Monday, November 26, 2012

Come hear your Congress member assess the 'Cliff'

The election is over. The Thanksgiving table’s been cleared. But, believe me, this is no time to nap.

Your government has worked itself into a national crisis. Call it a fiscal cliff. Call it a wall of fire. Or simply call it a train wreck.

Just know that it is coming on Jan. 1 if the president and Congress do not find some way to defuse a time-bomb that would again derail the economy.

“A recession would begin in the first half of 2013, reducing economic growth by about 0.5%,” predicts Forbes magazine. “Unemployment would increase. The jobless rate would rise to 9.1% by Dec. 2013.”

If that’s so, why are we here? The short answer is government gridlock. And it doesn’t end with this crisis. Congress is gridlocked on the next moves for Medicare. Immigration. Social Security. Even passage of a farm bill.

On Sunday, Observer reporter Tim Funk explained the root causes of this paralysis and, just as important, what can be done about it.

Now, you are invited to a public forum on Friday, Nov. 30, at UNC Charlotte. Come hear current and former members of Congress suggest ways the nation can move forward
despite its political differences.

For this special report, Tim talked to people who should know: retired Senate Majority leader Bob Dole and his wife, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole; Erskine Bowles, chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and co-chair of the Bowles-Simpson Commission on shrinking the federal deficit; members of Congress who now represent our region; congressional scholars; and journalists who cover Capitol Hill.

Nearly all agree that Congress is in a ditch.

“It’s the most dysfunctional in our lifetime,” says Norm Ornstein, author of “Congress Inside Out,” a column for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. “Maybe not quite as bad as during the Civil War, the War of 1812 or the 1890s. But these are not great periods to compare yourself to.”

These interviews also unearthed potential solutions to the problem. Some can help right away. Others will take time.

All of them ultimately will require the support of the American people. If you want to be part of that, I urge you to join us for the forum at 7 p.m. on Friday in the auditorium of UNCC’s uptown campus building at 320 E. 9th St.

Expected participants include at least three current members of Congress from our region: Rep. Patrick McHenry, Rep. Mel Watt, and Rep. Mick Mulvaney. They will be joined by two former members, Jim Martin and John Spratt, as well as Kimrey Rhinehart, a former top aide to Sen. Richard Burr.

The Observer is presenting the forum in partnership with PNC Bank, the event’s underwriter. The evening’s moderator will be WCNC-TV’s Sonja Gantt. UNC Charlotte is the forum’s host and venue sponsor.

Admission is free, but seating is limited. Here is the link to register in advance.

Moving America forward will not be easy. But it won’t be possible at all unless its people make clear that this is their No. 1 priority.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Free to you: Wednesday's late, late election edition

Because the presidential election went very late, some of you missed the most up to date version of today's newspaper. This was particularly disappointing for many, since a printed newspaper can be a prized keepsake on historic days.

So here are two ways we want to help.

In the A-section of all of Thursday's print editions, we will reprint the final front page as it appeared in today's paper.

And through Thursday, we are offering free access to that final edition in an electronic form. It's our E-edition and it is a replica of the printed paper.

Here is the front page that rolled off our presses between 2:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. today. About a third of our readers got this version.

Here is how to read and save this edition in electronic form today at no charge.

If you are using a PC, link here.

If you are using a tablet other than an iPad, link here:

If you are an iPad user, simply download the app for our E-edition in the Apple store at no charge and it will give you free access today.

To print a copy of your E-edition, go to the upper-right-hand corner of the page of the electronic paper and click on the icon depicting a printer.

To create a copy of the E-edition that you can store on your computer, again go to the upper-right-hand corner and look for the "application link" icon just to the right of the printer icon. Pull down the menu for that icon and click on "Download newspaper PDF."

Once you have your PDF on your computer, it's yours to keep in whatever form you'd like.

