Showing posts with label Reporting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reporting. Show all posts

Monday, June 25, 2018

When You Disagree

This weekend, a somewhat local restaurant (within 45 minutes of me, anyway, in Lexington) made the news because the owner asked the press spokesperson for the White House to leave and go eat elsewhere.

Given the horrors of this administration, I can understand the owner's desire to have the woman leave. This is an administration that separated babies from parents and put them in cages. Just today the president himself is calling for the end of due process for asylum seekers. He wants to round 'em up and send 'em back without even asking them why they want to come here.

To hell with the U.S. Constitution, right?

Some people are very happy with President Trump and that is their right. I hope that time proves me wrong about what I think of him. I always hope that with people in power, that I am proven wrong when I think they are doing bad things.

Generally, I am proven right. But only Time knows that; people have short memories, they twist events to suit themselves, the outcomes ultimately only matter if blood is spilled, and usually not even then. To be sure, at this stage, right or left, it's my opinion that we have all lost.

I don't know what I would do if I owned a restaurant and persons with whom I vehemently disagreed wanted to come in. I don't particularly like to deal with "the public," which is why being a news reporter suited me. I attended thousands of public events, but I was like a small bee. I was the invisible observer, polite if spoken to, otherwise obscure. I listened attentively if someone sought me out so I could hear their point of view, whether or not I agreed. It was up to me, later, to decide if I wanted to let their words find a larger voice (I usually did, because I am a professional and that was what professionals did.). Sometimes what they said was all blather and did not pertain to the issue at hand. I listened anyway because you never know when one thing will lead to something else. And since I was a reporter, and doing research, I freely spoke to folks when I wanted to, if I thought they had something interesting to say or something to add to the story.

For me, it was all about the story. It wasn't about opinion, power, or political sides. It was about facts, and that was all I cared about.

There was this one time, though, when I turned down hot dogs. You'd have thought I had done the unthinkable. Perhaps back then it was. It stands out in my mind because I think it is one of the few times I walked away from a story for personal reasons.

The year was 1997. It was August, and hot. Candidate Jim Gilmore, who would that November win the Virginia governor's seat and who in 2008 ran for President of the United States, was stumping in Craig County (population 4,950 about that time).

I was the freelance reporter who was covering Craig County for the little tiny weekly paper. I was paid somewhere around $25 a story, plus mileage, so I tried to get three or four articles at a whack every time I drove over there. Otherwise it simply didn't pay because New Castle (the Craig County seat), like Lexington, is 45 minutes away.

So on this hot August day, maybe around 11 a.m., I showed up in downtown New Castle to take a photo of Jim Gilmore roaming around shaking hands, and write up a little something about his visit.

I was the only media there. No TV reporters with cameras, no daily newspaper reporter. Nobody with a cellphone with a camera because those hadn't hit mainstream yet. There was just me with my little notebook and my Nikon FG-50 film camera.

Mr. Gilmore was accompanied by three men, his handlers, I suppose we would call them today. They had on dark black suits and sunglasses, and looked sweaty in the broiling sun. They were loud, boisterous, misogynistic, and racist. They called me "little lady reporter" and offered suggestions for photos, as if I hadn't been doing this for 12 years by that time and couldn't figure out a good angle for a picture. They whispered quotes into Mr. Gilmore's ear about the charm of the historic venue. One of them snickered about the fact that New Castle was once a "sunset town" - that is to say, there was a sign there, taken down during my life time, that threatened black people if they were caught in the county after dark. (Not long after Mr. Gilmore's visit, the KKK had a party over there, too, and then someone burned a cross in the yard of a man who was housing a black person. I refused to write those stories, too. Not for $25.)

These busy important fellows also all smoked cigarettes and threw the butts into the street, grinding the cancer sticks beneath the heels of their expensive shoes. They left their litter on the sidewalk.

They stunk in every sense of the word, these men.

When they headed for the little hot dog restaurant that used to be in town, one of them asked me if I'd like to join them for lunch. "You know, get an exclusive," he said. Wink, wink.

"No thank you," I said. "I have all I need."

