunderstood. Originally, it didn’t mean reporters were free of bias. “Quite the contrary … .Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence — precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work,” they wrote.

Essential to journalism, they said, is a “discipline of verification” that includes the following principles:

• Never add anything that was not there.

• Never deceive the audience.

• Be transparent about your methods and motives.

• Rely on your own original reporting.

Again, these are concepts that separate the conventional news media from most alternative media. Talk show hosts deceive their audiences by distorting facts, taking quotes out of context and making stuff up. They usually won’t come right out and say that they have partisan motives, and they usually don’t rely on their own reporting. They get their information from us grunts in the trenches — newspaper reporters, wire service statehouse correspondents and network television videographers. Then they use that information without attribution, put their own contrarian twist on it, and turn around and bite the hands that feed them by telling audiences that they can’t trust the mainstream media.

Well, I’ve got news for you. These days, the mainstream media are about the only news sources you can trust.


A reporter who exemplifies that spirit of verification and independence is Roger Alford, the state Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Frankfort, who was my supervisor during my brief stint as a part-time legislative reporter in 2012.

Roger is a conservative with libertarian leanings, but you wouldn’t know it unless you know him well, because it doesn’t show in his work. He always treated lawmakers, candidates and others with fairness and respect, but he was dogged in getting the story and getting it right. It was good to have him as a mentor, however briefly.

One thing some don’t know about Roger is that he is also a Baptist preacher. At the end of the year, he retired from journalism after 30 years in the profession and accepted a job with the Kentucky Baptist Convention in Louisville as its communications director. It seems to me a perfect blending of his two vocations. I wish him well in his new endeavor.


The majority isn’t always right

Saturday, February 1, 2014

State Sen. Jimmy Higdon got a surprise recently when he got the first results back from a survey he had published in The Kentucky Standard and other newspapers in his 14th District, which includes Nelson, Marion, Spencer and Casey counties and a little part of Jefferson.

The Lebanon Republican talked with me about the survey when I met him at Tom Pig’s one Saturday last month, a few days after the start of the 2014 legislative session.

The survey showed that more than two-thirds said they were against a statewide smoking ban in Kentucky, and a similar majority favored making medicinal marijuana legal in the state. It also showed that nearly seven in 10 respondents thought some felony records should be expunged, or made to disappear.

Higdon admitted his poll wasn’t “scientific.” That is, it wasn’t a random sampling of a large enough number to have a low margin of error.

He found it interesting that it was contrary to other polling on the issue.

In October and November 2013, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky surveyed 1,551 adults in a study with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percent. It showed that 65 percent — including 38 percent of smokers — want smoking banned in public places.

The results provide support for House Bill 173, sponsored by Rep. Susan Westrom, a Lexington Democrat, and Rep. Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican.

Recently, the issue was discussed on “Kentucky Tonight” with Bill Goodman. The guests were Dr. Shawn Jones and Ashli Watts (the wife of Nelson County Judge-Executive Dean Watts’ nephew) of the Smoke-Free Kentucky Coalition, Jim Waters of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions and Ken Moellman, spokesman for Northern Kentucky Choice.

Jones emphasized that secondhand smoke is a health hazard that should be regulated like any other occupational safety threat. Watts said a smoking ban is good for business. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce overwhelmingly supports it. Waters and Moellman made the argument that a public smoking ban suppresses individual liberty.

But does it? Smokers have a right to smoke. They don’t have a right to smoke around people who are where they have a right to be and don’t want to be around it. And smokers don’t have a right to endanger the health of their coworkers.

Moellman said people who don’t want to be exposed to tobacco smoke can choose

businesses that don’t allow it. But in some small towns, people don’t have many options for eating out or for employment.

Whether or not the majority favors it, a public smoking ban is right.

On the other two issues Higdon mentioned, I’m cautious. I don’t have a problem with doctors prescribing marijuana to counter the side effects of chemotherapy or help AIDS patients, but I’m afraid that allowing it for any ailment will lead to abuse, as it has in California and other places. As for expunging felony records, I would want to know if a felon lived across the road from my elderly parents or my young niece. I think a better approach would be to seal, rather than remove, only Class D felony records that don’t involve violence or sex crimes, and only when the felon has served his time and the victim has no objection.

It’s important for legislators to consider public opinion, but they should keep in mind that the majority isn’t always right, and the people elected them to be well-informed deciders, not delegates.

Edmund Burke memorably expressed this when he told a group of British electors in 1774 that a representative owes his constituents “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

They also must keep in mind, though, that Burke was not re-elected to Parliament.


Ruling doesn’t infringe on religious liberty

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Within hours of the decision by U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II that Kentucky law barring recognition of same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, the politicians started piling on.

It must be an election year.

Four couples, including Jim Meade and Luke Barlowe of Bardstown, sued the state, claiming that a 1998 statute and a 2004 state constitutional amendment invalidating same-sex marriages performed legally in other states violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Heyburn ruled in favor of the plaintiffs Wednesday, saying laws that “treat gay and lesbian couples differently in a way that demeans them” deny them equal protection under the Constitution.

The reactions were swift.

“Today’s ruling is an important step forward in the march toward recognition of all marriages under the law and full equality in our commonwealth,” said liberal Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth of Louisville.

Martin Cothran of the conservative Family Foundation denounced the decision.

“Kentucky marriage policy will now be dictated from places like Boston and San Francisco,” Cothran said. “This decision puts Kentucky voters on notice that if their reasons for defining marriage as between a man and a woman don’t correspond with the political ideology of liberal judges, their votes don’t count.”

Cothran said this despite the fact that Heyburn is a Louisville Republican who was appointed to the federal bench 22 years ago by President George H.W. Bush on the recommendation of a Louisville Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Remarks by McConnell and the candidates who want to deny him re-election to a sixth term and the chance to become Senate majority leader were more mystifying.

Calling himself a “traditionalist,” McConnell said he would “fight to make sure that Kentuckians define marriage as they see fit, and never have a definition forced on us by interests outside of our state.”

Matt Bevin, McConnell’s challenger for the Republican nomination, blamed the senator for promoting Heyburn, who once worked for McConnell, and accused the judge of “judicial activism.”

The Madison Project, a tea party fundraising group that’s backing Bevin, issued a press release saying that “a McConnell crony forces gay marriage in Kentucky.”

Most baffling was an ambiguous statement by Charly Norton, an aide to Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the presumptive Democratic nominee in the Senate race.

She told The Courier-Journal: “Alison has been married for seven years and has stated publicly that she wouldn’t want to deny other couples the opportunity to make that same commitment. She’s also made clear that while the Supreme Court has ruled that state sovereignty applies, churches should not be forced to recognize anything inconsistent with their teachings.”

But nothing in the judge’s decision would require that churches or other religious institutions recognize or perform same-sex marriages. That would be an unconstitutional infringement of religious freedom, he emphasized.

Heyburn wrote at length about the religious ramifications of his decision. Because recognition of same-sex marriage “clashes with many accepted norms in Kentucky — both in society and faith,” he said, he felt a “special obligation to answer some of those concerns.”

This is how he answered them:

“Our religious beliefs and societal traditions are vital to the fabric of society. Though each faith, minister and individual can define marriage for themselves, at issue here are laws that act outside that protected sphere. Once the government defines marriage and attaches benefits to that definition, it must do so constitutionally. It cannot impose a traditional or faith-based limitation upon a public right without a sufficient justification for it. Assigning a religious or traditional rationale for a law does not make it constitutional when that law discriminates against a class of people without other reasons.

“The beauty of our Constitution is that it accommodates our individual faith’s definition of marriage while preventing the government from unlawfully treating us differently. This is hardly surprising since it was written by people who came to America to find both freedom of religion and freedom from it.”

