Four “teachable moments” I learned at “The bus fire” and why they still matter 20 years later

I reconnected with Eric Deutsch after finding out it had been 20 years since we found ourselves together covering “The bus fire” in Madison. We agreed that it remains one of the more difficult stories we found ourselves covering.

So why would I relive this thing here, let alone every year in class? It’s not about trying to gross out students or because of the shock value. I can still pin down four things that I picked up that day that informed my life as a journalist and I still teach to students as an educator. I’m sure that there are more things, but these are the big ones:


Do the job first, figure out the rest of it later: I have told many students that a panicking reporter is a useless reporter, and I learned that lesson that day. Even before the fire, I had seen things that would make a Billy Goat puke, but this was different. In most cases, the crime or the accident or whatever had finished being the crime or the accident by the time I got there. This time, people were still suffering, bodies were laying around, the guy was still out there and I had literally no idea what the hell I was supposed to do.

To figure out what to do, I just focused on the job: Talk to people, write stuff down, fill in holes, keep up to date, make note of everything I saw/heard/smelled… When I boiled it down to the most basic things, I saw myself as a conduit of content from the sources to the readers. I didn’t complicate things any more than that. If I stopped to think about it in any other way, I probably would have started freaking out.

I didn’t realize that this idea passed from me to others until years later when a former student reached out to me. She explained that the biggest takeaway she had in her time as a student reporter for me was when she had a really rough phone interview while reporting on an obituary. She was on the border of tears and she didn’t think she could handle it. I apparently took her into my office and told her that I understood that it was rough, but we had a job to do. “Finish the story and cry later,” I apparently told her.

I remember none of that, but she said it made a difference in her life as a media professional. The idea of “Do the work and then fall apart afterward” allowed her to compartmentalize her feelings on a topic and get stuff done in the face of really difficult circumstances.

It’s a good lesson and I learned it at that fire.


Faith and trust make a difference: I tell students that when they weigh job offers, they should consider the quality of the person to whom they will directly report. I have worked for people I would step in front of a bus for and others I wish would have stepped in front of a bus for all our sake. When it comes down to it, if you have a good boss, that’s going to make a difference between you succeeding and you failing when the chips are down.

I can recall two specific cases in my life where that happened: In 2000, I was running the night city desk at the Columbia Missourian when we got a report that a plane had crashed and the governor was rumored to be dead. As this moved from rumor to a virtual certainty, my boss, George Kennedy, called and said, “So, I guess you’re having an interesting night…”

I outlined everything I had done and everything we were doing to get this figured out. I believed I had a good handle on this, but George Kennedy was on the other end of the line and I needed to be sure. I was 26 with about two years of editing experience. He was the guy who wrote the textbook I learned from at age 19 and taught from since age 23. He was the gold standard, no way around it. Thus, I asked, “So are you coming in?” figuring he’d want to ride over the top on this one and make sure I wasn’t committing a disastrous failure of epic proportion. His answer stunned me:

“Why? I’ve got you.” He hung up.

At that point, I wasn’t going to let him down. And I didn’t.

The first time, however, was this bus fire. Teryl Franklin was my editor and she knew this had to be done right. It wasn’t necessarily clear at that point if I would do it right. She had other options, including a guy with almost a decade of experience with whom she worked closely throughout her career. She had a newsroom vet with almost 40 years of experience at the ready as well. Once she figured out this wasn’t an engine failure, nothing said she had to keep me on that story. I was the worst possible option from an “on-paper” perspective. Hell, I would have pulled me out of there at that point if I were her.

Instead, she kept the other two guys in the office, working the phones to pick up stuff to augment my reporting. She also trusted every fact I gathered and every statement I told her I checked. She pressed the hell out of me to make sure, but when I said I was sure, she backed me up.

From that day forward, I realized how important that had been to my development. I also realized the power of having someone put faith in me. When I became an editor and later an adviser, I stuck with that philosophy. I coached, I prodded and I pushed, but I always told the reporters, “You got this. You’re the right person for this job. Go get it.”


Work the problem: The first thing people wanted to know once police had Salim Amara under arrest was who he was. The police were telling us all sorts of things, but the name of the suspect wasn’t one of them, so we had to figure out a different way to get this information. This was one of the benefits of having multiple agencies working from different sets of information that all told us one or two crucial things.

I forget who gave us what, but we had information from the hospital, the police, the fire department and Madison Metro. One of them gave us all the names of the victims, but nothing else. One gave us the ages of the victims but nothing else. One gave us the ages and the conditions of the victims. One gave us the information that a 20-year-old man had been arrested in connection with the attack.

With no internet as we know it now, we started digging through phone books, old stories and more to try to match up people and conditions and ages and names. We made an educated guess that the person hurt least was the person who knew what was coming. We also were able to eliminate the women, leaving us with fewer potential candidates. I had narrowed this down to two people and I took an educated guess as to which guy it was. I then called the jail and asked if Salim Amara was being booked for anything. The jail, having no idea what was going on with all this, confirmed he was set to be booked. Better yet, they had a mug shot from a recent arrest if I wanted it, which I obviously did.

Still, we didn’t know for SURE that this guy was the fire starter and it was one of those moments where luck played a big role. I got a call at my desk from some big wig in the police department. I’d left a message asking for some additional info, so I figured that’s why he called back. I started asking questions, but he immediately interrupted me:

“That’s not why I’m calling,” he said. “I understand that you have a mug shot of our suspect and that’s a problem…”

Sounds like confirmation to me.

He then ended up on the phone for at least five minutes with Teryl arguing about whether we were being irresponsible in running his name and photo. The officer argued that all the victims hadn’t picked this guy out of a line up yet, so we could be tainting the investigation. She argued that we were one of many who were going to run this thing and that holding onto this information with the hopes of people recovering in a few months to then ID the guy made little sense. Either way, the photo and the name were running. We ended up breaking that news and we were the first to tell people about his previous run-ins with the law as well.

The point is, work the problem. Sure, it would be great if people just told you everything, but in most cases, that’s not going to happen. You have to improvise, adapt and overcome if you want to end up with a decent story. Don’t quit on a problem because it seems like you’re getting stonewalled. Use your brain and figure out how to get what you want.