With that I walked off, trying not to double over laughing at their slack jaws. I don't think anyone in the media had ever told them no before. I heard them talking as I walked away. "Can you believe that?" one of them said.

Maybe it was a missed opportunity. I could have written the greatest piece ever about the soon-to-be governor and how he loved chili and called the cook the best hot dog maker in the state. Or perhaps I could have overheard him say something like his cohorts did, something callous and racist, and printed it. It would have been in a newspaper that less than 2,500 people read, at a time when there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no social media. Maybe the daily newspaper would have picked it up, but I doubt it. They paid little attention to that area of their readership.

So I walked away, leaving Gilmore's handlers surprised and confused because the media - i.e., me - spurned them. They thought, I'm sure, that I was doing a poor job. What they didn't know was this: I was only being paid $25 and I had the story I was being paid to write. These men were jerks, they were smoking cigarettes, and I have asthma. I also thought Mr. Gilmore was insincere and I knew his "no car tax" mantra would ultimately fail if the legislation passed because I'd talked to two different commissioners of revenue who had done the math and shown me how it would never work. (The legislation passed. It destroyed Virginia's rainy day fund and we're still paying the car tax to this day. So much for slogans.)

So why would I go eat a hot dog with these people?

That was how I handled something I didn't want to deal with. I walked away from powerful men who were talking down to me, who were making fun of the community I was covering, and who were about as black-hearted as a vulture looming over the fence hungrily gazing at a dead deer. I've been a reporter for a long time. I can size people up fairly well.

Today? Today I'm older. Hopefully wiser. Would I do it differently now? Now I wouldn't even take the job. And if I took the job, I still wouldn't go eat a hot dog with chain-smoking, self-righteous braggarts who thought I owed them something simply because they existed. The only thing I might do differently is be more insincerely apologetic and say I had a previous engagement or something, simply because of social media. (Social media sucks but the reality is I wouldn't want some dude tweeting "news reporter just walked away from exclusive. What a bitch!")

After all, turning your back and walking away from someone is, in itself, a special form of power. It's a power we all have, if we only think to use it.

Throwing someone out of your restaurant is another form of power, similar to turning your back. Good or bad? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Just What is Fake Media?

Everywhere I look these days, I see someone write about the fake media. "I don't trust the media," they say.

"It's all fake," they say.

Just out of curiosity, how long have you not trusted the media?

Was it before our current president started calling it fake news?

Maybe it was when Fox came to town and changed the dialogue to one of opinion instead of facts?

Was it when Dan Rather broke the story about George Bush's lackadaisical service in the Texas Air National Guard,  and was then ran out of broadcasting? (A story that to this day has never been proven true or false, by the way.)

Do you not trust the media because big corporations own most of it?

Maybe it's because Judith Miller at the New York Times reported about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - weapons that the federal government insisted were there?

Is it because Rachel Maddow is one of the smartest person on the planet? Or may you simply think she's overrated?

Do you only mistrust MSNBC and CNN, or do you include ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX in your "fake news" mantra?

Do you mistrust the White House page on Facebook, which as of today has turned into a massive propaganda machine, the likes of which even Edward Louis James Bernays (November 22, 1891 − March 9, 1995), an Austrian-American pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, who is often called "the father of public relations," would applaud and Hitler would salute? Or do you trust that?

Do you trust newspapers more than TV, or the other way around?

Do you trust Rush Limbaugh over someone else? Why would you trust the opinion of a single person, regardless of who he/she is, over anyone else, anyway?

I used to be in the media, so I am genuinely curious. People tell me all the time they don't trust the media, but I have yet to have anyone explain to me exactly why they don't trust it.

"Because I think it is one-sided/liberal" is not a good answer unless that can be backed up with fact, and so far no one has been able to back it up with facts, at least, not to me. Just because someone doesn't like what the media reports doesn't make it one-side or leaning in one direction. Just because one reporter messes up doesn't make it all wrong.

The media is not liberal, that's simply opinion, an opinion that's been chanted long and loud for far too long, but still not a fact. Determining whether something is liberal or conservative is opinion, not fact, because that's what the political divide is, opinions. Facts count. Opinion doesn't. We live by opinion these days and look where it's getting us. But it facts (and science) bring us the Internet and radio waves and TV. Not opinion.