Presidential elections are an important part of our history. Even amid the toughest of deadlines, we want your printed Observer to capture that for you.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

This week, we bring you the election and more

You could easily guess one reason Wednesday’s Charlotte Observer will be special. We’ll have expansive coverage of local, state and national elections.

Here’s another: Wednesday marks the debut of ShopTalk, a new Observer feature focusing on the world of small business. More on that in a moment.

First, here’s some of what we have for you in the run-up to Election Day.

Did you vote early? You are among millions in the state who are reshaping the dynamics of elections. See today’s 1A story analyzing early-voting trends and their potential impact across the state.

Today’s Big Picture section offers context. With polls suggesting a virtual tie in the presidential race, we explain how the Electoral College could come into play. Also don’t miss a breakout of key congressional races to watch and seven burning questions that the election will answer.

If you have yet to vote, go to, where you can make your own sample ballot by simply typing in your address. You will also find background on the candidates and other helpful voter information.

Need encouragement just to vote? On Monday, we complete our profiles of people who are so enthusiastic that they are working to turn out people like you. Read what inspires them.

On Tuesday, Election Day, we’ll offer last-minute tips for voters still going to the polls. On, you’ll find frequent updates on turnout and other developments as they unfold.

Tuesday night, you can check the returns for yourself, minute-by-minute, as they accumulate on Dozens of Observer journalists will also report live on races from commissioner to president. They include the reporting team of Jim Morrill and Tim Funk, veteran political observers who began following these contests more than a year ago.

On Wednesday, all of our reporting, photos and graphics will fill 15 extra pages in a special election edition of our printed paper.

A unique feature of the Wednesday paper will be our expanded use of full-color graphics. We’ve planned 10 in all. At a glance, we hope to show you how every N.C. county voted for governor and president. In Mecklenburg, we will break down results for your precinct. Other graphics will detail congressional races and voter turnout.

Now, a preview of ShopTalk, our new Wednesday feature that will be devoted to advice and insights for small business.

Whether you run a small business, or are merely thinking about starting one, we think you will find this to be very useful reading.

Every week, we’ll ask small-business owners who are succeeding to share their experiences, as well as their secrets. This Wednesday, for example, learn how Olive Stewart convinced Whole Foods to stock its shelves with her homemade marinades and seasonings.

Other features include an Ask the Experts column, a calendar of networking opportunities and columnists with advice on everything from time management to having a spouse as business partner.

Nearly one of every five jobs in North Carolina is tied to small business. We are pleased to expand our own coverage of this sector through our underwriting program.

The underwriter, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, pays for the cost of these pages. The Observer’s newsroom independently produces the content and maintains sole editorial responsibility.

Our editor for ShopTalk is Celeste Smith, a member of our business news team who has 18 years of experience at the Observer. The section’s reporter is Caroline McMillan, a Charlotte native who covers the region’s small-business scene.

Smith and McMillan have already been in touch with many in our business community. They look forward to hearing from you.

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

My talk with MacDonald during his 1979 trial

I can see how someone coming across the murder trial of former Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald 33 years later would think he was wrongly convicted.

As a reporter who covered the trial, I watched the case build for and against MacDonald, day by day, for seven weeks inside a Raleigh courtroom.

I was a 24-year-old reporter for the Fayetteville Observer, barely a year into my first job as a journalist. My beat was the military, and MacDonald, 35, had been a doctor in the Army’s Special Forces.

Fort Bragg was where I reported most of my stories. It was there, nine years earlier, that MacDonald’s family had been savagely wiped out in one night.

Now, MacDonald stood accused of committing that savagery against his own pregnant wife and two small girls.

As the jury went into deliberations, the press corps quietly took its own poll. A majority said MacDonald would be found guilty.

I voted with the minority.

It wasn’t that I was convinced that MacDonald was innocent. I simply doubted that a jury of 12 people could see what I had seen and unanimously agree he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yet they did. They looked right past nagging details that supported MacDonald’s case and decided that what really mattered was this: He was lying.

