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April 26, 2006

Baltimore’s Sun Still Dimming

Kevin E. Dayhoff

April Fool’s Day has come and gone, however, the spirit of the day lives large in the way we get our news the rest of the year. Some will say that for too long, the joke has been on us.

Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: "April 1st: This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three-hundred and sixty-four.”

As we continue to lunge pell-mell into the Internet age, many media junkies are amazed at some of the biased and agenda-driven drivel that continues to be perpetuated by peripatetic gerbils that spin the “news” these days.

A favorite April Fool’s Day joke occurred when the august BBC aired a documentary on April 1, 1957, making claims about the spaghetti crops in Switzerland. An article the year related that the program “featured a family from Ticino in Switzerland carrying out their annual spaghetti harvest… It showed women carefully plucking strands of spaghetti from a tree and laying them in the sun to dry.”

But perhaps the best fake-story-in-a-newspaper award goes to H. L. Mencken. He wrote an article, headlined “A Neglected Anniversary,” and published on December 28, 1918, in the New York Evening News

Mr. Mencken reported that the bathtub was introduced to the United States in 1842, after being invented in England in 1828. Spinning the yarn further, he explained that President Millard Fillmore, he of rather large proportions, had a bathtub installed in the White House in 1850.

Seemed like a perfectly believable account. It had only one problem; Mr. Mencken made the whole thing up.

In 1949, Mr. Mencken wrote, “The success of this idle hoax… vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity... Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”

This silly moment in newspaper history serves as an excellent and serious, cautionary tale.

How often does it take for the pretentious agenda-driven opinion of a Baltimore’s Sun political reporter, guised as unbiased reporting, to be repeated before it is accepted as the unquestioned truth? Or do the editors think every day is April Fool’s Day?

The conventional wisdom is that most folks have no problem with an information source that identifies itself as adhering to a particular worldview. Credible community leaders and opinion makers purposely seek out a contrarian’s points of view. The hoax is on us when a newspaper masquerades that it is unbiased – when it is not.

With 1.2 million readers, the Sun has an enormous responsibility to the citizens its serves. It has a public trust.

How is The Sun going to regain an increasingly eroded public trust?

Many avid newspaper readers in this area grew up on The Sun and continue to be aghast as to how the credibility (and circulation) of the paper continues to plummet.

Fortunately, as newspapers such as The Sun continue to lose creditability, other newspapers are evolving to fill the void. How many reading this right now, continue to get your news solely from The Sun?

The blogosphere is certainly an enormous help; that is, if one has the time and pre-disposition to spend surfing the web in order to fact check an important story.

Recently, an increasing number of articles, though recommended by friends, have been avoided. There is little or no interest in finding out what The Sun has to say.

There’s only so much time in a day.

Negative feedback about my articles on electric deregulation was surprising in that my friends were “shocked” by my recommendation that people read a couple of truly objective articles on the subject which appeared in The Sun.

But how many articles is a person to read in The Sun, only to turn to the Gazette, Washington Times, Washington Post, The Frederick News-Post and now the Baltimore Examiner – and find, “the rest of the story?”

Does the Sun arrogantly believe that they are no longer accountable or the public so gullible?

As the fall elections loom, a liberal-Democrat friend was asked, “How in the world is the Maryland Democratic Party going to maintain its strangle-hold on Maryland politics? His answer was quick and unapologetic, “The Baltimore Sun will carry the day.”

How long is that approach sustainable?

Reluctantly The Sun is paradoxically changing the way we get our news. During the recent session of the Maryland General Assembly, folks noticed that it took reading The Washington Post or the Gazette, for example, to get a more complete unbiased picture of an unfolding news issue. The Washington Post, in particular, seems to be adjusting to the changing landscape.

In a great democratization of public discussion and decision making, blogs, radio and Internet video, along with the manner in which newspapers are gravitating towards a strong Internet presence; are changing the way we get our news. The days in which a dominant newspaper could shape public opinion are over.

Unless, you would want to believe that we get spaghetti from a tree or that President Fillmore had a bathtub put in the White House in 1850, we will have to continue to wean ourselves of The Sun and start thinking for ourselves.

Another neglected anniversary approaches. The Baltimore News American was over 200 years old when it stopped publishing May 27, 1986.

April 1st has come and gone. The joke has been on us. It’s time to move on.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster Maryland, E-mail him at:

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