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We have begun election season, and candidates should heed the advice of experienced political consultants that putting out a ton of yard signs doesn’t work.

The only thing it accomplishes is creating lots of visual clutter and post-election litter.

If you want voters to remember your name, there is solid evidence of where candidates get the most bang for their buck: in elevators.

The evidence comes in the form of a recent poll by Elon University testing how well registered voters know who their elected officials are.

Overall, voters’ knowledge is pretty bad.

People generally know the name of the president, vice president, and probably the governor and at least one U.S. senator, but after that, the poll shows, their knowledge goes off a cliff.

Only 22 percent can identify who represents them in the N.C. House of Representatives. Around here, that could be understandable. Destin Hall was first elected only a year and a half ago, and he’s young enough (31) that he hadn’t had much time to make a public impression before he ran for office.

Only 17 percent can identify who represents them in the state Senate. Again, around here that could be understandable, but for different reasons. Caldwell County keeps getting shifted to different Senate districts as the legislature and the courts tussle over redistricting maps. Until a few weeks ago, our senator was Deanna Ballard, who is from Watauga County and like Hall was first elected in 2016. Ballard replaced another Watauga County resident who resigned. (Nothing against Watauga County residents, but people are less likely to recognize the name of out-of-towners who show up mainly for ribbon-cuttings and ceremonies.) For the past few weeks our senator has been Warren Daniel of Burke County – who had been our senator before a previous round of redistricting.

Only 11 percent know the name of the president of the state Senate, who many observers convincingly argue is the most powerful politician in North Carolina at the moment. His name is Phil Berger, he is from Rockingham County, and if you were on the email list to receive his press releases you surely wouldn’t forget him because almost everything issued by his office is like digital napalm employed in a constant political war.

A big exception to this lack of knowledge about the state’s elected leaders, Elon’s poll said, is that 49 percent can identify the state’s commissioner of labor. That’s a slightly higher percentage than can identify their local sheriff.

But the reason people stand about a 50-50 chance of identifying her is the unofficial title people give her: “Elevator Lady.”

Cherie Berry’s name and photograph appear in the little window every elevator in the state has for displaying its inspection certificate.

Berry was the first N.C. labor commissioner to put her photo with her signature on the certificates. Critics complained, but clearly the tactic worked. She has now been in office for 25 years.

The conclusion we can draw, then, is that constant exposure to a candidate’s name on signs displayed in residential yards and in the medians of heavily traveled roads does little to sway voters. But putting a person’s name and face in the line of sight where people will spend a few quiet moments riding in awkward silence, scanning the walls for anything to divert their attention from the strangers around them, creates a lasting impression.

Unfortunately, Caldwell County does not have many elevators. This leaves local candidates with just one real option: Spend most of the campaign riding up and down inside Caldwell Memorial Hospital.

I promise you, candidates, it will have an effect: The hospital has the county’s highest elevator, therefore the longest rides, and the added awkwardness of the hospital setting will make you and your steady smile truly unforgettable to each voter you encounter.

And those of us who don’t visit the hospital will appreciate the respite from campaigning.

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The unthinkable happens every day, somewhere.

Some ordinary thing, some routine activity, goes horribly awry.

Something such as going down the stairs at home.

Ashley Moss must have gone up and down the stairs in her apartment in Granite Falls hundreds of times, and gone up and down countless other stairs thousands of times since she was a child.

Yet something went badly wrong Tuesday, and she was found dead at those stairs. Police said it appeared to be just an accident. She fractured her neck in a fall.

My house has stairs, and every now and then I’m reading while walking, or thinking about something going on at work, and I miss a step, or I hit the edge of the step and slip down, flailing for the rail. I curse myself for not paying attention, but I don’t think much more about it.

Most of the time when we talk about “the unthinkable” we mean someone close to us dying suddenly in something like a car wreck, a boating accident, a random shooting. But those are things that we know are dangerous and potentially deadly events. We think about the possibility. That’s why we wear seat belts and why boats have to have life jackets on board, and why dark alleys in the city scare us. That’s why mothers ask us to call when we reach our destination so they know we are safe — and they can stop worrying.

We mean they are unthinkable because we hate to think about them.

But no one thinks about death when approaching a flight of stairs.

Falling down the stairs is depicted two ways in movies and TV shows: as comedy and as deadly – more often as comedy. In “Get Shorty,” John Travolta’s gangster character throws a stuntman down the stairs in a restaurant. The stuntman is humiliated but not injured. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis’ character and a terrorist he is fighting both tumble down a single flight of stairs. Willis is unharmed; the terrorist is killed — deadly for the bad guy, no big deal for the good guy.

Perhaps the number of times we have seen falling down the stairs portrayed without serious injury contributes to us not thinking about what could happen.

But it’s not the only thing we never think about that can go fatally wrong.

