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A game of telephone for the Web age

I read the brief item on Anna Liisa Covell's local news blog with stunned grief.

Under the headline "Sad,'' she reported that Bob DeWitt, a longtime fellow member of the county Planning and Zoning Commission, had lost his long battle with heart disease.

He was (or is, I should state clearly, right up front) one of the best-liked public figures in the county. And I can tell you one reason why that is, and why, when people asked if we were related, I always said: "No, but I wouldn't mind if we were.''

DeWitt is (note, again, the present tense) a conservative Democrat and Realtor who frequently told me I was wrong to criticize certain developments.

But in these same conversations, we'd also talk about our families or his beloved Gators. He's exemplary that way — never confusing disagreement with dislike. I'd come away thinking: Why can't all public discourse be that decent, that civilized?

That's the column I planned to write, and, bracing myself, I made one of those calls journalists and the calls' recipients hate — to DeWitt's supposed widow, real estate broker Mary Ann DeWitt.

She sounded confused when I offered my condolences, then said: "You want to talk to him? He's sitting right here.''

Not only was he alive, he was, as usual, quick to turn it into a joke.

"I guess you're talking to a dead man,'' he said with a reassuringly robust laugh.

Maybe, he said, the rumor of his death had stemmed from his recent announcement that he was leaving the planning commission for health reasons. More than two years ago, DeWitt was fitted with a device that boosts the action of his heart. Though it still works, it contributed to a persistent infection that DeWitt is trying to fight with antibiotics.

Whatever the source of the rumor, on Thursday night it spread through functions held by the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Executive Committee, said Anthony Palmieri, who, like DeWitt and Covell, will leave the planning commission at the end of the year.

Palmieri told a county planner, who on Friday morning told a Planning Department administrative worker, who called Covell.

She immediately posted it on her blog, Hernando County "A Positive Approach.'' When Mary Ann DeWitt telephoned to say it was not true, Covell quickly posted an apology.

"I was horrified'' at the error, Covell said.

Having made my share of reporting mistakes, I know how she feels. I also appreciate the liveliness and insight of her blog.

But, I also think it demonstrates perfectly that blogs written by citizen journalists are no replacement for newspapers — and that it will be a sad day if, as now seems possible, they become our only source of local news.

Sure, reporters get things wrong. But we have assignment editors and copy editors who ask us where we got our information and how sure we are it is true. We know that a grievous error can end a career.

In a way, I'm glad it's not such a serious matter for Covell, that her embarrassment was insignificant compared with her relief to hear DeWitt was at home, looking forward to the holidays and to watching the Gators play for the national championship Jan. 8.

"I was elated to find out I was wrong,'' Covell said.

A game of telephone for the Web age 12/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 11:32am]
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