I’m a conservative traditionalist, and, as a Christian, I don’t think governments should force churches to perform same-sex marriages or individuals to approve of anything that violates their conscience. But Heyburn’s ruling doesn’t do any of those things. It simply states that under the Constitution, governments cannot deny persons legal rights that it affords others. It honors religious freedom as well as other civil rights and affirms the constitutional principles of due process and equal protection, and it doesn’t go beyond the question the court was asked to address.

In my layman’s opinion, Heyburn got it right.

The hope and promise of resurrection

Saturday, April 19, 2014

It’s been said there are no atheists in foxholes, but that isn’t true.

C.S. Lewis didn’t believe in God until long after he fought in the First World War, and it was longer still before he accepted what he called the “true myth” of Christianity.

In his youth, Lewis lived “in a whirl of contradictions.”

“I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing,” he wrote.

War reinforces some people’s belief and shatters the belief of others.

My friend Mary grew up singing the old hymns, which she loves. When her brother went to fight the Third Reich, she prayed God would protect him, but he was killed. Mary lost her faith and hasn’t found it in nearly 70 years.

Contrast Mary’s experience with that of Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” who spoke at my church a few weeks ago. More than 1,000 of his parishioners have been killed. In 2004, 11 of his staff were murdered or disappeared. He himself has been beaten, held hostage and threatened with death.

If that weren’t enough, Father Andrew suffers from a debilitating illness. Yet he believes “it is only the glory of God that truly sustains.” It is what gives him the ability to rescue captives, work for peace and proclaim Christ’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.

The “argument against God from evil” is one of the biggest obstacles to faith: If God is benevolent and sovereign, he would not allow evil to exist. But evil exists; therefore God does not exist.

What’s harder for me to believe is that God exists and is almighty, yet allows evil for his own purposes. I prefer to believe evil exists because there’s a struggle between the powers of darkness and light; and in the fullness of time, Christ will reign over a world where evil and suffering are vanquished.

Recently, I read something by Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei in Portland, Ore., that brings together these seemingly contradictory ideas of God’s sovereignty and cosmic warfare. He explains it using a story by J.R.R. Tolkien, the friend who led C.S. Lewis to faith.

What if, McKinley asks, God is like the conductor of a beautiful symphony who takes the bad notes and blends them into his work in a way that magnifies it?

In Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion,” Iluvatar reflects God, and Melkor, Satan. As Iluvatar created his music, “it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the throne of Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”

Melkor’s discord spread. But Iluvator rose and the Ainur (Melkor’s tribe) “perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.”

The best fiction is true.

St. Paul tells us “all things work together for good” for those who love God and have been “called according to his purpose.”

When the kingdom comes, there will be no suffering or sorrow, and evil will be defeated.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” St. Paul wrote, and we will be raised, not in spirit only, but also in body, perfected in strength and beauty.

Creation will be redeemed. And the returning King will say, “Behold, I am making all things new!”

That is the hope of resurrection.

That is why we celebrate Easter.

Northern Ireland, a place of terrible beauty

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Sunday, I began a two-part column based on a journal I kept while on a mission trip for Habitat for Humanity in Northern Ireland in October 2000. This is the second part.

Saturday, Oct. 21

Northern Ireland is lovelier than anyplace I’ve ever seen. We toured the rugged North Antrim coast yesterday and encountered a magical sight: a vivid double rainbow that framed a white church and stretched from a verdant sheep pasture over a cliff into a purple and turquoise sea.

Dunluce Castle was more beautiful in ruins than Carrickfergus intact, and the Giant’s Causeway was fascinating: thousands of geometric columns of basalt rising out of the sea.

After touring Bushmills, we spent the night at a hostel where an Irish language school was held. Some of us were invited to join the students for a traditional music session.

Our visit to Derry (or Londonderry) was an opportunity to better understand the Troubles from a republican point of view. Tom Kelly, our guide, painted some of the Bogside’s murals of Bloody Sunday,1972, when British troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, killing 14. Two who died that day were Tom’s cousin and the first girl he kissed. He told us he is now a “committed Christian,” neither Catholic nor Protestant. The only way Northern Ireland will know peace, he said, is through Christ.


