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The thoughts of a young journalist in southeastern Michigan

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Defending the White House press corps questioning of the fiscal cliff at Obama’s gun press conference

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It’s been a tough week across the country when it comes to guns. Twenty children are dead after a son of one of the teacher’s in the building came inside Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. It’s brought back a large debate in the public arena regarding “gun control,” that is, what regulations should be placed on weapons in a country where the Second Amendment currently allows for residents to bear arms.

I’m not going into that debate here for several reasons: this is a journalism page, not a gun page and frankly, it’s one I’d rather not have after seeing so much of it in the last week. It’s been tough seeing people at church cry, and asking about the gun restrictions with others in the community I cover. It’s hard to watch when you know those 20 kids will not get to grow up like they deserve to.

But I will venture into a topic related to this issue and reaction about the White House Press Corps Wednesday. President Barack Obama spoke regarding a special panel, headed by Vice President Joe Biden, that will examine the gun control issue in the future.

After the president was done speaking, the White House Press Corps then began asking questions. But the questions weren’t related to gun-control; they related to the looming “fiscal cliff,” the expiration of the Bush tax cuts that will trigger increases in taxes for everyone in the nation.

This prompted a backlash among many, seeing the press corps as an agency not worried about gun safety, the topic of the press conference. It even prompted a parody hashtag on Twitter, consisting of people making fun of the press for their lack of questioning on the topic.

[View the story “Reaction from the Press Corps questions” on Storify

I’ll defend the press corps and their reasoning for asking off-topic questions here, because there shouldn’t be any outrage over their decision. One reason of this happens at every press conference; whenever the president is made available to the press, questions regarding topics the president doesn’t address always come up. It’s the nature of the reporter’s job: ask questions of the president regarding policy and other important subject matters. The president knows having a press conference opens him up to questions on any topic.

Gun discussions have become a very public topic. Everyone has an opinion, and the president has expressed his several times, including back in July after the movie theater shooting in Colorado that left several people dead during a midnight showing. It’s a topic that’s getting a lot of talk right now, and the decision was made to move forward with the special commission

Of course, there was no answers when the press asked questions regarding guns after the shooting, being told by the White House “it wasn’t the right time.”

But on the flip side, the fiscal cliff talks, which some people say could spark another recession in the United States economy, is a subject that’s shrouded in secrecy in Washington. Speaker of the House John Boehner held a “press conference” Wednesday which lasted a brief 54 seconds addressing the president’s proposed plan. Many of the talks between legislators and the executive branch have been behind closed doors and no one has come out too much on those secret meetings. So why wouldn’t the press corps ask questions on a topic that’s rarely talked about by leaders that could affect millions of Americans?

Gun violence is horrible in this country, no doubt. Something has to be done. I don’t know what that is, but a panel is going to investigate it. Not much will happen until then, at least at the federal executive level. But with the president being so scarcely available for questions (he’s averaged 1.66 press conferences a month since his term began, and went eight months without having one earlier this year), the press corps jumped at the opportunity. Isn’t that the job of reporters?

Written by David Veselenak

December 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Calling the election early made upset some, but it’s better than going back in time

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The Five Thirty Eight blog on the New York Times site captivated a lot of people this election cycle. And for good reason.

You can’t always get what you want. Whether it be in politics, life, work, nothing seems like it will always go our way.

The same goes with voting for president via the electoral college. It’s one of the strangest concoctions our Founding Fathers put into place: State by state, votes are counted, and state votes determine who is the executive of the land.

No matter what your take is on the system to elect the president, it’s not going anywhere right now (although there are movements to institute the popular vote as the deciding factor). Neither is the technology, knowledge and skills of those who cover the race and can predict with great precision how the race will go.

I saw at least one post from someone on Facebook Tuesday night decrying the decision to call the race for Barack Obama before all votes were in, especially in states like Alaska. The argument was that no American should feel like their vote doesn’t count, and by the calling of the election at 11:12 p.m. at night, those Americans feel left out of the democratic process because of the call.

I say: get over it. The press is doing their job.

Political number geeks found their savior this year in Nate Silver, who has attracted more attention than any other reporter at the New York Times than perhaps Judith Miller or Jayson Blair. Unlike those two, the attention was positive: Silver and his Five Thirty Eight blog used numbers and polling data to accurately predict the outcome in every single state for the presidential election. He became an election rock star, doing media tours and becoming the target of attacks from conservative pollsters who decried his prediction of a second Obama term. Silver details the results in the TimesCast below:

 

And it’s popular. Nate Silver’s blog accounted for 20 percent of all traffic to Monday, an enormous indicator that those looking at national websites for pre-election news believed his data and invested their time in reading it. That’s pretty powerful stuff. And with an indicator like that, doesn’t that show that the reader and several others want to know what the best scenario is for the presidential race?

