Big Money

NEW ORLEANS — The second speaker for the columnists conference was Jarvis DeBerry of the Times-Picayune. He had a heck of a column Sunday showing how this month’s flooding in Iowa and The Storm (Katrina-Rita of 2005) have at least this much in common: deliberate damage to wetlands to benefit humanity in what has become obvious, the short term.

This is only a piece of the problem but it’s important. Draining wetlands helps the oil business in the Gulf, and we all think we need plentiful cheap gas. In the Midwest, farmers are using former wetlands for crops, so we can have Corn Chex every morning. And ethanol.

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Some people were ready to find in the keynote speech of Mayor Ray Nagin proof for praise or criticism, no matter how innocuous Friday’s remarks really were. I don’t know enough to read him, or anybody, on the basis of a 15-minute routine speech and five minutes of good questions but likely nothing he hasn’t been hit with already. All I could do was observe: Nagin did not brag about anything he has done; he praised a lot of people. He boosted, not boasted.

For worse and for better, greed is driving recovery from the storm. The mayor obliquely said:

There is big money to be made in a storm,” emphasis his.

Nagin’s main criticism of the federal government is that The Storm has not motivated “restructuring” of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Stafford Act. A brief Internet look-see indicates that the 1988 law is what gives FEMA authority, not distinct procedures. “Both are reimbursement processes, and that doesn’t work,” he said.

This was a recurring opinion we heard. When a home owner has lost everything, it’s often difficult to impossible to arrange for 10s of thousands of dollars to rebuild then wait for weeks for the government to repay what was put out. Like so many of the well-intentioned people who normally would be uncomfortable by receiving government aid, I see merit in the argument that reimbursement is illogical in disaster recovery. Yet I suspect that reimbursement dramatically reduces the opportunities for graft and outright theft. Which Nagin said he opposes. The Big Money.

(I recall trying to hire a tree service to cut down a dying oak at our manse, Shady Hill, in late 2005. We kept being put off, and the small businessman we eventually hired explained he and his crew kept being called to Mississippi and Louisiana. The pay was extremely good, and the bookings were scheduled by some business that contacted scores of little tree services during every hurricane season, on behalf of individuals, insurance companies and utilities.)

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Why is there a New Orleans dateline if this Brick is written in Fayetteville? Not because it’s about New Orleans; that’s a dubious marketing trick insecure newspapers pull. As The Associated Press Stylebook puts it, the all-cap city name indicates “the basic information for the story” was obtained in said place … “by a full- or part-time correspondent physically present in the datelined community.”

Editors get annoyed by reporters wringing every last detail from their notes. Reporters are to distill their information for consideration by busy readers and viewers. But — and reporters say this, too — I just had a special trip and so much important was said I don’t want to waste any.

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The NSNC conference includes no music, outside of unscheduled karaoke. So it implied a session was about music therapy, with New Orleans musician Spencer Bohren, on “The Healing Power of Music.” It was a therapeutic concert, although we had not as a group toured the devastation yet. When my Fayetteville, Arkansas, has such a large and varied a music scene, I see Bohren and wonder, just how big is he in a city like New Orleans? His set was very, very good.

Bohren is of the Pete Seeger line of folk music that includes original works and a lot of storytelling between songs. He knows and tells well the history of older pieces, much like Keith and Rusty McNeil. Like a number of similar musicians, he collects old and unusual instruments and has specialized in the obsolete lap steel guitar. If he comes to town, I hope there’s no time conflict so I can hear him.

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Surely cell phones would have worked. No, said our bus tour guide. The cell towers went down in the flood. Hence, no wireless service for weeks.

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It has nothing to do with New Orleans or The Storm, but the NSNC chose Ellen Goodman as its 2008 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award winner. She talked shop in her Saturday night speech, and we loved it.

To be a columnist, she said, “you need nerve, you need endurance and you need ego, to think that your thoughts count.”

Someone explained to a child that Goodman’s job was “telling people what you think for money.” This inspired her course title when she taught at Stanford (years after I graduated), “How to Tell People What You Think.” The course catalog, however, listed it as “Telling People What I Think.” When she pointed out the errors, the title was revised to “Telling People What to Think.” She gave up when it was further revised to “Telling People How to Think.”

So she advised us: “Telling people what you think begins with thinking.”

For her, trust is everything. “If readers trust you, they will read you even if they disagree.”

I cheered when she said her syndicated columns ran 750 words and resented editors cutting them by a third or just using a sentence in a list of similar short takes from various commentators. “You can’t write in 400 or 500 words,” adding, “Instant thoughtfulness is an oxymoron.”

Newspapers have two jobs, to “tell people what happened and what it means. We do the latter.”

A previous speaker* decried columns that go no further than “on the one hand and on the other hand,” usually in an effort to be fair. Goodman agreed, quoting an unnamed editor: “If you have a fish in a barrel, shoot it.”

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*DeBerry, in telling interns, “If you don’t have an opinion, don’t bother.”

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