Opinion doesn't do anything except make people's stomach's hurt and create bad policy. So what are the facts that make you not trust the media?

Even people that I have known a long time, people who have for years handed off stories to me from various news sources they trusted, no longer trust the media. Is this simply because one person says the news is fake?

I trust the media. Maybe I am in a minority here, and I understand that journalists are at the mercy of editors and owners and therefore they are constantly being undermined by big money and that stories are buried and changed based on dollar bills and not facts. I know this.

I also know that if one reads (which, apparently, most Americans do not), then you can read stories from multiple news sources and anyone with an IQ above 90 can figure out that if the story reads the same everywhere, it's a press release and probably not to be trusted, but if it has been researched and told differently from various sources, then the key things that are the same - names, dates, places, for instance - are probably true.

That isn't to say that journalists don't make mistakes, but I think that most journalists, even the highly paid ones, try to bring truth to the newsroom. I do not think journalists themselves set out to deliberately mislead. I think politicians try to use journalists to deliberately mislead, and it sometimes happens. I had it happen once myself and was incredibly unhappy with the politician who used me thusly. I no longer consider him a trustworthy person, though he seems none the wiser.

I know many people will disagree with me, even friends, but I do not think the media is the enemy. I do not think government, as an entity in and of itself, is the enemy. But I do think that certain individuals within the government, and within the media, may be the enemy. Apparently people can no longer tell the difference between an entity and an individual. And therein lies the problem.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

These Dreams

Last night, I dreamed I was attending a local town council meeting, along with several other reporters. I don't recall what was so important that it required a slew of media, but one item on the agenda caught my eye.

It read, "What to do about Anita."

When the item came around, the members excused themselves without reading any kind of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) notice (the law requires members of a governing body to cite the FOIA code before entering any closed session).

Another reporter asked me if I knew what they were doing. "I don't know, except they are violating FOIA," I replied.

Council returned. On a motion they declared me persona non grata, and said I was no longer welcome to attend or to write about any of their meetings.

"You have caused nothing but trouble with your reporting," the mayor said. "You find the things we don't want the public to know and tell them about it. Please leave at once and never return."

"You can't do that," I replied. "You made that decision illegally, in an unannounced closed meeting. You just violated the law."

"See," said the mayor. "That's just the kind of thing you do that we don't like. You make us follow the FOIA rules. Nobody else cares what we do. Now get out."

I began arguing more and two deputies came in, grabbed me by the arms, and began dragging me out of the room.

I woke up in a sweat, literally drenched. Even my hair was wet.

______________

Now, you may wonder what prompted such a dream. I suspect it came about because I am no longer freelancing for the local newspaper. I have done that for the last 30+ years of my life, but my doctor and physical therapist convinced me that I needed to stop. Attending four-hour meetings, devoting my life and time to intense government conflict, seemed to make my health issues worse. I'd kept a pain chart for the last several months and it was noticeable how the pain increased when I worked.

To be honest, my doctor told me almost two years ago to stop working, and I didn't listen. I didn't do as much, but I didn't stop writing for the newspaper.

Now I have.

The dream also reflects my dismay with the state of the news in general. These days our media are filled with reports that are full of lies and deception. Mostly, the "news" now is entertainment, things written to play on emotion and not intellect. We have become a society guided by emotional, thoughtless turmoil, reacting to the latest screeching of the day. Last week it was a restaurant owner who yelled at a kid. This week it's a dentist who killed a lion. But do we do anything or read about things that matter? Where are the stories about abject poverty, the struggles of the single mother or father, the real unemployment numbers (today's numbers don't reflect people who have given up), or the real state of the economy.

No, our media has given us a false world, full of illusion and drama, in order to keep us from watching what is really going on. It is not the government that doesn't want you to know - it is the rich and powerful individuals and corporations who want to change the government who don't want you to know what is going on.

