Friday, October 30, 2009

Throwing a Flag on the Sentinel: 15 yards for incompetence

Well, the Sentinel and Enterprise screwed up another one.

In an article titled "Bill: Students should recite the Flag Code," both the reporter and the editor get it wrong. Like, the whole thing totally wrong.
BOSTON -- Sometime between five and eight years ago -- the two men differ in their recollections -- Wilmington American Legion Commander Joe Steen approached his state senator, Bruce Tarr.

Steen was incensed by a story he read about a group of Texas protesters stomping on an American flag, and he had a request -- a bill that would require Massachusetts schoolchildren to recite the U.S. Flag Code along with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Among the provisions in the code: Never let an American flag touch the ground; do not display the flag on clothing; in a row of flags, always display the American flag on the far right; the correct way to dispose of an American flag is by burning.

Over the years and many trips to committee, that bill morphed into S371, a measure that would make flag etiquette a part of public-school civics classes.
Just reading the first four paragraphs of this story, I knew something was amiss. I understand that Republicans like to wrap themselves in the flag and frequently propose pseudo-patriotic resolutions--with the explicit intent of having Democrats kill them, so they can try to pin their opponents as un-American--but I can't imaging that even the craziest of them would submit a bill requiring children to recite a federal law at the start of the school day. So I decided to look up S371, as referenced in the article:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

SECTION 1. Section 80A of Chapter 131 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2004 Official Edition, is hereby amended by adding at the end thereof, the following new paragraph: Any person issued a permit as provided by this section shall, within thirty days of the expiration of such permit or extension of same shall report to the director of the division of fisheries and wildlife, on a form approved by said director, the municipality of which the request was made, the name of the property owner, address of the property threatened, the name of authorized agent, method used to alleviate the problem, and the number and species of animals taken pursuant to the permit, and other information deemed necessary by the director.
Well, good. Either we're trying to teach schoolchildren how to report the removal of pesky animals, or the report incorrectly lists the bill number.

Let's see. I'll go to the legislative search function on, search Senate bills for the word "flag," and...hey, here it is. Look what 30 seconds of research can do! Sentinel reporters should try it. From S282 ("371" must have been a transcription's really close to "282"):

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

SECTION 1. Chapter 71 of the General Laws is hereby amended in Section 2 by adding after the word “government” the following phrase:- “and a program of relating to the flag of the United States of America, including but not limited to proper etiquette, the correct use and display of the flag, and the provisions of 36 U.S.C. 170 to 177”.
That's not so crazy. I have no problem with schools teaching the proper etiquette of the flag as part of the curriculum. I'm not sure that is the sort of thing that should be done legislatively--the people who set curriculum standards in the commonwealth's Department of Education are a more appropriate group to be setting these standards--but nonetheless, I have no problem with that proposal.

(As an aside, I learned proper flag etiquette from my Grandfather, who flew the flag religiously outside his home. At that time, a little pamphlet describing proper etiquette was included with the flags that he purchased. I don't know if he always kept one with him or if he would slip it into his wallet at certain times to make a point, but I remember more than once he pulled that little tract out to show me what was or wasn't proper when we'd see a flag in our travels around town. The message got through to this youngster. While I don't go around telling people to correct the way they display the flag, I always notice if a flag is backwards, or in the wrong spot in a lineup, or not at half-staff at a designated time.)

Anyway, one thing that bill does not do is require schoolchildren to recite the Flag Code, despite what the headline says. Which is a good thing, because if you follow the links through the article to the American Legion website, you would find that the Flag Code is six pages of legalese. If my son and daughter must learn to recite something in the name of patriotism, I'd much rather have them learn the Gettysburg Address than be able to recite portions of "Title 4, United States Code, Chapter 1."

Of course, if the editor had read any farther than the second sentence of the article, he'd have realized that the bill does not suggest "Students should recite the Flag Code."

Now, I'm just a blogger. I could get away with writing something that I haven't researched because I don't have to be accountable to anyone. People don't pay me to get "news." But years ago when I wrote for a newspaper, I thought it might just be in my best interest to look things up, just to make sure it was right. When I was an editor, I figured I should read the whole story before slapping on a headline, just to make sure it was right.

But then, I didn't work for the Sentinel.

(I realize the article was filed by a "Sun Correspondent" which means that it was originally written for the Lowell Sun, the Sentinel's sister paper. Doesn't change the fact that the editor of the Sentinel could have checked it out before putting into his paper).
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