Overcoming Community Divisions

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Burlington’s Political Therapy Group met Saturday at the library to hear a panel discuss divisions within our community, specifically those related to race, culture, poverty and crime.

The Rev. Brice Hughes of Zion UCC moderated the group that included Supt. Freddie Starling of Faith Temple Church of God, Maj. Dennis Kramer of the Burlington Police Department, Char Blodgett of the Burlington Homeless Shelter, the Rev. Orlando Dial of St. John AME Church, and Mayor Shane McCampbell.

For a two-hour discussion period, the panel was a little large. Introductions and opening comments took up 45 minutes. Still, it was a worthwhile morning and Hughes did a good job keeping it moving forward. Try as he might, there simply wasn’t time to wrap it up with a unifying sense of what to do next.

The Bridges Out of Poverty program was cited several times as an effective way to address some of the problems raised — and it is. If Bridges does nothing else, it introduces participants to how different classes of people speak, set goals and use their time. Of course, Bridges is so much more than that. It’s an excellent program for anyone to get involved with.

I left with a couple thoughts:

Be persistent

Former state Sen. Tom Courtney encouraged the police department to add more minority officers. He said the force should reflect the racial makeup of the community. That’s easier said than done.

Back in the ’90s, we took steps at The Hawk Eye to increase the number of minorities in the newsroom for the same reason Courtney mentioned. We wanted it to be more like Burlington, which meant 10 percent of our newsroom should have been black. We attended workshops, advertised on campuses and tried some recruiting, all to limited success. Eventually, we concluded our scope was too small. Ideally, the workforce inside the building at 800 S. Main St., which numbered about 100 employees would have 15 percent minorities. That would include ad sales people, designers, carriers, office personnel and press people. Despite our efforts, we never came close to achieving that kind of diversity. The important thing, though, is it remains a worthy goal. Just because it doesn’t happen doesn’t mean the effort should stop.

I’m confident the police department encounters the same problem. I’m also confident it’s doing what it can to meet that goal, however long it takes. Kramer said as much. It requires persistence.

Also in the ’90s, we took steps to increase the number of minority faces in The Hawk Eye — particularly beyond the front page and in the Sports pages. Specifically, as the managing editor, I met with pastors and others to try to understand why there was a dearth of black faces among our Family Album photos and in the obituary columns. There was no single answer. Mostly, it seemed to be a lack of awareness or a sense within the black community that the newspaper wasn’t interested in them.

Submissions did increase, but not to my satisfaction. Again, I think it was a matter of culture and routine. These things don’t change overnight. But the welcome mat remained. As new pastors were introduced to the community, I continued to make my pitch. I hope the newspaper still has that emphasis, even after my departure.

Be aware

McCampbell noted it takes effort to effect change. As a self-described “large black man,” he’s cognizant that he sometimes makes people uncomfortable. Rather than being upset, McCampbell does what he can to make incremental change. For example, the mayor said once he was rushing from a store to another appointment and noticed a woman cringing at the counter. She obviously was uncomfortable with his presence. McCampbell stopped, offered a welcoming hand and shared an encouraging word. A small gesture to be sure, but one that surely helped put the woman at ease.

Former school board member Dennis Kuster suggested police officers have a similar problem.

Recently, he said, he was pulled over legitimately, but he could not help but think how the officer made him uncomfortable with his shaved head, stern demeanor and dark uniform.

“Please encourage them to grow some hair!” he joked. Both Kramer and McCampbell, who are follically challenged, laughed. But they had to acknowledge that first impression can improve.

I’ll go further. Burlington Police Chief Doug Beaird will retire next month and City Manager Jim Ferneau will be appointing his replacement. I’m hoping the next chief will return to civilian wear at work.

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Until Stan Rowe was appointed chief (also in the early ’90s), the top law enforcement officer in the city wore a jacket and tie. Rowe, a Marine, changed that practice and chiefs since — Dave Wunneberg, Dan Luttenegger and Beaird — have worn dark uniforms. Returning to civilian wear would signal a welcomed change at the top. (Changing the color of cruisers, another Rowe move, would help, too. The dark navy is too sinister.)

Breaking down community barriers is a big challenge. Small, everyday steps accompish a lot, particularly if they’re done consistently and persistently.

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
— Winston Churchill

 

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Journalism Under Siege

 

You won’t be able to read Randy’s column anymore in the Sunday Hawk Eye. Management didn’t cotton to this submission, spiked it and let him know there won’t be space for him anymore. That’s The Hawk Eye’s loss — and ours. With Randy’s permission, here it is.

— dla

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JOURNALISM UNDER SIEGE

By Randy Miller

“Freedom of the press ensures that the abuse of every other freedom can be known, can be challenged and even defeated.”
— Kofi Annan

Late last week, The New Yorker ran a story titled “Does journalism have a future?” That follows by several weeks the naming of journalists worldwide as the “Person of the Year” by Time magazine, a truly thoughtful and insightful choice.