Secrecy is a detriment to democracy. It is how plutocracies and oligarchies come to be, and how fascist regimes rise to power. When citizens stop paying attention, and when those who represent the citizens such as the former Fourth Estate (aka news media) cease doing their jobs, then you have a rupture in the system. Through this rupture slithers greed, malice, and contempt. Once those have taken over - and they have already taken over - then it's all over but the shouting.

That is a lot to get from one little dream. But real dreams are dying every day, and those are the things the newspapers and media are not reporting. Little by little, democracy is dying every day.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Behind the Mirror

We have one of those medicine cabinets in the bathroom that sits above the sink. It acts as a mirror and when you open either side, there's your stuff.

The left side as you face the medicine cabinet houses my husband's items. The right side holds my things.

We are apparently obsessed with our teeth, not stinking, shaving, and having headaches, for the medicine cabinet is full of toothpaste, floss, shaving cream and razors, deodorant, and acetaminophen.

On my side, you'll also find some tea tree oil, sweet oil, and hand lotion.

I'm not sure what that says, other than we clean our teeth and I occasionally dabble in alternative medicinal treatments.

When I first started writing stories for publication, and even later in continuing education classes the newspaper infrequently offered, we were always told that when we interviewed, we should (a) do it in the subject's home, and (b) excuse yourself at some point and ask to use the restroom.

Once in the restroom, we were to examine the medicine cabinet and see what was inside. We were also instructed to look around the house as discreetly as possible, noting pictures, candles, collections, books, animals, dirt - anything that might flesh out a story and give a little life to the subject about whom we were writing.

I don't recall ever once looking in anyone's medicine cabinet - not my style, really - but I know there are reporters who do. It's a good thing to remember if you're ever interviewed for a story and the reporter asks to use the restroom.

Most likely, they're looking at the things you think are hidden behind that mirror.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Adventures in Reporting #3

During the 10 years I spent writing for one area newspaper in the 1990s and up until 2004, I was painfully aware of one fact about that particular community, which was not where I live, that troubled me, perplexed me, and appalled me.

The K K K (K u   K l u x   K l a n) had a strong presence there.

The county seat was what is called a "sundown town." That means it was all-white, and all-white on purpose. During my time in the county I once saw a picture of a sign that used to be within the town environs.

It said something like, "N------, don't let the sun set on you in this town."

While that was a long time ago, some things still have not changed. The town was then, and still is, a very white community.

It's a place where Confederate Flags fly proudly from many poles. The Stars and Bars line the roads. They're a people hardened by life in the mountains who distrust government and anything or anyone different from them. The only reason some people would speak to me was because I knew my history and could eventually point to some 7th-generation relative who might or might not be a common ancestor with them or a friend.

Its the kind of place where a grand dragon, an organization leader, flies his flag up in the hollows.

While I was over there, in 1998, an out-of-state group gathered at Fenwick Mines in the Jefferson Forest in Craig. The event made headlines but there was no mischief.

At least not that year.

That changed in 1999. That year a black man ventured into town to work on the new grocery store project. He took room and board with a 74-year-old local man.

Threats followed, in person and by phone. A sign in a neighboring yard told the black man to go home, except in worse language.

And then someone set a cross afire in the yard.

A group of women from my alma mater, Hollins University, went to New Castle and organized a peace rally.

Because I was a freelance reporter and could turn stories down, I did not write about these events but instead turned them over to someone on staff. Someone who didn't venture into the area weekly and who would be covered by the employer's insurance should the tires on their car be slashed or, heaven forbid, they turned up dead.

Yeah, I wimped out.

To say these events frightened me would be an understatement. Did they influence my work? I am sure they did. For a long time I could not conduct an interview without wondering, are you someone who would hide behind a white hood?

These memories came back to me on Sunday. My husband, as he always does, was reading the farm machinery and auction listings.

He called me over to look at one of the advertisements (which you can also see on the link).

"Look, they're advertising K K K memorabilia," he said.

Listed under collectibles it advertised  an "original 1925 ... charter" and a full suit with a patch and other memorabilia.

I felt the distaste and surprise rise in my stomach. My mind flashed to those days in 1999 when I did not feel safe.

