Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Ignored no more -- why this Super Tuesday matters -- Dec. 31, 2015 column


Democratic presidential contender Martin O’Malley soon may be a footnote in history, but he made news the other day by simply showing up.

Braving a blizzard, O’Malley made it to Tama, Iowa, population 2,877, and found exactly one voter waiting for him.

“The very last event of the night, we actually had a whopping total of one person show up, but by God, he was glad to see me. So we spent the time with him,” O’Malley told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday.

O’Malley sat and talked with the man, identified only as Kenneth, about Syrian refugees, prison reform and other issues. In the end, though, Kenneth remained undecided. He needs to see some other candidates before making up his mind.

Of course he does. Iowa and New Hampshire voters expect to see the whites of presidential candidates’ eyes while voters elsewhere rarely catch a glimpse a contender in the flesh.

As the election year begins, candidates and the news media are focused on the first four contests – Iowa caucuses Feb. 1, New Hampshire primary Feb. 9, and South Carolina’s Republican primary and Nevada’s Democratic caucuses Feb. 20.

This year, though, another date looms large -- March 1. That’s Super Tuesday, when a dozen states hold presidential primaries or caucuses, the most on a single day. They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. 

Some have dubbed March 1 the “SEC primary” after the Southeastern Conference in college sports.

After the first Super Tuesday in 1988, former Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, an architect of Super Tuesday, said it was intended to “reduce the influence of the so-called Iowa syndrome” and nationalize the political message. Southern Democrats also hoped it would give the region more clout.   

It hasn’t worked out that way, but in 2016 Super Tuesday may live up to its potential. It could do what Iowa and New Hampshire likely won’t do – winnow the crowded Republican field.

Super Tuesday states are getting more attention than usual. Ted Cruz took a bus tour of the South last summer and blitzed a dozen cities in a week in December. Marco Rubio stumped in Georgia and announced dozens of endorsements in Virginia. He plans a rally in Texas Jan. 6.

Donald Trump drew a huge crowd to a rally in Mobile, Ala., in August. Just how many attended was in dispute – he claimed 31,000 while some media outlets estimated about 20,000.

Determined to be ignored no more, Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill, a Republican, says he will promote visits by candidates of both parties, although deep red Alabama draws more Republican contenders.

Trump conceded the other day that he might not win Iowa. He was looking ahead to Super Tuesday when he lambasted Virginia Republicans for requiring a party loyalty pledge to vote in the primary. The pledge -- “My signature below indicates that I am a Republican” -- could turn off independents and Democrats who might be Trump voters.

“Suicidal mistake,” Trump tweeted.

If Super Tuesday delivers a Republican candidate that appeals broadly, it could finally weaken Iowa’s parochial influence. 

Iowa’s record picking nominees is dismal. Rick Santorum won the Republican caucuses in 2012 and Mike Huckabee won in 2008. After Lindsey Graham of South Carolina dropped his presidential bid the other day, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said Graham told him he had learned two things about Iowa: “You need to love Jesus and ethanol.”  

Mitt Romney and John McCain won the New Hampshire primary in 2012 and 2008, respectively, and both became the party’s presidential nominees.

In the 2008 Democratic contests, Barack Obama won in Iowa – and Hillary Clinton came in third, behind John Edwards. She won the New Hampshire primary that year.

The hard truth is that most presidential candidates end up as also-rans. If they’re lucky, they may be remembered for a good line. Mo Udall was a Democratic congressman from Arizona when he ran for president in 1976. He finished second in six primaries the year Jimmy Carter rode his win in the Iowa caucuses to victory.

Udall often told a story about meeting some elderly fellows in a barber shop in New Hampshire, where he said, “I’m Mo Udall, and I’m running for president of the United States.”

“Yeah,” the barber replied, “We were just laughing about that this morning.”

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What's ahead in 2016? Your guess is as good as the experts' -- Dec. 24, 2015 column


We’re on the cusp of a new year, so it must be prediction season, that magical time when we’re all authorities on the future.  

