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

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

And then there were two

Within moments of this morning's announcement that John Edwards is quitting the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, a commentator on Fox News said the withdrawal will be a huge boost for Barack Obama, an MSNBC pundit said Hillary Clinton will benefit the most, and a talking head on CNN said the advantage could go either way.

I'm glad they cleared that up for us.


NOW, hear this

The New York state chapter of the National Organization for Women says Sen. Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama for president was the “ultimate betrayal for women.”

Put simply, the NOW chapter is angry that Kennedy didn’t endorse the lone female in the race, Obama opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Is this to say that NOW believes Sen. Clinton is the best candidate for the job simply because she’s a woman? Or that Sen. Obama, if elected, will treat women unfairly because he’s not a woman?

That kind of reasoning seems awfully narrow-minded.

As I wrote a few weeks back, when commenting on the possibility of America electing its first black president, people should judge the candidates on the basis of what’s on the inside, not the outside.

Voting for, or endorsing, a candidate solely because of that person’s race or gender is just as bad as opposing a candidate solely because of race or gender.

NOW, and everyone who plans to step into a voting booth in the upcoming primaries and general election, should keep that in mind.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Capitol comments

Three quick observations about President Bush’s State of the Union address:

* The camera catching Rep. Charles Rangel giggling after Bush said “nucular” (again!), instead of nuclear, during a passage about alternative energies was one of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen in more than 30 years of watching these speeches.

* Sen. John McCain’s decision to stay on the campaign trail in Florida rather than fly back to Washington to see the speech in person was a tremendous P.R. blunder. Being in the House chamber would have guaranteed him tons of face time on national television – did you notice how often the cameras showed Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? -- but instead, he was conspicuous by his absence.

* As Bush was signing booklet copies of his speech during his slow walk out of the chamber, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would wind up on eBay by the end of the night.


How corny!

I went to Upstate Films in Rhinebeck on Sunday to see the new film “The Savages” (worth seeing, by the way), and I was struck by a preview shown beforehand for an upcoming movie called “King Corn.”

In the same vein as movies like “Super Size Me,” “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Sicko,” Aaron Woolf’s “King Corn” apparently is about the evils of corn and how the crop and its derivatives infiltrate virtually everything in our diets.

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it ironic that this movie will be shown in places that make most of their snack counter revenue from a corn product?


Sad stories

When you’ve been in the news business for a while – I’m going on 26 years if you count my college newspaper days – you learn to deal with tragedies and not let them affect you too much.

Murders, beatings, fires, drownings, fatal car accidents and the like are, unfortunately, part of what we deal with every day, and we've conditioned ourselves to not let them get to us. One of the first major stories I ever covered for my college newspaper, in fact, was about a horrific collision between a school bus and a car in which an administrator at my college was killed. For better or worse, it was the incident that taught me not to feel too much pain about the sad news we publish.

But newspaper people are human, too. And every now and then, these things get to us.

During my 20 years at the Freeman, three heartbreaking local stories have always stood out in my mind. Sadly, a fourth was added to that list last week.

The first was in April 1991, when a 22-year-old woman named Karen Zentner, a casual acquaintance of mine, was killed by a 52-pound rock thrown off a Thruway overpass in New Paltz. The boulder crashed through Karen’s windshield and struck her directly in the chest, killing her immediately. It was shortly after midnight and she was coming home from Long Island, where she had been making wedding plans with her fiancé and his family. She had the awful misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as three bored teenagers looking for cheap thrills decided it would be fun to throw rocks from the overpass onto the highway. They didn’t plan to kill anyone, I’m sure, but that’s exactly what they wound up doing. And, in the process, they snuffed out a young life full of potential and hope. Karen should be a 39-year-old woman now, married and probably with children. But Jeffrey Damiano, Eric Birdsall and Jamie Rullan saw to it that she never would fulfill that promise. And that still saddens me to this day. (By the way, the high, inwardly curved fences that you now see on virtually every overpass along Thruway were erected in response to Karen’s death.)