And up for auction one finds pieces of Americana, actual proof that such horrid things really did occur in this country, and still occur.

All I can do is shake my head. What a society we are.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Doors Closing, Others Opening

Sometimes things end with a huge bang, bursts of smoke and lots of noise.

Other times things end with a whimper, a whisper or an uncanny sigh.

Sometimes stuff just ends.

So it is that after working as a "perma-lancer" for the last 15 years for a single newspaper entity, my work is done.

Yesterday I received word that there is no more money for the stories I wrote and poured my heart into.

Just like that, the door closed. It was a pretty powerful slam.

Essentially I lost a major client, since I am self-employed. I have a few other folks I write for on occasion but this was my bread and butter. This was consistent and constant and I lived and breathed it.

It was also my joy. I cannot tell you what it meant to me to be the person who interviewed interesting folks and reported on them, the person who spent time at meetings and then worked hard to explain what happened so that everyone could understand it.

I loved writing my little stories, my vignettes of someone's life and the stuff that makes up the day to day news.

I did the job well, as a number of Virginia Press Association Awards will attest. I worked hard and I took the job seriously. If I said I would be at a meeting, only an ambulance ride would have kept me away.

I am told it is difficult to find freelancers who are true to their word and who will continue to produce near-perfect copy and who require little editing and oversight. But that is me. It's how I have always done things. I always tried to determine my editor's needs and I met them in the best way I knew how.

Now I will take a long hard look at myself. Maybe with a little repackaging I can find a new route. New clients and new stories of a different kind are perhaps in my future.

Maybe this time I will find a career path that will lend me down even more exciting venues. Perhaps they will be more lucrative, but I honestly have never been in it for the money.

I have been a newspaper writer for the love of the word, the ability to share and teach the public, and the pure unadulterated joy of being part of my community in a way that made sense and worked for me.

I write because it is the way I share parts of myself and the world. It is how I express what I am thinking and feeling.

It is who I am, and now who I am must be revisited.

While I am sad at this change, and a little worried about my financial future, a part of me is excited at this opportunity. My calendar, filled with reoccurring appointments in the form of town council and other meetings, is suddenly a vibrant mostly white blank, another page for me to fill.

Filing cabinets full of newspaper material will be empty, and I will have to find something else to fill them.

And maybe, who knows - this is the time to write that book.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Adventures in Reporting #2

Regular readers might think I dislike hot air balloons, but truly that is not so. I only have problems with one particular balloonist, which is a different matter entirely.

Hot air balloons are quite lovely as they float in the sky. They are quite breathtaking and I love to watch them when they aren't scaring my cows.

In November 1986, I went up in one.

Several weeks earlier I had witnessed what, from the ground, looked liked an aircraft harrassing a hot air balloonist. I don't recall if I was at home watching this or somewhere else; at any event, it worried me enough that I wrote a column about it for The Herald. (Yes, I have been writing for them that long.) At that time I had a lifestyle column similiar to the one I have now, only it was under a different name.

Anyway, after I wrote the column expressing my concern for the balloonist, I received a note in the mail (regular mail back then, no email) from Natalie Haley. She was the balloonist I had seen. She offered me a free ride.

I couldn't turn that down, so with camera in hand and husband in tow, I met up with her one Sunday morning at what used to be Howard Johnsons (now it's a Mexican restaurant and a Super 8).

After determining wind direction with a helium balloon, Mrs. Haley decided we would set off from behind Lee's Market (now Bellacino's) in Dr. Fralin's field. She said the wind would take us along US 220 toward Fincastle.

Her balloon was called Skylark, and it was a spectacle of color whether it was on the ground or in the sky.

My husband refused to fly with me. He watched from the ground as I rose up into the clouds.

I wrote about that adventure in a first person article published on December 3, 1986, and for which I won one of the first of my several Virginia Press Association awards.

Here are some excerpts:

"The ground crew released its grip on the massive bulge of air, and suddenly we were going up! I watched my husband grow smaller and smaller as the balloon sailed high into the sky."

"Daleville and Amsterdam look like tiny towns in an HO scale train set from 800 feet in the air. The dogs and cattle sound as if they are right in the air with you. The curve of the earth looks sharp enough to cut you, and suddenly you are one with the clouds."