As predictions for 2016 begin to flow, the urge seems irresistible to bloviate about the presidential election even though no one – and I mean no one – knows for sure what will happen.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will be the Republican presidential nominee, and he will tap South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as his running mate, proclaims Fortune, which also predicts Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will pick Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia as her veep.

Really? It’s not that those are bad guesses. Rubio is the hope of many Republicans who want to dump Trump, and Haley said she’ll consider joining the GOP ticket if asked. Clinton is, well, Clinton, and Kaine represents a swing state that could be crucial.

But such scenarios assume a logical electorate – and when did the 2016 campaign become logical?

Only a year ago, as 2015 dawned and predictions proliferated, no one saw Hurricane Donald coming. Trump didn’t even jump into the race until June, although it seems he’s been in forever.

We don’t know what we don’t know about 2016.

But here’s why predictions are both beauty and beast: They exist in a judgment-free zone. In our talky age, anyone who speaks with confidence can predict with impunity.

A year ago, the writer of a predictions piece in the British newspaper the Telegraph ticked through the list of Democratic and Republican contenders and confided to his readers that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is “my personal favourite to win the nomination and the White House – although I’m probably in a minority of two in that opinion (me and Mr. Huckabee).”

OK, but why?

In its “The World in 2016” issue, The Economist confidently declares, “Hillary Clinton will be the candidate to beat in the race for the White House,” and “someone like” Rubio will win the GOP’s nod. But Clinton will probably eke out a victory in November, unless other factors intervene, the reporter opines. With that much wiggle room, it’s hard to be wrong. 

The art of looking ahead apparently approves of alliteration. The Economist says 2016 “can be summed up in three words: woes, women and wins.” The primary season will be “short and sharp.” The campaign: “cruel, costly and close.”

Most predictions are like those lists of what’s In and Out – clever opinion. Or the vague horoscopes in the morning paper -- fun but hardly definitive. 

Fortunately, some thoughtful people are weighing in. As  2015 ends, political scientist Larry Sabato and his colleagues at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics still rate the general election “a coin flip,” based on statistics and research. That’s good enough for me. I don’t need to declare an election before the voting even starts.

In two decades of studying predictions, professor Philip E. Tetlock found that a dart-throwing chimp has nearly as much accuracy in forecasting the future as so-called experts in politics, economics and journalism.  

Tetlock’s 2005 book -- “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” – deflated a lot of hot air balloons. He evaluated the accuracy of 82,361 forecasts and found that about 15 percent of the things the experts dismissed as having little or no chance of occurring actually did happen. Of the things the experts claimed surely would happen, about 27 percent did not.

Tetlock, who teaches psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, now says there are ways to improve our forecasting abilities so we can beat the chimp.

His new book, “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction,” written with journalist Dan Gardner, includes such techniques as keeping an open mind and gathering facts.  

We may always wish for experts, super or not. In 1980, Wharton professor J. Scott Armstrong invented the “seersucker theory.” After reviewing a dozen studies about experts and their advice, Armstrong proposed: “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”

When you see predictions about 2016, think of the dart-throwing chimp -- and don’t be a seer-sucker.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's not your 19th century Christmas, fortunately -- column of Dec. 17, 2015


We blame the 20th century for ruining just about everything, but people were lamenting the commercialism of Christmas long before “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired on TV in 1965.

The animated special, beloved by generations, calls out the secularism of Christmas and includes a passage from the Gospel of Luke.

It may surprise you to know that authors have criticized the crass materialism of Christmas since before the Civil War.

In 1850, two years before she wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a short story called “Christmas, or the Good Fairy” that ran on the front page of a Washington paper. As the story opens, a young woman character with “jeweled fingers” says:

“`Oh, dear! Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody!… Dear me, it’s so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.’”

Even though she has the means to buy whatever she fancies and every shop is “glittering with all manner of splendors,” she’s at a loss. She hates the wretched excess of the season.  

