Thursday, March 30, 2006

The chief, the lawyers and the media: "Who benefits?"

By Mark Dorroh

Saturday, a Richmond journalist decided to employ his column for the purpose of ridiculing a Hopewell City public safety officer. Specifically, in a popular newspaper column, Hopewell Bureau of Police Chief Rex Marks was taken to task for "hibernating rather than talking about the investigation of his department."

The columnist prolonged the questionable metaphor (I seriously doubt the chief has been kipping for more than eight hours a day since late January) beyond the bounds of both taste and reason by adding that during a news conference about the ongoing Bureau of Police investigation, Chief Marks "seemed to be one very annoyed bear."

I was not terribly surprised to read, in a Richmond publication, the inference that our chief is improperly holding back from the public the particulars of a tangled, complex and incomplete investigation. Actually, I'd have been amazed if someone in The Big Town hadn't taken at least one gratuitous cheap shot at our chief and, by logical extension, our city.

That's because during my 15 years of reporting in the greater Richmond/Tri-Cities market, Richmond's record of sensationalistic coverage in our town is so well-documented.

The last truly dangerous scandal we had here was the Kepone/Life Sciences mess in the mid-1970s, but the natural desire of reporters and assignment editors (many of whom will subtly shade the truth if they think it might boost circulation or ratings) to make hay while the sun shines on any trivial Hopewell story has triumphed time and again.

How well I recall the discovery, in the early 1990s, of a few hundred buckets and barrels of glop, most of it rainwater-diluted industrial abrasives, inside the former Firestone plant. Those "hazardous materials" were far less dangerous and easier to dispose of than the mini-mountain of asbestos piled inside the structure or the PCBs soaking the soil around leaking transformers, both of which were already known. Nonetheless, Richmond media had a field day, engaging in over-the-top coverage which included live satellite truck remote broadcasts of actual correspondents standing in front of an actual abandoned factory where actual containers of essentially harmless glop had been detected.

And you don't want to get me started on Richmond's nuclear-grade bloviation and mindless hand-wringing surrounding the Hopewell crypto-sporidium scare or the idiot child who set fire to another kid.

The bottom line is, while knee-jerk mongering of fear and pathos are proven methods of peddling journalistic product, the main reason I avoid such practices is that the emotions aroused thereby too often obscure the facts.

Back to Saturday's column: Ray McAllister, a normally perceptive scribbler of news and opinion, seems to believe the particulars of an incomplete probe into allegations of official misconduct should be bruited about all over creation. He is oblivious to the fact that there are several really good reasons for Chief Marks to keep his mouth shut.

1. Ongoing investigations are only fair and effective, especially if they wind up with charges being filed, if conducted in the utmost secrecy. 2. Exposing details of an unfolding inquiry to the glare of publicity invites the public to make up its collective mind on the guilt or innocence of any eventual suspects long before all the facts are in. The potential for a defense motion for change of trial venue - with all its attendant public expense - is so obvious one wonders how any responsible journalist could ignore its importance.

3. When he took office, Chief Marks swore an oath of office to uphold the law to the best of his ability, and that includes being ever-mindful of bedrock principles such as the right to presumed innocence and the right of the accused to confront his accuser in the proper forum.

4. The "proper forum" is and always has been a court of law, not the front page.

But the temptation to run with a story based on what may well turn out to be spurious allegations against honest officers made by repeat felons - two-legged predators with nothing to lose and much to gain by such tale-telling - was too juicy for McAllister, his Richmond cronies and (sadly) elements of our own Tri-Cities press corps to resist. Lost in all the excitement was a salient fact: The most persistent critics of the chief's stonewalling policies are defense attorneys whose professional obligation it is to do anything legal which might get their clients off the hook.

Finally, on the issue of the Hopewell Bureau of Police's evidence room, it should be noted (and has been in this newspaper) that the absence of missing items could very well be less a matter of criminal activity than of poor records-keeping. Chief Marks has said it and our commonwealth's attorney has said it, but outside these pages, few if any have acknowledged the fact that it is the nature of the human animal to slop around on paperwork.

