Saturday, April 30, 2005

What should I write about?

On Friday, I sent out an e-mail to many of the people I've written about or interviewed in the past 17 months and invited them to suggest story ideas, profile subjects, etc. Scientists are over-represented, African-Americans are under-represented, but this is a pretty interesting cross section of the Lowcountry. Here are excerpts from some of the first replies (names withheld):

Development: I have heard Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League say that
restrictive zoning ordinances are not the answer to controlling unwanted
development, but access to water and sewer are. I want to know how decisions
about running new water and sewer lines are made, whether the public can
have input into the decision, and why this process is not currently being
utilized to control development. Is this tactic used in other areas of the

Highways: How could The Department of Transportation have been so incompetent as to
build brand new interchanges at Ashley Phosphate Road and the Mark Clark on
I-26 that could not handle rush hour traffic from the minute they were

Start-ups: I think the problem is that everyone wants to be quick to say that small
businesses provide the vast majority of jobs in the country and in our local
area, but media articles about business aren't often excited about the
prospect of attracting entrepreneurs to the region or encouraging our own
residents to start successful businesses--they're all breathless about the
latest big business acquisition.

Antimicrobial resistance: The over prescription of antibiotics to humans has caused the phenomenon of them gaining resistance to the drugs. Thus the ever increasing search for the new antibiotic that will initially work but eventually fall into the same cycle of resistance. While focus has been on human consumption directly there are caveats. First the drugs
including antibiotics that we take are excreted and end up in the harbor
etc. Collectively then there are many drugs out there including antibiotics
so we and the marine organisms ingest them. So I take in somebody's birth
control pills. But so do the dolphins etc. A few months back I received a call from the SC Aquarium that they had a turtle that had an infection that could not be cured by antibiotic regimen - antibiotic resistance. I forwarded the call to the
turtle folks here and did not follow up on it. So there is a complex story.
Commercial animal farms dose animals with huge amounts of antibiotics and
hormones. These excess chemicals get to the water. We drink the water. We
eat the fish. Some marine animals are sick themselves - e.g. turtles. Some folks hypothesize that these chemicals are responsible for the very large group of folks with diabetes ( coupled with other things too of course). This field is called
"Endocrine Disruption".

Emerging Contaminants: How do we know what new ( anthropogenic) chemicals are in the marine environment and what is dangerous. Most recently is the discovery that flame retardant chemicals are in big amounts. So where do they come from? Everything from
children's sleepwear to carpets to house construction materials. They are
accumulating in the environment but are they dangerous?

Potpourri: 1. The marine industry in Charleston (not the international shipping in and out of the port) but the marine industry with all the personal boats and yachts, piers, slips and companies buying and selling, repairing parking and buiding...big story! How does it affect the tax base? Just how much revenue does it generate for the state and local income? How many people locally work in the industry. and how many enjoy its benefits? There are a million angles!!
2) I'd like to read about the he future of the weapons station and the Air Force base—or more correctly, Charleston's future with and without them.
3) We need more stories about the sorry state of traffic and traffic control (the damned timing of the lights in this town!!) and how the city plans on handling another 100,000 cars and trucks in the next 6 years!?!??! It is almost to the point now to where you have to leave home an hour and a half before work...just to do 5 miles!!! This is a quality of life issue for the working class and is costing them an arm and a leg! Every minute at a stop light is money going up in heat!!
4) I'd like to see someone go back, pull the list of both Reilly's and Sanford's campaign promises and report on their status. I don't mean an isolated 500 word litany of "he didn't do it!" I'd like a side by side analysist of what each candidtate had to say and a real expose of what has been delivered!!
5) I'd like to see a feature about the real loss of history (both buildings and the social 'atmosphere' here in Charleston. Things ain't like they used to be—people coming here are very different, and those Yank-olinians with their gruff ways are changing it!! We're in danger of losing our charm to something...
6) Like to see a feature on diminishing wildlife due to all the building and the push to put a shoebox on every square inch of Charleston. Fill in the swamps and wetlands and build, build, build!! We need the taxes so we can spend, spend, spend...but on what?? The state of education here is no better. There are more potholes than ever! And again, traffic is at a standstill!!! Where is all this money going??
7) Organized crime in Charleston. That's all need be said about that.
8) The state of immigration in Charleston, SC and how it has affected, schools, the police and even neighborhoods.

High-tech environmental monitoring
: We are currently involved in re-mapping our intertidal oyster beds,
this time using low altitude, high resolution digital imagery (1/4 m
pixel resolution) and then computer programs to automatically identify
bed location, size and density/condition of beds. It is a neat, high
tech approach that could be interesting reading for your audience.

Enviro-friendly construction:
This is a good year for cordwood masonry, a natural building style. Every 5 or 6 years, there is a Continental Cordwood Conference (CoCoCo). This year, it is in Merrill, Wisconsin, July 30 -31, 2005. All of the shakers and movers in the field will be there to share latest techniques, innovations, and discuss code issues.

