After two years of covering the administration and public policy for MIRS, I’ve officially taken over the Senate beat.
While I’ll miss some of the leeway to spend a lot of time on enterprise stories and delving into public policy, there are a few things I can tell I’m already going to love about the Senate.
First, I see a lot more of my media colleagues. It’s kind of a nice perspective to know that there are a handful of people who care just as much as you do about getting the story and getting it right. Before I was working pretty independently most of the time.
Then there’s the schedule. Knowing what I’m going to do a day ahead of time is completely new to me. Often in my prior position I had ideas of what I’d like to accomplish, but they’d get pushed toward the end of the week as breaking news, events and other things I covered would pop up.
And I can’t overlook the most important difference: the senators. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the senators I’ve met so far, and how passionate they are about some of the issues they’ve taken up. Of course, I’ve got a learning curve here, but I can’t wait to learn more about the men and women who represent Michiganders in the chamber.
Of course, I’ve got some transitional issues, like coming up with story ideas and things to write about on non-session days. But overall, I’m really enjoying the job two weeks in, and if prior experience serves well I know that soon I’ll be busting at the seams with more story ideas than time.
Today we made the 44 miles back to Bay City from Au Gres in good time.
We had left my car in a Walmart parking lot (with permission) and Kevin made he joke that it was the happiest he’d ever been to see a Walmart.
This was a pretty difficult trip. We upped the miles covered per day without necessarily upping our preparation or doing too much differently from our last trip. We did drop some weight in our packs, and more evenly distribute the weight. But the basic things we carried (tent, sleeping bags, etc.) couldn’t get any lighter without some significant investment. And I would have liked to get a trailer of my own, but that’s a $300 proposition.
I think both Kevin and I came away with a new respect for Lake Huron. Sometimes Lake Michigan gets all the glory, you know? After riding alongside it for miles and miles, we had a lot of great things to say about how gorgeous Lake Huron is. I think we’re both interested in coming back when it’s a little warmer out to fish, swim and really have more fun on Lake Huron.
Our total this trip was 260 miles. My lifetime total, having done a couple trips without Kevin, is just over 1,000 miles of touring. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned a little. But I’m far from being an expert. My advice to anybody interested in bike touring is just to get on a bike and go!
The fourth day was our best yet! We went 50 miles, and my muscles didn’t hurt any more than during a normal day’s workout. Kevin feels slightly differently — for some reason on this trip his knees have really been giving him problems.
Our only issue starting out was the temperature. It was cold when we woke up in the morning, in the lower 40′s. I put on what I had and braced myself. Kevin, a habitual over-packer, showed up with a hat, gloves and a scarf! This is his guiltyish, “I sneaked these into my pack” look…
Kevin and I have a lot of debate over what gets to come with us. Things I nixed this year included a stool, a solar phone charger, a pan, and other ridiculousness. He managed to sneak in apparently a full winter ensemble, a manicure kit, q-tips and who knows what else. I’m still finding things :).
Anyway, it got a lot warmer once we got more inland, and ended up being in the 60′s. We took the ride slow, and had a lot of time for our favorite activity: meeting people.
Among the people we met was a man whose father founded Mount Clemens General Hospital, where Kevin was born. Small world! He showed us a photo wall of his family, including the hospital founder, I believe Robert Allan, who accomplished all that before dying at 45. He also had three daughters, two of which served in the armed forces, and one of which was a helicopter pilot in the military. Which is kind of admirable, considering he had been drafted into Vietmam himself and didn’t like the experience. He made and lost a lot of friends in combat, but it’s great to think that he was still open to the idea of his kids serving.
We also went back and visited some friends we’d made at our first campsite, Rick and Carol. They were kind enough to give us the bathroom code after we had checked in late that night, and we brought them a blizzard to repay the favor. They have a really great system worked out where they have a vacation camper about 20 miles from their real home! But they switch it up so one of them has a shorter commute to work depending on the time of year. Plus their camper is super nice… must feel kind of like being on vacation all the time :).
One of our favorite parts of bike vacations is all the people we meet. The people on this side of the state are so generous and interesting. We haven’t met anybody who hasn’t wanted to know where we’re coming from and if there’s any way they can help us out. They’re pretty amused by us biking so far.
As one lady put it in Oscoda, “Are you biking for a cause or just ’cause you’re crazy?”
As luck would have it, my back tube blew out just as we were pulling into the campground today.
No sarcasm there — believe me when I say it’s about a hundred times more fun to change a tire at a campsite than roadside, with cars whizzing past you. It’s not a difficult task, but it can be ridiculously frustrating. You definitely know what needs to happen, and it seems so simple. But sometimes your tire/tube/both just don’t take direction well. So I tackled the tire while Kevin set up the campsite. Afterward, I was demonstrably a mess:
The campsite, by the way, is in Harrisville. The ratio of natural resources to everything else here is pretty high, but we think we may have spotted a place for a beer later. We’re making dinner tonight, but today we stopped at a place called Connie’s Cafe outside of Alpena. We bought some cookies to go… those are good bike fuel, y’know :)
The ride, by the way, was a short one: 34 miles from Alpena to Harrisville. We knew this was the hilly section (oh my god is it the hilly section) so we decided to make it its own mini-day. The wind was a TINY bit better. It switched directions and was still working against us, but was more of a crosswind than a headwind. But the hills, yeesh.
The next two legs we’ve broken up into 50-ish mile chunks. See you down the road!
They call Chicago the Windy City, but I think Alpena could give Ms. Windy a run for her money.
Kevin and I rode 66 miles straight into the wind today. Straight. Into. The wind. Typically we keep about a 13 mph pace with quite a few pounds of equipment. This leg of the trip. We averaged more like 6-8 mph, mainly because we were riding into a wall of wind.
On top of that, as the locals warned us, pretty much the whole area between Harrisville and Alpena was hill after hill. I believe there’s an area called Black Hills. Our host for the night said the hills there were so steep that a couple years ago they grated them down. They’re still pretty big though.
Which brings me to, our hosts, who were awesome! The Waligora family hosted us here in Alpena. Kevin and Bret, their son, were RA’s together in college, so we’d all done a fair amount of hanging out (in fact, Bret has met my parents, so I was glad to meet his!) We were so thankful for their hospitality, and their dog, Friday, was super fun to play with.
There’s this thing about showers: on a normal day, they’re just a part of your routine. On a bike trip, they become literally the best ten minutes of your day. I love biking, but the sweat of 60+ miles combined with sun lotion and road dirt just isn’t a clean situation. I feel like a whole new person every time I get it all off me (and let’s be real, I lose a couple pounds of grime, haha).
I’m late on getting this post up, but today’s route is light: 33 miles and then some fun at Harrisville State Park.
Kevin and I rode 63 miles from Bay City to East Tawas today, but it felt like 163.
Nah, not really. But it’s hard getting back in the saddle (no pun, that’s actually what bike seats are called) for 50+ mile days without actually putting in 50+ mile days. So even though I’ve been going on 10-15 mile rides and taking spinning classes, I found myself unprepared for the rigor here. I know from past experience though that by day three it all feels natural, and by the time you’re on the last day you wish it were the first day of your next journey.
Here’s an embarrassing fact: last time Kevin and I were on a trip, we brought food and utensils but forgot our camp stove. So this whole riding and then making a meal thing is pretty new to us. But today we cooked up some brown rice at our campsite and paired it with a packet of heat-and-serve Indian food. Delicious! Another food difference is that neither of us are vegetarian this time. But for some reason, biking just induces carb and veggie cravings. So we both picked the meat off our sandwiches at lunch, and decided vegetarian was the way to go at dinner.
This time around we’re trying to cook as much as possible, partly to cut costs and partly to make up for not cooking at all last time, I guess :)
Happy trails, guys! Tomorrow we’re headed to Alpena, so stay tuned.
I’ve long thought that slapping a “gate” on everything mildly scandalous demonstrates a lack of creativity. It long ago branched into the realm of ridiculousness, but it’s officially come full circle: I give you watergate.
No, not that one. The one that describes a series of scandals and crimes in the early 1970′s which eventually forced a sitting president to resign. Which is a big deal.
You know what’s not a big deal? Somebody pausing to take a drink of water.
The “gate” suffix has gone from describing the biggest political scandal in a century or so to describing the mundane.
But between the truly scandalous and the mundane, there’s been a smattering of ridiculous. I give you:
These are, for the most part, society page items. No presidents lied to the American people. The leader of the free world didn’t resign. The whole world didn’t suddenly learn there was a Vice President (hat tip, Spiro Agnew, for making that office worth more than the proverbial “bucket of warm piss“).
I’m not the first one to notice this. But I’m a young reporter interested in the future of my profession, and we need to start getting more creative. C’mon, newsroom up-and-comings, let’s tell the world there’s a new suffix in town. If there’s a “gate,” let’s make sure it at least involves a hint of political scandal.
I was the first to report that former Democratic Congressman Mark Schauer had been pepper sprayed, which I found out while I was covering the state’s Right To Work protest for MIRS News. It was by accident.
I was getting footage in the fray outside the House Chamber when the House of Representatives was voting around noon. From the ground level, the scene was getting chaotic. There were both regular and mounted police at the scene, and everybody was on edge. I couldn’t really tell if the police were pushing in on the protestors or if the horses were getting spooked, but here’s the raw video:
Union protestors weren’t reacting well to the horses, and I turned around to interview one of them. It was while that was going on that pepper spray was deployed, so I didn’t actually see it. But, again in raw video, you can see the reaction of the person I was talking to:
After the pepper spray happened, the scene got chaotic. I had retreated a couple feet to interview protestor Sabrina Bailey, and I was reluctant to get back into the front. I had inhaled some of the pepper spray despite being I think pretty far away from its use. You can see the people in the video covering their mouths.
I was probably 50 feet away from the capitol at this point, but I could see that all the chants and organization had ceased — in a minute or so, the crowd had gone from a cohesive group to rouge individuals. Everybody was yelling something different, and the anger was at a maximum as people learned the House had passed the first of the Right To Work bills.
Then, all of a sudden, the crowd shut up. Everybody stopped talking and was straining to hear. “Who’s talking?” I asked protestors, pushing through the crowd. “What’s he saying?”
Nobody had an answer, but I eventually got to the man in the middle: Mark Schauer. He had a megaphone, he was standing on an orange bucket, and he’d somehow reinstated order — people were chanting and displaying less raw anger by the time I got to him. I didn’t get what he was saying when he was speaking, but here is him turning the speech into a chant (you can see him at the very beginning — look for the megaphone in the center of the shot).
He stepped down, I asked for an interview, and I led him out of the crowd so my camera could pick up his voice.
I shot the video asking him what happened because I wanted to know how he’d managed to diffuse what was looking like a bad situation. What I got was pepper spray, and I tweeted it because at that point I was tweeting everything.
It got quite a few re-tweets, and when Peter Spadafore (@pjspadafore) asked for verification I knew it was a bigger deal than I’d realized. Pete is one of the smarter people I know, and him wanting confirmation from more than one journalist to me meant I’d underestimated this.
I knew Schauer’s was a name that got floated for future elected positions, but I didn’t really put enough together to realize that he was a prospective gubernatorial candidate and this made him look like a RTW martyr.
I got inside and posted raw video kneeling on a couple square feet of real estate on the floor of the Capitol press room.
That video was then picked up by folks like Huffington Post and Daily Kos, and other outlets did follow-up stories with confirmation or after-the-fact interviews with Schauer. Fine by me: word getting out about my outlet’s outstanding coverage doesn’t bother anybody.
To be clear I don’t have an agenda, I’m a truly neutral reporter, and I’ve had little interaction with Schauer (in recent memory, I covered him at one Proposal 2 event). I wasn’t working for MIRS when he was in Congress. In fact, my first question to him was along the lines of “You’re Mark Schauer, right?”
I didn’t directly see Schauer get sprayed. But what I did see happen was a very volatile situation get tamed by one man. To me, that’s the story here.
NOTE: This is not my best video work. Much was taken while getting jostled by folks and/or worming my way through a giant crowd with a tripod I didn’t have room to set down. I’ve posted raw video here because this is the raw story — for edited video of some of these events you can see my MIRS video re-cap of the protests here.
This story’s not over yet, but ProPublica’s Free The Files project is getting it right when it comes to ethically compiling campaign finance records.
The latest in ProPublica’s financial disclosure efforts takes advantage of a recent FCC ruling that compelled broadcasters in Top 50 markets to put their political ad buy information online. It’s a rule that’s been freshly deployed and will evolve a little over time — for now it’s just the largest 4 broadcasters in each Top 50 market that are compelled. But it’s a huge step forward for campaign finance reporting.
Previously, station files had been accessible but not readily available — you’d have to drive all over the country and crunch numbers for probably years to get a clear national picture of political ad spending. Now, they’re available but not aggregated. Although they’re on the web, they’re not searchable. Want to know how much money Obama’s spent on top 50 markets in Ohio? Have fun looking through the 1,568 available files in that state.
Enter ProPublica, the investigative, independent, non-profit newsroom. The publication has created what I think is a very good system that unlocks these files with public help, but without jeopardizing the integrity of sometimes-delicate campaign finance reporting.
