Donnie and the press

(An Elton John tune has been going through your observer’s mind for the last few days)

Donald Trump doesn’t like reporters. “You know my opinion of the press—very low,” he said at a recent press conference. “The media is among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met,” he has said. “Seventy-five percent is absolutely dishonest, absolute scum, scum,” he has proclaimed.

“The media frankly is made up of people—in many cases, not in all cases—who are not good people,” he said. “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever known…I find the political press to be unbelievably dishonest.”

Just to set the tone of this entry early, let it be known that this observer is proud to have been “scum” for more than a half-century. It is, believe it or not, a strange badge of honor given by people such as Donald Trump to carry the label of not being “good people.”

One might be tempted to respond, “That’s true. Of course, do not forget that people are known for the company that they keep. And guess who we’ve been keeping company with.”   But that would be snarky and unprofessional and will be left unsaid.

Trump’s attitude means we are doing our jobs. And people like Donald Trump don’t believe we should do our jobs, which is questioning the honesty and credibility of people such as Donald Trump.

Trump seems to think his characterizations of the press will (a) make his followers love him even more without reservation and (b) intimidate the press.   We don’t know if any of his most loyal adherents will ever be bothered by the things they are learning from those of us whom Trump despises but we do know that efforts to intimidate the press don’t work. Good reporters don’t back off, especially when people such as Trump have no responses to their questions beyond name-calling.

Trump has threatened to change libel laws if he’s elected President so he can sue reporters more easily. He regularly ignores the fact that he is not running for dictator, but is running for an office that is only one-third of government and that he cannot by himself determine what the law is.

One thing journalists know above all else about libel law is that truth is an absolute defense. That standard is terribly unwelcome to people such as Donald Trump who seem to think truth should be defined as whatever falls from their lips.

What triggered the newest broadside was solid reporting by David Farenthold of the Washington Post. You recall Trump bragged in January at an event he held when he skipped an Iowa Caucus debate that he had raised six million dollars for veterans’ groups in one hour, including one-million dollars he personally donated.

He lied.

He and his campaign have now admitted, in fact, that the total amount raised in the last five months is not six million dollars but 5.6, even with the million dollars Trump finally did contribute—late last month.

The Post did a lot of spade work to discover only half of that amount had been distributed to veterans’ groups by early May. And Trump had NOT contributed one-million dollars in January. He wrote a check May 24th, the day more distributions were made—after Farenthold started asking questions that Trump’s people either refused to answer or tried to squirm out of answering. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks retorted, “If the media spent half as much time highlighting the work of these groups and how our veterans have been so mistreated, rather than trying to disparage Mr. Trump’s generosity for a totally unsolicited gesture for which he had no obligation, we would all be better for it.”

The response is a cheap and completely unoriginal one that is not uncommon when reporters start pressing candidates for the truth. Attack the questioner for asking the question. Ms. Hicks conveniently ignores the reams of stories that have been written about mistreatment of veterans, whether by the VA or even in Arlington National Cemetery, and more reams of stories written every year about the work of local and national veterans’ organizations. Mr. Trump’s “generosity” was not expressed in January, when he said it was, but was only expressed (for lack of a better word) in May after Farenthold started asking questions and others started picking up the story. An “unsolicited gesture for which he had no obligation” is a curious phrase, certainly. Was it an “unsolicited gesture” or was it a well-staged event to take the spotlight away from a debate he dodged with his opponents? Is there no obligation when one says in January that he has contributed one-million dollars—but he hadn’t?

There is every indication that questions about Trump’s character (and Hillary Clinton’s character as well) will only intensify, not because the press has a vendetta against them (some undoubtedly do, as some undoubtedly are apologists) but because the stakes are high and the spotlight must be harsh.

So let’s be clear. To Donald Trump, fair press coverage is any coverage that lets him spout, unchallenged, anything that he says as gospel.   Those who don’t believe that is the role of the press are “scum.”

Forty years ago, when the Arab oil embargo drove up energy prices and inflation was leading to home loan rates of almost twenty percent, Joe Teasdale won the Missouri governorship by promising to lower utility rates and fire the Public Service Commission, which sets the rates for state-regulated utilities. He knew it was economically impossible to lower utility rates and legally impossible to fire the members of the PSC. But it was a populist message that resonated just enough for him to get into office. He referred to those of us in the Capitol press corps who had questioned him repeatedly on the issue as “jaded.”

At his first press conference after his election, he found himself facing several Capitol reporters wearing pins reading “Jaded J. C. Reporter.” It was a pin reporters were proud to wear and some of those reporters, now long gone from the Capitol, still have those pins.

Perhaps it’s time the reporters covering the Trump campaign started wearing pins with the word “scum” on them.   It would be an honor to have one.

And it would be a message to the man on the stage that name-calling will not stop fact-checking, and will not give a free pass to demagoguery.

Tearing up the Senate

Work crews have started tearing seats out of the place where visitors to the state Senate have watched floor activities since 1919 so the Senate can get those pesky reporters farther away from being able to see and hear what is going on. Or not.

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Seats installed during the restoration of the chamber in 2001 were stacked along a fourth floor hallway wall when we dropped by the other day.  We haven’t heard what will be done with them although it seems the most sensible thing would be to store them somewhere safe so they could be put back in place when a less-vindictive mood runs the place.  We won’t rehash what that’s all about here.  We’ve flailed at that subject in earlier entries that you can find in the archives.

We have preserved a historic moment in this process—the last time (for now, we hope) that members of the Capitol press corps were allowed to sit at what has been the press table since the earliest days of the building.

senate press table2

That’s Bob Watson of the Jefferson City News Tribune, the senior Senate reporter, in the blue suit on the right.  Summer Ballentine of the Associated Press is on the other side of the table, in the orange jacket.   Most of the others are Senate staff members except for the fellow next to Summer.

That’s Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, who decided earlier this year that people such as Bob and Summer are so undeserving to cover the Senate from that table anymore that the Senate will spend $12,000 for each of the ten positions around the table to move them and their colleagues to the gallery on the other side of the chamber.

Senator Richard lectured his colleagues during the session about honoring Senate traditions and rules.

One of the Senate rules is that Senators will not sit at the press table when the Senate is in session.  We think it was in session when this picture was taken.  Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe was in the Chair.

Will the Senate behave any better or any worse now that the scourge of the Press is removed from its sight?   Will the reporting of the actions of the Senate be better or worse because reporters now will occupy space where spectators have been able to sit for 97 years?

senate press table3

The first test will come during the September veto session.  It would be good, however, for the Senate to remember that the Press might now be out of sight—-but it shouldn’t be out of mind.

 

 

Capitol credits

If politicians weren’t so self-contradictory, political reporters would have no fun at all.  Saying one thing and doing another, saying different things in different places, taking positions that seem opposite from similar positions provide fodder for those in the press or in the citizenry at large who hope for stability in the political system, particularly stability based on the highest ideals of service to all of the people.  That’s an awfully high bar and probably an unrealistic one but without expecting the highest levels of commitment and service, the alternative can too easily become  the lowest level of results.

The leader of the Missouri Senate, Senator Ron Richard, loves the Capitol.  Even before he became Speaker of the House in 2009, Richard was aware of the building’s deteriorating condition and was looking for a way to restore and maintain the state’s greatest symbol.  We talked during his time as Speaker of his hopes to establish an endowment program, an idea that was worthy but not likely to attract the kind of money that, instead, flows too easily to those who want to hold office in that building.