After a gentle reminder from her aunt about the true meaning of Christmas, though, the young woman has a change of perspective and sees Christmas differently.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum cites the Stowe story in his fascinating 1996 book, “The Battle for Christmas,” which dispels many myths about Christmas in America in the alleged good old days.

Before our particular hamster track of shopping, spending and consuming evolved,there were far more unruly Yuletide celebrations.

There was so much excess spirit and spirits during Christmas carnival revelries in the early 19th century that a movement formed to take Christmas off the streets and into homes, Nissenbaum recounts. Giving gifts soon followed. And commercialism. And stress.

“As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten, the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come assume in recent years,” a New York paper wrote in 1894.

Unlike our forebears, though, we have the benefit of social science research to ease some of that anxiety. Here are three tips from academic studies: 

#1 -- Don’t try to be too creative. If someone tells you what he wants, go for it.

Trying to pick a more thoughtful, impressive gift can backfire. Recipients are more appreciative and think the giver is more thoughtful when they get what they ask for, says Frank Flynn, an organizational behavior expert at Stanford University.     

Also, recipients don’t appreciate expensive gifts that much more than less expensive presents, he says. This leads us to:

#2 – Back off the stocking stuffers. Less really is more.

If you want to surprise someone with a generous gift, you could choose an expensive cashmere sweater – or, if you can afford it, you might buy the sweater and tuck in something extra, like a $10 gift card. Resist the urge to do the latter.

Adding the stocking stuffer diminishes the value of the main gift, says Kimberlee Weaver, a marketing professor at Virginia Tech. The giver inadvertently cheapens the overall perception of the gift by being more generous.

“The luxury sweater represents a generous `big’ gift. Adding on a `little’ gift makes the total package seem less big,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean the gift card itself is a bad idea.

#3 – It’s OK to give money or a gift card.

For the last nine years, the most requested gift in America has been the gift card, the National Retail Federation reports. Gift givers tend to think cash is crass and overly practical, and that givers want fancier gifts. Receivers, though, like choosing their own.

“Givers think fancier gifts will cause them to be more liked, will show they care more, and will make their friends happier,” researchers from Yale, University of Southern California and New York University say. Not so. Practical gifts accomplish all that.

Stowe had it right. “There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got,” she wrote.

So remember what Christmas is all about. Remember Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” reciting from the Gospel of Luke: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

Merry Christmas!   

©2015. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A mistake we must never make again -- Column of Dec. 10, 2015


Donald J. Trump defended his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country by citing President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“This is a president highly respected by all; he did the same thing,” Trump said Tuesday on ABC.

I needed a refresher on FDR. What I found was dismaying – and instructive.

Within weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt issued three presidential proclamations declaring Japanese, German and Italian immigrants who were not naturalized citizens “enemy aliens.” The proclamations ordered these residents to turn in their guns, ammunition, cameras, short-wave radios and other items and imposed other restrictions.  

Soon after, in February 1942, FDR then issued Executive Order 9066. It gave the military the power to ban any citizen from a swath of Washington state, California and southern Arizona and led to the relocation -- without any charges or trials -- of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

Many who were herded onto trains bound for 10 internment camps in remote parts of the West and South were American citizens.

Trump insists that he’s not proposing internment camps, but, as we see from FDR’s experience, letting fear dictate policy is a slippery slope. While many Republicans have rightly condemned Trump’s proposal, his fans – even some in elective office -- approve.    

“What he’s saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps,” New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro, co-chairman of Trump’s state veterans coalition, told a Manchester TV station.

Instead of likening himself to FDR, Trump should have cited Ronald Reagan, who apologized for the terrible injustice perpetrated in World War II.

“Here we admit a wrong,” President Reagan said when he signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the federal government provided restitution to Japanese Americans who were interned. The government gave $20,000 each to about 60,000 survivors, a pittance for lost years, homes and careers.

