The last couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of conversations — on the phone, via email, in person, and on social media — with supporters of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad about the fairness of NCPR’s reporting on the rail-trail debate.
The concerns fall into a couple of broad categories. Firstly, some folks are worried by the fact that this public radio station has prominent supporters and donors who are also leading members of ARTA, the pro-trail group that wants to dismantle the Scenic Railroad.
Secondly, NCPR continues to ask thorny questions about ASR’s track record (I know, sorry), operating on sections of the line from Old Forge to Lake Placid over the last twenty-plus years.
Some pro-train advocates think these questions, by their very nature, are unfair and inappropriate. They think maintaining the railroad is a no-brainer and they’re dismayed that critics have been given so much attention and air time.
So let me address these two concerns in order.
IS NCPR SECRETLY SUPPORTING THE TRAIN (OR THE TRAIL)?
It’s true that we have some good friends and donors, including Lee Keet from Saranac Lake, who are part of NCPR’s community while also serving as high-profile leaders of ARTA.
But it’s also a fact that we have a huge cadre of support — financial and otherwise — from passionately pro-train folks, from Lake Placid to Old Forge and beyond.
It’s also true that we have a carefully crafted system of ethical and professional “firewalls” in place to protect our reporting from financial influence or political pressure.
In fact, NCPR has a long history of infuriating people who consider themselves to be our friends and core supporters. We don’t do it cavalierly, but we do it cheerfully when the facts and the story make it necessary.
Sometimes those folks drop out of our community. Usually they don’t.
Finally, it’s important for both sides in this debate to remember that the rail-trail fight in the Adirondacks is a relatively small issue in the context of the stories we cover over our huge region.
Our reporters are in the field covering high-intensity and high-dollar issues all the time — from hydro-fracking to the rooftop highway to big Adirondack land purchases.
In doing that work, we’ve developed strong procedures for protecting our work from undue influence.
SO WHY KEEP ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS?
So assuming we’re not in the tank for either side, why ask these questions at all? Why dig into the Scenic Railroad’s business plan? Why give them the third degree over things like their financial health?
The first answer is that we plan to continue asking similarly tough questions about the rail-trail idea. We haven’t yet kicked the tires adequately on claims being made by ARTA about the cost and benefits of creating a long trail. That will happen this winter.
But it’s also true that in this story the Scenic Railroad is sort of like the incumbent politician in a political race. They’re the group with the history, the long years of struggle, with some big successes and some pretty big stumbles.
ASR now plans to ask New York for a 20 year commitment for use of the publicly-owned corridor, and for roughly $15.2 million in funding to restore a set of rails that would be used almost exclusively by their trains.
It’s NCPR’s job to provide skeptical, hard-nosed, fact-driven reporting about the Scenic Railroad’s internal workings, so that the public (again, including supporters) can reach informed conclusions about whether that investment is a good idea.
We also strive to be scrupulously fair and respectful. But train supporters, as much as critics, deserve to know as much as possible about the project, its strengths, its weaknesses, and any unanswered questions.
One final note. Folks following this story closely will note that the version on NCPR’s airwaves differs a bit from the version that appeared in the pages of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
This is because the magazine has a longer lag time and went to press before I uncovered some key bits of information, including my interview with Iowa Pacific executive Ed Ellis, and my opportunity to view a part of ASR’s business plan.
HOW TO REACH US IF YOU DO HAVE A CONCERN
As always, if folks do still have concerns about our reporting, or hear something that just doesn’t sound right, we welcome feedback. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org. Martha Foley, our news director, can be reached at email@example.com. Station manager Ellen Rocco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.