Being up on the University of Washington campus talking about journalism got under my skin.
Rubbing elbows with a bunch of smarty-pants word-nuts and roaming the paths of academia seems to have put my mind into a stormy whirl. For days I've had ideas hitting the skylights of my cerebral cortex while the wind roars around breaking off branches of thought and tossing them in the air.
Or as Grandma Harmon might have put it, "Are your knickers in a knot?"
The sun broke through, briefly, today and I unknotted my knickers.
Thus, a few thoughts on the link between truth, democracy and healthy communities.
Democracy and Information We know that the foundation of a healthy democracy is an informed citizenry.
It's our job to read broadly, think openly, make our own decisions, vote on those decisions and then to follow up, to keep tabs on what is happening in our name and with our resources.
After all, the government works for us - we pay them.
Nearly two centuries and a quarter ago, Thomas Jefferson acknowledged the subverting power of power to Edward Carrington, a Virginia soldier and statesman, writing, "If once they [the nation's people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves."
Then we become sheep, blindly following; or, even worse, devoured by those wolves of power.
So, given that it's our duty to pay attention, every once in awhile it's appropriate to ask what we are paying attention to.
How well are our information systems working? How "good" - read: accurate, fair, balanced, appropriate, and useful - is our news?
Information streams We have many news streams - newspapers, magazines, e-mails, blogs, Facebook, and just talking to folks around our local equivalent of the water cooler, the grocery store and the post office.
Many of these info streams are shaped and jetted to one constituency. It seems we often and only believe facts that support our world view.
You might say there's a red stream and a blue stream. There's Fox News and the PBS News Hour; there's the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times - all purporting to present "the facts, ma'am, just the facts."
As mentioned last week, the Internet spews out all kinds of factoids every micro-second of the day, most without attribution. All "facts" - false or true - get jettisoned around the net at warp speed.
Most are judged based on the trustworthiness of their sources.
Our own Nansen Malin now has 181,326 followers on Twitter - though this will be out of date by the time you read it. Folks follow her because they trust her to provide "good" (see above) information.
How does our small but mighty Chinook Observer fit into this information mix? Are we doing the best job we can serving the diverse and layered community we call the Peninsula?
The Digital Dance We are dancing partners, you and I.
You, the concerned, informed citizen; and me one of the humble producers of information for these pages.
As in any relationship, there is a give and take, a set of responsibilities and roles for each partner. Neither role is passive - both require diligence and engagement.
Your part of the dance is to keep us and all institutions with investments in our community - whether non-profit or commercial - on our toes. Tell us what you think, what you are worried about, and what you are noticing about where we live.
It's your responsibility to argue with us when you disagree - whether it's about the start of a new decade or PUD salaries. (Don't you just love those letters to the editor?)
We journalists have the responsibility of informing our neighbors - utilizing the ethics and values of our craft - about what's going on in the 'hood.
Digital technology can help us here. Jim Sayce created an "Eye of the Storm Pacific County" Facebook page with over 200 members, to keep us informed on storms and emergency preparedness. (Join up.)
Stephanie Fritts posted text updates on recent power outages to folks on her cell phone. Malin sends tweets.
The Chinook Observer reaches many segments of our community, both in old-fashioned newsprint and via a top-honored Web site and instant twitters.
Informed Communities In October 2009, the Knight Commission (an offshoot of the Aspen Institute) produced a report entitled, "Informing Communities, Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age."
This report recommends several strongly worded guidelines for healthy communities, two of which floated to the top of my list.
"Information is as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health" and, "The public's business should be done in public."
The first affirms the continued importance of community, hyperlocal newspapers. And the second is a fierce enforcement of transparency.
The report elaborates saying that we should "Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data."
Public information should be defined as broadly as possible, with narrow exceptions respecting individual privacy.
The report affirms openness as a policy for all public agencies - PUD, the police and fire departments, county assessor, council men and women, commissioners of all kinds - everyone on the public payroll.
We the public need to know - we have a right to know - how our money is being spent and what the ramifications of those decisions are. Otherwise how can we participate in managing our own well-being as individuals and communities?
Even pseudo public institutions like water companies and newspapers - any organizations that are instrumental to community good - should conduct their affairs in the spirit of collaboration.
If the Information Age has taught us anything, it is surely that the democratization of information systems empower.
Google's recent decision to pull out of China, based on the government's censorship of certain sites as a requirement for doing business there, is an example of transparency gaining its rightful place on the planet.
Citizen Journalists The Internet has meant that anyone and everyone can be a citizen journalist. Start a blog, send a tweet, tell us what you're doing and why.
And if you're doing something wrong - whether individual or institutional - you can bet that someone somewhere is going to notice it and send out an alert.
Jefferson again, "I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves."
(What thoughts might have run through Jefferson's mind had he anticipated the development of a corrective information system as powerful as the Internet?)
Though some at our gathering, on an overly-moist weekend on campus, argued that journalism is suffering at the hands of social networking and other purveyors of digital reality, I say we are simply in a era of transformative innovation.
Periods of disruption often create non-congruous innovation in their wakes. (Humans and human consciousness probably developed as a result of one of these periods of dramatic change.)
So, let's dance the digital dance, as long as we retain as much as we can from what is the best of what has come before.
Communicate Yes, I have a twitter account. Yes, I'm on Facebook and, reluctantly, Linkedin and Yahoo groups. I recently purchased a smart phone. I'm sending text messages.
But I still read the newspaper. The stack of magazines beside my bed is two feet tall. And my favorite way of communicating is talking over a cup of coffee.
It's just a matter of balance, of keeping our sense of what nurtures and what tears down keenly sharpened.
"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter," said Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, on Jan. 16, 1787 - a date that would, several centuries hence, be honoring another man of truth.