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Sex Ed Stalled

Legislation that could bring the conversation about birth control into New York state classrooms hits a snag over semantics


When New York state decided in September to turn back $3.67 million in federal sex-ed funds that could be used only to teach abstinence, it seemed that the administration of Gov. Eliot Spitzer would be able to set its own course through this controversial and often divisive topic.

The decision has freed restricted matching state funds, limited to abstinence-only education, and allowed the state to instead use that $2.6 million for comprehensive sex-ed programs that discuss birth-control methods in addition to abstinence.

But sex remains a sticky subject for the Legislature, and now a bill that has struck a chord of common sense with both Republicans and Democrats remains stalled—in direct response, its Republican sponsor said, to the sensitivities of the Catholic Church and other religious organizations that oppose any sex-ed message other than abstinence.

The bill, which is known as the Healthy Teens Act, would provide additional funding for comprehensive sex-ed programs for schools that choose to participate. The bill has passed the Assembly but hasn’t gone beyond committee levels in the Senate.

“We’re trying to help our teens make more informed, better and safer choices,” said state Sen. George Winner (R-Elmira), who’s sponsoring the bill. “To me, this legislation makes perfect sense in New York state, where we have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in the nation.”

JoAnn Smith, president and CEO of Family Planning Advocates of New York State, which represents a number of reproductive-health organizations, noted that two studies in the last year have added weight to the argument that abstinence-only sex education does not reduce teen pregnancy or sexual activity among teenagers. One of those studies was conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy; the other, “Financing Ignorance,” was by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

New York state Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines called the Bush administration’s focus on abstinence-only sex education “a failed national-health-care-policy directive, based on ideology rather than on sound, scientific-based evidence” in September when he explained the state’s decision to refuse further federal funds tied to abstinence teaching.

Now, reproductive-health advocates want to expand the comprehensive programs beyond those in place that are using the previously restricted state matching funds.

“We need the Senate to pass this bill, and we need to give schools a chance to apply for grants and put age-appropriate, comprehensive, abstinence-plus sex- education programs in place,” Smith said. “Comprehensive programs can be tailored to age and communities. There’s nothing about this [bill] that encourages sexual activity; if anything, it helps kids be stronger. It would be encouraging to a young person who had made the decision to be abstinent.”

But semantics often play a strong role in legislation about sexuality, and that phrase “age-appropriate” in the Healthy Teens Act appears to be no exception.

“ ‘Age-appropriate’ is something that could be different, depending on who is interpreting it,” said Mark Hanson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick). “That’s an issue.”

Winner has cited “significant opposition” by religious organizations and especially by the Catholic Church as an obstacle to the Healthy Teens Act, something that the New York State Catholic Conference does not deny. The conference is the lobbying arm of the state’s Roman Catholic bishops.

“I’m sure they give lip service to an abstinence message, but the business of Planned Parenthood is contraception and abortion,” said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference. “They talk about ‘age-appropriate,’ but when Planned Parenthood talks about age-appropriate, it may not be how other parents define it.”

Language was an issue in another hotly contested bill dealing with reproductive health five years ago, when New York sought to become one of only a handful of states to require hospitals to counsel rape victims about the use of emergency contraception and to offer the medication on-site.

In that debate, the Catholic Conference blocked the bill until a change in its wording guaranteed hospitals the right to do a pregnancy test before administering the emergency contraception. The change satisfied the Catholic Conference’s objection to abortion and the bishops’ concern that emergency contraception might cause a pregnancy to abort.

So far, a compromise over the language in the Healthy Teens Act isn’t promising.

“I think most people in society agree—including Family Planning Advocates—that children are too young to have sex,” Poust said. “We believe that’s the best way to reach kids; they just shouldn’t be having sex when they’re 13, 14, 15 years old.”

—Darryl McGrath

What a Week

Hold Your Tongue

This week, The New York Times ran a story it had been sitting on at the behest of the Bush administration for more than three years. The story documented joint efforts between Pakistan and the United States to protect nuclear weapons in Pakistan. In 2004, when the Times originally was going to break the story, the White House requested it be held as not to jeopardize the success of the program. This month, when notified the story was scheduled to run, the White House did not object.

Cop Smart

Two police unions called for the resignation of Albany Common Council President Shawn Morris at this week’s council meeting. Union heads claimed Morris had intimidated them in an attempt to get them to withdraw their endorsement of Albany Legislature candidate Brian Scavo. They claim they were told by Morris that the endorsement “would come back to bite us.” Morris has told Metroland that Scavo has a reputation for engaging in inappropriate conversations with teenage girls.

