Marbella, Rodricks and Maese show what columnists can do

The Baltimore Sun

Columnists contribute valuable perspective and focus to the coverage of important news events. A few recent columns in The Sun bear this out.

Two incisive, well-reported pieces by Metro columnist Jean Marbella about the special legislative session in Annapolis received a lot of attention from readers.

In her Nov. 9 column, Marbella wrote: "For those of you keeping score at home, health clubs and real estate property managers -- they're good. No new sales tax on them. But landscapers, computer service providers and video arcades -- not so good. The grass-cutters, the geeks, the guy, as one legislator imagined, who offers the coin-operated bouncy horsey outside the store -- they should start boning up on the times-six multiplication table. If you're not confused, to paraphrase a more famous slogan, you're not paying attention. "

That column, "Keeping score on taxes no easy task," blew much of the legislative fog away and was read aloud by a state senator during debate on the Senate floor. Marbella then followed last week with another informative and entertaining piece, spotlighting the dilemma that former Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias, now a state delegate, finds himself in on slots. Mathias had opposed slots at the Shore as mayor but now says he appreciates the issue in a broader context. He told Marbella: "It's a mess. How do I walk the line? I'm really on a tightrope here."

Metro columnist Dan Rodricks' Nov. 11 column examined Baltimore's Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien's decision to fire a South Baltimore parish priest for allowing an Episcopal priest to read the Gospel during a funeral. As reported in the Catholic World News and in The Sun's Nov. 10 front-page news article, the Rev. Ray Martin was asked to resign because his decision was considered "liturgical abuse."

In his column, "Church loses sight of the big picture," Rodricks wrote: "In the wake of priest sexual-abuse scandals, the Baltimore Archdiocese's reference to Father Martin's offenses as 'bringing scandal to the church' seems almost laughable." After noting that a number of parishioners planned to protest the decision, Rodricks concluded: "I applaud anyone who exercises his or her right as a citizen. But in the realm of the mysterious and powerful, what you say or think doesn't matter. Your country is a democracy. Your church isn't."

Successful newspaper columnists develop a special relationship with readers. Readers might agree or disagree, but they always want to know what he or she has to say. The columnist informs, challenges, angers, surprises and entertains. It is a job that requires energy and risk taking, and one that allows latitude in tone and choice of subject matter.

A number of readers showed their appreciation for Marbella and Rodricks.

David Jerrard on Marbella's Nov. 9 column: "What a wonderful, erudite, brilliant and exposing article this was. You have a new fan. Thanks for exposing once again the corrupt and deceitful political system that we have here in Maryland."

From Carolyn Hicks: "Thank you, Ms. Marbella, for your update, and your diligence. Please continue contacting the legislators down in Annapolis. "

Darlene Helmer was one of almost 200 readers who responded to Rodricks' column:

"Your article regarding the Catholic Church expressed my feelings completely. Father Ray Martin was a wonderful priest. The kind we really need. He did a job running three churches that not everyone could have accomplished."

From Kim Acton: "I applaud you, Dan, for speaking out on this subject. The actions that Archbishop O'Brien has taken against Father Ray [are] the scandal."

Not all readers were thrilled. A reader from Woodstock in Howard County said: "The church is always damned if it does or damned if it doesn't with Dan Rodricks. ... When it comes to writing on the Catholic Church, trust Rodricks for the most biased, bitter, and twisted perspective possible."

Sometimes readers can be confused when columnists cross the line between news and commentary.

Talented Sun sports columnist Rick Maese wrote a stinging column after the Ravens' embarrassing 21-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday.

In that Nov. 12 sports section column, "With Billick out of answers, no question that he should go," Maese made a potent and articulate case that Billick has lost touch with his players, is no longer effective and must be replaced. The column generated a lot of response.

The next day, The Sun published a front-page news article by Maese -- a relatively straightforward non-judgmental report on the precarious state of the Ravens based in part on Billick's comments at a Nov. 12 news conference.

After his highly opinionated column, Maese believed it was only fair that he attend the news conference along with two Sun beat reporters and columnist Mike Preston -- even though he was not scheduled to write for the next day's edition. But because of the large number of Ravens stories planned for the next editions, editors asked Maese to report on and write the Page One article on the "state of the Ravens."

It was a mistake, in my view, to assign Maese to produce a dispassionate news analysis on the Ravens the day after his column passionately made the case that Billick should be replaced. It put Maese in an awkward position and was confusing for some readers.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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