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Archive for October, 2010

For the first time in the modern newspaper era, The Kansas City Star’s Sunday circulation has fallen below 300,000.

In all probability, Sunday circulation has not been below 300,000 since it crested that number, perhaps around 1950 or earlier.

According to the most recent report, issued Monday, by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, The Star’s Sunday circulation fell to 290,302 for the April-September reporting period.

That represented a 5.7 percent dip from the previous year (when Sunday circulation stood at 307,974) and a 10.6 percent drop from 2008.

The Star has been battling desperately to prop up Sunday circulation. In recent years, for example, the company has been providing Sunday papers to subscribers of The Olathe News, which The Star bought several years ago. More recently — and more surprisingly — it  began providing Sunday papers to subscribers of a competitor, The Examiner, which distributes in Independence and the fast-growing suburbs of Blue Springs and Grain Valley.

This coming Sunday, The Star is starting a special promotion — featuring 3-D images in parts of the paper. Each copy will contain special glasses. 

The Star has good company in falling circulation, of course. The Audit Bureau showed that average weekday circulation at 635 newspapers declined 5 percent compared with 2009.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was another major paper to fall beneath a long-time Sunday benchmark — 400,000. Its Sunday circulation fell 8.9 percent, from 401,425 to 365,589.

If there’s any good news in the overall report, it’s that circulation is not falling as fast as it was a few years ago.

The “decreasing decrease” in circulation mimics the trend in advertising, which also fell off a cliff a few years ago and is still trending downward, but not as sharply. 

The Newspaper Association of America, a trade group, reported recently that newspaper advertising revenues were on track this year to hit a 25-year low of about $26.5 billion. That would be less than half the revenue ($49.4 billion) that newspaper advertising generated as recently as 2005.

The only truly hopeful sign for publishers is that online advertising has climbed almost 50 percent, to $1.5 billion, during the last five years. 

Circulation, of course, is the horse that pulls the advertising cart. When circulation falls, it puts downward pressure on ad rates.

The fact that circulation and advertising losses are diminishing — and that online advertising is increasing — offer the only light at the end of what has turned into an extremely long tunnel for newspapers. Had circulation and advertising continued to drop the way they were a few years ago, a lot more newspaper companies would not be publishing print editions at this point.  

Regarding The Star’s situation, I sent K.C. Star publisher Mark Zieman an e-mail Wednesday morning, seeking a comment, but I got no response.

A former Star executive told me a year or so ago that Zieman sees his overriding mission as saving the The Star’s print edition. If that is the case, his relative youth — he’s about 50 — could work against him. 

The Star’s weekday and Saturday circulation also fell. Daily circulation was down 4.5 percent — to 206,441 — and Saturday circulation was off a whopping 7.8 percent.

As recently as 2000, The Star mounted a marketing campaign designed to propel weekday circulation above 300,000. My, how aspirations have changed in the last decade.

The ABC figures include electronic, as well as print, subscriptions. Electronic subscriptions now comprise 12 percent of The Star’s total weekday circulation.

According to ABC, a trade group, The Wall Street Journal has the highest average daily circulation, with slightly more than 2 million papers sold daily. USA Today is second, at 1.8 million, and The New York Times is third at 876,638.

Rounding out the top five were The Los Angeles Times (600,449) and The Washington Post (545,345).

The New York Times has the highest Sunday circulation, at 1.3 million. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today do not publish on Sunday.

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I’m afraid it’s almost inevitable that Missouri voters will approve Proposition A a week from Tuesday.

At its core, Prop A is an insidious scheme designed to appeal to voters’ selfish inclinations at the expense of Kansas City and St. Louis, which make the state the special place that it is.

I’ve often quoted former mayor and now-Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who used to rally the troops at City Hall by saying, “This isn’t some podunk town along I-70; this is Kansas City!”

But if Kansas City and St. Louis lose their one-percent earnings taxes and falter badly because of it, the podunk element will grow in prominence, and the urban dimension will diminish.   

The podunk element — my apologies to rednecks across the state — is going to vote in full force for Prop A, which would eliminate the prospect of an earnings tax anywhere in the state except Kansas City and St. Louis.

Then, it will come down to this: If Kansas City and St. Louis want to retain their earnings taxes, they will  have to hold renewal local elections every five years. The tax is applied to the net profits of corporations in the two cities and to the wages of individuals who either work or live in those cities. 