MEGALITHS (a personal favorite): Our big Megalithics (Stone Circle) workshop here at Earthwood, West Chazy, NY is July 20-24. Should be a good one. We are raising a 5.7 ton stone by hand, the second stone in the Earthwood Trilithon.

Traditions: I think I would like to less "fluff" kind of articles such as the flippant
style you see in the "Good Morning Lowcountry" and more significant reading
provided in perhaps a special section/column (every week? every other week?
once a month?)
devoted to places of historic interest in and around the Tri-County area. I
would suggest taking a cue from some of the shows like "Carolina Camera"
(you know the one Michael Trouche used to do on Channel 5)to get some ideas
about what to include or places you could go. You could also plan to talk
with the chairmen/presidents etc...of heritage organizations for ideas--Sons
of Confederate Veterans, Daughters of the American Revolution, for example,
or interview a C of C or Citadel professor
for ideas.

The news-side addiction

I've been in features now for 17 months, but every now and then I'll get tapped to do something over in news. Most of the time it's pretty simple. When I break stuff it's usually because the subject is so obscure that nobody else cares enough to cover it.

Today I actually blundered into news. I'd been assigned a vague news-side piece on South Carolina's latest attempt to ban same-sex marriage (we already have a ban... so this is like our DOUBLE-SECRET PROBATION constitutional amendment ban) and suddenly I figured out that the proponents may have bungled the language in their rush to shove the referendum through the legislature. The question itself may be illegal.

I finally stopped around 11:30, and largely because it's just too rude to call people that late at night.

The lesson: Doing this stuff is an addiction. It's not healthy. It isn't fun. It's actually bad for your career, and what's more, READERS COMPLAIN ABOUT IT.

They'd rather read my happy little features, and I'd rather write them. But once you've got it in your blood, you're screwed. And I'm not saying this in a romantic, "oh-how-I-love-the-thrill-of-it-all!" way. I've watched this addiction torment some very good people who desperately need to move on in their careers.

I accept that I have it. I accept that it's going to be part of my makeup. I do NOT accept that I can't move beyond it to other, better things.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Back to normal? What's normal?

My uncomfortable brush with traffic from an A-List blog should have subsided by now (I don't actually track such things, so guessing), and I'm breathing a bit easier. There's no evidence that I've horribly offended anyone I respect, and there's been no ominous message that begins "Conover, please come see me in my office."

The experience (like so many) was instructive. It taught me that I've still got the reflexive "Look At Me!" gene. Otherwise, I would have (and perhaps should have) respectful declined Jay Rosen's offer. It taught me that my primary responses to attention are contradictory (part of me wants it, much of me does not), which means I probably have an innate tendency toward hypocrisy. I'll have to watch that carefully if I keep doing this media blogging thing.

I'm also wondering, for the first time, whether there's much point in me continuing. I don't HAVE to have a blog to comment on posts ... I just figured that if I was going to comment on this stuff, I ought to have some experience with this stuff. I've posted my big ideas on media, but they draw no interest or discussion. People are interested when I say controversial, provocative things... but you know, most of those arguments are decades old. When I jump in, I feel like I'm just picking at scabs and scratching the resulting itch.

When I started this blog, I thought it would be good to use my name and make everything as plain as I could. No clever title (my first blog, written anonymously, had the exceedingly clever title "Mysterious Erotic Technical Manual"). No hiding behind some one-name handle derived from some obscure figure from the Latin/Greek classics.

(...which, by the way, is a tradition that really should be credited to novelist Orson Scott Card, who -- and I believe this strongly -- should be credited as one of the godparents of blogging. What else is the Ender series' Peter Wiggins but a protoblogger, trying to change the world by his brilliance, posted anonymously online? Disclosure: I know Mr. Card and like him as a human being, even though I thoroughly dislike much of what he has done with his political columns).

But I'm getting the sense that I'm taking this as far as I can, and perhaps farther than I should. My fiction writing has gone on complete hiatus since I took up a more active interest in participating in the media debates, and to be blunt about it, I'm playing this particular game with a handicap. Someone who works for a newspaper simply cannot speak as freely about the industry as someone outside it. At the beginning, I just wanted to make sure there were some working journalists in the conversation. Now I understand why there aren't more.

I really like blogging, though. No matter how things go, I don't see giving that up. And if nothing else, this experience has put me in a position to help my employer make a move into these new mediums. It looks like I'll be running our first blog (covering a three-week arts festival in May and June), and this morning I got an invitation to sit in on the group that will be talking about our future on the Web -- one of only two reporters to get a seat at the table.

But this particular blog? Maybe not.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The 'Uh-Oh Feeling"

Hi. Jay Rosen included my post on Tim Porter's blog in a thing he put up this afternoon at PressThink, and that means one thing: much more traffic than this blog normally receives.

For those of you who are here merely to get a bit of background to go with Rosen's comments, let me sum up this blog so you can go back about your regularly scheduled life: I blog about the stuff I'm trying to do. It gives me feedback and ideas, and quite bluntly, sometimes it gives me street credibility when I want to make comments on the big media blogs. But that's it.