Sunday, Oct. 22

On Friday, The Belfast Telegraph published an exclusive interview with President Bill Clinton in which he urged support for David Trimble and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which he called a “beacon of hope for those who struggle for reconciliation.”

Monday, Oct. 23

Cornerstone, the ecumenical community where American Habitat volunteer Dan Wartman lives, is located on the peace line. Protestants and Catholics who live there take Communion together. We met Tom Hannon, whose 18-year-old daughter was crippled by a sniper’s bullet. It’s hard to forgive those you can’t see, but it’s necessary, he said.

Tuesday, Oct. 24

During morning devotions, I read from Wendell Berry’s poem, “Enemies.” It begins, “If you are not to become a monster, you must care what they think.” It reflects my belief that hope lies in the recognition that none are without fault and we must see one another in need of God’s grace.

Wednesday, Oct. 25

The Habitat project is halted. Yesterday Dan told us to put our tools away and get into the van. He looked worried. The area has been affected by infighting between two loyalist paramilitary groups, and we learned some of the homeowners are partisans. Davy McVeigh, estranged husband of one homeowner, complained to a sectarian tabloid about work site conditions and was causing conflict. “Certainly we know Davy has a history,” said Peter Farquharson, executive director of HFHNI. “But then most of us do.” Later we returned to the site and started clearing up bricks and debris from the scaffolds and filling in ditches before abandoning it until this blows over.

Saturday, Oct. 28

Randy Norris and I are on the plane leaving Belfast. We learned yesterday that one of the Habitat homeowners is a member of a Protestant terrorist group. The staff didn’t know of Mo Courtney’s connections until he had moved up — and out. I think it’s best for the safety of the staff and volunteers that the project remain shut down for awhile.

Our farewell dinner was at an Indian restaurant. We’ll miss our friends.

Monday, Oct. 30

How do I explain what this experience has been like? When people ask, “How was your trip?” all they really want to know is whether we had a good time.

The moderate first minister, David Trimble, and his party won the election. In the Lexington Herald-Leader, it got a brief at the bottom of A8. But what happens in Ulster is important and will have an impact on the future of the United Kingdom and Europe.

Spiritually, I believe Northern Ireland is a place where there is a great need for the gospel of peace, love and hope. The attitude of “No surrender” goes against what Jesus taught about surrendering to him and forgiving our enemies. It is the way to lasting peace.

The work of Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland is significant because it is helping the poor, but also mending the broken body of Christ. I hope that in these past two weeks, I’ve contributed to its efforts to plant seeds that will grow into something strong and beautiful.

Building hope and houses in Belfast

Saturday, March 15, 2014

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

— Seamus Heaney

Monday is St. Patrick’s Day, when we celebrate Ireland and its contributions to our heritage.

This morning, however, I’ve been thinking of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom, and where Protestant descendants of British settlers are a decreasing majority.

Centuries of discrimination against Catholics caused the Troubles, which reached their zenith in the 1970s, when bombings and murders in Belfast were almost as common as in Baghdad today. But in October 2000, two years after the Good Friday Peace Agreement, my friend Randy Norris and I had the opportunity to be in Belfast at a moment in history when, in the words of Seamus Heaney, people on both sides of the divide hoped for “a great sea-change on the far side of revenge.”

Randy was a prosecutor in Nicholasville, and I was editor of the local weekly. We were involved with Habitat for Humanity at home, and for two weeks, we and 10 other Americans worked with members of Habitat in Northern Ireland, building not only houses but bonds of friendship and unity in a city long ravaged by civil war.

We stayed in a Catholic retreat center in Newtownabbey and worked in the Protestant estate of Glencairn, under the supervision of a former Irish Republican Army partisan and his assistant, a former soldier in the British army. The British were there as peacekeepers, but were seen as occupiers by the republicans.

While we were there, the province held an election and the Dalai Lama spoke at an international symposium on peace a few blocks away. It was a momentous time.

