Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bigotry today! Bigotry tomorrow! Bigotry forever!

Regular readers will know that I am a staunch supporter of equal treatment under the law for all citizens, including based on sexual orientation. In short, I believe in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. That gays should have the same civil rights as other law-abiding Americans seems a no-brainer to me. And it isn’t just that I support civil rights for gays. It’s that, for all the heated rhetoric, I’ve yet to hear a single compelling argument against it. Not even necessarily one I agree with... just one that I think isn’t completely ludicrous.

Not everyone thinks that way.

My friend Bob over at Planet Albany blog has a report on a march in Albany against equality for gays.

I want to preface my remarks by saying I do not know for sure what Bob’s position is. I have never heard him state his own personal position explicitly. Mostly, he just relays the position of the Catholic Church and other social conservatives which is, of course, staunch hostility toward these civil rights. Given his avowed status as a social conservative and his megaphoning of the Catholic Church’s positions, one can infer his own view but I do not wish to put words into his mouth (a courtesy not often extended in the other direction). Hence, an explicit statement would be welcome.

But to sum up his reporting, here is my take...

-Opposition to civil rights for gays has “religious foundations” (no surprise there) and is a heart rendering example of unity between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims;

-Democratic state Sen. Ruben Diaz, the leading opponent of equality in the New York legislature, has “love in his heart” for gay people... he just doesn’t think the state should treat them as full-fledged citizens. Gay people might have a little less objection to this view if they weren’t forced to pay the same taxes as full-fledged citizens. Maybe Diaz should show his “love” by getting them a tax break. If not, Diaz should understand that I love Hispanics too... so long as they don’t expect any rights;

-Saint Diaz, a Pentecostal minister, doesn’t appear have an actual legal argument for why gays should be denied constitutional rights, at least as reported by Bob, but he does object to people calling him meanie names. Diaz seems to be under the impression that him being a minority gives him license to take discriminatory positions against other minorities and then snivel when he’s criticized for it; bullies usually are the ones most hypersensitive to criticism. Diaz vowed that he is “not keeping his mouth shut” despite the fact that he has nothing of substance to say... though that’s usually the case about those who talk to loudest;

-A speaker from the New York State Catholic Conferences fears the ramifications of the Church having to (gasp) treat gay people decently. The Church might, for example, have to choose between its anti-gay positions and its participation in the adoption industry. Sorry, but that’s a pathetic argument against equality. Equal treatment under the law a constitutional right. Participation in the adoption industry is not. It’s that simple;

-That speaker wrongly claims that Catholic Charities has already been forced to close adoption agencies in Boston and Washington, D.C. In actual fact, they were not forced to close such agencies. What they were actually forced to do is to choose between helping kids and their anti-gay positions. That they chose the latter is sad and telling, but it was their choice and the consequences are on their conscience;

-A “Reverend” Duane Motley implied that tolerance for gay people was responsible for straight people getting divorced and living together unmarried... going so as to invoke the menace of health problems, school dropouts and crime;

-Motley also made the counterintuitive claim that legalizing gay marriage would weaken the institution. It’s more likely marriage would be STRENGTHENED by the inclusion of people who believe so strongly in that institution that they want to participate in it and are willing to struggle to do so.

-Some wonder why there’s a growing backlash against churches who are abuse their tax-exempt status to lobby for the arbitrary denial of rights by the state to citizens based on nothing more than their personal religious whim. Some feel churches should not receive these *SPECIAL RIGHTS*. Here’s why. Churches can get a tax exemption while demanding gays be denied rights by the state... and this tax exemption might be threatened if gays were ever granted equal rights. Gays must pay full taxes even while being denied full rights. The revenue not paid by tax-exempt churches is a burden passed on to all taxpayers, including gays. So the cruelest irony of all this is that gays are essentially helping, against their will, to fund organizations hell bent on making sure they are treated like crap. Churches are benefiting from services paid for by those whose oppression they are committed to. No grounds for resentment there!

It’s unfortunate that religious leaders hide behind their religion to excuse their own bigotry. The Constitution gives anyone, individuals and churches alike, the right to be a bigot; it does NOT give the state the right to act in such a fashion toward law-abiding, taxpaying citizens. The state does not follow religious diktats. This is because (and Bob would certainly agree with this) neither the US nor NYS is a theocracy.

At least opponents of black civil rights in the south tended not to hide their prejudices behind the respectable veneer of religion. They simply came out and said, “We hate (black people) because they are inferior beings.” Ditto for those who wanted to keep treating women like chattel. Such candor may be crude but at least it’s honest enough to drop the intellectually insulting pretense of something loving and holy.

Note: Clearly, this is just my take on the anti-fairness rally. You can judge for yourself by reading Bob’s report directly by clicking here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The toll of the economic collapse on newspaper circulatio​n (guest essay)

Note: This is the fourth in a series of reports on local newspapers.

by Mark Wilson

The newspaper circulation numbers released two weeks ago by the Audit Bureau of Circulations show a continued attrition among hard copy readers of newspapers from New York’s capital region north to Glens Falls. While the latest figures were reported by Chris Churchill in the Albany Times Union, he failed to offer earlier reports for comparison, a basic way to measure the precipitous drop in paid circulation over time. As unpleasant as it is for professional journalists to contemplate, the magnitude of that drop is the real story behind the new ABC numbers.