I, too, fear for the future of those in my chosen profession. With our president calling any news outlet that publishes anything that portrays him in an unfavorable light “fake news” and “enemy of the people” and the proliferation of truly fake news on social media sites, is there still a place in the world for true journalists?

The New Yorker piece notes that “between 1970 and 2016, the year the American Society of News Editors quit counting, 500 or so daily newspapers went out of business; the rest cut news coverage, or shrank the paper’s size, or stopped producing a print edition, or did all of that, and it still wasn’t enough.”

The piece mostly covers the changes wrought by online media, like the Huffington Post and Brietbart News and BuzzFeed News, and their impact on large daily newspapers, but notes offhandedly that local papers through the years have often produced the best shoe leather journalists who went on to bigger and better jobs with the larger publications. That pipeline is drying up.
Ironically, since the president began calling the big national media companies “enemies of the people” most have seen a surge in readership and subscriptions, notably The New York Times. So there’s another of the president’s lies exposed when he repeatedly Tweets “the failing NYT.” No, it’s not failing. Saying it doesn’t make it so.

Attempting to control and demean traditional news sources is straight out of the playbook of autocratic rulers around the world, including Vladimir Putin in Russia. Control the message and you control the people. It’s that simple.
So we now have an autocratic president who lies about as often as he takes a breath. If this president isn’t removed from office soon, it will only get worse.

Americans today are inundated with media of all kinds and thus are becoming increasingly skeptical of all sources of information, which is bad for traditional journalists who are still committed to fact checking and obtaining their information from reliable sources.

Meanwhile, the more disturbing trend is that of big media companies buying up newspapers around the country and milking them for profits. Most could care less about covering the local communities they serve.

This newspaper is a good example. When I retired three years ago, there were more than 90 full-time employees with benefits on staff. Today, there are less than half that number, just two years after the paper was bought by Gatehouse Media. Do the math on how much that is saving the company.

Several rounds of buyouts and layoffs have decimated the staff. The newsroom had 24 full-time employees, as well as a host of part-timers, when I retired. That included four dayside editors, four nightside editors and six full-time reporters.

Today, there are eight full-timers in the newsroom, including two editors and two reporters, who also fill in on desk duties when needed. Although they make a valiant effort every day, there is no way they can adequately cover southeast Iowa and west-central Illinois with such limited resources.

I’m told they have hired another reporter who will begin work soon, but that’s putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

As city editor, I often took random complaint calls from the public about something we covered or didn’t cover. Even fully staffed, we couldn’t be everywhere all the time. So I can’t imagine how many complaint calls they’re getting now.

In its Person of the Year edition, Time noted that 52 journalists were killed worldwide last year just for doing their jobs, the most notable Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Turkey by agents of the Saudi government, a truly atrocious act.

The cover photo of the edition featured the remaining news staff at the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland. Five of their colleagues were shot and killed by a crazed shooter who walked into their newsroom one day and opened fire. Amazingly, they still put out a paper the following day.

So the question is, does journalism have a future? It damn well better have. Press freedom is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for a reason. It is essential to a functioning democracy.

But true journalism is under siege today, attacked by fringe elements on both the right and left, by fake news sites online, and by our current president. Reporting and commenting on news of the day is an evolving process, and especially so these days. But good journalism still matters, perhaps more so today than any time in recent memory.

Journalists know that on a daily basis they are going to get more criticism than praise for what they do. It’s just the nature of the job. So if you know a reporter or editor, regardless of the size of publication they work for, like veterans, thank them for doing their jobs to keep the public informed. What they do every day is that important.

Adding to the Roberts Five

There are numerous reasons for slowing down Brett Kavanaugh’s ride to the U.S. Supreme Court. Numerous.

But that won’t stop Republicans, led by Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley, from rushing it through. Most important among them is the fact this president is making the selection under the grayest of clouds any president — including Nixon. His legal jeopardy is obvious from what we’ve seen with our own eyes over the past two years. Imagine what we’ll learn when Robert Mueller releases his report.

Perhaps that’s the point. Conservatives (defined in the dictionary as cautious) are plowing ahead.

Last week, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey made headlines in leading the Democratic charge against Kavanaugh. Their points, which included missing documents, potential lying and questionable legal interpretations, were valid. Still, in reviewing what Democratic members on the committee had to say, I keep coming back to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s points. The Rhode Island Democrat took heat from Republicans on the committee for his opening statement, but he was spot on.

Whitehouse took pains to point out what it would be like if the Roberts Five on the Supreme Court were turned into the Roberts Six.

He analyzed cases in which the five Republican-appointed justices — Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia (since replaced by the similarly minded Neil Gorsuch) and the chief justice himself, John Roberts — voted in unison against the four appointed by Democratic presidents — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan. He found better than 90 percent of them sided with corporate or major partisan interests — virtually  “every damn time.”