You can read Reagan’s quotation at the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in World War II just north of the U.S. Capitol. The memorial commemorates not only a shameful chapter in American history but also the loyalty and bravery of Japanese Americans who served the country in war even as their families were being held in camps.

Few tourists find their way to the memorial, in what amounts to a traffic island at the intersection of Louisiana and New Jersey avenues and D Street NW. Few read the 800 names inscribed on stone panels of Japanese American troops who were killed in action.

The Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team was a segregated unit composed entirely of Nisei, first-generation Japanese American citizens. The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Europe and became the most highly decorated unit for its size and length of service.

At the center of the memorial, two bronze cranes entangled in barbed wire rise 14 feet. In Japan, the crane is an icon of longevity and good luck. Here, they symbolize the struggle over cruel circumstances. The memorial is intended to tell not only the story of Japanese Americans but of all Americans’ patriotism and perseverance.

Trump justifies his ban on Muslims’ entering the country because we are at war, although there are Muslims serving in our armed forces in the fight against terrorism. 
Some of these heroes rest in Arlington National Cemetery.  

Reagan said in 1988 about the mistreatment of Japanese Americans: “Yes, the nation was then at war, struggling for its survival and it’s not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese Americans was just that: a mistake.”

The Japanese Americans memorial group raised $13 million to build the memorial, which was dedicated in 2000 and now is part of the National Park Service.

The memorial does not just look back in history. It also offers a way forward, thanks to a quotation from the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D- Hawaii. The son of Japanese immigrants, Inouye enlisted in the Army when the 442nd was created and lost his right arm fighting in Europe.

“The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group,” Inouye said. Amen.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

National service -- an idea whose time has come, again -- Dec. 3, 2015 column


After 9/11, a patriotic impulse swept the United States. Flags waved on every corner and everybody wanted to do something to fight terrorism. But not everyone wanted to, or could, volunteer for the military.

President George W. Bush urged people to go to Disneyland. And so the moment was wasted.

Today, less than 1 percent of Americans serves in the military. Over the last 14 years, we have grown increasingly disconnected from one other and more distrustful of government. Many lament our lack of civility and poisonous politics but feel powerless to change anything. 

Fewer and fewer experiences unite us as Americans. Even the occasions that many people share – like donating to a good cause on Giving Tuesday – we do alone.

But there’s hope. While some problems, like the horrifying gun violence we saw in California on Wednesday, seem intractable, bipartisan support is coalescing around a way that could bring us together: voluntary national service.

The Aspen Institute Franklin Project is promoting the idea that every American 18 to 28 should have the opportunity to spend a year in full time, fully paid public service in an area such as health, poverty, conservation or education.

The project envisions that a million young people would participate by 2023. The year of service would become a cultural expectation and rite of passage, much as serving in the military once was. National service would not be mandated but highly encouraged, perhaps with tuition forgiveness, a new G.I. bill and other perks.

“There’s something about service that’s essential to citizenship,” retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and chairman of the Franklin Project, said at a panel discussion Monday at the Aspen Institute in Washington. “It’s what defines a nation.”

World War II put 16 million Americans in uniform, but everybody was asked to do something. National service would create alumni similarly invested in the country’s future, McChrystal said. 

The Franklin Project’s blue-ribbon Leadership Council includes former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, NAACP former president Benjamin Jealous, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former NBC News anchor and author Tom Brokaw. Also, Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe and College of William and Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III.

They’re hoping to jumpstart national service. Since John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, presidents have tried to expand national service. In 2008, both presidential candidates -- Barack Obama and John McCain – promised to make national service a priority.

President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009, proclaiming a “new era of service.” The law was supposed to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 individuals. AmeriCorps members are neither volunteers nor employees. They receive stipends to cover living expenses, health insurance, child care and, upon completion of their term of service, education grants.

Some conservatives oppose “paid volunteerism,” and Congress never provided funding for the expansion. The Franklin Project is looking to enlist the private sector to pay for public service opportunities.