Focus on the candy: I borrowed this line from “South Park,” to describe the idea of keeping your head on straight and paying attention to what really matters. When I went into that press briefing, I really wanted to know what the transit authorities had to say about bus safety and the future of transit over the next few days. It seemed to me to be a no-brainer, which is why I was stunned when Guy Smiley decided to make a big deal out of a bucket. I have no idea what he was thinking about or why it mattered, but his attention to it had me half thinking, “What am I missing here?”

Still, I wanted to know about the bus stuff, regardless of if I was being “bucket scooped” or not, so I hung in there until I could ask a question of value to my readers. In the end, the answer I got turned out to be the best part of both the main bar and the side bar of the story.

No matter what else is going on at a story, figure out what you think your readers would most want to know and stick to it. Keep your focus on the candy and you’ll nail the story. Get all “bucket distracted” and you’ll miss a lot.


One last thing: I asked Deutsch, who covered the fire for WTDY Radio, if he had any “lessons learned” he picked up from this situation. Here’s what he had to say:

“It’s better to follow up on something and it turns out to be nothing, than to not follow up and miss out. If my news director hadn’t called me back and I had to make the decision myself, I might not have gone to the site because the pager info was so vague that it didn’t seem like a story worthy of checking on on a Sunday night.”

Great advice from a great pro.

“The most difficult, gut-punching events I covered:” Memories remain 20 years after “The bus fire”

I was chatting with friend from my Wisconsin State Journal days when the paper’s current city editor sat down at a table near us. Once he recognized me (I haven’t aged well), he said, “Hey, I was just thinking about you. I posted one of your stories the other day.”

I hadn’t been in the newsroom for years and I had no idea what he was talking about until he decided to make me feel really old:

It’s the 20th anniversary of the bus fire,” he explained. “We’re doing updates so we posted the original.”

I never remembered the date or how long it had been, but the story of “the bus fire” comes up at least a handful of times each year in my classes. Of all the stories I wrote, that one lingers more than most.

It was a quiet, warm (for Wisconsin) Sunday evening when a mentally ill man got up from his seat on a city bus, poured gasoline on a young couple and lit them on fire. His actions turned the entire interior of that vehicle into a giant ball of flame, scorching four passengers, the driver and the assailant.

By the time Madison Metro #564 screeched to a halt on Hammersley Road, the windows had exploded outward and a giant boom drew neighborhood residents to the scene. People responded with fire extinguishers, blankets, water and anything else they could think of to help the wounded, several of whom had burns over almost half their bodies.

For me, it was supposed to be a “nothing” night on the city desk. Sunday night usually meant updating the weekly weather, nailing down the night’s lottery numbers and trying to cull a few nuggets of information out of the briefs bin. We had three police and fire scanners that sat about ear-level on my desk for anything that might happen, but it usually had to be something pretty serious for us to send a reporter.

The staff those nights usually consisted of a night editor and me. After the first edition of the paper went to press, the editor left me in charge to update any wire stories and to keep an eye out for anything worth alerting the day-side staff to. That night, however, the morning reporter was sticking around to finish off something or other that he had been working on for later that week and another reporter dropped by to get a head start on the week’s work. That meant that when the scanner alerted us to a “bus fire,” my editor was OK letting me run out there for a look-see when I asked, as I always seemed to ask, “Can I go?”

We both thought the same thing: The engine on the bus caught fire and the thing was now disabled in the middle of the road. I had planned on scraping together a story to polish off my portfolio and she was looking for something to freshen up the local section. A brief or something, maybe. She sent me out with the “newsroom phone,” one of those giant car phones of yesteryear that required you to mount an antenna on the roof of the car and plug a power pack into the cigarette lighter of your car. It was like carrying a purse and it weighed a ton.

When I got out to the scene (I took two wrong turns, as I have no sense of geography and the GPS Lady wasn’t around yet to give me step-by-step directions), two things hit me:

  1. This wasn’t an engine fire. It was something else way more horrible.
  2. I wasn’t the only one who underestimated this thing, as there weren’t enough ambulances there to take care of the wounded.

The first person I saw from the bus was a woman who I would later learn was named Ernastine Wittig. She was 73 years old and she was laying on somebody’s lawn with smoke rising off of her. Someone was holding her hand and talking to her as they waited for help. The wounds she had were like something you get when you skin your knee but it doesn’t bleed, but it rather weeps. These weeping spots were large and rimmed in black and they were all over her.

After that, it was all a blur of me finding people, asking questions and gathering information. I did what Allison Sansone noted she was once advised to do: I wrote down everything I saw and heard, having no idea how much of this was actually going to make it into the paper. I eventually ran back to my car, which by this point had been parked in by responding emergency vehicles, and called the newsroom for a photographer. My editor, Teryl Franklin, answered the phone and told me one had already been dispatched.

One of the clearer memories I have of that scene, however, was running into Eric Deutsch, who years later would be one of the “pros” in my media-writing book. Deutsch was a broadcast student in the lab I oversaw at UW-Madison a year or so earlier. He recently took a job at a local radio station and had been sent out to cover this disaster.

His recording device, a shoe-box-sized monstrosity called a Marantz, wouldn’t pick up any sound and he was kind of in a panic. For some reason, I remembered how these things worked, so I grabbed it, flipped a couple switches and sang the opening line to a Tom Jones song into his microphone, just to prove it worked.

I still have no idea why. It was a surreal moment in a surreal situation.

“Wow, I don’t remember any of that,” Deutsch told me. “If I ever write an autobiography, I’m calling you for details on my life…that does make sense about the Marantz giving me trouble. I was only on the job a a couple of weeks when this happened.”

What he did remember, interestingly enough, were things I had either forgotten, overlooked or managed to block out.

“I remember this day so vividly,” Deutsch wrote in an email earlier this week. “I was less than a year out of college at the UW, and after getting my first job as a news radio reporter in Eau Claire, had just moved back to Madison three weeks before to work at WTDY-AM. It was a Sunday, late afternoon, I was on call that weekend, just relaxing at home as the weekend was ending. The pager went off and had a vague alert about an incident with a city bus. I called my news director to see if I should head over there, because it wasn’t readily apparent based on the alert what happened. He told me to go, it was less than 10 minutes away from my apartment, so I got there quickly.”

