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Peering into the maelstrom of the Opinion page

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

No section of the newspaper prompts as many questions, and leads to as many complaints landing on my desk, as the page with “Opinion” printed at the top.

(That’s this page, 4A, by the way, and much of its fallout doesn’t literally land on my desk, with an audible thud, but instead arrives in my email inbox with silent, binary stealth.)

That the Opinion page would have such an effect is hardly surprising.

As its title implies, it’s the place where opinions are unleashed to mingle freely with facts — a sort of coffee klatch, only less visceral and without maple bars.

And since, as the saying goes, we’re all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts, the temptation to wage rhetorical warfare proves too powerful for many opinionated folks to resist.

I think this is a fine thing.

Maybe the finest thing, in fact, in our land where the freedom to express yourself is so vital our founders put it right at the top of the list of rights.

I hope I never become so jaded that I’m unable to appreciate the simple yet inestimable value of being able to have a go at the City Council’s latest endeavor and have your take printed and hand-delivered to thousands of households.

And it’s free.

The inky maelstrom of deeply held beliefs and occasional antipathy that is the Opinion page tends to be rather messy. Rarely does the page exemplify the sort of ostensibly objective balance of a “point/counterpoint”-style debate.

This is especially true for the letters to the editor section.

I field fairly regularly the complaint that the letters on a particular page lean strongly toward one side of an issue. This came up most recently during the Baker School Board recall campaign that concluded this week.

That one opinion predominates in a certain Opinion page has nothing to do with the Herald editorial board’s opinions, nor with some other unstated bias inside our office which conspires to silence alternative viewpoints.

It’s coincidence.

Or, rather, a matter of timing.

Our system for letters is simple: We publish them in the same order we receive them.

Only rarely does the volume of letters exceed the available space, so most letters run in the first issue that’s published after the letter arrives.

As an example, if Monday’s and Tuesday’s mail (both traditional and electronic versions) bring a total of four letters, it’s likely that all four will appear in Wednesday’s issue.

Here’s another rarity: We receive a local letter that we decline to publish.

(By “local” letter I mean one written by a local resident, which means the letter is more likely to deal with a local topic. I prefer to reserve the space on Page 4A for them. We don’t often publish letters from, say, Texas or New Jersey; these missives, I suspect, are emailed to every newspaper that has a website, in a sort of shotgun approach.)

We give writers considerable latitude, which seems to me appropriate since opinions, being rugged individuals, don’t thrive under the confinement of sentence parsing and heavy-handed editing.

We don’t of course permit gratuitous profanity, or character assassinations which lack even a veneer of sober thought or legitimate purpose. We do limit writers to 350 words per letter, and at least 15 calendar days between letters. 

I mentioned the editorial board several paragraphs back. I don’t much like that term — attaching “board” to an entity confers on it an elevated status which in this case is not warranted — but it’s the commonest way to refer to the people who come up with a newspaper’s editorial positions.

The Herald’s editorial board is rather smaller than what you’d find at a larger publication, consisting of three members: the publisher, Kari Borgen; reporter Chris Collins; and me.

This roster isn’t ideal, and not only because there are so few of us.

Reporters, generally speaking, don’t participate in formulating opinions — which of course is what editorials are — because reporters strive, in writing their stories, to be objective.

To avoid conflicts, then, when the editorial board is pondering a topic that Chris covers as a reporter, her role is to give Kari and me information — just as she does in her stories — but not to contribute toward the crafting of an opinion.

That crafting, by the way, is a democratic process rather than a dictatorial one.

The Herald’s editorials do not convey my personal opinion, or Kari’s, or Chris’.

Which is not to say, of course, that we never publish editorials that each of us agrees with, with little or no reservation.

Sometimes our individual opinions are pretty much identical.

Frequently, though, our three viewpoints diverge. So we discuss. Sometimes we argue and cajole and (at least in my case) gesticulate. The goal, in any event, is to conceive an opinion which is rational and reasonable.

Perhaps it’s even persuasive, although none of is either naíve or arrogant enough to expect anything more than occasional success in that sense.

I write most of the editorials, although my efforts to put on paper our combined work are always subject to editing from Kari and Chris (and inevitably, the better for it).

The other common elements on the Opinion page, with the exception of guest editorials from other newspapers, are generally the product of a single person.

These include columns and editorial cartoons.

The latter tend to be the most, well, flamboyant items on the page — not only because they are opinions rendered in pictures rather than just words, but also because editorial cartoonists, who don’t have a couple dozen paragraphs to make their point, tend to prefer the blatant over the subtle.

The satire in an editorial cartoon usually is more overt, too, and some readers are offended by the exaggerations that satirists necessarily employ.

