Blogs > City Editor's Blog

By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Not a pal of this pen

I've noticed a commercial on TV recently for a new product called the Uniball -- a ballpoint pen whose ink is so indelible, the manufacturer boasts, that it can't be removed from paper.

The commercial urges us to buy the Uniball because -- I hope you're sitting down for this -- there apparently is a growing criminal trend in which the bad guy washes away the amount and the payee's name written on a personal check and writes in a new, larger number and his own name. (Has anyone ever had this happen to them? I certainly haven't.)

This evil deed, the commercial warns, "is costing Americans $800 million per year!"

$800 million? In a country with a population of 300 million? That works out to $2.67 per person -- roughly the cost of a Uniball pen, I'm guessing.

I think I'll stick with the 59-cent pens I've been using.


Saturday, July 28, 2007

News hawks down

Perhaps now, once and for all, TV news operations will give up this ridiculous practice of broadcasting police chases from helicopters flying overhead.
I used to just laugh at all the live coverage of these chases -- largely a Southern California and Florida thing (though often broadcast nationally by the likes of Fox News and MSNBC) -- because I found it so patently absurd that TV stations, not to mention their viewers, found some sort of entertainment value in aerial footage of police cars following a vehicle down a highway. (I guess we have O.J. Simpson to thank.)
But my laughter turned to outrage on Friday when two news helicopters covering one of these chases collided in the sky over Phoenix, Ariz., and crashed in a park below, killing the two pilots and two cameramen.
Four people are dead, and for what? So that viewers could watch yet another of these silly chases that looked like all the previous chases? Well, I guess the viewers got what they wanted. I mean the only reason people watch these things -- and the only reason TV stations cover them -- is because they hope the chase will end in a horrific, fiery crash that can be shown over and over and over again. And that's exactly what they got: a horrific, fiery crash that's being shown over and over and over again (thanks to footage shot by, you guessed it, other news helicopters that were covering the original chase). Unfortunately, it wasn't the bad guy who was killed, but four men who were doing a job that they never should have been sent to do in the first place.
So perhaps now, once and for all, TV news directors will think twice about putting cameras in the air to cover police chases. And if not, then it behooves the viewers to stop watching these things, because if the news bosses realize public interest has dried up, then surely they will stop wasting the time and money needed to provide the images.
And one more thing: The police chief in Phoenix has hinted that the man whose flight from police was being filmed before the copters crashed could be charged in connection with the four deaths. How ludicrous. Yes, the copters were in the air because of the chase, but it's not like the criminal told them to be up there.
Similarly, if one of our reporters at the Freeman had, God forbid, been killed in a car wreck while rushing to Hudson Valley Mall in 2005 to cover Robert Bonelli's shooting spree, should Bonelli have been held responsible for the accident? Of course not. Media outfits cover news voluntarily -- not because our subjects tell us to -- and we understand the risks that sometimes come with the job.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Barry and Harry

This from The Associated Press:
A day after Barry Bonds called him a “little midget man who knows (nothing) about baseball,” broadcaster Bob Costas said he wasn’t upset with the San Francisco Giants slugger, and he responded with a jab of his own. “As anyone can plainly see, I'm 5-6 1/2 and a strapping 150, and, unlike some people, I came by all of it naturally,” Costas said.
Costas 1, Bonds 0.
And, as you know if you read me regularly: Aaron 755, Bonds 0.
Looking for some respect, Barry? Here’s a suggestion: Hit your 754th home run, the one that will leave you one short of Aaron’s mark, and then retire. It will save us from years of debate over whether your total is legitimate, and it will save you from years of scorn for being the man who broke the most coveted record in professional sports under a cloud of steroid suspicion.

And this e-mail missive from a friend of mine, an unabashed member of the religious right, who read my blog the other day about Harry Potter:
“We've never let our kids read Harry Potter. They've devoured C.S. Lewis fantasy books, like ‘The Chronicles of Narnia,’ but Harry Potter is full of occultic stuff that I don't think kids should be exposed to at that age."
“The Chronicles of Narnia”? Gee, let’s check out a synopsis of “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” from that series that I found online:
“Four London children are sent to a professor’s country home in order for protection during World War II. There they find a magic wardrobe which leads to a mystical land called Narnia, which is being ruled by an evil witch.”
Magic wardrobe? Mystical land? Evil witch? I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair.
My friend’s argument, of course, is that there’s an underlying biblical message in the “Narnia” books. But that doesn’t change the fact that Lewis’ books, like J.K. Rowling’s, dabble in the supernatural.
And for that matter, there’s plenty of witchcraft and hocus-pocus in “The Wizard of Oz,” “Snow White” and "Cinderella." Funny, I’ve never heard the Potter opponents criticize those stories.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Wild about Harry

Rhona and I went to Palmer, Mass., on Sunday to visit our son Marc, who's at a sleepaway camp there for eight weeks. We got to his bunk about 10:05 a.m. It was a mere 34 hours and four minutes after the release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," but copies of the book were everywhere. Kids were reading them. Counselors were reading them. There were copies on beds and shelves and tables.
We were puzzled. Having no vehicles, these kids have no access to bookstores, so they couldn't have gone out and bought the book in the preceding day-and-a-half. And with the book having just come out, it was too soon for the campers to have received mailed packages from home. And the camp had opened to visitors just five minutes earlier, so even hand-delivered copies of the book could not yet have flooded the camper population. But it seemed like everyone had a copy.
Then one of the campers in Marc's bunk clued me in. A day earlier, the day of the book's release, some 140 preordered copies had arrived in camp from Internet megastore Either the kids, before they left home for the summer, or their parents, in the intervening weeks, had the sense to order the books online and have them delivered directly to the camp. Brilliant.
Marc, having finished the "Order of the Phoenix" shortly after arriving at camp, and then polishing off all of "Half-Blood Prince" in the weeks before we visited, now, of course, wanted "Deathly Hallows" -- so he could complete the series and, perhaps more importantly, so he wouldn't feel left out in a camp where virtually everyone was reading this thing.
Thankfully, there's a giant Wal-Mart a few miles from the camp -- in the town of Ware, Mass. -- and, even more thankfully, the store had hundreds of copies of the book in stock on Sunday. (Either they ordered way too many copies to begin with or they anticipated the demand from the nearby camp, which always floods the store with customers on the annual visiting day.) And the icing on the cake was that the book was on sale for $18.75, nearly half off the cover price. We gladly bought it for Marc.
By the time we left the camp, around 4 p.m., it seemed there were even more copies of the book being toted around by the kids and the staff members. Apparently, we weren't the only ones who made the quick trip to Wal-Mart.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cheaters sometimes prosper

So much ink has been devoted to Barry Bonds, the home run chase and the allegations of steroid use that I'll keep my comments brief. But I feel I'd be remiss, as a journalist and a lifelong baseball fan, if I didn't comment at all.

April 8, 1974, was one of the most memorable days in baseball history. Virtually the entire nation -- I, at age 10, included -- watched TV that Monday night as the Braves played the Dodgers in Atlanta. And virtually all of us cheered when Hank Aaron parked his 715th home run, the one that beat the Babe, in the Braves' left-field bullpen.

Anyone who was watching that game remembers Hammerin' Hank's mighty swing, the ball clearing the fence, the two fans running onto the field and joining Aaron's home run trot between second and third base, Aaron's mother hugging the new home run king after he crossed the plate, and Braves relief pitcher Tom House handing Aaron the ball. It was a truly great moment -- for Aaron, for baseball, for the fans, indeed for the entire nation.

Now the memory of that great moment is about to be tarnished by a man who virtually everyone -- I, now 43, included -- believes is a cheater. How sad. How terribly, terribly sad -- for Aaron, for baseball, for the fans, indeed for the entire nation.

A man of suspect practices, questionable character and atrocious demeanor is about to supplant one of the most talented, honorable and kind men ever to put on a Major League uniform. The thought nearly sickens me.

But alas, at some point in the next few days, the record will show that Barry Bonds has hit 756 home runs, one more than Aaron's career total of 755. It's a virtual certainty. Know this, though: When that day comes, if you ask me who the all-time home run king is, my answer will be the same as it is right now: Hank Aaron. Barry Bonds' home run total, in my opinion, will be zero.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

The sport of kings ... and queens ... and jacks

When, exactly, did poker become a sport? It's a game, to be sure, but a sport? Well, it must be. After all, no television network shows more poker tournaments than ESPN, the nation's 'round-the-clock sports broadcaster. And stories about the recently completed World Series of Poker appeared in -- where else? -- the sports sections of America's newspapers (including the Freeman).

