Saturday, May 07, 2011

Writing For the ADN - Trolls and All

About ten days ago, I called Anchorage Daily News editor Pat Dougherty and asked why the ADN hadn't run anything on redistricting, except a couple of cut and pasted press releases.  How the maps are drawn will determine who gets elected to state office for the next ten years.  They're no longer a paper of record he said.  We just don't have the staff. Sean's in Juneau.  There's lots of things to cover, we have to make choices.  I suggested at least they publish the Anchorage district maps proposed by the board.  He said he'd look into it.  Then he asked if I would write a commentary.  I wasn't thrilled, but decided I had a responsibility as a citizen to take the opportunity to share what I knew. (I realize that might sound sappy, but it's exactly how I felt about it.)

A compass piece is limited to 700 words.  That wasn't easy because there was so much background information to convey - it didn't leave much to say.  I sent it in - much in outline form - and said I knew they might not like the style, but it seemed the most reader friendly way to get the facts.  I got an email back from Editorial Writer, Frank Gerjevic, suggesting they post the background bullets in a box and that I write more opinion.

700 words.  It's good discipline, but it also means you have to limit what you say, how you qualify things, the examples you give.  I got it out Wednesday afternoon I think.   It was published Friday.  I had to sign a form saying it was an unpaid, one time affair and that the ADN had rights to it.  And I was supposed to send a photo, but I forgot and they used an old one they had from the last time, which was probably six or seven years ago.

They added the headline, which is normal, but it was definitely one I wouldn't have chosen.  It politicized the piece much more than I intended.  Plus they highlighted a sentence I would have left buried at the end. If they changed anything in the piece itself, I didn't notice,  except in the box they said the board would present its final plan.  I had written, "Present Plans." This was for plans presented by interested parties, the board's final plan isn't due until June 14.   Otherwise, the box contained the necessary background information - though I didn't see it in the online version.   

I tried to be as objective as I could be. I would show where things were uncertain and give evidence for hunches.  I set up the key criteria the board has to meet in creating the plan, then went through each one.  There were others, but I was limited in words, so I chose the ones I thought most important.  700 words didn't give me space to even say that.
  1.  One person, one vote - was fairly easy:  they had the stats that showed their districts were well within the allowable deviation. (I didn't independently run the numbers to verify this, but I assumed what they said was true.)
  2. No retrogression - I gave the board a thumbs up on this one too.  I did say that the DOJ had to approve it, so they were motivated to keep the nine Native 'majority/effective' seats.  I doubt they would have tried that hard on this one without the DOJ watching.  I don't think a Democratically controlled board would either.  But when you know it won't be approved if you don't do it 'right', that does get your attention.  I didn't have room to talk about why this isn't racial gerrymandering - as one or two board members suggested at one point - and how, in fact, it helped to make sure that Alaska Natives, who make up nearly 20% of the state population now, get  their voice is heard in the legislature.  
  3. Districts compact and contiguous - I noted that there was one humongous district (well I didn't use that word) but that the existing approved districts also had one.
  4. Socio-economically cohesive - hard to evaluate - there are some questions.  Could be better, but probably a pass.
  5. Senate districts composed of contiguous house seats - one that doesn't pass this.  But I pointed out that they couldn't find a way to have not retrogression without this non-contiguous pairing.  (But at Friday's hearing some people found a way.)
  6. No political gerrymandering - I knew I needed to be totally factual here.  I acknowledged it was hard to know intent.  I gave an example of a board member saying he didn't know the impact of his plan on constituents.  Given that he is an ex-politician who lost to a currently sitting politician, I said I found it hard to believe.  I didn't say he lied, because I don't know that.  I do know it is hard for me to believe he didn't know.  That is definitely true.  But I also acknowledged that the politician who beat him ended up in a safe district.  I said watching them do the Anchorage map was like watching the pea under the walnut shells.  That's how I felt when it happened.  I simply couldn't keep track of whole districts as they moved neighborhoods back and forth trying to get the population numbers right.  I mentioned some seats where, after the fact, it looked like the lines had been drawn to just get some Democratic incumbents into the same district so they'd have to run against each other.  But I couldn't put up the maps in compass piece. [Hmmm, maybe I could have, I didn't ask.] But I can here.   
The gray area is the board's option 2 for district  21. (Option 1 is the same for these districts.)  The black lines are the old district boundaries.  On the far left is a green triangle that shows  Democrat Les Gara's home.  This was basically his district.  On the right, you can see a little chunk of gray gouged out of the green.  The little green triangle there is Sharon Cissna's home.  You can see it was in her old district inside the black boundaries.  There's enough spill over from all the nearby districts that one could easily draw lines that would have left them in their old districts and gotten the right population numbers.  And Cissna's old district now has no incumbent.     NOTE:  These maps are from Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, a group of union and Native organizations.  I haven't verified them independently. 

