Welcome to the blog of Daniel Walmer, a staff reporter with the Press And Journal. Prior to joining the Journal’s award-winning team in July 2012, I covered municipal government extensively as a freelance reporter for other newspapers in the area. I also interned at the Journal during my college days in 2009, and graduated summa cum laude from Lebanon Valley College with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2010. My blogging interests include politics, Philadelphia sports, and anything else on which I have an opinion worth reading. I once wrestled an alligator and a tiger underwater during a hurricane and emerged with minor scratches. Sorry, that was actually Chuck Norris—I often get the two of us confused.
I recently had the privilege to attend a presentation by Middletown Area Middle School students who participate in the anti-bullying Club Ophelia. I was impressed by the compassion, empathy and courage those students demonstrated in their stand against teenage bullying—a phenomenon that is frighteningly real, even in Middletown.
But sadly, bullying in Middletown isn’t limited to schools.
As a reporter, I follow what local political movements are saying—and I have to say that I’ve never seen a political campaign in a small town that was more vitriolic and personal than the one preceeding Middletown’s recent primary election.
While there are many examples, I’ll mention two that particularly stood out to me.
The website for Middletown Citizens for Responsible Government—a political action committee that mysteriously refuses to name what candidates it supports—posted an “Open letter to Mayor Robert Reid.” The letter snidely attacks Reid—widely respected, in my experience, as a humble man who truly cares about the town—for not endorsing council incumbents and saying the website took one of his quotes out of context. It calls the mayor names and sarcastically insults his intelligence and competence.
Contrast that with the respectful reaction of mayoral candidate James Curry to Reid’s endorsement of a different candidate: “Everybody's entitled to their own opinion, but I'm hoping that the people will look at it objectively and pick the candidate who's best suited for the job.” It still gets the point across, but without the rudeness.
The second example is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, a Facebook page that claims to belong to a Penn State Harrisburg student (although Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was the name of a character from the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The page, which drips with sarcasm, venom, and foul language, has consistently attacked candidates who disagree with council and their supporters. It’s accused people of allegedly abetting sex offenders, looking for personal monetary gain, and not paying taxes; called them names like the “secret squirrels” and “varmint”; and even created crass graphics to make people look foolish.
With attacks like that, what decent person would want to be involved in the public discussion to make Middletown better?
I’ve also seen childish attacks flung at the current borough officials—comments about someone’s appearance; claims that the a town leader is intentionally trying to bankrupt the town, like a comic book villain; rude, photoshopped images of borough officials.
If there is one thing that can definitely said about Middletown, it’s that the issues it faces are complex, and reasonable people can disagree without being stupid or dishonest.
As a reporter, I frequently get calls from people on both sides of issues—and, quite honestly, I’m often disappointed at the level of discourse. Most of the “tips” tend to focus on the legal records or other misdeeds of one person or another rather than actual policy issues.
Now, I do my due diligence to investigate the validity of these finger-pointing tips, but wouldn’t it be more useful to focus on the issues that will determine the town’s future?
At the end of the day, the negativity probably causes more problems than anything else, because it tarnishes Middletown’s reputation and discourages civic involvement.
Middletown is recovering from a brutally negative primary race, but the town’s political future still hangs in the balance in November’s general election.
As we approach that election, perhaps we should take the words of one Club Ophelia student to heart: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
“We have to do something,” U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy said in December, advocating for gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre.
Before I go any further, this post is not about gun control. It’s about a certain type of thinking that follows tragedies.
When a tragedy happens—a hurricane, a murder, a human rights crisis—people have a natural tendency to want to do something, anything, to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. The result is poorly thought-out actions and laws that create more problems then they solve.
When Soviet spies were infiltrating our intelligence, “we have to do something”—resulting in the 1950s Red Scare that persecuted thought and banned literature.
Sexual abuse in daycares in the 1980s? “We have to do something!”—resulting in mass hysteria that led to the accusation of many innocent day-care workers and leading many promising child-care professionals to chose another profession.
The do-something phenomenon struck home locally in 2011-2012 with the sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Although the scandal involved a small number of prominent figures—all no longer involved with the program—some people advocated for canceling full seasons of Penn State football.
