May 2, 2007

Driving Forward The Cell Phone Penalties.

ROCHESTER, Minn. – When Donny Harder crossed the road outside Southwest High School in Minneapolis in the fall of 2006, a driver on a cell-phone sped by, narrowly missing him and his sister.
Harder took his outrage to the Legislature. Based on his complaints, lawmakers have proposed a new bill that doubles the fine for speeding if a person is using a cell phone at the time of the violation.
The bill, proposed in January, is now wending its way through the House.
One of the authors of the bill, Sen. Scott Dibble, said it’s a reasonable attempt to dissuade drivers from using a cell phone.
“We’re not trying to prevent drivers from using a cell-phone,? he said. “The only time a motorist would get pulled over for using a cell-phone is if he or she is speeding.?
Dibble said he wants to make sure this bill doesn’t turn into a political game, where people use Harder’s complaint to get more out of the bill than was originally planned.
“What generally happens is that folks come forward and want it to be a ‘distracted drivers’ bill,? he said. “We’re trying to avoid this and keep this bill exclusively cell-phone related to increase the likelihood of it passing.?
Dibble said he likened the bill to that of speeding through a construction zone on the highway, where fines are doubled.
“In and of itself, driving through a construction zone is not illegal,? he said. “However, speeding through a construction zone can get you pulled over in the same way that speeding using a cell-phone would, if the bill passes.?
Cell phones are far from the greatest causes of accidents. In 2005, 223 cell-phone related accidents were reported in Minnesota out of a total of 94,969 accidents on the road.
But Dibble said he expect cell phones to become more of a factor in traffic accidents as more motorists use their cell phones while driving.
Lauren Pockl, a political science major at the University of Minnesota, said she thinks it’s a good idea to increase the disincentive to speed while talking on the phone. She drives from Como to the University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus four times a week.
“I live in the Como neighborhood, and people on their cell phones are always speeding near me,? she said. “It’s not always a comfortable place to be a pedestrian.?
Likewise, James Scannell, a professor at Rochester’s Community and Technical College, drives his car to Minneapolis to teach at Augsburg College every week.
“I can’t even begin to count the number of times someone on their cell-phone hasn’t noticed me on the road,? he said. “It’s about time they thought more about what they were doing.?
The bill has passed at a transportation committee and is currently awaiting a hearing at a judiciary committee. Dibble said that he expects little opposition to the bill.
“I can’t think of any reason why anyone would think this is a bad idea,? he said.

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This story was reported because I got the idea by looking through a list of Bills currently being discussed in the Minnesota State Legislature. Having had some near-accidents involving other drivers not paying close enough attention to the road, it was something I cared about. Ethically, I didn't want to report with a bias, so I spoke to one of the authors of the bill to get his side of the story. If he didn't care very much about the bill, I'd report that. If he cared very much, I'd report that. You have to be careful when reporting such stories not to be biased in telling the story, but you are allowed to have feelings one way or the other. First was to analyze public records showing accident statistics. Despite finding a very low number of accidents as a result of cell phone usage, I went ahead with the story because otherwise it would be admitting to a bias. The story was mainly about the bill, not about accidents in general. If there were more statistics available about accidents prior to early 2000, I could have worked in a percentage increase of some sort, - regarding the number of accidents.

The biggest challenge in writing this story was getting a hold of people to talk to. It was quite tough getting to speak to senators. I was almost ready to give up on the story and write something different, but I'm glad I didn't, since persistence finally paid off when I got to speak to Sen. Dibble. He was really great to talk to, and didn't spout law speak at me. He was very down to earth about the issue. If I had more time, I would have been more persistent with other co-authors of the bill to try and speak to them, too.

As journalism has indeed moved in the direction of immediate, multimedia, 24/7 coverage, I think it would have been very interesting (and more fun, less black and white) to include some photos of people driving, perhaps some blurred pictures of people on cell phones, close-ups of cell phones etc, just to convey the mood. Mood has become quite a large factor of print reporting, especially online, since nobody wants to read piles of text without anything to break it up. I'm not sure audio would have fit here; audio is generally quite intrusive to text reading. For this story anyway, photos would have been a really great complement. Ethically, there would be nothing too much to worry about here. If the pictures of drivers on cell phones were close up, I would want to protect their identities in some way, by cropping their faces out of the image etc, but other than that, there are no worries here.

