Monday, March 23, 2009

A Journalist's Perspective on Opinion

More frequently than ever, I've been asked by readers and colleagues about my credibility as a journalist, being that I blog regularly and am outspoken about my own opinions. Ironically, I feel the need to answer these questions with another blog post.

Throughout life, I've always been taught to question everything and remain a skeptic until undisputable evidence has been shown. My dad told me once to never ever be closed-minded, because in discourse, there is always room for the new and improved to phase out the old and the irrelevant. (Considering my Dad is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, it's a bold statement for someone to make who regularly preaches for something that cannot and never will have proof to justify its following.)

The media is the fifth branch of government, behind the Executive, the Legislative, the Judicial, and the Fed. And in lots of cases, we hold more influence over the American people than the other four branches combined. One thing that always amazes me about journalism is that a common man, such as myself, is expected to regularly hold the powerful accountable and ask them hard, pointed questions in order to seek the truth, and bring it to the people. I regularly speak to my state's Governor, a slew of state politicans, and am on first-name basis with the local authorities for whatever beat on which I happen to report. For minimum wage, I'm required to confront these people and get the real answers. That's why I love my job.

However, my responsibility to the public discourse will only grow in importance the more I rise up the media food chain, so to speak. As I move to bigger and bigger markets and broadcast to more people, my responsibility to the people also grows exponentially. The people, for good reason, expect only the truth, and only the best reporting, 100% of the time. And it can get stressful at the highest levels, I'm sure.

One example is the WLEX 18 newsroom, where I worked last Summer as an intern. I taught myself how to use their professional video editing software and regularly made news packages of my own and had them evaluated by whomever I could find in the newsroom; anchors, reporters, producers, editors, and photographers. All of these people had made their bones doing what I had done and am doing now in smaller markets. And in this newsroom, we got regular updates from city officials and had a constant police scanner feed. We got news updates from the AP news wire, and had an intricate communication system in the newsroom so everyone knew basically everything that was going on, 100% of the time. I realized then that journalists are proliferators of information; we have all the information, and it is our job to get that information out to the people in a compelling, interesting, and objective way.

Being a journalist, and having my background growing up, I never form an opinion on an issue before taking a fair look at the arguments of both sides. I also look at each side's ability to articulate their argument eloquently, reasonably, and logically when forming my opinion. Regular readers and critics of my blog can both reasonably assume that my ideology is more center-left than anything else, given my opinions on current issues.

Despite my strong support of my opinions and my spirit for debate, this doesn't mean that my journalism or reporting of the news will be biased in any way. One of the things I have the most respect for is my job; my responsibility to the people as their voice to the sitting powers. Doing anything to spin my stories anywhere from the truth would jeopardize my credibility as a journalist, and thus, I could lose my job. As such, I always give my 100% best effort at each story I write to make sure my news is compelling, informative, and most importantly, objective.

Some may see this as a proverbial conundrum; if a credible journalist is required to tell the truth wihtout bias, how does one get so outspoken about his or her opinions? This is the question I'm asked, more than frequently. Especially from those with whom I engage in debate. Here is my answer.

As a journalist, a proliferator of information, as someone who has all of the information and is required to distribute it effectively, whose opinion would be better to trust? That of an average media consumer, or the word of a newsman himself, whose job is to thoroughly study and write about the issues we face every day? Not only do I believe that journalists have a right to express their opinions as the rest of Americans do, but I feel that journalists should be encouraged to express their opinion on their own time. While news stories are objective and without bias, i believe a good reporter's opinion on an issue should be valued and respected. And those opinions, if effectively and logically communicated with eloquence, reason, and thought, should be considered valued information.

Hope I answered your questions! Keep reading, keep learning, keep discussing, and most of all, keep thinking for yourselves and be willing to adapt to the newer, better ideas. Always move forward.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Taking a break from politics-- My top 5 concert experiences

I've seen both big-name acts (Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Yes, Alan Parsons Project, Lilith Fair) and lesser-known bands (Andrew Bird, X-Clan, The Walkmen) in both huge arenas and small local venues. I'd have to say the best shows are when the band personally connects with the audience in a smaller venue. That being said, here are my top 5 concerts.