When one online commenter pointed out that this would negatively affect many people not involved in the scandal—the current players and coaches, the local economy, all Penn State fans—a supporter of canceling the season coldly responded, “it’s called collateral damage.”
Now, if someone could have shown me how canceling Penn State’s season would have prevented future similar tragedies, I might have supported the move, but its advocates seemed to be mainly aiming for the emotional satisfaction of “doing something”—even if it hurt other innocent people for no reason.
So, getting back to gun control: it’s a blindingly relevant fact that none of the gun control legislation being proposed in the name of Newtown would have actually prevented Newtown. Connecticut has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country; background checks succeeded in preventing Adam Lanza from purchasing a gun, but he found another one. Better mental health programs and banning violent video games (everyone’s favorite!) probably would have fared no better in stopping Lanza.
To be clear, I support some of the gun control measures that have been proposed, particularly closing the “gun show purchases loophole” on background checks. The NRA’s opposition to some common-sense gun control measures makes no logical sense (and is entirely based on the even more popular logical fallacy of slippery slopes). But I base my views on the effectiveness of potential legislation rather than an emotional reaction to Newtown.
I can’t put it any better than Washington Post Writers Group columnist Kathleen Parker: “This is not to say we should do nothing. But, lest we delude ourselves, whatever we do, we will do because it makes us feel better.”
At the time of this writing, the Phillies are 18-21, tied for 3rd place and 4 games back in the NL East. It’s certainly a disappointing start, and the offense has been dreadful, but it’s not quite time for fans to panic. The Phils have consistently performed poorly at the start of the season during their recent successful seasons, and it’s far too early to draw any definite conclusions.
Still, the team’s struggled against a relatively easy April schedule, and has a brutal stretch of games coming up. They’re coming home to face two offensive powerhouses, the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds—against whom they are 0-5 so far this year. After facing the awful Marlins, they then go to Washington (best record in baseball last year) and play four against the Boston Red Sox (best record in baseball this year until recently).
Actually, this tough stretch of schedule is a blessing in disguise, because it will reveal whether the Phils are a contender or a pretender. Perhaps they can surprise people and hold their own through this difficult stretch. But if not, the Phillies are a classic trade deadline seller: a team without enough talent to make the playoffs, but with enough good players to attract trading partners. Pitchers Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon (why keep an elite closer on a non-contending team?), Second Baseman Chase Utley, Third Baseman Michael Young and Catcher Carlos Ruiz could potentially bring in a haul of prospects in trades.
Unless they make these trades, the Phillies could be heading toward long-term disaster, with an aging roster and a below-average farm system. Trading away their top players would probably jettison their ability to win in 2014 as well as 2013, but could set them up for success in the long-term future.
With the challenging schedule ahead, we’ll know if 2013 is a lost cause soon enough.
Religion and Science: Why Can’t We All Get Along?
In a recent edition of the Press And Journal, we published a picture of youth from New Beginnings Church carrying a wooden cross to reenact the events of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The action symbolically fulfills Jesus’s command to his followers to “carry your cross”—that is, sacrifice for the faith—and it’s a fairly common practice among Christians of many denominations.
So I was surprised to hear someone refer to the participants in the cross walk as “freaks.” In later conversation, the person admitted that he thinks all people who participate in the sacrament of communion (almost all practicing Christians, about one-third of the world’s population) are “freaks.”
The conversation, for me, was further confirmation of the modernist philosophy that permeates our culture: that scientific knowledge and experience is truer, or at least more valuable, than spiritual and mystical knowledge and experience
Imagine if someone said dismissed science the way some dismiss religion by saying, “Scientists are just marginal freaks with some weird obsessions. I mean, they like to dissect dead cats and mess with particles they can’t even see. How weird is that?” The person would be rightfully ridiculed.
But do the same thing with religion and spirituality—even though revered intellectuals from Leonardo da Vinci to Albert Einstein have celebrated spirituality—and people mistake your ignorance and bias for intelligence.
This is not to suggest that everyone should practice or agree with all spiritual/religious beliefs. I do not practice Buddhist yoga or agree with Buddhist philosophy, but I don’t think those who do are “freaks.” They are attempting to fulfill humanity’s deep longing for something beyond itself in the best way they know.
