My final day at the state Capitol. I'll be here until nearly midnight, but it's worth it to get the full experience. An education bill managed to pass both the House and the Senate, though with many cuts and amendments. In particular was an amendment to insure that home-schooled children would not be affected by a change in graduation requirements. It didn't hurt that hundreds of home schooling advocates rallied on the steps before taking to the hallways. It took four months to get my first "crowd noise" story. Live outdoor sound.
Of all my courses this semester, reporting on the Missouri General Assembly was the most worthwhile. You know it as soon as you meet Phill Brooks -- working under his tutalage will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was.
I finally caught the view from the far side of the Capitol building, with the boats and trains looming in the background. Most beautiful shot I've found in the Capitol City yet.
It's very easy to criticize politics from a distance. Up close and personal, I see how many obstacles stand in the way of turning a bill into law.
Back from a Spring Break that wasn't long enough. Tuesday was a slow slog through a complex prescription drug bill. How to reduce pages and pages of minute details into 45 seconds? Such is the challenge of radio broadcasting.
Thursday was more interesting -- the House Rules Committee approved for a full House debate a bill that requires anyone over 17 to provide a DNA sample upon arrest. In other words, a Q-tip swab inside the cheek that is apparently more effective than fingerprints. On one hand it could catch more criminals. On the other it's pushing the boundaries of privacy. But more and more states are doing it. I'n sure a generation from now, DNA samples will be common.
Although the state legislators are taking their spring break this week (only in politics and college campuses do you get a "spring break"), we're still here at the state capitol churning out feature stories. We've actually had good luck in tracking down representatives for sound bites via telephone. I'm impressed with the number of calls we're getting returned.
Most compelling about my latest story -- a bill that would keep salaries in place for Missouri employees who get called into military service -- is the fact that the bill's two sponsors are both in the mid-twenties. House Democratic Representatives Stephen Webber and Jason Kander have both served tours overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan; Kander is still in the National Guard and could get called to duty at any time. That's quite a balance between military and political life, especially at such a young age. It begs the question -- What have I done with my life lately?
The first half of the semester is officially over. I feel much more comfortable with my radio voice and am finding my niche. Coming to the capitol is always good for a learning experience. It's also great preparation for television.
I sat through a three and a half-hour committee meeting this week led by an army of witnesses, ranging from police chiefs to doctors to parents. The issue? Seatbelt laws. One House member wants to enable police to pull over drivers if they catch them not wearing seat belts. Supporters say the bill will save lives; opponents say it will give police too much authority and risk abuse, such as racial profiling, and a better solution is education.
What I can't get is that the bill doesn't raise the fines for not wearing seatbelts. Currently the fine is $10. Parking tickets usually cost more than that. If you want to get results in these troubled economic times, go for the pocketbook. Trust and believe -- drivers will get the message.
Apparently this bill has been around since 1997, now a dozen years in the making. One opponent says the chances of going anywhere this legislative session are slim to none. Such is the case, it seems, for the majority of the bills I've covered this semester. I have to wonder how legislators can't help but become jaded by the system, a process that provides plenty of juicy speechmaking for the media but never-ending bureacratic and procedural hurdles. How many bills can one legislator hope to sponsor that actually morphs into law during his tenure? Perhaps even just one or two could be hailed as a victory.
Today's House debate on abortion was the most contentious I've witnessed yet. Verbal daggers galore; the fire in the eyes was breathtaking to behold. The bill itself was brilliantly composed -- requiring a 24-hour waiting period for all Missourians seeking an abortion while making it a crime to coerce a woman into doing so. After all, how can anyone be against a 24-hour waiting period? And coerce is a loaded word -- is a mother advising her daughter "coercing?" Little wonder the debate grew heated. But this is Missouri, not California or New York, and the bill passed by overwhelming margins despite the passionate pleas of a handful of (mostly female) House members.
My first feature was a two-week project. This time I turned around the abortion feature in a matter of hours. I remember thinking daily deadlines were stressful at a daily newspaper. The pace is doubly so in radio and television.
Speaking of pace, I need to pick up the pace while broadcasting my stories. Onward.