But I don’t think the page would be earning its keep if nobody ever muttered epithets while reading it.

I’m not talking about opinions designed only to inflame or to anger. 

But one byproduct of a logically expressed viewpoint can be that it frustrates people who, though they disagree, recognize the validity of the opposing arguments, and even admire the skill with which it was put forward.

That’s a healthy thing. Moreover, it can lead to spirited but respectful exchanges between people who agree on almost nothing, save, perhaps, the importance of whatever topic it is they’re tussling over.

Warm memories of life in a wood-heated home

My thoughts, in this season of the early dusk and the occasional arctic front, turn inevitably to the unique warmth of a woodstove.

This must take the form of nostalgia, unfortunately, as I don’t own such an appliance.

(I’m also lacking in cordwood, kindling, matches and other combustible essentials.) 

I am left then to bask in the accumulated but faded heat of memory rather than the tangible and current sort, which, alas, is the only kind that matters when you’ve just come in from shoveling out the driveway.

The temperature inside my home is regulated by burning kilowatts rather than tamarack.

This staves off frostbite and keeps the pipes from icing up but is otherwise unsatisfying.

The ducts which convey the electric furnace’s BTUs around the house sometimes crackle and pop, a racket which tends to frighten a 5-year-old girl who needs little prompting to get out of her bed at night anyway.

A woodstove, by contrast, exhales its heat silently but for the occasional muffled pop of a knot.

Mixed feelings during the journey back home

I recently drove twice with my family on precisely the same 250-mile route through Oregon’s abdomen, the only change being the passage of four days, yet the trips seemed to me vastly different.

This was a purely psychological matter.

I think so, anyway. I’ve never taken a psychology class but I’m eternally fascinated by the hijinks my mind can get up to.

The day before Thanksgiving we traveled from Baker City, by way of John Day, Mitchell and Prineville, to Sunriver for the Jacobys’ annual holiday weekend gathering.

On Sunday we retraced our path.

This two-part experience reminded me, with unusual clarity, of something I think each of us instinctively understands — which is that the giddy anticipation of any long-awaited event is offset, to some degree, by the disappointment that intrudes when that event ends.

This dichotomy seemed to me especially poignant this year, and for a few reasons.

For one, the Sunriver rendezvous was noteworthy, and in a good way, because it was the first for my family since our newest member, my niece Lily DeRenzo, she of the bewitching infant grin, was born on Aug. 20 to my younger sister, Alison, and her husband, Jonathan.

This was also just the second time in the past several years that we’ve all congregated in the same place: my three siblings, my parents and all their grandkids (who, with Lily’s arrival, now number an even dozen — the girls outnumbering the boys 7-5).

This rare and happy occasion was made possible because my older sister, Julie Pennick, and her family recently returned to Oregon after living the past seven years in Virginia.

The third factor was that my older son, Alexander, didn’t come back with us to Baker as he always has in the past.

He hitched a ride instead with my parents to Corvallis, where he’s a freshman at Oregon State.

Alexander’s absence left a distinct gap in our little two-car caravan as we plodded east through Deschutes, Crook, Wheeler, Grant and Baker counties, my older daughter, Rheann, following us.

I don’t mean to come off as excessively maudlin.

The sadness of saying good-bye to your kin is partially counterbalanced by the satisfaction of returning to the familiar comforts of home.

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

There’s much to be said, I think, for being able to navigate to the refrigerator, when a powerful thirst comes on at 2 a.m., without barking your shins on a bureau waiting to pounce in the dark.

Rather than feeling depressed for the whole five-hour trip, there was a singular moment during our drive home on Sunday that for me distilled the miasma of melancholy peculiar to such situations.

The culprit, as it were, is an abandoned home that stands beside Highway 26 between Mount Vernon and Dayville.

I’ve driven past this structure close to 100 times over the past 25 years (I pretty well owned that highway while I was in college, traveling back and forth between Baker and Eugene).

But I had never really noticed the decrepit building.

I certainly paid it no attention on the trip west to Sunriver four days earlier.

During that drive we listened to The Beatles’ remastered box set on the stereo, relished the ice-free asphalt, rejoiced in the likelihood that we would arrive before dusk, and generally basked in that beneficent glow of a vacation barely begun.

On Sunday, though, this pre-holiday joy had withered, the flavor of the turkey and the pumpkin pie a fading memory, the anticipation of a family reunion as congealed as day-old gravy.

And so as we rounded a curve (of which there is a surplus along the sinuous John Day River) and the house came into view, the scene struck me as almost inexpressibly sad.

