N.C. politics: What happens when your governor is a loser


Imagine if Democrats controlled Congress and ignored what President Obama wants. Think about him vetoing bills they passed and both houses overriding his vetoes. Congress passes legislation that he thinks is unimportant but when he sets a major policy goal, oh, that’s another matter. The Democrats said, well, maybe. We’ll think about it.

It would be embarrassing for Obama, a wonderful opportunity for Republicans to make fun of his lack of leadership ability and a campaign issue that the man can’t even control his own party. (Update: When this happens nationally, this is how the N.Y. Times describes it.)

Welcome to North Carolina, except that it’s the GOP mocking the governor.

Republicans control the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion. But there’s no visible sign that Gov. Pat McCrory, the top-ranking state official, wields much power. He’s more like the mayor in a weak-mayor city. He can do ribbon-cuttings and political rallies, but he has no vote. Let’s look:

* He vetoed legislation that  gives businesses the right to sue employees who expose trade secrets or take pictures of their workplaces. It was overridden, no problem.

* He vetoed legislation to allow some state employees to opt-out of performing same-sex marriages. It was overridden, no problem.

* He opposes — along with the state’s sheriffs association — an omnibus gun bill that would loosen handgun restrictions. It hasn’t passed yet, but it could be.

* He has expressed mild dismay.about the legislature meddling in local government affairs, which hasn’t slowed legislators down one bit.

* The legislature continues to place further restrictions on women’s access to abortion, with no regard to McCrory’s campaign statement that he would not support any restrictions. (He doesn’t pay any regard to his statement either, redefining the meaning of the word “restrictions.”)

* His big ticket item, the thing that he travels around the state campaigning for, are two  bond packages totaling $2.8 billion for road construction, infrastructure and college buildings. What do the leaders of the legislature think? Speaker of the House Tim Moore: “I think there’ll be some significant differences in what the bond proposal that I’ve seen with the executive branch and what our bond proposal would look like.” Senate leader Phil Berger: “I don’t think there’s substantial support for the transportation side of the bonds.”

No, the governor isn’t having the best year, bless his heart. I’m wondering why the legislature continues to embarrass the governor of its own party. When the Democrats controlled two of the three branches of state government, they never did their governor this way — even if, say, one of the more recent ones deserved it.

Some possibilities:

* The GOP legislators have the power and they ain’t giving it up for anyone. Period. And they don’t care what happens as long as they get their way right now.

* The GOP legislators are true believers in their causes and aren’t stopping for any objections.

* The GOP legislators don’t care for the governor and enjoy making him out to be a loser.

* The governor actually agrees with 99.9% of the laws the legislature is sending him and is truly happy about the way things are going.

* The governor vetoed a couple of the laws to kick-start his re-election campaign, hoping that middle-of-the-road Democrats would think that moderate Pat was back and think, “well, with that Legislature, what are you going to do?”

* The governor (and staff) doesn’t know how to throw the sharp elbows necessary to get things done in politics.

I don’t know which or how many of these are right. To me, making the governor out to be powerless is a short-sighted strategy. It weakens him, both in the eyes of his own party and to moderate Democrats and Independents. And a weakened incumbent against a decent opponent is beatable.

No one likes to be associated with loser, and that’s what Gov. McCrory is shaping up to be.

Earlier smart takes from Thomas Mills and NC Policy Watch.

Update: Gov. McCrory released a statement in response to the legislature’s override of his veto this morning. Its last sentence is interesting: “While some people inside the beltline are focusing on symbolic issues, I remain focused on the issues that are going to have the greatest impact on the next generation such as creating jobs, building roads, strengthening education and improving our quality of life.”

I conclude that he doesn’t care much about the social issues that polarize the state.

Support for citywide wifi


Susan Ladd recently wrote about the laudable effort to bring citywide wifi to Greensboro. (Read about the proposal by Roch Smith and Andrew Brod here.)Roch asked me last month to write a letter in support. I did. Here it is without one typo Roch pointed out.

Dear Selection Committee:

I am writing in support of Cityfi. There are innumerable reasons that citywide wifi makes sense. I’m going to argue three.

First, it makes smart business sense. Anyone who looks to the future (and our region’s recent past) knows that manufacturing jobs will not return in great numbers, no matter how hard we wish them to. Business and economic growth is in the digital area. The sorts of companies that we want to grow Greensboro with are those creating digital products. By providing citywide public wifi, Greensboro would be doing something that Raleigh, Charlotte and Winston-Salem don’t do. The move would intrigue start-ups as well as established companies that would normally look to locate in the Research Triangle. For innovative start-ups, it would not only send the signal that Greensboro City Council understands the needs of new businesses, it would reduce their costs. Look to Wilson if you want to see the positive business effects of municipal Internet service. Now double the impact by providing public wifi. (It would also please thousands of constituents who want Internet access and dislike being held captive to the expensive bundles of cable companies.)

