Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
November 17, 2009
Last week two of my esteemed fellow columnists dived gleefully into the Jack Johnson-Marilyn Marks-Elizabeth Milias-Et Al-Election Commission Swamp.
That’s the JJMMEMETECS. Hardly a handy acronym. Maybe we could grab a few letters from the center and call it the EMETIC. (Check your dictionaries, folks, and decide whether we should go with this. Maybe not.)
And now, already late to the party, I’m actually going to hold back. That’s right. I am declining to rush in where Su Lum and Roger Marolt have already so heavily tread. (Should that be “trod”? “Trodden”? “Trampled out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”?) Whatever. I will not take a dose of the EMETIC.
You know what I’m talking about, right? The ongoing dust-up about Aspen’s most recent election (if May still counts as “recent”).
Marilyn Marks, a persistent critic of city government, and her pal (and co-blogger on the Red Ant website) Elizabeth Milias claim to have found a veritable slew of problems with the election. Starting with their objections to the “illegal, unconstitutional, deeply flawed” Instant Runoff system, they have since branched out. Way out. Lawsuits have been filed.
More recently, former city councilman Jack Johnson accused some members of the city’s election commission of various improper, perhaps illegal, actions – which involved Milias (a member of the election commission) and Marks (as a partner in some of the allegedly questionable activities).
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The whole thing has turned into a swamp. (I’d say “quagmire,” but that’s a pretty loaded word. Especially when writing about Ms. Milias, who apparently once was a PR flack for the Department of Defense under President George W. Bush. “Quagmire” is a dirty word in those circles.)
A measure of how deep that swamp is can be seen in the 100-plus on-line comments about Roger Marolt’s column on this mess.
It’s a swamp, to say the least. And you want to stay out of a swamp unless you’ve got your hip boots. Indeed, the phrase “pissing contest” comes to mind. And you absolutely want to stay out of a pissing contest under any circumstances – especially as the liquid level rises past the Plimsoll Line and you need to trade in your hip boots for scuba gear.
And so now (at last!) we get to the heart of my concern.
Because in a mess like this one, the scuba gear you need, to keep you from drowning in the nasty murk, is a good, solid newspaper story.
And that, I’m sorry to say, we have not had.
True, Roger Marolt – bless his accountant’s heart – plowed through a vast stack of e-mails and unearthed some pretty nasty-sounding stuff.
But Roger is, like me, a columnist. He did some genuine investigating (reading those dreary e-mails), but he very understandably did not go through the full drill that a reporter would have (or should have) done.
Roger quoted the e-mails and offered his opinion that it sounded as if Marks and Milias were up to some pretty fishy business. He put in the disclaimer that “this all could just be my crazy imagination” – but then he concluded by telling anyone who chose to read the e-mails to bring “a barf bag.”
Strong stuff. But clearly an opinion piece.
And the same is true for Su Lum’s column, which had some solid background, but was still an opinion piece.
Don’t get me wrong, I am very much in favor of free-swinging (and occasionally fact-free) opinion pieces.
But the problem here is that Ms. Marks is a vigorous and voluble combatant. She answers any accusations with a flurry of responses that quickly turn into a cloud and then a fog. Her critics respond in turn and soon charges and counter-charges fill the air, circling like vultures over the bloated corpse of the truth.
Marks has claimed that the city has tried to slap a gag order on her, that all our freedoms are at risk, that anyone running afoul of Aspen’s political establishment will be subject to a process that would make the military dictators of Burma blush. Some of that may be true. Who can tell?
I am as happy as anyone to respect the value of outrageous hyperbole in political debate. But it all makes me unwilling to dive in without that solid newspaper reporting to guide me.
These days the editors of The Aspen Times – two talented, dedicated, honest, hard-working men – are deeply restricted by savage cuts in the paper’s editorial staff, the sad result of the ongoing national recession.
The paper has not been able to assign a reporter to get that job done. That reporter would have to read all the e-mails and read the court filings and sit down and interview Jack Johnson, Marilyn Marks (and Elizabeth Milias and City Clerk Kathryn Koch and election commissioner Chris Bryan and … you get the idea). And maybe talk to some of them twice. And cross-check what they said. And challenge questionable statements. And then pull it all together in a solid, comprehensible story that explained what was going on, specified provable facts and demolished half-truths and evasions.
Stories like that are hard to write. Reporters who can write them are hard to find (although the Times has several). Budgets that can afford all of that are hard to justify.
But still, in a mess like this, it’s what we all need.
I’m still hoping that, one of these days, we get it.
And then, when the hard work’s been done, I’ll cheerfully shoot my mouth off.
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