This is the first installment of our story, based on excerpts from the journal I kept then. The story will continue Wednesday.

Sunday, Oct. 15

At the entrance to St. Anne’s Anglican Cathedral, there is an exquisite mosaic celebrating the 1,500th anniversary of St. Patrick’s arrival at Downpatrick in Northern Ireland. Legend has it he is buried there. The priest introduced us to the congregation and told us the diocese supports Habitat for Humanity by giving it thousands of pounds a year.

After lunch we took a bus tour of the Protestant Shankill and Catholic Falls Road areas, which have figured so prominently in the Troubles. Our driver said the guns in many of the partisan murals were painted over — symbolic of efforts to take guns out of Irish politics.

Monday, Oct. 16

One of the houses we’re working on is the home of Peter Gitari Weru of Kenya and his family. He is a missionary to the U.K., which seems strange unless you know that Christianity is thriving in Africa and dying in the British Isles.

Tuesday, Oct. 16

While Randy and I were building a fence, two boys who were skipping school stopped to talk. The youngest, Andrew, asked whether Protestants and Catholics can live together peacefully in our country. “Can you walk on the streets in America without being shot at?” he wondered. Suddenly, the older boy spotted an armored vehicle, cursed and ran for cover. But Andrew stood his ground. “They won’t arrest me,” he said. “I’m not wearing my school uniform.”

A British helicopter hovered over our work site most of the day. Peter Farquharson, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland, told us the Troubles are far from over, but added: “We’ve come an awful long way.”

We had a relaxing evening at the Holyrood home of Liz Cunningham, who’s going to work with HFHNI volunteers in South Africa.

Before dinner, I talked with two women who had worked for Habitat in Beattyville, Ky. — with the same women I had worked with in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1998. Habitat for Humanity is making the world smaller.

Thursday, Oct. 19

Today we took a break from work to hear the Dalai Lama speak at Forthsprings Methodist Church on the “peace line” — a concrete wall that divides the city like Jerusalem or Cold War Berlin. His message was that people of different faiths can coexist peacefully and learn from each other. But I was more impressed with the message of the children from a nearby school. One of them, Julie McCann, wanted the peace wall, and all it represented, demolished.

“Tear down these walls of hatred and indifference,” she said. Another student, Patrick Fagan, prayed, “By the power of your Spirit, make us one.”


Write it right — a guide to good grammar

As a rule, you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, but come on.

Sometimes you have to break the rules.

That’s one of the best bits of advice I got from Dr. Libby Fraas, who taught feature writing at Eastern Kentucky University when I was a journalism student there in the early 1980s: Know the rules, and know when to break them.

This reminds me of a story about one of the great wordsmiths, Winston Churchill. When an overzealous editor changed one of Sir Winston’s sentences because it ended in a preposition, the cantankerous old genius scrawled in the margin: “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

While it’s sometimes permissible to break rules, rules are there for a reason. Unfortunately, the rules of grammar and punctuation have fallen by the wayside. Writing is like architecture. You can build a magnificent mansion with elegant columns, stained glass windows and ornate woodwork, but if you don’t get the foundation and framing right, it’s going to fall down. Likewise, you can write an article that has a good story line and creative flourishes, but if your sentence structure is weak, it will collapse and your readers will groan.

In my career as a journalist, my work has always involved editing — that is, reading and correcting the work of other writers. In addition to being a reporter and copy editor for The Kentucky Standard, I’ve been asked to be a writing coach.

Recently, I put together a guide for my coworkers, and I thought I’d share some of it with you.

The most frequent mistake I see is not separating clauses with commas before the conjunctions. For example: “Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”

You don’t place a comma before the first “and” because the subject is still Jack. You must place one before the second “and” because it’s a new clause with Jill as the subject.

It makes a difference whether you write “Let’s eat, Grandma!” or “Let’s eat Grandma!”

Punctuation saves lives.