How many times have any of us had the flu? We don’t think about that as something that could be fatal except for young children or adults who are frail, but the flu can turn from what we think of as an incapacitating but temporary illness to pneumonia and then to sepsis, when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight an infection can trigger a cascade of changes that can damage multiple organ systems. Less than two months ago a 21-year-old bodybuilder in Pennsylvania developed sepsis from the flu and died.

We don’t think about how fragile life can be, the myriad tiny hazards we cross each day, or how close we are to being in the situation of Ashley Moss’ parents, Mark and Cherry Moss. That’s something Mrs. Moss said in a story we ran Friday:

“The one thing that Mark and I are getting across to people is, hug your kids tight, … because you don’t know.”

Journalists think journalism is the main point of “The Post.” It seemed kind of secondary to me when I saw the movie earlier this week.

The movie is about events surrounding the publication of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a secret, Pentagon-compiled history of the conflict in Vietnam – which predated the U.S. troop presence there, with U.S. involvement stemming from decisions made during the Truman administration. That history catalogued decades of lies that the U.S. government told the public about what it was doing in Vietnam and how successful those efforts were.

The New York Times obtained that history and found itself in the legal crosshairs of the Nixon administration after it began publishing stories detailing the lies.

The movie, though, is about what key figures at the Washington Post did after that.

Some, including journalists at the Times, complain that the movie should have focused on the Times and how it got the papers. But the movie doesn’t focus on the journalism surrounding the Pentagon Papers. There would be good drama to be found there, but that’s not what this story is.

The primary story “The Post” tells is that of Katharine Graham, her struggle to grow into the role of publisher and the decisions she had to make that could have destroyed her and, perhaps most significantly in her mind, her children’s inheritance.

The movie takes some license with the reality of Graham, portraying her as a much more fragile person than she was, and also with the reality of how extensive the pushback was against publishing the story, so the situation portrayed is largely accurate, but the drama is ramped up markedly — as often happens with movies.

If this is a movie primarily about journalism, then why is there so little actual journalism portrayed? The initial act that led to the Pentagon Papers coming into the Times’ possession is portrayed as that of a whistleblower, with no involvement of any journalist — the movie viewer doesn’t even know, at that point, where the documents land. Later, the Post reporter Ben Bagdikian is shown tracking down the whistleblower, but there is less of him in the movie than Graham as either the lone woman in a room full of male bankers and lawyers or the lone businesswoman in a room full of housewives or secretaries.

Time after time, there are scenes contrasting Graham’s roles – the socialite, publisher’s wife role into which she was raised, and the business owner/publisher role into which she was thrust. The scenes illustrate the man’s world of 1971, where a woman making important decisions was treated by men like, to borrow a phrase of Graham’s from one scene, the sight of a dog walking upright.

And other than the scene of the socialite housewives, in all the other scenes the woman all are young. They are the next generation. They are the ones following, looking to the example of Graham’s generation of women.

To be sure, this is a movie partly about journalism as a necessary means of holding government accountable – thus director Steven Spielberg’s emphasis on a key part of the Supreme Court decision: “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

But if this is not a movie primarily about Graham, why so much emphasis on scenes where Graham is an object of obvious veneration by young women? This happens in crowds of women twice, and both times the young women part for her like the Red Sea for Moses, all of the young women gazing upon her in open admiration, and it happens once with a young woman working for the U.S. attorney general. The movie hammers the point, as Spielberg movies tend to do with their points, that Graham was a trailblazer for women.

And as if to further drive home the point for all of the men who still think it’s a story about journalism, Spielberg has editor Ben Bradlee’s wife explain to Bradlee why Graham had the most to lose and showed the greatest bravery. Bradlee does not argue with her.

So, for the question, why does the movie focus on the Post rather than the Times? Precisely because Graham found herself in a crucible like no one else did (or at least, since in reality it all happened so quickly that she didn’t have time to agonize over the decision, Graham’s situation posed for the movie makers an irresistible potential for a crucible). That her crucible was a key moment in journalistic history would be beside the point if there were not powerful people who today believe the government should control what the media can publish.

This is a movie about women, and more than anything else this is a movie made for this new “Year of the Woman.”

———-

NOTE: One thing I’ve not read about “The Post,” anywhere: If the Post had only 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, as stated in the movie, there’s no way it would fill two giant boxes, not unless paper in 1971 was many times thicker than it is now. Pick up a ream (500 pages) of paper. You are talking 8 of those. That’s less than one box.

I am not at all sure what to think of the announcement that McClatchy is changing its leadership structure and appointing regional editors, including one over its properties in North and South Carolina, with the goal of speeding newsroom innovation.

Mainly that’s because of the emphasis in the Raleigh News & Observer story on one particular quote in the company’s announcement:

“Our current system, with each newsroom operating separately from the others, discourages cooperation in favor of competition and duplication,” the company said in announcing the changes. “By working together, we will marshal all the resources and talents and expertise from each region, and across the company, to produce local journalism that is ever more essential to the communities we serve.”