Second, I have taught college journalism and mass communication students for three years. Every semester we talk about how they get and share information. Every semester the answers are the same: digitally. Young people — all people actually, but young people act upon it — expect services to be cheap and seamless. Otherwise, they will go elsewhere. They consider the Internet — and by extension digital services — to be a public utility. If Greensboro truly wants a “creative class,” there’s no better way to show it than by providing public wifi.

Third, when I was editor of the News & Record, Greensboro received national publicity for its burgeoning blogging community.(The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were among the media outlets that wrote about the city and the paper.) The city came off as a hip place that understood the importance of what was happening in the world of media and communication. For a variety of reasons, we lost that momentum and that innovative reputation. Establishing citywide public wifi would make a bold statement that Greensboro is seizing the future and transforming itself into a place that welcomes new ideas, and forward-thinking people and companies. In the 30-plus years I have lived in Greensboro, the city has had an unclear brand, and, frankly, an identity crisis. Public wifi would provide serious marketing traction and immediately let the world know that Greensboro embraces the future

There are others strong arguments for this plan that I am sure others smarter than I have made. However, if I can provide any further information or support, please do not hesitate to contact me.


John L. Robinson

Sunday sampler

Asheville — One of the problems with keeping pay low as costs go up is that people can’t afford to work. That’s right. Can’t. Afford. To. Work. The Citizen-Times takes a look at issues that most people aren’t aware of and the GOP in Raleigh doesn’t want to deal with. Thousands of parents in North Carolina are facing the same dilemma as the state has cut back on child care subsidies and raised the possibility of slashing aid even more.

Fayetteville — State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger is the most powerful politician in N.C. What he wants done, gets done, regardless of whether the governor or the House want it (except getting his son elected). The Observer has a well-reported profile of the man.

Greensboro — It’s not as if interfering with local affairs is anything new to this General Assembly. The News & Record describes the problems with the legislature first changing how the City Council would be elected and now dragging its feet on its own legislation. But with the bill languishing in the N.C. House Elections Committee since mid-March, prospective candidates can’t yet be sure which seats to file for or whether they’ll be eligible should the bill become law. 

Wilmington — Driving back from the coast, I almost hit a couple drivers who swerved into my lane. They were texting. In fact, it seemed as if every third person I passed or who passed me were staring at their phones. It takes a long time to get there, but the Star-News says it plainly: “With most accidents stemming from crowded roadways and drivers failing to stop or following someone too closely, traffic unit supervisor Sgt. Mike Donaldson of the Wilmington Police Department said he blames distracted drivers for the high number of accidents.” Damn right.

Sunday sampler

This is a first: I’m going to link to each of the stories on the front page of the Fayetteville Observer. I’ll start with them.

Human trafficking: Happening in Fayetteville. Happening in Greensboro. Probably happening where you live; it’s purportedly a $9.5 billion business. The Observer’s story is sad and sickening and deserves to be told. “(Victims) are from your neighborhood, right next to you,” said Fayetteville police Sgt. Carl Wile, supervisor of the department’s human trafficking unit. Advocates say it’s also important to talk to young girls about the topic. “This should be common dinner table talk,” Twedell said. “By age 14, if we’re not reaching out to girls and educating them, we’re too late. Eighth grade is too late to talk to girls about human trafficking.”

Fracking: I’m not a fan of fracking; get that out of the way first. Much of that is based on the way the General Assembly jammed through the laws allowing it without the basic research first. It seems as if the payoffs are short term — jobs — without consideration for the long term impact on the environment. The Observer reviews the people who it will affect the most — the people who own the land or who live near the land where the fracking will occur.

Burr-Hagan: This is actually a story from the McClatchy Washington Bureau. Who will run against Richard Burr in 2016? What’s the status of Kay Hagan…and of the Democratic Party in N.C.? Hagan has fascinated me since her unsuccessful campaign last year. It was a lousy campaign, and she has avoided the news media ever since (including her home newspaper, which is my former employer). She doesn’t speak to this reporter, either.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming:

Asheville: The lead story in the Citizen-Times is a stunner. “The Buncombe County bill for a bungled murder investigation — one for which two men were later exonerated — has so far tallied about $1 million and a continuing lawsuit threatens to tap out liability insurance, potentially leaving costs to taxpayers.” It gets worse. This dates back to the tenure of a former Buncombe County sheriff who is serving a 15-year prison sentence on a conviction that includes corruption charges.