As my EKU faculty adviser, the late, great Carol Wright, used to remind us in her droll manner: Your girlfriend my cheat on you, your mother may disown you, and your friends may forget you, but one thing you can count on is that the comma always goes inside the quotation marks.

The second most common error I come across is using plural pronouns to reflect singular nouns. It is wrong to say, “A person must mind their grammar.” The noun “person” is singular, and “their” is plural. They don’t go together. Say instead, “his grammar” or “her grammar.” Or just make it all plural: “People must mind their grammar.”

Subject-verb agreement is another regular blunder. For example: “Being a wooden puppet, Geppetto was surprised that Pinocchio could walk and talk.” But Geppetto isn’t the puppet, is he?

Finally, using the wrong word or the right word in the wrong way is too familiar. “Hopefully,” for example, is always an adverb. You can write that Catherine waited hopefully for Heathcliff, but not, “Hopefully, Heathcliff will come.”

Likewise, “somewhat” is an adverb, and “something” is a noun. I am something of a book lover, and I somewhat like books of historical fiction. See the difference?

“Comprise” is always a verb. Individuals may comprise a group, or a group may be composed of individuals, but a group is never “comprised of” individuals.

To say, “I want to share a couple things” is wrong. It’s a couple of things. The word is synonymous with “pair.” You wouldn’t say, “I need a new pair shoes.” Keep the “of.”

And though most reporters get it wrong, “couple” is almost always plural. “The couple live in New Haven,” not “lives in New Haven.”

Here’s one more: A banker can service a loan, a mechanic can service your car, a bull can service a cow, but a businessman should never “service” his customers — unless his business is prostitution.

The right word is “serve.” “Service” is, with rare exceptions, a noun, not a verb.

Let’s hope this little lesson has served you well.

Thrill of victory in the Big Blue Nation

When I was assigned to cover the fans’ reactions to the latest Battle of the Bluegrass, I have to admit, I was a little nervous.

I had only written one sports story in my 30-year career in journalism, and like this one, it wasn’t really a sports story per se, only a feature.

Still, I do what reporters do when they don’t feel qualified to write about a subject; I prepped for it. I read about previous contests between the University of Louisville Cardinals and the University of Kentucky Wildcats, how many national championships each team had won, their records, who their starters were — and then I forgot most of what I read.

It didn’t matter, though, because the story wasn’t really about the rivalry between the teams, but the rivalry between their fans. And what I learned was that it’s different here in Bardstown than in, say, Mount Sterling or St. Matthews. Maybe that’s because loyalties here are as evenly divided as our old Kentucky home was during the Civil War.

I met couples in clashing blue and red apparel, and brothers who were cheering for opposing teams. Somehow, like the Rebs and Yanks, they learned to live together.

A woman who was in Cardinals red and seated at a table with six or seven Cats fans, told me before the game that if Kentucky were to win, “you can take me home, because I won’t want to ride with all these people.”

What surprised me most was how deeply the Big Blue Nation has invaded Louisville’s territory. One man showed me his U of L class ring, and said he was “born and raised a UK fan” like his father.

Bardstown Police Chief Rick McCubbin, who grew up 15 minutes from the U of L campus and also got a degree from there, said he’s “always been Kentucky fan.”

I was impressed by the candor of almost everyone I talked with. McCubbin had given the more experienced U of L team “the edge.” But David Hutchinson admitted he “really didn’t want to play Kentucky” because of the size and strength of its freshmen.

At Buffalo Wings & Rings, I met a couple who were Louisville fans, Alex Payne and Bert Poston. Poston wanted Louisville to win, but thought Kentucky had the advantage.

“You’ve got a lot of youth and talent on the Kentucky side,” whereas Louisville’s talent’s “lopsided,” he said. For U of L to win, he added, Russ Smith and Luke Hancock would have to be effective.

I thought Hancock and Smith were effective, and still Kentucky battled back from a double-digit deficit and pulled off another stunning win, without its key shot blocker, seven-foot forward, Willie Cauley-Stein.