The second incident, on a Saturday afternoon in April 1994, was a devastating two-car, head-on crash on Route 28 in the town of Shandaken that claimed the lives of seven people. (Five died at the scene; the other two died in the days that followed.) I had dealt with plenty of car wrecks by that point in my newspaper career, but none so catastrophic in terms of fatalities. And, to be certain, I was in a more emotional state than usual at the time. I was a new father – my son Marc had been born just six weeks earlier – and I have no doubt that I was, during that period, more sensitive than usual to the fragility of life. But Marc also is responsible, at least from my perspective, for the tragedy having a silver lining. When I got home from the Freeman office that night, around 2 a.m., Marc had just woken up in his bassinet, and my wife, Rhona, was about to feed him. Seeing how tired she was, I told her I would handle the feeding and she could go back to sleep. As I sat in our rocking chair and looked down at Marc in the crook of my arm, about to put the bottle nipple into his mouth, he looked back up at me and, for the first time in his life, smiled. And it wasn’t one of those “I’ve got gas” smiles; this was the real thing – a big ear-to-ear grin. And, at least for a moment, it made the awful pain of the preceding hours disappear. And, looking back, it’s given me a pleasant memory of an otherwise excruciating day.

The third incident, as many local residents might guess, was the kidnapping and brutal murder of 7-year-old Rickel Knox in September 1995 – one of the most senseless crimes in local history. For those of you who don’t know about the case, a brief recap: Rickel was playing in front of her Main Street home in Uptown Kingston about 4 p.m. on a Thursday when she was snatched by a man who later would be identified as Larry Whitehurst. The disappearance prompted a frantic search that lasted into Thursday night and continued all day Friday and Saturday. People from all over Kingston, and some from farther away, converged on the Knox house (just half a mile from my own), offering whatever help they could give. Many brought food and other items to Rickel’s parents; some took "Missing Person" fliers to post around town; others simply stopped by to provide moral support. Whitehurst was taken into custody on Sunday, after police concluded he was responsible for Rickel’s disappearance, and in the wee hours of Monday – under a deliberately false promise that he would be spared the death penalty if he came clean – Whitehurst led police to a remote spot in the town of Ulster, just south of the Kingston line, where he had covered Rickel’s body with branches and other brush after beating her to death. (Whitehurst ultimately was declared eligible for the death penalty, but his life was spared when he agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole.) But as if the murder wasn’t bad enough, we then had to deal with the revelation – which then-District Attorney Michael Kavanagh said he never believed – that Whitehurst did what he did because he was angry at Rickel’s mother for rebuffing him romantically. He was angry at the mother, so he kidnapped and murdered a completely innocent 7-year-old girl. Un-freakin’-believeable! Even the possibility of that being true made this already gut-wrenching crime more difficult to deal with.

And, alas, the fourth story, added to the list less than a week ago, was the death of 2-year-old Lyla Lee Berryann in a fire that destroyed her family’s mobile home in the town of Marbletown. Police tell us the mother, Brenda Berryann, tried to save Lyla but was unable to get into the child’s bedroom – where the fire had begun – because of the intensity of the flames, heat and smoke. The thought of that poor child, probably screaming and gasping for air in the final moments of her short life, is enough to make even the most hardened person cry. And I can’t begin to imagine the overwhelming grief and sense of loss being felt by the girl’s mother and other relatives. All deaths are difficult to deal with, but to lose a child – and in such a cruel way – is almost incomprehensible.

I’d like to believe that no more stories will be added to this list. But being in the news business, I know better.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Not all nudes fit to print

Reporting on the untimely death this afternoon of actor Heath Ledger, The Associated Press (and other news services, I'm sure) felt compelled to point out that Ledger was found naked.

I'm reminded of the line from the Elton John song "Candle in the Wind," about the death of actress Marilyn Monroe: "... all the papers had to say was the Marilyn was found in the nude."

John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, was trying, I believe, to make the point that the media will do anything to sensationalize celebrity news that already is sensational enough.

Monroe died in 1962. "Candle in the Wind" was recorded in 1973. It's now 2008. Sadly, little has changed.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

The explanation

In explaining his decision to close the Kingston schools yesterday - despite the lack of snow, the sunny skies and the above-freezing temperatures - Superintendent Gerard Gretzinger said he was going, in part, on the recommendation of district Transportation Director Judy Falcon.

