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The 'self-appointed editorialist' speaks

May 18, 2008

Next week I will mark 35 years at The Herald-Mail. I began work here as an intern in the summer of 1972.

I was a journalism student at the University of Maryland, College Park, when interviews for internships were held. The Herald-Mail was a favored place to work, because the company would give you as much work as you could handle.

I interviewed in a classroom in what was then UMCP's Journalism Building. Afterwards I was told that they had four slots and I was No. 5.

What could have held me out, I wondered. Might it have been my scruffy black beard? Determined not to allow some unattractive facial hair to do me in, I shaved the beard, then drove to Hagerstown the following Monday to meet with the personnel director.

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If someone else doesn't work out, I said, I'm your guy, I said. I didn't expect much, but then I got a call saying one of the four had purchased a new car and that the internship pay wasn't enough to cover the payments.

All of a sudden, I was in, covering everything from District Court to alleged sightings of bobcats and other sorts of local stories.

Over the years, I covered county government, city government and was Sunday feature reporter for a while. Between the city and county assignments, I was local news editor of The Daily Mail (now defunct) for six years.

In 1985, after the Sunday feature thing, The Herald-Mail editors decided they wanted a full-time editorial writer.

I applied and submitted a resume and sample editorials. Though I had won a Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association first prize seven years before for my column on the infamous Turner's Lane feud, there was no rush to give me the job I have now.

It didn't happen until Fred Temby was named publisher to replace James M. Schurz, who had been named corporate vice president of newspaper for our corporate parent, Schurz Communications Inc.

I remembered all of this on Wednesday when Del. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, referred to me as a "self-appointed editorialist."

I suppose there is such a thing, but the term seems to imply that the writer decided, on his or her own, to become a commentator.

That's not how it happened with me; someone at a higher level decided they would put me in that role. And I've always been acutely aware that when I'm writing an editorial that is the newspaper's position, that I am not the only one who needs to see and discuss it before it is published.

But the more important point may be in rebuttal to those elected officials who have implied that recent commentary boils down to a battle between The Herald-Mail (or me) and Shank.

Shank has said, in a couple of different appearances, that he did not run for elected office to win a popularity contest.

Neither did I. My goal is to give the readers, as Carl Bernstein said, the best available version of the truth.

For a writer of commentary, the job is a bit different. As I have written previously, being the first provider of the facts on any issue weakens any commentary that follows. Being fair and accurate has to come before whatever I want to say about the subject at hand. If I'm reporting the facts, then the commentary is likely to be something lukewarm, such as "this issue deserves a lot more study."

In the case at hand, what I've tried to say is that even Shank and his supporters have conceded that the temporary loss of the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown funds was political.

In Andrew Schotz's April 20 story, Shank was quoted as saying "To a certain degree, a crisis was created so certain individuals (Del. John Donoghue) could solve that crisis."

My question is: If the Democrats could do it to enhance Donoghue's image, couldn't they do in the next session it to bash Shank?

In saying this, my intention is not to bash Shank, but to suggest that his actions might have unintended consequences.

If readers feel that raising such questions - questions to designed to make all involved think about what's going on - is unfair, please write and let me know that you no longer want to be burdened with thoughts or ideas that might disturb you.

Here's my thought: Just as it is possible to love your children without agreeing that their behavior is perfect 100 percent of the time, it is also possible to respect and support your state representative without blindly supporting his or her actions.

As for the idea that this is all about selling newspapers, I'll get into that next week. For now, I'll ask readers and elected officials this question: What was the last story that prompted you to buy a newspaper because you couldn't wait to read the details?

The person who tells me the best story, in 100 words or less, will win a $25 gasoline card. Send entries to: Hot Story,c/o Editorial Page Editor, 100 Summit Ave., Hagerstown, MD 20741.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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