Greensboro: I was the lone editor working the city desk when our police reporter, making cop calls, asked to drive to Winston-Salem to do a story on two people who had been found shot to death in their home. That was the beginning of the News & Record’s covering the Klenner-Lynch case. My friend Margaret Moffett revisits the still-horrifying case 30 years later.



15 things you should never say to an editor

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See Mila? That’s the look an editor gives to a reporter who said something to her he shouldn’t have. It’s the look that says, “I am angry with myself for being stupid enough to hire you.”

Inspired by this list of things never to say to graphic designers,* here is a list of things never to say to your editor. (Add yours in the comments and I’ll move them into the post.)

1. “I know you gave me 15 inches for the story, but I couldn’t tell it in less than 25. That’s close enough, isn’t it?”

No, it’s not. It’s basically saying that you can’t write concisely, and you want the editor to cut your story for you. While both of those things may be true, they indicate your incompetence for the job.

2. When an editor tells you the competition has a good story, and you say, “Oh, I knew about that.”

You may think you’re covering your ass, letting the editor know you’re on top of things. You’re actually telling her that you have the news judgment of a potato. She told you about the story, which likely means she thinks it’s worth something. By saying you knew about it but didn’t write it gives her another reason to wonder why she hired you.

3. “This story is too good to go online right now. Let’s hold it for the paper.”

Sadly, this 2007 sentiment still exists.

4. “Can we just have the photographer set up the photo. I’m too busy.”

It often gets to the point in which photographers prefer to set up the photo because reporters screw them up so badly. But this statement suggests that your time is more important than a photographer’s. Given that photographers carry heavy equipment around all day, it is likely they are stronger than you. And given that most photographers are just this side of Mad Max crazy, I wouldn’t push it.

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5. “I didn’t have the time to edit it too closely, but that’s what the copy desk is for.”

What the editor hears is that your time is more important than hers because she is the one who is going to make the first pass through your story, fixing stupid style, punctuation and grammar mistakes that you should have learned in middle school. She also hears that you don’t care all that much about your own work. Bad idea.

6. “If I write that story it will burn a source and that source is more important to us than the story.”

No, that source is more important to you. But it’s likely the story is more important to your readers. Don’t let an editor know that you put your loyalty to your sources above your loyalty to readers. She may think your priorities are out of whack.

7. Related: “They’ll never talk to me about that.”

Andrew deGrandpre submitted this via Twitter. The “they” here are sources. Not only is it defeatist — why would you want to be defeatist? — but it says that you don’t want to try. If there is a top 10 list of reporter qualities, tenacity is in the top 5. Don’t show you don’t have tenacity.

8. “Twitter is a waste of time.”

Twitter has 302 million active users. How many do you have?

9. “Can’t someone else do the story? How about Jeff? He isn’t working on anything important.”

Want to be perceived as a work-sloughing diva? This’ll do it.



10. “Can someone else answer my phone? I’m too busy.

Yeah, let’s ask Walter is if he’ll answer it.



11. “My story has a minor error but I don’t think we need a correction.”

So you put information into your story — a story you couldn’t cut down to 15 inches — and that information wasn’t important…and you still got it wrong? Just fess up that you made a mistake — yes, we note the passive construction of “my story has a minor error” — and fix it.

12. “So you care about quantity, instead of quality.”

I love this one, suggested by Karen Ho on Twitter. It usually comes after the editor has set a deadline that the writer thinks doesn’t give him enough time to “polish” the story. Accusing an editor who cares deeply about quality that they don’t earns you a trip to the woodshed.

13. From Jason Foster  on Twitter: “I once told a reporter to rewrite her lede because it was unclear. Her response: ‘Isn’t that what the headline’s for?’ 

Want to go work on the copy desk learning how to write headlines? Then go ahead and tell your editor that.

14. “That’s not opinion, it’s true”

Eric Riess, via Twitter explains: “In my experience, when I’m editing a reporter’s story, they slide easily from the factual to opinion and don’t realize it.


15. “It’s not my fucking job.”

The classic riposte when asked to cover a story off your beat or on a day. When journalists are losing their jobs every quarter, it may be worth swallowing this line and replacing it with, “Sure. Happy to.”

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16. Andy Bechtel: “That’s what the editing/design hub in another state is for”?

17. RoMustGo: “Can you make a proof for me?”

18. RoMustGo: “Can you do some trick or something to make it fit on the page?”

19. My friend Rob Daniels, in the comments: “I’m out of hours for the week.” (Sadly, this is something every overworked reporter in his or her 60th hour should be able to say to an editor, but we all know how the game is played.) 

