Meet Man Behind Columns You Hate


February 14, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

After becoming the editorial writer in Howard County several months ago, it didn't take me long to figure out that I was not going to be a very popular fellow.

By letter and telephone call, critics have let me know in no uncertain terms exactly how they feel about many of the editorials and columns I've written. The critics' bottom line has gone something like this:

"How dare you?"

"Who are you anyway?"

"How come you don't write what the majority of residents think?"

Sometimes I've tried to explain the role I play at the paper and how the editorials, in particular, are written. But I've always felt a brief conversation over the phone did not suffice for me or the caller. That's why I've decided to try and explain in a column what it is I do at the paper and why I think some people get mad as heck when I do it.

First, who am I?

As a member of the editorial board of The Baltimore Sun, I write editorials meant to represent the editorial position of the newspaper as an institution. That's primarily the reason editorials are never "signed," as so many people have suggested.

Determining the position of the newspaper is done in several ways.

Once a week, the full editorial board -- up to 17 people -- gathers in downtown Baltimore for a mass meeting, during which the topics of the day are discussed. (The downtown staff meets more regularly, but the full board also includes writers in five suburban bureaus.) In some cases, an issue will get a great deal of debate and attention. In other cases, the feedback is minimal or non-existent.

The remaining four days of my workweek are spent in Ellicott City, where I am the lone county-based editorial writer. I write most, but not all, of the editorials about Howard County.

I keep in daily contact with an editor downtown: Andy Ratner, who coordinates all of the local editorials generated out of Baltimore and the surrounding counties.

Usually these conversations involve the content of the editorial. Often, my conclusions about an issue make it onto the editorial page without revision.

Other times, Mr. Ratner expresses an opinion on a topic that ultimately becomes -- to varying degrees -- the focus of an editorial, even though I have written it.

The oversight does not end with Mr. Ratner. Several more editors will read an editorial -- and have an opportunity to critique it -- before it is published.

An unwritten rule exists that editorial writers don't have to compose an editorial supporting a position with which they strongly disagree. But they do sometimes have to write pieces not in total accord with their own opinions to be consistent with positions the paper has taken in the past. In some situations, circumstances do warrant a change in position. But in those cases, the writer must be certain to state the reason for the change.

4 Now, let's consider the "how dare you" question.

This one is a little more difficult to answer. The easy response would be I dare because I am paid to dare.

A more thoughtful response would be: Most editorial writers struggle to be reasoned, as well as responsible, in the editorials they write. They interview people and draw their conclusions by using a variety of sources.

Sometimes, however, doing the job means striking the nerves of some people. Because of our new thrust into expanded local coverage, some people and issues that were rarely given attention by the paper before are suddenly in the spotlight. Sometimes, that hurts.

That is why the newspaper provides an opportunity for readers to respond to news stories and opinion pieces through its letters to the editor pages. We encourage county readers to write to us at: The Baltimore Sun, 3300 North Ridge Road, Suite 140, Ellicott City, MD, 21043, or fax letters to 410-418-8016.

Finally, why don't I express what the majority of county residents feel?

Unlike an elected official, I am running neither for public office nor to win a popularity contest.

Occasionally, I feel I do express the feelings of a majority of residents, but they are not necessarily the ones who call with complaints.

Also, on any given issue, I could rarely be certain of what the majority of residents felt even if it were pertinent to know.

The bottom line is that as editorial writers, we play a unique role.

We inform and yet we also seek to influence. We alternately try to protect the few from the many, and the many from the few. We attempt to be mindful of individual concerns, while we try to act in the best interest of all involved.

We can cajole in soft tones. Or -- and hopefully this is only when the situation truly warrants -- do a whithering slash attack.

Sometimes we're right.

Sometimes we're wrong.

Webster's Dictionary describes opinion this way: "A belief not based on absolute certainty or positive knowledge, but on what seems true, valid or probable to one's own mind."

That's all it is.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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