Sunday sampler

My friends at the News & Observer have been busy. Some great stories from the front pages of North Carolina’s Sunday papers.

Legislators— From the N&O. How our elected officials and those who influence them spend their off hours. It’s not pretty. A legislator in a bow tie spots a young woman in a sundress and kisses her on the cheek. A young legislative aide with a bare midriff cradles a beer and tilts her head back to laugh at something a legislator said. A male lobbyist wanders by just in time to hear the punch line. Nearby, legislative aides whisper about peers rumored to be sleeping with legislators and lobbyists.

Business — From the N&O. A tax break for businesses that will cost the state $336 million a year. So the break will go to roughly 460,000 business owners of all sorts, including equity partners in law firms, doctors and dentists with thriving practices, even lobbyists who patrol the legislature. It also includes some state lawmakers who are business owners.State & Carolina— From the N&O. A comparison of how the UNC Board of Governors handled the Valvano scandal of the 1980s and the Butch Davis scandal of the 2000s. It doesn’t make Wolfpack nation happy.Elections— From the Charlotte Observer. Want to see a waste of public money? Try the primary runoff system. We have 15 of them and they will cost between $7 million and $8 million.

Public salaries — The Asheville Citizen has a nice juxtaposition on its front page in stories about public salaries. Here are the headlines. “Longtime county managers case in” and “Police, fire pay lower in Asheville.”

The Charlotte Observer changes its mind

At a time when my newspaper is getting justifiable criticism for not taking a stand on the hottest issue before voters in the May 8 N.C. primary, the Charlotte Observer editorial board shows another way things can be done.

It changed its mind and its endorsement this morning about a congressional candidate.

What a run for Republican Jim Pendergraph. After winning the Observer’s endorsement in his bid for Congress, he has done nothing but embarrass us and himself.

By buddying up to one of America’s more hateful egomaniacs and then joining with fringe “birthers” to question President Obama’s citizenship, Pendergraph has contradicted much of what he told the Observer’s editorial board in his endorsement interview last month. As a result, we have lost faith in him, and urge voters to consider Edwin Peacock or Ric Killian in the 9th Congressional District race.

Editorial boards don’t change their minds often. It suggests inconsistency — even though it’s not — and that they may have been wrong in the first place. Not surprisingly, the paper is taking it on the chin in the comments. But the critics are wrong. The Observer did the right thing. What it did was what any thinking person would do when he realizes he no longer likes or trusts a candidate — it explained itself and endorsed someone else in time to let voters know.


The marriage amendment: Breaking political stereotypes

We all tend to paint people and positions with a broad brush. It helps us categorize and connect the dots when we label. It also creates false assumptions. For instance, if you need reminders that not all protestant churches believe the same things, not all African-Americans think the same and not all Democrats march in lock step, two stories today provide them.

Both the Charlotte and Greensboro newspapers write about how ministers think about the marriage amendment that is on the May 8 ballot. For people who think the word of God is clear, they must be confused by the different positions the clergy take on the marriage amendment. (Personally, that didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the timidity with which some ministers approach preaching about the issue.)

The Charlotte story also illustrates the different positions that some black churches and the NAACP take on the marriage amendment. And that black Democrats — which some people believe vote as one — may not be following the party line on the amendment.

Stereotypes, consider yourselves busted.

Sunday sampler

Some great journalism on the front pages of the state’s newspapers this morning.

The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer begins what promises to be a compelling — and shocking — five-part series on how much money hospitals are making. Here are just two of the bullet points:

* They’ve made their money largely from employer-sponsored health insurance, often inflating prices on drugs and procedures – sometimes to three, four or 10 times over costs. North Carolina hospital costs are more than 10 percent higher than the national average for Aetna, said Jarvis Leigh, a network vice president.

* They’ve hiked their fees each year, leaving many patients with crippling debt. Some hospitals have sued thousands of patients, while others have turned to collection agencies to pursue debtors.

Fayetteville Observer — The paper always pays close attention to the No. 1 industry in town — the military. Right now, it is paying close attention to complaints that the Army isn’t taking care of its own. Good stuff.