20. A classic from Deborah Woodell: “I was never any good at math.”

21. Lex Alexander in the comments: “Readers will know what we mean by that.” So what you’re saying is that readers are both smarter and less distracted than you are. One out of two ain’t bad.

22. Jane Dough in the comments: “I don’t think anyone will really care about that.”

23. Mark Miller in the comments:  “I put in a (cq)… That means somebody needs to look that up.

24. Becky Smith in the comments: When asked to clarify the meaning of a murky quote: “But that’s what he said.”


Someone else can do 15 things you should never say to a reporter.

* Hat tip to Ben Villarreal for the pointer.

Sunday sampler


(Image courtesy of the Newseum.)

Between graduation stories and Memorial Day features, there isn’t much new on front pages. But I do like these two:

Gaston — So, everyone knows that drinking and driving is a bad idea. Putting aside the potentially tragic consequences, there’s a high cost to it. The Gazette tells you how much. Putting aside jail time, we’re talking serious money. Serious money. Interesting info.

Raleigh — Fracking has been linked to earthquakes and poisoning water supplies. The N&O updates us on the efforts of companies to do fracking in the state. “Depressed energy prices worldwide and uncertainty over the amount of shale gas in North Carolina have made fracking in the state unappealing to all but small, independent operators. But those wildcatters are having a hard time raising funds to start energy exploration in North Carolina.” Thank you, marketplace.


What’d I miss? Oh, nothin.

I once had a boss who didn’t read the paper. At least, I’m pretty certain he didn’t, given the number of times he suggested stories we had just done and the blank looks he gave me when I talked about stories in the paper that day.

I would leave those conversations wondering why he was in the newspaper business, given the lack of attention and respect he paid the journalism.

Now I think I was getting the wrong message. He was inadvertently telling me that the journalism I was producing wasn’t worth his time.

I just returned from two weeks in France. I was basically off the news grid. I didn’t read any papers. I occasionally turned on the television, but I speak no French so the only news I got was from what I could figure out from the crawl on news stations and that wasn’t much. Oh, I figured out that B.B. King had died, that people died when a train in Philadelphia derailed, and the Boston Marathon bomber got the death sentence. That’s about it.

I can’t say that I had a fear of missing out because, you know, France.

But here’s the thing: When I returned, I didn’t get the sense that I missed anything worth knowing. Yes, three more candidates who have no chance of winning entered the GOP presidential race. The NBA playoffs are still going on. Still. Going. On. Deflategate, which I had forgotten about four months ago, is back with the conclusion we all knew four months ago.

When I was a newspaper editor, I used to get mocked by my staff because even when I was on vacation, I kept up with the paper and the news of the day, and I emailed suggestions and ideas. I said I preferred to keep up so I didn’t have to catch up.

Short-term thinking. I should have gone on a news blackout. I should have come back after a week away and evaluated what we had published that actually mattered in the scheme of things. How many government meetings we had covered where nothing significant happened. How many stories of wrecks and break-ins that no one except the person and his neighbors cared about. How many long inside-the-beltway political stories that didn’t provide a true bullshit meter. How many long stories that were published only to fill space.

Such an exercise would have changed my perspective on what a news organization needed to be sensitive to. My news blackout is how most people operate. They don’t follow the news obsessively. They’re in and out — and more of them are moving out of our operations, newspapers and TV. Don’t believe me? There is an easy test if you’re a newspaper: Get a list of people who put in orders for a week-long vacation stop. When they return, ask them about how they kept up with the news from home and whether they feel they missed anything.

I suspect they will tell you how ephemeral the news we think is so important truly is.

Next, do it yourself. Go off the grid during your next vacation. Purposely ignore the news. When you return, gauge how much of what your organization published or broadcast you and your community really care about. Figure out how you can create more of those stories and fewer of the stories that don’t actually matter to more than a handful of people.

I’m not sure what I would have come up with. Maybe a local version of the Skimm as the Charlotte Observer has done. Maybe a personalized email that we would send to subscribers upon their return to the world with the one worth-knowing news events that happened each day they were gone. Maybe something like Billy Penn.

My guess is that one thing is certain if you go on a news blackout: You’ll come back and change how your news organization covers the news.

Of course, I have no idea whether I missed anything that matters to me personally because I wasn’t here and I’m not going to go back to find out.

But eventually, I’ll know what I missed because I, like so many people, subscribe to the philosophy of “if the news is that important, it will find me.” 

Sunday sampler

Update: Attribution error corrected below.

