May 28, 2020 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Changing culture of race relations, one horrifying video at a time

We’ve been reminded yet again this week about the power of video and social media to expose crimes and cruelties that would otherwise have been swept under the rug by the perpetrators and their official protectors.

The latest were the white Minneapolis police officers responsible on Monday for the needless death of a black man picked up outside the store where he allegedly passed a fake twenty-dollar bill. Witnesses who could have refuted the officers’ false report would have been too easily discounted without the weight of video.

The morning of that same day, in New York’s Central Park, a white woman urgently told 911 that her life was being threatened by a black man. The man’s cellphone video told the truth — an entirely different story about a decidedly non-threatening bird watcher merely asking that her dog be leashed.

And it wasn’t until May, after video was released, that three white men in Georgia were arrested in the Feb. 23 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was guilty of jogging while black.  

A list of examples could go on and on, and not just involving police and not only blacks. Our society has a long way to go to control, let alone extinguish, the fear and hate that are the backbones of racism.

What is the role of the news media in helping to change the culture? That question was addressed during the taping of The Media Project, a weekly show on local public radio WAMC, 90.3 FM. It airs at 6 p.m. Sunday, 3 p.m. Monday, and is accessible after Sunday anytime on wamc.org. This week’s panelists are myself (a University at Albany journalism teacher and former executive editor of The Saratogian and The (Troy) Record; Times Union Editor at Large Rex Smith; Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC; and Judy Patrick, formerly editor of the Gazette and now with the New York Press Association.

How can the media report on our communities in ways that do not stoke mistrust and animosity, but rather move toward greater empathy, respect and understanding for others?

We discussed the question but could not satisfactorily answer it. I’d be interested in what you think. 

A longstanding shortcoming in the media, regardless of good intentions, is the overwhelming whiteness of its decision-makers, as well as a tendency to tip the scales of trust to people in positions of authority. Getting at the “truth” can be elusive and obtaining official records, including video, in controversial cases is not easy – but worth the effort.

“Videos paint a story inside of a culture where a lot of the public has been trained and encouraged to not believe black people,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, in the New York Times.

The unvarnished truth of videos — whether recorded by victims, police, bystanders, journalists, or security cameras – and the ability to spread them over the internet are game-changers. We need them not only to bring individual cases to light, but to bring about long-term, cultural change.

May 11, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Veitch, Gaston trying to hold Saratoga County accountable

Thanks are due to Matt Veitch and Tara Gaston — the two people elected to represent Saratoga Springs on the county government level – for their perseverance in trying to keep citizens informed about what Veitch aptly described as a “breakdown” at the county. There is indeed a disturbing breakdown of accountability, procedures, and representation in Saratoga County government.

Thanks also to John Kaufmann, whose Saratoga Springs Politics website includes conveniently edited segments of Veitch and Gaston’s reports to the City Council. They are short, easy to digest, and revealing. Well worth your time.

I listened in on a late April meeting of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors that ran well over three hours, about half of which consisted of inadequately justified “executive sessions” – meaning the public was shut out. Some supervisors were at the county board meeting and others participated by phone; it was often difficult to hear what was being said and impossible to know who was talking.   

When all was said and done, several participating supervisors seemed even more confused and frustrated than I was. They couldn’t get a straight answer to straightforward questions about time-and-a-half pay someone had authorized for certain county employees ostensibly related to COVID-19. Questions like: How many employees, which employees, the cost, and when and how the employees were notified of the start and stop of this extra pay. Not to mention who obligated the county to this without going through normal channels, and why it was granted in the first place, especially to well-paid salaried staff.

The situation was so inexplicably tortuous that the supervisors narrowly agreed an external investigation was needed to get to the bottom of it. Significantly, Saratoga Springs Supervisor Veitch was the swing vote. He and his colleagues reasonably expected the ultimate selection of an investigator to go through the usual processes. Instead, a contract was quickly signed without notifying Veitch and other supervisors, without addressing the scope of the investigation, the cost, or the firm selected.   

