I was a young reporter in 1969 when I asked the Saturday night editor at the Kankakee (Illinois) Daily Journal why he was always so nervous and testy about my copy and that of other reporters.
"Because," he said, "every time I sit down at this desk, I accept the responsibility for tens of millions of dollars of assets, some or all of which could go down the drain if we get sued." Noting my failure to immediately grasp his meaning, he added, "not to mention a hundred or so jobs … including yours."
It may not be the best standard in the world for journalistic purity, but fear is still a pretty effective motivator when it comes to getting things right.
"And then the blogosphere went nuts" is a phrase we hear more and more often these days. We hear it about things like accusations of supporting terrorism because of Rachael Ray's fashion choices, or Barack Obama's lapel jewelry selection or the fact that Hillary Clinton shares her last name with an upstate New York town where a former minister was sentenced to prison for inappropriately touching a 3-year-old girl.
A right-wing blogger/columnist essentially accused Food Network phenom Ray of supporting Palestinian terrorism by wearing a keffiyeh in a Dunkin' Donuts commercial. Actually Ray wasn't wearing a keffiyeh. She was swearing a scarf that, very slightly, resembled one. The keffiyeh is a traditional Arab headdress worn by men all over the Middle East, which happens to include Palestine, where a few people are — and most people are not — terrorists. Dunkin' Donuts, whose corporate courage I will remember the next time I feel the need for some fried dough full of whipped cream, pulled the ad.
Clinton had no connection with the pastor in New York, but the phrase "former Clinton pastor" was enough to send bloggers scurrying to their keyboards. Wrongs were done on both sides. Clinton critics were demanding to know why that bogeyman "the mainstream media" wasn't reporting on that story as much as it had on problems with Obama's ministers, and some Clinton defenders were rushing to point out that her (non) association with the (non) former pastor was not as significant as Obama's 20-year association with his (real) former minister.
None of the above were bothering, please note, to find out the truth — any more than others did spreading the word that Obama had "refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance." The photo accompanying that claim actually showed Obama standing while the national anthem was being played, not the pledge being recited. The flag code says a man should remove his hat and hold it over his heart, or hold his right hand over his heart if he has no hat.
Generally accepted etiquette today, with most men either not wearing hats or wearing stupid-looking baseball hats on backward while inside churches, restaurants and funeral homes, no longer stresses the hand-over-the heart posture. (In fact, when I was a U.S. Marine, we were taught to salute during the anthem if in uniform, and to stand at attention if not.)
One of the louder mouths who frequents the same Dade City bar that I do walked in one day and loudly announced that Obama was a Muslim and unfit to serve (although the U.S. Constitution provides no religious test for election to public office). He and his friends in the blogosphere and right-wing radio talkosphere had to do some fancy dancing a few weeks later, at which time he walked into the same bar and announced that Obama was unfit to serve because of the remarks of the Christian minister whose church he had attended for 20 years.
Some bloggers are as reliable, if not more so, than some news sources. Some people who post on blogs or other Web sites are intelligent, thoughtful, caring people who work hard to stay informed on current events and issues.
But some of them, alas, are morons who either lie deliberately or eagerly pass on any bit of misinformation that comports with their particular (and sometimes peculiar) beliefs.
I admit here that I actually have a blog, a gift from Web master, musician, educator and friend Dennis Devine. You can check it at www.janglidewell.com, and you will note that I posted on it only once, nearly a year ago. I think that is because I feel uncomfortable with going into print with something that hasn't been through the editing process and having responsible people whom I trust (which I never would have admitted to before I retired) review, question and decide the propriety of it.
They, like my old friend in Kankakee, are protecting the assets of a corporation that provides employment to some 1,300 people.
The blogosphere gives voice to some people who live in their mother's basement, and whose assets consist of the collection of Dungeon & Dragons toys they played with before they discovered computers.
I don't think I will ever forget the guy who railed at me threateningly after I had written a pro-gun control column and kept referring to me as a "trader." Right or wrong, a good editor would have pointed out to him that he meant "traitor."
I know that some bloggers and blog fans think mainstream criticism of their world represents the last gasps of the dinosaurs who work at dying news outlets, and, sometimes when I see what has happened to some print outlets, I have to agree. Seeing my favorite broadcast news source turn into what is now primarily a platform for right-wing cranks and raving xenophobes doesn't help.
And it may well be that the unquestionable democracy of access to the Internet will someday be a good thing, and it might — if people ever develop the habit of questioning what they read before the forward it to everyone on their contacts list.
But unlike many who communicate through the Internet, I have and use a name, and it appears on what I write, and I have bothered to check the factual basis of what I say.
That means, alas, that if the guy I was criticizing about his remarks on Obama can find anyone to read the newspaper to him today, I will probably have to answer to him when I come back from Colorado in two months …if he remembers it that long.