The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Rave

January 23, 2013

Hearsay, speculation not the same as fact

We have seen the public meeting ambush too many times in Northumberland County, the practice of staging an assault on someone with leading questions or direct accusations.

Sometimes the shells are lobbed in from members of the board of commissioners. Other times, members of the audience take the point for the attack.

If there are substantial questions, claims and accusations that are supported by evidence, people genuinely interested in good government can find appropriate avenues -- including public attorneys, state investigators and even the press -- to examine the evidence and bring the missteps or misdeeds to light.

We won't say ordinary citizens should be on a short leash during public comment sessions at a commissioners' meeting, but open public speech should be within bounds.

By now, everyone recognizes the setup question, where any answer is an acknowledgement that validates an outrageous premise in the inquiry. This is traditionally characterized as the wife-beating question, as in, "Senator, when did you stop beating your wife?"

Some version of this tactic seemed evident in questions posed earlier this week by a Shamokin resident who began an interrogation of Commissioner Vinny Clausi that implied favoritism or other practices that could be widely regarded as inappropriate.

Ultimately, the speaker used up his time at the podium and had to be threatened with forcible removal before retreating from the meeting.

Newspapers encounter this approach from time to time when a disappointed or angry individual or group alerts the press to potential fireworks at a scheduled public meeting, with every expectation that news coverage will amplify their often legitimate, but sometimes merely vituperative, harangues.

The line between reportable and reputable public speech is not always distinct.

When this happened a few years ago in a local municipality, where some very personal and devastating charges were being flung around, The Daily Item adopted an approach that included attempts to verify accusations being made at meetings before taking them to publication.

There was some blowback over this delay from the people who were staging these public assaults, but the added examination proved valuable in terms of sorting out what was true and what was exaggerated.

What was astonishing in that experience was the amount of hearsay, speculation and improbable conspiratorial connections people were willing to present as accepted fact. If you were wondering why we have our doubts, that's why.

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