Meanwhile, the county board chairman, Preston Allen of the town of Day, has canceled yet another regular monthly county board meeting. These could be conducted remotely with or without video, for both elected and citizen participation. This is a time for government leadership, not for ducking basic accountability.

Apr 30, 2020 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Forget the letter; focus on long list of big reasons to vote Trump out

My Coronavirus Aid Relief check was directly deposited, but it turns out there was no escaping the Sharpie scrawl: Our federal tax dollars were spent sending ourselves a letter from Trump letting us know how pleased he is about the money.

To be fair, the letter (English on one side, Spanish on the other) sounds nothing like Trump. It credits Congressional bipartisan support for the aid and takes a positive tone. Still, believing its only purpose is to generate undue credit, the letter is a source of aggravation.

That’s my mistake. With so many major reasons to want Trump gone, I must not get distracted by things like a letter or a totally not sarcastic suggestion about medicinal disinfectants.

For starters, here’s an extremely incomplete list of bigger fish to fry:

His lethal mishandling of the coronavirus, purposeful refusal to provide federal leadership, and bold denial of own recorded words and actions. 

His insistence, totally false, that dismantling of the Affordable Care Act would still protect people with pre-existing conditions.

His heartless destruction of the lives of immigrants and their families. He lied about the cruel and poorly executed separation of families at the Mexican border.

He gleefully incites violence, hatred and incivility against groups of people – immigrants, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, journalists, Democrats, anyone who dares to criticize him.

He used anti-Semitic tropes last August, saying Jews were “disloyal” if they voted for Democrats. And he still defends his statement that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 Charlottesville rally where white supremacists marched as they shouted, “Jews will not replace us.”

He ferments distrust and hate of the media in the manner of authoritarian regimes. He shrugged off Saudi Arabia’s murder of a reporter for the Washington Post.

He proudly promised to protect LBGT citizens, then undid hard-fought rights and protections.

He signed executive orders to benefit oil pipelines and remove Obama environmental protections. He has weakened the Clean Air Act. He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement addressing climate change.

He has committed shameful and impeachable offenses by the score.

Trump gets away with all this and more because others in government – like Mitch McConnell – who share some, if not all, of his policies and believe their self-interests are best served by pandering to the president, laying low, lying to the public, or all of the above.

Trump is not the first president to lie and put personal and political gain above all else. But it is hard to imagine a more unpresidential president. Trump has dropped the bar for civility and courtesy into the sub-basement. He is crude, cruel, uninformed, narcissistic and, I hate to say it because I don’t like name-calling, an imbecile.  

The least of our problems is a letter with his signature. But I am going to keep it close at hand lest I take my eye off the ball: getting out the vote this fall to get Donald Trump – and his enablers – out of office.

Apr 21, 2020 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Call in today to hold Saratoga County accountable

You can listen at 4 p.m. today to a live meeting of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors. Here’s why you should: The people with the most power in Saratoga County government have been failing to serve the best interests of the people they’re supposed to serve. Some of their actions have been in secret, and some in flagrant disregard of their responsibilities because, sadly, they figure they can get away with it.

Government serves the public, not vice versa.

They voted huge raises for top-paid administrators for unspecified pandemic work by people who are assuredly not first responders, apparently rescinded after public exposure. They left helping the homeless during this pandemic to Saratoga Springs, even though homeless people are not restricted to city residence. The board’s Public Health Committee hasn’t met since March 4. And instead of a regular monthly public county board meeting, these “leaders” attempted to convene a “special meeting” –meaning that the chairman can severely restrict the agenda (in this case, to approve a contract for corrections officers that was news to other board members and create an unrepresentative, ad hoc COVID-19 committee). When nine of the board’s 23 members showed the gumption to vote against ratifying that inappropriate “special” meeting on Friday, the meeting was halted and a new one scheduled for today.