April 21, 2007

The solution to sectarian violence in Baghdad: More walls.

The Star Tribune reported Friday that the U.S. military has begun sealing off Baghdad neighborhoods with concrete walls in a controversial new strategy intended to calm Baghdad's sectarian flashpoints, but residents fear the barriers could deepen divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

This latest solution comes just days after a string of bombs in the Iraqi capital killed 198 and wounded 240 in one of the worst bombings since Pres. Bush announced the war officially ended.

Bullet found in Junior High School. Immediate Lock-down.

The Pioneer Press reported today that students at Metcalf Junior High school in Eagan were locked in their classroom for the better part of two hours Friday after a teacher discovered a gun cartridge in a second-floor hallway.

According to the article, the schoolwide "lockdown" began shortly after 10 a.m., with students and teachers sitting in silence with the lights off and the shades drawn.

Spokeswoman for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District Ruth Dunn said nothing out of the ordinary was found after the lockdown, and that the school of 800 students returned to its regular schedule at 11:45 am.

Schools across the country are on high alert not even a week after the tragedy at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Judge bails out buddy, faces music.

The Pioneer Press this weekend reports that a Dakota-county judge has been found guiltyof of ordering a a jailer to release his former neighbor without bail or conditions and then failing to tell the county attorney's office. The Press reports that Judge William Thuet accepted a public reprimand Friday from the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards for his conduct in two drunken driving cases, both involving the same woman. He also agreed to pay a $3,500 civil penalty.

According to the article, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom spoke of the situation grimly.

"In neither of these cases ... was my office consulted, and that's inappropriate," he said.

The Press reports that this marks the fourth time in five years that a Dakota County judge has faced public discipline for special treatment in a traffic or drunken driving case.

Drink and celebrate 3M pollutant not in St. Paul water supply.

According to an article published by the Star Tribune on Friday, April 20, St. Paul's water supply is in fact safe to drink. The article states that the Minnesota Department of Health checked water treatment plants for both cities after high levels of a 3M compound formerly used in Scotchgard and other products were detected in bluegill fish taken from Lake Calhoun in south Minneapolis.

This issue was raised earlier in the year when 3M chemicals were found in three landfills in the Twin Cities.

March 9, 2007

Bush Invades Brazil.

President Bush landed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday night as part of his new agreement with the country on ways to to boost alternative fuels production in the Americas, and get more cars running on something other than gasoline.

CNN reported that riot police fired tear gas and beat some protesters with batons after more than 6,000 people held a largely peaceful march through the financial district of Sao Paulo.

According to CNN, Bush says he is on a goodwill tour to talk about making sure the benefits of democracy.

In Latin America, however, Bush's trip is widely viewed as a way for the American president to counter the influence of Chavez, the populist ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro, who has led a leftward political shift in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said, "It's not about production-sharing, it's about encouraging development and encourage the Caribbean and Central American countries to get into the game."

In January, Bush called on the U.S. Congress to require the annual use of 35 billion gallons (132 billion liters) of ethanol and other alternative fuels such as bio-diesel by 2017, a fivefold increase over current requirements. To help meet the goal, the president also is pushing research into making ethanol from material such as wood chips and switchgrass.

Pawlenty Heads East, Again.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in Afghanistan on Thursday on an unannounced trip, according to the U.S. Embassy there, the Rochester Post Bulletin reports.

Though embassy officials would not disclose the nature of the visit, this will be visit number two for the newly re-elected Minnesota governor, after his unannounced visit to Iraq earlier in the week.

Pawlenty said he planned the trip after about 2,600 Minnesota National Guard troops learned in January that they would be staying in Iraq for as long as 125 days. Their tour had been scheduled to end this month.

"They have realized they've got to finish the mission and they do it with excellence," Pawlenty said. "Their overall morale is good."

Pawlenty visited Iraq in 2004 and a year ago. He said the first trip came at a hopeful time, before internal conflicts consumed the country. The problems were hard to miss on the second visit, Pawlenty said. This time, he said the war isn't going as well as hoped but he was heartened by efforts to control parts of Baghdad.

Hold Your Breath a Little Longer.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued an air pollution health advisory for Rochester as well as the Twin Cities, the Rochester Post Bulletin is reporting. According to the report, light southerly winds are spreading a large mass of polluted air from Oklahoma to Minnesota and thick cloud cover, and fog may have helped fine particulate levels build overnight.

This isn't the first time an air pollution health advisory has been issued in Rochester, with the growing concern Rochester's downtown power plant contributing heavily to the pollution levels.

The advisory will likely be in effect until mid Friday.

February 19, 2007

"Iraq? Biggest Mistake in U.S. History." - Harry Reid.

With the death count climbing each day, the Senate's number one Democrat has stepped forward and called the Iraq war "the worst foreign policy mistake in the history of this country," in an interview with CNN.

Senator Harry Reid told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he considered Iraq an even worse situation that the Vietnam War.

His comments come on a brutal Sunday after 63 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in the latest violence in Iraq's capital.

February 18, 2007

A Reason to Drink!

The MN Sun this weekend reports that bills have been introduced in both the Minnesota House and Senate to allow grocery stores to sell wine - and to require cities with municipal liquor stores to issue licenses for such sales to qualifying applicants in their cities.

Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who introduced the bill in the Senate, said the issue is fairness.

"Consumers don't understand why they can buy a bottle of wine with their other dinner items in supermarkets in 33 states - including Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota - yet they can't do it here," she said.

The bill defines a "supermarket" as a food store with at least 8,000 square feet of the building included in the supermarket operation, which sell specific kinds of food items, such as meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, cleaning products and paper goods. These qualifications would exclude most convenience stores.

Laxatives No Laughing Matter.

In what will no doubt upset the prankster, according to the KTTC news, a Lyle High School student allegedly laced brownies with laxatives and served them to several students and school staff last week.

However, after seven employees and five students suffered symptoms of discomfort, diarrhea, stomach cramps and bloody stools, 18-year-old Collin Orth has been charged with a felony adulteration resulting in bodily harm. If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of ten years in prison and a 20-thousand dollar fine.

Orth will appear in Mower County Court on March 19.

New Jersey Says Gay is OK.

Same-sex couples have one more reason to rejoice.

Those who marry in Massachusetts and move to New Jersey will be legally recognized starting Monday under a new law in the state that allows civil unions.

In an article from the Boston Globe, Attorney General Stuart Rabner of New Jersey said that same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts, which is the only state in the country to allow them, will be considered civil unions in New Jersey.

"If anyone for some reason moved to New Jersey from here, it is certainly good for them to know they will have the same legal protections," said Carisa Cunningham, spokeswoman for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "But probably at the same time it won't be so good to know that they won't be able to have the same dignity and respect you only get with marriage."

First female U.S. attorney in Minnsota.

At the tender age of 33, Rachel Paulose is the first female U.S. attorney in Minnesota's history. Not only that, she is currently the youngest U.S. attorney in America's history. Reported by the Pioneer Press, Paulose is a daughter of immigrants and worked hard to get to where she is today. She manages about 50 assistant U.S. attorneys and seeks to successfully prosecute the most repulsive and harmful of crimes.

Paulose's investiture ceremony is set for next month.

Al Franken to run for senate.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that comedian Al Franken will run for the Minnesota Senate, the latest in celebrity strides toward office positions. Franken, keen to ensure his supporters know he's serious this time, spoke sternly in a video posted to his web site.

"Minnesotans have a right to be skeptical about whether I'm ready for this challenge, and to wonder how seriously I would take the responsibility that I'm asking you to give me," he said. "I want you to know: Nothing means more to me than making government work better for the working families of this state, and over the next 20 months, I look forward to proving to you that I take these issues seriously."

Franken will face off against Norm Coleman in the 2008 elections.

Rochester City Council member faces charges by someone.

Rochester's City Council member Pat Carr is facing possible disciplinary action from his colleagues, according to an article published by The Post Bulletin. The council is set to convene on Wednesday, Feb. 21 to discuss Carr's fate. The catch? Carr says he doesn't know what he's accused of, the council won't speak to anyone on the matter, and the accuser wishes to remain anonymous.
Wednesday it is.