The abilities of many media companies to accurately predict election results in the presidential race is amazing. States were being called left and right shortly after the polls closed. My home state, Michigan, was called as the final precincts in the Upper Peninsula were closed at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Barely any results had trickled in before the decision was made by predictors to award our 16 electoral votes to Barack Obama. And it stuck, with the president winning the state with almost 54 percent of the vote.

Which brings me back to my original statement: why would we want to go back in time when election results weren’t determined until the early morning the next day? The technology and knowledge is available, why shouldn’t we use it? We live in an age where people want to know what’s going on faster and delivered as quickly and accurately as possible. Why shouldn’t we exercise our First Amendment rights to gauge the election as it’s happening?

Of course issues such as Florida in 2000 do come up. There’s no doubt about it. But issues have come up again in Florida this election cycle, and it hasn’t affected the election. That’s how the Electoral College works.

Yes,  it usually means states like Alaska and Hawaii won’t play as large of a role in the election during the night, but they could if the race is tight enough further into the night. They have a combined 7 electoral votes, which could decide an election later into the night. But more than likely, the decision has been made by then. That’s how the system works. Alaska has only voted Democratic once in its state history, and Hawaii has only voted Republican twice since 1960. All three times were in landslide elections where the winner won by a large margin.

I equate it similar to a baseball game: if the home team is leading after 8.5 innings, do you play the bottom of the 9th? No, the game is over. The same concept applies to our current presidential electoral system, except the votes are officially counted when the election is said and done.

I understand the concept of making sure everyone’s vote counts. It’s an important part of our republic. But it’s also important to allow the press in all its forms do its job. Nobody wants another repeat of this to happen.

Written by David Veselenak

November 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm

How to cover the president’s visit: take three, this time in Ann Arbor

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The line for tickets to see the president speak last week in Ann Arbor.

It’s incredible: in less than two years, I’ve been involved in coverage of three presidential visits. I don’t know how it happens, but it does.

President Barack Obama came to Ann Arbor last week to give a speak on college affordability. He ended up announcing he would launch a federal Race to the Top program for the country’s colleges and universities, to encourage keeping the tuition bill low for students (something I admire, but won’t muse about here).

The challenge of his visit to Ann Arbor, however, was to do so at a smaller publication than the previous times. At The Grand Rapids Press, the staff was much larger and more could be done with other interns, photographers and writers. The challenge of covering a presidential visit with effectively two people at the speech and one back at the office assembling, posting and curating content.

Here’s how we did it for Heritage Media:

First, coverage of the lines to receive tickets to see Obama was needed. The line at the University of Michigan was massive with thousands of students waiting for their ticket. Content from the line contained several photos, a printed story and a video, which was shot by me.

Once the big day came, two reporters went to the field house where the speech was taking place, while I stayed back, monitoring the web. After going through Secret Service security, our reporters got into the field house and started sending tweets out on Twitter as often as they could, considering the poor Internet service. We set up a Cover It Live tweetstream in a story post and placed it on our home page, allowing readers without Twitter the ability to follow the coverage live throughout Michigan.

Tweets, photos came in from the pre-speech activities, an a text alert regarding road closures in Ann Arbor around the field house was sent to our subscribers. A pre-speech story, talking to people about what they wanted to hear from the president, was posted to our site before the president even got on stage, as well as a photo slideshow from before the speech.

Finally, the president came out and began speaking. Tweets continued to pour in, and since our live coverage was not coming through because of Internet issues, I was back at our office monitoring the online chatter, retweeting interesting quips that we might not have.

After the speech, a coverage story was posted, along with some photos taken by our sister publication. After a speech story was posted and shared across the other company news organizations in Michigan, another reaction piece was posted, as well as a more in-depth video of reaction from speech attendees.

Follow up the speech the next day consisted of a roundup post of all of our coverage, as well as photos, significant tweets from us and other from the event using Storify and posting it on the site. Not bad for essentially three people covering the leader of the free world.

It’s been great to be able to work days when the president is in town. It seems strange the opportunity has presented itself so many times in my young career. It might be time to set an over/under on how many times this will present itself. I’m thinking about setting it at 6.5. I’ll take the over.