What should deeply concern Kansas City residents is that the e-tax generates more than $200 million a year, about 36 percent of the city’s $560 million general fund.

And, by the way, here’s one of the main reasons Mayor Mark Funkhouser should be given his walking papers: Late last year he said he was “open” to the idea of eliminating the earnings tax. He later came to his senses, but the mere fact that he was willing to entertain the notion of eliminating the e-tax shows how far off beam he is.  

On Sunday, The Star had an excellent front-page story — “Whither city services?” — that, I hope, will make Kansas Citians more aware of the nature of the threat posed by elimination of the earnings tax.

The story, written by longtime City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley and intern Seth Putnam, addressed, among other things, a so-called “Doomsday List” of cuts the city might have to make if the earnings tax goes away. 

Included on the list were $58 million from the Police Department and $20 million from trash collection, curbside recycling, bulky-item pickup and leaf and brush services.   

Do you remember, several years ago, when the raging debate about the earnings tax was whether city residents were entitled to free trash bags indefinitely?

I dare say, many people would welcome the return of that debate, instead of the current issue of whether to do away with the tax altogether.

Ironically, it’s outsiders, for the most part, who are agitating for repeal of the earnings tax. 

The chief chef, the man who concocted this nasty stew, is Rex (Down the Drain) Sinquefield, a multi-millionaire who apparently lives in Osage County, near Jefferson City, but has strong ties to St. Louis.

Sinquefield

Sinquefield is president of a non-profit organization called the Show-Me Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank. On its web site, the institute says that its work “is rooted in the American tradition of free markets and individual liberty.”

The group’s chairman is R. Crosby “Chris” Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library. Kemper and Sinquefield have argued for years that the earnings tax hurts growth and employment.

In a recent KC Star article, political reporter Dave Helling said Sinquefield, who has made himself invisible in this campaign, is a retired businessman whose income “appears to be based on business holdings and dividends, which are not subject to the earnings tax.”

OK, maybe he’s not motivated by self-interest. But he sure is posing a threat to Missouri’s two biggest cities. So far, according to a recent Kansas City Star article, Down the Drain has spent nearly $11 million of his own money to get Prop A on the ballot and fuel the campaign against it.

Cozad

The assistant chef, working for Prop A on our side of the state, is former Missouri Republican chairman (Knock On) Woody Cozad, a lawyer who lives in Platte City. Cozad is a regular panelist on the KCPT program “Ruckus.”

A couple of years ago, describing Republicans, Knock On Woody said, “We don’t like government  in general.”

Down the Drain obviously shares that philosophy, and, so, his and Cozad’s approach with Prop A essentially is, “Let’s put a big hole in the financing of city government so there will be a lot less of it.”   

Strategically, I must admit, Down the Drain has hatched a brilliant plan. By attacking the earnings tax statewide — and pitting rural against urban — he’s given himself an odds-on chance of winning. Why would the vast majority of outstate Missouri voters have a very strong reason to vote “no”?

A big incentive for outstate residents is that not only does it not affect them (as long as they don’t care about the stature of the state’s two biggest cities, anyway),  it would prevent an earnings tax from ever being visited upon them.

For the earnings tax to survive in Kansas City and St. Louis, then, it will come down to local elections next year. Earnings-tax proponents will have the challenging job of trying to convince voters to be unselfish and to think, first and foremost, about what kind of city they want and what kind of municipal services they want.

Two recent letters to the editor in The Star framed the issue very well.

In an Oct. 15 letter, Mack Tilton of Kansas City called Proposition A “a trick,” with the trick being that “if we want to keep the tax we’d be asked to decide again every five years.”

“It would be very hard,” he continued, ” for the city to borrow money or make any long-term plans knowing that a primary source of its income would be challenged every five years.”

In other words, it would be more difficult for the city to commit to big projects like development of the Power & Light District, which has helped resurrect downtown and keep Kansas City on the map as a convention destination. 

Last Thursday, Joel Pelofsky, a former city councilman and former Kansas City school board member, wrote: “The fact that people who do not live in Kansas City but work here and pay the tax is only fair. Many of the city services benefit them, as do cultural and entertainment facilities maintained by tax revenues.

