Oregonian’s Most Disturbing About-Face: Not Ideology, But Accuracy (Or: Beyond Tuesday, Whither the Oregonian?)

Steve Novick

In tomorrow’s editorial, the Oregonian says that “we have been accused of abandoning our traditional support for schools and other essential public services.” One can debate whether such an accusation would be warranted, given that the Oregonian itself said, when the Legislature adopted the tax measures in question, that the choice between schools and public safety on the one hand, and the Measure 66 and 67 taxes on the other hand, was “one or the other, and the Democratic majority made the right choice.”

What’s more disturbing, however, to those of us who value newspapers in general and the Oregonian in particular (including those of us working for the 'yes' campaign), is that in the late stages of this campaign – and especially in tomorrow’s editorial – the editorial board is displaying a highly uncharacteristic disregard for factual accuracy. 

In tomorrow’s editorial, the paper states that the Legislature decided to permanently raise the state's top-tier corporate and personal income tax rates, already among the nation's highest.”  Clearly “among the nation’s highest” is intended to modify ‘top-tier corporate’ as well as personal . 

As you can see from the attached link to the Federation of State Tax Administrators’ web site , there are 27 other states that have higher top corporate profits tax rates than Oregon does.  In 19 states the flat rate is higher than our 6.6%; in 8 other states there are graduated rates with the “top tier” being above 6.6.  There are 18 states that have higher rates than the 7.6% new permanent profits tax rate on profits above $10 million. We will be tied for 18th (and 19th and 20th) with two other states, Idaho and New Mexico.

So in the Sunday paper, on the eve of the election, the Oregonian editorial board is boldly asserting something that is simply, easily verifiably, false. I do not believe that the Oregonian intentionally lied. But the fact that the paper would not bother to fact-check this claim is deeply troubling.

Second, the Oregonian continues to propound the myth that Measure 66 targets “small business owners.”  Now, I have previously explained that according to the Legislative Revenue Office, 93% of the state’s small business owners are not affected by Measure 66.  Another 5% are affected but do not make most of their money from a small business. They would include, for example,  Jeld-Wen executives who own rental properties and report the income from the rental property as “business income.”  This leaves 2% of small business owners that (a) are affected by Measure 66 and (b) actually make their living from a ‘small business.’ And that is using a definition of ‘small business’ which includes all partnerships, S-corps and LLCs – including, for example the Stoel Rives law firm.

But you don’t have to take my or LRO’s word for it that the “small business” argument is deeply misleading. The claim that taxing incomes of $250,000 or more is an attack on “small business owners” is exactly the claim that John McCain made against Barack Obama for endorsing higher taxes on – again – families making over $250,000 a year.  That claim wasn’t just debunked by the Obama campaign, or Citizens for Tax Justice. It was thoroughly debunked by a pretty mainstream source – CNNMoney.com.

Here’s what CNNMoney.com had to say on October 17, 2008:

In speech after speech, presidential candidate John McCain hammers on the claim that his rival Barack Obama will raise taxes on many small businesses …

But there are three main problems with McCain's charge …

First, it relies on a broad definition of what counts as a small business, including everyone who files a Schedule C, E and F.

But most people who file those forms don't run a business for a living: Those forms are also used to report income from freelance and consulting work, real-estate rentals, and most other non-salary sources.

A more realistic definition of small businesses turns up far fewer firms ...

Second, even using the broad definition of small business that McCain likes, very few owners would see their own taxes rise … Out of 34.7 million filers …98.6% … would be unaffected by Obama's proposed rate hike.

The definitions and  calculations that John McCain adopted to claim Barack Obama was attacking ‘small business owners’ were exactly the same as the definitions and calculations the opponents of Measure 66 – including the Oregonian – are using to make the same attack on Measure 66.  The Oregonian, which endorsed Obama, did not, as far as I can recall, adopt John McCain’s “Joe the Plumber” line of attack. But it is using the same line today.

A final fatal flaw in tomorrow’s editorial is not precisely a factual error, but it certainly shows that emotion is overcoming the editorial board’s logical faculties.  