But what a wonderful thing that would be!   Imagine the endowment that could be established if, say, Rex Sinquefield and the Humphreys family—two entities that throw millions of dollars at candidates every election cycle—would make the same kind of commitment to the Capitol in just one off-year.  It’s not fair to single them out so imagine the endowment that could be created if all of the other special interests and individuals who underwrite campaigns wrote comparable checks to the Capitol endowment fund just once.

But that’s one of the contradictions of our political system.  Restoring and maintaining the building where policy is enacted is always going to be much less important than influencing the people who enact the policies and maintaining that influence.   What value is there in making sure the state’s most powerful symbol of democracy crumbles when money can be better invested in making sure democracy itself, as an institution for the benefit of all, crumbles in the face of protection for the few?

Senator Richard thinks he finally has found a lever that can move his idea for restoring and preserving the State Capitol.  A tax credit program.

About fifty million dollars is being spent fixing some horrible leaks under the south front Capitol stairs.  The water running into basement spaces is causing numerous problems for those who work or store things there.   The money is provided by a bond issue and is therefore limited and has to be paid back out of the general tax collections.  Richard’s plan would provide some ongoing funding without lowering the amount available to pay for state operations.

Richard proposes changes to the present Historic Preservation Tax Credit program that’s important in communities throughout the state.  Some of Richard’s conservative legislative colleagues have a low opinion of them regardless of the value they have to their home towns.  He suggests reducing the historic tax credits by ten million dollars and shifting twenty million dollars into a special fund that could be grown to restore, repair, and maintain the Capitol.

It’s kind of complicated but some of the proceeds from the program would be spent to solicit donations into the Capitol endowment fund.  He thinks his plan would encourage people and trusts and foundations to contribute to the fund, which also would support ongoing needs of the Executive Mansion, the Transportation Department building—which the legislature wants to take over as a Capitol office annex—and, maybe, the Supreme Court Building.

A Senate committee has held a hearing on Richard’s proposal to give it a first public airing.  Richard knows the idea won’t go anywhere this year but he’s gotten it on the table and hopes it can be passed next year.  Some fine-tuning is likely because it seems to raise some concerns in the local historic preservation movement.

But it’s a good start for a proposal to preserve a symbol of the best that Missouri can be.

It’s interesting that Senator Richard wants to raise millions of dollars to preserve and protect the Capitol at the same time he is insisting the Senate spend thousands and thousands of dollars to tear up one of the architectural treasures of the building—the Senate visitors’ gallery—so he can kick the press off of the floor of the Senate where they have sat at a table since the building was brand new, all because of a complaint that grows more petty with the passage of time.

Contradictions.  Reporters love them.  In this case, though, it appears that those who live by the contradiction will suffer by one of them.   Too bad the money earmarked for the effort against legislative reporters couldn’t be invested, instead, in Richard’s more praiseworthy effort to preserve and protect the building—including preserving the Senate visitor’s gallery.

Notes from a quiet street—IV

A fourth in a series of 2016 observations on the passing scene from one who has time now to observe the passing scene without going full bloggal.)

——

George, who lives down this quiet street, down the hill and around the corner, says he has been inspired by the legislature to open his own fast-food business.  He thinks he’ll call it “Colonel George’s Missouri-Fried Turkey.”  He’s a little presumptuous about calling himself “Colonel,” because he flunked out of auctioneer school before he earned the title but he figures nobody will care once his marketing department (his wife) goes into full operations.

George was talking about the choices his customers will have.

“May I have a couple of legs, some breast meat, and a wing?”

“Ma’am, we only sell the entire turkey.  But our prices for the entire bird are less than you’d pay at the grocery store deli counter for those two legs, some breast meat, and a wing.”

“Really!!   Well, I guess I’ll have the whole turkey then.”

“Excellent.  How would you like it, over easy, sunny side up, or over hard?”

“I don’t understand….”

“Well, ma’am, it’s simple.  The Missouri legislature has been talking about changing the constitution so that fertilized eggs are considered to be the whole thing.  So we use only the finest, Missouri-made fertilized turkey eggs because once they’re fertilized, they would have full turkeyhood. So you get both legs, all of the breast meat, both wings, even the neck and all the giblets for one low price.  And if you want to take some, or even all of it, home, you won’t take up all of your space in the freezer or the refrigerator.”

George thinks his restaurant will be a big hit.  He’s trying to talk us into investing in the project with him but we’ve told him we want to think about it.  Our banker and the AARP have told us that as people living on fixed incomes we need to be careful how we invest our meager savings.  So we’re being real careful about this.

George is even talking about expanding his business once the MFT concept takes off and hundreds of franchise restaurants are opened.  He’s thinking about going into the barbecue business.  Once Beauregard and Bossy have their barnyard frolic, George figures he can start serving almost-instant barbecued veal, something you don’t find in your usual barbecue joints.  And he probably won’t charge much more than he charges for the turkey—just enough to cover the cost of the recovery of the animal because cows don’t lay eggs; you have to go get them, which is a little more labor intensive and long rubber gloves will add additional expense.

He’s also considering the same thing with barbecued pork.  For an extra fifty cents he’ll even give you an apple because it won’t fit into the mouth of the pig

George has been asking about space at the big outlet mall at the Lake of the Ozarks. He figures he could make a lot of money by selling his turkey, beef, and pork at near-retail so the customers think they’re getting a bargain while he doesn’t have to sell his products at wholesale rates as he will have to do with his franchisees.

He’s a little puzzled about how his business plan would work with fish because fish eggs can command pretty good prices on their own, probably better than he could charge for serving one sunny side up, over easy, or over hard.  But George is a thinker. He might figure something out.

George thinks the idea of bestowing “hood” on fertilized eggs holds great promise not only for him but for the entire state because it becomes, in his mind at least, an economic development measure that will create new jobs and generate more taxes that legislators then can cut and make themselves look good to voters.  To show his support for the concept, he has joined the Chamber of Commerce.

—-

Ran into somebody the other day who recalled the saying, “Authority makes some people grow—others just swell.” She didn’t recall who originally said it and it appears nobody really knows but a lot of people have repeated it. Various sources cite various people. One says the saying had been around in Washington for at least a hundred years.

She remembered that this has been a time in past legislative sessions where various organizations started thinking about rating the lawmakers. Many years ago, one periodical put together a list of “white hats” and “black hats.”   The St. Louis Globe-Democrat used to issue a list of outstanding legislators.

Her suggestion: Somebody who has been immersed in the Capitol Climate assemble a list of those who have grown and those who have just swelled this year. Who has grown as a leader? Who has just gotten puffed up with their self-importance? Who has taken stands that show leadership?   Who is on the list of mere panderers?