“As I walked toward the scene, I immediately smelled a horrible stench… a combination of burned plastic and burned flesh. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything I’ve ever smelled that was more terrible; not just because of the actual physical reaction to the smell, but what it clearly meant had happened. I was able to get some basic information from some of the emergency personnel who still were on the scene, and then went to the UW Hospital where all of the victims were taken.”

I remembered running back to the office between the officers on the scene announcing they were going to have a press conference and the actual event. I pounded out almost everything I had from my notebook into a story file at the city desk before hauling ass down to the hospital.

I remember sitting next to Deutsch at that press conference. Everyone else in there was from TV or had many years of experience. They were all dressed for success. We kind of looked like random hobos who showed up for free coffee and wandered into the wrong room. I remember being embarrassed that I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. (When I got dressed for work, I figured I’d be stuck in the newsroom all night and that I’d rather be comfortable.) At least he had a Marantz with an official station logo on its microphone. People kept staring at me, or at least that’s what it felt like.

Again, it’s weird what we each remembered from that shared moment.

“I have a very distinct memory of the news conference held by the doctors that night,” Deutsch said. “Their tone as they spoke and their body language made all of us reporters think that at least a couple of the victims would not survive. It was just a very stunned and somber room as we all sat around a table; this clearly was the most horrific act most people in the room ever experienced.”

I remembered two completely different and yet ridiculous things. First, there was a guy from one of the TV stations who kept asking questions about the bucket of gasoline. Outside the bus, there was what I best described as a white “pickle bucket.” It was the kind of thing that anyone who ever worked in food service has seen, because sliced pickles or sliced potatoes usually came packed in one of these things. Police had painted an orange line around the bucket, which indicated to any sane individual that this was the bucket used in the attack.

However, this TV reporter was OBSESSED with this bucket. He asked about it and got an answer that didn’t confirm that the bucket he saw was the bucket that held the gasoline. He followed up with another bucket-related question and apparently was similarly unsatisfied as he finally said in an exasperated tone, “But was that bucket THE BUCKET the suspect had on the bus?” After one more semi-fruitless exchange, he began exasperatedly packing up his camera gear loudly.

The second thing I remember was that I almost got in a fight with this guy at a payphone after the presser was over.

When he finished with “Bucket-gate,” everyone seemed to be packing up. Deutsch was reaching for his mic and I tapped him on the arm and said, “Wait…” I had noticed the head of Madison Metro in the corner, seemingly there for support or something. I asked if he would be willing to take a couple questions. The guy got to the mic and I read him a quote from one of the people on the scene. It was something like “All the kids say they’re never going to ride the bus again.” I asked him what he wanted to say to the people who think like that and if the buses would be rolling tomorrow on that route.

He gave me a great quote about how he’d never seen anything like this, that the buses were safe as they could be and that people rely on the bus and the bus would be their for them. He then picked up his stuff and left. At this point, only Deutsch and I were in a position to get that info, as everyone else had either left or was in the process of breaking down their gear. The bucket guy confronted me about this after I had called in my quotes to my editor from a payphone just outside the room.

“Hey, what the hell?” he asked me in a really angry way. “You could have asked that while we were ALL recording. What’s your problem?”

“I just figured you had an exclusive bucket story, so I didn’t think you would care,” I said, or words to that effect. At that point, it looked like he was going to punch me. Someone else showed up and asked if I was done with the phone, so I took that opportunity to get out of there.

Amazingly, all of the people survived, including the person accused of starting the fire, Salim Amara. Police arrested him about a mile and a half from the scene and was later tried on charges of attempted murder. By the time this was going on, I had already left the State Journal for Missouri. Deutsch, however, covered the whole trial.

“I covered all aspects of Salim Amara’ court proceedings, and yet I never heard him utter a single word,” he wrote. “He would sit with his attorneys emotionless. The final story I covered for this was his sentencing hearing, when his victims were given the chance to speak directly to him. There are three stories I covered in my career that most stand out to me as the most difficult, gut punching, events I covered – this was one of them. The emotions in that packed courtroom were so intense. I specifically remember Eric Nelson, the most severely injured victim, telling Amara that he was ‘the most vile piece of human bile,’ and ‘I am strength and you are weakness.’ While obviously it was very tough for the victims to speak that day, it was good to see them get some small semblance of closure.”

Amara was found to be mentally unfit to appreciate his actions and was sentenced to 104 years in Mendota Mental Health Institute.

Not only did Deutsch remember those days, he still had his story packages from them. You can listen to them below.

It’s amazing how much of this all came back to the two of us after so long and in such a short reflex of recall. It speaks volumes about the event itself and what we went through in covering it. That said, we both agreed we learned a lot that we took with us in our careers after that.

Tomorrow: The “teachable moments” we learned covering the bus fire and why they still matter.

“Journalists need to be persistent:” How to build a story out of “no comment” comments

A week or so, a media adviser posted a question about an unfortunate and yet frequent reporting problem:

Our students are getting stonewalled trying to get information from our (private school) administration about a fraternity’s suspension. Is there a way to turn the tight-lippedness into a story?

Sources often assume that if they don’t comment on a story or in other ways avoid talking about a topic, the story will go away. I often refer to this as “Ostrich Syndrome,” which is named after the giant birds that stick their heads in the sand when they are scared. The idea here is that the problem doesn’t go away, but the bird can’t see the crisis and hopes ignoring it will somehow make it better.

In an answer to the adviser’s question, I reached out to a former student who once built an entire story out of nothing but “no comment” comments. Alex Nemec, now a general-assignment reporter with the Oconomowoc Enterprise, matched wits against a system meant to tell him nothing in hopes of making sure he could tell students at UW-Oshkosh that something was going on.

Nemec’s story, titled “The Curious Case of Willis Hagen,” is just one part of a reporting experience that has led to a yearlong court battle over open records. Even though he STILL has no idea what led to a professor being removed from a classroom during the middle of an instructional period, he said the overall experience has been worth the time and trouble.

The story started off like most of them do: A tip from somebody who knows somebody.

“I heard about the story from my managing editor, who told him that his friend said his professor got pulled out of class,” Nemec said. “That was the only tip I had. I followed up with him and he didn’t really give me anything else of substance beside he still wasn’t back and they had a long-term sub.”

Nemec said he figured out which course it was and then waited for the substitute instructor after class.