The Oregonian acknowledges that “Oregon has comparatively low corporate taxes.” Previously, the paper has acknowledged that Oregon is third-lowest in the nation in taxes on business. And its January 17 editorial, “beyond a ’no’ vote,” the paper called for “a separate long-term reform plan that includes business-tax reform.”

But tomorrow, the paper attacks the Legislature both for raising the corporate profits tax and for creating a sliding scale alternative minimum tax for “profitless” C-corps. The implication is that the only corporate tax change the paper would accept is something like the flat increase in the corporate minimum from $10 to $300 that Measures 66 and 67 opponents have suggested.

But that would be a minimal change. It would (if applied to all partnerships, LLCs, S-corps and C-corps) raise around $85 million a biennium. That is not “business tax reform.” Even Measure 67’s $255 million increase only moves Oregon from 48th in the nation in business taxes to 46th. 

So the Oregonian believes in ‘business tax reform’ – but it has ruled out anything that could possibly qualify for that description.

So what, exactly, does the Oregonian have in mind?  In 2003, the paper supported a temporary income tax increase on all Oregonians, despite the fact that Oregon’s marginal income tax rate on people making between $15,200 and $47,000 in taxable income was already the very highest in the nation. But, as the paper noted at the time, that measure failed, suffering from – as the paper itself said – “little or no encouragement from political and business leaders.”

Robert F. Kennedy once said of a fellow Democrat, “he knows all the facts, and he’s against all the solutions.”  When the Oregonian first editorialized against Measures 66 and 67, I had the same reaction. Now, though, the editorial board seems to be losing its connection to the facts.      

 

 

Comments

  • David (unverified)
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    Steve, I voted for you in the 2008 primary election and know that you rely on facts more than most in the public forum. But to single out the Oregonian newspaper for failure to check facts, although important, disregards the much larger concern of how both campaigns mischaracterized, at best, many of the so-called facts underlying these two tax measures. As a voter, I'm disappointed in both campaigns.

  • Mike M (unverified)
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    I have to agree with David.

    Errors of omission are bad for both sides. Lies or misleading facts - draw your own conclusions. Neither side is telling the whole story.

    Regardless of the outcome, it's really time for Oregon to address the tax revenue volatility. We'll be back to the polls soon enough.

  • Darth Spadea (unverified)
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    It doesn't matter if 97% of small businesses are unaffected. Many people, including myself, are not directly affected. What matters is the 5% you do cite represent 2/3 of those who ARE AFFECTED.

    The reason this is an important point is how the language is written and the Yes campaign's messaging. They would like everyone to just assume that the people affected by Measure 66 are rich corporate employees (CEOs and the like) that draw large salaries. Hence the focus on "individuals". But the term individual is misleading when you understand that many small businesses file as "individuals".

    There is a distinction that you guys want to gloss over because common sense dictates for most people that a small business owner's profits are likely the source of their investment in growing their small business and creating jobs.

  • The Unrepentant Liberal (unverified)
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    Fact check? They don't need no stinking fact checks at The Oregonian. It would just get in the way. Phil Knight. He don't need no stinking fact check either. Here's another check to the U of O football program BTW.

  • The Unrepentant Liberal (unverified)
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    But seriously, fact checking is what journalism is suppose to be all about; Both sides, no holds barred, no favorites. As it stands The Oregonian could not be charged, tried and convicted of the practice of journalism in court.

  • Patrick Story (unverified)
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    Steve,

    Again, thanks for this additional detailed information about a subject, state taxes, that was previously pretty arcane to many of us.

    You did your usual great job on the public television debate last night. Surely you won many Yes votes, though it must be tough to maintain your patience when the opposition keeps up the drumbeat of distortions that have already been exposed so many times. The No campaign is a manifest instance of the big lie approach to propaganda and should be used hereafter in the schools as an example.

    I also heard you the other morning on KINK.fm when the dj gave the felon Sizemore all the time (and distortions) he wanted against the Measures and then rudely interrupted you with crosstalk (!) after only two of your four points in favor, and then never let you finish. But I really don't think the unfair advantage helped Sizemore with many listeners.

