What a newspaper is for

Posted: Jan 08, 2007 12:00 AM

LITTLE ROCK - The last few weeks around here have been near-perfect for an old editor. They've provided an almost daily demonstration of what a newspaper is for - to tell folks what's been going on in their town, and, as we say in these latitudes, to tell it with the bark off. Yep, we've been guilty of committing journalism here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Call it a textbook example of that art. One chapter would be devoted to our Cindy Murphy's detailed stories about the messy finances and messier interconnections between Little Rock's convention bureau and the civic commission that was supposed to be supervising it.

With grist like that, how could anybody not write fresh, riveting commentary after each day's revelation and/or resignation from our local tourism commission?

This is what newspaper people are born for.

Bliss it must have been, to adapt a line from Mr. Wordsworth, that moment when Cindy Murphy, going through sheafs of documents, came upon the $25,500 Chevrolet Malibu given to the convention bureau's departing director. Or toted up the $140,000 that the bureau spent at restaurants owned by the chairman of the city's said tourism commission - despite laws about competitive bidding. Or found $67,000 in rental contracts with another commissioner's family business. But to comment on all this, to quote the poet, has been very heaven.

With each new development in this continuing story, the local bigs would issue another defense of the indefensible. Or, even better, pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The deeper the hole they dug for themselves, the less they could stop digging.

With that kind of help, how could anybody not write editorials that would articulate what folks around here are thinking, and feeling, about this bunch? Who says duty has to be an iron-gray thing? There are times when it can be an undiluted joy.

Things got funnier, that is, sadder, when local civic leader Dean Kumpuris, a member of the commission in question, paid a call on us with Dan O'Byrne, the CEO of the convention bureau, in tow.

The meeting lasted two hours but seemed an eternity. It was a kind of death by statistics. In the old days, irate readers might appear at the editor's office with a bullwhip or dueling pistols. Today it's nothing that short and merciful.

Now our critics come armed with reams of papers in small print divided by fascinating headings like "2006 Capital Needs Request Calendar" and "LRCVB Projected 2007 Sales Travel Schedule" and "Group Tour Backlog and Studies and White Papers" ("Throughout this document the term CVB is used to represent any organization that is designated by a respective municipality's government.").

I may never have a problem going to sleep again. John Grisham this isn't. The whole folder measured 1 1/2 inches in height, 15 inches in length, and weighed in at 2 1b 14.9 oz. As if to make up in volume what it lacked in relevance.

Our guests were certainly entitled to our time after all the paper has said about how the commission and convention bureau has been run. Besides, I learned long ago how to respond to unhappy visitors once they enter their second, repetitive hour in our conference room with no sign of getting winded. I just think of all the beautiful women I have known. What a delight these meetings can be.

The funniest part of this nigh-endless session came when our guests presented Cindy Murphy and the rest of us with this inch-and-a-half-thick stack of papers, whereupon she unerringly reached in and pulled out still another unitemized expense account. Like a plum out of a pudding. What a touch the woman has. Gosh, why didn't our visitors just submit a signed confession?

For me, the high point of the whole talkathon came toward the merciful end, when Commissioner Kumpuris asserted that (a) his standards for the whole bollixed operation were actually higher than the newspaper's, (b) the paper hadn't investigated the commission and convention bureau enough, and (c) he knew a lot more stuff about the convention bureau than we'd found out about.

Naturally, I asked him to tell us about it, but he said he wouldn't, not now. Later then? He said he would. I'm still waiting.

Or maybe the man was just kidding. When it comes to Little Rock's city government these last few revelatory weeks, it's not easy to tell whether we're dealing with a farce or an outrage. Why not both?