Sometimes I blog about big ideas, but this isn't a "big" blog. It is happily, and appropriately, small potatoes.

Hence, the "uh-oh feeling". I don't speak for anyone other than myself. And I really, really don't speak for my employer, which is why I don't mention my employer here.

I would like to clarify one point: I really don't simmer. I used to simmer, but I gave up simmering. Simmering is bad for your health. In fact, it never even occurred to me that I might be viewed as simmering. If you read my post and thought it was simmering, then I want to apologize. I swear to God: wasn't simmering.

Deep Thoughts on Tim Porter

Tim Porter's Friday blogpost, "The Mood of the Newsroom," was uniformly praised by some of my favorite people in New Media. Plus, I consider myself a Tim Porter fan.

So why did I feel the urge to talk back to it? Am I one of the defensive newsroom people he describes? Am I really reacting to Porter's ideas, or to my emotions on the subject? Am I simply that much of a knee-jerk contrarian? God I hope not, but I certainly can't dismiss the possibility. Not with my track record.

I spent much of the weekend thinking about it, and wrote him a response this morning. But I still don't feel resolved on the matter.

If I'm to be very honest about it, I have to admit a certain resentment. It's like the way some military people feel about Ralph Peters: It's not that they don't agree with much of what he says, but it's frustrating for them to watch him tell those truths from the outside. I always sided with Peters -- look, somebody has to speak candidly about the strengths and weaknesses of our professional officer class, and Peters does that as well as anyone. But it's not so easy when the tables are turned on me and the people telling hard truths about MY profession are people who left it.

To be one of the people who criticizes from the inside is to be eternally uncomfortable, I think.

That said, I don't think it's all just personal psychology. I think the "blow up the newsroom" folks need to do some serious thinking about what happens when you create a vacuum in the spot the press has filled in our society. I'm not convinced that the forces of good will be the first to rush in and colonize that cleared ground.

It's too easy to make sweeping statements, and journalism has taught me to be suspicious of them. I guess that makes me a lousy revolutionary, but in my own defense, I've been doing this for 15 years now, I've been beaten down time and again, and I'm still alive and working on new ideas and concepts.

I still believe there are things worth defending about my profession. Does that make me a part of the defensive culture? That's an obvious conclusion... if one always believes in obvious conclusions...

Thursday, April 21, 2005

"Stand-alone journalism"

Great post at PressThink this morning here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Great Gawd Awmity

Whew. I just finished jamming out one of the longest non-fiction articles I've ever written in my life, the kind of magazine-style prose that makes newspaper editors sit up and shout "CONOVER, YOU SUCK!"

And maybe they're right. I'm not sure. I didn't want to write this story so long. I'm sick of long stories and constantly trying to find ways to write things shorter... or at least break them down into more digestible bites.

But sometimes you have to listen to the story itself, I think. How does it want to be told?

This story, a year-in-the-life of two local neo-pagan groups, wanted to unfold. It resisted all my attempts to pack it into an economical space, sprouting new shoots every time I tried to prune it back.

I don't know how the bosses will look upon it. But I figure if I'm going to walk in and say "I want to publish a ridiculously long story on a topic that's just bound to make many of our faithful readers uncomfortable," I might as well offer them the professional courtesy of giving them some time to read the material.

Mark my words: This is the last big project I want to do all freaking year. Just this one story, and then I will happily return to little baubles about new research at the marine biology lab, stuff like that.

What a maroon.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Global Warming hits the streets

My little experiment went out with the morning paper, but whatever feedback I'm going to get is likely to be slow in coming. It wasn't exactly promoted, even though we devoted two open inside pages in the Health/Science page to my materials. No promo off the front page, so people are going to find it slowly, if at all (for those of you keeping score at home, it's the section BEHIND the automobile classifieds).

For those of you who missed me talking about this before, the GW package was my attempt to create a different kind of package: Not a narrative story, but something radically different. I wanted to present the material in a way that allowed the reader to break competing ideas down into their component parts, and my model for this was the spreadsheet rather than the inverted pyramid or the "five-graph newsfeature."

End result: 165 inches of text, the largest parts of it devoted to a chart that presented the pro and con arguments, followed by a section that evaluated the claims. Reason: I'm tired of reporting that gives me two competing voices and says "YOU DECIDE!" Look, I'm paying you for the information... help me make a better decision...

The package started on the front and moved inside to two facing pages, and nothing jumped.

And there's not a quote from a scientist or a pro or a con in the whole thing.

Why? Well, not because I didn't talk to anybody. Instead, I thought it boiled down to this: If I were to start quoting people, I'd have to become aware of the conventions of internal balance. You'd be aware of it as a reader -- how fairly did I treat the quotes? The speakers? Did my transitions and set ups betray my subjective biases? And I thought, once I start down that road, I don't know if I can keep the spirit of this package where I wanted it. I wanted everything to be about giving the reader a tool to help him or her organize their own thoughts.