1. The Walkmen, at Jillian's in Louisville (now closed)
During my Junior year of high school, I impulse-bought tickets with my friends Kelley, John, and David, all from our drumline, to see The Strokes. I was indifferent about The Strokes; they weren't my favorite band, but I didn't hate them, and I like seeing shows, so I forked over the $25.

It was in a ruddy, smoke-filled basement in downtown Louisville, with about 400 other people all crammed, shoulder-to-shoulder. I had X's on my hands, because I was 16 and underaged. We got there early, so I got close to the front, and it was standing-room only, so you had to be comfortable on your feet. Some band called The Walkmen was opening for The Strokes, and they were from NYC. I'd never heard of them before, but I was optimistic.

And holy shit, I was blown away. Easily the best concert I've ever seen. These guys weren't the best musicians, but their sound was unique like Id never heard before. Rough, gritty guitar distortions, energetic drumbeats, eclectic piano and organ sounds, and a frontman who had enough energy inside of him to power Las Vegas for a week. It was a good hour of intense, beautiful, loud, and raw music. They left everything they had on that stage.

I've never seen a band get so into the music they were playing, and these guys were all about making good music and interacting with their audience. We were a part of their show, and the energy we gave them was thrown back to us. I've never seen a better show since. The Strokes were good, but they weren't anywhere near the same level as The Walkmen.

2. Public Enemy, at the Madison Theater in Covington
Me, my best bud Whittney, and my roommate Matias from Finland during my Sophomore year all decided to go see Public Enemy live on a school night in early 2007. Matias discovered the concert online, and told me about it excitedly, because he loves oldschool Hip Hop. I was down, because I'd never been to a Hip Hop show before.

Upon arriving, Matias reaffirmed his love of spirits by buying one of what would be four or five 24 oz cups of bud light that night, and we went immediately to the front and waited for the show to start. Again, the good spots are always standing-room only. How do you watch a Hip Hop show while sitting down?

A band called the X-Clan opened up, and I was actually pretty impressed; the DJ mixed some hot beats, and the two rappers interacted with the audience and busted some dance moves while the other MC was rapping. Not a whole lot of people were there yet, but once Flavor Flav's voice came on the mic as he came out, the room suddenly flooded with people. I fought fiercely to keep my front-row spot.

Public Enemy had a live band; a drummer, a guitarist, a bass guitar, a horn section, a DJ, and for some reason, two guys in uniform holding swords and occasionally doing Kung-Fu routines to the music. They rocked the fuck out for about two hours solid. Chuck D and Flav definitely knew what they were doing. I'd never seen a Hip Hop show before, but I was pleased to see that this one had a plethora of live musicians who could kill at their instruments.

Chuck D and Flav all had fun interacting with the crowd. Flavor Flav repeatedly came around to the front and slapped hands with everyone who held one out (including me and Whittney, who grinned at me excitedly every time Flav slapped her hand) and I even bumped fists with Chuck D at one point. I was puzzled to see Flavor Flav doing pushups in the middle of a song. After the song ended, he got his mic and explained to us what he was doing--


Halfway through the set, I saw a tall black man with a crazy outfit and dreadlocks and sunglasses grinning and bobbing his head to the music. I was moving my right forearm up and down to the music, and I made eye contact with this man. He nodded, grinned, and pointed at me and started moving his right forearm, too. After the song, Flavor Flav told us who the guy was.


Bootsy Collins. The man who invented funk. The funkiest of the funky. And he was on the stage. He grinned, grabbed a guitar from one of the musicians, and sat down on the stage with his legs dangling into the audience. I could have touched him just by reaching out. Dude was like, four feet away. He told us, unintelligibly, that he was going to play a riff on the guitar, and we were supposed to chant something every time he chanted a certain lyric. The band joined in with Flavor Flav on the drums, and we just grooved with Bootsy Collins for awhile. It was righteous.

Since then, that's one of the most fun experiences of my life. A close contender for the #1 spot, I'll have to say.

3. Andrew Bird, at the Southern Theatre in Columbus, OH
Andrew Bird is an eclectic indie singer/songwriter who plays his own genre of music. Along with singing and playing guitar and mallet percussion, Bird is also an expert at the violin, and oddly enough, whistling. It's hard to explain his style of music, so if you're confused, watch this performance and you'll see what I mean.

