Sunday, January 3, 2010

Barbara Blake is Smokin' on Not Smoking; Tony Kiss Doesn't Give Us The Good News

An article in the Sunday, Jan. 3, Citizen-Times about the new state ban on smoking in bars and restaurants was thoroughly reported and nicely written by veteran C-T staffer Barbara Blake.
She starts out at a celebration by smoking-ban proponents at Star Lanes bowling alley on Kenilworth Road.  Then she makes a smooth "meanwhile" transition to a smoker "huddled in a sub-freezing wind" outside Mack Kells restaurant on Tunnel Road.  She also stops by a Charlotte Street pub.  She finishes "back" at Star Lanes, giving the story a lot of energy by taking the reader on a metaphorical circle around town.   

Blake also gives the story energy with ample back-and-forth between pro-ban and anti-ban voices.  The ban proponents get their say in the strongest spots, at the top and bottom.  They were the winners, after all.

Blake makes their case even stronger by giving the opening quote to a pro-ban Asheville High School member of Teens Against Tobacco.  She ends with a quote from Rep. Susan Fisher praising teens for their involvement: "They are so enthusiastic, and they know the cost in terms of health and well-being all over this state.”  If the kids are against smoking, the smokers seem even more out of step with the times.

Still, Blake treats the smokers with good humor, and she humanizes them with telling detail.  At the Charlotte Street establishment, they are sitting "glumly at the bar, looking longingly at a lone, empty ashtray in a corner that had yet to be discarded after the ban went into effect at midnight."  One patron says, "No comment — we're cranky,” then flashes "a grin to show he was mostly kidding."

Blake asks if he will come back to the now-smoke-free pub.  He gives her the endearing grin again: "We'll probably come more — we're so cranky we'll need to drink more."  Maybe those smokers aren't such tobacco-stained wretches after all.

Blake gives no background on the new law, its rationale, the history of efforts to pass anti-smoking legislation in North Carolina (a tobacco-cigarette producing state), earlier local anti-smoking ordinances in Asheville or similar legislation in neighboring states and across the U.S.

She does give a nod to the anti-ban argument that such laws hurt restaurants economically.  One restaurant owner speculates that he will "lose business as his customers decide to enjoy their cigarettes and beverages at home rather than paying for drinks in a smoke-free establishment."  An employee of the other restaurant believes the opposite: "the smoking ban will ultimately result in more customers." People who stayed away from the smoky environment may now come, the employee says, and her establishment's outdoor dining (and smoking) patio will be a competitive advantage.

Should the reporter have given us more background and context?  Scientific studies on the economic impact of smoking bans show they don't hurt business.  Wait, they do hurt businesses.  Well, it depends on how the studies are constructed.  Perhaps just as importantly, it depends on what the study's authors are trying to prove. 

Since the reporter raised the issue, should she have tried to get some authoritative data?  Do we want more than speculation from a local owner and an employee?  Should she follow up and see how these and other establishments are faring post smoking-ban?

More context was probably not a detriment to Blake's entertaining and informative story.  Lack of context could be a problem, however, for parents reading entertainment editor Tony Kiss's story on a new downtown arts school in the same issue of the Citizen-Times ("New Elevate Life and Art school opens this week in Asheville"). 

In a lot of arts reporting in the Citizen-Times (and Mountain Express), the reporter interviews only the subject of the story and digs no further than the subject's own assessment of his or her accomplishment.  Here, Kiss reports that the organizer of a production of "Godspell" by the Highland Acting Company, "which had two very successful runs at Asheville's Orange Peel" and will tour to Wichita, Kan., has decided to build a "community center downtown . . . to offer affordable art and life classes."

Many groups and individuals in town offer arts classes for young people.  Some groups call themselves arts centers.  A recent Citizen-Times story even reported "Asheville City Council approves new arts and community center" for $2 million.  Could the reader get confused? 

And what about this Highland Acting Company?  Is that anything like the North Carolina Stage Company?  The Highland Repertory Company?  Without more background from the reporter, how are Mom and Dad to know if this is for their kids?

It turns out the Highland Acting Company is a church theater group affiliated with Highland Christian Church, which meets at the Orange Peel.  Its new venture, called Elevate School of Life and Art, meets in what it calls Highland Prayer Gallery, described as "a studio for expressions of prayer to the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit."

Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, if this is what you want your children to be involved with.  But the reporter might let us know that this is not just another after school arts program but one connected to a church. 

He might also tell us at least as much about the founder of the school and the church theater group as she does herself on various Web sites. She's very up-front that her experience started in "High School through an excellent fine arts department and continued briefly through a brief stop at two colleges where she was first a Vocal major and second, a Ballet major." And she's charmingly self-deprecating enough to call herself "the reigning Queen of Kitchen performances- as her Husband of 20 years and 4 children can attest."

Tony Kiss may be the hardest working and busiest reporter in Asheville journalism.   He covers not only an astonishingly varied and busy entertainment-performing arts scene but also the equally varied-busy beer scene.  Does this beer-music-and arts destination town deserve more beer-music-and arts reporters? Would the Citizen-Times have only one reporter to cover all of high school and college sports in the area?

So Tony Kiss should be forgiven for not telling us what we need to know about Elevate Art and Life School.  But should his editors be forgiven?  Does this article belong on the Saturday religion page (if there is still such a thing), instead of the Sunday arts page?

And while we're beating up on editors, should we forgive them for allowing Carol Motsinger to say that Asheville Symphony Orchestra members are "surefire fun" and that these "talented folks" will be "trying their hand" at Handel, Gershwin and Shostakovich.  Ah, who knows what those talented, fun folks at ASO will try their hands at next.

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