Recently, I found that I had been somewhat accused of being politically connected. At least I thought I had been, anyway. Being one who had thought I ‘d learned to think before I spoke, I immediately wrote a reply which disputed the “allegation” which turned out to be nothing more than an innocent request for identifying who I was. Besides looking like an idiot, especially considering I had neglected to put my name on this site anywhere, the experience got me thinking.
How many times do we misread things and leap to false conclusions? I took the term politically connected as a slight of some sort, without properly absorbing the context before my reply. So I thought about what political connections I possibly could have had. Well, as I mentioned in my reply, we do treat Deanne Gutman of Wonmore Kennels and SPCA Task Force member’s animals. One of our occasional vet techs used to work for Commissioner Hodge back before he was a commissioner. Hell, I had even briefly dated the daughter of another one of the the current commissioners a while back. I’m also pretty sure that one of my relatives had been represented by Mike Smigiel a few years ago, when he was just a Main Street Elkton lawyer and not a fast-track politician. And, in my publishing career, I’ve had several articles appear in the Cecil Whig. None of these things has any relevance to anything, but to someone looking for a connection, there are “ties” to two Cecil County Commissioners, a State Delegate, the county’s SPCA Task Force, and the local paper. Hmm, maybe I’m connected after all.
I’ve been pretty clear in my contempt for the SPCA in the past, and part of my concern for the handling of the allegations was the appearance of ties to various powerful Cecil County organizations, including the County Commissioners, the State’s Attorney and the Sheriff’s Office. To me at the time, it looked like a big C.Y.A. moment for these groups. But was it, really? While I have little doubt that at least some of the allegations had merit (the SPCA has long had a reputation for this kind of conduct, going back at least 15 years), isn’t it just as possible that they were smart enough not to leave any obviously incriminating evidence laying around for investigators years later to find? Did the County Commissioners really use their authority to sweep this mess away, or were they locked into a bad situation with no easy or obvious answers? Did the State’s Attorney do his best to hinder a real investigation or was it just a matter of the investigation turning up only unprosecutable hearsay and he said-she-said witness testimony?
And here’s the trouble. In this new age of information technology where anyone with an internet connection and 15 minutes to set up a website can spout off about anything and everything, where do we look for truth? Who will be the watch dog and handle the essential fact-checking before we arbitrarily smear someone’s reputation based on nothing more than a ships-passing-in-the-night connection that may seem suspicious to someone looking for suspicious activity?
I am a big proponent of do-it-yourself journalism. I am not one of those people who believes that a journalism school degree and years of grunt work in a newsroom are necessary to produce quality, informative writing. But this experience has taught me a valuable lesson. If we, as individuals, are indeed going to take up the slack of the failing newspaper industry in informing the people, we need to bring a level of vigilance to the table. We need to be sure of ourselves before we jump, verify the claims we make, and be certain about the facts we use to support our points. There are many within the media industry who dismiss so-called “citizen journalism” as nothing more than fly-by-night amateurs without the professionalism necessary to carry the task. I question whether or not mainstream media actually possesses that level of professionalism, either (do you all remember “swift boats”?), but this is a factor that we can control.
One of the benefits of decentralizing journalism is removing the motivation to down-play stories about genuinely politically connected people, as well as protecting the corporations that pay the bills through advertising by avoiding overly negative press. But in order to play the role we aspire to, we can’t just shoot our mouths off without properly reseraching and verifying our stories. If we do, we are ultimately no better than them. And potentially much worse. Journalism is difficult and sometimes frustrating work. There is no easy way to do the job correctly. But I believe we can do it. More than that, we should. To paraphrase Ice Cube, what we really need to do is check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.