Compared to mistakes attributable to our perennial distaste for scrupulous scrivening, the practice of genuine skullduggery is far less common. In the case of police employees who know sooner or later the absence of physical evidence was bound to be noticed, it's also far less likely.

Oddly, while reporters seem eager to speculate on every other aspect of the situation, especially those suggesting corruption, they've given short shrift to this one very real possibility. I hope I may be forgiven for my suspicion that it's because a story about missing files isn't as sexy as one in which drugs and money are ripped off by crooked cops.

So remember children, take everything you see, hear or read with a massive grain of salt. My unsolicited advice would be to constantly monitor everyone's motives, including my own, via use of the classic legal interrogatory: "Who benefits?"

Thursday, March 23, 2006

PCs is the new CW ... more's the pity

By Mark Dorroh

I've been indulging my artsy side of late, ripping off a verse or three at some Richmond poetry slams. The deal with a slam is, it's sort of like a poets' battle of the bands; everybody brings his best stuff, you're judged by randomly selected audience members and the winner gets a few bucks and bragging rights.

I had some medical problems about this time last year and my physician put her foot down and told me I had to take a few months off to recover, so I did. Toward the end of that time, I got itchy to resume wordsmithing, so I cranked out a few new poems (I've been writing poems and songs since shortly after birth) and hied myself up to Richmond, Virginia's Firehouse Theatre for my first-ever slam.

I recited an abstraction-heavy piece chock full of Biblical references and lots of e.e. cummingsesque wordplay. I bombed horribly, while a bunch of kids who spent their entire three minutes raving out - about how dead, white European males, capitalism and George W. Bush are part and parcel of a Satanist conspiracy - got full props.

I quickly recalibrated my act, pumped up the Bombast Coefficient Factor to about "11" and returned a few months later loaded for bear. My offering that night was entitled "1972 Revisited," which I introduced as "an incredibly short one-act play rendered in verse, song and interpretive dance."

The piece, a carefully metered and rhymed bit of pop doggerel, gives the listener a pretty good ride, but is nothing special compared to my first offering. It was, however, larded with references to the riotous living in which I enthusiastically engaged during my misspent youth.

Trust me, you don't want to know.

Anyway, it's fair to say my performance was less than restrained. In point of fact, I ran amok on stage for three minutes in front of a room full of startled Virginia Commonwealth University students.

The crowd approved. The kids seemed to especially enjoy the interpretive dancing, which combined odd elements of Mick Jagger's stage moves (poorly rendered, but my butt is considerably bigger than his, so whaddya want?) with a sweet little Illinois roadhouse step called The Four Corners. I should stipulate that this dance is one which should be illegal - for anyone my age, gender and race - to perform in public. It's like the Shimmy, but ruder. A lot ruder. Middle-aged white American men have been known to cringe, then instruct me to leave the building upon witnessing my performance of The Four Corners. But women, persons of color and foreign folk think it's fine. And kids, for whatever reason, love it.

On the strength of this uninhibited display of extreme silliness, I scored my way into a Rhyme-Off, tied for first with two other poets. I stupidly reprised the same subtle, abstract poem which had failed to ignite the crowd the first time I slammed, placing third out of three.

Since then, I have written other, similarly deft ruminations in verse, and I keep getting blown off stage by credulous children rhyming about how dead European males are responsible for every single misfortune to befall humanity since we left The Garden. They also like to allude to the well-known fact that George W. Bush's horns and tail are routinely airbrushed out of news photos by former Nixon aides.

I got wise to the ways of slams only after I had bombed one more time, on that occasion by reciting my newest effort, "Let's," a tribute to creative chaos. "Let's" begins with a reverse-spin riff on the opening line of the seminal Beat poem "Howl." Allen Ginsberg wrote, "I have seen the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked."

I, seeking literary engagement with the real-time Real World, wrote, "I have seen the hindmost intellects of our era co-opted by conventional wisdom sated smug designer-labeled."

Not only did the judges fail to grok in its fullness my implicit message - an enraptured celebration of human volition - I doubt if many of them had any idea whom or what I was referencing. The ones who did probably resented me messing with The Master and scored me accordingly.