Another I mentioned was my own district - or rather former district since my neighborhood was cut out of it.  The old black borders were vertical.  Now, the colored districts are horizontal.  Democrats Berta Gardner - green triangle lower right of pink - and Mike Doogan are now in the same district.  And there's an incumbentless district in much of Gardner's old district, now 26.

I also pointed out that at the public hearings people from Eagle River and Muldoon complained about being paired together in a district.  Yet the board took just enough of a chunk east of Muldoon from Democrat Pete Petersen's district to get the part where he and Senator Wielechowski live and put that into a much more Republican district.

I didn't have enough words to point out the Republicans who were paired with other incumbents and why I think these were either out of necessity (in Southeast they lost a seat and four of five house members are Republican)  or into situations where they were likely to beat the Democrats, but I did mention that there are now 24 Republicans in the House and only 16 Democrats, yet 8 Democrats and only 6 Republicans were paired with incumbents.  The fewer there are, the fewer one would expect to be paired.

I also pointed out  that there were four Republicans and one Democrat on the Redistricting Board, so it was inevitable that the plan would have Republican fingerprints.  I didn't say it would be gerrymandered or corrupt, though there is a hint of possible wrongdoing. I pointed out the circumstantial evidence - I don't think I left out anything significant that pointed in the other direction - and I left it open.  Accident?  Inevitable?  Gerrymandering?

As I mentioned earlier, newspapers, not writers, pick the headlines.  Of course, the Daily News chose a headline that would get readers' reading - "For Republicans, Redistricting Is All Good."  And they highlighted the quote about the fingerprints.  So, if readers thought that I had written the headline, I can understand they might think I was partisan.  But then everyone is partisan to some extent, but I do think I stuck to the facts in my analysis of how the board was doing.

I did also ding the board a bit for their minimal website and poor public notice of meetings and the fact that there are no public computers available to try out the software they use for the mapping, and without which it is really difficult to get all the numbers matched up right.

What I'd forgotten about was the online version gets comments.  I'd given up reading the comments for the online ADN a long time ago, because they are frequently so nasty and shallow.  Here on the blog I let people say what they want, as long as they do it with some reasonable civility.  I don't moderate comments before they are posted, but I reserve the right to take down comments. . . well you can read my criteria below the post.  So, the next post will be on the phenomenon of trolls.


  1. Welcome, Steve, to the problem facing all responsible officials and elected folk anywhere: trying to explain complex matters to people who have little patience for one's explanations. The public forum, alas, is not a classroom.

    But I must say I am stunned that Pat remarked that ADN is no longer a paper of record. This is happening all over the USA (and elsewhere) and no number of bloggers, e-musings or televangelists can replace the necessary work of ethically-trained media professionals -- people who can held to account because of salary and platform they don't control.

    The Daily News size was one of the big shocks I got when I visited Anchorage briefly in January this year. I remember when its Sunday editions carried well over 200 pages (with far too much advertising, of course).

    And you ask why they don't cover the news as they should? Paid readership is down, way down, and I'm part of the problem. I read on line.

  2. "I am stunned that Pat remarked that ADN is no longer a paper of record."

    Pat's capable of those moments of honesty. It must be hard, though.

    I'm so proud of Steve for having done his series on this bout of redistricting, the fourth I've watched. Having been involved in the sausage making of 1991, I've kept my distance. The process stinks. But Steve's series on this topic deserves an award. Perhaps the most appropriate award doesn't exist, though.

    Steve's grasp of embedding html links, photos, graphics and videos is the finest of any of our Alaska blogs. That he doesn't use it to visit Levi Johnston's Vegas wedding or Sarah's latest fuckup keeps readership down. But his sense of public duty and understated awareness of what we ALL need to know is one of Alaska's great treasures.

