The County Government Reporter You’ve Got

Chuck’s note: This post is Billy Townsend’s first post after leaving the Tribune. If you read this site through a feed, you may not see the bylines. I’m sure you’ll quickly learn to tell us apart. The style, commentary, and concerns are Billy’s very own. See A New Author at Lakeland Local for my thoughts on opening this site to an additional voice.

So I was noodling around TheLedger.com a few days ago and ran across a Tom Palmer blog post dismissively dubbing as “predictable” my intrepid former colleague Lindsay Peterson’s recent story about Amtrak. Not sure how many straightforward news features are ever surprising, but no matter… I can rest easier in my post-journalism grave knowing that Tom is still willing to act as The Tribune’s exclamation point on its CSX rail deal-related coverage.

As Lindsay and I worked through this stuff over the last year, a pattern emerged: We would post or report something original on the blog or the A-front, and Tom would quickly hock a digital loogie on it from his blog. This happened over and over again, with Tom making varying arguments at varying times. They seemed to break down into three rough categories of objection.

1) This is totally unimportant, and the people who care about it are unimportant and unhinged. And it’s bizarre to spend this much time and effort on it when it’s a done deal. And they should really stop their whining.

2) This is very important, and Lindsay and Billy are hopeless shills for the sinister Dockery/”downtown merchant” axis.

3) Lindsay and Billy are breathing air I might be breathing.

But my favorite Tomism came back on Halloween of last year, in response to something no one had ever written. Here’s the link.

http://county.theledger.com/default.asp?item=694786&mode=blog

It makes me smile. Short version: Tom opens his post with this line: “Several months ago we read horror stories about how trucks from the CSX terminal might overwhelm downtown Lakeland, but the reality so far is turning out to be different.”

Ouch. Gotcha.

Except, to my knowledge, truck impact on downtown Lakeland has never been a concern. There was some concern about 98 and the Polk Parkway, but that’s about 7 miles from downtown as Tom would surely know. Anyway, a commenter called Tom on this, asking him to cite where he had heard or read such horror stories. He couldn’t do it.

But, indefatigable as always, Tom not only didn’t correct his error, he went on to tell his commenter that his “larger point” was that everyone should “let the debate be judged by verified impacts, not imagined impacts.”

It’s a small thing, of course. But it gives you a glimpse into the mind and ego of the man charged with separating the verified from the imagined in Polk county government. Lying in print, getting caught, and then playing it off as not germane to “the larger point” seems like bad form, even in this new media landscape.

On the other hand, it’s hard to work up too much righteous dudgeon over a guy with such detailed knowledge of exotic birds. Though maybe we should question some of those warbler sightings he’s reported over the years. Anyway, you can’t really hold this against Tom. We all have our intractable pathologies to bear. His are intellectual vanity and misanthropy. It’s like telling a giraffe not to have a long neck.

And it worked to The Tribune’s advantage. Lindsay and I came to rely on Tom’s curmudgeonliness as a barometer of how well we were doing our jobs. The quicker and the nastier Tom’s comment, the better the story. It was like a Nielson rating.

While this was good for us, it wasn’t so good for The Ledger. There’s no reason Polk County’s paper of record should have had its butt kicked on the biggest local growth/development/regional politics story in a generation. If Tom had spent a little more time reporting and asking critical questions about the issue and a little less time acting like a James Brown call-back chorus, The Ledger might not have needed to pay Dave Schultz to come out of retirement this spring to write the same story Lindsay and I wrote six months before. (He did a good job, by the way. It was a smart investment.)

But there’s no point in what-ifs, I guess. After all, to paraphrase that great American Donald Rumsfeld, you go to press with the county government reporter you’ve got, not the one you wish you had.

6 thoughts on “The County Government Reporter You’ve Got

  1. Well said. I’m glad someone has finally lay open Tom Palmer. Maybe the Ledger should hire Billy as news editor.

    Thanks

  2. Well said. I’m glad someone has finally lay open Tom Palmer. Maybe the Ledger should hire Billy as news editor.

    Thanks

  3. Great to see you writing again Billy. Great post. I look forward to your future writings.

  4. Great to see you writing again Billy. Great post. I look forward to your future writings.

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