Brian is in his last semester at the Missouri School of Journalism's print and digital news program. Last year, he worked in Brussels at a European Union environmental policy news site. After graduation in May, he hopes to move to Washington, D.C., to continue to cover political news. Born in St. Louis, Brian has been a Missourian all his life and is proud to call the state home.
Posted 04/15/2010: Two generations and almost 150 years ago, the Civil War seems like an eternity ago. In an era when Americans owned slaves and states were at war against one another, we can hardly imagine our country ever reverting back to that time. Right?
Wrong. Sitting in a House hearing room this week, I was faced with the reality that there truly is a large disconnect for some people and the Federal government, and a few states believe completely severing ties with the Union would be the best course of action.
The discussion centered around a resolution that would ask Missouri's Attorney General Chris Koster to sue the federal government for breaching the state's constitutional rights with passage of health care legislation. According to the resolution's proponents, the federal government has unconstitutionally mandated health care mandate that the state cannot afford. The representative presenting the resolution said the state should be allowed to make more of its own decisions.
Conversation evolved from this point to state sovereignty and then back in time to the Civil War and secession. The representative presenting the resolution said he may be in favor of discussing secession if things don't improve in Washington. I've heard similar sentiments by a Senator back in February.
Initially I thought this was simply a partisan issue. It's not a coincidence that the states making headlines for flirting with secession--Texas, Georgia, Virginia and Missouri--are red states and generally favor smaller government.
But, now I'm not sure. I think this may be an issue of distrust in democracy, not distrust in government. After all, earlier this decade there were talks of secession while George W. Bush was in office by‚014yep, you guessed it‚014blue states. It's hyperbole of distrust in democracy.
As a final thought, I've begun to wonder, where do our loyalties lie as journalists? Politically, we're supposed to remain as objective and transparent as possible. But, when it comes to battle between the state and the nation, do we take a side? Or a battle between democracy and rebellion?
The Senate is a magical, mysterious place. Every time I walk in, I never know what to expect.
This week, my most memorable floor moment was watching a group of senators gather in the back of the chamber during the middle of floor debate. As the conversation continued, Sen. Matt Bartle motioned for one of his bills to be perfected. During Bartle's introduction of the bill, the speaker interrupted him to tell the "gaggle of senators in the back" to disperse or continue their conversations outside of the chamber. Sen. Floor Leader Kevin Engler made an outburst toward Bartle--specifics of which I cannot recall--and left the chamber. Bartle said he wondered whether or not he should be back there with the chatter and then carried on with his bill.
Should Bartle have been back there? In a presser after the Senate adjourned Sen. Charlie Shields explained his colleagues and him were talking about the appropriations bill the House had sent back to them. Of all the things discussed and acted on in the chamber that afternoon, the back-of-house huddle may have been the most important. After all, a balanced budged is the only thing the legislature is required to do by the state constitution by the end of the session.
This incident shows me that observing informalities of the chamber are just important--if not more--than the formalities. At all times of floor action there are people walking around and talking with colleagues. Sure, it's not all business. (I heard one pair of senators talking with a staffer of whether they'd be served crab or shrimp for dinner.) But, I'm beginning to think a large majority of it may be.
With legislators gone for spring recess, I've had time this week to work on my childhood obesity story. I've gone from knowing very little on the issue to possibly having too much information to work with. I have the tendency to over-gather material for a story, but I guess such a habit beats the alternative. But, now I'm at the point of losing my story's focus amid the details. I started with the policy before this session. Then I researched statistics. Now I'm halfway through interviewing on school lunch nutrition. Where next? I'm not sure. Without a piece of hard news to anchor my story, I'm scrambling between reporting on what I find or pondering about what I don't find.
With 31% of the state's children considered either overweight or obese, Missouri is ranked 27th in the nation. There have been few state initiatives or school standards to combat childhood obesity. For example, 19 states have nutrition standards that are stricter than the USDA's requirements. Missouri is not one of them. I learned today, however, the USDA is set to adjust these standards this year. What does this mean for Missouri? At this point, I'm leaning toward making this my primary angle.
But I fear I may be too focused on schools. After all, parents have more influence over their children then teachers and school administrators. Should I interview a family with an obese child? I don't know how productive such an interview would be.