The Southern Theatre is a high-class, painstakingly ornate concert hall in the heart of Columbus, and I had a time navigating Whittney's car through downtown Columbus evening traffic. When we got there, we had a few minutes to spare, and noticed that our seats, while in the balcony, were right behind a whole bunch of Whittney's old posse from Ohio. She referred to them as well-to-do hipster intellectuals from good neighborhoods, like Circleville who wore their hair long and dressed in thrift store apparel to make some sort of point. While I'd describe this as most likely 90% of Andrew Bird's fanbase, his music can still be enjoyed by pretty much everybody who enioys music.

Bird's opening act was a woman whose name escapes my memory at the moment, but she had a great sound, albeit little soul in her performance. And her guitarist not once looked up from his pedal board at the audience. I didn't feel connected to her performance, despite her music being really good. Probably why I can't remember her name. This is why I prefer not to see big-name acts in huge venues, because it's a largely impersonal and disconnected experience.

However, Andrew Bird had great stage presence, and I watched him work through every minute of the set. Near the end, I couldn't resist the temptation to watch him from the floor instead of the balcony. His trademark is a suit and tie coupled with rainbow-colored toe socks, and lots of cartoonish props strewn thoughtfully across the stage; gramophones, statues, and other fantastical objects all combined was a great visual compliment to his equally eclectic and fantastical sound.

Andrew Bird's violin work was outstanding. During the ends of the songs "Dark Matter," and "Scythian Empire," what he did was play a simple violin melody for one bar, and then step on a recorder to loop the melody he just played. Then, he would play a harmony on his violin to compliment that original melody for a bar, and record that to play another complimentary track over that. He did this until he had a literal string quartet playing in harmony behind him, and then he played a solo over the entire soundscape. It was literally majestic. Andrew Bird isn't the best performer I've ever seen, but he's one of the best musicians I've ever seen live.

4. Ben Folds, at the Gray Chapel Auditorium on the Ohio Wesleyan University campus in Delaware, OH
What Ben Folds lacks in musicianship (and he doesn't lack much) he makes up for in performance energy. Whittney and i saw him the day after we saw Andrew Bird. The consensus of the weekend was that Bird was the best musician out of the two, but Ben Folds was the best performer of the two.

The day after the Andrew Bird concert was a rainy, cold, gray one complimented by ceaseless rain and lots of driving, so thankfully, this venue was indoors. The OWU campus was nonetheless striking, and our visit there for the night was with some fraternity brothers (I forget which one, but they were hella cool hipster-type dudes) Whittney knew from back home. I got my Ben Folds poster from one of the guys there, drank some beers, and ate some local food before walking in the rain to the venue. Just getting in was somewhat of an ordeal, as either me or Whittney had some issue with the will call stand, but after all of that, we finally walked into a large room that went way back with a tall ceiling and concrete floors. The makeshift stage was enormous, and the room quickly filled up. It was standing room only, but we weren't too far back or extremely close. We even saw Brandon and Bill from back in Morehead, both sporting sunglasses despite the lack of light.

The opening act was a white dude wearing white with an acoustic guitar named Eef Barzelay. He wasn't particularly memorable, other than his name and his cover of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two-Headed Boy." I felt bad for the dude, because the crowd was as restless and irritable from the weather and getting in as I was, and they all started chanting to get Ben Folds on stage. He certainly took his time, but Ben Folds and his band came on after about a half hour of dead time when Eef's set was over.

Ben Folds walked on the stage in a nerdy-looking sweater and thick glasses, and did, in fact, rock that bitch like it had never been rocked before. His energy was constant, and he hammered away at the piano and sang his hits. In between songs, he bantered with the audience and fooled around with his music equipment like a 6-year old on Christmas day.

"(presses a button making a loud THUMP sound) Holy shit, that's awesome. (THUMP) Hey guys. (whispering) Check this shit out."


"Shit is so cool."

I could tell he was enjoying himself, which made all of us enjoy it more; that's half of the concert experience. The music can be good, but if the person playing it isn't playing it with heart, it just ruins it for me.