A 33-year-old tape of the interview.
On Monday, the case gets another airing in a court in Wilmington. MacDonald’s lawyers say they have fresh evidence and testimony that gives more credence to MacDonald’s version of what happened.

That version goes like this. MacDonald and his family were attacked by two white men, a black man wearing a fatigue jacket and a blonde-haired white woman wearing a floppy hat and carrying what appeared to be a candle. The woman, he said, chanted: “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.”

Journalists tend to hang on to their work when they report memorable stories. For me, the MacDonald trial was that kind of story. When I heard last week about the new hearing, I dragged a plastic tub from a closet and soon was leafing through dozens of articles I filed over that seven-week period.

Reading those yellowed pages, I was reminded how the jury could think the unthinkable.

I also found a cassette tape. On it was my one-on-one interview with MacDonald, conducted while the trial was under way.

I didn’t know this in 1979, but it was remarkable we were talking at all. The government had begun presenting its case. MacDonald decided he could talk because the judge’s gag order covered witnesses, but not the prosecution or defense.

So there we were, sitting in a pizza restaurant during a lunch recess. The rookie reporter asking questions of a defendant who had been honing his story for nearly a decade.

In playing the tape now, I’m reminded of how indignant MacDonald was over the idea of a trial.

Nine years earlier, the Army had investigated MacDonald for the murders and declined to prosecute.

The latest set of prosecutors, he assured me, would present nothing new from that time.

“There is no case,” MacDonald said. “They know there is no case. What they are trying to do is, they are trying to mound up a pile of stuff and make it look like a good investigation was done, and then in a closing argument, unbuttressed with any facts at all, they’re going to misinterpret the witnesses’ words. You watch.”

He heaped special scorn on two people he held principally responsible: His stepfather-in-law, Alfred Kassab, whose complaint with the Justice Department was the basis for re-opening the case; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Murtagh, who helped prepare the case for trial.

I asked again. Are you sure there’s nothing new?

And then he brought it up. The blue pajama top.

MacDonald had worn it the night of the murders. He said a government expert had come up with a model of that shirt, which would be shown during the trial.

“(It’s) something he devised in 1974 that he felt added to the case,” MacDonald said.

He didn’t seem particularly worked up about this model. And showing my inexperience, I didn’t ask him to explain further.

But a few weeks later, its significance showed when the former FBI expert, Paul Stombaugh, took the stand.

Stombaugh said the shirt had 48 ice pick holes in it, more than four times the number of wounds found on MacDonald. None of the holes matched his wounds. But it was possible to fold the shirt in such a way that the holes equaled the 21 ice pick thrusts into the chest of MacDonald’s wife, Colette.

The shirt was found on her chest. MacDonald said he only put it there after regaining consciousness and finding her severely wounded.

But prosecutors asserted that he stabbed his wife with the ice pick through the pajama top to simulate an attack on him.

As the jury deliberated, among the evidence it requested to see again was that blue pajama top, as well as the top Stombaugh used as a model.

Later, jurors said it was part of a patchwork of physical evidence that convinced them MacDonald had made up his story.

Never mind that the initial Army investigation mishandled critical evidence.

Never mind that a neighbor saw three people, one with a candle, walking toward the MacDonald home the night of the murders.

Never mind that the defense worked to implicate a drug addict who owned a floppy hat and blonde wig, and bore an uncanny resemblance to one of MacDonald’s alleged attackers in a police sketch.

Clothing, blood, fibers and wounds all told a different story.

“All the pieces came together,” one juror told a Charlotte Observer reporter also covering the trial. “You couldn’t deny it.”

As long as those pieces stay firmly in place, it’s difficult to imagine MacDonald’s fate changing now.

Clippings of some of the stories Thames wrote in 1979 while covering the Jeffrey MacDonald trial in Raleigh for the Fayetteville Observer.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Click here for your free copy of today's Charlotte Observer

Want to see today’s printed newspaper? Do that here this week -- for free.

Through Friday, we are offering our popular e-edition of the Charlotte Observer at no charge. Get it on your computer, iPad or smartphone.

