Sound Off taps into pulse of community

Pilot & Today forum a chance for residents to voice opinions on issues they're passionate about

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— A few years ago, my friend Bret Bloomquist had hip replacement surgery and was hospitalized for several days.

Bret was the sports editor at the newspaper where I worked the San Angelo Standard-Times. When I called him to see what I could do for him during his hospital stay, he asked me to bring him some copies of "Speak Your Mind Raw." Speak Your Mind was the Standard-Times' version of the Pilot & Today's Sound Off, except there were probably four times as many calls to Speak Your Mind, which was published daily instead of weekly like Sound Off.

Speak Your Mind was compiled by the rewrite clerks, who used an old telephone answering machine to transcribe the calls. Only about half of the calls ever made the newspaper. Many were too obscene or too outrageous to print.

We called the unedited compilation of calls "Speak Your Mind Raw," an ode to the unedited versions of "The Jerry Springer Show" that were being marketed and sold as Jerry Springer Raw on television commercials. So the highlight of Bret's hospital stay became lunchtime, when I would bring over a couple of burgers and a printout of the unedited Speak Your Mind comments.

This was West Texas during the Clinton presidency, so there were few Democrats and a no more hated man than Bill Clinton. We received a steady stream of Speak Your Mind messages of the Clinton conspiracy variety. There was the "Bill Clinton is going to charge us a dime for every e-mail so that he can finance his own private island in the Pacific where he would keep a harem." And there was the fear that Clinton and Janet Reno were going to confiscate every gun in Ozona, Texas, because more than 70 percent of Ozona residents had voted for Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election.

You can't make such comments up, unless you were an outraged West Texan calling Speak Your Mind.

When we created Sound Off at the beginning of the year for the Pilot & Today, I expected similar responses. But so far, Sound Off has been relatively tame. Sound Off Raw wouldn't make for much more interesting reading than the Sound Off we publish every Sunday.

What has surprised me is how many times I have come up in Sound Off. In 10 years of newspapering, my name never came up in such forums. Then again, I was never the editor before either.

Now it seems my name comes up in every other Sound Off. Earlier this year, someone called me stupid because of the question of the week. Of course, that wasn't as bad as when we chose to ask a question about the appropriateness of naming a bridge after James Brown. Then, someone called me a racist white boy in Sound Off.

Last week, someone suggested we had a front-page story about a co-housing project because I'm involved in it. This week, someone suggested our editorial on policy governance at the school district was influenced by the fact that my wife is a school district administrator.

None of this is true. I've done dumb things, but I am not stupid. I am white and I did grow up in South Carolina, but that does not make me a racist. I don't always pick the stories that are on the front page and my wife, as much as she might like, does not get a say in our editorials.

Some have asked why we run such Sound Off comments. The truth is we wouldn't be much of a newspaper if we didn't. The newspaper prints comments critical of public officials all the time. It certainly wouldn't be fair to censor comments critical of the newspaper or the editor, even if those comments are based on false perceptions rather than reality.

I think Sound Off has been a great addition to our newspaper. Critics say such anonymous forums foster vicious criticisms that individuals would never offer if they had to attach their names. I think that is true. Ultimately, the Standard-Times quit running Speak Your Mind because three out of four comments were mean spirited, unfair and, ultimately, unprintable.

I hope that never happens here. I think Sound Off taps into the pulse of the community. You can read it each week and get a feel for local issues people are passionate about.

There will always be those people who would never write a letter to the editor but will call in Sound Off comments. I like hearing their thoughts, even if I don't know who they are and even if they only called to say the editor is stupid.

Scott Stanford is editor of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. He is filling in for columnist Tom Ross, who is on vacation. Ross' column will return Oct. 14.

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