Falcon, he said, has "an impeccable record for safety."

Well, yeah, of course. It's not too difficult to have a perfect safety record when you cancel school every time there's even the threat of bad weather.

But the reality is there are plenty of school districts that have impeccable safety records even when their buses have to drive through a little bit of snow.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Schools closed on account of sunshine

The Kingston schools are CLOSED today? Are you freakin' kidding me?!

We get barely an inch of snow overnight, Kingston (and several other local school districts) announce a two-hour delay, the sun comes out around 8 a.m., the temperature rises above freezing, virtually all of the snow on the roads melts, and the Kingston schools ... CLOSE?!

This is insane even for this district, whose dubious record of unnecessary closings and delays is nothing short of legendary.

And it's worth noting: Parents don't like having their mornings screwed up twice in a matter of two hours. Going from a regular schedule to a two-hour delay is enough of a bother; but then going from a two-hour delay to a closing while still trying to make the first adjustment is downright aggravating.

Every other school district in the region that announced a two-hour delay this morning managed to stick to that schedule. Why Kingston couldn't do the same is beyond comprehension.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nice work, if you can get it

In declaring that he now opposes the compromise plan for the Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park, U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey on Tuesday cited, among other reasons, the fact that many of the jobs promised by the developer will be only part-time positions.

"Those are not real jobs. They're not full-time jobs," Hinchey said.

That's pretty funny coming from a member of the House of Representatives, which meets an average of 136 days per year.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

All wet, but not all white

The forecast was for 6 to 10 inches of snow, perhaps even a foot.

Instead, we got about 2 inches overnight, and the roads have been just wet this morning.

So, naturally, the Kingston school district is closed today. Unbelievable ... but not very surprising, given the district's track record.

Here's a suggestion for the people who make these decisions: Instead of looking at the forecasts, go to the window and look at what's actually happening outside!


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Racing to sensationalize

Last Saturday, in the wake of Barack Obama winning the Democratic Iowa caucuses, I wrote, optimistically, that perhaps Americans finally were becoming color-blind and might be ready, willing and able to elect a black man as their president.

Three days later, a Hudson Valley newspaper (not the Freeman) proved, sadly, that we haven’t come that far after all -- reporting in a follow-up story about an alleged rape at Kingston High School that the incident was “sparking racial tensions in the city.”

The six suspects were black; the alleged victim, white. And this was, after all, Kingston High School, where an assault by a black student on a white student in 2005 led to a local rally by New Jersey-based white supremacist Hal Turner and a small group of neo-Nazis. So, naturally, the newspaper decided to portray the alleged rape as a bias crime. Too bad there were no facts to back up the supposition.

The sole basis for the newspaper’s story was that one local pastor -- who, wait for it now, “declined to be identified” -- made the comment that the girl in the alleged rape was “just like Tawana Brawley, only white.” (Brawley was the black teenager from Dutchess County who, in late 1987, alleged she was sexually assaulted by six white men, including law-enforcement officers, and said they smeared a racial epithet on her torso using feces. A grand jury later concluded Brawley had fabricated the story.)

The pastor in the newspaper’s story was allowed to hide herself in anonymity, and no one else in the story was quoted as saying the alleged rape at KHS was race-related or that the city was suffering from “racial tension.” In fact, the story had no comments at all about race from students, employees of the school, police officials, the mayor or, for that matter, anyone living in the city of Kingston.

Well, I live in Kingston. I have for more than 20 years. And let me assure you, the incident at the high school (in which the rape charges have been dropped, by the way) did not spark “racial tensions” in the city -- or even at the high school, according to numerous students and parents with whom I’ve spoken over the past several days. And the reason is simple: People of different races generally get along in Kingston. Are there some problems? Yes, of course. Sadly, there will be in any racially mixed population. But, in general, there is no “racial tension” in my adopted hometown. And there never has been during the time I’ve lived here. (For heaven’s sake, most of the 200 people who showed up to demonstrate against Hal Turner at his November 2005 rally were white!)

Alleging that a crime is race-related is serious business and should never be done lightly -- especially by a media outlet that is expected to be thorough and objective in its reporting.