—-

The comments reminded us that many years ago in the irreverent years of our reportorial youth, some of us in the House Press Gallery would bestow unofficial awards to those we had been watching in the chamber below us. We don’t remember all of the awards but there was the Cockroach Award that went to the lawmaker who had to get up and chew on other people’s bills every chance they got. Cockroaches, you see, like to eat paper. Another award was the “Furniture Award,” to the legislator who seemed to be about as useful as his desk. Never said anything. Almost never sponsored a bill. Just sat there. On the last day of the session one year your observer asked Representative Winne Weber, one of the great characters of her generation in the Hosue, if she would ask this representative for his opinion on a bill. Any bill. He might have been the only member of the entire 163-member of the House whose voice we had not recorded that year—because he never said anything. So late in the evening (we still adjourned at midnight then) she asked the speaker if she could inquire of the “Gentleman from (wherever he was from),” and the Speaker called his name.   The Furniture Representative didn’t even know he was being summoned for inquiry until his colleagues rousted him from his intense preoccupation with his pipe (they still allowed smoking in the chamber then). He looked up, looked around, wasn’t sure what to do, did not appear to know he needed to go to the closest microphone so he could answer a question.   Winnie by then was laughing so hard that she asked the speaker to withdraw her request and the Speaker told the Furniture Representative he was no longer needed. He sat back down at his desk, appearing to be completely unsure what had just happened, and went back to the comfort of his pipe.

I think we retired the “Furniture Award” after that. He served about twenty years in the House and retired undefeated in that award category.

Correction

Your correspondent was awakened far too early this morning with the thought that he had made a grievous error in criticizing the leader of the Missouri Senate in yesterday’s entry for his effort to kick former colleagues in the press corps out of the historic press table on the Senate floor.  

We regret that error.

In these pre-dawn hours, as we type this, we realize there are TEN chairs at the press table, not eight as we said.  That lowers the cost of the move from the $16,000 per chair that we mentioned yesterday to only $12,700 per chair.  

And it follows that we would commend the Senate leaders for delaying the move to avoid overtime costs that would have made the price for each chair $17,100 instead of the $20,000 that we mentioned. 

And in all honesty, our mention of the Pentagon’s $700 toilet seat in the 1980s also was an unfair comparison.  We checked with the Federal Reserve System and the Fed calculates $700 in 1980 is equivalent to $2010.44 today, so the toilet seat-to-press corps chair cost is not as excessive as we portrayed yesterday. 

But our early-morning conscience, which forced the publication of this correction, wonders what kind of new chairs our former colleagues will get for $12,700.  For that price, one might expect a leather upholstered recliner with cupholders, a warming system, and maybe a therapeutic massage feature.   

We apologize to the Senate leadership for our miscalculation

  

 

Needed words and $16,000 chairs

(This post is rated “R” because of language)

Senate Leader Ron Richard gave his colleagues a dressing-down last week.  He has had his fill of fellow senators ignoring rules of common courtesy and respect for one another and for the position of Senator.  

It’s about time somebody said what he said.   

The Senate has written rules on decorum. But the UNwritten rules are as important, maybe more important, because they’re the kind of rules of common courtesy and respectful language that our parents tried to drum into us.   Good manners are not laughing matters. 

We’re not going to get into a discussion of rudeness and crudeness in campaigns.  That’s not what Richard was talking about and that’s not what we’re going to talk about here. 

Not long after Jefferson City became the state capital in 1826, a newly-elected member of the House of Representatives went to the Governor’s House—that’s what it was called then at a time when the first government building in Jefferson City housed the legislature and a two-room apartment for the governor—and went to the second floor to present his credentials.  Sorry, he was told, this is the Senate.  You should be downstairs in the House.  The new state rep supposedly observed that he had passed through the House on his way upstairs and thought it was a grog shop, what we today would call a rather raucous bar.  

The Senate likes to maintain the idea that the House is a noisy, unruly joint while the Senate is the place of dignity and cool reflection on potential law.  In recent years, we have observed, too many Senators seem to think the Senate is little more than a smaller House. 

Some former House members have sometimes addressed the Senate’s presiding officer as “Mr. Speaker” two years after becoming Senators, and in debate have sometimes referred to each other as “gentleman,” or “lady,” which are House terms.  Everybody in the Senate is a Senator and the presiding officer is “Mr. President,” or “Madame President.”  Slovenly discipline is such a small thing as this used to not happen.

There are Senate rules about where members can walk, which aisles they can use to get to their seats—and above all, they are not to walk between two debating Senators.  But it has happened all too often, and the reaction has too often been treated as some kind of a joke.

It has been considered extremely rude for one senator to ask another senator on the floor why a vote was cast the way it was.  Not so much anymore.  Senators are free to give their opinions on legislation during debate but they are not accountable to one another for their final votes on a bill.  They should be accountable to their constituents, and ultimately are, although being accountable to donors and influence-peddlers in the halls can’t be overlooked.

And language.  Your chronicler of events remembers the day a Senator slipped and referred to being “pissed off,” and was so embarrassed by his comment that he started to apologize even before the gavel came down to admonish him.  That seems such an innocent time.  A few days before Richard spoke on a point of personal privilege, one senator had referred to an issue as “bullshit.”  Richard told the senate that profanity has no place in the chamber and will not be tolerated hereafter. 

He can’t do anything about “the f-word” aimed at the governor by at least one senator some time ago on Twitter.   So we’ll say it: Senators are senators even when not in the chamber and such language demeans that body.  There are, as Senator Richard indicated, some things that can be said in the privacy of one’s office that should not be said in a public forum because it lowers the esteem of the chamber.  And twitter is about as public a forum as there is today.

And just plain common courtesy.  It has not been uncommon (but not real common, either) for a senator to interrupt debate to speak on a point of personal privilege about an unrelated issue.  It’s another example of the discourtesy that has crept into the chamber in recent years. Richard set an proper example by waiting until debate had been finished on an issue and the vote had been taken before he asked to make his personal remarks. 

So Senator Richard has served notice there will be penalties for people who use bad language, who violate rules of courtesy by asking why someone voted as they did, and who deliver personally-critical comments about a colleague, or use barnyard language.  We listened to his remarks archived by the Secretary of State and didn’t hear him mention walking between debating senators or violating other movement rules, or other courtesies that used to maintain collegiality outside the capitol.  But his desire to regain lost decorum in a chamber where decorum has only become a word in too many ways for too many years is a good thing.  Now we’ll see if he can make it stick. 

Although Richard did not say what the penalties would be for violations there have been, frankly, times when about half of the members of the chamber could have been banished to the visitors’ galleries.   Their violations of decorum have been much worse and far more frequent than anything any reporter at the press table has done.  But Richard has sentenced the press corps to the gallery.    

Probably because he can.   Whether he can inflict any meaningful or equally onerous punishment on his fellow Senators is something we’ll wait to see.   And we’ll be watching our former colleagues in the press corps to hear if Richard’s fellow Senators are capable of shaping up because of his lecture.  

——————-

Just as we were about to post these comments, we learned that the Senate leaders had decided to delay punting the press corps off the Senate floor into the visitors’ gallery until after the session.  That leads us to a slight diversion in this conversation but we’ll get back to Senator Richard and his PPP eventually because it ties in to this story, too.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Project on Government Oversight reported during the Reagan administration that the Pentagon had paid $435 for a hammer, $600 for a toilet seat, and $7,000 for a coffee pot.  The story about the delay in kicking the reporters off the Senate floor is the story of eight $16,000 seats.  

The Associated Press reported the delay is a money issue.  The move already was going to cost the senate $127,000 to renovate the gallery and move all of the necessary wiring to the new facilities in part of the gallery that has been reserved for visitors since 1919.  But doing it this month would have cost an extra $44,000, raising the total cost of moving eight reporters from the table to the gallery to more than twenty-thousand dollars per press table seat.   