“Nobody likes to pay taxes,” Pelofsky concluded, “but it is a reasonable price to pay for living in a great city.”

If you live in Kansas City and you want to see it continue to grow and prosper, I urge you to vote “no” on Prop A next week. But, more important, be ready to vote “yes” on retention of the e-tax next spring.

You can’t say this about many taxes, but it’s a beautiful thing.

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On July 2, I published a blog entry criticizing The Kansas City Star for its corrections policy.

Specifically, I said that the paper, by not running corrections on the same page every day (or every time it carries corrections), was devaluing the corrections and effectively compromising the paper’s credibility.

As evidenced by the handling of a story last week, The Star’s corrections policy is much more flawed than I realized. I was surprised to learn that The Star does not acknowledge errors in stories that appear online only;  it merely corrects them and goes on.

Furthermore, insofar as stories that appear in print, it does not acknowledge in the electronic archives accessible to the public that an error was made. Again, it merely amends the story as if it were correct all along.

In other words, as far as I can tell, errors — whether made in the printed edition or online versions — are not acknowledged anywhere in the electronic archives accessible to the public. Poof! Errors disappear without a trace. The reporters must love it.

Internally at The Star, it’s another story. Archived stories in the newspaper’s so-called electronic library make a note of corrections or clarifications right up top.

The issue of the paper’s corrections policy arose again in the case of Brian Euston, the 24-year-old man who died in Westport early the morning of Oct. 10.

On Wednesday, Oct. 13, the paper posted an online story under the headline “Man who died in Westport beating ‘could make everyone smile.’ ” In the printed edition, the headline read, “Man who died ‘could make everyone smile.’ ”

No mention of a beating. And, as it turned out, The Star had no proof of a beating. In fact, the body of neither the print nor the online story referred to the possibility of a beating. 

And yet, The Star went with the misleading headline for more than a day.

What prompted The Star to pull the headline was a post by Hearne Christopher of kcconfidential.com calling The Star to task on the erroneous headline. Hearne interviewed a police spokesman, who said he had called the problematic headline to the attention of Star representatives but was ignored — until the kcconfidential story.

Police have said they are trying to determine what caused Euston’s death.

For its part, The Star tiptoed around the problem, only acknowledging it in readers’ representative Derek Donovan’s blog, called Ad Astrum. Donovan posted comments from three people, two of whom criticized the paper for the headline. (The third writer said he felt sure that Euston’s death would turn out to have been the result of a beating.)

One of the two critics wrote: “How many people saw the headline, scanned the article, then went around recounting the story of someone beaten to death in Westport? Was there a correction printed anywhere but in this blog?”

The answer, again…No.

Then Donovan weighed in with his opinion and his report of Star policy: “The ‘beating’ only showed up in the online headline, which I simply fixed,” he wrote. “The Star’s policy is to remove or fix errors online, but not to run a separate correction about them. I agree with this policy, as I find notes saying ‘This story used to contain an error’ completely pointless and retrograde.”

Well, I think the policy is completely wrong-headed and that Donovan’s “retrograde” theory could stand some retrospection. The “see no evil” policy is akin to the Catholic Church’s line of reasoning in granting annulments: The marriage never happened. Didn’t exist. Slate wiped clean. Re-deal.

The Ad Astrum critic pointed up the inanity of the policy as eloquently and clearly as humanly possible: “How many people saw the headline, scanned the article, then went around recounting the story of someone beaten to death in Westport?”

That would be tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people. 

The Star was so good for so long — decades — on corrections that it is simply a damn shame it has come to this.

The paper that I often hold up on a pedestal, The New York Times, takes a different tack, as you might imagine. On Tuesday, I e-mailed Art Brisbane, a former Kansas City Star publisher, who now is public editor for The Times.

He said: “Any time there is a correction involving a story (or column) that appears online, there is a notice of the correction appended to the story itself. In the body of the story, the erroneous matter is corrected. So, the upshot is that you read a corrected story and you know the story has been corrected because there is a notice appended to it.”

The Times handles errors in print-edition stories the same way — correcting the text in the archived version and appending a correction at the bottom.