A neglected home, which gives shelter only to rodents and arachnids, needn’t be depressing, of course. When you are in a more optimistic frame of mind such a place can even instill a pleasant tinge of nostalgia, one in which it’s easy to imagine happy children frolicking in the manicured yard while their parents watch with fondness from the front porch.

Yet on a chilly Sunday in late November, with the ground devoid of snow and the trees barren of leaves and the gaiety of a familial celebration dissipated, the peeling paint and the crooked fence and the desiccated weeds can transform the same place into something inhospitable, even malevolent, its desolation awful and overwhelming.

This feeling, fortunately, was brief.

By the time we got to John Day, half an hour later, I was eager to show Max the wonderful model train display at the Dairy Queen.

(At 20 months, Max is still enamored of all sorts of things that fail to excite his 5-year-old sister, Olivia, whose attention was occupied with ice cream.)

And once we cleared Prairie City and started the climb to Dixie Pass, I felt the flutter of excitement of our impending arrival at home.

That night in bed only a fragment of the day’s emotional gloom lingered.

And that may have been because I suddenly remembered, with distinct regret, that I left my six-pack of Rainier at Sunriver, having drank but one of the 16-ounce cans.

The rest are probably chilling in my brother’s refrigerator as I type this.

Re-examining county’s Republican reputation

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

Baker County’s political reputation is as a Republican stronghold, and the results from presidential and other races over the past few decades bear this out.

In the Nov. 6 election Mitt Romney polled 67.5 percent of the county’s votes, to President Barack Obama’s 28 percent.

But I’ve been sifting through voter registration records and election results — figuratively sifting, since the data are electronic, and available at the Oregon Elections Division’s website, www.oregonvotes.org — and it seems to me that the county’s commitment to the Grand Old Party perhaps isn’t as solid as it appears to be.

I was more than a little surprised to see that fewer than half the county’s 10,378 voters — 46.4 percent, to be precise — are registered Republicans.

If you figure that the vast majority of Republicans who returned their ballot went for Romney, which seems to me a reasonable assumption, then a goodly number of voters — approximately 1,800, if I haven’t botched the calculations — who are not registered Republicans also filled in the oval next to Romney’s name on the ballot.

The obvious question, then, is why so many voters who are inclined to the right (none are perfectly perpendicular, in a political sense, I think) don’t formally identify themselves as Republican standard-bearers.

The records show that these right-leaning voters aren’t affiliated, at least on the registration card, with any political party.

Almost 1 in 5 Baker County voters — 22 percent — are non-affiliated.

There are almost as many of these voters as there are registered Democrats, the latter accounting for 25.3 percent of the county’s electorate.

But none of these numbers, of course, answers that “why?” question.

A plausible explanation is that voters who decline to identify with a particular party aren’t satisfied with any of their choices.

Voters who don’t much like their options on the ballot are more likely to leave those ovals empty, and another set of statistics shows that Baker County’s non-affiliated voters were more apathetic on Nov. 6 than their party-loyal counterparts.

Among non-affiliated voters, 66.1 percent returned their ballots.

Registered Republicans, meanwhile, voted at an 88.7-percent rate, while 85.8 percent of registered Democrats turned in their ballots.

Voters registered as independent — I’m one of the 508 in that category — were more in line with major party voters, posting a ballot-return rate of 81.5 percent.

A possible clue in this mystery of why voters who eschew party affiliation are less committed voters involves a trend in voter registration over the past decade.

The biggest change in Baker County’s electorate since 2002 is the declining percentage of registered Democrats.

In 2002, Democrats accounted for 34.2 percent of the county’s voters.

That percentage dipped to 29.5 percent in 2008, and fell further, to 25.3 percent, for this year’s election.

The Republican share has risen during that period but by a much smaller percentage — from 44.7 percent in 2002 to the current 46.4 percent.

The percentage of non-affiliated voters, meanwhile, increased from 19 percent in 2002 to 22 percent today.

The likely conclusion, then, is that over the past decade some number of voters have switched from registering as Democrats to non-affiliated status.

And it stands to reason that those voters, having lately leaned Democratic, would not immediately migrate en masse to the Republican ticket.

Indeed, the comparatively low turnout among non-affiliated voters strongly suggests that many of those who switched to that small-i independent status (as opposed to formally registered, as I have, as an Independent) didn’t vote at all.

A couple of other statistics among the Elections Divisions’ binary reams that intrigued me have to do with measuring just how conservative Baker County is, and how liberal are some of the more populous counties west of the Cascades.

(I recognize that “conservative” and “liberal” aren’t precise synonyms for Republican and Democrat, but they’re close enough.)

It turns out that Baker County isn’t the most conservative enclave in rural Oregon.