What this is -- and in retrospect, I regret not coming out and TELLING people what this was -- was the result of me, Mister Non-Scientist, reading and reading and reading. Sometimes I would talk to scientists and test out observations, then edit. This was me, Mr. I Want To Understand, trying to look at all sides but reach as many conclusions as I could.

If I had it to do over again, I would do several things differently. The first thing would be that I'd write an editor's note that read "Daniel Conover began collecting information on global warming in December 2003 and spent much of the month of March 2005 reading books, articles, message boards and scientific journals with one goal: To come to his own mind on the validity of claims by all sides in the global warming debate. Treat his report as your guide to forming your own opinions." That would be more candid... but I wasn't comfortable with it because it sets the journalist up as a celebrity.

The other thing is, I would have explained the sourcing better. If you go online and check my web links box you get more than 50 links... that's probably less than half of my materials... and there just wasn't any way to cite all these things in print. Plus, when you're writing a paragraph-length summary of a position based on year's worth of reading, how do you specifically cite that?

Clearly, the best way to have done this would have used hypertext. I have multiple five- and six-inch bits explaining relevant ideas, but they're sort of scattered around because I can't link out of the chart. That would have been the best... but we're just not ready for that coversation with our web guys yet.

Anyway, I'm glad i tried the experiment. I learned stuff, and so far the reader feedback (though limited) has been good. One woman wisely asks why I didn't attribute my facts, and as I've already said, I should have taken that more into consideration.

Unfortunately, our web presence isn't particularly inspiring. I won't go into details, but we talked about this last week several times and still didn't get to a minimally acceptable web presentation until late Monday afternoon... and I'm STILL unable to download the pdf file of the chart.

If you want to see it, go to and look in the frame on the left. My package isn't mentioned in the "Today's Edition" stuff on the front at all, but it can be reached two ways: First, follow the "Global Warming" link under the frame header "Special Reports;" Second, click on "Health and Science" under the Features header. The only way you'd ever know to find this stuff is if somebody told you exactly where it was... and THEN you have to register. I recomend following the Special Reports link: the other one doesn't organize the package links at all.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Blogger wire service

A few years back, I imagined what it might be like if one stood the notion of an international wire service on its head. Rather than a series of bureaus sending reports back to a central office, I doodled with the idea of something more like a loose intelligence network.

Something like this: I own stock in a factory in Kiev, and political unrest leads to riots there. I'm reading the news stories and watching the video, but what I really want is information on "my" factory. In this model, I'd contact the "Acme News Wire Service" and inquire about having one of its stringers pick up my tasking. With contract in hand, "Our Man in Kiev" would report back on my request -- not broadcasting the information, but stovepiping it.

Yes, I'd pay for it, and individual taskings might have to be negotiated. But the ability to connect individual information consumers with individual information collectors just seemed like a natural outgrowth of networked media.

The thing was, I wasn't so sure who the information providers would be. Journalists picking up a little freelance cash? Maybe, but consider the potential conflicts of interest. Private investigators? Stay-at-home-Moms who register their profiles online and compete for freelance contracts? Every type of person I considered had drawbacks, and ultimately I figured that the economics of such a system were too ponderous, too top heavy, to ever turn a profit on such infrequent business.

Then last night I had a dream. There was a citizen journalism conference that I wanted to attend but couldn't, and so I was keeping up with the event by reading a blog that someone in the audience was updating every few minutes. At one point I thought the panel had gone off the topic, and so I posted a comment on the audience blogger's board. He responded. "Great question. I'll ask it."

And that's the way it went in my dream. The audience blogger at the journalism conference became my real-time representative in the room, asking questions that I would have asked, then posting the responses. More of his readers began asking questions. More responses.

When I woke up, I had two thoughts waiting for me.

First, it might actually be possible to create that international wire/intelligence network I thought of years ago if you built it around bloggers.

Second, it might be very helpful if we could create a blogging events calendar. Something like this: Today Al Franken is going to be broadcasting his radio show from Charleston. If I planned to attend the show and blog from it live on a laptop, I could stop by the blogging events calendar site and post my URL and schedule.

That way, anyone who wanted to follow that event could schedule themselves to check in on my blog. That's a trivial example, but imagine the more interesting ones. Corporate shareholders meetings. Academic conferences. FEMA news conferences after natural disasters. Sessions of state legislatures and meetings of county councils. Awards ceremonies. Anything that people have an interest in.

As things stand today, I think the biggest hole in our emerging multi-node networks is the inability to connect people to things that might interest them. It's an insider's game today: If you know about the party, you're invited, but if you don't know where to find the address, you'd never know it was even going on. A calendar like the one I suggest might be one tool for making those kinds of hookups between collectors and consumers.

Make those connections robust enough, and perhaps you can develop the kind of personal informational abilities that seemed like science fiction... just yesterday.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

"Napoleon Dynamite:" the concurrent resolution

I just think this is kinda cool: Idaho is in the process of honoring the 2004 indie-film-hit "Napoleon Dynamite" with a state resolution.