Burlington Times-News and the Hickory Daily Record – Stories focusing on the pros and cons of the marriage amendment — plus a FAQs — dominate the front pages. It’s the hottest issue on the primary ballot and deserving of such coverage.


Sunday sampler

It’s a good day for interesting, unexpected stories on the front pages of the state’s papers.

Asheville Citizen-Times: When a law enforcement officer shoots someone in the line of duty, it’s important to examine what happened and why. The paper reported that officers are rarely charged with a crime, which may be fine, but it’s hard for the public to tell.  The SBI  typically investigates those shootings. The findings are submitted to local district attorneys and are almost always withheld from the public.

Burlington Times-News: Three years ago, a 39-year-old woman never made it to her expected destination, her mother’s house. She disappeared and investigators are still looking for her. As television seems to select missing women stories to focus on, it’s a wonder they didn’t choose this one.

The Charlotte Observer: Finally, a look at the appeal of Danica Patrick beyond the cliche. To some racing fans, Patrick’s arrival is irritating, based on a perception she doesn’t belong in the sport because she didn’t grow up in it and, perhaps, because she’s female. To others, she’s the perfect package of style, speed and sexiness in a sport that has never been known for its diversity.

The Fayetteville Observer: How well does a program for wounded soldiers care for our vets? Not all that great. The report also uncovered concerns that the battalion’s physically wounded and mentally impaired soldiers were being overmedicated, partly because of a lack of communication and controls. The report quotes one command team member as saying, “half of the warriors are ‘stoned’ on psychotropic drugs.”
The News & Observer: For everyone who believes that lawmakers see themselves as deserving of better treatment than their constituents — I’m one — this will cause you to grit your teeth. A cadre of veteran state lawmakers will retire at the end of the year – and special perks in state law allow them to land with a financial parachute….A North Carolina law that allows the state’s part-time lawmakers to add an expense stipend to their base salary when calculating retirement benefits boosts their pensions by more than 30 percent, according to a News & Observer analysis. The percentage of salary lawmakers receive as an annual payout also is more than double the rate afforded most state workers.

Sunday sampler

Should have included the other front pages on the previous post at Whitney Houston. The point is that I like to be surprised and delighted with the content on my Sunday front page. Tell me something I don’t know. There are several good ones this morning:

From the Wilmington Star News: A nice little story about the N.C. State Ports Authority Board of Directors dining at Fleming’s in Charlotte — $1,900. (The cost to the Ports Authority was only $1,500 because the $400 worth of alcohol was covered by the attendees. I’m sure there were designated drivers.)

From the Charlotte Observer: When a political party holds its national convention in your city, things don’t go quite as planned. The Observer takes a look at what has happened in other convention cities in the past and gauges how safe Charlotte will be.

From the News & Record: Two stories, actually. One about the number of state legislators with licenses to carry concealed weapons. It surprised me to think that state legislators fear for their lives more than you and me, but they are many many times more likely to have guns on their person than you and me. The second is a package on the same-sex marriage ban amendment coming up. Revealing and I hope everyone who votes reads it.

From the News & Observer: I don’t drive on I-95 in North Carolina much but making it a toll road interests me. The N&O describes the whys behind it and the hows in collecting money from users.

Whitney Houston on the front page

It was a little after 10 last night that we got home and I checked my phone. I had a New York Times email alert saying that Whitney Houston had died. I clicked on the TV, heard the talking heads talking about what a shock it was, that the details of her death weren’t known and that she was the voice of a generation.

Little there to learn; only songs to remember.

I figured I’d catch up in the morning. And because I was a newspaper editor for 27 years, I thought, “Is this a front page story?” Yes, I decided, given who she was and that it became public on the East Coast in the evening; it would still be news to many people in the morning when the paper hit the streets.

To my surprise — and honestly, delight — most of the North Carolina papers I looked at published Houston’s photo and a blurb on the front page, but sent readers inside for the story. Charlotte and Raleigh were the only two major papers with front-page stories.