President Obama last year started Employers of National Service which links AmeriCorps and Peace Corps alumni with employers. More than 150 companies, nonprofits, public agencies and cities, including Philadelphia and Nashville, have signed on to give alumni a boost in recruitment, hiring and promotions.

Virginia became the first state Employer of National Service in January.  State agencies are directed to recruit AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps alumni and to consider public service as part of the hiring process.

On the 2016 presidential campaign trail, Hillary Clinton promises to expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 individuals by 2017 and would allow those who commit to service to graduate from in-state colleges debt-free. Other candidates in both parties support expanding national service to varying degrees.   

Many more young people want to serve than can currently be accommodated. About half a million people apply for the 75,000 AmeriCorps slots. This year, more than 44,100 people, most of them recent college graduates, applied for 4,000 Teach for America jobs.  

Some high schools and colleges require public service for graduation. Arizona State University opened a Public Service Academy this fall that is believed to be the first undergraduate program in the country similar to ROTC for students who want to work in the volunteer sector.

Young Americans are yearning to serve their country. Let’s give them the chance – and build stronger communities and a more robust citizenry in the process. We can’t afford to waste another moment.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

States are looking to attract tourists -- on bikes -- story Nov. 30, 2015
Bicycling Tourists Are Older, Wealthier, and In Demand
  • November 30, 2015
  • By Marsha Mercer
Cyclist© The Associated Press
A man rides his bike along the boardwalk in Hollywood, Florida. States are trying to become more bike-friendly to attract tourists and pump up their economies.
Cities and states have long urged their residents to ride bicycles, as a healthy form of recreation and as a green alternative to driving. Now they’re recognizing pedal power’s economic potential.
Tourism officials and cycling advocates sometimes refer to tourists on bicycles as “wallets on wheels.” That’s because they stay longer in a state and spend more per day than other tourists. Oregon, for example, has found that bicycle tourism contributes $400 million a year to its economy—roughly $1.1 million a day. It was the first state to create a Bike Friendly Business Program that helps businesses market to bicycle tourists.
Other states are pursuing similar strategies. In September, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper declared that Colorado would spend $100 million over four years to make itself “the best state for biking in the country.” Washington, ranked the most bike-friendly state for eight consecutive years by the League of American Bicyclists, in July committed more than $500 million in state and federal funds over 16 years for biking and walking projects. Also this summer Florida approved $25 million annually to connect bicycle paths around the state into a new, statewide network.
“Biking can be such a positive force, and I think being the best biking state is going to fuel economic growth and tourism,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s going to lead us toward a cleaner environment, and it’s going to help us be the healthiest state in America.”
Touring cyclists, who tend to be older and wealthier, are especially valuable to a state’s economic health. They stay in smaller towns and support locally-owned bed-and-breakfasts, motels, cafes, craft breweries and shops. Other tourists tend to patronize national chains, economic analyses have found.
In Montana, which welcomes about half a million bicycle tourists a year, “it was an eye-opener that bicycle tourists spent more” than other tourists, said Norma Polovitz Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.
“This might not be the largest tourism niche, but everybody’s interested in boosting the local economy. Bicycle touring has very little impact on the landscape, and it comes with a nice economic bonus,” she said.
Nickerson conducted a study in late 2013 that found touring cyclists in Montana were on average 52 years old, spent on average $75 per day and stayed eight nights or more. Touring is defined as spending at least one night away from home, state residents included. The average nonresident vacationer during summer months spent $58 per day and stayed six nights in the state, the study found.
After the study’s release, Montana created more bike-in camping spots at state parks, and the Department of Transportation is working toward changing its policy on the placement of highway rumble strips to be more bike-friendly, Nickerson said.
Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, an avid cyclist, has tried for years to raise his state’s profile as a cycling state. A robust system of bicycling trails would not only make cycling safer and more fun but would help recruit younger people to move to Florida, he said.
This year Gardiner, a Republican, pushed through a change in the way vehicle registration fees are spent to redirect $25 million every year to a statewide network of bike paths. “It’s a lot of money for a long time,” Gardiner said. “This will put us onstage with other states.”