Lawmakers do goofy stuff like that all the time, but the guy who wrote this one was really on his game. Consider the ultimate "WHEREAS" clause:
WHEREAS, any members of the House of Representatives or the Senate of the Legislature of the State of Idaho who choose to vote "Nay" on this concurrent resolution are "FREAKIN' IDIOTS!" and run the risk of having the "Worst Day of
Their Lives!"

I didn't get this movie the first time I watched it, but once I watched it with our teenagers it made perfect sense.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The vanishing journalist

The American Society of Newspaper Editors revealed a study today that shows the number of working journalists at American newspapers has declined 4 percent since 2001.

* Overall staffing in newsrooms tumbled from an estimated 56,393 to 54,134 today — a four percent decline.
* Numbers of white men fell the most, decreasing by a net 1,744 or 5.5 percent. The number of white women declined 1,230 or 6.8 percent.
* Newsrooms added a net of 365 Asians, 259 Latinos but only 46 Native Americans and 34 African Americans.
* Newsrooms lost nearly 1,000 reporters, nearly 600 editors, nearly 300 photographers and artists and just over 400 copy editors, as top editors and publishers in large and small papers reduced staffs to weather the anemic economy.

Interestingly, the focus of the study appears to be on the relative degree of progress in the ASNE's well-known diversity goals. I dunno. Maybe I'm wrong to be alarmed by this. Maybe a 4 percent decline is a relatively small, cyclical thing. And maybe those reporters have just moved on to other media.

But I doubt it. Most of my peers from the class of 1990 and thereabouts seem to have kicked the newspaper habit and moved on to other fields.

Blogging, Zen, podcasting and pagans

I love my Zen Micro as a technology, but I've got to adjust to it. The ability to reliably record a three-hour interview is great, but now that I have that ability, the task of retrieving notes from something that big is just daunting. I'm not sure how many hours it took me to get my eight pages of notes out of my recording of my sit-down with pagan poster family The McGreggors, but it was considerably longer than three hours.

On the bright side, I really think their voices will ring much more true in print thanks to this. I'm pretty good at getting short quotes, but for longer quotes I tend to drop the verbal oxbows and quirks of speech when it's just me taking shorthand.

Turned in an e-mail memo on the Spoleto blog project to the boss yesterday, and it appeared to have gone over well. I brought up the podcasting option, which was poor salesmanship on my part, but whatever.

By the way, the one thing I've learned from recording and podcasting is this: I hate the sound of my voice.

Time to start writing. I've been working on my big pagans project from home this morning, trying to see my way in to the lead.

The truth is, the blog I started for that story attracted a bunch of comment early on, but it has lost their attention since then. The jury is still out, in my mind, as to whether it's really worth the effort. But that's what you gotta love about research: If you have to know the outcome of everything you ever try, you're really not trying anything.

Monday, April 11, 2005

More Zen...

The Zen Micro does a much better job of recording meetings than I first imagined: I recorded two long events Friday and Saturday (a group meeting and a group interview) and you can make out everything everybody says.

Not only that, but the ability to download an audio file to a computer makes transcription much easier -- more and better controls for playback, etc.

The thing I really want now is a program that provides a raw audio-file-to-text transcription, and I can't find one. That's a pretty nifty trick I'm talking about, and most of the people who are working on voice seem to view it as an input control or a way to turn text into a different kind of output (handy, for instance, if you drive a lot, and want to have your e-mail read to you on the road).

Audio-to-text seems to be more about accessibility now: a way for people who can't use a keyboard to write. That's a very different animal than what I need, and I represent a smaller market. Journalists, court and medical transcriptionists... maybe police and intelligence agencies. Who else needs the ability to turn their recordings into rough text documents?

Any suggestions out there?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

I get Zen

Yesterday an editor suggested that I road-test my idea for a daily Spoleto podcast by creating something similar out of stuff that's going on now that has nothing to do with Spoleto... a mock-up, in a sense.

And since my favorite idea was to hangout at the door to venues and stick a microphone in people's faces as they exited, that put the pressure on me to come up with a portable recording device with output ability.

So this afternoon I bought a Creative Labs Zen Micro, a 5G MP3 player that doubles as a digital voice recorder.

It's not a perfect solution, but it's a start. Plus, it gives me a place to put music and podcasts... no small consideration in my pre-CD-era 1995 Crown Vic.

If I can demonstrate the value of this, then maybe we'll find some money to buy some Olympus DVRs, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. I asked for permission to install the software interface on my work box today (kind of important if I ever want to download an audio file of an interview) and was immediately told that what I was REALLY doing was making a capitol request and there was no budget for new computers.

(In fairness to my friend who told me that, he has a point: these boxes have limited storage space and no CD burners, so if I were to save interviews here, storage could become a problem. In fairness to me, my friend the tech guy was wrong when he said "Your box is almost full already." I've got 20Gs of storage space, and almost 16Gs of it is free.)

So I'm not attaching too much to this experiment. But I've got a new gadget to explore.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

So, to atone...

Here's the transcript of testimony given by a Baptist preacher last week at a hearing on a bill to ban gay marriage in South Carolina. It arrived in my e-mail this morning.

