Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ivers on Writing

A fine book is Mitchell Ivers's The Random House Guide to Good Writing. Ivers was managing editor of RH when the book was published in 1991, but he's now senior editor at Pocket Books. His book is just one of a very few writing how-tos I've found helpful, and my copy was given to me years ago by my friend and fellow author Fred Bean -- now the late Fred Bean. And speaking of Fred, his funeral was so strange and poignant (outdoors, with doves and mysterious women weeping in back) that it must eventually become a scene in one of my novels. But back to this book by Ivers, which has been on my writing desk for the last few weeks, along with The Elements of Style and The American Heritage Dictionary. I'm in the midst of proofing galleys of I, Quantrill, to be released in May 2008 by New American Library, and I find the Ivers book an excellent reference. In the interest of disclosure, NAL is an imprint of Penguin, but I don't deal with Ivers because he is so far up the food chain. The Guide is still in print and can be had in a mass market edition for about seven bucks from Amazon.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A fine pair from Texas

Two winners from the Texas Monthly 2008 Bum Steer Awards, one about a former Pittsburg State University football coach and another about a television journalist who was nabbed for suspicious behavior in the maternity wards of a couple of Amarillo hospitals.

"Of all the Bum Steer sagas that played out over the past year, however, none was stranger than that of the man ESPN called “dumber than a blocking sled.” Yep, it’s the Aggies’ own Dennis Franchione. His $2 million salary evidently wasn’t enough; he moonlighted as the author of a VIP newsletter, which he sent out by e-mail to 23 well-heeled boosters willing to pay $1,200 for inside dope about injuries and recruits. Unsportsmanlike conduct! When A&M learned of his other gig, the university had to report two rules violations to the NCAA. Even beating Texas two years in a row couldn’t keep him in his job. Congrats, Coach Fran. You’re the Bum Steer of the Year."

Well, my (admittedly slight) connection to Franchione is that I got my undergraduate degree at PSU. I often say in my journalism class that sports really isn't news unless they execute the losers. But I'll make an exception for greed and corruption.

And this gem:

"Coming up at ten: She does five. Cecelia Lynn Coy-Jones, a reporter for KCBD-TV, in Lubbock, was arrested for attempted aggravated kidnapping after lurking in the maternity wards of two Amarillo hospitals, because, she claimed, she was investigating how secure they were from would-be kidnappers."

I'm all for enterprise reporting, but when you appear to be a threat to children, you're begging for trouble. My advice to Coy-Jones: While the occassional stolen baby story makes for breathless copy, it's the damned politicians and bearucrats that really need watching. Lurk in city hall instead.

That's no moon... it's season's greetings.

Each year, I get a holiday card from Lucasfilm (because of some Indiana Jones novels I did a few years back). Every card is a whimsical take on some part of the Lucas universe. This year had three rows of pop-up stormtroopers holding candles and songbooks. And, as usual, the card said a donation had been made in my name to charity. it also had a handwritten greeting from a top Lucasfilm employee (no, I don't mean George). Christmas is not my favorite time of year -- that would be Halloween -- but I do look forward to getting these seasonal tidings from my friend at the Presidio.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If Bush thinks it's bad... it must be good.

In my journalism classes, I stress the importance of open records and require all of my students to file at least one request per semester. Secrecy, however, has been the rule at the Bush White House, and a campaign has been waged to diminish FOIA -- the federal open records act -- and to encourage officials to ignore, delay, and deny requests. The issue is so important that I include here, in full, an upate on an attempt to strengthen FOIA.

From the National Security Archive:

House Poised to Pass FOIA Reform Bill

Bill Provides “Common Sense” Solutions for Openness Problems:
Penalties for Delays, Tracking Systems for Requests,
Ombuds-style Office to Mediate Disputes, Better Agency Reporting

Reforms Recommended by Archive Audits and Testimony

Washington, DC, December 18, 2007 – The House of Representatives will vote today on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform bill (S. 2488) that passed the Senate by unanimous consent on December 14. The bill aims to fix some of the most persistent problems in the FOIA system, including excessive delay, lack of responsiveness, and litigation gamesmanship by federal agencies. If passed by the House today, it will be sent to the President’s desk for approval.

“Our six government-wide audits of FOIA performance show that these bipartisan changes to the Freedom of Information Act are common sense solutions,” remarked Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive. “This bill establishes tracking systems for FOIA requests like FedEx uses for packages, actually penalizes agencies for the first time for delays that our audits found could reach 20 years, and sets up an office to mediate disputes as an alternative to litigation.”

The bill in front of the House today represents a bipartisan effort that has stretched over several years, spearheaded by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX), the original co-sponsors of the OPEN Government Act of 2007, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA). Efforts to amend the FOIA have faced stumbling blocks in part because of strong administration opposition to passage of earlier versions of this FOIA reform bill in both the House and the Senate.

“This is the bill that President Bush wrote an executive order to try to prevent,” said Tom Blanton, director of the Archive, referring to E.O. 13392 (December 14, 2005), which called for a “citizen-centered and results-oriented approach” to FOIA, established Chief FOIA Officers at each of 92 major agencies, and required agencies to evaluate their FOIA programs and draft improvement plans.

The new law would mandate tracking numbers for FOIA requests that take longer than 10 days to process to ensure they will no longer fall through the cracks, require agencies to report more accurately to Congress and the public on their FOIA programs, create a new ombuds office at the National Archives to mediate conflicts between agencies and requesters, clarify the purpose of FOIA to encourage dissemination of government information, and provide incentives to agencies to avoid litigation and processing delays.

“Congress is acting to improve the FOIA for the first time in more than a decade, since the electronic FOIA amendments of 1996, but Congressional and public oversight will be essential for the law’s success,” Blanton noted. “Our Knight Open Government Survey in 2007 found that only one in five federal agencies fully complied with the 1996 law, even after 10 years of implementation.”