Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Commentary: Dubious Anti-APA Series Makes Waves

Two investigative reports purporting to reveal dubious practices by the Adirondack Park Agency and environmental groups have been called into question themselves. The pieces, which ran on January 9 and 10, were written by Post-Star features’ editor Will Doolittle. Doolittle has written numerous columns expressing hostility to the APA and green groups. Why a journalist who was openly and vehemently hostile to the APA and green groups was assigned to do a purportedly objective investigation into the APA and green groups is something the paper never felt the need to explain. And my skepticism appears to have been validated.

(Note: Part one of the series is available online here. Part two is here)

Part one, entitled “Under Attack by the Protectors,” left little doubt as to the series’ agenda. It highlighted the case of John Maye, a resident of Black Brook in Clinton County (well outside The Post-Star‘s coverage area). In short, the APA spent four years investigating whether Mr. Maye breached any regulations in building his cabin. Doolittle reported that the Agency ‘suddenly’ dropped the case after a meeting between the APA and town officials in which the politicians accused the Agency of ‘colluding’ with The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

The implication was that the politicians threatened to expose this alleged collusion if the Agency didn’t drop the case. The APA claims that it had spent years trying to get information about the case but that it had dragged on so long because Maye had allegedly been uncooperative. The Agency claims that it got the information it needed at the meeting and that’s why it dropped the case.

While the investigative piece did mention the Nature Conservancy’s denial, Doolittle apparently did not ask town officials to back up their claims; if he did, he didn’t publish their explanation. It is shocking that a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper would publish a purportedly objective piece relaying a serious accusation of criminal collusion by a major state agency without a single shred of evidence to back up the claim.

The paper did publish a letter to the editor from TNC’s Michael Carr not only denying these accusations of collusion but claiming that Doolittle had told him that he’d “found no evidence of collusion between The Nature Conservancy and the Adirondack Park Agency” (the quotes are Doolittle’s words according to Carr).

If this is true, why did Doolittle uncritically publish allegations of collusion that he allegedly didn’t even believe in without even asking for any substantiation? Is Carr telling the truth? Did Doolittle tell the truth to Carr? Did Doolittle really assume the collusions were true because of his personal opinions against the APA? I’ve offered Doolittle the chance to publish a rebuttal to these criticisms on my blog but he’s not responded to my request.

North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann, a journalist without any apparent agenda regarding the APA, did some follow up questioning sorely lacking in Doolittle’s piece. Mann concluded categorically that “No, the APA did not conspire illegally with the Nature Conservancy”.

Part two of Doolittle’s series reports resident Leroy Douglas’ claims that the state was trying to intimidate him into selling his land and to drive out all private property owners. NCPR’s Mann found documents indicating that it was Douglas who initially approached the state to sell his land, not vice versa.

Mann reported: In a letter written to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation in 2000, Douglas writes, “This letter is to serve as a formal notice of intent to sell a portion of my property at Silver Lake, Black Brook, New York, to the state of New York.”… In a response letter, sent to Douglas in July 2000, a DEC official thanked him for his interest and asked for more information.

For all the questionable decisions made in the reporting of The Post-Star‘s series, the Society of Professional Journalists does have a code of ethics after all, perhaps the most curious is the paper’s inexplicably long delay in publishing online the letter by the Nature Conservancy’s Carr questioning the ethics of Doolittle’s reporting.

The paper very recently decided to stop publishing all letters online, but at the time, it posted letters to the editor online the same day of their publication in print. It published in this manner every other letter to the editor for the month of January except for those that were printed on one single day.

Carr’s letter, published in print on Jan. 20, did not appear online until Feb. 5, two weeks later. On Jan. 26, a TNC spokesperson told me that they were “working with the Post Star to get it posted online.”

That TNC had to lobby to get the same treatment as every other published letter writer raises further ethical questions about the daily’s decision making.

And if the series itself didn’t ram the paper’s position down readers’ throats hard enough, The Post-Star then ran an editorial based on this questionable reporting calling (shock of shocks!) for the abolition of the APA. Critics wonder if the editorial was based on the reporting or vice versa. A different reporter also surveyed local Republican lawmakers for their reactions. It all came across as very well-orchestrated.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is the fact that the most dubious parts of the series have been seized upon by partisans to advance their agenda. One can make a legitimate case for reforming how the APA operates. One can even argue that the Adirondacks should be turned into a long strip of Wal-Marts and Home Depots with oceans of parking lots. But the discussion should be based on real facts, not half truths.

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A nearly-lifelong resident of Glens Falls, Brian Farenell has been involved in writing and journalism since his high school days. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Clarkson University, he spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Guinea, West Africa. Although his traditional focuses have been international affairs (he's been published in Foreign Policy magazine) and media criticism, Brian maintains his own blog at Musings of a (Fairly) Young Contrarian, where he also offers insights and ideas about national and local issues.

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