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The Baltimore Sun

Sometimes the columnist's weekly offering drops into the public consciousness as if it were a bottomless well. No splash, no sound, nothing.

Properly so, some will say. Just what it deserves.

Sometimes, though, particularly in the age of the Internet, when pontificators append e-mail addresses, responses do come.

The messages waiting on Monday morning can be illuminating and friendly - or a bracing introduction to the etiquette of the cyberworld.

It's a case of being careful about what you wish for.

Rule No. 1 for the e-mail writer: Act quickly while umbrage is peaking, lest some more thoughtful tone creep into your message.

I give you this representative example, a response to a column I wrote about Gov. Martin O'Malley's first few weeks in office.

"I don't mean to be insulting," the message began ominously, "but this was perhaps one of the most sophomoric pieces of pabulum I've yet come across in an American news daily."

I wondered what something insulting would have been like. (No, actually, I'm not asking for an example.)

The guy had company.

"I read with jaw agape your 2nd grade puff piece about O'Malley," wrote another correspondent. "Get your head out of O'Malley's [expletive] long enough to realize that besides raising taxes and lying about it, he will do for Maryland exactly what he did for Baltimore: NOTHING."

E-mail appears to be a liberating force, allowing people to step away from any moderating influences. There's plenty in the world to get inflamed about, to be sure. Mailers don't have everyone's address, so if yours is out there in the public realm, you're likely to get what my ex-mother-in-law used to call an ear beating.

Sometimes (not often), letter writers give me more credit that I'm due. "Why doesn't The Sun admit it has a liberal bias and stop using that meaningless motto: Light for All. Any conservative that reads The Sun knows that the motto directly contradicts The Sun's true agenda."

I don't have any control over the agenda or the motto. But I wouldn't change "Light for All" if I did.

I love "Light for All." It ought to be a guidepost for all newspapers and all journalists. I'm not saying anyone reaches it. It's an objective. The paper's editorial identity is another thing, but it's not a hidden thing. Take it or leave it, but don't think of it as a contradiction. It's an affirmation, a position.

In the past, I have chosen to ignore mail when it's vulgar or abusive. It cuts down significantly on mail I have to answer, and it keeps my own tone from slipping into the dark side.

But I have responded if there's a glimmer of hope for a useful exchange of views.

Another writer recently lamented what he feels is a dearth of conservative viewpoint on The Sun's editorial pages. He objected to my use of a quote about flag waving and said he did not think actors Geena Davis and Danny Glover and journalist Bill Moyers - all speakers at a recent conference on media reform - represent Middle America.

He did agree that the press in this country needs to look at itself in the mirror. I'm sure he and I have that feeling for different reasons, but here was a useful exchange of views.

I wrote back: "As for the actors at the convention, they certainly didn't represent Middle America. [But] I think there's a lot of unhappiness with media in Middle America."

And my correspondent replied, "Thanks for your kind response to my letter, kinder than I probably deserve. Any time you want to have a vigorous argument about something, drop me a line."

Last weekend, I wrote about tax-averse legislators who don't do the responsible thing because they fear negative reaction from voters.

"Outstanding. To the point. Easy to read," wrote one reader.

But my constant reader and sometime critic A. Robert Kaufman took me to task. The voters are not to blame, he said. It's the corporations that make campaign contributions - and order legislators to oppose a fair tax structure.

Worth thinking about. And thinking, after all, would be the point.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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