I scored sixth out of six poets, but I'm a big Libertarian Republican boy, and let's face it, we're all blind to the limitations of our own talent, so coming in dead last wasn't all that big a deal. But the judges' lack of literacy, awareness and/or class extended far beyond their lack of appreciation for my own meager talents.

Specifically, the guy who placed fourth, an ace poet named Nazdak of whom I feel certain we will hear more in coming years, lit up the room with a brilliantly constructed plea for love, reason, spiritual cleanliness and general godliness. His performance was every bit as good as his verse, but, unfortunately for him, he didn't blame Amerikkka, dead European males, capitalism or George W. Bush for a single thing.

Bad move, Naz. This particular gang of aficionados would rather trash predictable boogymen than eat chocolate cake with icing and Häagen-Dazs. They want to hear President Bush and his execrable ilk lit the Reichstag fire, shot J.F.K. from the grassy knoll and killed Cock Robin.

What they don't want is to hear is for you to mouth a lot of damn sorry truck 'bout love 'n reason.

Here's what I've finally figured out, Naz; Political Correctness is the New Conventional Wisdom. It's much like the Old Conventional Wisdom - lame beyond all imagining- but not nearly as easily-detected by the afore-mentioned credulous children as its witless progenitor.

The CW is dead! Long live the New CW (The Prince Formerly Known as PC)!

Please allow me to state, emphatically and for the record, "More's the pity."

To view the poems "The Last Rebel," "Let's," "1972 Revisited," visit

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Power, good intentions and moral mayhem

If you've ever wondered why Americans in general and libertarian Americans in particular fear government misuse of power, your answer was spoken more than a century ago. Lord Emerich Edward Dalberag Acton (1834–1902) famously observed that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Traditionally, the way totalitarian regimes have gotten the public to go along with usurpation of powers properly reserved for individuals is by telling them it's "for your own good." Thus has humanity been led down the primrose path to national socialism, fascism, communism and a host of other poorly-conceived and abysmally executed dystopian dead ends.

Essentially, whenever you're being told "this is for your own good" when every reasonable impulse tells you otherwise, you should hold on to your wallet, gather up your spouse and kids, then duck and cover.

Consider the lobbyist-based scandals of Washington D.C. Please.

There's a funny smell coming out of K Street, and some heads are going to roll before it drifts away. Don't get me wrong, most lobbyists deliver legitimate citizen petitions to a government that needs reminding every so often that real people can be hurt by its best-intentioned acts.

But the other kind of lobbyist gives to laws and ethical rules about the same consideration a bad driver gives to posted speed limits and injunctions against following too closely.

The bad lobbyist figures if influencing legislation is good, then influencing it by hook or crook is better.

The bad driver figures if getting there soon is good, getting there sooner is better.

Like the bad lobbyist, the bad driver considers himself above the law. Speed limits are mere suggestions. The trouble is, he nearly always overestimates his ability control his vehicle at high speeds and in proximity to other vehicles that only a NASCAR pro could handle.

Let a deer leap from the shoulder, or a child run into the street in front of the truck he's tailgating and he discovers he's no Junior Johnson. If he survives, he blames either the truck driver, the dead deer or the (hopefully ) live child. But I digress.

Back to the rotten lobbyist: The only surprising thing about today's scandal is that anyone is surprised by it. Republicans have had control of both elected branches of government just about long enough to have been seriously affected by Lord Acton's First Principle of Power. They simply reek of the same sanctimony as Democrats did just four decades ago - think Lyndon Johnson and his tame Congress- and since power attracts money and money enhances and rewards power, when there's a certain level of juicy chum in the water it's not realistic to think the sharks won't gather and chow down.

Did you notice how quickly the "Contract With America" demands for term limits disappeared once the out-of-power GOP became the in-power GOP? Sure, the Supreme Court helped by ruling states couldn't limit federal office terms, but I didn't notice anyone jumping up and demanding a constitutional amendment to change it.

It's sort of the way our own Virginia GOP whined for about 130 years about gerrymandered districts, right up until they became the gerrymanderers rather than the gerrymanderees. Their operative ethical principle has been borrowed from post-reconstruction Old Dominion Democrats; "Do unto others exactly as they did unto you."