The Saratogian, the Times Union, and local citizen journalist John Kaufmann have been trying to tell people what’s going on, why they should care, and what they can do about it. Others are speaking out, too. Kaufmann’s latest post notes people can listen live to today’s 4 p.m. meeting and can submit comments that will be read by the clerk at the meeting by calling 1-844-855-4444 and enter the Participation Passcode 823993#. Also comments can be emailed to PWright@Saratogacountyny.gov.

Apr 21, 2020 - Uncategorized    2 Comments

When did this coronavirus nightmare begin for you?

I stuffed in my pocket the mask my primary made me wear when I visited March 2 with a lingering cough. I feel fine … despite an occasional dry cough.

I can hear my parents’ warning: Don’t give yourself a kenahora!

The saying is an amalgam of the Yiddish and Hebrew “kein ayin hara.” Literally, don’t give yourself the evil eye. Don’t be smug. Don’t jinx yourself. Don’t, I can imagine them saying, write about feeling lucky to be healthy.

Who listens to their parents, alive or dead?

Today is April 21, 2020, and I want to record my small coronavirus stories. I don’t know where to start. Certainly not at the beginning, because I can’t tell you when that was.

Was it Valentine’s Day weekend? My husband Jim and I caught up in Manhattan with pals Tom Petzinger and Paulette Thomas, all traveling Amtrak, we from Albany and they from Pittsburgh. We enjoyed Mexican muralists and lunch at the Whitney, dinner at our favorite Il Gattopardo one night and new go-to Nerai the next, a morning in the imaginatively renovated MoMA, and the original cast in a Hadestown matinee. This was followed three days later by a cough and cold that landed me in bed for a couple of days, a March 2 trip to my primary when the cough wouldn’t quit, and now, two months later, occasional dry coughs that Jim keeps count of. Luckily, for no good reason except my inability to throw anything away, I pocketed the mask my doctor had me wear for that visit.

Was it the end of February and early March, as I hemmed and hawed about what level of insurance to buy for our mid-May trip to Spain? I gambled (having what my father called book smarts versus street smarts) that travel could be safe by then.

Was it Sunday, March 8? That afternoon Jim and I shared a New Haven pizza with our son Joe, after which he walked us around parts of the city we hadn’t seen in prior visits. Then Jim and I headed up to Northampton, Mass., for a Jayhawks concert. Jim cautioned me not to cough and I noticed how the small theater was full of old people (I was still only 65 back then).

Was it Tuesday, March 10? That was the last day I saw my journalism students at University at Albany in person. That afternoon I sent the class out to the Student Center to conduct quickie interviews with students about what the school should do regarding the coronavirus. The students then had to look up coronavirus news and facts online and weave them into a little story with the local angle of their interview.

Or, I could start with the morning of Thursday, March 12, when I arrived at UAlbany five hours ahead of my class, having been downtown at 8:30 a.m. to tape public radio WAMC’s The Media Project. I planned to check my mail, treat myself to a large coffee in the Campus Center Starbucks, and settle in at a computer on the sunny second floor of the Science Library. The parking lot was eerily empty at 9:30. Turned out that half an hour earlier, President Havidan Rodriguez announced that someone had tested positive the previous night for COVID-19 and classes were suspended for the day. School break was the following week, anyway, so students hit the road. The next day came the message that the second half of the semester would be finished remotely. Huh?

Stay tuned for more, or don’t. When did this nightmare start for you?

Mar 31, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

DON’T air Trump’s live ‘briefings’ – and don’t let him off the hook

NOTE TO READERS:
I have CHANGED MY MIND about these briefings, which are neither brief nor informative. I’ll set my record straight at some point, but for the moment suffice to say I totally disagree with this post! Living airing are NOT a public service. To the contrary. Anyway, here’s the original post from the start:

An email arrived the other day telling me the president is using his daily coronavirus press briefings “to spread misinformation, campaign for re-election, and bully reporters who challenge him.” 

No duh.

The email went on: “Instead of enabling this behavior, major news media outlets need to stop” their live, unedited coverage, and I should sign a petition demanding it.

