2000: Dianne Donovan, Chicago Tribune
Award for Editorial Writing
Wednesday, May 31, 2000
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Editorial writing

Dianne Donovan

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Out of the blue, a mystical moon

March 31, 1999

Did your newspaper land on the front porch this morning instead of out by the sidewalk or under the bushes?

Has someone from the bank called to tell you that they made a mistake and you have a lot more money than you thought?

Did today's mail bring a note from your son in college returning that check you sent because he doesn't need it after all? No, it's not the Twilight Zone; it's a blue moon. That rare phenomenon will appear Wednesday night, and -- scientific minds assume -- will be heralded by all those things that happen ... well, once in a blue moon.

Those are not so rare, of course, as things that occur only when hell freezes over, but they are not nearly so common as things that happen every time you turn around.

A blue moon, as popularly understood, is the second full moon in a month. Most years, there are 12 full moons, one in each month, and the whole thing works out quite tidily.

But when there are 13 full moons, one month gets the "blue" one. It isn't actually blue in color, though it's possible that dust particles in the atmosphere can make it appear so, just as with any other moon. We could as accurately call it "another white moon" but, musically speaking, we'd be the poorer for it.

Oddly enough, Wednesday night's blue moon is the second one in 1999, January also having had two full moons. And if that makes you suspicious as to just how genuine these so-called rarities are, you're in good company.

According to Sky and Telescope magazine, there's been a terrible misunderstanding due to a simplified definition of blue moons that appeared in a 1946 issue of the magazine. Reportedly the magazine's editors, firm adherents of the better-late-than-never approach, plan to run a correction in the May issue.

In fact, what that long-ago definition should have said was that a blue moon is the third full moon of a season in which four appear if 13 full moons appear in a 12-month period.

Got that? Neither did a lot of other people, which is why just about everybody considers the second moon in any month a blue moon. For the record, the next by-the-book blue moon will be on Feb. 19, 2000.

But if the paper did land in the bushes, the bank hasn't called and the check isn't in the mailbox, it's most likely because good fortune is a stickler for details.

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Ralph Ellison, visible once more

May 30, 1999

"I am an invisible man." It has been almost half a century since readers were introduced to the genius of Ralph Ellison with those words, with which he began "Invisible Man," his now-classic novel of an African-American searching for individual identity.

By turns angry, comic, lyrical and raw, calling on influences as disparate as Andre Malraux and Leadbelly, the story brilliantly delineated the world of a black man in mid-century America who was determined to live his own life, not one projected upon him by the expectations of a race-based society.

"Invisible Man" garnered critical praise and popular acclaim, and it was the only novel Ellison ever published -- until now. Next month, Random House will publish his second, and it is cause for celebration. Titled "Juneteenth," this new work is a heavily edited version of the massive saga Ellison labored over from the early 1950s until his death in 1994, when the manuscript was still unfinished. And though scholars and critics are already sparring over whether editor John F. Callahan has preserved the author's vision or defiled it, readers can be thankful that, after all these years, Ralph Ellison's fictional voice, so resonant and true, is heard once again.

Callahan has turned almost 2,000 pages of sometimes apparently unrelated narrative into a comparatively compact 386-page book about a black minister and the racially ambiguous boy he raises, a boy who grows up to become a white race-baiting politician.

Some critics argue that the novel's linear frame doesn't reflect Ellison's style or intent, and others say too much of the original work was left out, or the wrong elements were included. Such debate is welcome, because it's a healthy intellectual exercise and because the attendant publicity may well serve to introduce Ellison's work -- early and late, fiction and essays -- to a new generation of appreciative readers.

After all, Ellison was no stranger to controversy during his lifetime. He wrote about race as a central reality of American life, but his writing was neither polemical nor even overtly political on the subject. His "invisible man" was an individual first, an American second, and a black American third, a characterization that incensed some black activists, particularly in the 1960s and '70s.

Similarly, Ellison wisely perceived himself as an American artist who wrote from the depth of his experiences, which happened to be those of a black man in a race-conscious society.

What sad irony that today, in a major national bookstore chain, "Invisible Man" is still invisible in the section labeled "Literature," where books by far more dubiously "literary" white authors are quite at home. For anything by Ralph Ellison, a reader must go to the shelves labeled "African-American."

Perhaps after the publication of "Juneteenth," all of Ellison's works finally will find their rightful place in the American marketplace. And even though this cobbled-together posthumous novel may not be "pure" Ellison, for those eager to renew their acquaintance with a master of the language, it is welcome nonetheless.

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A boy's right not to understand

June 6, 1999

Okay, quick: What does "counsel" mean? How about "waive," or "consult"? What's an "attorney"?

Maybe you're not stumped. But maybe you're not 9 years old. And maybe it's not after midnight and you haven't been sitting alone in a room half the night.

It is foolish to think that any 9-year-old child, even a well-rested one, could comprehend the meaning of the Miranda warning explaining his rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer present while he is interrogated by police. And it is absurd to think he could understand those rights well enough to voluntarily relinquish them.Yet that is what prosecutors are claiming in the case of a boy, now 10, accused of killing his 5-year-old foster brother last year. The boy, who was taken to the police station about 8 p.m. on March 8, 1998, denied involvement in the killing when he was first questioned by police.

But almost five hours later, when a detective, a state's attorney and his mother joined him, the boy's Miranda rights were explained to him, after which he allegedly implicated himself. How do you "explain" legal rights to a kid who tests at the level of a 6-year-old? The assistant state's attorney thinks she knows; she says she explained the whole thing to him.

