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October 2, 2006

Miscellaneous Observations: Lesson Learned

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Some lessons are harder and more painful than others to learn. In addition to weekly contributions to The Tentacle, some of my observations made their way onto the Frederick News Post Forum.

The Forum is an unscripted, free-flowing conversation between strangers on a variety of topics. These on-line forums are increasing in popularity as way to share ideas, thoughts, and concerns.

Credit should go to the management of the paper for hosting and providing logistics support for this digital conversation.

The regular posters are an interesting assemblage of civic activists, aspiring politicians, longtime political observers, and everyday folks who just have an interest in the future of their community.

I've become personal friends with many of the regulars, and it's always interesting to run into posters around town and learn their secret identities. Some have really surprised me; others were fairly easy to guess through their observations.

Last year, while posting on the city election, a writer for the News-Post picked up some information in a thread (a specific topic discussion) and used it in a column. Since it contained information I had written, and there are no protections from publishing these comments either implied or guaranteed, I really had no complaint.

At the time, reading those words in a different context from which they were intended was both uncomfortable and troubling. I seriously considered ending my involvement with the Forums.

Regular Forum contributors made a case for continuing to write, so I did.

Recently, a thread started seeking predictions on the upcoming election. I had written extensively here on The Tentacle about how the election might evolve, so posting observations, even of a controversial nature, wasn't a big concern.

Looking back, warning bells should have gone off about at least two of these predictions. First, the prediction that Democrat Rep. Ben Cardin would win a close victory over Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele was intended to reflect the wide margin of voter registration advantage that Democrats enjoy in Maryland.

Clearly, a divided Democratic Party works to Mr. Steele's advantage. A unified Democratic Party, where Kweisi Mfume embraces Cardin creates an uphill battle, maybe an Everest-style climb. Acknowledging that seemed fairly innocuous, even for a partisan.

Electing Ben Cardin would be a tragic outcome for Maryland. Instead of a fresh voice, we'd be saddled with another cookie-cutter liberal voice; another predictable vote for more taxes; and more government, and less individual freedom.

Michael Steele is that fresh voice. Bucking GOP tradition, he made reforming the state's minority business program one of his top priorities. Instead of turning it over to a low-level staffer, Lieutenant Governor Steele was directly, personally involved in the negotiations with lawmakers to craft a better program.

How do I know? I was one of the legislators working with him, sitting at the conference table in his office on the second floor of the State House listening to his vision of creating legacy wealth for minority business owners.

Michael Steele supports drug importation, an anathema to the Bush Administration. He supports lowering caps on minority contract set-asides, and removing barriers and excuses to creating economic empowerment using government contracts as the vehicle.

He is a conservative, though. He supports charter schools. He is opposed to abortion; and he disagrees with the modern liberal reinterpretation of our Founding Fathers opinion on religion and government.

In this regard, my commentary on the Forum about Representative Cardin's probable victory might give one the idea that I support his election. I'd rather vote for a warm pile of dog excrement than to send another congressional lifer to the upper chamber of the U. S. Capitol.

When I heard that current News-Post columnist and former Tentacle contributor Joe Volz was running another opinion column featuring extracts of mine from the Forum, I was curious as to why he wouldn't at least call and seek a more complete contextual framework for those comments.

I called him, and we had a long conversation about web forums, opinion columnists, and the use of comments made by public officials on these sites.

Clearly, Mr. Volz and I are miles apart on a few issues. One, the question of creativity, suggests to me that any opinion columnist could just cruise weblogs and forums for juicy tidbits and select interesting observations, without a context or framework, and write a column.

Second, he considers it fair game when a public official posts observations on these venues, and there is no obligation to go to the source and either: (1.) confirm the person actually said it, and (2.) seek an expanded comment for background and context.

Looking back, I don't disagree with Joe. As a novice writer myself facing a frequent deadline, it would be easy to find a controversial statement on-line, cut and paste it, then write the rest of a column around that. Not too hard, pleases the editors, and gets a deadline out-of-the-way!

Also, Joe is right to suggest that there are no protections for public officials who use these non-traditional sources to try to communicate with constituents. Everything is fair game, and everyone who writes should understand that.

Sadly, this approach to opinion journalism will have a negative affect on modern communication techniques. At the same time old-fashioned newspaper subscriptions are dropping; old-fashioned writers are killing the golden egg-laying goose.

For one, this writer is done posting observations on the Forum. Mr. Volz and his colleagues will have to use more traditional methods to solicit my opinions; it won't be as simple as logging onto the Forum and copying a statement.

The larger question, which our society is still answering, is the viability of traditional newspapers as a source for our daily news and opinions. The Internet has already replaced printed papers as a more efficient, timely, and vital source of breaking news and unscripted observation.

Every major newspaper across the country has an online version, and in a number of cities, more people read that version than those who continue to stain their fingers with printers' ink.

The Tentacle is widely read and quoted, and there are a number of other online news outlets not connected in any way to traditional sources of information. If you have the time, check out the Frederick News Post Forum. There are a lot of interesting, controversial, and thoughtful opinions expressed there everyday.

In fact, I might logon later. I have another deadline next week, and I might be able to find something easy to write about!

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