Funny, I always thought of poker as the consummate anti-sport -- an activity undertaken mostly by overweight, out-of-shape, cigar-champing, beer-drinking men who would run out of breath before reaching first base in the company softball game. But apparently this age-old, sit-around-the-table card game is, in the 21st century, an accepted form of athletic competition.

Seems silly to me, but the upside is that next time my wife suggests I get off the couch and do something athletic, all I have to do is invite a few friends over for some hands of five-card draw, seven-card stud and Texas hold 'em.

I just hope I don't have to lift too many chips. That could be strenuous.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

No ringside seats for us

There’s a pretty good rumor going around that Freeman Life Editor Ivan Lajara and I appear in the now-infamous Jim Sottile/Mari Ann Sennett bar fight video. Rest assured, we weren’t there, but even Ivan and I were taken aback when we went back and looked at the clip and noticed the two people alleged to be us.

If you look about a third of the way up the bar in the video (which appears below), you’ll see two guys talking to each other – one with a dark T-shirt and a beard, the other wearing a lighter shirt and a baseball cap. Save for the fact that the bearded guy isn’t wearing glasses (which I always do), the man in the dark shirt most certainly could be me. And the other guy bears a striking resemblance to Ivan, though I’ve never seen Ivan in a baseball cap, and he tells me he never wears one.

And mind you, among the people who thought these two guys were Ivan and me were NOT just casual acquaintances of ours. One was Ivan’s wife, and another was former Freeman reporter Teresa Masterson. And our longtime Northern Dutchess bureau reporter, Patricia Doxsey, who’s known Ivan for more than six years and me for nearly 20, also did a double-take once the two guys in the clip were pointed out to her.

Ironically, Ivan and I, who virtually never spend time together outside the office, WERE out together after work that night – but it was at the Dietz Stadium Diner on North Front Street in Uptown Kingston, not Mariner’s Harbor, on Lower Broadway, where the fight took place. And we didn’t leave the office for the diner until about 12:15 a.m., some 30 minutes after the video was shot. (Note the time stamp in the lower left corner of the frame.)

Given how legendary the Mariner’s incident has become – our video clip has nearly 22,000 hits at this writing – Ivan and I regret that we weren’t there to see the altercation in person. But, alas, being the dedicated, hard-working journalists that we are, we still were toiling away at putting out the next day’s newspaper at 11:45 p.m. last Thursday instead of enjoying a couple of beers and the unexpected side show.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

How to cover a bar fight

Friday was one of those days at the Freeman when a single story required a lot of hands, but the hard work and long hours paid off.
If you're a Freeman reader, you know I'm talking about the Jim Sottile-vs.-Mari Ann Sennett altercation at Mariner's Harbor.
It's not exactly an average bar fight when the participants are the Kingston mayor and the wife of a district attorney candidate, and we weren't about to treat it like an average bar fight.
The vast majority of the leg work on the story was done by our political editor, Hugh Reynolds, a decades-long Freeman veteran who arguably knows more about the inner workings of Kingston and Ulster County politics than anyone else in town. Hugh -- or Huge, as we like to call him -- nailed down the facts like no one else can, and he created what I believe to be the most comprehensive account of what transpired late Thursday in the bar area at Mariner's.
Paul Kirby, our Kingston City Hall reporter, gets an assist for working the phones to get comments and background from some of the city's key players, and for securing the security camera video of the scuffle. And even I got in on the act, nailing down some of the particulars about police involvement -- or, rather, the lack of it -- from city Alderman-at-Large Jim Noble, who was kind enough to give me a few minutes on the phone even as he was rushing out the door to Friday evening's Children's Day Parade.
And then there's Ivan Lajara -- the consummate behind-the-scenes player whose title at the Freeman, Life editor, doesn't come close to explaining how much he contributes to so many facets of our product on a daily basis or how much he truly is a newsman at heart.
Ivan -- a whiz at all things computer and Internet -- spent the latter half of Friday afternoon and most of Friday evening working to make the security camera video adaptable to our Web site. He started with a video file on a CD, supplied by Mariner's, that we couldn't even view on our Freeman computers because of various compatibility problems, but he ultimately waved his magic wand enough times so that, before the night was up, we -- and all of our online readers -- were able to watch each and every second of the mayor and Mrs. Sennett going toe to toe (or fist to head, or drink to face, as the case may be). A picture -- especially a moving picture -- is worth a thousand words and then some.
I've often contended that newspaper readers don't really care what goes into producing a story; they just want the story available to them once it's written. But this is one of those rare occasions when so many people spent so much time on a single story and did so much good work in the process that I would have been remiss if I didn't trumpet their efforts ... and also say "thanks."
Hugh, Paul and Ivan did a lot of heavy lifting on Friday, and they have my appreciation ... and yours too, I'm guessing.