I don't offer it as an endorsement of a religion -- as I said in my previous post, I am not a Christian. I don't offer it as proof that all Southerners are right on race or sexuality, or even that the preacher is representative of most Southern Baptist preachers. I offer it as an example of what speaking from love instead of fear can sound like... and why I believe so passionately that it's possible to imagine a less-divided society than the one in which we live.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Shrum
Pastor, Oakland Baptist Church, Rock Hill SC

Senate Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing
On the Proposed Constitutional Amendment Barring Gay Marriage
Room 306, Senate Office Building (Gressette Building)
March 31, 2005 (1:30 p.m.)
By the Rev. Dr. Robert Dale Shrum

Chairman Ford, Senator Hawkins, Senator Cleary and Senator Hutto: good afternoon, and thank you for hearing me today.

I am Bob Shrum, and I am a resident of Rock Hill where I have been the pastor of the Oakland Baptist Church for over 22 years. I have served two other Baptist congregations in Sumter and Pendleton. My pastoral service to Baptist churches in South Carolina has spanned more than 34 consecutive years. I grew up in Florence, and graduated from the University of South Carolina. I have deep roots here, and I love this state of ours. I am Sandlapper to the core. My remarks to you this afternoon grow, basically, out of two loves: my love of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and what I have learned through the years of him, and my love of this wonderful state where most of my almost 60 years have been spent. Please hear them in that light.

First of all, let me tell you that I speak for myself. I do not speak for the Oakland Baptist Church in Rock Hill or any other group or individual. If any of you are Baptist, you know that Baptists do not speak for each other. We're funny that way. We like our independence and resent it when others pretend to speak for us. Additionally, you should know that I am not gay, nor do I have---to my knowledge--- any family members who are gay. Quite simply, my remarks to you grow from conscience and deeply held convictions informed by Christian faith and over 40 years study of the Scriptures.

Let me tell you a story. When I was a little boy growing up in Florence, my Daddy was the manager of the Goodyear Tire Store on Irby St. He was good at what he did. Everybody admired him, and so did I. He was a Deacon in the First Baptist Church where we were members.

One night---long after we had gone to bed---the telephone rang. It was from one of the men who worked back in his service department. He was in jail over in Marion and needed somebody to come get him out, so he called my Daddy. His crime? He was black and driving around after midnight, and it was in the 1950's. They arrested him on the pretense of suspicious behavior.

In the wee hours of the morning my Daddy climbed into his '56 Ford with a T Bird engine and flew over to Marion. Not only did he get his employee out of jail that night, but the local sheriff got a real large piece of my Daddy's mind when he tried to laugh it all off and say "no harm done."

I asked him about it the next night. I was 12 years old, and I wanted to know why he went to all the trouble. His explanation, "Bobby, it just wasn't right."

I learned a lesson from my Daddy that night that I carry into this room today: IT'S JUST PLAIN NOT RIGHT TO TREAT FOLKS LIKE THEY DON'T COUNT---LIKE THEY'RE NOT REAL PEOPLE.

But there's something else I bring into this room today. I have to believe it's a big part of what my Daddy took to that jail in Marion that night. It's the life, influence and example of Jesus, himself.

Now, if you're not a Christian, maybe that's not all that important to you. But I am a Christian, and it's real important to me, so I have to speak out of what, in my heart, is foundational. And, for me, it's Jesus. It's not Leviticus. It's not even Paul because sometimes Paul sends mixed signals. It's not the Pope. It's not denominational headquarters. It's not the religious figures who speak so loudly and
authoritatively so as to drown out all those who would differ. I look to Jesus when I am puzzled and don't have all the answers like I wish I had.

I had a teacher in seminary. Old Testament teacher. Clyde Francisco was his name. Dr. Francisco used to tell us, "Now boys, remember this: whenever you get stumped trying to understand the meaning of something in the Bible, just let Jesus be your interpreter. Let the spirit of Christ be your guide, and you won't go wrong."

And that's what I try to do. And, to tell the truth, it's not always so easy. It's not easy because lots of times I would rather let my prejudices guide me. After all, I've lived long enough to know what's right and what's wrong, and I'd like to think that most of the time I'm right, and those who don't agree with me are wrong. That's why I have to try real hard to let the spirit of Christ be my guide. And whenever I've been successful at pulling that off, I never go wrong.

And I commend that to you today if you're in a quandary about what to do with this big, big question you're dealing with. If you approach it with the spirit of Christ, you won't go wrong.

So, what does the spirit of Christ look like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like?

It's a bunch of blue-collar fishermen. It's a despised tax collector. It's a colony of lepers. It's a hated Roman soldier with a sick son. It's hungry people being fed. It's the children who they tried to keep quiet and out of sight. It's a woman married five times that he made feel worthy. It's another woman caught in adultery that the religious establishment wanted to execute, but he set her free. It's a Samaritan man who the church people hated, but Jesus made him a hero. It was a little old lady so poor that she only had a few pennies for the offering plate, and Jesus held her up as an example for the ages. It was a woman of the streets who became one of his best friends. It was a thief on a cross that he took home with him.