The coolest part of the show was the very last song he played; he gave us all instructions on what to do during the end of the song. He directly involved the audience with his music. He taught one low harmony part to one third of the audience; a middle harmony to another third; a high harmony for the last third. He instructed us to sing it all at once when he started to, at the very end. When that part of the song came in, the band dropped out, and we harmonized, a capella, with Ben Folds. It was angelic. I was floored. The somewhat unpleasant experiences of the day leading up to the concert was all worth it, just for that one moment of beauty.

5. An unknown jazz quartet, at the Jazz Factory in Louisville (now closed)
On May 18, 2004, a great Jazz legend died. That man was Elvin Jones, a highly influential drummer who played for all the greats; Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane (he played on A Love Supreme), Bud Powell, and others. Being a jazz drummer, Elvin was and still is one of my heroes.

On that same day, I went to the Jazz Factory to celebrate mine and my brother's birthdays that night with my family. While it's closed now, the Jazz Factory was once a hip, classy joint in the basement of an old, abandoned glass factory, where $20 entrees are served and excellent jazz musicians from all over graced the stage every weekend. The quartet we saw that night featured an old drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie (wrote the original "Manteca") and some other old Jazz greats. Before the set started, the drummer dedicated it publicly to the late Elvin Jones.

While I put this at 5, because I can't remember the guy's name for the life of me, I was witness to one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen to this day. That's why this concert made the list.

We stayed for both sets that night; the dinner set, and the later set. My eyes and ears were glued to the musicians as they played. The best jazz combos are the ones who trust each other, who watch one another 100% of the time, and are in tune with what each person is doing so much that the performance becomes an organic, fragile experience, dependent on the musicians' ability to listen and play in tune with one another. These guys locked in perfectly. Their very last song on their very last set was a fast-paced rendition of "A Night in Tunisia," originally by Dizzy Gillespie.

At the end of the piano solo, the musicians all looked at the drummer, who started to solo over the complex rhythm he was already playing. He sped up and maneuvered all over his kit, incorporating his feet with his hands as they rolled over the snare, the cymbals, and his two toms. As the drum solo picked up in speed and complexity, I looked at the drummer's face and saw that he was crying; his eyes were closed while he was playing, but there were tears. He was smiling, and saying something to himself. He kept on speaking to himself as he was playing, and I saw him say the words "Lord," "Father," and "Jesus." My dad, a preacher, pointed out to me that he was praying.

This drummer was praying. With his eyes closed, smiling, during an intense drum solo. Id like to think he was praying for the soul of Elvin Jones. He was playing that drum solo for the man who influenced his playing the most, and praying for his soul as it traveled to the afterlife. And that was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

What about you? Any memorable experiences from concerts?

Friday, March 13, 2009

One small step forward for the USA, several giant leaps backward for Kentucky

In the midst of one of the nation's biggest progressive movements, we see more and more progressive thought and ideology being accepted into the mainstream. "Green" is trendy now; folks are starting to wise up from the Bush administration's mistakes, and Obama is doing his part to right the wrongs of the previous chief executive. Some states are taking advantage of their geography and land layout to help develop alternative and renewable energy. California's general assembly has introduced legislation that would legalize, regulate, and tax cannabis, making their state an estimated $14 billion extra per year in revenue, assuming the bill gets signed into law. And the president has recently ruled that federal marijuana statutes will no longer override state laws when it comes to marijuana. This is just after his ruling to overturn the ban on embryonic stem cell research that Bush put into place. However, despite such progressive actions and ideas entering the public discourse, Kentucky remains an anomaly despite an outright growth nationwide of liberal thought and ideas.

In this post, I'll be looking back at some of the more controversial measures passed by our state legislators; most of which have nothing to do with the present budget crisis, relieving burdens on state taxpayers, or the betterment of the state. While I don't deny Kentucky has done some things this session to help balance our deficit, and that this is a non-budget session year, for the most part our legislators have ignored the needs of the people and have continued to pander to the arch-conservative lobby and the will of the religious right.