And by the way ... it seems the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, which covers some Kingston news, also owes Ivan a "thank you." The Record folks note on their Web site that the YouTube video of the fight they posted with their story came from That's the one Ivan prepared and uploaded Friday night at the Freeman office.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pictures not fit for a queen

I can't believe I'm writing about this again, but it's too good to ignore.
Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo, has made public the photos with which someone apparently has been trying to blackmail her into giving up her crown. (See my previous post on this subject, two items down.)
The photos, according to an Associated Press story this morning, show Polumbo's boyfriend pretending to bite one of her breasts through her shirt; Polumbo in the back of a limousine, fully dressed, with her legs in the air and spread; and Polumbo in a Halloween costume holding two small pumpkins up to her chest.
Offensive? Not to me. But the public and the New Jersey pageant committee may feel differently.
The kicker, though, is this: The person or persons who sent the photos to the Garden State beauty queen and threatened to use them against her got them from -- wait for it now -- Polumbo's own "Facebook" page on the Web.
Here's a tip for you, Amy: If you don't want embarrassing photos to come back and bite you on the butt (or, in this case, the breast), DON'T POST THEM ON THE FREAKIN' INTERNET!


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Don't shoot the messengers

Al Gore has been the catalyst for the recent debate over global warming; and Michael Moore, director of the new movie “Sicko,” is kicking up plenty of dust about the affordability and accessibility of heath care in the United States.
The problem is that these are two of the most polarizing men in America. You either love them or hate them. There’s no middle ground. As a result, people have been taking sides on the issues of global warming and health care based NOT on the realities of the problems, but on whether they like Gore and Moore. And that’s a shame.
Peel away the politics, and there’s no denying that the planet is getting warmer and that health care is inaccessible and unaffordable to far too many Americans. But so many people feel such hatred toward Gore and Moore that they’d rather ignore the problems than risk agreeing with their sworn enemies.
Perhaps Al Gore and Michael Moore are not the best spokesmen for such hot-button issues, but right now, they’re the only ones speaking up. It might behoove the American populace, especially the people who can’t stand these two men, to listen to what they have to say and try to forget who’s saying it.


Monday, July 9, 2007

All the news that isn't fit to print

Have you been following this ridiculous story about Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo?
Last Thursday, Polumbo’s lawyer, Anthony Caruso, announced someone was trying to blackmail the beauty queen with old photographs of her and demanding she step down.
Caruso, pressed by reporters, said the photos were not pornographic (a la the Vanessa Williams scandal of 1984). But he wouldn’t show the photos to the media. Then he changed his tune a bit, and said the captions attached to the photos, not the photos themselves, were troubling. But he wouldn’t show the captions to the media.
Thankfully, intelligent reporters started to see this as a non-story (and possibly a publicity stunt) and turned their attentions elsewhere. But then Caruso announced on Sunday that another blackmailing package had been received (and here’s the shocker: he wouldn’t reveal its exact contents), and the media was back on the trail. By Monday, Polumbo and Caruso were doing the rounds on the morning TV news shows – all of whom were ready, willing and able to lap this thing up like they were dogs dying of thirst -- and the story was the lead item on Yahoo’s online news site for most of Monday morning.
This is what qualifies as news today? The lawyer for a completely unknown, non-celebrity beauty queen claims she’s being blackmailed – and won’t even offer proof – and this becomes more important than the carnage in Iraq, the deadly flooding in Texas and the devastating wildfires in the western United States? C’mon, even the news that Sony is cutting the price of its PlayStation 3 by 17 percent is more exciting!
I mean, for heaven’s sake, it’s not like the person being blackmailed is the president, the speaker of the House or -- God forbid! – Paris Hilton. It's only Amy – hold on, what’s her last name again? – oh yeah, Polumbo. Sorry, had to go back and look at what I typed a few paragraphs ago.
Sarcasm aside, if this woman really is being threatened, I hope the appropriate law-enforcement agencies are looking into the matter and catch the person responsible for the blackmail. But until then, do we really need constant updates of a story that barely was interesting to begin with and in which there’s nothing new to report?