Written by David Veselenak

February 1, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Election night 2010 from Bay City

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I haven’t written an update here in longer than I’d like. I’m hoping to buck that trend here soon, and I’m hoping this post does so.

The Bay City Times building in downtown Bay City on Adams Street. Yes, they already have their Christmas decorations up.

I’ve been here in Bay City since the end of August, and have gotten a big dose of Internet reality. Because The Bay City Times does not print every day anymore, the Web is the most important factor when publishing news. It’s been a newsroom dynamic I’ve been more than happy to participate in, as I’ve enjoyed seeing a digital focus.

That focus was extremely prevalent election night. Because The Times doesn’t print a Wednesday edition, we were able to focus exclusively on delivering online content throughout the night.

My responsibilities were vastly different than my primary night coverage in Grand Rapids. Here, I was assigned several races to cover and monitor, an actual first for me (my time at Central Michigan Life during elections was spent as an editor, directing reporters and looking over content). During the night, I met and spoke with Bay County Library System users about a millage renewal on the ballot, attended their viewing party and watched as they celebrated its passage.

My top priority that evening were two major political races: the 1st Congressional District, which spans Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and dips down into northern and western Bay County, and the Michigan 31st Senate District, which covers Arenac and Bay counties, as well as Michigan’s Thumb. Because of our local mentality, the Senate race, between a Bay City state representative and a former representative from the Thumb, was one of the most watched and was a heated race all the way through election night.

Every time something would happen though, it was online. Our site was filled with election posts from all over the county, including about 10 from myself. Once it was seen that the Republican would win the Senate race, I shot him a call, talked to him about his victory, and posted it. Afterwards, I called the local state rep. that was defeated and wrote up a separate post with his comments on the race, while linking back to the original post with the winner. Through a thread of posts, I was able to link the reader back to the original post, providing the news.

Once 10 posts and a print story for Thursday was complete, I departed the newsroom at 3

My desk circa 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning of election night. I think I'm still recovering, and it's Sunday.

a.m. Election night has always been one of my favorite nights (I still remember watching Tim Russert during presidential election season with his whiteboard on NBC when I was younger), and I was happy to partake.

The model though, was significantly different than any I’ve worked in before, and was, in my young opinion, an improvement. The constant posting online allows readers to absorb shorter bits of info, which can be easier to digest when they are searching in real-time for results on a night like election night. Of course, not being constrained to print deadlines make it all the better as well.

Written by David Veselenak

November 7, 2010 at 9:36 pm

My time at the Grand Rapids Press: Covering the president, Michigan politics and meeting some incredible people

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This week, I wrapped up my first full-time internship at the Grand Rapids Press. The last 14 weeks have proved to be nothing but a rollercoaster.

The Grand Rapids Press building, located at Michigan and Monroe Streets NW in Grand Rapids.to be nothing but a rollercoaster.

Working on the politics desk during an off-year election season allowed me to explore deeper into the world of politics and political reporting. On my first day of work, I met now-Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder during a town hall meeting in May. I’ve been able to cover a congressional debate, report on site from the county clerk’s office on Election Night, as well as the campaign strategy of right-to-work. And of course, there’s been the opportunity to cover this guy.

With a more focused section of the newsroom dedicated to politics, it allowed me to receive stories that required more detail. Using what knowledge I acquired from studying politics in college, including legal jargon and campaign strategies, the ability to learn firsthand about politics, another area I’m passionate about, was an added bonus.

Overall, though, internships are supposed to be a learning experience (at least that’s what every professor I ever had told me). So what did I learn?

Besides working on the political desk, the biggest benefit has been the last two weeks, where I replaced another intern on the night cops shift. Working from 3-11 p.m. covering police activity was not a strong suit of mine four months ago, especially coming from such a sleepy town like Mount Pleasant (at least it was before I graduated). Preferring administrative reporting over police reporting left me vulnerable to a skill set that the professional world craves and yearns for. It’s safe to say police reporting is one of the biggest forces at the Press; I see plenty of space dedicated to the local police and fire happenings in the city, and seems to be one of the biggest forces in readership.

With working nights and covering the happenings of the police scanner, I’ve been able to pick up on accidents and other mischief police are reporting in to their dispatchers, and can sometimes write a short story of 2-4 inches just based off the jabber on the scanner.

