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The peanut gallery's din dims by one jeer

No statue has ever been put up to a critic.

_ Jean Silbelius, composer

The first time I knew I didn't want to do this job forever was when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas.

Every Democrat believed her. Every Republican believed him.

Liberal columnists defended her. Conservative columnists defended him.

Maybe this is too idealistic, but I was depressed that people would so easily pick and choose what they believed to be true based on their political party.

It ought to be the other way around.

A couple of years later, the big story in American politics was a new treaty between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Everybody had an opinion then, too. The nation was bitterly divided and few were undecided even though nobody knew what the treaty said.

But everybody was dead certain, one way or the other, depending on whether they listened to Ross or Rush or Ralph Nader or Bill Clinton.

As for all the columnists and commentators and talking heads on television _ few of them knew what the thing said, either.

They talked breathlessly about the president's poll ratings, the head count in Congress, the number of phone calls made, who was going to win. Win. Win.

A few months ago, a woman in California won a big jury verdict from McDonald's for spilling coffee on herself.

Columnists and commentators and talk show hosts and editorial writers knew a big fish in a barrel when they saw one. Easy target.

Just one hitch:

The McDonald's coffee verdict was fully justified. No person to whom I have recited the facts of the case has disagreed with what that jury did.

But that truth was lost in a torrent of off-base opinion. The facts did not fit with the mass media truism at hand, that the jury system was "broken."

This is the real media bias. It's not as much Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative. The most dangerous bias is the media's claim to be presenting truth.

The cameras in the courtroom, the live satellite transmission, the instant analysis add to this illusion of truth. It is a modern, high-tech version of the blind man grabbing the elephant's tail and pronouncing it a snake.

Opinion in American culture is undergoing a divorce from fact. You no longer have to know a damned thing about the subject at hand to have an opinion about it.

There is no shortage of opinions. Talk radio, a cacophony of cable TV call-in shows and the Internet are making every American an instant expert on every topic.

I keep a "Peanuts" comic strip on my desk in which a character says he wants to be a newspaper columnist when he grows up.

"I have very strong opinions about everything," he tells Charlie Brown. "That's a stupid-looking shirt you're wearing."

Don't get me wrong; I'm not condemning the whole business. There are plenty of good, provocative columnists worth reading. But for me, for now, I want to go back to the business of finding out and reporting.

The Times has made me its political editor, a great honor. I start at once.

There are a few things I would say once more if I had the space.

Like griping about unelected government. It is wrong to me that Swiftmud, the Tampa Port Authority or any other unelected body has the right to tax. It is no coincidence that bodies under appointed boards such as Tampa General and the state fairgrounds are prone to mischief and scandal. There is nothing in all the world as scary as a code enforcement board.

Like complaining about how the government uses its power to fight term limits, tax caps and other restrictions on government power sought by the taxpayers. The people are entitled to their political will.

I would stick up for that guy in Hernando County who just wanted to sell watermelons by the roadside, but was shut down when the government said he needed restrooms and a parking lot.

I would make fun of Bay Plaza one more time.

But there isn't enough room. This is already self-indulgent enough anyway without any big speeches.

So, goodbye. See you soon.

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