UPDATE: Protect the Adirondacks has responded to the Denton Publications editorial. Read their view of the issue by clicking here.
Last week, a prominent Adirondack newspaper chain called Denton Publications, based in Elizabethtown, fired a full-throated, double-barrel, no-holds-barred salvo at one of the Park’s most influential environmental groups, a small but ferocious organization called Protect the Adirondacks.
Protect, which emerged a few years ago after a period of mergers and down-sizings in the Park’s green movement, has filed some of the most controversial litigation in recent times, including a suit designed to overturn state-issued permits for the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake.
Protect’s executive director, Peter Bauer, has been a particular lightning rod for decades, in part because he takes unpopular and sometimes uncompromising stands on issues and in part because he can be confrontational in his personal style. His manner has, at times, alienated even some of his fellow environmentalists.
Denton’s editorial board pieced together that history and reached a startling conclusion. In its lead editorial, the paper insists that Protect — a private organization, operated and supported for the most part by Park residents and second-homeowners — should be “abolished.”
“Cut off the head of this long-tentacled monster”
According to the newspaper, local residents, media outlets, and government leaders should collaborate to “cut the head off this long-tentacled monster known as Protect the Adirondacks,” in part by attempting to curb the group’s fundraising.
Denton’s writers also argue that journalists who cover the Adirondacks (like myself) should simply ignore Protect. “Why even allow them a voice at the table when discussing these projects? What credentials does Peter Bauer have to make him worthy of contacting for input?” The editorial suggests that Denton’s own reporters will no longer cover Protect or its activities, thereby denying Bauer his “bully pulpit.”
Those views provoked an equally fierce response from the Adirondack Almanack, penned by that on-line journal’s editor John Warren, who describes Denton’s editorial as “perhaps the most vicious, poorly researched, and cowardly personal attack published in the Adirondacks in the last 20 years.”
As NCPR’s Adirondack bureau chief, I have no interest in a media flame war. But as Denton and the Adirondack Almanack both call out our reporting, the one implicitly and the other by name, I will chime in with some thoughts about our newsroom’s editorial approach to covering Protect and the wider debate over the Big Tupper project.
Lawsuits are a tool used by all sides in Park debates
First, as I wrote back in 2012 after Protect filed its lawsuit against the Adirondack Park Agency, the case clearly included specific factual claims and allegations that warranted review by the courts. That’s not to say I believed that Protect was right or would prevail. But after reporting in-depth and with great care on the substance of the charges, they were certainly credible and serious, and not frivolous as some have argued. You can read that essay here.
Obviously, that legal process and the associated delays were frustrating, even infuriating, to many people. But it’s important to point out that litigation and legal action of this kind are a common fact of life in the Park and it’s a game that everybody plays. In recent years we’ve seen court cases filed (or in one case, an Attorney General’s probe launched) based on the accusations of Adirondack property rights activists, farmers, environmental activists, local counties, the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, and on and on.
The developer of the Big Tupper resort, Michael Foxman, himself launched a lawsuit in 2010 against a neighbor in Tupper Lake, demanding access to and use of a chunk of land owned by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy. Rather than negotiating directly with the Conservancy, one of the Park’s largest and most respected private landowners, Foxman used a rarely-seen court maneuver to force access to their property.
Naturally, Mr. Foxman views his lawsuit (affecting someone else’s property and rights) as credible and warranted and reasonable. And he has long argued that Protect’s lawsuit affecting his own project was none of those things. This is understandable. In their editorial, Denton Publications has, in effect, chosen to adopt the developer’s view. The newspaper went so far as to suggest that the developer’s opinions, cited repeatedly, are the only ones that warrant an audience.
But that approach, prejudging the merits of court cases and deciding in advance which litigants deserve coverage (and which don’t), just won’t fly in our newsroom. We covered Mr. Foxman’s lawsuit factually and fairly and we did the same with Protect’s litigation. That’s what our audiences want and deserve.
Denton is angry at Protect for making the same claims that its own editorial board made
Denton’s editorial suggests that Protect represents a different, more extreme case. Their history and their arguments are so outside the mainstream, the newspaper argues, that any reasonable observer (or news organization) should recognize them as non-credible and unworthy of coverage.
But Denton itself published a lead editorial five years ago leveling accusations remarkably similar to the ones charged by Protect. The newspaper argued that the APA should be abolished for “arbitrary enforcement, hypocritical acts and subjective interpretation of the APA Act.” That language could be lifted almost word-for-word from Protect’s lawsuit.
The only difference is that Protect offered specific, detailed legal and factual arguments, while Denton’s broadside against the Park Agency offered none of those things.
Yet here again, it appears that the paper’s editorial board concluded that their own charges against the APA were credible and reasonable and worthy of an audience, while charges leveled by Protect are inherently unworthy and shouldn’t be heard by the courts or the public.
Again, it goes without saying that NCPR won’t adopt Denton’s somewhat mercurial editorial approach. We have never called for the APA to be abolished, nor will we now make it our policy to ignore or attack the APA’s critics.
So how does NCPR cover these issues?
The editorial approach in our newsroom — boring as this may sound — is simply to report accurately what people are saying and doing and, when possible, to uncover the facts surrounding those activities. To that end, we will continue to interview Peter Bauer, asking him tough, skeptical questions.
Yes, Bauer is sometimes abrasive and combative. As the court’s ACR decision suggests, he is also sometimes flatly wrong. But he is also one of the most deeply knowledgeable and thoughtful environmental activists working in the Park today. In fifteen years, I have never found him to be dishonest or deceptive.
Protect’s board, furthermore, is made up of business-leaders, writers, activists, outdoors-people, and naturalists, many of them with long histories of accomplishment and contribution within the Blue Line. Our reporting shows that — in simple factual terms — they are simply not the arrogant snobs “in their shiny BMW X5s, noses skyward” caricatured so harshly in Denton’s essay.
Nor, in 15 years reporting on the Park, digging deep into the motivations of the region’s various environmental activists, have I found a single shred of evidence to support Denton’s claim that some environmentalists want to drive local residents from inside the Blue Line.
This is a charge that has been leveled for decades in the North Country. I’ve investigated its merits. It would be a huge story if it were true. A green group attempting to depopulate an entire region of New York state? It’s a remarkable claim. But as a journalist I can find no factual basis that lends it even the hint of credibility.
It’s true, of course, that Protect’s views and actions sometimes anger members of our audience. But the role of a journalist is not to coddle or soothe. And our mission is certainly not to silence those who might cause upset. Our mission is to inform and to offer a fair, factual and civil venue for discussion and debate.