“I asked if she knew were Professor Hagen was, because she clearly wasn’t him,” he said.  “She said something along the lines of she didn’t think he would be coming back anytime soon and that she was filling in for him. That was sort of my first big piece of information in the story. I asked her why, half playing the role of dumb student and half playing the role of clueless reporter. She said she didn’t know too much about it, but it seemed like he did something pretty serious and that he wouldn’t be back anytime soon. That was sort of my first step in the story. If the sub says he isn’t coming back anytime soon, I’m going to assume she is telling the truth because she is expecting to get the paycheck the rest of the semester.”

After that, Nemec went to the College of Business to see if anyone in the hierarchy there would talk to him. He approached multiple administrators and said he got “shot down” repeatedly.

“Each time I went there and asked questions, I was met with no comments or just general non-answers,” he said. “It was incredibly frustrating. In addition, to me, the associate dean gave me a vibe of incredible disrespect.”

With nothing else to go on, Nemec figured he’d ask Hagen himself why wasn’t teaching his classes. Hagen’s office appeared to be packed up, his office phone went unanswered and his email bounced back, so Nemec decided to take a drive.

“I found his house in the White Pages and drove the five minutes from campus to his house,” he said. “My heart was pounding when I walked up to his door and knocked on it. He had a piece of paper with two of the first 10 constitutional amendments (taped to the door)… By this point my heart was going to come out of my chest. Sure enough, he answered the door and I was hit with a huge blast of smoke from the house. I asked if he was who I thought he was and he said yes and asked who I was. I introduced myself as a reporter from The A-T and was greeted with door slammed in my face.”

With that, Nemec said he realized he wouldn’t have the “expansive exposé ” he hoped he would find. He even wondered if he had a story. However, once we started talking about it, he realized that he could tell a story by just telling people what he actually knew.

  • Two students confirmed how the professor had been removed from the classroom shortly after a lecture began.
  • A long-term sub had taken over the professor’s class and that sub said she expected the professor to be gone for a long time.
  • The COB dean refused to comment on the issue because it was “a personnel matter.”
  • An open records request for information on this professor was denied due to an active investigation. (On a lark, Nemec requested police reports pertaining to the professor, having no idea if any existed. That request was rejected, saying they are part of an ongoing investigation, thus indicating these things actually exist.)
  • His office name plate was gone, his office had stuff boxed up in it, his email bounced back and his phone rang constantly without UW voicemail or an answering machine to pick it up.
  • Hagen himself said “I would rather not say” why he wasn’t teaching his class before shutting the door on Nemec.

It wasn’t what he wanted, but it wasn’t “nothing,” either.

“Building a story from a slew of no-comments is pretty hard, but that essentially was the story,” he said. “I had the facts, which were, Hagen was pulled out of class, he was still an employee and there was an open investigation according to the open records request… To piece it together, I just took everything I had, which in all reality was about six facts, and just made it into a short article. But the short article, in my opinion, was pretty damning in that the University or College of Business were trying to keep this under wraps.”

Nemec said he didn’t know what kind of an impact his story had, but it did prompt him to push for more records. The university had planned to release documents pertaining to closed investigations related to Hagen, but Hagen sued to prevent their release. After a judge initially ruled in favor of release, Hagen appealed. The case has been ongoing for more than a year and Nemec has kept up with it, even though he has since graduated.

“Journalists need to be persistent,” he said. “If you’re a journalist and not willing to be persistent you’ll never be worth your salt as one.”

The whole process, he said, has been a real learning experience about how to make something out of nothing when he knows a story exists.

“What I’ve learned in my reporting, is that if someone is slamming a door in your face, they have something to hide and you’ve got yourself a story if you can follow it,” he said. “If you get enough doors slammed in your face relating to the same story, that is the story… Don’t get down on yourself for getting no comments, no comments are good if you get enough of them and have some facts to supplement them.”

MIT study shows fake news is beating real news. Here are four ways to stem the tide.

The term “fake news” means various things to various people: Misleading information, satire, biased sourcing or even something they don’t want to hear. However, when it comes to truly “fake” stories, as in those that have no foundation in fact, things don’t look good for people heading into the field of journalism.

A massive study by MIT researchers has found that fake stories spread at a rate of almost six times that of those based in fact. The study looked at 10 years of data on Twitter and found that people, not bots, were dominantly responsible for these results. In addition, the topic didn’t matter in regard to the quickness of the false news; topics like business, war, politics and science all fared equally poorly.

Here’s a scary summary of the findings via The Atlantic:

The massive new study analyzes every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor. By every common metric, falsehood consistently dominates the truth on Twitter, the study finds: Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.

The authors of the study also looked into WHY this tended to be the case on Twitter:

First, fake news seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from the all the tweets that have appeared in a user’s timeline 60 days prior to their retweeting them, the team found.

Second, fake news evokes much more emotion than the average tweet. The researchers created a database of the words that Twitter users used to reply to the 126,000 contested tweets, then analyzed it with a state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool. Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust, they found.

This kind of information, which multiple researchers reviewed and found to be worthy of support, is a bit depressing to people like us who constantly preach accuracy, fairness and clarity. It seems it’s a lot easier to become popular on social media if we were just willing to start every tweet off with “SHOCKING!” or “THIS SET OF LIES BY (fill in politician) WILL DISGUST YOU!” Since that’s not the kind of rodeo you all signed up for, consider these four things that will hopefully hearten you and show you ways to press back against this deluge of garbage:

Don’t try to be the cool kid: It is not easy to fight the urge to be at the center of a lot of attention, especially in a day and age where everything can be measured. How many followers you have, how many retweets you get and more can make social media seem like the set of “Mean Girls,” where everyone else is Regina George and you’re not even the Spelling Girl. The problem with that logic is that a) it’s not true and b) it turns out that truth-tellers actually get their due in social media, just not in such a loud and obnoxious way, according to the study:

Users who share accurate information have more followers, and send more tweets, than fake-news sharers. These fact-guided users have also been on Twitter for longer, and they are more likely to be verified. In short, the most trustworthy users can boast every obvious structural advantage that Twitter, either as a company or a community, can bestow on its best users.

Of course, the downside is that the fakers STILL get more penetration of the market and have their stuff take off much more quickly than do the truth-tellers, which is maddening to people involved in decent journalism. It can also be a situation in which, to quote the Atlantic “the thrill of novelty is too alluring, the titillation of disgust too difficult to transcend.”