Mix of Funding

Funding for bicycling and walking projects comes from federal, state and local sources. It’s difficult to compare spending by state because some report stand-alone bicycle and pedestrian ventures while others report them as part of larger highway plans, the Alliance for Biking and Walking said.
States spend, on average, less than 2 percent of state budgets and about 2 percent of federal funds on bicycling and walking projects, the group said.
But the numbers are increasing. “Some states now recognize that bicycling is an attribute that cannot only make a state healthier and fitter but can also draw high-quality employers, economic growth and tourism,” said Douglas Shinkle, a transportation policy expert for theNational Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
“The new way of thinking emphasizes looking at bicycling as a legitimate means of transportation and worthy of transportation dollars,” Shinkle said. “That’s much more the case now than 10 or 15 years ago.”
In Washington state, for example, the 2005 transportation package included $72 million for biking and walking projects over 16 years, whereas this year’s package, over the same time frame, funneled $500 million to such projects.
Blake Trask, state policy director of Washington Bikes, said the most recent package garnered support from both sides of the aisle. Local chambers of commerce, tourism offices and businesses all want to promote their local economies through cycling, Trask said.
Democratic Mayor Jeri Muoio of West Palm Beach wants to make her Florida city of 102,000 residents one of the most bike-friendly in the nation. She was among the officials from 13 U.S. cities who visited Copenhagen in September on a Knight Foundation-funded trip to learn how the European city makes bicycling easy and safe.
“People take bicycles in Copenhagen not because it’s a green thing to do or it is good exercise but because it’s the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B,” Muoio said. “We’re still tied to our cars.”
Indeed, many critics of bike-friendly measures argue that scarce transportation dollars should pay for relieving congested streets and highways and shoring up unsafe bridges for motorists who pay gas and vehicle taxes. Bicycle advocates counter that they own cars as well as bikes and that they do pay taxes. Political views also play a role.
“We don’t want federal dollars paying for local projects,” said Mike Krause, vice president of operations for the Denver-based Independence Institute, a proponent of free markets and limited government. “It’s not right to make taxpayers in California and Maryland pay for bike lanes in Colorado.”

Seeking Safer Streets

Massachusetts has set a goal of tripling the number of biking, walking and mass transit trips between 2010 and 2030. But cyclists in the state often complain about dangerous streets, so Massachusetts is studying bike paths that are separated physically from both motor vehicles and pedestrians. Such protected lanes have been in use in Europe for decades but are rare here.
The state’s transportation agency this month issued the first statewide guide to designing and building such lanes. “Many people—including me—are reluctant to bicycle adjacent to busy roadways alongside fast-moving traffic. That’s where separated bicycle facilities come in,” Stephanie Pollack, Massachusetts secretary of transportation, said in an introduction to the guide.
But Randal O’Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute questioned the wisdom of that approach. O’Toole, a devoted cyclist who said he has never commuted to work by car, said separate bike trails are expensive and many cyclists don’t end up using them. O’Toole also is opposed to narrowing city streets for separate bike lanes because that could increase traffic congestion.
Rather than building “glitzy projects,” he said localities should choose streets parallel to major thoroughfares and minimize the number of signals and stop signs cyclists encounter there, remove rumble strips and widen shoulders. If you want to encourage tourism and spur economic growth, he said, sponsor bike races and other events to bring in cyclists and temporarily close off city streets.
“What needs to be done is figure out ways to make streets safer for bikes without being hostile to cars,” O’Toole said.
Safe-passing laws are another alternative to separate bike trails and lanes. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring motorists to allow 3 feet when passing bicycles, as of October 2015, according to NCSL. Pennsylvania went a foot farther to a 4-foot passing law. Nine other states generally require motorists to pass at a safe distance.
Texas is among 16 states that have no safe-passing law. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, has tried unsuccessfully over the years to persuade Texas legislators to pass safe-passing and other bills to promote cycling.
Ellis loves to bike, and he knows one way to change minds: Get elected officials “passionate about biking on a personal level.” Then, he said, they could make the next step and be passionate about policy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

'Spotlight' -- more than a great newspaper story -- Nov. 24, 2015 column


One of the best movies of the year portrays an unlikely hero, a newspaper.