You see, the religious experts of his time called him a drunk and a glutton because he went to parties with them, and they despised him because he hung out with the folks who were on the margins of respectable society---the disenfranchised ones---the ones they called the dregs of society. And they killed him for it. BUT THAT WAS HIS SPIRIT. And it was a spirit that ultimately would not, could not go wrong.

Last Sunday---Easter---amidst all our "Hallelujahs, He is risen" we reminded ourselves that it is that kind of spirit that will always, always prevail. Easter tells us that God will not allow the spirit of Christ to be defeated. We may try to kill it with our hateful attitudes, but at the end of the day, it will be our hateful attitudes toward "the least of these" that will go down to defeat.

Can't we see it? Jesus refused to marginalize any segment of society. They were all God's children and therefore brothers and sisters to each other. And he only reserved his harshest word for the religious/political establishment which had become quite adept at fixing their constitutions to separate the decent folk from the different folk. He said they were like tombstones---pretty and white on the outside, but dead and empty on the inside.

So, I appeal to you today. Let the Spirit of Christ guide you even if you are not a Christian. You won't go wrong if you do. Do not use the Constitution of our beloved state to marginalize a segment of our citizenry. Do not listen to the fear-mongers. They have always been among us throughout our history trying to scare us with their doomsday scenarios, trying to marginalize one segment of society and then another. And, they have always been proven wrong at the end of the day.

Trust the spirit of Christ. Trust Easter. Or as my Daddy might have said, "IT'S JUST PLAIN NOT RIGHT TO TREAT FOLKS LIKE THEY DON'T COUNT."

Thank you for your time.

In which I gaze at my navel

This will be a long post, so forgive me. Or skip it.

First, some confessions:

My father is a Christian minister, but I am not myself a Christian. That fact should not be read as a personal condemnation of Christianity, and I feel that I respect the faith to this day. But it is also true that I have been too harsh in judgment of my Christian brothers and sisters. I don't say this to retract my thoughts about fundamentalist abusers, the core of which I believe to be true. But I should admit that I have allowed my own feelings of bitterness to color my tone.

As I replied to a conservative Christian friend who wrote to me about this yesterday, one either acts out of love or fear. I have carried a grudge, nursed over more than a decade of name-calling and accusations. It didn't make me hate Christianity or Christians, but it has kept me from loving them.

I have also been harsh with my liberal friends, though I would not have seen it. I don't disassociate myself from my thoughts about politics, or what I see as the human shortcomings of the people involved, but it is true that I have at times been spoiling for a fight.

After more than a decade of minding my tongue and disciplining my actions as I tried (and, no matter the outcome, I really did try) to serve my city as a news editor, I revel in the freedom to speak my mind. Yet in trying to find an independent voice, I have become strident.

What does this have to do with media? Everything. Nothing. To run a local news operation is to stand at the intersection of a lot of forces, and one of the occupational hazards is that one either tends to absorb their anger and pain or to become callous to it. I don't talk about this much, because it sounds an awful lot like whining, but maybe we should talk a bit more than we do about the human side of media. My experience of the people who call in to newspapers suggests that many of the people who dislike media the most simply don't see it as a human endeavor. They were sometimes sincerely shocked to find a human being -- rather than a predictable apparatchik -- on the other end of the line.

I think that over the years I absorbed a lot of emotion from callers to whom I never expressed my own. It can be frustrating, but it's all part of what can be a very rewarding line of work. I remember desperately wanting to hit back when callers, left and right, accused me and my reporters of various crimes, but taking yourself out of equations seemed as much a part of city editing as functional knowledge of spell and grammar.

End result? No matter what my ideas are, it's just too easy now for me to express them from a primary motivation of ego and resentment. That's just fear talking, and it's the first thought that counts.

I didn't start a blog to become a "pundit," which is not to say I don't want to express myself. I wanted to experiment with the form, and -- to be blunt about it -- it seemed to me that people who joined discussions on blogs but did not, themselves, blog, lacked a certain credibility. If I wanted to walk the walk, I figured I'd better back it up.

But what I didn't expect when I began this was that the experience would be so instructive on a personal level. We're all accountable for what we say here, and unlike newspaper accountability -- which is aggregate, group-minded and carefully measured -- the accountability of a blog is intimate and personal. Or it can be. If I feel I'm wrong, or at least "not right," then I can say so and try to explain. I don't have to write a soul-less correction that leaves you clueless about the context and weight of the error. I don't have to worry about advertisers, and if the readership of this post drops off after the first graph and none of you ever return, well... I'm the publisher, and I've given myself permission to fail.

We don't talk about it much, but journalism is materialistic (and not generally in the Saks Fifth Avenue sense of the word). It wants facts, dates, statistics. As a reader, this fills many of my needs. But for the parts of my life that are not defined by materialistic measures, journalism is the wrong language.

