Friday, September 30, 2011

Almost putting my foot right in it - why double-checking is soooo important

WATKINS GLEN, New York, USA - There is never a good excuse for being inaccurate, but sometimes columnists, like all journalists, can walk right up to the cliff.

If they are lucky, they catch themselves before they fall over and break their necks.

This week in New York I was precipitously close to the edge, but caught myself - with the help of a friend - before catapulting into the darkness.

The near fall was in a column about a state-sponsored public hearing. At the outset of it, the administrative law judge running the show made a big pronouncement that no local public officials would be testifying. Unfortunately, that bit of info got translated by most of the audience into that there were no public officials present.

And, if true, that would have been a big deal. The public hearing was to get public testimony about a very controversial proposal to store liquid propane gas in salt caverns near a populated area and a beautiful lake.

So if local government types took a pass, well, that would be too good to be true for a columnist looking for an angle.

It was too good to be true, as such things almost always are.

As I sat starting my column, the good angel on my right shoulder said 'check out if there were any public officials there.' The bad angel, resting on my left shoulder, said 'No, no, no... it's too good to pass up.'

Luckily, the good angel won out, and I asked the mayor of Watkins Glen via email if there were any public officials there (him included). There were, he said - lots of folks, actually. He even sent me a list of who he saw. And so instead of lambasting uncaring public servants, I was able to simply comment on the proceeding and include their quiet participation among my other thoughts on the lengthy meeting and what it means for the area.

Had I laid into the same public officials with a snarky 'Why weren't you there?' kind of piece, it would have been just short of disaster.

Actually no, it would have been a disaster, for me.

As it was, the incident and my exchange with my mayoral amigo has given me a couple of good ideas for future columns about public participation, decorum at public meetings, and the role of public hearings in making decisions.

And, because I checked before I published, I can write them without having to withdraw a metaphorical foot from my mouth.

Another lesson re-learned, and lesson now passed on.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad