Archive for the ‘State and national issues’ Category

Taking the longer, harder road to college

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Sometimes you hear something sad, wonderful and biting – all at the same time.
Those were my reactions to a short essay on National Public Radio yesterday.
A young man, Sayre Quevedo, talked about his college dreams, and how they were smashed when he received his FAFSA – the federal financial aid report – and realized he couldn’t afford the high quality colleges that already had accepted him.
Sad , yes. You could hear it in his voice.
But there was something wonderfully courageous about his reaction. It wasn’t to cry and give up.
A year later, he’s now working two jobs while putting himself through his local community college. And, I suspect, he’s learning life lessons that a full-ride scholarship to college never would have taught him.
Sayre’s essay was biting because it cut, deeply and honestly, in a 19-year-old’s voice, to the heart of a serious crisis in our nation’s higher education system.
Increasingly, only the rich and the poor can attend our best universities. The rich can afford the spiraling tuition. The poor, if they’re smart, get scholarships.
The middle class is being priced out of the game.
I see Sayre every day in my classes at Monroe County Community College. Not Sayre, himself. He’s attending a community college in California.
But the desks are lined with young people like him – smart, hard-working students who have the same dreams – and are taking the same longer, harder road to get there.
I haven’t taken a survey, but it’s my sense that most of my students are working at least one part-time job, many two. Some are working full-time and going to college full-time.
 I talked to a young woman the other day who wanted to join the staff of The Agora, our student newspaper, but wasn’t sure she had time with her full load of classes and three part-time jobs.
She was serious. She had fallen in love with writing in an English course, and wanted to see whether Journalism was right for her.
I could see her working the numbers in her head, probing for how she could come up with enough hours in the day to wedge in another opportunity.
I couldn’t let it show on my face, but I wanted to give her a hug and thank her for the inspiration she provided me. When faced with that kind of courage, grit and hunger to learn, any problems I’ve had with my day seem to slide into the background.
Maybe I can work a little harder, too, to help a few students reach their goals.

Taking down Kwame – no hard feelings

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

“It’s not personal.”

That comes from Mike Elrick, one of the reporters who broke the text message story that ended in Kwame Kilpatrick moving from city hall to the county jail.

“It’s business. Just doing my job. No hard feelings on my part,” was how Elrick described his state of mind just days after the former mayor got out of jail.

“Of course, Kwame may not feel that way,” he added.

I attended a talk Friday by the two Detroit Free Press reporters who broke the Kwame Kilpatrick text message story.

Elrick and Jim Schaefer spoke at the Michigan Press Association annual meeting Friday, in a session moderated by Ron Dzwonkowski, an associate editor at the Free Press.

I’m glad I went. There are lots of story lines from the talk. Including a few good nuggets that I can pass along to journalism students in my classes. Here are some highlights:

— First, I was impressed by the two reporters’ professionalism and humble, self-deprecating manner. It was good to see two guys representing our profession so well. There was no gloating or grandstanding. They clearly were proud of what they did – as they should be. But they did a nice job of keeping it in perspective.

— One of the principal messages they left was that good reporting is about building good relationships with sources. And the best way to do that is to always tell the truth. Be upfront and straightforward, both in any promises you give sources and in what you report in the newspaper.

 Even if you report information that is critical of a source, in the long run they and others will respect you if the facts are accurate and fairly presented.

Building good source relationships isn’t just about asking questions. It’s also about getting to know people as human beings.

 “We talk to people when we don’t want anything, too,” Schaefer noted. 

And both added that it’s okay to give a source a heads-up the day before a critical story.

“At least that way, they can get to the newspaper in the morning before their spouse,” Schaefer said. “They appreciate the gesture.”

— Where and how you approach a source who may have information you want can make a difference.

Elrick and Schaefer often went to public officials’ homes in the evening to ask questions – so the sources wouldn’t have to explain to coworkers or bosses why they were talking to reporters.

“We try to find people in a setting where they are comfortable,” Elrick said.

— Persistence is one of a reporter’s best tools:

“We never take no for an answer,” Elrick said. “We know that more than one person has the information. And we know that people in their heart want to do the right thing. We try to make people understand why it’s in the public’s best interest to give us the information.”

— “Off the record” conversations with sources are part of investigative reporting. 

Both Elrick and Schaefer said they let sources give them information  
confidentially. But both emphasized that it involves constant negotiation, trying to get as much information “on the record” as possible.

It’s not off the record until both the source and the reporter agree that it is, Elrick said.

 “You can’t let a source say this is off the record and then just start talking,” he said.

It’s critical that the reporter clarifies exactly what “off the record” means to both parties. And then, after listening to the information, the reporter should start trying to get as much as possible on the record.

Often, Schaefer said, sources want to be off the record. But when you read back to them what you want to report, they say, “yeh, that’s okay.”

— The other key message from the two reporters was that the Internet has dramatically changed the way they do business.

“People want to read, hear, see the news on a variety of platforms,” Elrick said.

As they reported on the text message story, they usually had at least one and often two or more videographers with them – so there would be video for the Free Press Web site, Freep.com.

They noted that the text message story broke on the Web site the night before it was in the print edition of the Free Press.

John Adams had a message for Barack Obama

Monday, January 19th, 2009

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I just finished “John Adams,” by David McCullough.

I know, I’m behind on my reading. Everyone else watched the movie last year, and read the book years ago. But it’s not unusual for me to miss a trend.

Adams was the first U.S. president to live in the White House. He moved into the  not-quite-finished presidential palace – his words – in November of 1800, shortly before finishing his one term as president.

In a letter to his wife the morning after his first night in the White House, Adams wrote: “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

Adams and his wife also noted, with much sadness and frustration, that many of the workers finishing the White House were black slaves.

The message from the past is poignant. The White House’s first resident offered an eloquent prayer for his successors – while black slaves worked to finish the house.

Tomorrow, a black man will move into the White House.

How is that for cool.

Franklin Roosevelt liked the Adams quote about the White House so much he had it lettered in gold over the fireplace in the White House dining room.

On a related subject, a year ago I read Team of Rivals, the great book by Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. It chronicled how Lincoln chose his political rivals for his cabinet instead of sticking with safe friends and colleagues who agreed with him.

It’s not coincidence that Barack Obama gave his Sunday night speech standing in front of the Lincoln monument. Newspapers and television stations across the country showed that image – the new black president standing in front of the president who emancipated the slaves.

Obama’s selection of Hilary Clinton as his secretary of state and Robert Gates as secretary of defense, among others, are examples of his own willingness to stretch out of his comfort zone to make the right choices.

Of course, it’s too early to put Mr. Obama in the same category as Lincoln or even Adams. He is taking office during dire times – much like 1860 and 1796 were trying times for our country.

But the proof will be in how he copes with the unreasonable expectations and intractable problems. Whether he manages to remain committed to changing how decisions are made in Washington, realizing the promise of the campaign rhetoric about hope for a new kind of America.

Two sides of Detroit worth reading

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

In recent days I’ve run across two brilliantly written essays on the plight of Detroit – one dark and brooding and one bright and uplifting (with a little darkness, too).

Both are long, but also worth the time it takes to read them. They give you a depressingly real view of how bad things are in our state’s main city. But while one starts and ends with how awful it is, the other manages to make you laugh and give you a little hope.

Matt Labash, in a piece written for The Weekly Standard, follows an interesting cast of down-and-out Detroiters around for awhile, telling their stories.

Mitch Albom, of Detroit Free Press fame, took a similar approach but turned it around and made you proud to be a Detroiter, or at least a resident of a nearby Michigan city.

I don’t like everything Mitch Albom does, but I liked this piece. It shows some of the stubborn courage that makes Detroit, well, Detroit.

 Together, the two essays give you a feeling for how bad it is, and how that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.

Sad day for SE Michigan, nation

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

This is, indeed, a sad day for Southeast Michigan and for America.

John Dingell didn’t deserve to have his key Energy and Commerce chairmanship taken from him (link to story). For his party to ignore his long and impressive legislative record is a slap in the face and a shame.

But, as they say, that’s politics. You don’t spend 50-plus years in Washington without knowing it’s a tough place and that you’re going to win some and lose some. Rep. Dingell has won his share.

And it’s not that Henry Waxman is a bad person, or that Dingell is going away. They’ve worked together on the Energy and Commerce Committee for years, and will continue to do so. Rep. Dingell will still be looking out for the auto industry, and he still has plenty of friends in Congress.

Dingell-Waxman battle important for Michigan, nation

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Has John Dingell been wrong to protect the Big Three from tougher environmenal standards?

Yep.

Does that mean he should be pushed out of his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee?

Nope.

Dingell, the 82-year-old Democrat who has been a member of Congress since 1955, has an impressive record as a protector of the environment and as a protector of the auto industry. Unfortunately, those two goals have been in conflict at times, and Dingell generally has sided with Detroit over issues like clean air and global warming.

On the other hand, Henry Waxman, the 69-year-old California Democrat who is challenging Dingell for chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce committee, is a long-time environmentalist with no auto industry in his back yard. He’s been free to push for tougher energy and environmental standards.

Now, with Barack Obama planning wide-ranging energy reforms – including some that the auto industry won’t like – it’s easy to see why the party leadership is considering dumping Dingell.

But it would be a mistake. Although many in the nation don’t want to admit it, the auto industry is too important to the nation’s economy to let it fail. And no one knows better than John Dingell the mix of energy reforms that are best for the nation – and that won’t push the auto industry over the edge.

At the same time, Detroit automakers would benefit from some tough love. They would be more competitive today if Congress had held them to higher mileage standards a decade ago.

Dingell will need to compromise – but that’s something he’s good at. Tougher environmental standards are necessary if we’re going to reverse global warming – not to mention continuing to clean up the air and water.

Rep. Dingell knows that, and will lead the Energy and Commerce Committee in that direction – if he survives the challenge from Waxman.

If Waxman takes over and runs roughshod over Detroit, the environment may benefit. But the nation would be worse off.

Separating race from hope

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

As America and the world celebrate the historic election of an African-American as president of the United States, a host of emotions are swirling through our collective minds.

We’re proud of America, for dealng another blow to racism and bigotry.

We’re amazed at how far we’ve come – just a generation ago blacks were fighting to attend the college of their choice or sit in the front of the bus.

We’re optimistic that Barack Obama’s election really does mean something special – a sign of a cultural shift toward a future closer to Martin Luther King’s dream.

But is it all about race?

Isn’t there more to Obama’s election than an historic milestone for African-Americans.

We should be proud, amazed and optimistic about what his election means for race relations. But most Americans didn’t vote for Obama because of his race.

They voted for his message of change. They voted for his plans for getting out of unpopular foreign wars and switching our economic focus from the rich to the middle class.

And most of all, they voted for hope.

Hope that America can be a leader in the world without being a bully.

Hope that we can put American ingenuity back to work creating jobs on our shores, not overseas.

Hope that we can provide basic services like health care for all of our citizens.

Hope that we can balance the federal budget, not by cutting services for people in need but by ending policies that don’t make sense – like fighting expensive wars while cutting taxes on oil companies making billion-dollar profits.

Yes, let’s celebrate for a few days the amazing milestone that Barack Obama’s election represents.

But then I hope we – the entire country – can get to work tackling the tough issues and  moving toward that vision of the future that was behind so many of those votes on Tuesday.

Historic swing places responsibility on Democrats

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

As the White House and Congress swing to the Democrats, along with the spoils of victory come the responsibility of ruling.

It’s been more than 40 years since one political party has controlled the White House and held a filibuster-proof lead in the House and Senate. If that happens tonight, and it now seems possible, that’s a lot of power in a few sets of hands.

John McCain tried vainly to convince American voters that giving control of Congress and the White House to the Democrats was a bad idea.

But voters apparently were more angry with the way the Republicans handled their turn at the helm than worried about Democratic control.