That all might be true, but the one thing that isn’t clear from my initial reading is the degree to which the “root accounts” from which these bits of misinformation emerge remain valuable to readers. In other words, we know how many fake tweets there are but what we don’t know is if those people continue to send out false information over time and they remain sources for people. Or, to put it another way, do false news purveyors become like the little boy who cried wolf? Eventually, nobody cared what that kid said, even though it cost them all their sheep.

So, yeah, you won’t be cool for the moment, but how long does “cool” last these days anyway? Think about it this way: That kid in third grade who could belch the alphabet was the king of the school for about six weeks. What’s he doing now? Or as mom used to tell me, “The unpopular kids of today are the Lamborghini owners of tomorrow.”

Before you retweet, consider the source:  Where information comes from is crucial in determining how much credence you should put into a story. Think about when you were in grade school and you heard some unbelievable story from “that one kid” on the playground who always was making stuff up. Chances are, you learned to stop believing him after you discovered that there wasn’t a pool on the roof of the gym and that there was no such thing as “No Pants Wednesday.”

However, when your teacher or the principal told you something, you tended to give it serious consideration. Apply the same basic rules when you are considering information you find online. “Who told you that?” should be one of the first questions you ask when you get information that doesn’t seem to pass the smell test. That also means finding out who told the person who is now telling you something. This will cut down on the number of people adding to the noise and help to keep your nose clean in terms of being a source of fake news.

Find the root of the rumor: Just because a quick Google search reveals dozens of stories on a given topic, it doesn’t always follow that the information is true. Some sites frequently cite one another and create an echo chamber of information that lacks external support. You want to find a variety of sources for any piece of information before you send it forward.

Look up the concept itself that the retweeter is putting forth in the message and see if it tracks with other things you can find online. Look to see how deep that “retweet” goes: Is this person tweeting information passed on by a source or by someone who retweeted someone else who is retweeting someone else and so forth. Don’t just hit the retweet button. Treat that rumor like a missile and consider your retweet a launch code. Make sure the Twitter freakout isn’t just a game of “Telephone” gone horribly wrong or the result of someone trusting someone else’s ticked off cousin who has nothing better to do than tweet while on house arrest.

If your mother says she loves you, go check it out (and encourage others to do the same): One of the best ways to avoid letting fake news trick you is to be a bit paranoid about every piece of information you receive. A few years back, a good friend posted online that the president of our alma mater had resigned under pressure. No link, no citation and no support with that line. I was about a second away from just sharing that when I thought, “You damned dummy. You’re doing exactly what you tell your students not to do.”

I hit him back with a “Where did you get this?” inquiry and he quickly responded that he was streaming the university’s board of trustees meeting live, which is how he knew this. He also noted, “I probably should have mentioned that.” Yeah, but now you did and now we both feel better about putting that information out for additional consumption.

The Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify,” should guide you through anything you read. Independently verify the information in a piece before you pass it along to others. In addition, poke back at people who are passing along info without decent supporting resources. Help the people with whom you interact learn how to dig into stuff or at least avoid hitting the “retweet” button like a rat hitting a feeder bar to get a food pellet. The more people we get to see things in a journalistic fashion, the better off we’re all going to be.

“I’ve got one of your reporters in our holding cell:” How to “deal with it” when journalists become the news for all the wrong reasons

In covering the news, journalists can occasionally find themselves becoming the news. This happens when reporters attempt to do their jobs, as was the case of Dan Heyman, who was arrested in West Virginia for persistently asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price questions. (The charges of “willful disruption of governmental processes” were dropped four months later.) In another incident, a reporter was arrested at the New York Capitol for using a cell phone while in the building. According to media reports, a discussion between Ken Lovett and Capitol police regarding the phone “escalated quickly” leading to Lovett’s arrest. The situation ended shortly afterward when Gov. Andrew Cuomo had him released.

Then there was the case of Adair “A.J.” Bayatpour, who was arrested on a tentative charge of substantial battery while reporting on a Milwaukee Brewers/Chicago Cubs game Friday. According to the police report, Bayatpour was sitting at the game with his colleague Madeline Anderson and her fiancee, a local NBC reporter named Ben Jordan, when the even occurred. An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel stated that this all began when Anderson showed Bayatpour a photo of a bulldog. The situation escalated to the point where Bayatpour punched Jordan in the face three times, breaking his nose, chipping a tooth and causing orbital bone fractures.

Boy… That escalated quickly…, which first reported the incident, accused FOX-6 of having “buried” the incident in its newscast. The site also noted that neither reporter was reporting on the game at the time of the arrest, which probably didn’t make things any better for either TV station.

When media practitioners become “the news,” it makes things awkward for other journalists who have to cover the situation. Even more, when you have to report on someone in your own newsroom, it’s downright weird.

When I was working as a crime editor/night city editor at the Columbia Missourian, I got a call from my wife, who was a dispatcher for the University of Missouri’s police department. (In some other post, I’ll get into how awkward THAT kind of situation is.) Thus began one of the weirder phone calls of our marriage:

Me: “Hello?”
Her: “Hey, it’s me. I’ve got one of your reporters in our holding cell.”
Me: “What?”
Her: “We arrested one of your reporters. He’s in our holding cell, singing show tunes to the security camera.”
Me: “Wait… WHAT?”

It turns out the reporter was picked up with a couple roommates on suspicion of burglarizing a historic home on our campus, an action that included the theft of an $11,000 oil painting. The kid seemed oblivious to what was going on, as he apparently told the person taking his mug shot that he was “ready for my close up” and then started singing and dancing after the police put him in cell. Amy explained that he was driving the officers crazy.

I can’t remember exactly the order of the next several events that occurred, but I ended up informing my boss, assigning the story and running a piece on this guy. (I don’t remember if we used the mug shot and I can’t find a copy of this online.) As we were both a city paper and an educational endeavor, we were not allowed to dismiss him from the paper until he was tried and convicted or until he pled out. Thus, as my reporter is writing a follow-up story on this burglary, the accused was sitting about 10 feet away at another terminal, working on a feature story about something or other.

“Hey, can you come over and read this story about the stupid burglary thing?” I remember my reporter yelling to me, as I was walking across the newsroom.

“Shut up!” I hissed at him. “The guy’s right over there.”