Senate Bill 5
Most of us by now have most likely heard about California's Assembly Bill 390, which would regulate the growth, sale, use, and possession of cannabis, as well as provide adequate and accurate education about what it is and its effects on the body from a scientific standpoint, as opposed to the fearmongering standard taught by DARE officers and set by guys like Harry Anslinger. This bill would relieve California's $60 B deficit in less than a decade, as their state's cannabis market already pulls in an estimated $14 B per year. Just for comparison, California's second-biggest cash crop is grapes for their world-famous wine. That totals around $2 billion per year. Kentucky could also benefit from a legal cannabis market very easily financially, as estimates for revenue lie between $400 million and $600 million per year. Either way, it would instantly solve our half-billion dollar budget crisis.

Currently, Kentucky's laws for DUI require a driver to have a BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) level of .07, which is the equivalent of 7 beers/7 glasses of wine/7 shots of 80 proof. Senate Bill 5 is a bill that would allow DUI laws to also extend to THC content in the body. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the active ingredient in cannabis. The difference between THC level and BAC level is that while alcohol filters through your system, you feel its effects from the moment the drug hits your brain to the moment it's completely gone from your system. Hence, alcohol gives you hangovers.

THC can still remain in your body for up to days after you smoke cannabis, even though you could be completely sober. So in a nutshell, this is a bill meant to further punish cannabis users with DUI charges, court fines and prison, even though they may be completely sober at the time they're pulled over. This is the exact opposite of where this country needs to be going with marijuana legislation.

Senate Bill 68
Here in the Bible Belt (Kentucky, the midwest, and the deep south) we're all pretty sensitive about anything involving homosexuality, the homosexual lifestyle, gay rights, and religions other than Christianity. However, our country has been nonetheless making great strides in making gay marriage legal; Connecticut and Massachusetts already allow it. California allowed it briefly before the Mormons led the national conservative/religious right lobby to support Prop 8, which could still be ruled unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, despite the progressive movement for gay rights and Kentucky having much more important things to worry about than oppressing gays, Kentucky's legislature is working really hard to oppress gays. SB 68's language is such that it doesn't directly target gays, but it might as well.

If passed, SB 68 would outlaw adoption by anyone who isn't a legally married couple. Sure, unmarried heterosexual couples would be forbidden from adopting or foster care, but this bill was meant for gays. As the bill's sponsor, Republican (surprise, surprise!) Gary Tapp from Louisville says, this bill was drawn up to more clearly define that "marriage is between one man and one woman."

Don't ask me what a bill like this does to help solve important state issues like Kentucky's budget crisis, healthcare, job market, education, or, say, helping orphaned kids find foster families to live with. As for those things, I'm not sure. But this bill would undoubtedly make the conservative religious right (likely a good 80% of Kentucky's voting populace) happy by further oppressing a minority. Traditionalists win, and Kentucky takes another regressive step backward culturally.

Just for the record, former apartheid-ridden nation South Africa now allows gay marriage.

Senate Bill 188
As the Bush administration's controversial views on the constitution and answering to the people left the White House, Obama came in, promising government accountability and transparency. Conservatives would say he's failed there, but he's certainly willing to hold himself more accountable and be more transparent than the Patriot Act/War on Terrorism/Illegal Wiretapping/Detainment and Torture president we used to have.

Kentucky seems to be following the same path Bush was on as both the House Speaker (Democrat Greg Stumbo) and the Senate President (Republican David Williams), who never agree on anything, finally agreed on something; the creation of a powerful government watchdog group that "oversees the efficient spending of taxpayer money." This apparently involves holding secret meetings, delaying the release of public reports, and being largely exonerated from scrutiny. This reeks of the Bush administration's secretive practices and the "Executive Privilege" Bush constantly granted himself when it came to "matters of national security."

When I asked him about it, Governor Beshear told me it sounded unconstitutional and that it infringes on the duties of State Auditor Crit Luallen, whose only job is overseeing the efficient spending of Kentucky's tax dollars. He said this bill, along with SB 68, will be looked at in the interim. I'm still skeptical as to what he plans to do with them should they reach his desk, so I'll keep all of you informed as I learn more.

Senate Bill 79
Abortion is another touchy topic for ultra-conservative Christians, which, as stated earlier, and as many of you are probably aware, make up a majority of Kentucky's voting percentage. Obama becoming president, combined with the waning health of supreme court justices like Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsberg will likely mean that the president will appoint liberally-minded judges to preside over the SCOTUS. One could infer that Roe v. Wade will remain in effect for a long time should Obama make those appointments in his tenure.