Twenty-thousand dollars per seat.  The Senate already was going to spend about $16,000 per seat before the overtime issue was raised.  And that, apparently, is enough.   

We’re kind of moving away from the original topic here, but we just can’t help it.  One Senator two years ago got his nose out of joint because he said something to another senator within earshot of the press table and one reporter summarized the conversation in a tweet and another reporter re-tweeted that tweet.  It is useful to question whether the tweeting was proper but if the senate is concerned about such things it has only itself to blame—and this will start to move us back to Richard’s point of personal privilege.

The unwritten rules of the Senate have said for generations that the press table is off-limits to senators and that interviews are not allowed to be done in the chamber while the senate is in session.  But time after time through the years, senators have strolled over to the press table, sat down on the couch behind some of the reporters and have engaged members of the press in conversations while debate continued on the floor, often making on-the-record comments about an issue or responding to questions from those at the press table.  I recall one day when a senator who couldn’t get to his seat because he would have had to go between two debating senators sat at one of the press table chairs—until I reminded him that he wasn’t allowed to sit there.  Members of the senate created that climate.  And now senators are bound and determined to spend at least $127,000 so they won’t be tempted to do what many of them have done so often in the past in violation of the chamber’s rules.  

It might be good to note that the Virginia Senate Majority leader, Tommy Norment, announced in late January that he would allow reporters back on the floor of the Virginia Senate.  They had been banned from the Virginia Senate floor a few weeks earlier.  We don’t know why but Norment seems to have decided his ban was not a good thing.  We don’t know if cost of alternate space was a factor in Virginia but it sure is an issue in Missouri.  

Sixteen-thousand dollars per press table seat. A senate that voted to cut benefits to people without jobs is willing to spend $16,000 on new chairs for eight people.  Think about that.   

Too bad Senator Richard didn’t make his comments two years ago about respecting the unwritten rules as well as the written rules of decorum and courtesy in the chamber.  Maybe the tweeting wouldn’t have happened if a certain conversation was taken off the floor, as Richard said some conversations should be.  He was dead-center right in saying what he said last week that senators should behave more like senators in word and deed.   It’s easy for this scribe to say so now that this scribe is no longer scribing at the senate press table. 

But this scribe is not ever going to think the senate spending $16,000 dollars per seat to move reporters out of eight chairs so senators are not led into the continued temptation to violate the chamber’s own rules is a sensible expenditure of taxpayer money.   After all, that’s $16,000 per seat that could better be left in taxpayers’ pockets because, as the legislature keeps telling us, taxpayers know how to spend their money better than government does.

Oh, well—-the press corps at least still will have a ringside seat through the end of the session to see if Richards’ necessary words turn out to mean anything to members of the senate.  One can only hope.    

The 18-pound ball

Another person said it to your correspondent the other day and it’s been said often enough that it merits a response.

“Do you think the Senate waited until you were gone before kicking the reporters off the Senate floor?”

While the question is flattering, it’s discomfiting. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t kind of nice to hear but the answer I’ve given is not “yes,” and here’s why.  First, don’t forget that Virginia Young of the Post-Dispatch also has retired and she would be no happier about the situation than I am if she were still there.  Second, Senate leader Ron Richard is a bowling alley owner—and sometimes he seems to use an 18-pound ball when a 14-pounder would do.

Senator Richard, the first person ever to serve as Speaker of the House and President pro Tem of the Senate, shares a deep passion for the Missouri Capitol with your correspondent.  We’ve often talked about the need to restore it and preserve it.  He is also an important supporter of the State Historical Society, which is important (and that’s an understatement) to more Missourians than realize it including this author.   But to suggest that he waited until I was gone and/or Virginia was gone before kicking our press corps colleagues into a side gallery is probably a misconception.

But it is the wrong thing to do and if the Missourinet seat at the press table was still my home, I think there might have been some frank discussions.

This entry is more “inside baseball” stuff than usual.  But it might give readers a little more insight into a small part of the way the legislature and the press corps work or should work.

As I understand it, this situation grew out of a time when Senator Brian Nieves took off on one of his tantrums that was a personal attack on another office-holder—not a Senator—that went on and on and that Nieves appeared to feel was particularly clever.   Senator Richards’ predecessor, Tom Dempsey, heard it in his office and quickly went to the chamber where he told Senator Eric Schmitt, who was presiding at the time, that he should have called Nieves to order.  One of the reporters at the press table put something on Twitter about the Dempsey-Schmitt discussion and another member of the press corps picked up the message and re-tweeted it.

Now, understand that your observer thought well of Dempsey and found him a thoughtful leader of the chamber.  He recognized that his position was one that represented all senators, not just those of his party, and he often served as a mediator in touchy situations.

I had forgotten until colleague Phill Brooks reminded me recently that Dempsey talked to the two of us about his concern that the Twitter message violated an unwritten Senate protocol that certain conversations in certain places are private.  He wondered what to do about the matter and I don’t think Phill and I gave him much of an answer, certainly not a satisfactory one.  We did say that we weren’t aware of the situation and would not have tweeted about it if we had been. I don’t even remember if Dempsey mentioned the name of the reporter involved.

It’s been almost two years since this incident and I think it’s been mishandled from the start on both sides.   The result is an unfortunate escalation that need not have happened.   It is probably too late, unfortunately, to roll back the situation, but here’s the way things should have been handled—at least from this perspective.

First, Twitter and the emphasis on immediate communication (which is not necessarily reporting—a distinction that can be discussed later, I suppose) is a pit waiting for people to fall into and we hear stories about that almost every day, don’t we?

As a reporter who had, and still has, a lot of distrust of the idea that any system that capitalizes on the human tendency to blurt out whatever is on the mind is good, I would not have communicated the Dempsey-Schmitt discussion because there was a time to explain the incident’s significance when more than 140 characters are involved.  Dempsey was always approachable by the press corps, I think, and the incident was not so earth-shaking that public distribution of its occurrence could not wait until Dempsey could be asked about it.  He probably would have tried to sidestep it because it was an internal issue and because of the idea that senators should speak courteously of one another, at least on the record.   But he should have been asked about it instead of becoming the subject of instant communication.  Even if he had not wanted to talk about it, he would have been alerted that the incident was a story.

What Phill and I should have told him (and maybe we did, I don’t remember) was that it would be appropriate for him to express his concerns directly to the reporter and discuss between the two of them what Dempsey saw as the problem and how that sort of thing could have been handled differently. I don’t think he would have talked the reporter out of doing the story, but the discussion would have been good for both.

There have been opportunities since then for the Senate leader to raise the issue with reporters—the Senate majority information person has been good about getting the press together with the leaders every Monday afternoon, at least, and often more frequently as needed.  Understanding the relationship between the press and senators has never been something discussed before the start of legislative sessions.  It would have been useful and might be useful in the future when legislative leaders hold pre-session news conferences, not a matter of instruction but a matter of understanding operations of both sides.

But throwing an 18-pound ball (banishment to the gallery) instead of a 14-pound ball (discussing the relationship between press and legislator) is the wrong way to go.   The result is that the Senate is spending a bunch of taxpayers’ money it doesn’t need to spend, the press corps is antagonized, and an opportunity for a good working relationship has been lost.

And that, for whatever it is worth, is how the situation should have been handled.