Whoa. No way.  

Granted, it’s tough to watch Trump’s cavalier and dangerous disregard of facts, science, and truth; his obsessively political, hateful rants and innuendoes; his xenophobic propaganda; his inability to demonstrate leadership in any way, shape or form; his absurd failure to social distance on stage. He maliciously maligns elected officials who dare to not kowtow and journalists trying to report the truth. He is bad for the country and my blood pressure.

That’s why I stopped watching. Instead, I check in on mainstream media for a credible summary of the day’s news from rational experts and reporters.  

But while I ignore the live briefings, I don’t want the mainstream media to do the same.

Like it or not, Trump is president. To not air his briefings would leave the mainstream media open to criticism that it was stifling the president’s attempts to communicate with the country during a national crisis, and it would divert viewers to the Trump-sanctioned channel. The challenge for the mainstream media is to relentlessly, politely (to the extent possible), and unapologetically question, challenge, fact-check — and hold him and his administration responsible for what is said and done.

I’ll confess to a pang of déjà vu from when the media gave outrageous candidate Trump undeserved, priceless attention. The lesson from that mistake: Don’t silence the president, but don’t let him off the hook. 

In times of crisis, people crave leadership, information (they want to believe), and hope. Inexplicably, people are finding this in Trump. But the president’s dinnertime ramblings expose his ineptness and incompetence while lives and livelihoods are being lost, and light bulbs are going on. For instance, Trump fan Mike Francesa of WFAN is appalled at what the president says while people are dying “five minutes from where he grew up.”

Local public radio WAMC’s The Media Project (on which I’m sometimes a panelist; listen anytime at wamc.org) addressed a recent decision by a National Public Radio station in Washington State to stop airing the live press briefings (though listeners can still hear them at npr.org.)

The show’s host, Rex Smith of the Times Union newspaper, noted that the station’s action was not censorship, which is what government does when it stifles free speech in violation of the First Amendment. Rather, it was the station making an editorial judgment about newsworthiness. From my decades of running the newsroom of The Saratogian, I understand the distinction and know that such decisions are not taken lightly.

But the public doesn’t make that distinction, as Rosemary Armao, a fellow University at Albany journalism teacher, pointed out. WAMC President and CEO Alan Chartock shared on the show that his staff decided to keep airing the briefings.

They’re right. Better for the media to err on the side of airing – without letting the president and his administration off the hook.

Mar 25, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

International Space Station shows what we earthlings can accomplish, together

International Space Station image from NASA website.

On a recent Saturday night I pulled on my knit hat, zipped up my winter coat and met up with my 10-year-old next-door neighbor and her family in our respective backyards. We stood well over six feet apart and together watched a miracle 250 miles up: the International Space Station.

At 8:11 what looked like a big, bright star rose from the southwest on this perfectly clear evening and sailed across the sky for five glorious minutes before disappearing from view.

Think of it: An international crew in a flying lab traveling more than 17,000 mph – faster than four miles a second.

“At that rate you could visit me in about 30 seconds,” said Joe, who lives a three-hour drive away. Both my kids happened to be together, and they saw the space station, too. It was Joe who showed me the free ISS Detector app that lets me know when the space station will be visible from my backyard. The space station orbits the earth about every 90 minutes, but only sometimes is it in the right place at the right time in the sky for optimum viewing.  

The joy I felt seeing the satellite came from sharing the excitement and thinking about what people from different countries and cultures can accomplish with imagination, math, science, and the drive to explore our world – and beyond. 

It lifted my spirits.

So did an opinion piece in the New York Times that same day by former astronaut Scott Kelly. He offered advice to people cooped up because of the coronavirus, coming from a guy who spent nearly a year on the international space station: Go outside, enjoy nature, read a book, connect with people via video or phone.