Gas War

A fight over gas prices ended in murder in Detroit this week. The owners of two neighboring Detroit gas stations were embroiled in a heated competition to see who could have the lowest prices. The BP station owner finally confronted the owner of the Marathon station after he had lowered his prices by one cent three times in one day. During the altercation, the owner of the Marathon station pulled a gun and shot his competitor. As soon as the body of the BP gas station owner was taken away, BP raised the price of its gas by 13 cents.

Hold Your Tongue Part 2

Escalating his ongoing crackdown on dissent, Pakistan President—and Washington ally—Gen. Pervez Musharraf shut down the country’s two largest privately owned TV news stations on Friday. In the wake of this action, roughly 140 journalists were jailed after protests broke out in Karachi. The state crackdown on the two stations is just one action taken by the embattled Musharraf in an effort to silence criticism and contain a roiling anger over his rule. Bowing to world pressure, however, Musharraf has reinstated the January elections.

Advocacy at 11

In search of higher ratings and more prominence in the community, WRGB has begun a crusade

Michelle Smith, CBS 6 news anchor and education reporter, has a mission.

For the past year and a half, WRGB has been working to integrate the technique of unapologetically biased reporting known as “advocacy journalism” into its broadcasts. The idea, Smith said, is that reporters get behind specific issues of the day, agitate for change, and act as the mouthpiece for their viewers. So when she reported in September that there are no laws in New York state to make it a crime for an adult to use the Internet to attempt to arrange a meeting with a child, hundreds of parents responded, and Smith had found her cause.

“They started asking for my help,” Smith said of her viewers. “They wanted to know what they could do.”

In response, the station authored a petition asking that lawmakers pass legislation “closing this loophole,” and invited viewers to sign.

“I am being the correspondent of the parents to the Legislature,” Smith said. “I am the go-between.”

Gathered in the Carl E. Touhey Forum at the College of Saint Rose on Nov. 13, legislators from the state Senate and Assembly, including Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) and Minority Leader Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady), and law-enforcement officials from local, state, and federal agencies took part in a town-hall meeting for concerned parents organized by WRGB.

Few parents showed up. The seats were mostly empty, save for a class of Saint Rose students.

Smith sat at the center of the legislators and lawmakers and guided an hour of testimonials and back-and-forth discussion about the issue of online sex predators, all captured by WRGB’s cameras to be edited together for later broadcasts.

Despite the low turnout, Lisa Jackson, the news director for WRGB, was thrilled.

“A lot of news shops just react to the news of the day,” said Jackson. Examples of such reactive journalism: press conferences, breaking news, community schedules.

“Where we are going is ‘proactive journalism,’ ” she said, “which is really old-fashioned journalism; it is watchdog journalism. It is going back to the roots.”

“Communicating one-on-one with our viewers,” she added. “We encourage them to tell us what they would like us to look into.”

And they have heard from parents. WRGB has collected thousands of signatures for its petition, of which Smith then hand-delivered copies to every local legislator in New York state—with a cameraman in tow.

Some critics see the new crusade by CBS 6 less as a genuine interest in advocacy journalism and more as a play for ratings. And they wonder if the station will avoid worthy but controversial issues in favor of ones that are easy to oversimplifiy and pander to public fear, like those involving sex offenders. Further, they question the integrity of blurring the line between news reporting and advocacy.

“There is a place for advocacy journalism,” said Alan Chartock, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio. “But you can’t be both; you can’t be a commentator and a news deliverer. I think that’s their problem.”

“Crack cocaine guys go to jail five times longer than powder cocaine,” Chartock said. “Alcoholics who cause 40,000 deaths a year get a slap on the wrist and maybe two years in the can for killing somebody. The kid that holds up a store gets 10 years for armed robbery.”

His point? Everything is relative, and issues are not always as simple as they seem. A news reporter is supposed to keep a clear, open-minded view of the issues and ask the difficult, even unpopular questions.

“Who are these people,” these sex offenders, Chartock asked. “Do they have mental-health issues? Were they abused as children? Does nobody now bother to ask these questions?”

Will CBS 6’s race to lure viewers and the attendant ad dollars drive them to pander to the lowest common denominator? If the public demands an unquestioning crusade against suspected online predators, is that what CBS 6 is going to give them, with Smith leading the charge?

“It is kind of controversial out on the streets,” Smith agreed of advocacy journalism. “Should we be taking sides? Should we be getting behind an issue? Should we be advocating for one thing or another?”

In most cases, she said, the answer is no. With the issue sexual predators, however, it seemed like a simple choice.

“Unless you are a predator yourself,” she said, “are you really going to be against a law like this?”

“They can rationalize it,” Chartock said, “they can put the best face on it, but it all comes down to ratings, and we all know it. It all comes down to numbers.”

Once a law is passed, Jackson said, WRGB will be proud to have contributed to its community in a positive manner. Maybe their efforts will help save a child. And, she asked, “What’s wrong with that?”

—Chet Hardin

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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