Before departing, let it be noted that this is being written by someone who has not been part of the press corps for about fourteen months and is relying on information about the triggering incident and the resulting effects from others.  We’ll be glad to correct misimpressions about the circumstances if we have misunderstood them. But what this entry indicates, if it indicates anything, is that impressions made in the moment and lingering resentment that festers through time can produce unfortunate results that don’t really help anything.

Sometimes the brute force of an 18-pound ball is less useful than the better technique that goes with one weighing only 14.

Is this next?

Too bad Representative Mike Pitts serves in the South Carolina legislature—because he’s the Missouri Senate’s kind of guy.

Pitts has introduced a bill he calls the “South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law.”  Missouri Senate leader Ron Richard might want to take a look at it.  Richard, you know, has decided the Senate just cannot have reporters at the press table on the Senate floor because one of them had the temerity to tweet something the former Senate leader thought he was saying privately to another senator (within hearing distance of the press table) and instead of the former leader talking to the sin-filled former press table occupant, he complained to Richard who, now that he is in charge of the joint, has decided EVERYBODY who covers the Senate is too leprous to be that close to senators.  He’s establishing a special colony in one of the side galleries. The Senate has voted 24-6 to support the establishment of the colony and the Senate Ministry of Information is trying to restrict access to senators even from there.

Representative Pitts has a bill in a South Carolina House committee that would “establish requirements for persons before working as a journalist for a media outlet and for media outlets before hiring a journalist…to establish fines and criminal penalties for violation…”

He demands that anyone “seeking to register” has to provide a criminal record background check, a document from the journalist’s employer attesting to the person’s journalistic competence, and pay a registration fee.  In return, the person can cover the news for two years.  But the South Carolina Secretary of State can revoke the registration if, among other things, that person is later fond “not competent to be a journalist.”

Who, in Pitts’ view, is not competent to be a journalist?  Anybody who has been found by a court to have committed libel, slander, or invasion of privacy, someone convicted of a felony if the felony was committed “to collect, write, or distribute news or other current information for a media outlet.”  Of course, people like Pitts are the ones who write definitions of “felony.”

Here’s a good one: A person is not competent, in Pitts’ view, if that journalist “has demonstrated a reckless disregard of the basic codes and canons of professional journalism associations, including a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability, as applicable to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.”  Someone like Pitts, I guess, would make that determination.

What happens if someone works as a journalist without being licensed by the state?

First offense is a $25 fine.  Second offense is a $50 fine and maybe fifteen days in jail, too.  A third offense is a $500 fine and perhaps thirty days in jail.  And if the employer doesn’t ditch the creep, the employer can be fined.

BUT, if this were law in Missouri, that person could still sit at the press table in the Senate, at least until March 29 when the leper colony is supposed to be open.

Rep. Pitts has told the Charleston Post and Courier that he’s not a “press hater.”  He’s just upset that the press doesn’t respect Second Amendment rights and “has no qualms about demonizing firearms.”   And he asks, “Do journalists, by definition, really adhere to a code of ethics?”

The answer is, generally, yes.  And, generally, it is adherence to professional standards that makes politicians uncomfortable, especially when money is tied to their political positions.  And Pitts was the target of a Post and Courier investigation on that subject when it reported that Pitts, a hunter, took trips to Alaska and three other western states to “hobknob at summits with ‘sportsmen legislators.’”  On one trip, he used campaign money to pay for gas in his rental car.  Pitts is a member of the South Carolina House Ethics Committee.

The newspaper quotes the head of the South Carolina Press Association, Bill Rogers, who points out that “The Constitution doesn’t say anything about responsible journalism, it says free journalism.”

Pitts, by the way, also once tried to have the state ban the use of United States currency and replace it with gold and silver coins minted in the state because he objected to the way Congress spends money and the way the federal government prints it.

Yep, he’d fit right in here.

 

Ignore this memo

This is the first time that I wish I was still part of the Capitol press corps.

The Missouri Senate, once a collegial bunch that had a Senate press officer and then a Senate information office, now has a Senate information office that presumably works for all members of the Senate AND it has separate “communications directors” for the Republicans and the Democrats.

The Communications Director for the Senate Majority Caucus put out a memo to the press corps the day before the legislative session began that “many senators” do not want to be interviewed about what they have just said or done right after the senate adjourns for the day.  Reporters are now being told to contact the communications directors for the R’s or the D’s and tell them who they want to interview “so we can alert the senator beforehand.”  The Senator can then decide whether to do the interview on the senate floor after adjournment or in a couple of other places.  “Please do not try to catch them on the floor without letting someone know first,” says the memo.

This person is a nice person with whom we got along nicely in our days at the senate press table.

But letting a senator know ahead of time a reporter wants to interview them?  When they’re right in front of us?  Working through a senate bureaucracy to interview someone who has had no reluctance to do or say something in front of everybody in the room, often just minutes earlier?

I’m standing right there, a respectful few feet away while they gather their papers or have a few comments with a colleague.  Who needs some partisan functionary to tell them a reporter wants to ask a question?  “Many senators” feel that way?  How many?  Who?  We’ve had senators tells us, “Let’s go to my office,” and we’ve gone.

Oooooooh, I wish I could be there just so I could walk up to some senator right after adjournment and ask a question, as has been the practice. Let someone know first?  Forget that.  They were there. I was there. You just did something or said something in a public forum and you’re accountable.  What are you up to?

The press corps has had its fill of managed access from the Nixon administration.  Now it’s spreading to the senate.

Sorry, senators.  Accountability shouldn’t have to wait. You’re a grownup and you don’t need somebody running interference for you and give you an easy opportunity to tell the partisan roadblock, “I don’t want to talk about what I’ve just done or said.”  And the roadblock goes back to the waiting reporter and says, “Sorry.”

Fertilizer!!!

The leader of the senate has nursed a grudge for months and months because a member of the press sitting at the press table on the Senate floor heard a couple of senators discussing something about a bill and tweeted it.  So he has decided the press should be booted out of the press table on the senate floor and exiled to a side gallery one floor above.  When that issue was put before the senate for approval, senators were told that the senate staff needed to use the table—a further tribute to the lost ability of senators to write their own amendments, perhaps. The senate leader admitted his real motivation later.

Significantly, the press is being thrown out of the senate because, as we understand it, one reporter broke an unwritten senate rule by reporting something a couple of senators believed they were talking about in confidence.  But the Senate is doing nothing to keep members from getting text messages on their cell phones from lobbyists in the halls who often tell them how to answer questions or what their positions should be during discussions of bills.   Reporters are not welcome physically in the senate chamber.  But the virtual presence of special interests gets a pass.

Pettiness.

The session is beginning with pettiness and fertilizer in the state senate.

“It should be another exciting year,” says the memo to the press about not talking to senators.   It sure would be if this reporter was still at the senate press table.

 

 

What in the world ?

Two people are standing at the railing of an ocean liner gazing at the miles of Pacific Ocean all around them.  Nothing is out there but water.  All the way to the horizon.  All the way around them.

“Sure is a lot of water,” one observes.

“Yeah,” says the other.  “And that’s just the top of it.”

This observer has been getting emails from friends as far away as Vancouver and Los Angeles who have been watching, hearing, and reading about things happening at the University of Missouri for the last several days.  In various ways they have asked, “What in the world is going on at the University of Missouri?”  What follows will be long and does not pretend to be an analysis that will preclude other thoughts or actions that disagree or contribute to consensus.