    Keep up your good work! Only four days to go.

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    David: But to single out the Oregonian newspaper for failure to check facts, although important, disregards the much larger concern of how both campaigns mischaracterized, at best, many of the so-called facts underlying these two tax measures.

    Um... do you not get the distinction between a partisan political campaign (both the "yes" camp and the "no" camp) and a newspaper ostensibly practicing journalism?

    With all due respect, your conflation of "both campaigns" with the Oregonian's editorial staff simply muddies the important issues at stake.

    Mike M.: Errors of omission are bad for both sides.

    If Steve's post had been about either of the two partisan campaigns then your observation would be relevant. I'm not saying your point isn't valid, just that it is only barely more relevant to this post then say... to a recipe on a foodie blog.

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    Steve, thanks for presenting the facts and the distortions. The new "O" publisher will have a short shelf life unless he restores the editorial page to one that at least makes an attempt at fact checking. For now, the Oregonian has moved from fact into fantasy.

  • Jake Leander (unverified)
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    Steve Novick wrote:

    So in the Sunday paper, on the eve of the election, the Oregonian editorial board is boldly asserting something that is simply, easily verifiably, false. I do not believe that the Oregonian intentionally lied.

    I understand your hesitation to say the Oregonian lied, Steve, but this issue has been well analyzed and discussed at length. It is very difficult for me to believe that someone on the editorial board would not have noticed the misstatement. Of course, someone else may have written the editorial, which the publisher ordered the editor to print. In that case, the Oregonian editorial board did not lie, they just gave over the editorial page to someone else who did.

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    I'm with Paulie on this one.

    The Oregonian appears intent on transition from the paper of record in Oregon to a checkout stand rag akin to the National Enquirer where one can routinely find fact-free claims.

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    Steve

    I suspect the erroneous modifier indicates laziness and poor writing on the part of the O rather than a specific intent to mislead.

    That being said, the O is showing a bit of defensiveness, and I think this is good. They are still the newspaper of record in this state, and their inconsistency on the tax issue combined with the "advertising" wrap issue does a disservice to a paper with a long legacy in this state.

  • Darth Spadea (unverified)
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    I love, absolutely love the Yes campaign ad buy in the Saturday Oregonian. I thought you guys were just melting down over this privately, but now you have taken it public!

    The Yes campaign did a brilliant job crafting the measures and positioning the campaign to actually have a shot at passing a tax increase in the middle of a recession. You had a nice lead at one point.

    But the reality is that when it devolves into a bitter partisan argument, the Yes side loses. It has muddied up the issue and caused many undecided voters to either vote NO (just to be safe) or not vote at all.

    Voters know that raising taxes is a big deal and they need to feel comfortable and confident in their Yes vote.

    By placing this ad today, focused on the Oregonian itself and defending against the other campaign's claims, the Yes campaign did more harm than good to themeselves. It just helped turn more people off and suppress turnout.

    You guys let it get personal and you got sloppy. You moved away from the tactics that were working, to go on the defensive. You got emotional. And for that I thank you!

    Vote NO

  • David (unverified)
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    Kevin, thanks for your initial post. I do get the distinction between political campaigns and newspapers. However, I'm a firm believer in being straight with voters about the facts, be it a newspaper or political campaign. Voters get "facts" from political campaigns as much as they do newspapers. And political campaigns understand this. Why else would the "yes" and "no" campaigns be spending millions each to persuade voters?

  • Ricky (unverified)
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    Would everyone please stop whining about The Oregonian? It's annoying and childish to see a constant stream of wasteful, angry and obsessive energy towards them when you know damn well you'd be applauding them if their editorial board endorsed a YES vote.

    It is incredibly important for our state that Bhatia, the new Editor at the Oregonian succeed, somehow, in stemming the tide of pink slips at our largest newspaper.

    I know that it's fashionable in some circles to deride the Oregonian. Fashionable, but idiotic. When I worked at the Justice Department, I did a fair amount of travel. I'm a diehard newspaper reader, so wherever I went, I'd read the newspaper. And if you think the Oregonian is a bad paper, you should try the Dallas Morning News or the Kansas City Star or even the San Francisco Chronicle on for size.