So much for judicial modesty, originalism or respect for precedent, all go out the window if they come up against corporate interests or Republican partisan matters.

Campaign finance? Decided in Republicans’ favor — especially in the Citizens United, which made money a form of speech.

Gerrymandering cases? Go Republicans. Crack and pack political boundaries to your heart’s content. Dilute opposition voices whenever and wherever possible.

Voting rights? Republican arguments prevail at the expense of minorities.

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Let’s just White Out the preamble to the Constitution with Brett Kavanaugh’s addition to the Supreme Court.

Labor unions? Republicans win. Defang them however you can.

The environment? Let polluters pollute.

Businesses concerns over the Affordable Care Act? Forget employees, let’s rule on behalf of corporations.

Whitehouse pointed out that in 100 percent of cases in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took a position by filing a brief or other such action, the Roberts court decided  5-4 on behalf of the business-friendly organization.

Those votes would have been to the left of Kavanaugh’s record.

Make no mistake, should Brett Kavanaugh join the court, individual rights will take a back seat to corporate rights. You can take White Out to the Constitution and replace the preamble with, “We, the businesses of America.”

No wonder Americans believe the system is stacked, the Rhode Islander said.

Whitehouse crystalized what scares the bejesus out of me. It should scare everyone else, too.

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Brett Kavanaugh: A rushed path to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Our fragile Great Lakes

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Dan Egan’s “Death and Life of the Great Lakes” is not a post-EPA happily-ever-after fairy tale but a riveting account of new life in the Great Lakes that’s pushing out the old in wicked ways.

And though it addresses a body of water  three hours away by car, its ills are felt 240 miles away here in Burlington.

The Great Lakes are a geographic marvel. Formed from glaciers about 14,000 years ago, they contain more than 20 percent of the Earth’s surface fresh water.

For all but a sliver of their history, Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario were cut off from the rest of the world. That changed in the early 20th century when Chicago rerouted the Chicago River so municipal sewage would flow away from Lake Michigan, from where the city drew its drinking water, toward the Mississippi River via the Sanitary and Shipping Canal.

Considered an engineering marvel at the time, it created what Egan called the Great Lakes’ back door and carved a route for invasive species unimagined 100 years ago. The back door, though, wasn’t nearly as destructive (yet) as the front door, which is how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outdoors writer begins his story: the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959.

Intended as an economic driver, the seaway introduced sea lamprey, zebra mussel and dozens of other invasive species to the lakes via ship ballast tanks from places as far away as the Caspian Sea. The effect has been catastrophic even as seaway usage has declined from a peak of 23.1 tons of cargo shipped per year in the ’70s to fewer than 6 tons in recent years.

The mussels were particularly bad. Since being introduced to the lakes only 30 years ago, they have spread rapidly. Their wickedly sharp shells cover everything and starve native species. The mussels made their way through the Chicago canal to the Mississippi and last year, the Burlington Municipal Waterworks spent $83,000 for a chemical to help keep the mussels from clogging its water intakes, according to Ken Gregory, plant manager.

When picking up the book, I imagined a story of how the lakes were turned around after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland. Actually, the infamous 1969 incident doesn’t pop up in detail until halfway through the book and is addressed in a surprising manner I won’t spoil here.

Battles to fix or improve the lakes are complicated because the nature of the bodies of water change quickly. For instance, Lake Erie, which had been declared dead in the 1970s was revitalized to become a sport fish haven only to see that work undone by spectacular toxic algae blooms earlier this decade.

The problematic zebra mussel is to blame. It actually makes the water clearer but that allows sunlight to penetrate deeper, allowing algae to flourish. Erie is so shallow at Toledo, Ohio, that algae blooms have become a regular, consequential and forecastable health threat.

Fixing the lakes’ ills could be relatively easy, Egan contends. But it would require federal intervention with cooperation of Canada. These days, that’d be difficult, especially when basic science and diplomacy are under siege. Plus there’s the fact stakeholders have been “living with the system that we’ve set up.” Change won’t be easy. The Clean Water Act of 1972 addressed neither freighter ballast nor farm field runoff and Egan points out there’s plenty of finger-pointing that seems impervious to facts.

Dan Egan’s a terrific storyteller. He has a touch local readers will remind them of Mike Sweet. Consider this passage:

“The first hint that the river was dying came when the fish started to float to the surface, their white bellies aglow in the lifting dawn light. One by one they popped into view, the way stars emerge at dusk.”

Egan is describing the Asian carp which, like its cousin the flying silver carp, is migrating up the Mississippi River to the Illinois River, headed seemingly inevitably to Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes.

Egan has a devoted appreciation for Aldo Leopold and wondered what the Burlington-born naturalist would have said had he been observing the Great Lakes instead of the Arizona mountains.