The reporting of the way events have spiraled and spread has been most comparable to that first observer on the ocean liner: “Sure is a lot of water.”   That is not a criticism of the reporting.  Those who have been on the ground as journalists in situations such as this and—more prominently, in Ferguson last year—know that when you are being swept along by the tide there isn’t much time to think about how the coral was formed ten feet below you.  The same often is true for those who are drawn into participation in those events.  Thinking about the deeper issues that are involved or the deeper consequences that might result becomes secondary.   Passing judgment on participants, whether demonstrators, administrators, reporters, observers—the list could be longer if we try to think of more categories—is easily done from a distance and the situation becomes more complicated when others with other agendas try to capitalize on it.

So, to answer the friends and neighbors who have asked, “What in the world is going on…?” we offer some observations.  They are made from a short geographical distance and they are made by someone who is no longer in the business of being in the middle of the events or in a newsroom.

VIOLENCE

This is an important thing to remember.  No buildings were set on fire.  No roving gangs of demonstrators were going up and down Ninth Street throwing bricks through windows and looting businesses.  As far as we know, guns were not part of the demonstration(s) and nobody was hurt.  Some headlines were generated when a reporter and a cameraman were pushed around in a regrettable incident but the students who advocated a non-violent protest achieved that goal.  While some of their actions might be properly questioned, let us not lose sight of the fact that this is one incident that did not turn violent.

But their activities have created image problems or feared image problems for the university, for some of its schools, and the athletic department.  Andrew Kloster, a legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, has written of what he calls “mob rule…in higher education.”  He writes about recent disturbances at Yale and the disturbances in Columbia, “Both situations involve student activists disrupting education, allegedly on behalf of education…At Mizzou, activists claimed that failing to deal with ‘structural racism’ was harming their education.  Both groups listed not specific harms, but rather vague interest in feeling good at their university.”

That kind of reaction, nationally circulated, is not what the protestors want to hear or want to hear said about them.   What can it teach them?  What can be learned from these experiences?  Is the result as simple as Kloster suggests?

Nobody was hurt in these protests.  At least not physically.  That’s important to remember.

WHO IS AND WHO IS NOT GONE

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe is gone.  Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin is gone.  This observer met both of them during a meeting a few months ago and found both of them personally likable.  Wolfe was candid in our discussions and represented the university well.  Perhaps ironically, one of the products of our meeting was a resolution of some communications problems between the group I was with and the university.  Loftin, I thought, was approachable and willing to discuss the issues we brought to the table.  That’s a personal impression drawn from a single hour-long meeting.  I was not left with any perspective on relations between the people in University Hall and the people who were on the campus.  But clearly, those who saw things on a daily basis had distinctly different impressions.

Who’s still there?  A guy in the pickup truck.  A drunk white guy who went where he wasn’t wanted at the Legion of Black Collegians meeting.  The person who scrawled the feces swastika in a bathroom.  A spirit of intolerance that bubbles under all of society, occasionally seeping to the surface.  And intolerance knows no sides.  They’re still there.

THE EVENTS

Critics on the campus felt the school administration was detached and unresponsive.  On Monday, the day Wolfe resigned and Loftin announced he would be stepping down, the deans of nine of the university’s colleges asked that the Board of Curators to fire Loftin.  They cited a “multitude of crises” on the Columbia campus.  They said they had met with Wolfe and Loftin as well as Provost Garnett Stokes twice in October but had seen the issues they talked about continue to deteriorate.

A day earlier the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures notified curators that 28 of the department’s thirty faculty members had expressed no confidence in Loftin. The other two faculty members abstained.  A few days earlier, the English Department faculty had voted 26-0 for a no-confidence motion targeting Loftin.  Two faculty members abstained.

Loftin also was the center of other controversies including the elimination of health insurance for graduate assistants who teach many of the school’s classes.  The insurance was later reinstated. He also was unpopular because of the dismissal of the Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences.

He also was in the middle of a partisan political criticism about a doctor with some privileges at University Hospital doing abortions at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Columbia.  As usual lately, anything to do with Planned Parenthood became an issue of political capital that transcended rational discussion. The situation has reached the absurd stage that one state senator wanting to firm up pro-life support in a statewide candidacy has demanded the university tell a graduate student to stop studying whether a 72-hour waiting period for an abortion really accomplishes anything.

One side claims it was absolutely right and the university is absolutely wrong. And when the absolutely right side is the one that controls the university’s budget, academic freedom can become expendable—or at least a perception can arise that it is.  The university revoked the doctor’s privileges at the hospital.  Planned Parenthood and its supporters charged the university over-reacted.  As far as we know, the graduate student is still researching.

Student demonstrators aimed their biggest complaints at Wolfe.  An incident early in the school year in which someone in a pickup truck shouted “Nigger” at the student body president Payton Head appears to have begun the unrest. Several days later, a white man, described as drunk, interrupted a meeting of the Legion of Black Collegians and complained, “These niggers are getting aggressive with me” when the group showed him he was not welcome.

An incident during the homecoming parade last month, though, is what seems to have really gotten things rolling.   A group of black students stopped in front of the car carrying Wolfe and started talking about the school’s history of racial incidents since its founding in 1839.  Wolfe did not react and the driver of the car tried to move around the group and bumped a couple of the students.

About then, graduate student Jonathan Butler said he wouldn’t eat until Wolfe quit. Four days later, November 6, Wolfe issued a statement and an apology that seemed weak to the students in the homecoming parade event, and to the students whose resentment about administration detachment from campus concerns continued to simmer.  Wolfe admitted that the situation might not have deteriorated if he had gotten out of his car during the parade and talked with the students.

Or would such an action only have compounded the disturbance that day?  It’s easy to second-guess on that issue.  Many will argue the students were out of line by stopping Wolfe’s car at all, let alone for several minutes before the blockade was ended.

This writer recalls an incident in the Missouri Senate a couple of years ago when a group led by a number of ministers entered the gallery of the senate and stopped floor action with songs, prayers, and statements urging expansion of the Medicaid program.  Several were arrested and charged.  Their cases have yet to come to trial.  One of their arguments would be familiar to the students: they were frustrated by inaction on the part of those who could do something to deal with the problems they perceived.

And so a fair question has to be asked.  What is left when you think the powers-that-be are not responsive to perceived serous issues you have raised?

The organizers of the demonstrations, Concerned Student 1-9-5-0, (1950 was the year the university admitted its first black student) issued eight demands including an apology from Wolfe in which he would “acknowledge his white male privilege, recognize that systems of oppression exist, and provide a verbal commitment to fulfill (the organization’s) demands”.  The group demanded Wolfe’s removal and a presidential selection process involving faculty, staff, and students of diverse backgrounds.  The group wants a  mandatory “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum in all departments,” increased percentages of black faculty and staff, more money for the university counseling center that will allow hiring of mental health professionals as well as increases in funding for social justice centers.

The demands and the rhetoric that appeared to some people as overcooked took the situation beyond discussion. By now, too, various political figures were weighing in with veiled suggestions that time was running out for Wolfe.

Then several members of the football team announced they supported the student group.