And it’s not not nearly as partisan as is the state’s most thickly settled county, Multnomah.

Baker County is actually slightly less conservative than each of our neighbors, based on the percentage of voters registered as Republicans.

Baker County’s 46.4 percent rate of GOP affiliation trails Union County (47.9 percent); Grant County (51.7 percent); Malheur County (49.7 percent); and Wallowa County (52.1 percent).

Lake County, by the way, tops that list, with 55.9 percent of its voters registered Republicans.

Yet even Lake County’s electorate isn’t as unbalanced, so to speak, as Multnomah County’s.

Multnomah, which has 455,000 registered voters, 20 percent of Oregon’s total and 163,000 more than the runner-up (Washington County), isn’t so much heavily Democratic as it is lightly Republican.

Which is not to say Multnomah isn’t heavily Democratic — its percentage of voters who are registered Democrats is 52.8 percent, the highest among Oregon’s 36 counties.

The figure that stood out for me, though, is Multnomah County’s paltry Republican presence — just 15.5 percent of registered voters.

By comparison, the most devout Republican county — Lake — boasts a strong Democratic minority, with 21.9 percent of voters there registered Democrats.

Lane County, which has a reputation as a bastion of liberalism, isn’t necessarily deserving, at least compared with Multnomah. Lane County has a considerably higher percentage of registered Republicans (27.4 percent) and a lower percentage of Democrats (43.4 percent).

Nothing in the Elections Division records greatly challenges the conventional casting of Oregon as politically divided.

Areas west of the Cascades prefer Democratic candidates, although this preference is notably less enthusiastic in the largely rural areas outside the Portland, Salem and Eugene metropolitan areas.

East of the mountains is mainly a land of Republicans, although based on the breakdown of voters’ affiliations, I suspect the party’s eminence here is not so great as is commonly believed.

The interesting question for the future, it seems to me, is whether candidates who don’t have an “R” next to their name can earn the trust of voters who don’t either.

Romney lost, but I’m bullish about our future

On the day after Barack Obama was re-elected I went into the backcountry of Baker County, looking for elk.

As is typical there was considerably more looking than seeing.

On my part, anyway; I haven’t a clue what the elk were up to.

Or where.

The elk that live in the Lookout Mountain Unit and I, we have what you might call an understanding.

I can hike as many miles as my legs and lungs will tolerate, and I can peer into every brush-choked draw between Huntington and Richland (which would require a lot of both peering and hiking, let me tell you), and the elk will spare me the trouble of trying to drag a 500-pound carcass up a slope that’s only slightly less steep than the north face of the Eiger.

The elk, clever and selfish beasts that they are, have secured for themselves the easy part of this deal.

They simply avoid me, as you might an annoying neighbor.

And though I don’t mean to impugn the elusive abilities of elk, which are immense, avoiding me in the woods requires neither skill nor effort.

Except when I’m asleep, I’m about as stealthy as an elephant in a nitroglycerine factory.

A meth-addicted elephant.

The good and the bad of leaf hitchhiking season

By Jasyon Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

The season of the hitchhiking leaf is upon us, and neither our soles nor our kitchen floors will be safe for some weeks.

Or until the snow gets deep anyway.

Making we the public pay dearly for our records

The Freedom of Information Act — FOIA, not to be confused with a fancy food made from the forcibly fattened livers of waterfowl — is one of those laws that sounds a lot better than it is.

(Unlike fois gras, which I’ve heard tastes better than it sounds. Although considering the recipe it could hardly be otherwise.)

President Lyndon Johnson signed the original federal law in 1966. Congress has tinkered with FOIA several times since, but the basic idea remains the same.

Which is that Americans ought to have reasonable access to the immense volume of data their federal government exudes.

The public servants who expectorate this avalanche of information are supposedly serving us, after all.

Many states, including Oregon, have enacted similar laws that deal with records from state and local governments, including cities, counties and school districts.

We journalists harbor a particular fondness for these sorts of laws.

We disdain secrecy, for one thing.

For another, unshackling reams of official documents makes possible more thorough, and responsible, reporting on important topics.

Frequently it’s a plain manila folder, not a flamboyant and shadowy off-the-record source with an affinity for clandestine meetings in parking garages, that breaks a big story.

Trouble is, neither the federal nor the Oregon law entitles citizens to go poking around in government file cabinets or computer records with what could reasonably be described as ease.

A thin sliver of hope for health

The collective corpulence of Americans has become cliché.

Which is not the same as quiche.

Although I’ll concede the two words look pretty similar.

And what with our appetite for eggs and cheese, it’s little wonder we see unwholesome dishes where none exists.