Asheville — When is it OK for a public university to give some students money and not others? Well, whenever they want, of course. But it’s always seemed unfair to me that some athletes representing a school get scholarships and most others don’t. In a smart story, the Citizen-Times examines why some “student athletes” are more special than others. And it is clearly inequitable because it depends upon the sport, the school and the league. (If only college sports had a governing body…hmmm.)

Charlotte — If you ever need an example of why transparency is important in court proceedings, this is good one: Why did Gen. David Petraeus get probation for leaking government secrets? We don’t know because the documents are sealed, thanks to an unusual policy that affects Charlotte and Western North Carolina. The Observer looks at the policy and asks whether Petraeus got special treatment.

Raleigh — The N&O Charlotte — has an excellent article on John Fennebresque, the chairman of the UNC Board of Governors and the face of a body that is changing the shape of the university system. Fennebresque has rightfully taken the heat for the ouster of UNC President Tom Ross. The N&O’s Observer’s story gives a fuller picture of the man, including his motivations. Fennebresque is still inarticulate on why Ross had to go, but he takes some stands on other issues that are positive.

(Both Charlotte and Raleigh feature the Fennebresque story on their front pages. I mistakenly thought it was an N&O story, which is dumb of me because I know the Observer’s reporter, Pam Kelley.)

Gaston — If you think local elected officials are different from federal ones when it comes to cutting themselves a break, think again…at least in Gaston County. The Gazette shows how a resolution called “A resolution to allow Gaston County commissioners to purchase at their own cost, health insurance after they leave office” was actually to be subsidized by taxpayers. The resolution was rescinded after public outcry.


Raleigh — The N&O also has a strong piece on how state agencies apparently ignored federal law requiring them to register voters. It includes this damning anecdote of the daughter of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin who was unable to vote because the elections office had no record of her registration, even though she said she had registered at the DMV, a claim her father, who was there, backed up. Oops.


The blog post that I wish every legislator would read


Jenny Surane, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the former editor of The Daily Tar Heel, has written an important post about media and education. And it has a brilliant title: “The job that I’ve spent the last year learning is not the one I’ll have.” *

Take a moment to read it. It is filled with insight about college students’ news consumption habits and the changing world of news. Her point is that while there are a lot of unanswered questions about the future of journalism — how it will be reported, delivered and paid for — she is undaunted. She is ready to embrace the change and be a trailblazer into the future.

Good. Jenny Surane is a great one to lead the charge. **

But that’s not the reason her post is important.

Her post is important because of what it says about the value of college education. And in a state in which public higher education is under attack in terms of funding and philosophy, Jenny’s post is, well, educational.

Students basically learn two things in college classrooms: how to perform a skill and how to think. In some classes, I have taught students to write clear, focused sentences and easy-to-read, cogent news stories. Those are skills.

In other classes, I have taught them to explore ideas, inspiring — I hope — curiosity, imagination and thought.

What Jenny described in her blog post was a class that prepared her to tackle her future in a rapidly evolving workplace. She explains it best:

More than thirty of the journalism school’s best minds still couldn’t figure out a definitive way to make news profitable. But this class sure did send me away with a lot of ideas for how to get there.

We unpacked so much and we were given the tools and the knowledge to tackle many other issues facing the journalism industry. It was really a privilege to get to speak with some of the brightest minds from our field for a few hours each week.

And it’s kind of scary to think that I’ve spent the last year training for a job I’ll never have. But this is the first class I’ve taken that hasn’t made me feel terrified about that.

I feel empowered.

Those 30 brightest minds she refers to? They aren’t established “experts;” they are her fellow students.

So when I read about all the efforts to make college education more skills oriented and to eliminate liberal arts courses, I wish the legislators would pay attention to the primary customers of the university — the students.

When I read about the slash-and-burn budget cuts made to the state university system — some of whose schools are ranked among the best in the world — I wish legislators would pay attention.

When I read about efforts in Raleigh that ultimately disrespect college teachers by suggesting that they don’t work hard to teach students, I wish legislators would pay attention.

Both aspects of the education Jenny and thousands of other students receive — skills and thought — are vital to their success. Students understand that. High-tech businesses with the good-paying jobs understand that. The visionaries who built the university system understood that.

Will policy makers in Raleigh? I hope so.

* The title of her post, while brilliant, isn’t necessarily true. She may well become an editor of a daily publication.

** Full disclosure: Jenny was a student in a skills-oriented class of mine — newswriting — and is, for one more week, a student in my “Current Issues in Mass Media” class. She wrote the post after I assigned the class to write about the most significant lesson they learned in the class.