THE TEAM

The announced “strike” by several football players pushed the issue into national headlines.  International headlines in fact.  Suddenly the confrontation was on the BBC.  Suddenly it was on the national networks.   And it put the coaching staff in a difficult position in what already has been a difficult year.  They’ve already dealt with some unfortunate situations within the team this year apart from the win-loss record.  It was important that the team understand that it IS a team and this episode threatened to pit involved members against those who didn’t feel touched by the controversy.  Coach Gary Pinkel knew that however this event turned out, this incident had the potential to turn the locker room into at least two camps.  So the word went out that the whole team supported Jonathan Butler and was concerned about his health.  Pinkel has admitted, however, that some players were not enthusiastic about the “team” support of Butler.  And in a press conference after the resignations, he didn’t take a position on the departures of Wolfe and Loftin.

The upcoming game with Brigham Young was endangered.  The university could lose a million dollars and that was only a beginning.

There were doubtless some who immediately started thinking the football program was trying to run the university.  Some undoubtedly felt cancellation of the game, the season, the players’ scholarships would be appropriate because the players were getting outside their roles.   After all, the university is about education, not sports and—they might argue—the sports program was getting out of line.

Others could argue that athletes are also people and they do not give up being people just because they play sports.  In fact, some might argue on their behalf that the players’ actions were a recognition that some things are far more important than collegiate sports.   After all, these young men sit in classrooms with many of those who had pitched their tents on Carnahan Quadrangle.  They are not apart from them just because they play football.

The university basketball players also were talking about taking action, which coach Kim Anderson says he would have supported, when Wolfe resigned.

It is easy to dismiss the action of the football players and the backing they got from their coach and the school’s athletic director as the athletic department throwing its weight around.  But was it, really?  Or was it people who were students first creating by their actions a situation the athletic department had to deal with at a time when it had been only an observer that was focused on fulfilling its special role in the university?

Regardless, SEC coaches in their weekly teleconference praised Pinkel’s integrity in supporting his team.

The entrance of the football team into the picture made the news story, for whatever reason, one that could not be contained in Columbia. It went global. And nobody knew how much worse it could become if something didn’t happen at University Hall.

THE CHOICE

We don’t know and maybe will never know what kind of conversations were going on between the university administration and the curators.  We don’t know when or if somebody finally said, “Tim, the only way to end this situation is for you to leave.”   Or maybe he’s the one who told the curators that he realized there was no way the situation could be resolved as long as he stayed.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported the curators continued to support Wolfe, who left without any kind of a severance package.  The newspaper says that’s an indication he was not forced out.  But Loftin was a different case. The curators voted to assign him to a new job.  The newspaper says Loftin “made enemies out of deans, faculty and graduate students” and “frequently blindsided the curators with his decision making, stirring up controversies, then having to backtrack.”

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/missteps-not-student-revolt-led-to-mizzou-chancellor-s-demise/article_f955e9cf-6fc8-5fb0-b2cc-1b798d53fccc.html

The student group wasted no time issuing new demands for an “immediate” meeting with the university system faculty council, curators, and with Governor Nixon “to discuss shared governance and create a system of holistic inclusion for all constituents,” as one of the group members, Marshall Allen, put it, saying the demands have to me met “in totality.”

The resignations create some breathing space.  There comes a time when heated rhetoric (“in totality,” for example) needs to be tempered so productive steps can be taken to produce change.   Shared governance?  That term as well as “a system of holistic inclusion” is good for pumping up a crowd.  Creating realistic definitions is harder.  The students are not going to run the University of Missouri.  Or the faculty.  But the point has to be acknowledged that the administration cannot be apart from the campus and the issues that personally touch those on it.

THE PROFS AND THE GREEK LADY

The Dean of the School of Journalism, David Kurpius, quickly put out a statement when a video went viral showing Professor Melissa Click helped block reporters from covering the post-resignation reactions of students in their encampment on the Carnahan Quadrangle.  The video showed Click calling for some “muscle” to help remove student Mark Schierbecker who was shooting video of a confrontation between freelance photographer Tim Tai and Janna Basler, the assistant director of Greek Life and Leadership.  Tai was shooting for ESPN News.

The video shows Basler telling Tai, “You need to back off.  Back off, go!”  When he asks her if she is with the Office of Greek Life, she responds, “No, my name is Concerned Student 1-9-5-0.”

Tai is heard saying that his First Amendment rights to be there are equal with the First Amendment rights of the students who have been demonstrating.

And a third person, identified as Professor Richard Callahan, the Chairman of Religious Studies, is shown with the protestors throwing up his hands to block the view Tai could get with his camera.

The J-School dean wanted to make it clear that Click is a member of the Department of Communications, which is part of the School of Arts and Sciences, not a member of the School of Journalism faculty.  The J-School also released a statement discussing how it had used the events of the last several days as teaching opportunities for future journalists.

The national reaction on social media and in mainline media to the actions of those faculty members has been generally severe.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Click locked herself in the office all day Tuesday and at times could be heard sobbing.  At the end of the day she issued written apology for her actions, and said she had personally apologized to the journalists involved.  She resigned her tenuous tie to the Journalism School.  She had a “courtesy title” that let her serve on a graduate committee.  Although Tai says he has accepted Click’s apology, Schierbecker has told the Washington Post he has not.  “She made no acknowledgement that what she did was assault,” he told the newspaper.

Callahan is Click’s husband.  Thai has told the Post that he also has apologized “for getting in my face and yelling about it.” We’ve heard no word about whether his behavior also is being scrutinized.

Basler has been put on administrative leave and relieved of her duties as the Director of Greek Life while the investigation of her activities continues.  Tai says he’s had a personal meeting with Basler and has accepted her apologies.

There have been calls for the three to be fired.  Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple, for example, has written “These three university employees had a chance to stick up for free expression on Monday. Instead they stood up for coercion and darkness.”

Who’s right and who’s wrong in all of this?  From this reporter’s perspective (once a journalist, always a journalist), the students and the teachers were wrong.  The young journalists were legitimately trying to cover a story, to help listeners, viewers, and readers gain some kind of insight into the situation.  But this incident, as is the case with the larger activities, is not so black and white.   KBIA, the University’s public radio station that relies heavily on journalism students in its newsroom—and has done outstanding work in covering these events—published this story on its webpage:

http://kbia.org/post/rights-activists-and-media-no-clear-answer

And KBIA News Director Ryan Famuliner, a former Missourinet reporter, added some context to help people see “below the surface of it.”

http://kbia.org/post/4-things-you-might-have-wrong-about-mizzou-story

Tuesday, the day after the confrontations, protestors decided reporters were welcome at their encampment.  They took down signs telling the media to stay out and they passed out pages urging protestors to cooperate with the media.  The headline on the flyers said “Teachable Moment.”

OKAY, SO—–

We talked to a distressed former member of the Board of Curators the other day who fears these events have set a “horrible precedent.”   Some of those we have talked to who also have watched things from a distance suggest the university is in for an extremely difficult time finding someone to step into the president’s job.  “Who in his right mind would want it?” one person asked.

What has been accomplished by all of this shouting and pushing and demanding is that impediments the protesting students, graduate students, and faculty members saw to communications between the folks on campus and the folks in University Hall have been removed.  They’ve gotten the university’s attention.

Now, it appears, talking instead of shouting, discussing instead of demanding can start.

THE TEAM 2.0

No, the athletic department does not run the university.  It is, however, the most publicly prominent entity that represents it.  It would be nice if the public found the teaching of English, Journalism, Agriculture, Physics, Chemistry, Economics, and so forth to be something it would buy tickets to watch.  But the fact is the public is more likely to cheer for an All-American football or basketball player than it is to cheer for a Nobel Prize winner.  Another fact is that the university would continue to do its work educating students even if another fan never walks into Memorial Stadium.