What really touched me, though, were Kelly’s well-grounded observations:

“Living in space taught me a lot about the importance of trusting the advice of people who knew more than I did about their subjects,” he wrote. “Especially in a challenging moment like the one we are living through now, we have to seek out knowledge from those who know the most about it and listen to them. …

“Seen from space, the Earth has no borders. The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. All people are inescapably interconnected, and the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be.”

After our space station sighting, my neighbor told her grandfather in the Czech Republic all about it. She’s going to use the ISS Detector app to let him know when it will be visible from his home. He lives in Brno, roughly 4,000 miles from Saratoga Springs –a mere 17 space-station minutes away.

Scott Kelly inside a Soyuz simulator in Russia, in preparation for travel to the International Space Station. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA
Jan 19, 2020 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Mercy had nothing to do with how Stan Hudy landed in the newsroom

Stan Hudy is taking his can-do attitude to the competition. Photo by Joe Boyle.

I want to correct something in Stan Hudy’s farewell column about leaving The Saratogian and Community News after 23 years to work for the Schenectady-based Daily Gazette.

“You can credit, or blame, Barbara Lombardo who took mercy on a then 30-something out of work writer looking to get into the business,” Stan wrote.

He’s mistaken. Mercy had nothing to do with it.

I hired dozens of people during my decades running the newsroom. Right up until I left in 2015, I prided myself on spotting budding journalists who demonstrated talent, potential and a hunger in their belly to dive into a job for which the shamefully low pay is rivaled only by the excessive hours and inhumane schedule.

Stan demonstrated all those positive attributes and something more (no, Stan, I’m not referring to your ability to make me laugh/groan). He loves people and understands how much a community newspaper means to them. That was the clincher, and it is what continues to set Stan apart as a sportswriter, photographer, videographer, columnist, podcaster, copy editor, paginator, headline writer … what am I forgetting? Oh, yeah, Pink Sheet hawker.

Stan worked primarily for the daily Saratogian and its weekly Community News (serving southern Saratoga County), later adding on The (Troy) Record when owners merged those operations. Circulation numbers and salaries always made The Saratogian a “starter paper.” Most often applicants were 22-year-olds just getting their degree, ready to earn their chops at a small daily or even smaller weekly. Occasionally, someone with more life experience would finally follow their heart (and perhaps the advice of a life coach as opposed to a financial planner) with hopes of becoming part of the newsroom. Someone like Stan.

I used to scoff at editors of big newspapers who turned up their noses at applicants from weeklies or small dailies. Ha! My staffers often had as much talent and worked twice as hard and fast as writers, editors and photographers for the big boys. The best, like Stan, understood the importance of connecting with readers and didn’t look down their nose at hometown journalism.

I’m so glad that before she passed away last fall, Stan’s mother was able to read Sports Editor Joe Boyle’s “Mr. Pink Sheet” feature about how her son was practically a one-man band producing the daily horse racing section this past summer. A line that epitomizes Stan’s character stands out in Boyle’s piece: “Stan knew every single hawker’s name, and even knew the competition’s hawkers.” 

Athletes and their coaches and families that Stan covered over the years, especially rowers and people of all ages in southern Saratoga County, can vouch for his personal touch. He admits to bleeding Shenendehowa green. He knows readers will forgive missed hyphens in a compound modifier so long as you don’t miss coverage of the moments and milestones that make their local sports meaningful.

Long story short, I didn’t hire Stan out of mercy. I simply saw someone who’d put his heart and soul into his work.  

Lucky Daily Gazette.

Dec 26, 2019 - Uncategorized    No Comments

The Saratogian 1902 building morphs from news to brews

Superhorse has apparently been put out to pasture.

Superhorse gets a hug from longtime sports writer and editor Stan Hudy in this 2009 photo in the lobby of what was The Saratogian for more than 100 years and is now Walt and Whitman Brewing. Hudy moved with the newspaper to smaller offices, while Superhorse was put out to pasture.