"The orchards looked small and naked from our vantage point. If the highway hadn't been below us, I would have been lost. The familiar was unrecognizable from our position within the clouds."

"You can't feel the wind, because you are the wind," Natalie Haley said. That aspect is part of the romanticism of the big balloons. There is nothing between the earth and you except a basket, and it was insignificant enough not to matter. Floating is not descriptive enough to describe the feeling you get when you're up there alone."

"It's so quiet and peaceful, it's easy to forget the world exists below."

We landed in a field near Trinity. After putting the balloon away, Mrs. Haley poured champaigne over my head for my maiden voyage, and presented me with a certificate as she recited what she said was the balloonist's prayer:

May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with his warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter.
And may he set you back again into the loving arms of mother earth.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Adventures in Reporting #1

A few weeks ago I was telling someone that I have been a news reporter of some kind since 1985.

"I bet you have some stories to tell," the person said.

And I do. Only I rarely tell them.

However I thought I might offer up some of the more interesting things that have happened in my work. The stories that have stuck with me.

These are the things that never make print. Not secrets, because I don't tell the secrets, but things I've seen and done and people I have interacted with.

I'm not going to write about anything current, so if I've interviewed you lately, don't worry! I also won't use real names. But this is a small area and it might not take much detail for someone to figure out who someone is.

This first story has recently came to mind, so I am going to relay it.

The Interview with Ms. Rose

Many years ago I went to interview one of the local historians for a story one afternoon. It was a sunny day in March. The birds were singing and daffodils were blooming. Spring was upon us.

Ms. Rose, as I shall call her, had in the past let me know that she did not like me very much. We'd had a falling out many years ago over some historic preservation issues. I once was quite active in historic preservation and similar activities (I am not active in those things now though I remain quite interested in them.). We had disagreed on certain aspects of some things going on at the time which I won't go into in an effort to be vague.

In any event, I had let it be known through various channels that I harbored no hard feelings and hoped she felt the same way. It took a little while but things between us had mended to the point where I was not uncomfortable with the idea of meeting to do a story on her pet project at the time.

Her house in one of our local small towns was a piece of history itself and I stood outside for a few minutes admiring the architecture and enjoying her flowers before knocking on the door. She was waiting. Papers were strewn across the table and books filled with information that she thought I might need for my story were piled on the kitchen counter.

Ms. Rose was a large woman with a powerful voice and keen, piercing eyes. She was never wrong about anything, either. Least ways, not that she would admit to someone like me.

We sat down to talk and as I took notes and asked questions I became aware of a change that came over Ms. Rose.

She started stumbling over her words and she leaned a little to one side. She couldn't complete a sentence and seemed to be having trouble connecting her thoughts.

"Ms. Rose, are you okay?" I said, setting aside my notebook and camera. "Do you feel alright?"

She laughed shakily and asked me why I asked. "You're missing some words," I said. "This isn't like you."

"I think it's my blood sugar," she replied. "I just need some juice."

Visions of Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias flashed through my mind as I hurried to the refrigerator. I took a glass from the dish drain and poured her juice and hustled it back to her.

She drank it and shortly thereafter she seemed to be better. Not quite her old self, but better.

However, she still was leaning a little to one side, and while the slurring of her words wasn't as pronounced, it was still there.

I could not continue the interview because I was so worried about her. I thought she should go to the doctor or the hospital and said so. I offered to take her myself.

She said she was fine and that she thought maybe she just needed to lie down. She cut me off mid-sentence as I attempted to cajole her into seeing the doctor and told me to leave.

Ms. Rose's forceful personality told me she would broach no more nonsense from me, so I didn't argue perhaps like I should have.

I know I suggested again that she see her doctor before she closed the door behind me.

I was rather shaken myself as I drove home because I knew something wasn't right. I worried about leaving Ms. Rose because she did not have family close. I knew no one would check on her for a long time.