Brisbane sought verification on his statement from Gregory E. Brock, senior editor for standards, who said in an e-mail: 

“The guiding principle is: we do not change facts online without telling readers that we made the error — and what the error was. We do not acknowledge changes for typos/grammars. But any editing that might clarify or reshape a point is acknowledged. (This is what we used to call “writing through” the article between print editions — never having to worry that someone would notice that it had changed. Now everyone notices!)”

Brock said The Times also corrects mistakes on blogs it sponsors: “But we give the bloggers the option of acknowledging the error in the actual blog (assuming the blog is done in a conversational way). If  it is a more serious blog, we append the more formal correction line to the bottom.”

Now there’s a fast and firm corrections policy: Correct everything, everywhere, and let the record show that the paper screwed up. 

The Star, on the other hand, corrects when and where it chooses and leaves no tracks for the readers to see its mistakes. 

Call it the whitewash policy.

Oh, yes, there’s one more thing: I e-mailed Derek Donovan on Tuesday, asking him if he thought it might be time for The Star — what with the ever-increasing tilt toward online journalism — to develop a better system for dealing with errors that occur in online stories. 

What did I hear back? Nothing. Like an annulment, I guess, my e-mail just never existed.

P.S. This piece was published first, this morning, on kcconfidential.com, compliments of Hearne Christopher, who planted the bee in my bonnet. 

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Another day, another development and time once again for Kansas City Star employees to be thankful that they’re not working at a paper owned by Chicago-based Tribune Company.

On Wednesday, Tribune Company, which publishes The Chicago Tribune and several other major newspapers, indefinitely suspended Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams because of a company-wide memo he sent out on Monday, linking to lewd videos.

The Chicago Tribune reported today that the e-mail “spurred a rash of employee complaints.”

The Trib’s story noted that the Abrams incident followed by less than a week a New York Times front-page story that said Tribune Company managers who took over after an ownership sale in December 2007  had fostered a sexist “frat house” in Tribune Tower, which houses Tribune corporate offices as well as The Chicago Tribune. 

I blogged yesterday about The New York Times story, a well-reported and illuminating piece by David Carr about a once-proud company that has lost its way.

Randy Michaels, chief executive of Tribune Company, said in an e-mail announcing the suspension: “Lee recognizes that the video was in extremely bad taste and that it offended employees…This is the kind of serious mistake that can’t be tolerated; we intend to address it promptly and forcefully.”

It was none other than Michaels, however, who at one time was associated with 61 Country radio in Kansas City, who signed off a couple of years ago on an eye-opening rewrite of the employee handbook.

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook said. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process…

“This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

In light of this week’s developments, I guess Michaels, Abrams and other top managers got a little more of a “nonlinear” climate than they wanted.

Today’s Chicago Tribune story says Abrams apologized Tuesday “to everyone who was offended” by the Monday e-mail memo, which contained a link to a video newscast parody labeled “Sluts.” The video included female nudity.

Like Michaels and many others who became top Tribune managers in 2008, Abrams has a background in radio. He was chief programming officer for XM Satellite Radio (now Sirius-XM) before moving to Tribune Company.

A Forbes blogger asked yesterday how Abrams “could have been so reckless as to send a company-wide memo touting a lewd video at a time when he and his fellow executives were already under fire for behaving like frat boys?”

The blogger quoted Dan Neil, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times, as saying, “Lee Abrams is an idiot.”

Neil, who now writes for the Wall Street Journal, said that part of Abrams’ job was to send out weekly “Think Pieces,”  theoretically aimed at boosting morale among the troops.

“No one could ever figure out what those Monday morning missives meant,” Neil was quoted as saying. “And all I can say is that at least one of them finally had a positive effect.”

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David Carr, media reporter for The New York Times, has had two intriguing pieces within the last week — a front-page news story about the implosion of the Tribune Company and a column in which he explored the “vanishing journalistic divide.”

In the column, Carr deftly used his experience in reporting and writing the Tribune story to help make his point about the ever-hastening confluence of new media and old-school journalism.

Let’s take it from the top.

Phase one.

If you think The Kansas City Star has fallen a long way, consider the plight of The Chicago Tribune and the other papers in the Tribune chain, including The Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and The Orlando Sentinel. As recently as about 10 years ago, The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times were considered to be among the country’s premier newspapers. 