The eight-foot-tall sculpture, which was commissioned during a 2007 citywide equine arts project, graced the lobby of The Saratogian. Unofficially named Superhorse, he is a four-legged fiberglass Clark Kent with a reporter’s notebook in his breast pocket and a suitcoat spread open to reveal Superman’s “S”.

I’d have bet that Superhorse would’ve been kept in the building that had been home to the daily local newspaper for more than a century. Turns out my bets on fiberglass horses aren’t any better than my wagers at the track.

What did I expect? The quaint redbrick building at Lake and Maple avenues where I worked for 38 years no longer houses The Saratogian, its name above the corner doorway notwithstanding. The considerably smaller newspaper operation relocated a few blocks away.

The corner of the redbrick circa 1902 building at 20 Lake Ave. still carries The Saratogian nameplate.

The new incarnation for 20 Lake Ave. is Walt and Whitman, a modern brewery, bar, eatery and coffeehouse that opened last week. The owners have said they were inspired by the great American poet Walt Whitman. They’re branding their coffee Walt and their beer Whitman, thus Walt and Whitman.  

When I stopped in last Friday night the downstairs was hopping with more people in the building than … ever. Patrons mingled as waitstaff scurried to deliver drinks and eats where the press used to rumble (and I once got to yell “Stop the press!”). The area used for decades to store giant rolls of newsprint and piles of Sunday advertising inserts now boasts shiny equipment for producing beer. I haven’t been yet to the café upstairs, where the newsroom and other offices were located.

Brewing equipment glistens where newspaper inserts used to be piled.

Did I feel a pang of The Saratogian nostalgia in the Walt and Whitman? Not a whit, even though the only nod to the newspaper is the restroom wallpaper, old editions of the Pink Sheet, which is still published daily during racing season. That said, I would have liked to see the local newspaper and its 100-plus years at the location acknowledged with photos from over the years of things like the pressmen at work or kids hawking the paper.

Bottom line, though, it was great to see the circa 1902 building bustling with new life. I’d had enough of the hedge fund owners when I left The Saratogian four years ago, even though I loved the newspaper and my job (most of the time), working a block from Broadway, and having a downtown parking spot (oh, how I miss that perk), and I still give credit to the dedicated staffers who remain.

And let me clarify about calling the building quaint: Reporters typed stories wearing gloves to fend off wintry drafts; never-washed windows were caulked shut; editors for years were crammed into a noisy space that layoffs ultimately morphed into a ghostly roomful of abandoned desks.  

It’s wonderful that the building has been repurposed into a lively place for people to get together, eat, drink, and have a good time. I confess that as an editor, I’m itching to strike the “and” separating Walt from Whitman, but I truly wish them well – even with Superhorse scratched from the lobby.

Aug 21, 2019 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Elect people afraid of mass shootings, not of the NRA

Americans need to replace politicians who are more afraid of the National Rifle Association than they are of mass shootings.

Ninety percent of Americans (including NRA members), regardless of political persuasion, endorse the use of background checks for the purchase of any gun. The House of Representatives months ago approved two bi-partisan bills to do this.

Yet President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to bring them up for Senate debate, never mind a vote.

Trump and McConnell are not merely preventing passage of this citizen-supported legislation. They are also allowing politicians in the Senate to duck and hide from the public. (And bear in mind that although passed in the House, the bills were opposed by most House Republicans, including Elise Stefanik, one of this area’s representatives.)

The bills, H.R. 8 and H.R. 1112, apply checks that already exist for the sale of certain firearms. They do not apply to gifts among family members.

Universal background checks won’t eliminate all the gun violence. But they can’t hurt, and they might help. (Likewise, law enforcement leaders have said no reason exists for citizens to own military-style assault weapons. Yet Republican politicians lack the courage to speak up — except for one whose daughter was across the street from the Dayton shootings.)

These are not “slippery slopes” against the Second Amendment. Passage of common-sense public protections shouldn’t be such an uphill battle.

What can you do? Sign the petitions that are easy to find online. Share information. And help elect new representatives. Change will happen only when the people in office are changed.