  3. The board has a task made very difficult by the far too small number of House and Senate seats.

    I've been talking to a number of folks about getting an advisory vote on the ballot asking the Legislature to propose a constitutional amendment to change the House to 99 seats and the Senate to 33 seats.

    Every Senate district would cover 3 House districts, and districts would again be small enough so that rural candidates could actually campaign without spending a fortune. In urban areas, districts would be small enough that candidates could conduct door to door campaigns instead of spending a fortune on TV and radio ads.

  4. Quyana Steve, for all your work and efforts to get this issue in our faces that literally impacts everyone in the State. It is hard to drum up public attention and engagement on hearings, even ones set in your own backyard, so I know it has been a challenge to get people briefed enough to form an opinion.

    My sympathies on being labeled partisan on the matter when that was not your intent. I find it sick humor that anyone that has the courage or the wherewithal to put themselves out there, even just in the way of a citizen action, has an ocean of trolls attack you for the most tangential reasons.

    I wrote a letter to the ADN, 15 or so years ago, a letter. . .and the freaks wrote in labeling me a baby-killer and a threat to America. Sigh. Whatever.

    That's why a know-nothing spear chucker like Sarah Palin is relevant in today's ignominy of public discourse. It's a mad mad mad mad world.

  5. Thanks for your kind comments. Of course, one could equally charge that your own blog is a sanctuary of friends where you are shielded from legitimate criticism.

    No one gets it all right and good criticism is important. Sometimes even wild criticism gives us a sense of the emotional response of the writer. but it's hard to tell if the problem is with what you posted or with the commenters own issues.

    For those who might think that I block negative comments, I assure you the only comments I've deleted have been spam ads. Some with commercial links I have left up because were closely related to a post.

    The comment screening language (note it focuses on style, not content.) was put up a couple of years ago because of one (maybe two) commenters who did all the things I've banned. But even then, I don't think I deleted a comment, though there may have been one or two. The rules caused the commenters to better edit their comments or leave. If I do delete a comment, I will tell readers and explain why.

    Harpboy - as I think you know, the legislature passed a Constitutional Amendment in 2010 to enlarge the legislature modestly - I think to 66. The intent was to avoid rural districts becoming even bigger and harder to represent. And some say to save some seats for incumbents. It was voted down by the voters.

  6. I agree with testimony offered by two people from Wasilla. At Friday's final public comment session, these two asserted that Eagle River and Chugiak should be grouped together as these towns are virtually identical in every category. I hadn't considered this before.

    Unless the Redistricting Board is trying to "protect" Bill Stoltze, then pairing ER and Chugiak will be reflected in the Final Plan (due June 14th).

  7. Do any of the Redistricting Board's plans pair incumbent Republicans against other incumbent Republicans? Somehow I thought that according to at least one plan, Lesil McGuire would run against another incumbent?

    Will you list the various potential races where incumbents will run against other incumbents?

    Thank you.

  8. You should be paid. You could have an article regularly on this very important issue that is irresponsible not to be brought to public knowledge in our community. This would be a very good way for the ADN to get an informed newspaper, by paying bloggers like you.

  9. Anon - 10:44 - I'm having enough trouble keeping up with just the Anchorage maps, so I didn't look closely at the ER/Chugiak connections. Matsu gained a lot of population - enough for five districts - and people testified that they'd like to keep them as much within the Borough as possible and not connect to Fairbanks or Valdez.

    Anon 12:59 - Alaskans for Fair Redistricting made a district by district list showing the incumbents living in each district for both Option 1 and 2. You can see it here. They include representatives AND senators. Obviously, only reps would run against reps so don't be misled. They have Sen. Mcguire living in District 29 and Rep. Johnson is in the same district for both options. But one is Senate and one is House.

    In Southeast there are Republicans paired, but as I mentioned, they are losing a seat and currently have four Republicans and one Democrat in the House and two Democrats and one Republican in the Senate.

    Also, in some cases they have a Democrat and a Republican paired. One has to consider whether the voters in the district vote conservative or liberal to know if that is a neutral or partisan pairing.

    Dotcase - Not getting paid means if I don't feel like it, I don't have to work that day. And people who work their passion tend to work harder and better than those who work for a paycheck. The ideal is to have a paying job that you're passionate about. But do let the ADN know how you feel. :)


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