Fortunately, the Times Union archives offers a baseline of sorts for seeing the new numbers in their deeper context. In October 2006, Alan Wechsler reported on ABC’s circulation numbers for most of the region’s papers for the April-September 2006 period. Side by side, the pair of reports, spanning the severe recession over four and a half years, yields insights into the state of print journalism in the digital age.

As reported earlier in this series, The Post-Star of Glens Falls has seen a circulation drop of 26.5% (35,000 to 25,705) over a slightly wider time frame. While the Wechsler story from 2006 doesn’t report Post-Star figures, Lee Enterprise’s 2006 annual report states its average daily circulation for that period to be 33,271. This makes the circulation drop for the Post-Star over the past four and a half years 22.7%.

By comparison, the Times Union’s average daily circulation dropped 30% from 95,456 to 66,835.

Coincidentally, both The Post-Star and the Times Union doubled their newsstand price over this period. The TU increased its price from 50¢ to 75¢ at the end of 2008 and added another quarter a year later. The Post-Star moved from 50¢ to $1 in one jump last spring. Both newspapers’ price hikes happened at a time when the papers were growing discernibly thinner and transferring more and more content to the internet. Hardly opportune circumstances for large price increases.

The region’s second largest paper, the Daily Gazette of Schenectady showed a rare ray of hope for newspapers looking for ways to make money from their readers as they transition to digital platforms. In August 2009 the Gazette placed the majority of its content behind a pay wall online. The most recent ABC release, the first to include online subscriptions in its circulation figures, shows that average weekday paid circulation increased from 48,780 to 62,015, (with roughly 21,000* of the latter paid online subscriptions). For paid print readers alone, the Gazette saw a drop-off of 16%. With the digital subscriptions included, the paper saw a 27% gain in paid readers overall.

Note: The Gazette offers a discounted digital subscription rate for ongoing print subscribers. It is unclear from the ABC’s new methodology whether or not they count these supplementary subscriptions as independent subscriptions. Counting each supplementary subscription as an independent subscription would inflate the overall circulation figures.

The Record of Troy sustained the hardest hit of all the region’s dailies. Over the past four years the Record’s circulation dropped from 15,233 to 9,951, or 34.7%. Though the Wechsler story did not report the baseline figures for the Saratogian’s daily circulation, the 2007 annual report for the Journal Register Co. puts the October 2006 circulation at 10,629. With the latest ABC report showing a circulation of 7,220 the Saratogian has lost 32% of its readership.

The accelerated shift away from print readership of newspapers in our region and the consequent chaos within newsrooms is one of the under-reported stories in the wake of the financial and economic collapses of 2007-2008. When reported, the stories are usually on an incremental basis or abstracted to a national trend.

Newspaper editors and publishers are traditionally loathe to shine a light on themselves with the same precision or persistence they use on other institutions. Such shyness toward self-examination (and examination of their colleagues) becomes a genuine problem when their medium becomes an integral part of the story. At this critical juncture in the information age, the absence of honest self-assessment within the news media in general and newspapers specifically, comes at the expense of professional credibility and readers’ credulity. It is a lapse newspapers cannot afford.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Shameful Peace Corps response to sexual assault

A piece in The New York Times paints a disturbing portrait of how the Peace Corps handles reports of rape and sexual assault by its volunteers (PCVs).

The portrait was one of a 'blame the victim' culture within the organization. Some complained that the agency did not offer sufficient counseling to victims or advise them properly of how to prosecute their assailants.

But the most damning testimony was this: Jessica Gregg, who was drugged and sexually assaulted in 2007 in Mozambique, said a Peace Corps medical officer "made me write in my testimony that I was intoxicated" and suggested that "I willingly had sex with this guy." She and a number of other women complained that a training video the Peace Corps uses places too much emphasis on the role of alcohol in sexual assaults.

One victim opined "that the treatment by the Peace Corps was worse than the rape."

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said the training video would be changed. He also told a Congressional committee that he was committed to revamping the agency’s practices to create a more "victim-centered approach" [and that] the agency must modernize its procedures to "make sure that we provide compassionate care" to crime victims.

This is an admission that the agency's current procedures are sorely lacking. But words are not enough.

One PCV victim quoted was shocked that so little had changed in that regard since her rape in 1991.

Further, I'm reading the excellent book When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years by Stanley Meisler.

The book cites a 2002 General Accounting Office investigation which noted that while *reported* incidence of rape and other major sexual assaults against PCVs decreased 20 percent from 1991 to 2000, a 1998 survey revealed that women were not reporting 60 percent of rape cases to the Peace Corps.

Soothing words by Director Williams are not enough.

The Peace Corps is one of the most respected organizations in the country. People devote two years of their lives serving in uncomfortable, unfamiliar surroundings to try to help other people. They deserve far better treatment from the agency which sent them there.