“Spotlight” is based on the true story of The Boston Globe’s painstaking investigation, starting in 2001, into child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston that was covered up for decades by local church leaders.

While not a documentary, the movie uses real names and works for verisimilitude. It keeps its focus on journalism and on how three hard-working reporters – Sacha Pfeiffer, Mike Rezendes and Matt Carroll -- and editor Walter “Robby” Robinson doggedly pursued the truth and a story that was bigger than anyone imagined.

While it does not show abuse, “Spotlight” is rated R and contains what The New York Times review called “graphic descriptions of despicable acts; language not fit for print.”

It’s being compared to “All the President’s Men.” That 1976 movie about dashing young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s uncovering the truth behind the Watergate break-in for The Washington Post was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four. It inspired a generation of reporters.

Those still working at newspapers have seen their newsrooms shrink around them like melting ice floes as newspapers struggle to survive in the digital age. Many papers have shut down their investigative staffs to cut costs. Surveys, though, show readers want in-depth reporting.

Perhaps coincidentally, trust in newspapers has ebbed to near-historic lows, Gallup reports. Could a movie turn that trend around? Probably not, although the Los Angeles Times announced this month that it’s restarting its investigative team.

“Spotlight” takes place 14 years ago as the Internet is just taking off. A billboard over the Globe’s parking lot trumpets “AOL Anywhere.”  When the Globe gets a new top editor, Marty Baron, reporters worry about layoffs.

Baron reads a local column about a pedophile priest and puts the Spotlight team on the story. The movie traces the team for five months as the reporters and editor work the old-fashioned way. 

They comb through stacks of paper clips from the newspaper “morgue” and check names by hand in old diocesan directories. They knock on doors that sometimes slam in their faces. They track down sealed court documents.

Instead of a few isolated cases, they discover that up to 90 pedophile priests in Boston have been protected by the church over the years.

The movie ends with publication of the first story on Jan. 6, 2002, about one predatory priest and the extensive cover-up. The Globe expanded the team and wrote 600 follow-up stories on the scandal that year, detailing how priests were shuffled from parish to parish, and victims’ families were given secret payments in return for silence.

More than 250 priests and brothers in Boston have been accused of abusing minors.
The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for public service for its “courageous, comprehensive coverage.”

“Spotlight” doesn’t flinch in showing how the Globe earlier missed what became its biggest story. Years before, a victim gave information about abuse, but the paper downplayed it until Baron, who was neither from Boston nor Catholic, unleashed the investigative team.  

The team could have done nothing, however, without the courageous abuse victims who, one by one, agreed to share their horrifying stories in print. The paper also posted church documents online, so that readers could see the cover-up for themselves.

The Globe’s work led to the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and the uncovering of a worldwide scandal that still continues. At the end of the movie, several screens list hundreds of cities and towns here and around the world where sexual abuse by priests has been reported. Among them is Richmond, where the Times-Dispatch has reported on cases.

To learn more, tracks cases of sexual abuse by priests.

When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, he met with a small group of victims of child sexual abuse and said “God weeps” for them.

“Spotlight” reminds us of the timeless value of investigative reporting by newspapers that are still doing this important work. And they’re not all metropolitan papers like the Globe.

The Bristol Herald Courier won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2010 for a series on natural gas companies withholding royalty payments from Southwest Virginia landowners.  

In the deadline-driven Internet age, we’re fortunate that independent nonprofits such as ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity have taken on the mission of investigative journalism. We need comprehensive reporting that takes time. We need the truth.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.