PC users go to:
Mobile users go to

IPad users download our iPad app at the Apple Store.

The e-edition looks exactly like the printed Observer, only it arrives digitally. I read the Observer this way on an iPad three or four times a week. It’s very user-friendly. We’ve arranged for you to link to it easily from the home page of

Why the free offer now? Because tighter security measures for the Democratic National Convention could, at times, delay the delivery of the printed Observer.

Our offices are within blocks of the convention. That’s great for news coverage. But we’ve also learned that our delivery trucks will be slowed by security checkpoints next Tuesday through Friday. As a result, some papers may arrive later than usual those days.

We apologize for this inconvenience. As a help, we are offering all readers free access to our printed newspaper, via the Web.

The free access remains in effect daily through Friday. (To report e-edition problems, please call 704-358-5980.)

When you link to the e-edition, you will read the latest possible edition of the newspaper. This could be especially helpful during DNC week because much of the convention will unfold after our early edition deadlines.

So, if either the paper or the news is late, we hope this helps.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Observer is covering conventions from your perspective

Bloomberg will bring 90 people to Charlotte. CNN is sending 100. The Fox News Channel, another 100. In all, 15,000 journalists are predicted to visit for the Democratic National Convention. 

Can you imagine them missing anything you’d want to know? I can.

On Friday, the Observer told you that the Secret Service plans to seal off streets in the heart of Ballantyne during DNC week. Bloomberg, Fox and CNN did not.

Not their mission. But it will be part of ours.

Our media visitors are here for the nation. We’re here for you. That means reporting all that the nation cares about, plus how this convention touches you and your community.

If you’ve read the Observer lately, you know we are already reporting in-depth on the local impact. But we are also prepared for the actual convention. 

In all, the Observer has assigned 85 journalists to cover this moment. They are spread among eight teams, each tackling a specific topic. Those topics range from politics on the convention floor, to protests in the streets, to parties across the region.

One team will focus solely on how Charlotte is doing on this world stage. Were arrivals orderly at the airport? Were there enough cabs? Does the Wi-Fi work? Can visitors find enough places to eat? Are the security checkpoints running smoothly? 

High-caliber extras

For our coverage of the convention itself, we’ll be joined by an additional 20 journalists from our McClatchy Washington Bureau and our sister McClatchy newspapers. This group includes Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts and humor columnist Dave Barry.

We’ve also partnered with, a nonpartisan journalism organization based in Washington, D.C. Politico specializes in coverage of the president, Congress and elections. It will have more than 50 journalists here. 

In fact, for DNC week, our newspaper will also be Politico’s designated newspaper. Politico will suspend publication of its printed paper in Washington and, instead, join us in producing a special edition for conventioneers. The best of that edition will also appear in copies of the Observer going to our regular readers. 

All told, we will draw from the work of more than 150 journalists. And that’s not all. Our wire services will continue to give us the best of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, among others.

We have the same partnerships in place in Tampa for our coverage of this week’s Republican National Convention. We’ve also sent three Observer journalists there and will be picking up stories from the Tampa Bay Times.

Our stepped up coverage of the RNC begins today with stories on Page 1A and a special report on the Tampa convention in place of our Big Picture section.

We’re listening to you

All of these journalists need your perspective. Elections should center on the concerns of voters. What would you ask either candidate for president? Email your question to reporter Tim Funk, (please put “candidate question” in the subject line and specify which candidate to ask).

We’ve requested interviews with both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. If they agree to speak with us, we’ll ask a representative sample of your questions. If not, we’ll still publish the questions for you to see.

Here is a question submitted by Amy Sass of Matthews. 

“Mr. President, If the Republicans retain majority in the House after November, and the Democrats retain majority in the Senate, if you win re-election, what will you do differently over the next four years that will reduce the partisanship in both houses on the major issues facing us today – economy, debt, health care, etc. – so this country can really start moving forward?”