    But it's not just by comparison that the Oregonian is a good paper. It's just a good paper, period. If you read the Oregonian regularly, you're going to have a pretty good idea of what's going on the state.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)
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    . I do not believe that the Oregonian intentionally lied

    I respect your mind, if not always your methods, and that line really has me wondering. I was reminded of an episode attributed to Wittgenstein, after lecturing on the "Copernican revolution". A young student can up afterward, and kept banging on about what stupid people the believers in the Ptolemaic system were. Finally, exasperated, Wittgenstein said, "Yeah, just imagine what that would have looked like"!

    I think that's a good test for judging intellectual integrity. Can you imagine what it would look like? Alternatively, if it doesn't look any different, invoking Occam's razor, why should we postulate entities or motivation without necessity?

    So, my point is, what would that look like, if the O had deliberately lied? Obviously, because it looks the same to a naive eye, doesn't make it the same any more than the Ptolemaic system was better because it looked like the Copernican system, with fewer terms. (Of course by that time it didn't have fewer terms). So, is there something we don't know about why they wouldn't have just lied? I just don't see how it would look any different. Is this prudent legal speak, or am I missing why that isn't likely?

    At the very least, I think that people that called and canceled, saying it was the "no" spadea, would have been better served by saying, "because you don't fact-check your editorials". They can argue the "yes" wrapper is fair time, but they can't rebut another sloppy piece of propaganda. Of course, if they replied, "oh, but we do", that would be even more interesting...

  • Zarathustra (unverified)
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    If you read the Oregonian regularly, you're going to have a pretty good idea of what's going on the state.

    I beg to differ. Guess it comes down to how you define news you can use. Point taken about BO, but I've been lambasting the O for 11 years, so, I can tell you I wouldn't be praising them if they had come out "yes".

  • Adam503 (unverified)
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    Steve Novick "...I do not believe that the Oregonian intentionally lied...."

    Oh for fracks sake, WHY NOT ?!? Are we STILL wussing out with that "I don't thing Republicans would lie intentionally" Balderdash?!?

    What part of the last 20 years of politics in the US have you missed?!? After the SCOTUS decision on Citizens United Thurs?!?

    Is Rep. Alan Grayson the still the only Democrat that can trade punches with the GOP/right?

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    As someone who has been the target of false attacks by the Oregonian in the past, I don't think they are intentional either. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't point out those errors and try to hold them accountable. Otherwise, you deserve what you get.

    I also think BlueOregon is reacting so strongly on this issue is because usually their misrepresentations are on your side. :-)

  • Darklady (unverified)
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    I sure wish folks would stop talking about Measures 66 and 67 as though they were identical.

    I've got no problem with Measure 66, since it has an income minimum. But 67 will hit every single person, queer or poly family, and other super small corporate holder as hard as it will hit mega corps. Only harder.

    I have heard from SEVERAL corporation owners who only have themselves as employees and are struggling to survive right now, especially creatives such as myself. We would love to help out others, but right now we're more than a little worried about ourselves. After all, WE don't have insurance, cuz self-employed people rarely can afford what's out there.

    The only reason I can get my $146/week Unemployment check (for the short time I'm able to get UE at all) is because I pay the state and federal government payroll taxes, which is one big reason I've got my S-corp. If I'd stayed a sole proprietor I'd be packing my bags and moving into a friend's spare bedroom right now, because I'd have zero to fall back on.

    That's one reason I'm more than a little sick of the guilt trips my friends who insist I won't be affected by Measure 67 keep trying to take me on. Once they realize it will affect me, I get this whole "but the schools will close down and AIDS patients will become homeless" line of argument.

    We've reached a point where we seem to think every corporation is a mega corp determined to destroy the planet and have lost touch with the fact most corporations are small. The day I make $125,000 - $250,000 I'll be delighted to pay more into the system... but right now, I'm just hoping I can make rent.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take my selfish corporate ass downtown and help raise some money during a fundraiser for Cascade AIDS Project and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

  • LT (unverified)
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    " But that doesn't mean you shouldn't point out those errors and try to hold them accountable. Otherwise, you deserve what you get."