Which is a great way to perpetuate a vendetta.

The justification for the worst nastiness engaged in by members of Congress who are bought and paid for by bad lobbyists is, "it's for the citizens' own good." They figure unless they get big bucks to fuel their next campaign, they won't remain in office and how can they help the citizens if they're not in office?

Adolph Hitler and Jolly Old Uncle Joe Stalin also thought the ends justified the means. It seems that particular pathetic substitute for consistent moral standards never quite goes out of style.

One partial remedy to this mess would be to give up trying to regulate how much money is spent in political campaigns (which is, overall, less money than Americans spend on chewing gum or pornography) and instead require public disclosure of exactly where each candidate's money comes from.

A billion-dollar war chest won't convince me to vote for someone who's received any part of their money from certain groups, and I think most of us feel that way. If government would quit trying to do what's best for us and instead make sure we get the information we need to do what's best for ourselves, a lot of this nonsense would be stopped in its tracks.

Give voters the informational power they need to make up their own minds and the republic will flourish. Spoon-feed them assurances that if government regulates how much money is spent on political free speech every thing will be fine ... and you're just passing power to the elite few doing the regulation.

And the power which truly corrupts is the power held by too few.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Prosecutorial SNAFUs, 9/11 terrorists and rough injustice

By Mark Dorroh

Those of us who think governmental semi-competence is endemic to our neighborhood should take a look at the sentencing phase of the trial of al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, "The 20th Hijacker" of September 11, 2001 terrorist attack notoriety.

This week, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, during pre-sentence hearings, was presented with evidence of a nasty taint upon the testimony of prosecution witnesses.

It turns out some witnesses were allowed to converse among one another - and two FAA officials admitted they'd followed media accounts of the trial - while they were still giving testimony.

There's a darn good reason judges tell witnesses not to discuss the case amongst themselves until after adjudication in a given trial: Witness memories are supposed to be their own, not the products of committee discussions. Witnesses are not supposed to read or listen to news stories in order to keep to keep them free from the influence of speculation, supposition and/or plain lurid fantasy.

Besides all that, the object of a fair trial is neither to convict nor exonerate a given suspect. It is to get to the truth, no matter how ugly or inconvenient the truth might be.

So Brinkema threw out the tainted testimony, and as of Thursday morning, things had deteriorated to the point that, according to AP, that the only hope prosecutors have of getting the death penalty will be to somehow "persuade ... Brinkema she punished the government too harshly for tampering with trial witnesses and lying to defense attorneys."

Can you say "SNAFU?"

What has this to do with us? Plenty. Remember last December when robbery and homicide charges in the killing of James Sanders were dismissed ? The court had no choice, as it became known that the case against James Earl Pettaway was tainted with a star witness whose testimony appeared less than totally motivated by a desire to serve justice.

Specifically, the evening after the second day of the trial, co-prosecutor Sheryl Wilson was informed, via a phone call from a conscientious cop, that the witness, a jailhouse snitch who had briefly shared a cell with defendant James Earl Pettaway, was having money funneled into his canteen account at Riverside Regional by a person or persons involved with the state's side of the case.

When Wilson shared that information with the Hon. Judge Allan Sharrett on day three of the trial, defense counsel moved for and got a dismissal.

Word on the street is, His Honor was not amused. The main reason the canteen supplement was grounds for an automatic dismissal is, it was not disclosed during pretrial discovery. That's the process during which the two sides are supposed to share all pertinent information with one another. The idea is, the open process facilitates fact-finding for the sake of blind justice.

So, is our county commonwealth's attorney a villain? Did he deliberately hide the canteen fund deal? Not bloody likely, since he is neither a bad person nor a fool ... and he would have had to be both to condone such deranged mishandling of an important witness.

How about the cops? Did detectives overplay their hand in pursuit of a guy they didn't like anyway in an attempt to nail him for other crimes against humanity, crimes unrelated to the Sanders homicide trial?

It's possible. Many officers I've known over the years admit, off the record, that such rough injustice will occasionally be administered by otherwise straight-arrow guys in an effort to get known troublemakers off the streets.