I wear its approbations and condemnations like a cloak. The voice of Jim Shumaker is with me now, cringing. Former editors, many of them friends, would want nothing to do with this "navel-gazing bullshit." Our business shys away from the exploratory and the unsure. Quantify it or it doesn't exist. Cut the self out of the story. Cite a source. No matter what happens, never show any emotions other than anger, irritation, or self-possessed, disconnected compassion. Beware of strong emotion, of passion, of doubt. Don't examine your own thoughts where others can see them. Be bloodless. Be tough. When all else fails, condescend.

Just never let your guard down, and never lose.

That's good advice in a world viewed as combat, and to be honest, I spent the first 35 years of my life in that world. And it's true: When you're in the press, a lot of people would love to cut your balls off and wear them as a trophy. I can't tell my colleagues not to be aware of that.

But ultimately, it comes back to the original duality I proposed: either you act out of love, or you act out of fear. These days I think the original motivation has more to do with the success of your venture than any other degree of art and skill. The press, like most of us, tends to operate out of fear first.

And I think the results are predictable.

Bye, cat

One of our two almost-year-old cats, El Presidente De Todos De Los Gatos, was hit and killed across the street from our house this morning. We buried him in the back yard just after sunrise.

He was a really nice cat. I didn't want to have pets again, but kittens grow on you. I will miss him very much.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Very cool blog link

My friend Robert Huffman sent me this link in an e-mail: PostSecret, a collaborative art project. I love it.

Big news in Bluffton

Steve Yelvington announced the launch of Bluffton Today on Friday while I was out of town. Not only is it big news for New Media, it's just down the road.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Don't go see "Sin City"

I think I'm pretty much free to make this statement because nobody is ever going to accuse me of being hip, but Richard Rodriguez's "Sin City" is an amoral, moronic piece of trash.

But why should anyone care? Bad stuff gets made all the time.

Well, here are a few reasons: It's being marketed as cool. It's being lionized. Put another way, "Sin City" isn't just a bad movie: It's pathology being foisted on the public as art, and the mainstream media is playing along.

Millions of dollars have been spent convincing people this movie is cool, and they did a great job of it. The "Sin City" trailer had us Jonesing to see this thing months ago. What a creative, stylized vision.

Only there's no there there. Actually, it's worse than that. There's something there beneath the digital cinematography: Smug stupidity strutting around as intellectual hubris. Everybody is evil and corrupt ... except for these thugs and hookers who live by a moral code for which they will die. How f*cking pathetic can you get?

As Janet so aptly put it: "What's so bad about this is, this is what passes for a critique of culture. It's shallow, it's superficial. If that's hip, count me out."

I actually think it's important that people speak out about this movie (which, yes, looks cool... although after a few minutes you really won't care). This is the best example of Hollywood spitting in the face of regular people that I've seen in years, and to let this pass unchallenged is to bolster the claim of those who would return us to various forms of censorship and artistic control. Janet Jackson's nipple was inevitable given our litany of sexual neuroses, but this disease is preventable.

Yes, bad stuff gets made all the time. But when trash gets treated like genius, when the entertainment press publishes reviews with phrases like "glorious celebration of violence" and "fun thrill ride" about an artless, rip-off script that features a buffet-line of stereotypic characters and perversions, we've lost the thread of the culture.

As Janet observed, "When you've seen that, is it that big a leap to Abu Ghraib?"

Celebrating free speech and artistic expression should not mean that anything goes, that posing as an artist makes one deep, that pretending to be smart grants one intelligence. Caring about free speech and artistic expression should mean that we care passionately about quality -- even if, and particularly if -- doing so might be unpopular with the cool crowd.

Punching the tar baby

I shouldn't have done it, but I stuck my nose into the faux "diversity in blogging" debate. Like the Schiavo case, one should just let these things play out and trust that people will pick out the credibility of the sides on their own.

But I do get frustrated by it all.

Here's my position: There is real, structural inequality in the "real world." Depending on how, where and to whom you are born, your opportunities are established. We have a real reason to care about this, and yes, sometimes that means that we need affirmative action programs.

So when educated people attempt to extend that rhetoric -- and by extension, identity politics -- into cyberspace, I get frustrated. I have yet to see a convincing argument for any structural inequality in the blogosphere. All I see is an anecdotal observation (white guys blog) and an inferred cause (structural inequality) being used to back the argument "You A-List bloggers should link to me more often."

The reason I hate this kind of talk is that it serves to undermine the credibility of those who poin out real-world structural inequalities. In my neighborhood, children attend segregated schools where discipline is out of control and very little learning goes on. These kids have a tough road ahead of them, and they need help.

By equating the blogosphere with real-world society, Jenny D and Halley Suitt are simply handing over crates of ammunition to who wish to dissolve the social contract with those in real need.

I shouldn't have punched the tar baby, because you can't beat one. But some days you just can't just keep on walking.

And a good time was had by all...

We turned our three-night camping trip into a two-nighter and drove home after a full day of hiking today, arriving at home in time to watch the second half of the UNC-MSU game. Perfect timing.

We got rain. We got 46-mph wind. We got SNOW (sort of). We had a blast. But with a chance of real snow in the forecast, it was time to come home. We really just weren't set up for that.