“Had Leopold, who died in 1948, lived long enough to witness the bizarre, utterly unpredictable aftermath of the lamprey invasion beginning in the 1950s, he might have found an equally apt way to convey the notion that sometimes a native predator’s job isn’t merely an essential matter for a functioning ecosystem. It is an existential one.”

It’s not his only Leopold reference.

“The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” should interest river enthusiasts, environmentalists or anyone simply wanting an interesting and compelling story.1280px-Great-Lakes.svg

Schools and guns

After 14 students and three staff members were killed Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Fla., armed volunteers offered their sentry services at Burlington school buildings.

The overture wasn’t accepted but that doesn’t mean preventing gun violence hasn’t been a top-of-mind discussion point in the district’s schools.

It has.

Indeed, officials have spent hours and hours processing what Superintendent Pat Coen calls a “mind-boggling” number of scenarios involving guns on school campuses. That process has been repeated at West Burlington, Danville, Mediapolis and all schools in the state. Iowa requires districts to work with local law enforcement and emergency personnel to develop safety plans to implement during active shooter incidents.

That schools must devote valuable time to ponder how to deal with a shooting is a sad sign of our times. But another incident earlier this month in Texas in which 10 people were killed shows it’s a necessity.

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Tri-States Public Radio, WIUM, assembled a seven-person panel Wednesday to discuss safety concerns facing local schools. The panel outnumbered the number of people who came to watch the event. Jason Parrott, WIUM’s southeast Iowa correspondent, moderated the event, which included Burlington and West Burlington school superintendents Coen and David Schmitt; Des Moines County Sheriff Mike Johnstone; Burlington fire inspector Mike Crooks; Tina Young, Southeastern Community College’s Title IX coordinator; and school resource officers Corey Whitaker of the sheriff’s department and Jim Stirn of the Burlington Police Department. The event was engaging and enlightening.

Consider: Schmitt was adamant he was opposed to arming teachers as a precaution; Coen is open to the idea and actively is considering options. Each has valid reasons. West Burlington hires educators, Schmitt said, not marksmen, while Coen acknowledged the district already has a number of teachers with permits to carry weapons — they just can’t do it on school property. Because shooting incidents unfold quickly and help beyond a resource officer generally isn’t available for several minutes, Coen said he and others are haunted by a feeling of helplessness in such a situation and want to take appropriate steps

For the record, I’m with Schmitt. A month after the Florida shooting, a chemistry teacher at the  same school absent-mindedly left a loaded gun in a public restroom where a drunken homeless man picked it up and fired it. In my mind, more guns create more problems and despite Iowa’s Good Samaritan statutes, insurance companies might take a dim view of increasing their exposure to lawsuits stemming from nonprofessionals firing personal weapons.

Schools have added active shooter drills to their  fire drills and storm exercises. Sometimes the drills work at cross purposes. For instance, schools are rethinking how they do fire drills for fear a shooter will pull an alarm and wait for the halls to fill before opening fire. So far, no good answer has emerged. Realistic shooting drills also are problematic. Not only might they raise unnecessary fear and anxiety, Coen pointed out at least two worker’s compensation claims have been filed locally after such exercises.

Despite their high profile (The Hawk Eye published an editorial about school shootings clipped from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the morning after the WIUM event even though it did not cover the forum), it’s worth putting the problem into some sort of perspective. Statistically, school shootings are rare. According to the Heritage Foundation, which opposes any kind of gun control, mass killings themselves account for only 0.2 percent of homicides each year and only 1 percent of homicide victims. That offers little comfort given the regularity of school-related gun incidents — 18 already this year in the United States. That frequency has prompted school officials to work diligently to limit entry points to their buildings, monitor visitors, upgrade security systems and hone confidential plans.

But Whitaker pointed out a lot of money can be spent at schools on programs, guards and cameras, but tit doesn’t fix the problem created by the state’s reluctance to address core mental health issues.

Those problems have acerbated since the state closed its mental health facilities three years ago in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. Now, if a student — or anyone — is identified as needing such help, the lack of local facilities often means a deputy must transport that person as far away as Council Bluffs or Sioux City for a four-day assessment. Treatment beyond the assessment is all but nonexistent. Neither Gov. Kim Reynolds nor the Iowa Legislature has offered a solution, even though a universal cry for more mental health services arises after every school shooting.

Despite the somber tone of the forum, the group pointed out Des Moines County is fortunate its entities work closely with and support one another. This was highlighted by 77 local leaders who attended a four-day training session for large-scale disasters two years ago at the federal Emergency Management Training facility in Emmitsburg, Md.

Thanks are in order for WIUM for organizing and presenting the panel. Hopefully, a video of the event on its Facebook page and website will garner more attention. Perhaps a viewer will have an answer that so far has eluded everybody else.