Note: The National Peace Corps Association live blogged the Congressional hearings and has other information related to PCV safety.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Poor circulation and dubious claims at the Post-Star; financial distress at Lee (guest essay)(updated)

Editor's note: This is the 3rd in a series. Also see Lee's Last Stand (Part 1) and Nearer My God to Thee: An Update on the Corporate Crisis at Lee Enterprises (Part 2).

by Mark Wilson

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report was released this week, covering newspaper circulation from October 1, 2010 through March 31, 2011. Coverage of this race of attrition is by Chris Churchill of the Albany Times-Union, not coincidentally the circulation leader in the greater Albany region.

Newspaper M-F (digital subscriptions incl'd)
Times-Union 66,835
Schenectady Daily Gazette 62,015
Post-Star 25,705
Troy Record 9,951
Saratogian 6,889

The figures for the Post-Star show a further decline in its readership, with a 4% loss Monday through Friday (25,705) and a 5.3% loss on Sundays (28,641).

Poststar.com still claims weekday circulation of 30,500 (18.6% inflation) and Sunday circulation of 32,000 (11.7% inflation). So much for reliability in journalism.

This current Audit Bureau report is the first to include detailed accounts of activity at each newspaper's website.

Meanwhile in Davenport, Iowa, the board of Lee Enterprises has scuttled its plan to float just over one billion dollars in junk bonds. The feeding frenzy that is the high-risk securities market these days simply wasn't interested. In a letter to investors at the Lee website, CEO Mary Junck explains that the company is working hard to find some way to refinance the corporate debt that will come due next April. Junck chipped in herself, buying 100,000 shares of the corporate stock (definitely a buyers' market there as the share value dipped below one dollar last week).

Unless something radically wonderful happens to the economy, the print newspaper industry, or readers news-gathering habits, Lee's strategy will most certainly turn to selling off various properties. The low-hanging fruit here would likely include its farthest-flung newspaper in Lihu'e, Hawai'i, and perhaps the New York properties, the Post-Star and the Auburn Citizen

Update (5/17/11): The Post-Star has updated it's "Advertise on our site" page, removing the false circulation claims. Though over on the employment web page, the Post-Star still calls itself a "twenty-nine-thousand circulation, daily newspaper" ... at least this exaggeration is directed at people looking to work at the paper, and not at potential advertisers. Progress.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Gitmo files

Last week, the White House released the president's birth certificate (again). The media lemmings, who truly are obsessed with carnival barkers and circus clowns, eagerly lapped it up. But the White House's timing was quite convenient, designed to distract people from another Wikileaks' release, this time on the contrhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifoversial kidnapee camp at Guantanamo Bay.

The UK Guardian reported on some of the revelations.

Among the discoveries:

-The US 'relied heavily' on information obtained via torture

-A large number of detainees previously labeled 'high risk' have been released from the camp

-Links to the Pakistani intelligence service were treated the same as links to organizations like al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.

The paper also described a situation where many of the detainees were merely low-level criminals or completely innocent of any crime at all.

One man was transferred to the facility "because he was a mullah, who led prayers at Manu mosque in Kandahar province, Afghanistan … which placed him in a position to have special knowledge of the Taliban". US authorities eventually released him after more than a year's captivity, deciding he had no intelligence value.

Another prisoner was shipped to the base "because of his general knowledge of activities in the areas of Khowst and Kabul based as a result of his frequent travels through the region as a taxi driver".

The files also reveal that an al-Jazeera journalist was held at Guantánamo for six years, partly in order to be interrogated about the Arabic news network.

The Pentagon's reaction was to brush aside the sheer obscenity of Gitmo and berate Wikileaks for revealing the truth of that obscenity.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Nearer My God to Thee: An update on the corporate crisis at Lee Enterprises (guest essay)

Note: this piece is an update to an earlier essay on Post-Star parent company Lee Enterprises.

by Mark Wilson

As it braces for the latest readership numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations to be published next week, Lee Enterprises—parent company of the Post-Star—is suddenly rethinking its plan to restructure all of its corporate debt. On April 11, Lee’s board of directors announced plans to issue junk bonds in an attempt to retire about $1 billion in bank loans and notes scheduled to come due a year from now. The bond issue would effectively extend the repayment deadline another five years while increasing the ultimate sum owed (to bond holders).

On Monday this week the company announced that it would give away shares of Lee stock (valued at just under $2 per share) to anyone willing to assume a fraction of their debt through the purchase of the bonds. The press release also took pains to point out that the bonds were to be backed by Lee’s property and assets.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Lee, citing a weak demand for its bonds, was preparing to issue a smaller number of bonds and would seek to refinance the remainder of the debt. It would be the second refinancing of its debt obligations in two years.

Reaction to the company’s strategy and the resulting confusion—at least as gaged by the price of Lee stock—has not been good. From its initial price spike ($3.47) immediately following the April 11 announcement, the common stock price has dropped unrelentingly to a new 21-month low of $1.57 per share. An investor web site has compared the company to a sinking ship.

Meanwhile, over at poststar.com, Managing Editor Ken Tingley has continued the conversation (here and here) on the future of news gathering in Glens Falls, seemingly oblivious to the crippling debt that may well impair the corporate parent from investing in his newspaper’s future.