And viewing a crime as race-related simply because the suspects are of one race and the alleged victim is of another is, in a word, bigoted.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

What a week!

Sorry I’ve been MIA for the past week. It’s been a busy one (as you know if you read our paper or Web site), so blogging got back-burnered.

I had a feeling, when one of our reporters came to me last Saturday evening and said three students had been arrested for an alleged rape at Kingston High School, that this would be a week like no other. And I was right.

I’ve gotta say, though, I’ve never seen a case move through the local criminal justice system so quickly. That was, indeed, remarkable. In a span of less than seven days, we had the incident itself, six arrests (spread out over several days), grand jury proceedings, a significant reduction of the charges and the release from jail of all the suspects, leaving only the adjudication of the remaining misdemeanor counts to be completed. Most criminal cases around here drag out for a year. Maybe this is the start of a new trend. Here’s hoping!

This also was the week when I put together the Freeman’s annual "Business Review & Forecast" supplement, which will be in Sunday’s paper. The section involves a considerable amount of extra effort on my part, including numerous hours in the office on my usual days off, so I had little time for anything else while working on it. (Just ask my wife and son!)

Then there was the annual Career Conference on Thursday at Ulster County Community College – a great event at which we professionals share our experiences, advice and alleged wisdom with high school students. I was a presenter on the Communications panel for the seventh time, and I truly enjoy participating in this event, but having to look polished in front of a roomful of teenagers starting at 9:30 a.m., on a day when I ordinarily wouldn’t go to work until 1:30 p.m., is not my idea of a good time. (Kudos, by the way, to my co-presenters, Tracy Baxter, news director and co-anchor Cable 6 News, and Sylvia Murphy, vice president and general manager at the PR/marketing firm JMC; and especially to Wallkill High School guidance counselor Kevin Bach, who moderates the Communications panel each year and a does a great job keeping the young people involved and engaged.)

Then there was Gov. Spitzer’s State of the State address, a shooting in Kingston, a pedestrian getting run down by a state trooper’s patrol car in northern Ulster County, the suspension of the town police chief in Saugerties, the out-of-nowhere announcement that the state prison in Hudson will be shut down and countless other stories that kept our reporters, editors and readers occupied this week.

So you’ll forgive me, I trust, for putting my blog on a seven-day hiatus.

I’ll try to be a more faithful correspondent next week.


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Racism in the race

A refrain I heard far too many times on Friday -- the day after Barack Obama pulled the upset victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses -- was that America still isn’t ready to elect a black president.

For heaven’s sake, have we made no progress in the 45 years since the civil rights movement? Do we really still live in a time when – to paraphrase Dr. King – people will judge a man by the color of his skin rather than the content of his character?

I’m not blind to the world around me. I know racism still exists in this country. This is, after all, the era of Don Imus and the Jena Six, and we’re not very far removed from the Rodney King beating, the Mark Fuhrman tapes and Amadou Diallo killing. But I’d like to think, however naïve it may sound, that a man who was deemed sufficiently qualified to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, get elected to the United States Senate and win the Democratic presidential caucuses in bellwether Iowa could get elected to the highest office in the land no matter what he looks like.

None of this is say I’m an Obama supporter. In truth, I’ve yet to decide who I favor for the presidency. But when I do make that decision, it will be based solely on my belief in the candidate’s ability to do the job -- in other words, what’s on the inside, not the outside.


Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Predictably, I heard some grumbling around Kingston on Wednesday about our front-page New Year’s baby story “glorifying” teen pregnancy and unwed motherhood. (The region’s first baby of 2008, featured on our Wednesday cover, was born to 17-year-old Stephanie Kinch of Kerhonkson and her 20-year-old boyfriend, Christopher Moran.)

We in the media certainly have no control over who gives birth or when it happens — or over a mother’s age or marital status — but I found it a bit amusing to hear the grousing on Wednesday given that one of the most popular movies right now is “Juno,” about a pregnant and unwed 16-year-old; and one of the most successful movies of 2007 was “Knocked Up,” about a single woman, presumably in her mid-20s, becoming pregnant after a one-night stand with a guy she picked up in a bar.

Life, indeed, imitates art. It just seems we have more tolerance for art than we do for real life.