I joined Sen. Jeff Smith for lunch this earlier this week along with Rep. Talibdin El-Amin. Sen. Smith and I went to the same high school in St. Louis County; in fact, he used to be my babysitter. When elected in 2006, Smith was the youngest legislator in the building. He would be well worth keeping in mind for a feature story down the line. Having left St. Louis for a decade, I had forgotten the racial politics that often defines the city. Sadly enough, it still thrives.
I finished my first feature story, an expansion of my earlier coverage of opposition to a bill that would require Missourians to use hands-free cell phones or headsets while driving. Though a 2-3 minute radio story doesn't sound like a long time, merging six sound bites into the copy and getting the sound levels correct was a major headache. Unfortunately there's no way for me to find out if the story is going to air, or if it will be aired with my voice as opposed to a dub. Or if the story airs but I miss it, there's no way to track it down after the fact. Such is radio, apparently.
Today was my first visit to the governor's mansion. Our good public servant Jay Nixon treated the Missouri Press Association to lunch as well as a press conference in which he outlined his vision for the state's future. I give him credit for shaking every hand in the room -- including my own.
With a cross-section of Missouri journalists gathered before him, Nixon told us the state is well-poised to redefine itself in the new millennium. I think his priorities are well-placed: investing in alternative energies and new technologies while revitalizing agriculture and industry. Throw in education and job training, and the overall package is compelling. But I have to question if Nixon is depending too heavily on federal funds for long-term state goals. Nor he has provided much in the way of specifics or actual numbers.
My story on the press conference proved instrumental in finding news that may not be obvious at first glance. As Nixon was heavy on ideas -- many of which he has already stated -- but low on new information, I dug to find that he has not provided specific dollar amounts in any of his recent proposals on spending stimulus money in Missouri. And lo -- that became the centerpiece of my story.
Valuable lesson -- ALWAYS check the audio equipment. During my first trip to the Senate floor, I lost more than half of my recordings and interviews due to a malfunction. I was able to piecemeal the story together with what remained, but it's not an episode I care to repeat.
On Tuesday I covered a Senate bill that would establish licensing requirements for pre-need funeral service providers. It turns out a St. Louis-based company robbed 55,000 Missourians last year who paid for their funerals in advance. Where's Six Feet Under when you need them?
I did a follow-up piece to the funeral story after the Senate gave first reading approval to the bill on Thursday. Now it goes back to the House. So many rules and regulations, so much protocol to follow... I plan to brush up on the fine-tuning in the legislature over the weekend.
I've learned to use a lot of new equipment in the last two weeks, from Marantz audio recorders to sound amplification/normalizing programs, but it's paying off. I can already turn around stories much quicker.
After three years of newspaper reporting, radio is very refreshing. I much prefer the conversational style and main-thrust approach of a 40-second broadcast, as opposed to sweating every minuscule detail of a 1,000 word print story. I'm forever grateful for my newspaper experience because it's a great foundation, but already broadcast is feeling like a natural fit.
Random words of wisdom from Phill: Buddhists believe the key to life is accepting change.
My first House committee meeting was eerily reminiscent of high school. One couple gossips incessantly; another checks his text messages and emails on his phone; a third eats continuously and makes several trips across the room for chocolate-chip cookies; a fourth won't stop asking questions and a fifth makes his boredom painfully obvious through his body language.
The subject matter was fire regulations in cigarettes; apparently you can use papers that burn out quickly on their own after being discarded or neglected. It was first experience watching a lobbyist advocate on behalf of an organization. Slick, very slick...
I covered my first story: a press conference in which House Republicans spoke out against the governor's budget because they feel it relies too heavily on a federal bailout.
One thing I have to say for journalism is the bosses never hesitate to shove you expensive equipment in which you've barely been trained and throw you to the wolves on your first assignment. But thats how you learn and and grow.
I spent my first day on a whirlwind tour of the labyrinth that is our Missouri legislature in Jefferson City. I was astounded to find there is virtually no security in the Capitol building. No metal detectors, no security guards posted except in the basement garage.
Phill Brooks is a priceless throwback to a bygone era of journalism in which fast-talking reporters freely drop in on legislators without warning and say exactly whats on their mind. I can see that he'll be an adventure this semester.