Eventually there was a plea or something (I have open records requests in at about three university and state agencies, so I’ll fill in more if I ever hear back…), thus pushing the kid out of the newsroom and mercifully allowing the story to end.

Based on this experience and talking to others who have had similar “Oh, God, why do we have to report on this?” situations, here are a few basic bits of advice in case you have to deal with this:

Treat it like every other story, even though it’s not: The news is the news, regardless of how happy or displeased it makes you. Thus, you need to knuckle down and do your job. If you’re the editor, assign a reporter who is qualified and least likely to have a conflict of interest in reporting the story. If you are the reporter chosen for this fantastic assignment, do the same things you do for every story: Request documents, verify facts, seek sources and get interviews. If the person is willing to talk, treat that person like you would any other source. That means also not allowing the person to be near you when you’re putting the story together. Give it the same play you would for other stories involving “minor local celebrities” and give it the same amount of space/time/word count you would as well. Then, move on.

Transparency, transparency, transparency: You do not want to be late on this story, nor do you want to hide this somewhere. What news reporters tell PR professionals in that chastising tone comes back to roost here: The more you hide something, the more people will dig and the worse it will get. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lead with a “GUESS WHAT OUR GUY/GAL DID!” lead, but you don’t want to try to gloss this over as well. Try using an “interesting-action lead” and focusing on the situation as opposed to a “name-recognition lead” and focusing on the person. Still, get it out there and get it over with.

Have a plan as to how you will respond to others: OK, you know how YOU want to handle this, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is going to follow suit. Depending on where you work and how many people really dig this stuff, you might get one call for a comment or five dozen. The trick is to take a page from the PR practitioners’ playbook and have a plan for handling this: Who will speak, what the statement will be, when they will make it and how they will handle any inquiries beyond that first-day story. Just because you want something to be over, it doesn’t mean that’s going to happen.

College Media Review’s look at “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.”

(I get approximately this anxious when people review my stuff… And when I’m asked for comment…)

I got a message back in February from a professor at Long Island University who said she was reviewing my new book (Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing) and wondered if she could ask me some questions. I had never gotten a review request like that before, but I figured that the person wanted a couple “fluffy” quotes to go along with whatever she was going to write, so I said, “Sure, why not?”

When I got on the phone with Carolyn Schurr Levin, it quickly dawned on me that she was taking the review seriously and “fluffy” wasn’t going to be on the menu. (I later learned that on top of being a journalist and a student media adviser, she is a top-flight lawyer and a brilliant legal mind.)

I’m not good at what my publisher refers to as “the promotional elements” of this process. (I call it something else, but I’ve been asked not to use that term any more. Just think of a guy in a long fur coat, wearing a purple hat with a feather, offering you “book companionship” and you can probably figure it out.) I figure it’s easier to just say, “Look, read it. If you hate it and hope I die in a fire, I’m OK with that, but please don’t ask me to say something pithy about it that makes it sound like I’m schmoozing on ‘The View’ or something.”

Thus, when her first question was basically, “So what is this book and why is it any different from all the other stuff out there?” I actually was both a bit stunned and a bit relieved. I just started talking about stuff I did. No sugar. No BS. Just, “Here’s what I did, here’s why I did it and here’s why I think it matters.” After about 20 minutes, we were done and I felt great.

Until, of course, I realized, “Dear God, that’s all going to end up in a review somewhere without any fluffy bits of happy sprinkled on it. SAGE is going to kill me…”

The review came out on Tuesday and I opened it with the same trepidation I do when I find a Tupperware container in the back of the fridge that looks like the thing inside is developing language skills. It wasn’t because I was worried about what she would say, because, honestly, Levin was totally a straight shooter and whatever she said was at least 100 percent true whether I liked it or not. It was because, again, I had no idea what stupid things I had said that might make for some awkward explanations.

In the end, she was more than fair and whatever I said either a) wasn’t as bad as I remember it to be or b) she showed mercy and cut around that stuff.

In any case: Here’s the review.

GAME TIME: Test your knowledge of the First Amendment!

It’s 45 words long and it delineates five (or six, depending on your reading of it) freedoms essential to citizens of the United States. The First Amendment seems so simple and yet it has been at the center of dozens of cases over the past 200-plus years that determined what forms of expression are allowed and which ones can be limited.

Think you have a firm grasp of this essential right? Try your hand at this 30-item quiz from the Student Press Law Center. It touches on all the key elements from speech and press to assembly and petition. (Don’t forget both angles on religion, either!)

Click here to take your best shot. Post your score below for bragging rights!

Royal Dozen: KU’s sports journalism class covers spring training baseball live


Sportswriting students at the University of Kansas got the opportunity to take their classwork outside a few weeks back when they covered the Kansas City Royals franchise during spring training. Professor Scott Reinardy gathered a dozen students with extensive media experience and took them down to Surprise, Arizona for a live-action exercise that challenged them to create media packages in multiple formats.

“It was our first foray into training camp,” Reinardy said. “Associate professor Max Utsler has been talking about it for years. He had spoken with other academics who had provided similar opportunities for students. Max has connections with the Royals – he’s a backup MLB official scorekeeper for the Royals – so it appeared it’d be a natural fit for our first attempt. Mike Swanson, the Royals vice president for communications and broadcasting, was our liaison. He provided tremendous assistance in coordinating our efforts prior to arriving and while we were on sight.”

RoyalDozen1Once there, the students spent a week in the training camp where they gathered information, recorded video and built a social media presence. (@RoyalDozen on Twitter) Reinardy said the team was helpful both before the event and during the reporting process.

“The Royals provided a workroom, which was incredible,” he said. “We were able to use that as a staging area throughout our time in camp. Royals officials were incredibly generous with their time and assistance. Mike Swanson went above and beyond to provide everything we needed to be successful. And, we were given full access to set up the interviews and shoot video of the minor league players in camp.”

Reinardy said KU’s foray into this kind of coverage wasn’t the first time university students have done the spring training approach. To distinguish this effort from other similar trips, the Royal Dozen shifted its focus away from the star players and divvied up the coverage in an innovative way.

“We wanted to provide a professional experience for students but covering a Major League team seemed redundant to what other media were doing,” Reinardy said. “So, we focused on the minor league players. We conducted a draft in class, requiring the students to conduct secondary research before drafting six players in the Royals system. The students are required to produce mini-profiles of their three players that include a written story and a video story. The students drafted six players because we realized not all those players would still be in camp by the time we arrived.”