Saturday, July 7, 2007

An Inconvenient Ruse

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I find it hard to believe that people actually are criticizing today’s “Live Earth” concerts and their goal of drawing worldwide attention to the issues of climate change and global warming.
The arguments from the detractors (read: people who don’t like Al Gore) are that it’s hypocritical for performers to urge energy conservation at concerts they reached via fuel-guzzling jets and gas-guzzling limousines; it’s hypocritical for fans at the concert sites to support the intent of "Live Earth" after driving to the stadiums in carbon-emitting cars; and it’s hypocritical of both the performers and the home viewers to get on the Gore bandwagon while using untold megawatts of electricity to present and watch today’s shows.
These arguments are short-sighted and miss the point.
“Live Earth” isn’t about conserving energy today. It’s about getting people to change their energy-consumption habits over the long term as a way to reduce carbon emissions and, consequently, slow the pace of global warming. If everyone who watches these concerts today heeds that message, the resulting energy conservation in the coming weeks, months and years will more than offset the amount of energy being used and the amount of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere by way of today’s events.
And even if you’re not in the Gore camp and you don’t believe human activity is to blame for global warming, what would be the harm in conserving energy? If nothing else, such simple practices as using energy-efficient light bulbs, reducing home electrical use and using your car less often will save you money. And I think we ALL can agree on the benefits of that.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Do you believe in overstatement?

Quite by accident, I wound up watching the Nathan’s hot dog-eating contest Wednesday afternoon. (I turned on ESPN expecting to find “Sports Center,” but they instead were covering the annual Fourth of July frankfurter frenzy live from Coney Island in Brooklyn.)
With about two minutes left in the 12-minute competition, and American Joey Chestnut leading, ESPN color commentator Richard Shea proclaimed – I kid you not -- that if Chestnut defeated six-time defending champ Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, which he ultimately did, it would be “the greatest moment in American sports history!” (And no, Shea wasn't being sarcastic.)
The greatest moment in American sports history? Is this guy for real? I’m not even sure hot dog-eating qualifies as a sport. But even if it does, we’re to believe that Joey Chestnut’s ability to scarf down a few dozen wieners is a greater American sports accomplishment than the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviets and ultimately winning the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics? A greater accomplishment than Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin? A greater accomplishment than Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” in 1951? OK, Mr. Shea, whatever you say. You probably also believe Barry Bonds has never taken steroids and that O.J. Simpson is close to finding “the real killer.”
That said, it is worth lauding Mr. Chestnut for eating 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes -- because I don’t think I could eat 12 hot dogs in 66 minutes.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

No iPhone for me

I continue to marvel at all the hype over Apple's new iPhone -- the gotta-have, pocket-size gadget that lets you make and receive cell phone calls, surf the Web, take pictures, listen to music, watch video and, I assume, cure cancer and bring about world peace all for the low, low price of $500 (activation fee, cost of add-on services and the expense of canceling your former cell phone account not included).
I have a cell phone. I got it for free last time I signed up for service.
I have Web access -- not in my pocket, mind you, but I'll find a way to survive with the handicap of having to actually sit in front of a computer, with a 19-inch screen, to use the Internet.
I have music-playing devices coming out of (and into) my ears -- home stereo, radio/CD player in my car, CD player built into my home computer, CD player built into my alarm clock, a little MP3 player that cost next to nothing and can store a megabyte of music, and so on.
I have video-viewing capability -- no less than three TVs, three VCRs, three DVD players and three computers with DVD drives in my family's home. Oh yeah, and a portable DVD player that we bring on vacation.
And though I can't cure cancer and bring about world peace, it occurs to me that the iPhone can't either.
So, as it turns out, I have sufficient gadgetry to perform all the tasks that an iPhone can handle. The only difference is that I can't perform them all on a single gadget that fits in my pocket ... and that I didn't get duped into spending gobs of money to buy capabilities that I already have.