Anatomy of a Correction
On November 20, I gave a lunchtime speech to the Frederick County Builder's Association. After more than a dozen years in public service, these public speaking opportunities have become something I look forward to.
That's especially true with a room full of friends and colleagues, people who know how to share a laugh and some serious consternation over the state of politics. This particular afternoon took on a special prominence, but we'll explore that later.
Asked to speak about United Way, and how we're undergoing some pretty major changes, the majority of the post-lunch remarks dealt with the challenges of charitable giving in what are arguably the worst economic conditions most of us have ever experienced.
You can't give a speech to a roomful of politically connected people without a discussion about state politics, and this one was no different. After about 20 minutes on the state of non-profits, I launched into the spiel about state politics and the upcoming General Assembly session.
Before describing how one little speech went horribly wrong, a little context setting is in order. One the business reporters from The Frederick News Post was in attendance. A reporter in the room where a politician is speaking functions like the governor mechanism on an internal combustion engine. Since the reporter is likely to jot down anything even slightly controversial, wise politicians tend to be wary of news-making commentary.
Having known and respected the reporter in question for as many years as I've been in public life, there was no need to be cautious. I've never had reason to criticize a reporter for misrepresenting the truth. In 15 years of doing this, I've never been misquoted, not even a little.
Anticipating that to be the case that afternoon, it seemed like the perfect audience for a healthy dose of sarcastic humor. Maryland Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller had just announced the possibility of an increase in the gasoline tax. Senator Miller's logic was stunning in its simplicity, but just as equally alarming.
President Miller suggested there was no better time than now to add up to 25 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas. He thought we were already accustomed to paying $4 a gallon anyway, and a 25-cent increase would allow the state to pay for the State Highway capital budget which we've essentially abandoned at this point.
Leaning against the podium – I hate standing behind them – I told the crowd that only in this state could someone so cavalierly ignore the tragic effects of an economic downtown and suggest raising taxes, any taxes. I did suggest that Senator Miller possessed the ability, if anyone did, to get a gas tax passed.
So, another 10-15 minutes of Q&A, and the speech was over. As has been my experience, all of us probably forgot everything I said within 10 minutes of my actually saying it. Everyone except the reporter for the News-Post, that is.
Reading Saturday's newspaper is normally a much more laid-back affair than the weekday versions. Without the weight of the upcoming day looming, news articles don't seem to have the same level of importance.
On this particular, Saturday was one of the worst newspaper-reading days ever. As my eyes scanned the article about my speech, I read the following passage: The delegate said one issue he hopes to pass in 2009 is an increase in the state's gas tax. The bill is being pushed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who thinks that if people were used to paying $4 for gas, they won't mind an extra 24 cents a gallon on top of the existing 24 cents now charged. Miller sees the funds as providing jobs for people to work on roads and bridges in Maryland,” Weldon said.
Wow, now that's a journalistic leap! From a sarcastic joke about the smug attitude of a state politician who lacks the ability to "read" his constituents on a tax increase to an intention to actually support that same increase. That's John Kerry-level flip-flopping.
Problem is I didn't say it! Didn't even hint at it.
Instead of finishing the paper, I literally ran into my office and fired off an email to the reporter and the editor of that section of the paper. There wasn't much use in trying to finish the paper, as the red I was seeing was obscuring my already shaky vision.
The reporter, reflecting his moral character and journalistic integrity, was quick to respond and fess-up to his mistake. The paper initially responded in their normal manner. The mistake that completely and totally misrepresented my position was addressed in a shadowed box located in the lower left-hand side of page A-2 of the Tuesday, November 25 paper. You can read it below:
A story on page B-4 Saturday should have stated that Delegate Rick Weldon, while talking about a possible increase to the state's gasoline tax, did not say he supported it.
Trust me when I tell you that what you see above is about 2 times the size of the item in the little box in the paper. Without a magnifying glass, you wouldn't have seen it!
The nightmare wasn't over, either. In the Wednesday, November 26 News Post, the following letter to the editor appeared:
“Buried in an article about Rick Weldon ("Weldon faces challenges on two fronts," Nov. 22), I read that Mr. Weldon and state Senate President Mike Miller plan to support a bill to double the state tax on gas from $0.24 to $0.48/gallon. The article says Mr. Miller "thinks that if people were used to paying $4 for gas, they won't mind an extra 24 cents a gallon on top of the existing 24 cents now charged.
“After the slots amendment passed, which we were told was necessary to make up for the tax shortfall, I wondered how many months it would be before Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly came back and told us that they needed to raise taxes again. Well, now we have our answer. It was only 17 days!
“Sometimes it's hard to believe that we actually elected these people to represent us. Isn't it about time that we recognized that we have a spending problem and elect someone who will actually address that issue? Please!”
I don't want to include the name of the letter writer, since that poor person didn't know that what they read had no basis in reality. But it's really troubling, given that what readers read is exactly the opposite of my own political philosophy and beliefs.
Lee Permenter, the editorial page editor, again demonstrating that journalistic ethics are alive and well at The Frederick News Post, sent me a thoughtful email indicating that he was sorry he missed the correction on Tuesday, and that he would have added it to the letter that ran on Wednesday.
Mr. Permenter also promised to run a correction on the editorial page in an upcoming edition. That extra effort is appreciated. (It ran in the News-Post edition on Thanksgiving Day)
Now back to the prominence of the Builder's Association luncheon. The Builders of Frederick County were gathered to honor one of their own, Jim Upchurch, who had just recently retired from the Interfaith Housing Alliance. Mr. Upchurch is one of the most honorable, thoughtful, and caring people to grace our community.
Jim and the team from the Interfaith Housing build houses and oversee sweat equity projects for families who lack the ability to enter the realm of home ownership the traditional way. He has been a dream maker and wish fulfiller, in that his clients get the chance to own their own home.
It would be a lie to say that the newspaper report containing the misquote wasn't a big issue, but in light of the real purpose for the event, honoring someone like Jim Upchurch, makes it not seem so bad.