The system is that you can “free a file” from any market you choose or randomly assigned. You look through the file and enter four bits of information you glean from it: which candidate or committee has purchased the ad, which advertising agency purchased it for them, what the order number was and the gross total of money spent. This process involves no training, but there is an example document highlighted.
Once you’ve done that, the information doesn’t go live. It takes another randomized document-reviewer typing in the exact same information for the results of that file to be aggregated. There’s a login process, so the same person isn’t allowed to type in the information for the same file twice.
That’s an important issue for me, because it prevents anybody from gaming the system. In other words, no one individual can try and convince people Joe Candidate has spend $7 million on one ad buy in Detroit unless it’s verified by another person. And even if the other person is in cahoots with the ill-intentioned party, since the files are randomized he or she may have to go through the 300+ files in Detroit to get to that one and incorrectly influence it.
Of course, the double-review system also prevents mistakes. If I accidentally type the order number in where the dollar amount is supposed to go, it’s not going to be reflected inaccurately unless somebody makes the same mistake. In addition, I’m pretty sure the order number and ad agency information isn’t for display, it’s just another check on accuracy.
Anyway, I’ve got an addictive personality and an active interest in accessing the compiled information for the two Michigan markets on the list, so I’m on the leaderboard here.
I’m sure this is the same, probably slightly pathetic reason I’m in the top 5 percent of BeJeweled players worldwide.
Even so, I’m glad there’s a lot of people like me out there who want a clear picture of what’s going on.
The caveat is that the information we’re getting is limited in a lot of ways: swing states, Top 50 markets, top 4 broadcasters. But this is an important step toward more full disclosure — it’s easier now to imagine the day when this information is available online for every market.
Note: it appears The Sunlight Foundation has its own effort going on to try to unlock these files. As it involves training and a sign-up, I’ll have to take some time to check into their system and report back.
While I deeply believe that a reporter should have an understanding of what he or she is reporting on before investing a single keystroke, I take deep issue with Sasha Issenberg’s recent idea of having journalists volunteer on campaigns to get a working knowledge of what goes on inside one.
Here’s my basic premise:
It’s a reporter’s job to accurately depict processes and scenarios they haven’t necessarily been a part of.
One of the things I enjoy most about being a reporter is talking to new people and learning new things all the time. I’ve reported on topics ranging from union contract negotiations to regulatory rules cramping swine ranchers. If anybody reading my stories expects me to have actually been at the bargaining table or have scooped pig poop to really understand these subjects, they’re nuts.
What I excel at is talking to the people who have been a part of these activities, knowing who I can talk to on and off the record on both sides of the issue, asking the right questions, and putting together a comprehensive story based on the information I receive and verify. I’m fully capable of educating my readers on these issues without having been a part of them personally.
I understand the political landscape is a different beast. It’s complex, it’s divisive, it’s an onion, it’s got layers (though for the record, I’m sure the insiders would say that about most any field). I do believe it’s the highest and best civic duty reporters have, and it’s got to be accurate. Issenberg brings up some interesting points where reporters are falling short — poll spin, for instance.
But the logistics behind this don’t work. Issenberg suggests reporters should volunteer on a political campaign to better understand internal goings-on such as voter targeting efforts and statistic calculations.
You know what entry level volunteers do for political campaigns? Stuff envelopes. Knock on doors. Make calls. And my guess is they’re not getting a full run-down of how each door they knock on was arrived at statistically.
That means to gain the knowledge Issenberg is aiming for with this whole idea, reporters would either have to receive special treatment from campaign staff or spend a lot of time working themselves up in a campaign. Both of these prospects leave me a little queasy in terms of non-bias, and that’s without considering the question of which party they’d even volunteer for.
Issenberg gets around this by saying he volunteered with Democratic campaigns since age 12, but stopped when he started reporting. Fine, ok. Not everybody’s done that. Is there a way to rewind? Take a hiatus from reporting? Should we just disqualify everybody whose parents didn’t push them into campaigning on the playground?
The most integral part of the accuracy we value in political reporting is non-bias, and I’d rather not have reporters stewing in what I understand is sometimes the all-encompassing, insulated atmosphere of a campaign office. That’s a in-kind donation, in a sense. You cross the line from outsider to insider, and frankly the insiders are often full of shit, which is why media exist (in an ideal world) as watchdog outsiders.
I think accurately reporting on any given subject without actually being a part of it is part of any reporter’s job.