But having worked with the county police department as many years as I have, I find it hard to believe those sorts of monkeyshines would be practiced by Prince George Police. If they were, I do know for an actual fact that Chief Edward Frankenstein would heave the practitioner out on his rump approximately 2.6 seconds after the facts became known to him.

Chances are good this mess was simply a case of one hand not knowing what the other was about. It happens in law enforcement, it happens in journalism, agribusiness, manufacturing and medicine. It is the way of a world in which nobody's perfect, and while it's a shame, it is not evidence of either incompetence or bad intent.

We do know the officer who called up Ms. Wilson did an extreme favor to the cause of justice. Convicting the wrong man on testimony of questionable worth would have been an injustice not only to him but to the community as well, since the real killer or killers would still be out there, perhaps planning a new atrocity. With charges against Pettaway off the table, investigators have good reason to check out alternative theories of culpability.

Are they? We won't know until they have enough evidence in their possession to seek an indictment. That may not happen for months or even years.

But there's no statute of limitations on murder, so the killer or killers will, henceforth, never know a single day of peace. That may be all the justice the late Mr. Sanders and his family ever get.

And while that's far from enough, it is still better than punishing the wrong man.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Nitric acid, Nervous Nellies and federalism writ large

By Mark Dorroh

There was a lot of good stuff to be heard at the candidate forum hosted Monday by Hopewell's City Point Neighborhood Watch Association. The three dozen residents who turned out were, for the most part, smart, articulate and thoughtful, as were the three candidates.

But some of the questions asked (and assertions made) indicated a sizable gap between what we all learned in school and how well we remember it in our adult years. So consider this column a refresher course in Civics 101 ... there will not be a quiz on this stuff, but boning up on it may save us all a bit of future public embarrassment.

Lesson The First: Our city council has absolutely, positively no power over the operations of Regional Enterprises Inc., the rail-truck transfer company which accidentally vented rather a large amount of nitric acid into the atmosphere in late July. The sole circumstance under which council would have any influence whatsoever would be if the company chose to expand operations into a portion of land on which a zoning change or conditional use permit would be required.

Everything else is regulated by state and federal agencies. And unless Regional Enterprises is a radical exception to the rule, those regulations already keep management plenty busy filling out forms and delivering mandated reports. Whatever might be wrong with the operation, it does not suffer from lack of governmental oversight … none of which involves Hopewell City Council.

Besides, statistically speaking, living near Regional Enterprises is a lot safer than plenty of things we cheerfully tolerate all the time. Hopewell ain't Bhopal, India.

It's not even Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. Sadly, the public reaction to the supposed dangers of that minor, essentially harmless, media-hyped accident in Pennsylvania was a lot like local reaction to the Regional Enterprises spill in Hopewell. Neither accident killed anyone, but both got Nervous Nellies endlessly wound up over the possibility of ... what?

Statistics indicate most of us are a lot more likely to die of the radon gas in our basements, the lard in our butts, the calcium in our veins or the cigarettes dangling from our lips than we are to die of either nitric acid inhalation or radioactive steam.

Perspective, campers! Perspective! If you've got to get shocked and appalled over something, I can offer a smorgasbord of indignant delights, including, but not limited to the bureaucratic red tape Regional and every other American company has to deal with, paid for not by the company, which has to turn a profit to stay in business, but by every single one of us.

What, you think the money a company pays for all those employees to do all those hours of government-mandated labor came from some magic pot of loot? Is that what you think?

If so, you've got another think coming. Nothing comes without cost, the ultimate payers of which are American consumers. In other words, thee and me.

I am very much in support of environmental regulation for the sake of public health and safety. What I'm not in favor of is malignant fantasies inflicted by clueless, well-intentioned persons upon the wrong bunch of elected officials. The relation between state, federal and local governments is not that hard to understand. We all learned it in high school if not before. Let's keep it in mind when deciding whom to vote for, whom to gripe at and whom to blame for "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."*

*Quote courtesy of Willie the Shake, from his popular, full-tilt melodrama "Hamlet."

Friday, March 03, 2006

John, Paul, George, Ringo and ... Jesus?

