Billy Daivs Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 3, 2007

‘Pitches’ to candidates aimed down the middle

This newspaper business sure is a funny way to make a living.

For a beat reporter like me, a daily challenge is the routine coverage of a newspaper beat, such as county government, which requires from the reporter a mixture of both close contacts and distant feelings.

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That effort is tested often in the board meetings of our Panola County Board of Supervisors, since I would be a rich reporter if the Lord gave me a quarter every time their actions made me want to roll my eyes in frustration.

But even when I depart a county board meeting grumbling over a vote, I must set my feelings aside when I sit down to write the story. Even when I believe their decisions are bad for the county, the board of supervisors deserves a story on page 1 that is written so fairly it bears no hint of my opinion expressed on pages 4 and 5.

That restraint has been put to the test during this current election season. To borrow a timely analogy, I have imagined that I’m a pitcher atop the mound while a Panola County supervisor, or one of the nine people who wants his job, is taking a turn in the batter’s box.

Ever since the umpire yelled “Play ball!” in early March, when qualifying ended, every election story has seemed like a 90-foot World Series pitch to home plate, with a hushed crowd watching until ball leaves hand and hits mitt. Depending on where its loyalties lie, the crowd reacts with either boos or cheers.

Like a shrewd batter trying to guess the next pitch, I suspect hundreds of people have been parsing my election stories for a paragraph, a sentence or even a single word that they believe favors the other team – or them.

Unlike an actual pitcher, however, my main objective has not been to strike anyone out, even when the crowd – and some other batters – wanted my aim to be off by inches.

My goal has been to throw a ball hard enough to convince the crowd that I belong on the mound but straight enough to let the batter know he can hit it if he gets the bat off his shoulder.

In other words, I won’t throw underhanded but I won’t throw a candidate a curve ball, either.

Part of that discipline is practical. In this job, the “batters” on my beat will disappear quickly, meaning they won’t return my phone calls, if they sense I’m aiming for a strikeout at the expense of their job or reputation.

Without batters to step in the box, then I’m playing this game all alone.

Another part of that discipline is philosophical. Even when I’m emotional over a cause I believe in, or suspicious of a candidate I believe is dishonest, the coaches around here remind me that my job is only to pitch a ball hard, fair and straight.

And I believe I’ve thrown some hard, fair, straight balls this campaign.

I asked the District 10 senate candidates about their campaign contributions, asking Sen. Nolan Mettetal about receiving contributions from financial businesses he has influence over.

Mettetal’s opponent, Mona Pittman, was asked about her contributions from lawyers around the state and also about the issue of voter I.D., which she acknowledged she does not support.

Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright admitted in an interview that he hasn’t purchased the K-9 nor the firearms he requested after receiving $16,500 added to his budget for both.

Mr. Bright’s opponent, Jamie Tedford, fielded questions about his relatively young age and whether he felt obligated to run for sheriff after promising to do so two years ago. He was also pressed to describe how he would improve the department after his opponent has hired more deputies.

The supervisor interviews followed a similar pattern. Incumbents were asked about their accomplishments and pressed about their decisions, and their challengers were asked what they planned to do, and why, if elected.  

Some may say I threw too soft.

Others may say I threw too hard.

But hopefully the batters I’ve faced since March can tell their spouse, their  supporters and their Sunday school class that they were treated with fairness and respect by The Panolian.

Regardless of score on August 7, I hope they can say it was the batting that made the difference in the voting booth.