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Somewhere between fact and fiction is anonymity of the internet

An Associated Press story last week discussed how the internet has become the community bulletin board, grapevine and digital gallows of the world. The anonymity the world wide web provides absolutely helps spur candid, open discussions of issues. But it provides the unfettered ability to distort facts, perpetuate half-truths and downright lie to further a point of view.

How well I understand this trend.

A month or so ago, I tackled the state audit of the McDuffie County Board of Education. It is 65 pages filled with numbers, explanations and findings. It also contains the school system's response to those findings.

And it is a brutal read. In the harshness of black and white, it reads like a reporter's dream: cancelled credit cards and questionable spending.

But we don't live in a black and white world, and my job is to find the truth that often lies in the grey.

That meant spending an hour on the phone with the state auditor going over the audit point-by-point.

It meant visiting Superintendent Mark Petersen and taking nearly three hours to study documents related to the audit.

It meant spending time with School System Comptroller Tom Smalley, asking many of the same questions and digging a little deeper.

It meant letting a couple of friends with accounting backgrounds - one a former auditor himself - read the audit report and offer their opinion.

It meant covering all my bases.

And all the information, research, interviews and opinions converged in my story.

A few weeks later, it got ugly.

The ugliness stems from a half-hearted report posted on an area website that allows anonymous commenting on issues. It started with accusations that Dr. Petersen is a thief and has degenerated to comments about his wife, the private lives of various school system employees, even racist ranting about school board employees. Along the way, the 100 or so posts (which is equivalent to less than a half percent of the county's population - and the percentage drops significantly when you count the actual number of people posting) also toss in the accusations of cover up, cronyism and intimidation.

Now, certainly, Dr. Petersen has made mistakes along the way. He admitted to those, reimbursed the school system and voluntarily made changes to avoid such issues in the future.

Take, for example, the $453.60 for a plane ticket and conference registration for Dr. Petersen's wife. It was an error that - by all accounts - should have been caught by the checks and balances of the system. It wasn't, and as soon as the error was brought to Dr. Petersen's attention by state auditors, he reimbursed the school system.

So be clear:

- There is no money missing.

- Every dollar that is questioned in the audit can be - and has been - accounted for.

- Dr. Petersen did not steal any money.

- The procedural changes that were recommended have been implemented.

Now, notice that I didn't say I thought Dr. Petersen was doing a bad job. I didn't say I thought he was doing a good job. I repeated facts - documented, proven facts. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If you want to criticize or offer opinions about Dr. Petersen, have at it - he's a public official, and criticism and scrutiny come with the territory.

But do it based on actual issues. You shouldn't have to make up accusations.

I'm all for using an anonymous forum to debate issues. I fully understand there are times that folks need to hide their identity. But that debate crosses the line - and it is not a "fine line" by any stretch of the imagination - when it is filled with lies and unfounded accusations. At that point, it becomes a place where a handful of miscreants are amplified by their multiple, secret identities.

And the worst part is this: The valid, logical concerns that get posted in such forums are lost amid the drivel. In this case, it is a disservice to the issue, the school system and, ultimately, our community.

Web posted on Thursday, March 29, 2007

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