Friday, November 11, 2022

The Choices Tell You

People make choices. And the choices show us who they are.

Yesterday Baltimore Fishbowl chose to publish a piece by Executive Editor David Nitkin that treats rumours and innuendos and back-room smears as truth. That was a choice. 

That piece will upset and confuse people in our community and very likely do lasting damage to some. That was also a choice.

I’ve done my best to try to stay apart from recent rumblings online about the CA Board and CA President Lakey Boyd, largely because I know I’m not a professional journalist and I don’t have access to the necessary information to provide a balanced picture.

Completely separate from this, I have been aware of clumsy attempts online to make accusations and spread lies about someone who is a personal friend: Nina Basu. Basu is the President and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust: the organization that is responsible for the care of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. Their recent work includes investing in conservation landscaping projects and pervious pathways in the park. Under Basu’s leadership the Chrysalis has become well-known as a place for free and low-cost arts programs, community events, and a variety of culturally diverse family-oriented experiences. 

People make choices. I make choices. I chose to advocate for the park back when it was just an innovative plan. I chose to facilitate interactive dance parties for children on the Chrysalis Stage, and to use my social capital to support the park and its programming.

And now I’m choosing to call out some sad and deeply hurtful behavior. But I’m going to need to remind you of some local history first.

In December of 2010, at the beginning of his second term, County Executive Ken Ulman hired Baltimore Sun journalist David Nitkin to be his new Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. It was clear that both men were committed to Columbia and Howard County as a whole and enjoyed their work together. Here they are indulging in some sweet Super Bowl rivalry during those years. This photo made the front page of the Howard County Times.

Photo credit Noah Scialom, Baltimore Sun Media Group 

I think (but don’t know for sure) that they were also investors in Louisco’s Petit Louis/Lupa restaurant venture, which aimed to bring new life to the Columbia Lakefront. Here’s Ulman making the restaurant announcement in 2014:

Photo credit Village Green/Town² 

At the completion of Ulman’s second term he went on to found Margrave Strategies, a community-building consultancy which has done extensive work in College Park, among other projects. Nitkin took a position in Attorney General Brian Frosh’s Office, then moved to Howard County Hospital as Chief of Staff.

In September of 2018 Mr. Ulman registered the company Bowled Over Investments, LLC. 

Later that year (November 19th) I caught a glimpse of Ulman at the live taping of local podcast Elevate Maryland, which at the time was using Lupa as their home base. I had assumed he was there to support the podcast as it was a celebratory panel of newly-elected public officials. (I subsequently learned that a number of the people I saw that evening were there for a meeting of the restaurant’s investors.)

On February 14, 2019, Ken Ulman, David Nitkin, and Karen Strutkin Nitkin purchased a stake in Baltimore Fishbowl, a digital news site founded in 2011.

On March 1, 2019 Lupa announced its closure. (This news prompted me to wonder if the November investors’ meeting had to do with concerns about the restaurant’s ongoing viability.)

Then, in 2021, Mr. Nitkin announced the creation of New Line Strategy. As a part of the announcement, Nitkin explained he would be taking a more hands-on role at Baltimore Fishbowl, and stepping away from his full-time role at Howard County Hospital. Nitkin is now Executive Editor of Baltimore Fishbowl.

Also in 2021 came the creation of The Rouse Project initiative. Both Ken Ulman and David Nitkin were members of the steering committee. 

Screenshot of campaign material captured from local blogger ScottE

People like Ulman and Nitkin - - able, gifted, and well-connected - - draw to themselves like-minded allies. If you are passionate about your beliefs and dedicated to pursuing them, you will attract those who are stirred by your message. And, as an integral part of The Rouse Project, they would have had ample opportunity to share their vision and win over even more followers. 

About The Rouse Project: at first glance it seemed like such a good message  - - and increasing diversity on the CA Board is absolutely necessary - - if not for the fact that The Rouse Project leadership refused to reveal the source of its funding and considered questions from community members to be personal attacks. You were either a fan or a hater. That concerned me. You may recall I had some unanswered questions.

Though the stated mission seemed true to Rouse’s ideals, the underlying intent was stark:

1) prevent current CA Board members from choosing the next CA President so that
2) members of a new CA Board, recruited, endorsed, and funded by them, could be elected and perform the task instead.

That didn’t feel right to me. Here’s why:

When you are so passionate about what you want, and you are surrounded by people whose wholehearted support is a continual validation of what you think, you can lose the ability to care about other people’s points of view. There is no need for you to collaborate, negotiate, or compromise. It doesn’t matter how smart or successful you are, or even how good your ideas are. If you go down that road, then you begin to see people whose visions are not the same as yours as inconveniences, obstacles, something to be swept away. That’s not community building.

So, here we are. A prime example of that mindset is the Fishbowl article. It’s ostensibly about discord between the CA Board and Lakey Boyd.

There is absolutely no reason for the President and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust to be in the Fishbowl piece at all. She has nothing to do with the topic other than being the victim of false accusations. Nina Basu’s actions and character are made a feature of this article in order to question her integrity. Why? Does someone perceive her to be an inconvenience and an obstacle?

More importantly, there’s nothing in this piece which reveals that Ulman and Nitkin are part owners of Fishbowl, or that they were both deeply involved in the 2021 initiative to influence the outcome of a CA election and the hiring of the new CA President. If this information isn’t presented up front to the reader, they may think this piece was written with a standard of journalistic detachment and balance.

It isn’t. 

Years ago I saw an interview with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. He was talking about the decision to buy ABC. (I’m going to paraphrase here.) Eisner said, “We were looking for a platform where we could easily sell all our products. So we bought ABC.”  In another interview, with Pete Rose, Eisner said, “ABC has the assets…that make sure our products will get to the marketplace.” It gave me a bit of a chill. It wasn’t about entertainment or communications, it was about owning an enormous selling machine.

I thought of that interview yesterday when I read the Fishbowl piece. The publication of this article can be connected to all of Ulman’s and Nitkin’s work together.  They wanted to find a platform where they could market their ideas. So they bought into Fishbowl. And yesterday Fishbowl was used not as a tool to enlighten but as a weapon to wound.

I have long admired both of these gentlemen for their public service and commitment to Columbia and Howard County. I admit to feeling disillusioned today. When you stop being interested in anyone else’s visions but your own, you can slip into believing that the end justifies the means. And if you own part of an online media source it’s all too tempting to sweep away obstacles with a post and a click.

I want to be perfectly clear. I don’t think they are bad people. I am not accusing them of deliberate wrongdoing. I think they, in their zeal to pursue their goals, have lost their way. When such gifted people start treating fellow community members as merely collateral damage, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

There is reason to be concerned about the relationship between the CA Board and President Lakey Boyd. And I wish that the Columbia Flier still considered coverage of the Columbia Association their responsibility.  The Fishbowl piece doesn’t clear things up. It muddies the waters. It makes things worse. The most charitable thing I can say is that yesterday’s piece was not an example of their best work.

People make choices. The choices tell you who they are. 

Community-building takes collaboration, negotiation, and compromise. It empowers multiple and diverse points of view. 

What will we choose?



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