It’s absurd to be anti-science: the scientific method has led to modern medicine, modern communications technology, and all the other wonders and conveniences of modern life. But it’s equally absurd to be anti-religion: the vast majority of charitable work worldwide has always been religion-based, and religion has inspired both great art and modern science itself.
Religion without science leads to the Inquisition. Science without religion leads to eugenics and the Holocaust.
Only when science and religion work in harmony do we see the best of humanity.
Or don’t. We’re not your therapist.
The Philadelphia Flyers had a bad season—23-22-3 and no playoff appearance after going into the season as a championship contender. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgolov and his 39th ranked .900 save percentage was probably not the team’s main problem. But his nine-year, $51 million contract certainly hurts the team unless he plays at an elite level.
Bryzgalov doesn’t see it that way. He puts the problem back on the media.
“Sometimes you’re reading [articles about yourself] and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, who is this lunatic?’” he said in a rant after the Flyers’ final game. “You [reporters] never look yourselves in the mirror, eh? You’re always good. You never make the mistakes. Your articles are always perfect. In reality, what have you done for this city?”
Bryzgalov raises a great question: what have reporters done for hockey in Philadelphia? Actually, they’ve done a whole lot. Very few fans attend every game. Without the media hyping the team, broadcasting games, and keeping players’ names in the news, any sport in any city would be far less profitable.
Sure, the media makes mistakes. But they also create the environment that allows for Bryzgolov to make $51 million.
Nobody likes a whiner, Iyla. And the “it’s the media’s fault” line is getting old.
Do you think the media is biased?
In the turbulent political environment in Middletown, it’s not unusual—although it can be exasperating—for someone to allege bias in a story we print. In fact, I’m always surprised when people describe a grand conspiratorial agenda that they believe lurks behind every page of the Press and Journal. I certainly don’t have an agenda, and I don’t think our editorial department strives to do anything other than provide high quality, fair, and informative news coverage.
Maintaining neutrality and avoiding bias sounds deceptively simple—just tell the readers what one side says, then give the same amount of room to the other side.
Alas, it’s more difficult than that—reporting, and editing, requires judgment calls. First, deciding to which stories you will give the most attention is a judgment call—you’re essentially telling the reader one issue is important, while another issue is not. To use an example from the 2012 presidential election campaign: which story deserves more coverage, Mitt Romney’s reluctance in releasing income tax forms to the public or Barack Obama’s administration’s reluctance to provide details on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi?
Another problem is what’s known as false equivalency: acting as if both sides of an argument are equally valid when one is objectively closer to the truth than the other. A classic example of this problem is the case of Baghdad Bob, Sadaam Hussein’s press secretary who yelled over the gunfire of approaching American troops to tell the press that American soldiers would never be able to enter Baghdad. To print his comments as if they might be true would be a disservice to readers.
When making the tough decisions that go into reporting the news, all of us have subconscious biases that we can never completely recognize or eliminate. I think diversity of opinion, ruthless self-reflection, and the bravery to trust your own judgment are probably the best things a newsroom can do to eliminate bias.
What do you think? How can the news media do a better job of maintaining neutrality while still giving readers the true story?
Philadelphia 76ers head basketball coach Doug Collins has decided to resign as Sixers head coach following last night’s conclusion to the 2012-13 season. It’s been a tough year for the Sixers after Andrew Bynum, a center acquired in a blockbuster trade that cost the team all-star guard Andre Iquodala, missed the entire season due to knee problems.
Collins is an intelligent man and a hard worker, but it seems that he lost the ability to connect with his players at some point this season, once quite pointedly throwing his players under the bus after a loss.
Collins certainly shouldered the blame for the disastrous Bynum trade—which I still believe was the right move at the time. In the NBA, it’s almost impossible to attract top-level talent if you don’t already have talent, and Bynum is the sort of player who, if healthy, could have attracted other stars to Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the team Collins had without Bynum was mediocre. They overachieved to make the NBA quarterfinals in 2012, but that was misleading because it included a playoff series victory over a Chicago Bulls team that had just lost its top player (Derrick Rose). So I don’t blame Collins for shaking up a team that had already reached its ceiling and taking a risk on Bynum (who had known knee problems). It didn’t work out, but it’s not like the Sixers would have won the NBA championship if they had not made the trade.
