Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cardin's bill a good start but needs work

(Originally published 3/28/09)

U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) jumped into the fray over a new business model for the American newspaper industry this week with his introduction of The Newspaper Revitalization Act.

The bill would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies. Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt, and contributions to support news coverage or operations could be tax deductible, according to Reuters.

Cardin's ideas have merit. But there are also problems.

Non-profit newspapers would still be free to report on all issues, including political campaigns. But they would be prohibited from making political endorsements.

Bad idea.

Though they may infuriate many a politician, newspapers' editorial endorsements are an indispensible part of their mission to serve their communities.

In his news release announcing the introduction of the bill, Cardin said:

"While we have lots of news sources, we rely on newspapers for in-depth reporting that follows important issues, records events and exposes misdeeds. In fact, most if not all sources of journalistic information -- from radio to television to the Internet -- gathers their news from newspaper reporters who cover the news on a daily basis and know their communities."


By virtue of their work and professional training, newspaper reporters and editors should know their communities – and their leaders – better than anyone else. In news articles throughout the paper, they tell you about those public meetings and government contracts and how your tax money is being spent.

The editorial page is where they analyze for you what they've found.

Of course, newspapers must take great care not to color news coverage with political preferences. And, of course, some newspapers and reporters do this better than others. I have said here before that there is no such thing as an unbiased journalist; the good ones, though, are able to recognize and account for their bias in their news stories.

And it is to newspapers' benefit to carefully maintain that bright line against bias. The weight of an editorial endorsement is affected greatly by how fair the newspaper making that endorsement has been in its coverage of the candidates or issues involved.

Back to Cardin's bill: On its face, it appears that its proposed ban on editorial endorsements would pass the First Amendment test, because newspapers would have to opt-in to the non-profit program it would create.

But could it be argued that the government is, in effect, creating a back-door abridgement on the freedom of the press by using these tough economic times to ban editorial endorsements, making help available only to those newspapers willing to drop them?

The bill could also have problems with the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

Cardin's measure is targeted toward "local newspapers serving communities and not large newspaper conglomerates." Newspapers serve the same function, regardless of their owners. Why should only community papers have access to the tax breaks of the non-profit option?

I believe Cardin's heart is in the right place. But if he really wants to help the industry, he should protect newspapers’ functions -- all their functions -- and make his lifeline available to them all.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Obama and Congress scramble on AIG bonuses

(Originally published 3/21/09)

AIG has paid $165 million in performance bonuses -- including 73 bonuses of more than $1 million each this year -– to its employees since U.S. taxpayers forked over $170 billion in federal assistance and took ownership of nearly 80 percent of the company late last year.

The American public, most of whom are getting a $13/week "bailout" from Uncle Sam in return for their sinking savings and evaporating home values, pounced like angry piranha on this latest Wall Street affront.

Federal lawmakers and stammered with incredulity. President Barack Obama was even caught up in the wrath, giving himself over to stronger-than-usual rhetoric: "Where's the outrage?" Lawmakers demanded to know, how this could happen?

And that's where the story gets interesting. Journalists dug into the bailout bill and found language that answered their question: Lawmakers not only allowed those bonuses; they specifically protected them.

U.S. Sen. Christopher "It wasn't-a-sweetheart-Countrywide-mortgage" Dodd (D-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Banking Committee and had a personal hand in writing the bailout bill, insisted for two days that he didn't write the language.

Well, actually, he admitted later, he did ... but it wasn't his idea.

It was all the Obama Administration, he said; it was all Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

The rhetoric softened. The bonuses were still offensive –- even stunning, Obama said, but the government had to protect them because Treasury Department officials feared lawsuits if they weren't paid.

Folks, I'm no economist. But it seems to me that if the government is forced to bail out your company to keep the entire American economy from foundering, your performance is less than bonus-worthy. But I digress.

After realizing that they had no one to blame for the bonus mess but themselves, congressmen who voted for the bailout furiously haggled over whether it was better to sue to recoup the money or just to tax it at ... oh, say, 90 percent.

SIDEBAR: Lawmakers supposedly allowed the bonuses to avoid getting sued, but now they want to sue to get it back. I love irony; don't you? END SIDEBAR

Appearing on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" Thursday, Obama was charming and engaging –- so much so that most viewers probably didn't realize that he apparently opposes recouping the bonuses at all.

"The immediate bonuses that went to AIG are a problem," the president said, "but the larger problem is we've got to get back to an attitude where people know enough is enough and people have a sense of responsibility."

And as for taxing it?

"I understand Congress's frustration," he said. "But the best way to handle this is to make sure you close the door before the horse gets out of the barn. What happened here was that the money's already gone out and people are scrambling to try to find ways to get back at them."

In that analogy, the money is the horse, and taxpayers are left to clean up the barn.

Obama told Leno that over the next several months, he wants to make sure "that we don't lurch from thing to thing" on the economy.

Funny thing, that word "lurch." It means to roll or tip abruptly, or to stagger.

... Kind of like what lawmakers have been doing on AIG all week.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Witherspoon’s movie wit is real-life wisdom in Auburn

(Originally published 3/14/09)

In the 2002 movie "Sweet Home Alabama," Reese Witherspoon's character, aspiring fashion designer Melanie Carmichael, happens into a high school friend at a local bar upon her return to the small town she had left for New York City.