Students were also required to tweet at least three times during the day, with some of those efforts breaking some Major League news. The amount of work the students put into preparation for their tasks was also impressive, Reinardy said.

RoyalDozen2“The students were incredibly professional,” he said. “Several players said they enjoyed having the opportunity to sit down for extended interviews, something that does not happen after games during the season. The students were well prepared to ask questions that had several players asking with surprise, ‘Who told you that?'”

Beyond the individual successes, Reinardy said, another key aspect of the excursion was to teach the students how to work as a team.

“We want to prepare young journalists to do well in their professional careers,” he said. “This opportunity provided a glimpse into the professional world. The logistics of working with others – professional athletes and colleagues — attempting to develop original content, and grind through 10-hour days is a small sample of the life as a sports journalist. Students need to be challenged. In that challenge they will fail. Failure and adaptation is where actual learning occurs.”

Reinardy said a return to spring training is possible next year, but due to the shrinking pool of minor league players in the Kansas City, the Royal Dozen will likely be no more. He said the school would likely choose another team.

The biggest take away, Reinardy said was that the students learned that journalism requires more than writing and editing.

“Doing journalism is difficult,” he said. “Anytime we can place students in a professional environment to do so, they experience all the nuances and complications that cannot be replicated in a classroom. When a player was cut, the students had to adapt by finding a new player to feature. When an interview fell through, the students had to find a way to re-schedule. When audio failed during a 15-minute interview with a player who was in an unpleasant mood after being demoted, the student had to figure out a way to re-do the interview.

“Adaptation and problem-solving is instrumental in producing good journalism. For one week in Surprise, Arizona, the students received an opportunity to learn that lesson first hand.”

The students are still in the process of turning their work into top-notch stories. To see what they are up to, click here.



Oy vey: How to avoid being a shmendrik or a schmo when working with Jewish terms and topics

I often joke that one of the best Easters I ever had was the time I celebrated Passover.

It was one of my first years living alone in Missouri when my friend Adam asked if I’d be interested in coming over for Passover Seder, a traditional meal with family and friends often held on the first night of Passover.

I spent half the night asking two basic questions: “What does X thing we’re doing now mean?” and “Is there meat in this?” (The Seder took place on Good Friday, so I had that no-meat thing happening as a Catholic kid.) Adam, Lee and all the folks who had done this before were more than happy to help me figure things out. My only regret is that they let me eat too much matzoh, which felt like it was expanding in my stomach and making me want to die.

This week marks the end of Passover for this year, so in honor of the timing of this event, I thought I’d roll out some of the worst media errors tied to misunderstanding, misinterpreting or just just screwing up things associated with Judaism and a couple basic rules to prevent making these mistakes in the first place.


If it doesn’t make sense, ask again

A lot of people will have trouble capturing quotes from sources who use terms that are unfamiliar to them. This is why it’s always important to ask the person to either repeat the quote or clarify it. If you don’t know something for sure or it’s not making sense, don’t use the quote. That will help you avoid a correction like this one:


The term “sitting shiva” refers to a week-long period of mourning in the Jewish faith. Close relatives of a person who died stay at home and greet family and friends. According to, the New York Times similarly screwed up a shiva-related item in its coverage of “JSwipe,” an app for Jewish singles that is akin to Tinder. (The paper also misused another Jewish term, yentas.) If the reporter didn’t know that was what the sheriff was referring to, that might be fine. However, I have no idea who thought people would “sit and shiver.”

The Wall Street Journal made a similar gaffe in quoting someone, who was discussing a story from the Old Testament:


The story at issue came from the Book of Numbers, in which the Israelites had become angry with Moses for bringing them out of Egypt to a place with no food or water. God instructed Moses to strike a rock with his staff and when Moses did, water flowed from it. (I’m paraphrasing a bit here.) However, the Journal reporter referenced a country that didn’t get any version of that name until the third century (at the earliest) and wasn’t modernly defined until the 20th century. Even if it had been around, it’s unclear why the reporter thought Moses decided to undertake a 500-mile irrigation plan.

Basic rule: If you’re not sure, ask again. If it still makes no sense, don’t use it.


“Like a Christmas tree to celebrate Easter”

Just because something is associated with a group, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can just slap it on anything you’re doing about that group and call it good. One of my friends pointed me to this photo that was used in a tweet by a political organization in Canada to wish people a “Happy Passover:”


As news reports on the issue pointed out, the two people here are making challah, a braided egg-bread that is eaten on almost every Jewish holiday. The problem? Passover is one of those outside of the “almost every” holiday list, as leavened items are banned. It took several hours for this tweet and image to come down, as the one person who had access to the group’s social media account couldn’t be reached.

A fellow educator pointed out a similar problem when it comes to the use of menorah photos in ads or with news stories:

(This is like) using the wrong menorah for Chanukah on the promo. There are two kinds of menorahs: the Chanukah one has 9 candles and the weekly one has 7.

Basic rule: Not all symbols are created equal, so don’t try to “spruce up” your coverage of something based on a limited understanding of the topic. It’s akin to having someone who doesn’t understand Christianity say, “Happy Easter! I brought you a pine tree!”


Look it up

The initial title for this post involved the word “putz.” I looked it up and found out that, although the colloquial version of this word roughly translates to dummy, twerp or idiot, it literally means “penis.” I then moved on to shmuck (or schmuck in some cases), only to find that this word, too, literally means “penis.” In short, I learned two things:

  1. My knowledge of Jewish insults isn’t as great as I thought it was.
  2. It seems most of the insults I knew had something to do with male genitalia.

The point is that I looked these things up before assuming I knew what it meant so I didn’t embarrass myself when I misused the word. I also found that there are multiple spellings and some difficult pronunciations to some words. (The Jewish-English Lexicon was a real lifesaver.)

This revelation could be helpful for people who are in broadcast and might not be able to sound out the words they want to use:

Chutzpah refers to things like nerve, gall and shamelessness. I would argue it takes some serious chutzpah to try to fake your way through a pronunciation on live TV.

Or to just “guess” at a word because it sounds close, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did in a letter to a Jewish constituent. Walker signed off the letter with the line, “Thank you again and Molotov!

Walker was trying to come up with “mazel tov,” a term that means “congratulations” or “good fortune.”

On the other hand, Molotov is generally used as a shortened reference to a “Molotov cocktail,” which is a bottle-and-wick fire bomb:



Basic rule: The dictionary never hurt anyone, so don’t be afraid to use it.

In picking through these various levels of disaster-bacles, I hit up a bunch of people I know who have a better overall understanding of the faith, the traditions and more to see what they thought when they saw this. Adam, who ended up being the best man at my wedding years later, chipped in to the conversation with some good advice that I thought would bring this post full circle:

To me this just gets back to fact-checking 101. If you don’t understand a court hearing you went to, ask a veteran lawyer or judge or even a reporting colleague to explain what just happened. Don’t understand a Jewish ritual? Same deal. Ask a rabbi, or somebody at your local campus Hillel, or a Jewish colleague, etc.

When I covered Roman Catholic services or other news events, I double- and triple-checked every dang detail, even the ones I thought I was pretty sure about. And nobody with the diocese, or my Catholic colleagues, minded that I asked and asked and asked again. They were happy I was trying to be accurate.

In my view, there’s no more or less of an excuse for screwing up a Jewish fact as any other fact.





Three-Card Monte: The final funding shuffle for The Sunflower

The long, strange saga that has enveloped The Sunflower at Wichita State University seemingly came to a close Wednesday with an outcome that had me asking the paper’s adviser, “This is good… Right?”

Or as the paper’s EIC Chance Swaim noted in an email he sent me after the university announced its “solution” to the cuts: “Am I going completely insane?”

In looking at how WSU President John Bardo managed to keep the paper’s overall university funding at the same level for next year as it is this year, I am reminded of the street hustlers who get you to play three-card monte. It seems like a simple thing that will yield only a benefit to the person playing, but in the end the constant shuffling is a distraction so the hustler can walk away with a win.

The background on this can be found here, but the short version is that the student newspaper had petitioned the student government for about $150,000 in funding for the 2018-19 school year. Instead, the fee committee cut the paper’s already-diminished funding from $105,000 to $55,0000, which was later changed to $80,000 and forwarded to Bardo. This put Bardo in an awkward position of either siding with The Sunflower and undoing a Draconian measure or essentially telling the whole student body, “Yeah, your representation and demands don’t matter at all.”

So he used a sleight of hand that made it really difficult to figure out if his way out of this mess was a good one or not.

Bardo announced that he was backing the proposed allocations, thus cutting $25,000 worth of funding from the paper. This would lead to losses in student jobs and a cut to the size of the paper, among other unpleasant things. However, he managed to backfill that loss when he and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Teri Hall pledged to use some sort of slush fund to provide the paper with $25,000 in student affairs advertising for next year.

So the paper’s funding level from non-advertising money stays the same for next year as it was last year, which means technically, there isn’t a loss of funding that would lead to some of the problems EIC Chance Swaim outlined in earlier posts.

That said, it’s not dealing with several larger concerns, namely the instability of the funding from the university, the way in which this all came about and the ridiculousness of the “go sell more ads” philosophy the university provided.

“On its face, this looks good,” Swaim wrote. “With less than a month left in my term as editor, I could easily chalk this up as a win for the good guys and walk away on top of the world. What’s not to love? The Sunflower’s funding seems to go to the same level. The administrator who said she was working on ‘fixing’ our independence and receipt of student fees now has to cover the cut to The Sunflower with her division’s budget.”
That said, not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but Swaim did have some legitimate concerns in looking at this in a more critical fashion:
“Here’s what actually happened: Bardo effectively diverted $25,000 from The Sunflower’s budget to $25,000 in advertisements for Student Affairs. Advertising costs for a reason. Advertisements equal dedicated space in the paper. Assuming we print four page papers next year, as we did most of this year to save money, at our current rates Student Affairs would get a full page ad in every issue of the paper next year. That’s a quarter of our pages filled with Student Affairs advertisements. If that’s not creepy enough, on top of that, Student Affairs advertisements would appear on the website for seven months. Printing those ads is not free. The time and labor it takes to design and place ads is not free. Do these people understand newspapers at all? They should. The VP of strategic communications was a publisher for The Wichita Eagle.”
A couple other thoughts occurred to me as well:
  • The paper didn’t get the funding it wanted/needed to build a top-notch publication. It basically wasn’t a win or a loss, but rather a push (to borrow a gambling term). Making this push even more offensive was that the staff, the faculty and pretty much every student newspaper journalist out there who heard about this had to raise unholy hell to get to this point. Making this even MORE offensive than that, nobody else took a whack at all and some places, like student affairs, got more money.


  • This doesn’t teach the student government anything. What it essentially said was, “We met in private, we cut the hell out of the student paper’s budget and we got away with it.” The underlying sense of being forced to explain WHY this cut was appropriate at that level and how it was anything more than an attempt to backhand the student paper across the face. The money fix is helpful, but it’s a lot like a parent buying a kid ice cream after the kid’s sister breaks a bunch of his toys. It’s palliative, but it doesn’t fix the toys and it doesn’t punish the sister.



  • What happens next year? Therein lies the rub, to misquote “Hamlet.” The school got a ton of negative attention about this, and for good reason. That attention and the constant pressure forced two big changes to the situation: Moving the fee discussion from private to public and then finally providing The Sunflower with a more reasonable amount of funding. OK, great. Does that mean that next year the staff will deal with the exact same thing? Will student government be better off with new leadership or are they going to be worse? Can the paper ever truly recover the lost support? Nobody knows. The staff gets a year worth of a reprieve before it has to start fighting again.  My hope would be starting now, all the parties sit down and figure out a way to keep the paper funding at X level without letting the student government mess with it while the administration revamps the rules for these things to avoid conflicts of interest and violations of open meeting laws. I also hope that I’ll manage to grow all my hair back by tomorrow. Not sure which one is more likely.

What this essentially did was hold back The Sunflower’s Doomsday Clock for a year through some shuffling of elements that might or might not lead to an overall solution to the bigger problem. It’s worth commending the administration for at least making a move that wouldn’t outright kill the paper, but at the same time, it’s unclear what happens when Bardo finishes his wheeling and dealing.

I’m not sure how this all plays out, but the only true way to win at three-card monte is not to play in the first place.