Whitney, as good as she was, is no Michael Jackson in death.

Front-page news judgment seems to have a circulation size dividing line. On this story, larger papers on the East Coast, playing to a large, diverse audience, published her death on their front pages, generally in a big way. Smaller papers, being more local in their focus, force national stories to fight harder to make their way onto front page display. Papers the size of Greensboro and Winston-Salem, hovering around 90,000-100,000 circulation, seem to straddle that line.

I wouldn’t have been disappointed to see Whitney Houston’s news obit on the front page in my hometown paper. But I was delighted to read four local stories that told me things I didn’t know and that I wouldn’t see on television.


Quick congrats

Congratulations to the Charlotte Observer for winning a McClatchy President’s Award for journalism excellence in 2011. It won for its series on car inspections. The Observer’s four-part series “Failing the Test” found a sprawling government program full of problems with little evidence of improving highway safety. “This is the kind of watchdog work that affects just about everybody,” the judges said. The series made the case so convincingly that it led to immediate response from lawmakers.

Congratulations to the News & Record for an editorial calling out the City Council for denying the public a chance to evaluate candidates for the city manager’s job. This would take place under a cover of cloak-and-dagger secrecy, slipping candidates in and out of interviews without letting them see each other, the public or, especially, nosy journalists. But if the council trusts (recruiter) Burg to produce six or seven “highly qualified” candidates, and trusts its own judgment to narrow that number to two, why not trust the public to form impressions of those final two?

Congratulations to the N&O for an editorial demanding the Wake County Sheriff reveal details of a death in the county jail.  Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who is responsible for operation of the jail, has demonstrated that he unfortunately isn’t inclined to share what ought to be public information with the citizens he serves, unless he has no other choice. The sheriff’s resistance to openness isn’t appropriate for a publicly elected official and in cases such as incidents in the jail, his penchant for secrecy damages his credibility.

Congratulations, too, to the News & Record for hiring Jeffrey Gauger to become its next editor, succeeding me! I don’t know him, but have talked with him on the phone. I think he’ll be good.

Sunday sampler

Sunday is the day newspapers showcase their best work. Here are some from North Carolina papers that are worth reading:

From the Asheville Citizen-Times: A piece about the Henderson County Sheriff spending county money probably in a way taxpayers would prefer he didn’t. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it’s the thought that counts. Henderson — With caramel mochas in Charlotte, a meal at the famed Cheers pub in Boston and bar food at Fat Head’s Saloon in Pittsburgh, Rick Davis made himself comfortable on the road — enjoying perks put on a county credit card.

From the News & Observer: The paper uses the compelling story of a 16-year-old who was the driver in an automobile accident that killed his passenger to take another look at the state’s parole system.

From the Fayetteville Observer: There were 29 homicides in Fayetteville last year, compared with 18 the year before. A typical end of the year story, significant to me because Greensboro also had a jump.

From the Charlotte Observer: The big banks gave the most money to Mitt Romney. Probably no big surprise, but a good analysis showing where the money is coming from and going. And interesting that the banks seem to be punishing Obama.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: Hard to believe but this isn’t against the law. A firm owned by a member of the board that oversees the state’s Golden LEAF Foundation has received more than $129,000 so far for two projects funded largely by the foundation for work in Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin counties, according to local and foundation records.

From the Wilmington Star-News: “If you’re homeless in Wilmington, they’ll throw you in jail.” That’s the attitude of Super Dave, Animal and Lurch, three homeless guys through whom the Star-News discusses the problem of homelessness in New Hanover County.

Putting public interest second

Yesterday, I was puzzled that more newspapers didn’t see the late-night early morning session of the General Assembly as front-page news. (I know it happened past most deadlines, but the AP had a story available.)

More newspapers got on board this morning, thanks to strong statements by the governor and NCAE yesterday. Stories about the furtive session made the front pages of Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston, Fayetteville, Burlington, Asheville, Salisbury and Greenville, among others. Editorials in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Wilmington condemned the action.

Good politics and good government are not contradictory. You just need legislators who put the public interest first.