"Look at you," she cooed in disbelief, eyeing the chubby baby boy on her friend's hip. "You have a baby ... in a bar."

The line is built on irony and was meant for laughs.

Opelika-Auburn News reporter Katie Stallcup told you yesterday how the Auburn Planning Commission gave the green light to a new bar that would border a day care on two of its four sides.

There's no shortage of irony. But laughs are in short supply.

I attended the meeting on Thursday and listened as planning commissioners heard from Brandon Haynes, the Columbus, Ga., man who wants to nestle a Caribbean-themed bar up against Hardy's Creative Childcare in downtown Auburn.

Martha Hardy stepped forward and delivered a measured but thorough and compelling case against approval. She asked commissioners to consider carefully the impact the new bar would have on the business that bears her name.

Before detailing the many ways in which bar-patron passersby could compromise the safe environment she has striven to cultivate over the 30 years she has cared for children in Auburn, Hardy noted this line from the city's zoning ordinance itself:

"The purpose of this Ordinance is the promotion of the health, safety, and general welfare of the present and future inhabitants of Auburn by (section 102.11) protecting landowners from adverse impacts of adjoining developments."

Hardy asked commissioners to put themselves in a parent's position. Given the choice between two otherwise equal childcare centers, how many of them would select the one with a bar right next door?

Her point: The commission would be hard pressed to find a type of business that would have a more adverse impact on her own than the one they were considering.

Parent after parent, and even some concerned folks who don't have children at her daycare, lined up to illustrate Hardy's point: For reasons from safety to morality to just plain common sense, they pleaded with the commission not to approve the bar.

For the record, my children don’t attend Hardy's. I’ve never even met Martha Hardy. And in fairness, Haynes seems like a nice enough guy. I appreciate several things about his interest in Auburn: He’s a small business owner looking to expand. He's interested in downtown redevelopment. And although his illustrations about how he and his wife seek to advance philanthropy and be good corporate citizens were overdone, I also appreciate their commitment in those areas.

But Hardy is a small business owner, too. She is now serving a second generation of families in the downtown location she's had for 18 years. Now into her fourth decade of being a good corporate citizen, she is an Auburn resident herself. She is one of the Village's own.

This issue will be before Auburn's city councilors in coming weeks. Between now and then, I hope you will -– respectfully –- ask them to protect Martha Hardy and her business by denying Haynes's application.

Melanie Carmichael had it right: Children and bars don't mix.

See also:

  • Sign the petition imploring the Auburn City Council to deny Haynes's application.

  • Saturday, March 7, 2009

    Sebelius pick shows Obama is no moderate on abortion

    (Originally published 3/7/09)

    After Tom Daschle's withdrawal from consideration to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I said on my blog that in selecting Daschle's replacement, President Obama would send a message to Americans about how moderate he really is. With health care reform behind only economic recovery on the president's agenda, the HHS chief will implement whatever changes Congress and the president enact.

    Enter Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

    In tapping Sebelius to lead HHS this week, Obama stoked the abortion debate and began what will likely be his most contentious Cabinet nomination fight.

    Kansas leads the country in late-term abortions, primarily due to the practice of Dr. George Tiller. Tiller advertises on his web site that his Wichita clinic has "more experience in late abortion services over 24 weeks than anyone else currently practicing in the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Australia."

    Not surprisingly, Kansas has been the site of some of the most contentious abortion debates, and Sebelius, supported by abortion providers Planned Parenthood, has been in the middle of the maelstrom. She vetoed abortion restrictions in 2003, 2005 and 2006; last year, she killed the Comprehensive Abortion Reform Act, which would have strengthened late-term abortion laws and clarified Kansas’s parental notification law.

    When Obama nominated Sebelius this week, CNN noted the "lightning rod" of controversy that erupted when Tiller and his staff attended a reception at the governor's mansion in 2007. Tiller reportedly "won" the reception at a charity auction. But it was hard to forget about when Sebelius vetoed legislation that would have severely restricted Tiller's practice –- and income.

    Pro-lifers had no illusions that Obama, a strong supporter of abortion rights, would nominate one of their own to lead HHS. But neither did they expect that he would appoint someone like Sebelius.

    But they should have. In his first week as president, Obama lifted the Mexico City Policy and cleared the way for American tax dollars to be used for abortion counseling and performance overseas. (Meanwhile, he's looking for ways to close the budget deficit.) No choice for American taxpayers there.

    Last week, he signaled that he would rescind the "conscience rule," which allows healthcare workers to deny abortion counseling or other family-planning services if providing them would violate their moral beliefs. Forced to choose between providing abortions and closing, many Catholic hospitals -– which make up 13 percent of the country’s nearly 5,000 hospitals, employ more than 600,000 people and care for one in six patients hospitalized in America –- would choose the latter. How does that improve access to quality, affordable healthcare? But medical staff would have no choice.

    This week, sponsors of the Freedom of Choice Act indicated that they intend to pursue the legislation, which would write into statute the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion and override state statutes regulating and restricting abortion. No choice for state lawmakers and governors –- or the citizens they represent –- there.

    Obama ran for president on promises to build consensus, move beyond the politics of the past and forge new alliances to get things done for the American people. Those sound bites earned Obama a reputation as a moderate.

    But in choosing Sebelius, Obama provided yet another exhibit in the case that on abortion, he is anything but.