The size of Grand Rapids was a huge wakeup call for me. Reporting in town of 25,000 like Mount Pleasant was nothing compared to reporting on a metropolitan area consisting of almost 1 million. So much more activity is taking place here, and early on, I got lost in the shuffle. I’ve now gotten to the point where I can maneuver this city’s streets pretty effectively.

The best part has been getting to know and understand life in west Michigan. I never spent a lot of time in Grand Rapids, so this was a first. I did have to explain to a lot of people that I was new to town and didn’t understand a lot about most of the happenings, and people were more than happy to explain things out. Meeting some of the people I wrote about was incredible, as I got to see a (nearly) 100-year old Puerto Rican lady celebrate her birthday, I got the rundown on how the Gilda’s Club and Ronald McDonald houses work and saw a global family reunion 10 years in the making. To experience some of those types of human interest is unexplainable and worth sharing with the world. Even speaking to former Lt. Governor Dick Posthumus shortly after his wife died in order to tell her story was rewarding and one of the most difficult interviews I’ve ever done. Telling regular people’s stories gets back to journalism’s roots, and shouldn’t be forgotten. This summer was a good reminder of that point.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed my time in Grand Rapids and the western Michigan area. It’s an area I haven’t had a lot of experience with in recent years, and it’s been great being able to visit some interesting places, including

The Grand River, as seen from the Bridge Street bridge. I drove over it every day to get to the Press.

Muskegon, Grand Haven, Newaygo and Holland. Being nearby to Lake Michigan has been a plus, and immersing myself in the west Michigan culture as a self-proclaimed “Detroiter” has shown me what this side of the state can offer.

Up next: I begin as a reporting intern at the Bay City Times on Aug. 31, three days after finishing at the Press. It’s going to be a radically different experience, as the Times is as  much smaller paper, only printing three days a week with a joint edition with the Saginaw News, and is located in a much smaller town than Grand Rapids (To compare, Grand Rapids has just under 198,000; Bay City has just under 37,000).  I’m looking forward to change, and will document my opening comparisons shortly after starting.

Written by David Veselenak

August 30, 2010 at 12:34 am

The war on terror is over-and we’ve lost

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After nine years of fighting since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, it’s safe to say we’ve lost this war.

Image of the location of the proposed Islamic community center a few blocks away from the site of Ground Zero. (Image by USA Today)

And the scary part is, we didn’t lose it in the Middle East. We lost it in the very place that started the conflict: New York City.

The proposed Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks away from where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood has received nothing but criticism and hatred from some, saying building a mosque *at* Ground Zero (another misinformed idea, as there’s nothing at the current site of Ground Zero at the moment) would permanently scar the families of those who lost loved ones in the attacks and would allow the Cordoba Initiative, the group planning on building the center, to begin training terrorists that will lead to the demise of America.

But the striking blow, in my opinion, came Friday night when President Barack Obama spoke to some Muslims during a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar.  The White House has been mute on the subject until last night, when Obama said he supported the building of the center as long as it met local ordinances and standards.

But the indication of the loss came to me as soon as I read this paragraph in the story Aol posted regarding Obama’s comments:

Sharif el-Gamal, the developer on the project, told The New York Times, “We are deeply moved and tremendously grateful for our president’s words.” But Republicans were quick to attack the comments, saying that Obama was focusing on religious freedom and civil rights rather than the feelings of victims’ families and public opinion.

As soon as we begin questioning religious freedom and civil rights, we have lost the war Osama bin Laden started nearly nine years ago on American values.

This type of bickering is exactly what people like bin Laden want us to do. These people didn’t attack us because we’re Christian, he attacked us because of our beliefs and how different they are from his. He attacked us because of the government and freedoms we carry as Americans. When we begin debating over Constitutionally-guranteed rights, what type of nation does that make us? Certainly not a democracy.

How does this apply to journalists? Well, if freedom of religion- the true right this country was founded on- gets trampled on, what’s to say what the next guaranteed right  that will get squished is? There’s been a lot of talk about repealing certain elements of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all those born on American soil are American citizens. The argument for those is that the 14th Amendment wasn’t designed for illegal immigrants, it was designed for those African-Americans who were enslaved at the time.

Yes, the 14th Amendment was designed after slavery was abolished, but if that was the case, the writers of the amendment would have specified as such. That’s the thing about writing constitutional amendments: they don’t just get thrown up and applied. If those writing the amendment meant just freed slaves and African-Americans were guaranteed citizenship at birth, the 14th Amendment would’ve said just that.