    Thank you Jack. Loved your Oregonian column and have already sent the link to a couple of friends.

    However, regarding this:

    "because usually their misrepresentations are on your side. :-) "

    I work with teenagers and when I am reading their work I point out spelling mistakes and other errors. Not because they are on anyone's "side" but because accuracy is a virtue.

    Why do public figures think the populace is binary and everything supports one or another "side"?

    BO has sometimes been as bad about this as anyone else (like when I was called a Merkleyite during the primary because I said that while Steve and Jeff were intelligent, I had to agree with Jeff on a particular point).

    But that doesn't change the fact that Walter Cronkite was not taking sides when he said this about accuracy in journalism:

    "If there is a fire at 123 Fir Street and the newspaper reports it took place at 321 Fir Avenue, most people won't notice unless they live in the area and know what they saw with their own eyes. However, if the editors let such a mistake slip by, reporters can get lazy because they think no one is looking. Then one day someone quotes the mayor and everyone knows it was reported incorrectly."

    I don't think Cronkite was chosing one "side" over the other when he made that remark. So what does that make me?

  • Zarathustra (unverified)
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    I think what it makes you, LT, depends on context. Walter Cronkite was asked once about how he felt being called "the most trusted man in America". He responded to the effect that, "Whoever coined that didn't talk to my wife".

  • Bob Baldwin (unverified)
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    Darklady: The only reason I can get my $146/week Unemployment check (for the short time I'm able to get UE at all) is because I pay the state and federal government payroll taxes, which is one big reason I've got my S-corp.

    So, you would pay $140 more per year for the S-corp, and also receive a tax reduction on the UI payments. Exempting $2400 of UI, at a 9% marginal rate would mean saving $216.00 for the year, or $76.00 net of the $140 for the S-corp. UI value and marginal raste assumed, of course; YMMV.

  • LT (unverified)
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    What I am talking about are basic facts. Salem is the State Capital, but there is more to Salem than the home of the capitol building. Eugene is south of Salem. McCall, Straub, Atiyeh were governors--in that order.

    What bothers me is when people try to twist facts--Straub served before McCall sort of thing. Or saying the Blazers never won a championship.

    There is no excuse for that. No matter what context or what "side" someone is on.

  • Bob Soper (unverified)
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    Ricky: "Would everyone please stop whining about The Oregonian? It's annoying and childish to see a constant stream of wasteful, angry and obsessive energy towards them when you know damn well you'd be applauding them if their editorial board endorsed a YES vote."

    Baloney. The Oregonian (AKA Orangonian) has done a grave disservice to the voters of the state by spouting misleading, right-wing anti-tax talking points straight from the foul mouth of lobbyist Mark Nelson, when they should be presenting the FACTS, as Steve says above. The paper's new publisher overruled the editorial board (which supports the measures) on behalf of the corporate owner, Steven Newhouse, and has been shoving these No campaign ads dressed up as editorials into the paper at a desperate rate. That is something to be concerned about. By the way, if the paper HAD come out in support of the measures and LIED to make the case, I would object just as strongly. Shoddy journalism should not be tolerated in our city's paper of record, period.

    Now, back to townhall.com or wherever you hail from...

  • BOHICA (unverified)
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    "But the fact that the paper would not bother to fact-check this claim is deeply troubling."

    During the "Swiftboat" campaign, I stood outside the Big O with a cardboard sign that read; "Will fact check for food". Some interesting conversation ensued.

  • Phil Philiben (unverified)
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    OK - I only read the Oregonian online and when I read the ediroral page I envision the editors has Sybil! Every morning when I open the Bend Bulletin's editorial page I know the editor's Darth Vader!

  • Space Camera (unverified)
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    My faterh always said "whatever you do do it well for what may happen none can tell".

  • Robert Harris (unverified)
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    Darklady actually points a very valuable benefit you get from being a corporation.

    If she is getting about $150/week in unemployment, that means she received a salary, as an employee of her own corporation, of about $2,000/month. So here's what some small business owners do, particulalry construction company owners.