We'll never know the secret of her success because it wasn't videotaped, and no one took notes during her "explanation" or his alleged statement. But he asked her no questions and whenever she asked if he understood he said "uh-huh" or nodded his head, so he must have grasped the concept of his rights and the implications of waiving them, right? Uh-huh.

The case against this child rests on the validity and legality of what he said in that room. Yet it is doubtful that even an adult with such limited experience and understanding would be held accountable for his statements under those circumstances.

If one of the youngest children in Illinois ever to be charged with murder is tried on so tenuous a basis, then the juvenile justice system, founded here 100 years ago for the protection of children, had better change its name.

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Sense and nonsemse in youth justice

June 28, 1999

It's not easy being a kid.

If you're, say, 10 years old, you can't join a mail-order club to get CDs or videos. That's because the state doesn't think you're mature enough to understand the binding nature of a contract.

You can't buy cigarettes or order a beer. That's because the state doesn't think you are knowledgable enough about long-term cause and effect to comprehend the harm those substances can do your body.And you can't get in by yourself to see "Shakespeare in Love" or "Saving Private Ryan." That's because community standards (as reflected in the movie rating system) presuppose that your cognitive skills aren't yet developed enough to fully distinguish the real from the imaginary, and certain images might be harmful to your brain.

In short, you are subjected to all sorts of protections, and properly so, because you lack maturity, knowledge and experience. Until you are suspected of a crime, that is.

That's when the laws of the state and the mores of society cut you loose, and all those assumptions about the limitations and vulnerability of youth are left outside the stationhouse door. That's when someone reads you your Miranda rights and asks you if you want to waive them -- and claims you know what in the world they are talking about.

It is utterly astonishing that in most states, including Illinois, children as young as 7 or 8 -- children who don't even walk to school without the aid of crossing guards -- are expected to understand, to intellectually absorb, not only what their constitutional rights are when they are questioned by police, but the consequences of waiving them.

That flies in the face of common sense and of an impressive body of research as well. In the largest study conducted on the subject, involving more than 400 juveniles, Dr. Thomas Grisso, now director of forensic training and research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, found that children 14 and younger are significantly less capable than adults of understanding the concept of rights and the implications of waiving them. And the younger the child, the more confused he is.

Grisso also found that, because of cognitive difficulties and emotional and mental disturbances, kids who are 15 to 17 years old don't necessarily understand what's going on either, even when compared to adults with low intellectual capabilities.

Based on what we know about the intellectual and emotional development of children and adolescents, his findings should come as no surprise.

In fact, no juvenile in police custody should be given the option of waiving his rights to remain silent and to representation by a lawyer. That is not to say that a juvenile should not be questioned, but a lawyer acting on his behalf should be present during the questioning. It's just that simple.

The protections society offers its young people represent a well-founded recognition of the fundamental differences between the experience and knowledge of children and adolescents and those of adults.

To deny those differences at what could be the most critical moment in a juvenile's life is disingenuous and hypocritical. Indeed, the image of a state's attorney getting a youngster -- eyes wide, legs swinging -- to waive his Miranda rights would be ludicrous were it not so sickening.

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Bck to the future in Houston

October 11, 1999

Big and ugly and squatting in the heat, the haze and the dust of Houston's south side like something that had either just hatched or just landed, the Astrodome was hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened for business on April 9, 1965.

Now it's history.

But though it didn't come close to outlasting the seven other wonders, or even lots of other ball parks, the Dome, which on Saturday saw the last game of its final season, has left its mark on baseball -- for better or for worse.It began as the brainchild of Roy Hofheinz, a politician and dealmaker who pioneered the dubious art of public-private funding partnerships. Taxpayers got the bill and Hofheinz got a palatial suite overlooking the playing field. He dubbed it a "sky box."

The Astrodome itself was pure Texas: oversized, gaudy and making up in sheer brashness what it lacked in taste. Houston was thrilled; Dallas was jealous.

This was a watershed moment in mythic image-making: The old name of Houston's baseball team, the Colt .45s, brought to mind six-shooters and malt liquor. The Astros, a bow to the new-in-town NASA crowd, looked ahead to the space age -- and they needed a ball park to match.

But the Dome was never a park, and it was always more than a baseball field. It was all things to all comers. Mickey Mantle played there; so did Elvis. The Astros didn't always draw a big crowd, but Roy Rogers and Dale Evans packed the joint.

The idea was, you didn't have to like baseball (or football -- the Oilers also played there) to go to the Dome. In fact, it was sometimes better if you didn't.

The Astrodome sported chandeliers, red carpet and upholstered cushion seats. It had a 470-foot-long electronic scoreboard and 4,500 skylights 208 feet overhead. More to the point, in a city so humid you can hear your hair curl, it had air conditioning.

But it didn't have sunlight or fresh air or a cozy feeling of camaraderie. It lacked the tease of looming thunderheads and the refreshing feel of an unexpected breeze. And after they painted over the acrylic skylights because players kept losing fly balls in the glare, all the grass died and it didn't have that either.

But other cities scrambled to copy Houston's success story. Domes sprang up (in Canada!) and AstroTurf became a household word.

Now the city that started it all has come full circle, and when the Astros open their 2000 season, it will be in more intimate surroundings -- for Texas anyway. They'll play ball on real grass, and when the weather is fine and the stars are bright, somebody will shut down the a.c. and retract the roof.

It won't be Wrigley Field, but it will be progress.

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