However, the virtues of “the team” or as some of the players said, “the family,” should not dissipate as time passes and, in fact, might be good to keep in mind as the university re-shapes its administration.   Teams work when they share a common goal.  They fail when they break into factions.  Factionalism breeds resentment.  Resentment brings conflict.  And conflict destroys the family, the team.

Take a look at this effort to help us see below “the top of it.”

http://kbia.org/post/mizzou-football-sets-precedent-student-athlete-activism

One of the jobs of a coach is to hold the team together.  It would be fair to include questions to presidential candidates about how good a coach a new president and chancellor might need to be.

THE TEACHABLE MOMENT

One reason Click, Callahan, and Basler are in trouble is because they forgot that teachers remain teachers outside as well as inside the classroom. Whether the teachable moments represented by their apologies reverse the negative teachable moments of the confrontation with Tai and with Schierbecker is hard to determine.  Perhaps the changed attitude of the protestors the next day, when they removed the signs and welcomed reporters, indicates some learning has taken place.

Did the change of attitude represent a learning moment resulting from the teachable moment?  One would hope so, for students and teachers alike.

The events have created numerous teachable moments and they have provided learning moments as well.  And those moments go beyond the teaching and learning that might happen in the new diversity and social respect programs the university is moving toward.

POLITICS

Events such as these are potential minefields for politicians—witness the no-win situations Governor Nixon found himself in, or put himself in, last year in Ferguson.  These events also can be opportunities to say and advocate things that appeal to the public gut and gain some points for candidates and office-holders.  Before Wolfe’s resignation, various office-holders put out fence-riding statements that tried to sound, well for lack of a better word, leaderly without running the risk of antagonizing potential voters, protestors, and those who thought Wolfe and Loftin were just fine. “This is serious stuff,” the statements generally said, “and I am sure the right things will be done.”   Afterwards the same people who had not publicly come out specifically in favor of Wolfe’s departure courageously said he had done the right thing and they were glad he did.

But there’s another political matter that is hinted at in a part of the scenario that has been overshadowed by the events on the Carnahan Quadrangle.  One of the graduate students who sent a letter “For my dear friends outside of Missouri campus” alluded to it when she wrote, “for many of us, it was clear we were just expected to pay ever-increasing fees (mine are currently about $1000 per semester above and beyond tuition), ½ tuition waivers for some grad students (where prior had been full waivers, which drastically impacts recruiting and retention efforts), an insurance debacle…and ongoing racial discrimination.”

Students are going deeper in debt.  Some graduate students are paying increased fees.  Insurance coverage for them was dropped, then restored when they made enough noise.   And state support for higher education in Missouri is a fraction of what it was a decade ago.  Data compiled earlier this year by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association says funding per full-time student has dropped almost 28 percent in the last five years while college enrollment has increased by twenty percent.

Your reporter was in a meeting yesterday with a former legislator who recalled that when he started in the General Assembly a few decades ago, state funding for higher education paid about half the costs of educating a student. Now, he said, it’s only about ten percent.  There might be more accurate figures but the trend is accurate.

A seminar at Truman State University last March was called “Crisis in Missouri: The decline of state funding for higher education.”   The announcement of the meeting that listed discussion points said, “For decades, public support for higher education in the state of Missouri has declined precipitously.  The impact of this underfunding has been widespread and deeply felt: An increased financial burden on Missouri’s student population; An inability to recruit top teachers and scholars; a deterioration of the quality of education at our state institutions; A weakening of morale for the vast majority of those who work at those institutions; A culture on our campuses of frustration with the present and fear for the future instead of a culture of innovation.”

Fear.  Frustration.  It’s top to bottom in Missouri’s higher education system.  The definitions of those words differ according to position within that system but all strata have them.  Not to give the university administration a pass, but funding issues are a huge issue and at the highest levels are one of the primary ones.  The President of the University of Missouri is seen by many as a manager and a fund-raiser.  The chancellors are the on-campus managers.

But the buck has to stop somewhere.  And ultimately, Wolfe felt the whole package of bucks rose to his level and the best alternative was to leave so that healing could begin on a campus he loved.

But don’t expect the people in Jefferson City to do anything financially that would ease the concerns that dog all of our campuses.  Advocates of smaller government are more concerned with shrinking the state’s capability to pay its bills and obligations than they are in easing financial pressures on higher education and those it serves.   Or other services to the general public.

“You can’t cure a problem by throwing money at it,” some like to say.  That might be true.  But you certainly can’t solve many problems by financially starving them.  In 2013, then-auditor Tom Schweich released a study showing Missouri tax collections are about four-BILLION dollars below the amount allowed by the Hancock Amendment adopted in 1980 as a way to control over-taxation and over-spending.   But the legislature only wants to widen that gap.  So the concerns and frustrations of some of those who called for the departures of Wolfe and Loftin will go unanswered.

WINNERS?

It’s easy to pronounce winners and losers in these situations.  But that’s a mistake because many participants are both. Victory has a cost.  Loss has an opportunity.

Well, Wolfe is gone and so is Loftin.  An African-American temporary president who was the first black graduate of the law school has been installed.  An African-American law professor and associate dean has become an interim vice-chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equality. Curators have promised to restore “a culture of respect,” to hire more minorities, step up recruitment, and offer support to students who feel aggrieved.

Beyond that——-

Three people have been arrested for turning social media into anti-social media by making threats on the internet.  The threats, especially in a time when mass shootings are not so uncommon anymore, honestly frightened some people on the campus.

Someone painted out the word “Black” on the sign in front of the University’s Black Cultural Center; the paint has since been removed.  (Someday, maybe, there will be some discussions about whether cultural centers for various ethnic groups are long-term counter-productive to advancement toward a color-blind multicultural society many of these groups seek.  Someday. Perhaps not this day, though, when emotions that would detract from the kind of discussion that needs to be held are likely to rise.)

The person or persons so consumed by—whatever—that he or she put a piece of human excrement into their hand and drew a swastika on the wall of a co-ed dormitory bathroom and left feces on the floor is still unknown.  The student protests about racism overshadowed concerns by those to whom a swastika has a special significance.

Hate, ignorance, and downright idiocy are inescapable parts of our existence, whether on our campuses or elsewhere in our world.  The events in Columbia have a double edge—protests against wrongs perceived by one segment of society while a hate message that hurts another segment of society stays in the background.

Those of us who were in college in the days when one of the popular songs was “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” a time when demonstrators thought they could help stop wars by putting flowers down the barrels of the guns held by National Guardsmen trying to control demonstrations, still hope for peace and love and harmony.

Each generation has to confront that issue and each generation learns that there are those who think the flower children and their idealistic descendants (and forebears) are fools and troublemakers.  But a generation without ideals offers little to the future.

Comedian Pat Paulsen, whose satiric presidential candidacy in the days of the flower generation, put together a campaign book in 1968.  He wrote, “This book is dedicated to the time when all of us spicks, niggers, white trash, hunkies, wops, kikes, mackerel snappers, micks, gooks, chinks, red necks, beans and hippies get together as Americans.”

Columbia in the past week reminded us we still have a ways to go.

Perhaps this long, long reflection helps answer the questions from friends in Vancouver and in Los Angeles and gives some insight into the coral beneath the surface.