    They pay themselves a salary, as an employee, 9 months or so, then they "lay themselves off" for three months, get unemployment, take three months off with benefits, then "rehire" themselves when their benefits expire, or business picks up. (I've known some owners I suspect actually keep working during the slow months, they just don't pay themselves a salary, yet still collect unemployment)

    The only thing they have to do is to pay about a 2% payroll tax. So thats a pretty darn good return on investment.

    So, lets say Darklady's small business makes her about $18,000 in a year. She can pay herself $2,000 month for 9 months, and pay the $360 in unemployment tax on that salary. Then lay herself off, and collect about $2,000 in unemployment benefits for the next three months.

    So the total income for the year is $20,000 instead of $18,000, at only an additional cost of $360 (for unemployment tax)

    I'm not necessarily saying that Darklady, or any other small business owners are trying to game the system, by incorporating and hiring themselves, rather than operating as unincorporated sole proprietorships (well, yeah,I am saying that), but here is a very good example of how a corporation, even a micro corporation, receives benefits that unincorporated folks don't get. In fact, Darklady herself said thats exactly why she incorporated. to receive this insurance that the rest of us business persons are paying for.

  • notchomsky (unverified)
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    I'm shocked, shocked to find that lying is going on in the Oregonian!

    Somebody should read Manufacturing Consent.

    There is no objectivity in "journalism", nor should there be. However, business organs like the Oregonian (whose clients are advertisers, and not readers) should be up front about their biases.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)
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    Agreed, "not".

    Manufacturing Consent. = bipartisan

    Gonzo Journalism = There is no objectivity in "journalism", nor should there be...be up front about their biases. As Hunter Thompson observed, voters that can't sort basic facts CAN tell where a person is coming from.

    I think t.a. does Gonzo best here. More than a few suffer from the O's veneer of objectivity, imho. FWIW as political critique, commentary and documentation, George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, and Jimmy Carter all agree that Hunter Thomspon's "On the Campaign Trail" is the best political journalism ever written.

    Poor Ed Musky would not agree.

    Interviewer: Did you start the rumor that Edwin Musky was taking ibogaine?

    Thompson: No, I never said that. I said that an unnamed source, close to one of the campaigns, had said that Musky acted like he was on drugs, probably ibogaine.

    Interviewer: Were you the "unnamed source, close to one of the campaigns"?

    Thompson: (looks away, trying not to laugh) Uh, me...? (starts mumbling and trails off)

    If anyone gets a chance to see the BBC's recent biography I highly recommend it. It was a part of the "Storyville" series. Believe it or not, the memories, and thinking about Thompson's suicide, brought tears to Pat Buchanan's eyes.

    Typewriter fu, politcal fu and beer begging. No breasts. Joe Bob gives it a 10. Ditto On the Campaign Trail.

    "If I'd written the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people —including me— would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism." —Rolling Stone, February 15, 1973

  • rw (unverified)
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    Dear Bob, during my last little bit of research, I discovered that Orange relates to the network of transnational liberationists. Oddly, my brother worked in this vein on the government dime, and others I know now are busy training militias on our home ground in North Caroline, these recruits or converts are from various countries to be inserted back into their natal context to push ahead with our agendas.

    That is part of how the wall came down sending the Soviet Bloc on its way, and so we continue in today's work, all Orangey.

  • rw (unverified)
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    Darklady, it was my understanding that tiny little S-Corps like mine and any SMALL corp would NOT be slammed. Has anyone explained the ins and outs of it for you yet? Unless something changed between this moment and the last time I heard an explanation, up here, in fact. I was assured that my tiny little enterprise would not see the vast hand of the leftwing doughseekers touch my occasional dime.

  • rw (unverified)
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    .. also, rather uncertain what queer, poly or any degree of complexion had to do with that measure? I believe it only addressed the financials of those who are untouched by these hard times, and continue to be WELL buffered from being touched. Not those riding close to the edges. And, again, a bit mystified by the bonafides reference?

  • Zarathustra (unverified)
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    <h2>rw, you will LOVE the link I posted.</h2>

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