They did it again Sunday against Michigan, and now they’re going to the Final Four. Who could have imagined that a month ago?

Now some fans are talking about UK winning the title. If that were to happen, I don’t think it would be as thrilling to most Kentucky fans as beating the current NCAA champions and archrivals in a game that was uncertain right down to the buzzer.

If I only write about one basketball game in my career, I’m glad it was that one.


If you’re wondering about the other sports story I did, it was a feature about the Eastern Kentucky University Rugby Club when I was a student there in the 1980s. The story got the team plenty of attention. The wrong kind.

It mentioned the wild parties and the bumper stickers with slogans like “Rugby, an elegant violence” — as well as inelegant ones I can’t repeat here.

I quoted Craig Stern, my roommate and team captain, who described the sport as “not mass murder but not flag football either.” And I quoted Mike Ek, who told me outside a bar in Richmond: “I can’t wait for the season to start. I want to hurt somebody.”

I think that’s the one that got the team suspended. But it earned them the kind of notoriety ruggers crave and earned a not-so-tough student reporter a little cred and an honorary membership in the best fraternity on campus.

Participatory democracy thriving in Bardstown

At a family reunion years ago, my uncle Walt brought laughter when he described a friend’s temperament: “He gets upset over things he can’t do anything about — like the weather, or the government,” he said.

It was funny because it’s too often true. But I’ve lived in communities where residents are actively involved in their government at all levels and don’t accept the notion that they can’t change it.

Bardstown is that kind of community.

When I lived and worked in Berea in the 1980s and 90s, residents were involved in every kind of cause, from protesting the Army’s plan to burn chemical weapons near a school to supporting an effort to establish a public library.

Some of my friends belonged to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a group that led in historic achievements, including changing laws regarding the un-mined minerals tax and mineral rights. Sometimes they followed Saul Alinsky’s advice to “rub raw the sores of discontent.” A state representative, often sympathetic to their causes, told me they were “their own worst enemies” because of their stridency.

For participatory democracy to work, you have to take the approach, not of “us versus them,” but “all of us.”

Arthur Woodson, known as the mayor of Henrytown, expressed a similar opinion one night after a Bardstown City Council meeting, when he told me how someone reacts to something depends on how you say it.

While there are times when confrontation is necessary, cooperation generally gets better results. The key is to choose your battles and be willing to settle for something less than unconditional surrender by others.

As Bardstown Mayor Bill Sheckles said last week when 40 fishermen and others came before the council to say they want to be involved in decisions about recreational use of Sympson Lake: “There’s got to be some compromise. Not everybody’s going to get everything they want.”

It’s a good point. Half a loaf is more nourishing than nothing.

In recent months, I’ve been impressed by the level of public participation I’ve witnessed as a reporter in Bardstown and Nelson County.

Sympson Lake is just one example. Two weeks ago, the City Council made changes to its proposed ordinance to restrict water sports on the city’s reservoir after some residents made suggestions. Then last week, the council tabled the first reading of an ordinance until a water committee could get input from the people and more up-to-date study results. That’s reasonable and right.

Another promising development was a crowded January meeting at the old courthouse to support the creation of walking/biking trails here. In response, city officials last week passed a resolution to accept ownership and maintenance of a right of way on Ky. 245 from the state for a path.

Most impressive, though, has been the endeavor by residents of Maple Hill to take back their neighborhood. Led by Danielle Jones and David Clark, members of the Bardstown Active Neighborhoods delegation, the residents have come before the City Council with documented evidence of nuisance violations and complaints about drug activity, and they have demanded that the city enforce its statutes. As a result, city police have stepped up patrols in the area, owners of one troublesome location have been persuaded to clean up their place, and plans are being made to establish a neighborhood crime watch and a residents’ association. There are also plans in the works to have a homecoming and spring cleanup.

The Maple Hill people I’ve talked with at these meetings and local business owners who say they want to be involved in improving Maple Hill strike me as genuinely caring.

This is how government of the people, by the people and for the people should work.

April 2014
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