I’d say that’s a good question worth asking both candidates. Who has another?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

An inside look at city's conventions business

Most cities would gladly trade places with Charlotte as it prepares to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

As conventions go, Democrats and Republicans are in a class of their own. Probably nothing outside of the Olympics matches the spectacle, prestige and millions of dollars in federal funds.

A special report that begins today is not about that kind of convention. It’s about the more modest conventions that typically come to the Charlotte Convention Center.

You will learn what taxpayers invest to lure these conventions here. What our community gets in return. And what kinds of conventions we can expect in the future, with or without the DNC coming to town.

 Why are we telling you this now, with the city’s biggest-ever convention on deck? We think it is valuable context.

 The DNC is a great achievement for Charlotte. Still, we found little evidence that it opens a new era for mega-conventions in our city.

 Yes, we got this in part because we were ready. But more critically, it was our election year to be swing state.

 Putting politics aside, our convention business is a different story. And as you will read today, some of that story even surprised city leaders.

    For example, you and I pay a 1 percent tax to support tourism each time we eat in a restaurant in Mecklenburg County. Most of the money raised contributes to the $30 million annual cost of the convention center.

    What percentage of Charlotte’s hotel rooms would you guess that the convention center fills annually? No one we asked on City Council even came close. (Answer is in chart on 1A of Sunday's newspaper and here on

    Observer city government reporter Steve Harrison didn’t know either a little over a year ago as he broke stories about the questionable management practices of Tim Newman, the former director of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. That reporting contributed to Newman’s demotion and eventual departure from the agency.

    By then, Harrison was digging deeper into the CRVA’s financial reports. He found records of payments to organizations that held conventions here: The American Legion, the American Bus Association, the Shriners, the National Rifle Association. It puzzled him.

   “When you get married, if you rent a facility, you pay them,” Harrison told me last week. “This was the opposite. (CRVA officials) were writing checks to get people to show up. I wondered, why is that? And is it worth it?”

    Harrison then did something rare, if not unprecedented, in Charlotte. He did the math on the convention business.

    What he found throws into question the whole philosophy of putting most of your tourism dollars into an exhibition hall.

    “If you want to become a bigger tourist destination, the road doesn’t necessarily run through a convention center,” Harrison said.

   On Tuesday, Part 2 will detail one reason why this philosophy went unquestioned for so long. For years, the CRVA turned out statistics that often made these conventions look more lucrative than they were.

   The CRVA now has a new chief, Tom Murray. Following discussions with the Observer, Murray put into place new formulas that provide more realistic economic estimates.

   Murray also told the Observer that he and his staff are committed to a standard of “ethics beyond reproach.”

  The new economic estimates may not be as impressive. But at least we now know better where we stand.

Every year, restaurant and hotel taxes in Mecklenburg raise more than $50 million to help grow tourism.

   If we want that investment to pay off, we first have to know what's really working.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

DNC apps for iPhone, iPad now available

You can now download iPhone and iPad versions of The Charlotte Observer's mobile app for the Democratic National Convention. Search for "DNC Charlotte Observer" in the Apple store.

An app for Android phones is available under the same search terms in the Android store.

All other smartphone users can get a web-based version by directing their browsers at

All of these apps are free.

We've loaded them with lots of useful information, including breaking news on the convention, restaurant reviews, delegate profiles, shopping directories and maps to help you find your way around the convention. Also check out dozens of photos depicting life in the Queen City.

You may find the app taking more time than usual to download. Know that we are reducing the app's size to help alleviate this issue and hope to have another version posted soon. If you have trouble downloading now, please use the web-based version, listed above, which contains all of the same content.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

How you can follow Charlotte's biggest story

Three weeks from now, the long-awaited 2012 Democratic National Convention rolls into Charlotte. And regardless of your politics, let me suggest that this could be the most significant convention you’ll ever follow.

That’s because long after the last balloon drop, you and I will still be here, living with the legacy of what the world witnessed over five days in September.