Like other newspaper companies (it also owns TV stations and WGN America), Tribune fell on lean times and began unraveling financially. Publicly owned, it was sold in 2007 to a group headed by Sam Zell, described by Carr as “a billionaire deal maker,” for a price of $8.2 billion. Thing is, though, the way Zell structured the deal, he only put out $315 million of his own money.

Then he brought in some radio-industry executives to run the show. One of those executives, Randy Michaels, showed some of the old Tribune hands early on that it was a new day and a new game. As Carr tells it, Michaels ran into several other senior colleagues at a hotel next to the Tribune Tower in Chicago. Shortly after he sat down in the bar, Zell said “watch this” and proceeded to offer the waitress $100 to show him her breasts.

“The group sat dumfounded,” Carr wrote.

Michaels proceeded to conduct a management make-over, putting more than 20 former associates from the radio business in key positions. One of the management team’s first moves was to rewrite the employee handbook.

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook said. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process…

“This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

They might has well have put out a sign that said, “Let it all hang out!”

It didn’t take long for the boss himself, Zell, to throw at Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski one of those words that she, personally, probably would not use.

In June 2008, while urging her to more aggressively pursue a story that he was interested in, Zell told Lipinski, “Don’t be a pussy.”

Lipinski, who had been the editor since 2001, resigned a month later.

Before 2008 was out, the company sought bankruptcy protection, listing $7.6 billion in assets and debts of $13 billion. And the financial woes continue. In the first half of this year, The Chicago Tribune’s weekday circulation was down nearly 10 percent, while The Los Angeles Times lost nearly 15 percent of its weekday circulation.

Zell remains chairman of the board but is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.

Phase two.

David Carr

In his column on Monday, Carr talked about the migration of print journalists to Web sites. His peg was the announcement that Howard Kurtz, long-time media reporter for The Washington Post, had resigned to become Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast, which Carr described as “a two-year-old toddler of the new digital press.”

“More and more,” Carr wrote, “media outlets are becoming a federation of individual brands like Mr. Kurtz. Journalism is starting to look like sports, where a cast of role players serves as a platform and context for highly paid, high-impact players. And those who cross over, after years of pushing copy through the print apparatus, will experience the allure of knocking some copy into WordPress and sending it out into the world to fend for itself.”

And yet, despite its surging popularity, Carr said, digital journalism doesn’t generate a thimbleful of revenue, compared to newspaper companies. 

“The reason that newspapers put all the white paper out on the street is that we get a lot of green paper back in return,” he said. “Put out all the pixels you want, even ones that render scoops, and you will still receive pennies in return.”

Then, Carr proceeded to talk about the thrill involved in piecing together the Tribune story, working on it for months, and finally seeing it “land hard,” lighting up Twitter accounts and generating hundreds of online comments.

The ability to “land hard,” he went on, isn’t limited to The Times: “All over the country, daily regional newspapers in very diminished circumstances similarly still manage to set the civic agenda even as they struggle.”

In Kansas City, of course, The Star — beleaguered and buffeted, scorned and dismissed by many — continues to set the local civic agenda. Not Tony’s Kansas City, not KC Confidential and most certainly not JimmyCsays.

“Yes, you can make news working in your pajamas and running stuff past your cat and now one else,” Carr concluded. “But even in 2010, when a print product is viewed as a quaint artifact of a bygone age, there is something about that process, about all those many hands, about the permanence of print, that makes a story resonate in a way that can’t be measured in digital metrics. I love a hot newsbreak on the Web as much as the next guy, but on some days, for some stories, there is still no school like the old school.”

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I had seen, in passing, headlines about some American soldiers alleged to have killed some Afghan civilians, but I had flitted by the stories, thinking — hoping, perhaps — that maybe it wasn’t a big deal and would pass on by.

But then came Tuesday’s front-page story in The New York Times, and I found myself quickly enmeshed.

If you haven’t heard about this story, you need to start following it. It turns conventional battlefield accounts about loss of life upside down and points to the sickness, the infestation that can afflict the ranks of the perceived “good guys.” That would be us.

It’s the story of a high-school dropout from Billings, Mont., who somehow rose to the rank of staff sergeant in the Army and now stands charged with murdering, or orchestrating the murders of, three Afghan civilians.