However, while abortion has literally nothing to do with any of the pressing issues Kentucky faces, the senate decided to approve legislation 33-4 that would require women in Kentucky looking to get abortions to meet with their doctor 24 hours before the procedure occurs, and to be shown an ultrasound of their fetus. Like SB 68, the bill's language is such that it doesn't literally speak out against the practice of abortion, but it very openly aims to guilt women looking to get abortions to renege on their decision, which is indirectly a state suppression of the right to choose.

Thankfully, this bill was killed in a House committee before going to the Governor's desk. But I wouldn't be surprised to see it show up in future sessions, so keep an eye open and keep up contact with your legislators.

House Bill 228
I first mentioned SB 5, which targets marijuana users. I also mentioned California's AB 390 which has gotten lots of press. There are also currently 13 states that allow the medical use of marijuana for pain relief and appetite restoration among patients. However, users of an entirely legal drug could soon be punished in Kentucky if HB 228 goes through.

House Bill 228 looks to make Salvia Divinorum, a hallucinogenic herb, illegal in Kentucky. Not because it's harmful; its effects are only temporary, and trips last around 5-10 minutes. But legislators in Kentucky, as we've seen, love to pander to the conservative right to gain those re-election votes.

For those of you who don't know what Salvia is, it's basically an herb that you can smoke or chew. You can buy it at different concentrations, from 5x to 50x or even 100x, so I've heard. After the ten-minute trip, users of Salvia return back to normal and go on about their lives, rather than wreck things and fight and drive badly, as alcohol users might. Kentucky's legislature wants to group this into the same category as marijuana, meaning there would be penalties in place for Salvia users if caught. Again, this is a huge step backward from where this country needs to be headed with both drug legislation and the war on drugs altogether.

I find it quite hypocritical that Republicans who say they want a smaller government, and a less powerful government overall that doesn't intrude into people's personal business, so strongly support legislation like these bills, which accomplish nothing except making local government excessively powerful and regulatory. It doesn't serve the needs of the people to further oppress minorities, or further punish the users of a quite harmless drug, or make even more harmless drugs illegal, or to assert religious dominance over women making personal choices about their own bodies.

I don't think our legislators are listening to the people anymore. I'd like to see this whole bunch out of Frankfort, and have REAL representatives of the people who actually care about the concerns of Kentuckians making the decisions for once.

Me/Steve Beshear 2: Electric Boogaloo

My most recent interview with the governor is online. It's about ten minutes long, so listen at your leisure. A lot of you submitted some great questions to me, so I added those to the ones I planned on asking him. I also asked him about some controversial measures going on in the legislature, and got his opinion on those. This interview was done Wednesday around 1:30 PM.

The questions I asked him:

1. Talk about the potential economic consequences of the 3-billion dollar road plan if it goes into law.

2. What public sector jobs are being created or saved in the public sector with Kentucky's share of the stimulus package?

3. You earlier presented an energy plan to make state government buildings more energy-efficient. What are your future plans to make Kentucky more energy-sustainable over time?

4. The public is pretty divided over the recent passing of Senate Bill 68 in committee, which would outlaw adoption for unmarried couples. What would you do with the legislation if it reached your desk?

5. In regard to public education and accountability, some teachers in the area have expressed concern that schools and teachers are held accountable, but parents and students are not. What can you do to make sure Kentucky's students and parents are held equally accountable for quality education?

6. In response to California's Assembly Bill 390, which would legalize and regulate cannabis, and the president's recent decision to leave cannabis laws up to state government, do you foresee or support similar legislation in future sessions to help relieve our budget deficit?

7. Did the state do research or analysis on whether or not the higher tobacco taxes would be enough a benefit to offset the sales and business lost in border counties? Do you feel the benefit will outweigh the lost revenue from out-of-state consumers?

8. Adjutant general Tonini said earlier we need better communication for when disasters hit Kentucky. What are some ways to improve communication lines between aid workers?

9. Senate Bill 188, which would create a powerful watchdog government agency that performs state auditor duties and conducts meetings in secret, is causing some hysteria. If you've seen the bill, what are your views on the legislation, and is such a program necessary at the state government level?