Charlotte is about to gain a global audience. The president, half of Congress and a multi-national army of 15,000 journalists will make it so.

That makes this a very big story locally. Dare I say the biggest news story in our city’s history? And yes, I was also here in 1989 for Hurricane Hugo.

For more than a year, The Charlotte Observer has planned how it will provide you comprehensive coverage of this historic moment – in print, online and over your phone.

We’ve built mobile apps, planned for nearly 50 pages of additional news coverage, designed a special convention section on, and forged partnerships with other major news organizations that will pay off with additional coverage for you.

In addition to reporting the news of the day, we’ll tell you what you personally need to know. If you want to be involved, you’ll learn how you can be. Rather steer clear? There will be advice for you, as well.

As politics goes, you may be more interested in what happens in Tampa the week before the DNC as the Republicans hold their convention. We’ll put you there, too.

The Observer is sending a team of journalists to the RNC, both to cover the political scene and to give you an idea of how that city is faring with its event. We will also bring you stories from that region’s premiere newspaper, The Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) under a content-sharing arrangement. Similarly, that paper’s readers will see Observer coverage during the DNC.

Watch for more on our plans in the days to come. But for now, I’ll touch on three current features:

-- Beginning Tuesday, we’ll anchor convention developments on page 2A of the printed paper. And, of course, you can expect at least one convention-related story on 1A daily as the city prepares.

-- On, check out our special web edition of DNC coverage. There you will find all we’ve reported on so far, including full-color maps of road closings, profiles of delegates, the roster of speakers and a list of groups signed up to protest. You’ll also see our 2012 Visitor’s Guide to the city for conventioneers.

--You can carry in your pocket all that, plus breaking news of the convention, when you use our DNC 2012 mobile app. It’s free. Simply direct your smartphone to You’ll also find a customized version for Android phones (search in the Android app store for “Charlotte DNC 2012”) and, available soon, a customized version for iPhone and iPad (same search terms in the Apple store).

In three weeks, every major media organization in the world will report on the convention in Charlotte. But you can count on the Observer to also report on what it means for Charlotte, now and in the years to come.

Reach Rick Thames at, and Phone: 704-358-5001.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Check out our smarter Home & Garden section

For most people, the ideal home is more than simply a place to sleep. It’s a sanctuary.

Today, we bring you more help to keep it that way.

We’ve expanded and redesigned our Saturday Home & Garden section. Here, you will find special emphasis on how to make your address your favorite place to hang out.

Our advice will be practical. For instance, today’s cover story tells you how to transform that extra bedroom from a storage closet to real living space. Page 2 is home to DYI, featuring stories and a column for do-it-yourselfers.

Allen Norwood continues as our sage observer of real estate trends. And Nancy Brachey, Charlotte’s most trusted gardener, still dispenses her valued advice.

The section’s centerfold is a special package of great new content called Smarter Living. Every Saturday, you’ll find two full-color pages of tips and advice, drawn from the latest home improvement trends and innovations. And yes, we’ll also tell you where to buy the products featured.

Find Smarter Living online at, or click on Home & Garden under the Living Here tab.

Smarter Living is made possible by Electrolux, the Observer’s newest community underwriter. The Observer’s newsroom independently oversees the content. The underwriter supports the costs.

Underwriters have enabled us to grow your newspaper by eight pages of themed content a week. Other underwritten packages are Sci-Tech (Monday), Young Achievers (Tuesday) and Arts Alive (Thursday).

Electrolux moved its North American headquarters to Charlotte’s University City area two years ago and employs 700 people locally.

Jack Truong, president and CEO of Electrolux Major Appliances North America, called the underwriting decision synergistic.

“We are a consumer-driven company that is constantly innovating based on the changing behaviors of the consumers,” he said. “Charlotte is where the vast majority of our home appliances are designed. The changes to the Living section reflect the current trend of consumers’ experience in their homes and their changing lifestyle.”

Here’s to a synergy that helps you design the sanctuary of your dreams.