By Mark Dorroh

Bob Spitz, the journalist and music business manager, has written a very good Beatles bio. Titled after the Liverpool performance artists, the book lays to rest a number of pernicious Beatles myths, including the circumstances under which Peter Fonda said to John Lennon, "I know what it's like to be dead."

That spooky little phrase, one of the many bits of verbal flotsam Lennon so often wove into his lyrics, resurfaced in the brilliant cut "She Said She Said," the final song on side one of the Beatle's most progressive and startlingly fresh album, "Revolver." Beatlemaniacs my age can still get chills listening to it; it incorporates not only red hot musicianship and studio technique, but also, like a lot of the Beatles' mid-career work, elements of stream-of-consciousness, total command of lyrical imagery and a sweet, spiky, iconoclastic approach to the three minute pop song milieu in which the lads worked - and which they struggled to transcend - for so many years.

But enough of my facile criticism, here's how the Spitz book handles the Fonda-Lennon connection: The story I had always heard was that John and Peter were ripped on LSD-25 at a California party when Fonda started following him around, apparently trying to impress him with some sort of cosmic understanding by repeatedly saying, "I know what it's like to be dead."

But Spitz claims what really happened was that Fonda was relating to someone else the story of how, as a child, he'd accidentally shot himself while playing with a handgun.

"My heart stopped three times," said Fonda, "so I know what it's like to be dead." As it happened, Lennon wandered by just then, overheard him, and thought it was a great line.

It is, and its use in "She Said She Said" shows a fine, Duchampesque appreciation for the value of found materials. Lennon wasn't the first singer-songwriter to use out-of- context phrases in his work, but he did it as well or better than anyone in those storied days of explosive musical evolution.

It's also nice to know Peter Fonda, even with a head full of acid, wasn't quite the babbling twit the original story made him out to be.

But the thing that really impressed - and depressed - me was how the group was forcibly retired, by the antics of raving, obnoxious fans, from doing live performances during their final years before the 1970 breakup. By the time they'd finished their second world tour, giving up live shows with all their hysteria and physical risk was not even a hard decision to make. As George Harrison got on the plane after finishing the Beatles' penultimate live gig (the last for many years, until their rooftop performance at Apple headquarters included in the end of the Let it Be movie), he told biographers he thought to himself, "I'm not a Beatle anymore." And George Harrison felt pretty good about it.

Reaction to the non-touring Beatles was predictable and distressingly unfair. When the band retreated into the studio to create some of the greatest rock albums ever, some fans, many of them the same ones who'd screamed so loud the Beatles' couldn't hear themselves play on stage, started muttering about being abandoned. "They're getting to be just like Elvis," one angry superfan was quoted saying.

There's probably more truth to that particular complaint than was intended. Elvis, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, simply got sick to death of the adulation, the goofy expectations, the dangerous hysteria and the firm belief among some fans that buying an album or a concert ticket gave them license to invade the private lives of their heroes.

It's true: fans who live and die for their idols engage in a level of transference and identity projection which can make a whole civilization sick.

That's exactly what happened when Lennon, in a rambling interview with a pop journalist who was also an old friend, made the infamous comparison between John, Paul, George, Ringo and Jesus. What he said was that Christianity seemed pretty much shot in England. He then mused aloud over who would last longer, Jesus or the Beatles. Proving his point, when the interview was first published, no one in England cared.

But few months later, when the Bible-thumpers of America read the out-of-context quotes, they went bananas ... and missed the point. Lennon never said he approved of a rock band usurping the popularity of the Prince of Peace.

He did strongly imply that some folks' bedrock values were highly questionable. In the weeks and months subsequent to the American publication of the quote, Lennon had to suck a ton of eggs to get the furor to die down. Yet, forty years later, I have to wonder if maybe the boy didn't speak powerful truth. Consider:

A recent survey indicates more Americans can name all five members of TV's "Simpsons" cartoon family than can name the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (religion, speech, press, assembly and the right to petition for redress of grievance).

Then, last month, the publication of a dozen irreverent cartoons in a Danish newspaper got folks so fired up, there were embassies attacked and rioters killed.

One finds oneself speculating that Lennon, wherever he is, probably isn't laughing, but he sure as hell is vindicated.