This senator, Bruce Patterson, wanted to force reporters to register with the state of Michigan, and charge them $10 for doing so.

But has this affected journalists in any way? In a way, it has. Earlier this year, a Michigan state senator proposed registering reporters into a statewide registry that would require a $10 fee and would have those registering meet several standards, including a bachelor’s degree or higher. Imagine if this bill were passed and became law. Access to information could be easily denied by officials, citing someone’s lack of registering. Freelancers wouldn’t be able to do their jobs. And the phrase  “college journalist” would become a thing of the past. Thankfully, this bill went nowhere, presumably because every other legislator knew it wouldn’t hold up in any federal courtroom.

It’s scary to see Americans bicker over whether or not freedoms should be carried out by a vote of the people. Votes of the people may have the cloud of justice and freedom surrounding it, but those votes don’t mean anything if it infringed on the U.S. Constitution. There’s a reason public sentiment doesn’t equate to law. Which is why the Cordoba Initiative has every right and should have everyone’s blessing to be erected at the proposed site in lower Manhattan. And if it doesn’t, we can call the funeral director to begin arrangements on the death of democracy in the United States of America.

Written by David Veselenak

August 15, 2010 at 12:55 am

The Michigan primary, from the Kent County building

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Election nights can be considered by some to be the worst night to be a journalist. Long hours, short deadlines, and pressure to produce content that is accurate and compelling is difficult.

A Justin Amash for Congress sign in the trash outside the Kent County Building. Funny thing is, Amash won the GOP primary for the 3rd District in Congress by a landslide.

That being said, I love election nights.

There’s something about the shift in power that the people select that gets me excited. The fate of an area, whether it be a city or the nation, comes down to those 12-13 hours the people go to the polls. It’s something we as Americans can share and talk about, because it affects us all.

Ever since the 2008 elections when I was at Central Michigan Life, I eagerly await election nights in the newsroom. That’s why I was ecstatic to partake in the primary Tuesday night in Grand Rapids.

Going to the Kent County building was my task, and I was assigned to e-mail in results as they came. Usually, they were up in the clerk’s office before posted online, so relaying info that could already be online is difficult. The building had very few people in it, consisting of a few Steve Heacock supporters, one Pat Miles supporter and a man from the Associated Press to collect numbers.

Polls closed at 8 p.m. and results began pouring in soon after. With the advent of precincts using electronic pollbooks, many precincts had issues with counting ballots, delaying the final vote total to just past 1 a.m. Strange thing is, the last municipality to turn in their votes was Grattan Township, a small township in eastern Kent County with 3,551 people residing in. It was one precinct, and it was using an e-pollbook. When I approached the township clerk to ask him what took so long (not those exact words, obviously), he said “no” and walked out. Not sure why an elected official wouldn’t talk about election information, unless there was some sort of problem.

The scene inside the Kent County Administrative Building during election night on August 3, 2010.

Politically, the election in Michigan has some interesting twists than couldn’t have been foreseen a year ago. Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder was unknown in Michigan until he announced his candidacy for governor last year. Running on a ticket focused almost completely on the economy and jobs, he beat out four other Republicans focusing more on the right on most issues, including abortion and stem cell research. Snyder didn’t talk too much on social issues, and might’ve been the reason he won. Besides calling on Democrats to vote for him, labeling himself a moderate Republican, Snyder did not partake in as many debates as other candidates, saying “voters are sick of sound bites” (which Snyder still says to this day, which I would classify as a sound bite, but that’s me). He managed to win by more than 90,000 votes.

On the Democratic side, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, the farthest left of the candidates. He beat out Andy Dillon, despite spending very little in campaign dollars.

It has been widely speculated that the winner of the GOP primary would take the gubernatorial race in November. The New York Times has Michigan “leaning Republican” in the governor’s race, a sentiment mostly from the anti-Jennifer Granholm feel many have gathered in this state.

One noteworthy observation: With Snyder putting less emphasis on social issues, the traditional pro-life voter won’t have a candidate in the November election that conforms to the traditional, social viewpoint most are used to. Snyder is anti-abortion, but has no problem with stem cell research, a topic that social conservatives are highly against. Earlier this week, I heard a radio ad from Michigan Right to Life, denouncing Snyder and promoting Attorney General Mike Cox, who the group endorsed (the ad is now gone from their site). The vote shows that social issues took a back seat in Michigan, when previously, they had played in the forefront.

Written by David Veselenak

August 4, 2010 at 11:12 pm