It seems that Sixers players were no longer responding to Collins’ coaching style, so he probably had to go. But Collins deserves credit rather than blame for supporting the gutsy trade for Bynum. If he remains in the Sixers front office as some have speculated, hopefully he will maintain that aggressive instinct in signing personnel.
So, remember those supposedly “classic” works of literature that you had to read in school instead of reading novels that were actually entertaining? Which are the ones you really hated?
Here’s my list:
1: The Awakening by Kate Chopin: I just detest the plot of the story that is celebrated among feminist literature: A woman in Louisiana at the turn of the 20th Century decides she’s oppressed by the male-dominated culture, and decides she doesn’t want to be a wife and mother anymore (never mind that she has a husband and children). But she can’t break free of society’s constraints, so she decides to find her freedom by drowning herself in the Gulf of Mexico.
I’m all for feminism, I really am—women should have the same opportunities in life that men do—but I hate this kind of selfish, whiny feminism that doesn’t care about how one’s actions affect others (like the children in The Awakening who will have to grow up without a mommy).
2: On the Road by Jack Kerouac: Nothing happens in this book. Like, you’re reading about these guys driving around the country thinking some actual plot is going to occur, and literally nothing happens. SPOILER ALERT: Nothing happens.
3: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: There’s actually a good plot here about forgiveness and redemption, but it gets lost in the awful over-dramatic, unrealistic early 1800s writing style. And I can only take someone describing a tree for so many pages.
4: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls: I could replace this book on the list with any of the other “my pet dog dies and it sucks” books in the literary canon-- “Old Yeller,” for instance. The point is, the average person lives a lot longer than the average dog. So if you’re a kid and you have a pet dog, the dog is probably going to die before you. Don’t expect me to get all emotional about it.
5: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles: Kill your father, marry your mother? This one’s just weird. And one thing I never understood about the Greek plays: people plucking their own eyes out in grief. Ewwwww. How do you do that?
These are the “classic” works that I hated having to get through. What literary works did you love to hate?
Please indulge me for a moment as I complain about complainers—a sort of meta-complaining, if you will.
I first began to mount this soapbox a few weeks ago after writing a story that said: Met-Ed and Middletown borough have found a way to make needed repairs to an electric station without shutting off power to the town, as previously feared. How did someone react to this good news on the Press And Journal Facebook page? “It must be all about the mighty dollar for Met Ed!”—or something like that.
You can’t just be happy they’re not shutting off your power? Since when did a business operating properly and giving you the service you expect become a bad thing?
When I look around Middletown, sure, I see the problems: dilapidated buildings, crime, etc. But I see lots of things to be thankful for: good, friendly people, food in people’s bellies and shelter over their heads. Great places to eat, good teachers for the kids and sunshine. A river, a train station, and an airport nearby.
I propose that everyone agrees to stop complaining for a month and focus on what we’re thankful for. Perhaps that would give us a new perspective on our problems.
So there. I got that off my chest. Now I feel better.
Boy, complaining really is therapeutic.
Poor weathermen. They’ve got to be up there with us journalists for the most criticized profession.
And these days, with our cold, wintry spring yet lack of snow, bashing weathermen has become as popular as bashing Congress or saying you don’t like Carly Rae Jepsen’s song “Call Me, Maybe” but secretly listening to it when no one is around.
The weathermen are never right, people say. They have the only job where it’s okay to be wrong half of the time (I hear some palm readers aren’t all that accurate, though—but I digress). They sensationalize everything to make money. Blah blah blah.
I have the same problem with these criticisms that I do with most criticisms of doctors. As a society, we’ve bought into the myth that The Scientific Method has allowed us to learn Everything There Is to Know, and when we don’t have the answer to something, we get mad.
Weather forecasting is a difficult and imprecise art, but still a worthwhile one when compared to life before weather forecasting. How often today does a hurricane, blizzard or major thunderstorm hit without any prior warning? Sure, weathermen sometimes predict storms that don’t materialize, but it’s better to warn residents of the possibility. And even when they are right, they don’t get the credit, such as the correct prediction that Hurricane Sandy would slam into New York.
So give your weathermen a break. They’re breaking their backs, wandering into the elements to give those Weather Channel hurricane reports and provide the best weather information they can for you to plan your day. And they’re doing it all for you.