Here’s a commentary of mine published today by the Columbia Chronicle on the effort afoot to repeal the 1998 Higher Education Act, which in part denies federal college aid to anyone with a drug conviction.

And here’s my latest story for Insurance Journal, a feature examining different types of agency cooperatives, or clusters. An abbreviated version of this story was published earlier — this is the big enchilada.

Pearls of wisdom

Here’s who we’ll be getting them from on graduation day. This story of mine is, naturally, mediocre. But more than that, it includes a major grammatical error in the lede. To wit:

Groundbreaking dancer and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar will deliver the undergraduate commencement speech Sunday, June 2, at which author Grace Paley and actor Alan Arkin will be given honorary degrees.

Obviously Paley and Arkin cannot, and will not, receive their honorary degrees at the commencement speech. See what happens when I write stories after pulling an all-nighter?

Talent, pot and budget cuts

It was an interesting week of work at the Chronicle. First, there was a boring story about a school Talent Exchange. I spent 45 minutes at the thing interviewing people and even that was too long. The hour and a half it took me to transcribe notes and write the story taught me nothing except how to deal with boring stories. The result is suitably inoffensive.

I also wrote a story about a Liberal Education Department instructor who wrote a book about how wonderful pot is. Actually, he didn’t write the book. His friend, “Ganja,” wrote it. He was simply entrusted as the “journal keeper,” in his words. This guy, Louis Silverstein, only wrote the introduction and the preface.

He was, very briefly, denied department sponsorship for a reading he was hoping to give. In the end, the provost overruled the decision so he’ll get his sponsored reading. But he was never actually in danger of being banned from campus or having his academic freedom restricted in any way. He just temporarily — for about two days — was in danger of not having his event sponsored. But he made a big deal out of it.

So I suppose it should come as no surprise that now he’s written a letter to the editor complaining about the headline for the feature on his book: “Faculty member book touts pot use.” Let’s see. I accurately quoted him in the story as saying:

“Marijuana allows one to cut through all that and come into connection with our basic human nature — which is good, not evil; just, not unjust; caring, not indifferent.”

And that’s just one of many similar quotes. Take a look at the book description here. To “tout,” according to Merriam-Webster, means “to praise or publicize loudly or extravagantly.” Sounds on the mark, doesn’t it?

The last story was fun to write. A faculty member came breathlessly rushing into the Chronicle offices on Thursday afternoon to announce that the state budget staff had proposed major cuts to a program that aids needy college students.

I volunteered to do the story. It would be interesting to see how I could handle writing this story objectively when, obviously, not only would I support such cuts but I also believe the government shouldn’t be subsidizing college education in the first place. But I was able to put my own viewpoint aside and talk to the usual suspects at Columbia, and found an interesting tidbit of info.

This is what they call a “shock budget.” It’s meant to scare the crap out of people so that they’ll support a tax increase instead of cutting the budget. As Jim Tobin points out in the story, rather than target pork that really benefits politicians, they announce cuts to a program that directly helps students or some other vulnerable group. And it worked. College officials are organizing a letter-writing campaign, holding college-wide meetings and on and on.

My favorite part is that Tobin called Columbia folks on the fact that they advocated a tax increase instead of cutting the aid program. “Typical bureaucrats,” he said of college administrators, “arguing for more money for their own pockets.” I was amazed that they let that run. I thought that for sure that somewhere I down the line I’d get the “Uh, I don’t know if it’s a good idea to say this” line. But nobody said a thing. I guess it goes to show that you’ll never know what you can get away with until you try.

But it was fun. That political stuff just juices me. And I think I did a good job too. In spite of my biases, I think it’s a balanced and accurate story. But I guess that’s up to the reader to judge, ultimately.

Two new stories

Unless you’re really interested in what’s going on at Columbia, you probably won’t find either of the two stories I wrote for the Chronicle this week very interesting. The first deals with a new cancer research lab that National Science Foundation money is paying for. The second is about the hiring of a new security director. Interestingly, in the cancer research lab story, I included some salary information about Science Institute head Zafra Lerman, who is the fourth highest-paid administrator at the college.

I figured that it never hurts to include information about how much administators are making when you have it. And I thought the information was useful to readers, since they might conclude that the woman was earning her pay by landing a $100,000 government grant. But our faculty adviser said it was irrelevant to the story and, anyway, there was no point in getting Lerman upset. Great news judgment.

For the security director story, I wanted to include some information about past Chronicle coverage of security issues during the departing director’s tenure and perhaps get some crime statistics at Columbia the last few years, but I just didn’t have the time to pull it together. I’m not sorry about it, though, as it may have been deemed irrelevant and impolite, making my efforts fruitless.

This all comes on the heels of the spiking of a story I wrote about a failed journalism department search for a new chair. The leading candidate, Cole Campbell, was turned down during a meeting of the department search committee and college administrators. This was surprising since only a couple of days before, the chair of the search committe spoke glowingly to me about Campbell’s chances.

I had been assigned to cover a speech Campbell made to the Journalism Department but chose instead to report that the presumably leading candidate was no longer in the running. I talked to people in the Journalism Department and in the School of Media Arts (to with the department belongs), but they wouldn’t comment other than to say that “the search is ongoing.”

I found out some information about Campbell’s rocky tenure during his time at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and included that in the story. So why was it spiked? Journalism Department folks made calls to the Chronicle, saying that since the Chronicle had not covered other failed or canceled searches in other departments, it was unfair to report this one. They suggested that a larger story about Columbia’s problems recruiting top administrators should be done instead. That’s a legitimate story to write, but just because the Chronicle hadn’t reported previous failed searches didn’t make the new story unfair.

It’s likely that no one on any of the other search committees was foolish enough to go on the record about the candidate’s chances, as did the woman in this case, who effusively praised Campbell and said he was “heads above” the rest of the field. So, the Chronicle’s journalistic judgment is compromised on a seemingly regular basis by its concern for maintaining good relations and the desire not to interrupt the flow of ad dollars. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that it is not an independent newspaper, but rather is funded partly by the journalism department and uses a college class as the core of its writing staff each semester.

I do find it pretty amazing that the journalism department, of all places, would twist arms to make sure that a story that would reflect badly on them didn’t run. It just goes to show that, in the end, we all want journalists be tough on the other guy but go easy on us.