If you spend a few minutes kicking around the online data (and knock it off; if you’re going to kick anything it ought to be a soccer ball, an activity which at least burns extra calories), you can’t help but conclude that the most dire danger facing mankind isn’t melting polar ice caps, but that our united mass will shove Earth out of its orbit and send it careening into the asteroid belt.

Of course you don’t need to study the average number of holes in an American male’s belt to recognize the validity of the statistics.

We’re fatter, generally speaking, than we’ve ever been.

Yet I’m not convinced that this trend is inexorable.

A couple weeks ago, in Boise, I watched a scene that made me optimistic about the future of our arteries.

The setting, near the Boise River, was the finish line for the City of Trees marathon and half-marathon.

I was not a participant.

It’s not that I can’t run 26.2 miles.

I just can’t do it without stopping.

And by stopping I don’t mean a few brief water breaks.

I’m talking about overnight pauses — with pizza and beer — after each 5-mile stretch.

It turns out, though, that quite a lot of people can keep their legs churning for that entire daunting distance.

I don’t even like to drive that far if I can avoid it.

What impressed me isn’t that hundreds of people paid to voluntarily subject themselves to such a muscle-straining ordeal.

Running a marathon, which for most of the 20th century was relegated mainly to Olympians with aerobic capabilities more cheetah than human, migrated toward the mainstream during the jogging craze of the 1970s.

(A phenomenon which boasts considerably more stamina, by the way, than its contemporary, calorie-burning counterpart: disco. Check any major department store these days and you’ll find dozens of pairs of featherweight running shoes. But you’ll have to paw through a lot of bargain bins to unearth a Gloria Gaynor CD.)

I was heartened, rather, by the overwhelming normalcy of the competitors.

Almost none of them had the streamlined physique I associate with long-distance runners, who always look to me as if they’re stepping on springy rubber rather than asphalt. They sort of waft along for hours at a pace I couldn’t duplicate if I were sprinting. Very annoying.

The group at the finish line in Boise was fitter, on average, than the typical shopping mall crowd.

But quite of a few of these bodies that had just covered the equivalent of running from Baker City to Haines and back, followed by a round-trip on the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway, exhibited the same morphological mixture of flabby-and-toned that most people recognize who have bid a sad farewell to the hyperactive metabolism of adolescence.

They looked like regular people, is what I mean — regular people who had just accomplished something extraordinary.

We went to Boise because my wife, Lisa, who has finished two half-marathons, wanted to run six miles of the marathon route with two friends from Baker City, Autumn Swiger-Harrell and Jennifer Kelley.

Lisa ran with them many times during the summer and early fall as they trained for the full marathon.

I’m not suggesting here that my experience in Boise, which is but a minor anecdote, comes close to countering the overwhelming evidence that Americans’ appetites lean too heavily toward saturated fat instead of aerobic activity.

Yet I detected, in the jubilant atmosphere at the race’s end, a camaraderie that belies the stereotype of the American who can’t be roused from the sofa except to slide another frozen pizza into the oven or extract another 2-liter torpedo of soda from the refrigerator.

I have no idea what motivated those marathoners.

Some of them, I’m sure, fulfilled a longtime goal and have no intention of ever running another marathon.

But exercise, and the happiness it provokes, can become an addiction every bit as potent as the lure of the cheeseburger.

(Well, almost as potent.)

And I suspect that most of the runners, even those who never again enter a race more taxing than a 10K, won’t be content to toss their shoes into a closet and settle in with the remote control and a jumbo bag of Fritos.

You don’t need to run a marathon to get fit, of course.

But perhaps running one can be only the start of a healthy lifestyle rather than its triumphant conclusion.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

A new forest that’s as natural as the old one

We hiked up to the Elkhorn Crest Trail on one of those early autumn days when both the nostalgia of summer, and the treachery of the coming winter, are palpable.

It was, to be specific, the final day of September.

Which is about as early as you can get in autumn.

Although quite late, obviously, for September.

Our route was the Cunningham Cove trail. 

This path starts next to the North Fork of the John Day River, within sight of the Forest Service’s historic (and rentable, July 1-Oct. 31) Peavy Cabin, and climbs 2,000 feet to the Crest Trail.

And by “climb” I don’t mean the gentle ascent of the quadriceps-friendly, switchbacking trails common to the Wallowas.

The grade of the Cunningham Cove trail alternates between merely grueling and borderline ridiculous.

Sometimes casting a vote feels like a gamble

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald

When I read “The Grange” I think of potlucks where the apple pie is always exquisite and the conversation, inevitably, turns to crops.

I don’t think of slot machines and roulette wheels.

But I might have to start.


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