When I arrived home, I decided to call her stepson, since I knew who he was and I thought he was the closest family in the area (this was before I had a cellphone). I left a message for him on his machine. I told him what had happened and asked him to check on his stepmother. I wasn't sure he would; the word on the street indicated strained relations there.

Late that evening, when I'd heard nothing from the stepson (I thought he would at least call, but he never did), I phoned Ms. Rose.

There was no answer, and I feared the worse.

I called back intending to leave a message telling her that I was on my way into town to check on her when she picked up the phone.

I told her I had been worried about her and so was calling to see if she was okay.

"After you left, I thought about what you said and I drove myself to the doctor," she told me (fortunately that was only three blocks away). "He thinks I might have had just a little stroke. Nothing serious, though."

I was stunned. I had never seen someone have a stroke before, and I hope I never do again. To be sure, I had feared that might be the case, but then the juice had seemed to help and I couldn't be sure. I didn't have much experience with blood sugar issues, either so I didn't know the difference.

I wrote the story from the notes I'd taken before she began slurring her words and from a follow-up telephone call, I think.

Ms. Rose did not suffer damage from this small stroke that I was aware of, but not long after that she began losing weight. A year or so later, when she died from a fall, she had dwindled down to next to nothing.

I have often wondered if the stroke affected her appetite.

I also have wished I'd had the fortitude to order her into my car so I could have driven her to the doctor myself. Maybe those few minutes would have made some difference in her life, but I suppose there is no way to know.

Anyway, that's the story of the day I interviewed Ms. Rose and learned that I am not very good in a medical crisis.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

FOIA

I want to write about the Freedom of Information Act. I don't know much about the federal version, but I can talk about Virginia's.

The FOIA gets changed yearly. I get a new edition of the Virginia Press Association's booklet every summer, but haven't yet received the 2006 version. So I have a little pile of old FOIA guides for reporters. I have in hand the 2004 edition because I'm too sorry to get up and get the 2005 edition out of my camera bag.

But looking online, I see lots of changes to the Virginia FOIA since 2004. One section, 2.2-3705.2, has been completely revamped to add all kinds of information that is no longer available to the public. One of these exemptions is "plans and information to prevent or respond to terrorist activity" (2.2-3705.2 (4)).

I have done stories on Health Department plans to respond to terrorist activities before; they focused on anthrax at the time (remember that?). I am wondering why some of this information should not be public. Don't we want to know how the government is going to respond if there is a crisis?

Maybe there isn't a response and that's what they don't want us to know? How can we be reassured that a response is in place if it's secret?

FOIA comes up at the local level in town council meetings and supervisor meetings. Government meetings. The county is pretty good about following FOIA, but there have been times, during breaks, when I've walked by a gathering of three supervisors having a discussion and coughed, "FOIA" several times to break up their pow-wow.

FOIA states that elected officials aren't supposed to gather in groups to converse. That's an unannounced closed meeting. Meetings can only be closed for specific reasons.

Also, citizens have a right to most (but not all) information in the office.

If officials don't comply, there are supposedly penalties and fines.

This set of laws is good in theory and I'm glad something is in place. But I have also seen it thwarted. For example, a county school board several years ago simply thumbed its nose at the citizenry, the newspaper, me, and the Virginia FOIA council and went on about its business, FOIA be darned.

Nobody was fined and no one was punished and that was the end of that, as far as I know.

One of the towns I cover had FOIA issues last year. My editor and I trumpeted the issue in the newspaper in the hopes the citizenry would raise a ruckus, but that did not happen. It essentially passed under the radar.

But several years ago, in another town, I noted a FOIA violation in a story and the next month 20 citizens turned out to watch and make sure their council members minded their p's and q's. I was moved to tears to see this kind of interest.

Unfortunately, it is rare, and the lack of citizen interest makes FOIA a joke. It is a good tool and should be used to obtain information and keep elected officials honest, but the legislature at the state level, and probably the federal, are gutting it every year to make things more and more secret.

I don't believe in secrets at the local level. I think the only things that should be discussed in private are personnel and the purchase price of property. Generally speaking, it is has been my experience that if a town council or a school board is talking about issues in private, they're doing things the citizens would not like.

And usually they know it, too.