Overall, I find myself questioning my reporting method. Typically, I challenge myself to gather as much information as possible and then report the story. Usually, this is when I'm on deadline, and I have a more determined story. This story, however, gives me the freedom of a broad topic. And the freedom can be intimidating. On Monday, I have an interview with the director of nutrition services for the Columbia Public Schools. I'm hoping to walk away from the interview with a more concrete idea of where I want to take my story.
I attended the AP/MPA Day at the Governor‚019s Mansion on Thursday. The food was excellent. The company was great. I talked with The Star‚019s politics writer and someone from the Missouri Lawyers Media. Everyone was very nice and interested in what young journalists had to say.
One of my colleagues covered Nixon‚019s address‚013filing a story regarding his response to St. Louis police commissioner Bommarito getting his nephew out of a DUI. I stayed to cover the legislative session with Speaker of the House Ron Richard, House Minority Leader Paul LaVota and Sen. Charlie Shields.
My assignment was to cover the event. After Nixon stopped speaking, he and his wife left along with about a third of the audience. When Shields, LaVota and Richards began speaking, they began to echo general issues (i.e. budget) that Nixon touched on. I sensed I wouldn‚019t have a story to cover. During the press conference, I pulled out my phone to check my Twitter. I had just tweeted about being in the Governor‚019s mansion, and I thought I‚019d update it again and check to see if anyone had said anything interesting.
It was during this time I missed an important answer to a question about a bond Rep. Chris Kelly was sponsoring. In not paying full attention, I missed a something that ultimately became a story. Hours after being back in the newsroom, my editor asked me why I wasn‚019t doing a bond story like the one AP had.
Overall, a big mistake on my part, and I take full responsibility for MDN not having a story. In addition to tweeting at an inopportune time, I failed to see the importance of Shields, LaVota and Richard‚019s words regarding Kelly‚019s bond issue. In order to correct this, I‚019m going to start taking notes on everything said at a press conference, hearing, etc, despite whether or not I think it‚019s important. I also need to make sure I‚019m better informed on current issues.
Moral of the story: not only is it important to be careful WHAT you tweet, but WHEN you tweet.
My biggest lesson so far is that politicians are just regular people with lots of power. The first few times I've interviewed a representative or senator, I was nervous, and I think that came across in my questioning. Of the three I‚019ve talked to directly, one was very friendly, another was angry, but not towards me, and the last was a little harder to engage. They‚019re all characters. During the Senate floor debate I like to watch them interact with each other and especially when they don‚019t think anyone‚019s looking. I've listened to two centers joke back and forth with each other, taking sarcastic shots against the other party.
Phill has continued to be a good mentor. I‚019ve become accustomed to the way he cusses, edits, and operates. One thing I‚019ve learned when approaching Phill is to have my suit coat on with my pen and pad in hand. Any question or comment can set him off with one of his ‚01Cfollow me‚01D ‚019s. This morning he did it first thing, and briefed me on the story I‚019d be covering on the way up to the Senate chamber.
I found my first week in Jefferson City to be both overwhelming and enjoyable. As a health beat reporter, I delved quickly into the bills and other issues the chambers were beginning to look into for the fresh legislative session.
I spent my first day covering hearings in both the House and Senate for bills that would mandate insurance coverage for children with autism. I had covered a hearing before in my reporting at the European Union. However, since the Missouri House and Senate were obviously much smaller chambers, the hearings were less formal. The rooms was packed -- standing room only initially -- with committee members, staffers, witnesses and reporters. I wondered why they didn't set them for larger room. Did they have larger hearing rooms?
I was fortunate my first story would be a major health issue for the rest of the session. The autism bill was killed suddenly by the House leadership last session, and many legislators look to pass it this year.
My second story focused on a bill that will probably have more trouble being passed. It's a medical marijuana bill that's resurfaced from the year before. This time around, however, the bill picked up co-sponsorship by a Republican physician. Despite this boost, however, it will be difficult to pass such a bill under a Republican-controlled House.
In the end I was happy with my first and second stories for MDN. My writing skills were a bit rusty. My political reporting skills were practically non-existent. But I was eager and confident both would improve.