I know you circled this date on the calendar, perhaps in red. Maybe even made a note to have some friends over for snacks and celebration. And now you can’t remember why.
I understand. It has been a hectic year, full of traffic, political campaigns and an unrelenting stream of presidential tweets. With all that has been going on, you forgot that this is the one-year anniversary of the debut of this very Political Climate column.
Seems longer than just one, doesn’t it? No one can wear out a welcome like I can.
Anyway, as we embark on our second year together, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on the year just past and, as is often the case at the start of a new year, see about doing better.
I wrote a daily newspaper column for 15 years, and an assortment of weekly political columns for well over 20 years, in addition to more than 25 years as a regional, state and national political writer. But I left that business – something I never thought I would do – and went to work for the San Mateo County Transit District. During the 13-plus years I worked for the District, I described myself as a recovering journalist.
I guess I relapsed. In the meantime, and this will come as a shock to you, things had changed.
First of all, I simply forgot how much work it is to write even a weekly (or more frequent) column. The column is not just about my opinion, or even my point of view, although I certainly have license to offer commentary and do so without hesitation. It is about information and it has taken me a while to get up to speed on being the thorough reporter I aspire to be. As Richard Nixon said (and who would have thought he would not be the worst president in my lifetime?), mistakes were made.
Just recently, for example, in commenting on Redwood City Council appointments to the Planning Commission, I noted that the commission had no renters. That’s not correct. There are two. By way of explanation, not excuse, I relied on someone who didn’t really know, rather than doing the work I should have done to find out. In another column, I misstated who organized the Peninsula Progressives slate in the recent 22nd Assembly District caucus – it was Dan Stegink, he says, and apparently, it’s important to him.
Both were tiny parts of longer items in much longer columns that were addressing much larger issues, but the mistakes jump out and undermine all I’m trying to do. Which is be fair and accurate, while being pointed at the same time.
As I noted a year ago, “As a columnist, I have the freedom to express a point of view, but, more than anything else, I believe in fairness, facts and openness in government and politics. Everyone will get a fair shake from me and everyone will be held accountable for what they say, including me. I have no interest in opinion masquerading as fact or opinion built on false assumptions.”
That’s right – I just quoted me. Pretty impressive ego, yes? But I believed it then and I still believe it. As Year Two gets under way (Or Year II in Super Bowl parlance), I will try and expect to do better.
Not incidentally, this is another way things have changed. When I was writing daily columns in the newspaper, I made a point of correcting my mistakes in my column, and not in some little box buried on Page 2, next to the orthopedic shoe ads. I want to do the same here, but writing online has been new to me, and the ethos for that is to correct it in the original posting with a note at the bottom saying the column has been changed. I’m still going to correct things in my column as an exercise of taking direct and personal responsibility for what I do. I’ll let the editors worry about the other stuff.
Also new is the social media environment in which I’m now writing. Clearly, there are some people who feel a social media site is a place to attack, undermine and misrepresent. Write for newspapers for 35 years and spend 13 years at SamTrans and Caltrain and you learn to deal with criticism, but I guess I didn’t expect to see disagreements in opinion so freely labeled as venal or corrupt. I believe I’ve found a way to manage all this without living in a bubble, but, still, there are some really angry people out there. I suppose it’s nice, or, at least, useful, that they have an outlet for this anger. It’s largely anonymous, or removed from any direct, personal interaction, so it seems more like digital courage, but there you go.
This isn’t necessarily new, but I also was a little surprised at the environment of cynicism and suspicion that seems to taint the public discourse, as if every disagreement has at its root some ulterior motive or additional agenda.
For the sake of the permanent record, no one tells me what to write. I don’t write thinking I have to speak for some special interest. I’m happy to treat everyone the same.
That’s the beauty of cynicism. It allows someone to say, “I know why he’s really doing that, I know what’s really behind that,” and feel pretty smart, unencumbered by actual fact. I understand some people are advocates. People should advocate – aggressively, even forcefully. It’s not journalism – or even citizen-journalism – and it doesn’t have to be, but we ought to see it for what it is. Too often, it’s just opinion masquerading as fact.
Anyway, it has been an interesting and educational year, and as I said at the top, I hope and expect to do better.
As we begin the second year, two messages that we often see digitally displayed on roadways linger in my mind:
The first is “It can wait,” the anti-texting-while-driving motto. The problem is, with my rapidly aging memory, if I wait, I’ll forget. The sequence, over a period of about eight minutes, goes something like this: I need to call Melvin. Two minutes later: Oh, yeah, I meant to call Melvin. Two minutes later: There was somebody I meant to call. Two minutes later: Why am I holding this phone?
The second sign is this one: “Expect Delays.” I have seen that sign on more roadways on the Peninsula than I’ve seen stoplights.
I think it’s a good motto for the year ahead.
Contact Mark Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online.