Any veteran of the former Media General newspapers, among some others, would recognize that description of working together to marshal regional resources and talent. Such a thing used to be called synergy. It’s hardly a new concept, and the word hasn’t been in favor for at least 10 years. Even if that’s what was being described, McClatchy officials doubtless would dismiss the suggestion that it’s what was intended because it wouldn’t sit well with investors to revive a term that no one uses anymore.

Time will tell what McClatchy’s intent actually is, but I am hard-pressed to reconcile the talk of “competition and duplication” among its N.C. and S.C. properties with the company’s footprint. There aren’t that many properties, they don’t have that much overlap, and McClatchy already combined its page design and state capital reporting operations, or at least announced it had. Are the newsrooms still, to this day, so resistant to the idea of working together that management had to be shoved aside and new blood brought in? Or is the emphasis on that one paragraph misplaced — bad reporting? Or is it company misdirection?

It was just a few months ago that Poynter reported on McClatchy’s “reinvention teams,” which the company said at the time were “picking up the pace” of innovation.

But that’s what the new regional editors are supposed to do.

It’s hard to know where things are really going. I look forward to seeing what happens.

Poor Mrs. Jarvis will be sweating it out in these final hours before Christmas. I can imagine the questions tumbling through her head that will keep her awake.

Do elves get angry?

If so, how angry?

Are elves snitches?

How protective of his elves is Santa Claus?

Does Santa hold grudges?

Could an otherwise well behaved, nice teacher wind up on the naughty list because of a single day’s unfortunate interactions with an elf?

If you read the letters to Santa that the News-Topic published in Thursday’s paper, you may have noticed a thread through a number of the letters that came from children in a Gamewell Elementary School classroom. Apparently there was a mishap with an Elf on the Shelf who was helping the teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, watch over the children. The details weren’t clear, but it seems that Mrs. Jarvis went to get a map, and the elf was knocked to the floor — the first of at least two elf-involved incidents that day.

Some of the children seemed concerned that Santa would blame Mrs. Jarvis and eke out some form of punishment — perhaps no presents, or even coal in her stocking.

One girl wrote (and this is the actual pre-school spelling), “Mrs Jarvis atditl nock the elf on the shelf ples dot be mad at her She wus geted a big map owt but the elf wus on the map She is so so so sorry it wus a crasy day but we mae it work the elf she sorry.”

One even took collective responsibility for the whole class to protect Mrs. Jarvis: “I am so sorry that weve been droping your elf.”

But some of the children, while seeming to ask Santa for understanding, didn’t seem to have their heart in it, plunging straight from saying it was an accident into what was really on their minds.

“Mrs. Jarvis is Sorry for nocking your elf down and I want a iphone8 for Christmas and can I pretty please have it. I think I can have it. Here is how I’ve been good I’ve helped people I’ve sometimes been good and at home I’ve helped my sister and feed the cats,” one boy wrote.

Another wrote, “Mrs. Jarvis did not mean to make the elf fall of the shelf. She said she is really sorry and this is what I want a PS4 for chrismas I help my brother clean the house.”

But one girl seemed to relish playing informant. She didn’t even ask Santa for anything, she just dished on the elf’s mistreatment: “It was Mrs. Jarvis who kept on droping our elf on the shelf. Before lunch Mrs. Jarvis hung our elf with a wooden cloths pin. When we was at lunch me and Jaylyn had a prediction that the elf would be getting ready crawl out the door or already be out of the room.”

Another girl added the detail that Mrs. Jarvis tried at one point to use two clothes pins to hold the elf “so he would not go away and Leave a note.”

Elf, held against his will, pinned so he can’t escape. Elf-napping!

If, in fact, elves get mad and Santa holds grudges, whether that happens in this case probably hangs on such details of the elf’s treatment. It would not be because Mrs. Jarvis “axidintly droped the Elf” in the first place, it would be because she double-pinned him, or (as a couple of others wrote) after the first drop she pinned him up by his hat alone, the hat being insufficiently attached to his head to bear his weight, so that during lunch break the elf tumbled again to the floor.

The indignity.

Do elves feel pride? Humiliation?

Mrs. Jarvis, as she lies in bed tonight listening for sleigh bells and reindeer hooves on the roof, surely will wonder.

Consequences


I regret to inform all my friends in news, and family so inclined, that whatever soul I had left is gone. Starting Jan. 1 I will be the publisher of the Lenoir News-Topic.

At a company announcement, an editor friend said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

I said, “I’m kind of corporate now.”

“You sold out!”

“It’s not the first time.”

New scenery needed


My blog is named “Newsroom With a View,” and the view has been what I saw from the Hanover, Virginia, newsroom of Media General’s central editing center at the time I worked there. Since then, obviously my physical view has changed — my current office has no windows, but if it did they would not look out on anything as nice. However the country I am in now is much nicer, and my views on the news landscape have changed. So I am in search of new imagery for my blog background. I still have a newsroom, and I still have a view, but as anyone who has been reading me can tell, all of that is different now.