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We will defend your right to have an opinion

June 02, 2002|by TERRY HEADLEE

I start each weekday morning by scanning my e-mail and listening to my phone messages.

This is a voice mail that greeted me Thursday morning:

"Mr. Headlee, no wonder they call your paper the Republican paper. The lieutenant governor comes to Hagerstown to speak to 400 people. She's on the third page and you have a man chasing a bull and a kid winning a spelling bee on the front page. You know, people say because you are the only paper in town we have to buy it if we want any kind of news, which is usually not always valid, and if we had another paper you'd be down the drain."

My reaction to comments like this and from other readers who get angry at times with our newspaper is straightforward: I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it.

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Thus, criticism of why we give better play to various stories is fair game. This is called "freedom of speech" and this constitutional right includes the right of citizens to openly criticize newspapers.

This short, but brutally frank analysis of our newspaper content from a reader hit on several issues that are worth exploring in more detail.

First, we're not a Republican paper. In fact, we're not a Democrat paper, even though I generally hear more complaints that the media is liberal, not conservative.

It's just a hunch, but my guess is this reader took a broad-brush approach to labeling the newspaper as pro-Republican because we chose not to run an appearance by Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on Thursday's front page.

The reason had nothing to do with whether we are Republican or Democrat-biased newspaper.

It has more to do with whether or not the story is newsworthy enough to be a Page 1 story. The lieutenant governor attending a Democrat-sponsored dinner in Hagerstown isn't exactly earth-shattering news. The annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner also served as a fund-raiser for the local Democratic party and was expected to raise $5,000.

It should be noted that just the day before, Robert L Ehrlich Jr., the Republican gubernatorial candidate, spent an evening at a local Washington County residence and raised a staggering $72,000 from local supporters. For the record, this story also ran on Page 3 in our newspaper in almost the same position as the Kennedy Townsend story that ran just a day later.

From my perspective, a candidate who can come into this county and raise $72,000 in one evening makes for a more interesting story than a dinner attended by 400 people. But as you know by now, we treated both political stories exactly the same way.

We try to be careful with how we play political stories during election years, which is why we generally err on giving both sides equal treatment.

The reader complaint that we chose to run a man chasing a bull and a kid winning a spelling bee deserves some clarification.

On the day that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was in Hagerstown, four bulls decided to bolt from a farm trailer on Interstate 70. One of them strolled into Hagerstown and made a loop around South Hagerstown High School. Three of the four were eventually subdued with tranquilizer guns.

I think readers would find this to not be your average, run-of-the-mill story.

The spelling bee winner was a Smithsburg Middle School student who advanced to the second day of the Annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Usama Qadri, 14, successfully spelled "gynarchy" and did well enough on a 25-word test to make it to Day Two with just 88 other spellers from across the country.

Usama then correctly spelled "ribald" in the third round before falling on "nephalism" in the fourth round that was televised nationally on ESPN. Making it to the fourth round meant that Usama finished among the top 58 spellers.

A local kid who shows up on ESPN and is among the top middle-school spellers in the United States is - in my opinion - a nice, positive story that is worthy of the front page.

If you disagree, could we at least agree that anyone who can correctly spell gynarchy and ribald and miss spelling nephalism by one letter is worthy of at least Page 1 consideration?

Terry Headlee is the executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, extension 7594, or e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com

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