It doesn’t stop there, however. Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 26, is alleged to have collected fingers from the bodies of his victims and rolled them out like dice to intimidate a fellow soldier who had reported widespread use of hashish in Gibbs’ unit. Gibbs also is alleged to have kept track, via skull tattoos on his lower left leg, of the number of “kills” he had made in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the record, the count is six — three in Iraq to augment the three in Afghanistan.

Four other Army enlisted men — two privates first class and two specialists –also are charged with murder. Gibbs is said to have openly discussed how he might kill one of the other soldiers, Specialist Adam C. Winfield, who, Gibbs feared, might report the killings. In one scenario, Gibbs would take Winfield to the gym and drop a weight on his neck. In another scenario, he would take Winfield to the motor pool and drop a heavy piece of equipment on him.

Gibbs earned just one of 20 credits needed to graduate from high school, but it sure appears that he had a vivid imagination when it came to killing.

With The Times’ story, there’s a mug shot of Gibbs, smiling and wearing a plaid shirt, standing in front of a doorway. You look at that picture and see what appears to be a normal kid, whom you probably wouldn’t think twice about if you passed him on the street.

But above his photo is an excerpt of a statement from the soldier who had reported the use of hashish in the unit. The soldier is quoted as saying:

“I was just sitting there on my cot…and that is when CPL (Jeremy) Morlock (another defendant in the case) and SSG Gibbs came back into the room, they calmly sat down and ask (stet) me how my day was going. SSG Gibbs then proceeded to roll out a set of fingers onto the floor. CPL Morlock looked at me and said if I don’t want to end up like that guy then he suggest I shut the hell up and it wouldn’t be an issue for him because he already had enough practice. SSG Gibbs was just sitting there agreeing with CPP Morlock, he was being subtle and quite (stet) but didn’t get worked up. When they were done, SSG Gibbs picked up the fingers, rolled them up and stuck them back in his pocket. Then they left the room.”

Stuck them back in his pocket. The smiling guy in the photo!

As you might expect, the story drew a guttural reaction from readers. (An accompanying story detailed how two of the civilians died.) As of 2:09 p.m. Tuesday, 247 comments had been affixed to the story. At that point, comments were shut off. 

Here are excerpts of a few of the comments:

— From P. Clayton, of New Jersey: “No one wants to admit the ability to see one of our…men behaving in such an abominable way, but it has happened before in other wars that America engaged in so why not now in Afghanistan? Within this article, which probably only scratches the surface when it comes to analyzing Gibbs’ personality, there are many details that fit the profile of a soldier gone awry, including threatening his fellow soldiers and keeping records of his ‘kills’ via tattoos; how gruesome is that?”

— From JD, of Austin: “While Staff Sergeant Gibbs’s alleged actions disgust me and, if true, are a stain on this nation’s honor (one of many…), I challenge you to consider the nature of war before condemning and demonizing him so quickly. War is a nasty reality, and unless you’ve been there, you really don’t know what it’s like or what you would do. I consider myself a pretty humane and decent guy. I served two tours in Iraq, and I did things there that to this day I’m not proud of. War hardens the heart and clouds the mind. Until you’ve been in contact with the enemy, don’t be so quick to write off the soldier as a monster and a murderer.”

— From Ralph, of San Francisco: “Young men with weapons in war time do despicable things. I saw it in Vietnam. Generally, they get away with it. Investigation from the Inspector General’s office are exercises in futility. It just happens. If you vote for war, you get war. If you go to war, you learn that the morality changes.”

— From Andrew, of Minneapolis: “Completed only 1 of 20 credits in high school? Apparently the Army has been scraping the bottom of the barrel. It’s consistent with reports of greatly lowered recruiting standards following the advent of Bush’s wars.”

— From MikeLT, of Boston: “This is what we get for sending video game-loving kids to war. If the allegations are true, he’s elevated the killing in the games to real killing.”

My comment? I’m glad I never had to go to war, and I’m happy to say that the only things I’ve ever wanted in my pockets were cash, credit cards and my driver’s license.

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Like many people, I am haunted and heartbroken by the death of Tyler Clementi.

It is so hard to accept the fact that this 18-year-old boy — just a month into his freshman year at Rutgers University, with so much talent and maturity — is gone from the earth.  

It is hard to accept that he was so shattered and psychologically undone by his roommate’s callous act of live streaming Tyler’s sexual encounter with another boy that he thought the only way out was to take his own life.

Apparently his last Facebook message, on Sept. 22, the night he died, was “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

And with that he walked onto the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, and jumped.

His fatal act was prompted, as we all know now, by a decision by his roommate and, allegedly, a friend of his roommate to remotely activate a Web cam in the two boys’ dormitory room and invite others to watch the sexual encounter on the Internet.

This was at least the second case of  “bullying” leading to a student’s suicide this year. In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, a high school student in Massachusetts, hanged herself after being taunted for four months after she had had a brief romantic relationship with a popular, older boy. Phoebe, whose family had recently moved to the United States from a small town in Ireland, had books knocked out of her hands, was called an “Irish slut,” and received threatening text messages. Several students are charged in connection with that case.

Tyler

One of the things that hit me hardest about the Clementi case was the dignified and reflective way that Tyler was trying to deal with the situation after learning that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, was spying on him and baring the most private compartments of his life.

Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, both 18, are now charged with invasion of privacy, a low-level felony that is likely to get them little or no jail time, even if they are convicted.

Ravi pulled the Web-cam stunt on Tuesday, Sept. 19 , and tried again, unsuccessfully, on Thursday, Sept. 21. After Clementi realized what Ravi was up to, he posted on a gay chat site a message that reflected his maturity and purity of heart:

“Revenge never ends well for me, as much as I would love to pour pink paint all over his stuff…that would just let him win.”

At the same time, he made it clear that he wasn’t going to sit still for the indignity being perpetrated on him. “I ran to the nearest R.A. (resident assistant) and set this thing in motion,” he wrote. “We’ll see what happens.”

That was at 4:38 a.m. the day he took his life. But his mind was such a whirl and the inner demons were tormenting him so — undoubtedly the worries about how he would be viewed, the prospect of being a laughingstock — that he couldn’t wait to “see what happens.”

Reading how it unfolded, I only wish — and I’m sure you do, too — that I could have intercepted him before he headed out for the bridge. I would have sat him down, put my arm around his shoulders and tried to convince him that it was not the end of the world; that his sexual orientation did not define him as a person; that he was a thoughtful and good-hearted person; that even though he was understandably humiliated, it wasn’t his fault; that it would pass and that he would be able to continue on, unadulterated, as a student, musician, son and fellow classmate.

And, oh, my, think about his parents, Jane and Joe Clementi — how achingly they must wish that they would have known what was going on, and how quickly they would have been at his side to help him through the crisis. 

In a statement issued Friday, the family exhibited the same thoughtful reaction that Tyler had displayed in his last days. “Regardless of legal outcomes,” the statement said, “our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.”

Compassion, empathy and human dignity. Those qualities are hard to come by, aren’t they? Haven’t we all failed, many times, to show compassion, to be empathetic and to treat people with the dignity they deserve? I know that I have failed in those departments many times. Fortunately, most of us have not failed to the point that it has pushed someone else to the point of suicide.

An Associated Press story in The Kansas City Star on Friday addressed the troubling issue of the “decreased empathy” and “behavior contagion” that technology has spawned. 

“All around you,” the story said, “your friends and acquaintances post information once thought ‘private’: names of boy- or girlfriends, social plans, secrets.”

I’m sure glad I didn’t grow up in the Internet age; I was able to hold my secrets, nurse my insecurities, plow through my adolescent depression without those secrets and insecurities being placed on public display without my knowledge or against my will. 

But Tyler — shy boy, budding violinist — wasn’t so lucky. Couldn’t have been unluckier, in fact. Had a crummy roommate, as Holden Caulfield might have put it, who thrust him into a vortex of negative emotions that swallowed him up.

Where to go from here? What can we learn?

Two letters to the editor in Friday’s New York Times contained helpful and hopeful ideas.

“Our society must enforce appropriate legal consequences to deter the use of technology to so humiliate an individual into feeling that life is untenable,” wrote Lorraine DeRienzo-Buchbinder of Suwanee, Ga. “We cannot afford to lose another young, promising life so senselessly.”

“I hope,” wrote Gracy Yan of West Haven, Conn., “that parents and teachers will encourage young people to create healthy identities and be ‘whole’ without the obsessive need to be connected and share everything over the Internet.”

Amen, I say. And long live the memory of Tyler Clementi, a boy who, through no fault of his own, was deprived of the right to advance to adulthood.

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