Thursday, April 16, 2009
To most of us, it's nothing but a blur of numbers.
The state budget runs hundreds of pages, each one a jumble of charts and lists detailing the collection and disbursement of billions of dollars. The totals make headlines once in a while -- a tax increase here, a deficit there -- but most of it is crafted and voted upon with hardly anyone knowing what's going on. Everyone is affected, but few understand it.
That's true of government at any level -- eyes glaze over when the talk turns to appropriations or bond ratings, but this is where much of our daily lives is decided. How much we pay in taxes, whether we'll get help on student loans, how we can lure businesses and jobs into the area -- it's all hashed out in semi-anonymous subcommittees and printed in documents few of us ever read.
What we need as much as ever are people who can make sense of it all; people who have the time, inclination and ability to wade through the press releases and cascades of numbers to translate them into real-life consequences. This week, the Connecticut Post is saying goodbye to someone who does this better than anyone else. His name sits above mine in the upper-left corner of this page each day. Editorial Page Editor Stephen J. Winters is retiring on Friday.
Before moving into his current role, Steve was the Post's editor, and before that he delved into the ways of Hartford as this paper's Capitol reporter. There he honed the abilities that continue to serve him well, and mastered the intricacies of public policy.
The media universe today doesn't offer much reward for these skills. (Try fitting a budget analysis into your average Twitter post.) Everything is about immediacy. If a major news site is 10 minutes late posting a developing story, it's considered an embarrassment.
People in government have long tried to sneak things by without anyone noticing. The bills they pass are too long and dense for the lawmakers themselves to read in full, let alone anyone on the outside. That's why it's imperative to have people keeping watch; not just reporters to track the day-to-day activities (though that's vital), but people with the knowledge and background to tell readers what it means in their lives.
This is Steve's specialty. He tells us what the comptroller is talking about; he can assess whether the mitigation package before the Assembly will accomplish anything, or if it's all just political posturing.
It's no secret this business is changing. Some of the new tools of journalism offer abilities never thought possible. Some aspects of what we do, though, don't need to be replaced. Some of it you can't get from a news aggregator. The policy wonk is not much in fashion these days, but those skills are more valuable than ever.
This isn't one of those "journalism is dead" pieces that show up every so often in these dark days for the newspaper industry. But it's a fact that when people with decades in the business step aside, the product suffers. Our knowledge suffers.
Steve's interests go far beyond government, of course. Anyone in the building with a question about, say, folk music, or the Cardinals bullpen, or what it's like to perform dentistry in a war zone, knows exactly where to go first. For me, he's been as good an editor, mentor and friend as I could have asked for.
This isn't meant to sound funereal. Steve is retiring as editorial page editor, but he will continue to write a column that will appear regularly in these pages. His office will be in the capable hands of our current managing editor, Michael J. Daly.
But his departure marks an ending, and with so much bad news about the world in general and the journalism industry in particular, it won't be an easy transition. His work is a reminder that no matter what changes, immediacy isn't everything. We will always need people to burrow into those numbers the government churns out every day, picking through the rows and columns, and checking out those subcommittee reports to get a real glimpse of what's going on.
I know when the state budget is finally printed this summer, I'll be keeping an extra copy around in case he wants to stop by and have a look at it.
Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
"Those cheating Huskies," read a headline in a CBS Sports column. The New York Times opened its "Meet the Final Four" piece by discussing recruiting improprieties. It's been Topic A on ESPN for two weeks.
Maybe my lifelong fanhood for all things UConn should stop me from weighing in on this. To me, it doesn't change the fact the men's basketball team is being wronged.
The charges were treated like blockbuster news. Yahoo led its sports page with the headline: "UConn broke rules." Never mind that on the first day of journalism school you're taught not to convict people in the story; the NCAA decides who broke the rules, not a news outlet. This was different; from the beginning, the tales of recruiting misdeeds have been assumed to be true before the official probe even starts.
UConn fans are livid. They -- we -- are smart enough to know this kind of season doesn't come around all that often. After so many close calls and great teams that fell short, this is not a fan base that takes Final Fours for granted.
But instead of talking about basketball, everyone -- players, fans and coaches -- has been asked about improper phone calls or who paid for what hotel room. It's bad enough for those of us who do nothing but watch, but the players deserve none of this.
Two years ago, this same team couldn't get out of its own way; this year, they've been ranked No. 1 in the country. It's a remarkable story, and one that has been wholly overshadowed.
Even worse, the explosiveness of the charges is illusory. The story hinges mainly on what the coaches knew about the activities of a former team manager who was working to ingratiate himself with recruits. His activities alone are against the rules, but if the coaches knew nothing about it, they can't be held responsible. If they did know, that's a problem.
It is not, though, an earth-shaker. No players were paid off. No one altered anyone's test scores. Rules are rules, but there is an enormous difference between the way the alleged violations have been reported and what they entail. In no way are they important enough to overshadow the players' accomplishments.
There's a reason it's happened this way, and it's pretty simple. Coach Jim Calhoun can be a jerk, and a lot of reporters can't stand him. This is no secret -- a top state columnist wrote a piece not long ago laying it all out for everyone to see.
Being a jerk isn't against the rules. But it does carry a price. When something like this comes along, the reporters and columnists who shape the news not only don't put the story in proper perspective, they pounce.
There is not a single top program that hasn't been caught up in something at least as serious as the UConn allegations. (Anyone outraged by this story should save his righteousness for the NCAA itself.) But when a coach makes time to be buddies with the media -- not the local guys who cover the team day to day, but the national writers and broadcasters who drive the conversation and determine how long a story stays in the public eye -- everyone is just as happy to look the other way.
In UConn's case, we get weeks of phony outrage, as if the fulminating wasn't a thinly disguised excuse to take shots at a guy who makes their jobs tougher.
The people who pay the heaviest price are the ones who make it all possible; guys named Jeff, Stanley, Hasheem and the rest. They'll only get one shot at the Final Four, most of them. And though they've done nothing wrong, they're tarred as cheaters.
Some people blame Calhoun for that. Given the facts at hand, I blame the people who don't seem to realize their grievances are not the story. No one cares whether the coach is nice to you. But thanks for making a week with UConn in the Final Four more pain than pleasure. I wouldn't have thought that was possible.
Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at email@example.com.