Still, with power comes responsibility. And with the nearly absolute power voters have given the Democrats comes a greater responsiblity to not screw it up.

Checks and balances are a good thing. That’s why our government is set up the way it is, with three branches, each holding different powers, and with two houses of Congress. And that’s why one of them, the Senate, requires 60 of the 100 votes to move legislation along.

I’ve always been a fan of the famous line, sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson and sometimes to Henry David Thoreau, “That government is best which governs least.”

With the mess we’re in now – both the economy at home and our place as a leader in the world – it would be good if the folks atop the Democratic Party moved carefully and slowly.

Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have their hands on the steering wheel and their foot on the throttle. Even if they miss the 60 seats in the Senate, they’ll be close.

This isn’t a time, however, to show off how fast you can drive your new wheels – or to stick it to the Republicans by flexing your muscles.

It’s a time for smart, thoughtful, cautious change. And for bringing the minority party and mainstream America along for the ride.

Cutting global emissions a personal issue here

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

When the world’s leaders get together in a place called Rusutsu, Japan, and agree to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, it sounds like something a long way away that could hardly mean anything to folks in Monroe County.

And, it is true, most experts pooh-pooh the move as meaningless rhetoric.

But few places in the world have more at stake than Monroe County. How many other communities have two coal-fired power plants – not to mention a cement plant.

From the perspective of the world, the critics are probably right. It’s too little, too late, and isn’t likely to make any kind of an impact on the health of the planet.

From our perspective here in Monroe County, it could mean a lot if it leads to tougher controls on greenhouse gas emissions.

Most Monroe County residents want clean air. They appreciate the steps that DTE, Consumers Energy and Holcim have made to clean up their emissions. Many probably would support tighter controls that would make the air even cleaner and do our part to slow global warming. And we also have a nuclear plant and another on the drawing boards – one of the best solutions to burning more carbon.

But most Monroe County residents don’t support controls that would cost the community thousands of jobs.

The leaders of the world’s most powerful countries appeared to dodge any real commitment to cutting pollution. There are lots of reasons for their hesitation. Those reasons are understood better in Monroe County than in most places.

Okay, I was wrong about the primaries …

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

About a year ago, I predicted that none of the frontrunners in the race for president would get their parties’ nominations.

I’m now officially wrong, on both sides of the fence.

My rationale was that both John McCain and Barack Obama had flaws that couldn’t be overcome. For McCain, it was his support of the war in Iraq. For Obama, race and inexperience.

I still feel the same. I can’t imagine America electing as president a man who thinks the war in Iraq was the right thing to do, and who plans on continuing it.

And I can’t imagine America electing a black man with little national experience as president.

But it appears that one will happen.

It’s not that I don’t admire both men. I’ve enjoyed watching John McCain’s political career since he first hit the national stage. He’s independent-minded, and he’s willing to be thoughtful and to listen to others before shaping his views. And for the most part he seems to be honest and straightforward – something I value, as do most Americans.

I don’t know as much about Barack Obama because he has very little track record. I like what he says, however, about national unity and the need to change how we do business in Washington. He’s a very personable speaker who is easy to like. And I think he’s closer to the right approach in Iraq.

Even though I was wrong in my prediction, I still think I was on the right track. In my view, this campaign is going to be about those same issues.

Which issue will American voters – particularly those middle class, often blue collar suburban white folks in the center of the political spectrum who generally swing elections – be able to stomach more: the status quo in Iraq, or electing a black man who looks and talks very differently than them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think race should play a role. I wish we were past the point where people even noticed. 

But I’m realistic enough to know that many Americans still are struggling with race issues. They don’t see Mr. Obama as a promising young lawyer from Chicago who quickly rose through the state legislature to win election to the U.S. Senate and who has made a splash on the national scene with his fresh ideas and dramatic public speaking ability. They see him as a black man with a radical minister and hazy ties in his youth to Muslims.

I was wrong with my predictions a year ago, so you know about my track record. But my prediction now is that the war and race will be the real issues in November.