Friday, January 15, 2010

Post-Star series on the APA and NCPR follow ups make waves

"Never attribute to malice what can easily be ascribed to incompetence."

Post-Star projects' editor Will Doolittle recently published a pair of pieces regarding the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and two cases in the town of Black Brook.

(Part one is here and part two here)

The choice of Black Brook was unusual, as it's in Clinton County, far outside the Post-Star's circulation area. The choice of Doolittle, who has a long history of publishing harsh anti-APA columns, to do a purportedly objective investigation into the APA was also questionable.

The title of part one: 'Under attack by the protectors.'

When I raised this issue, Doolittle defended his ability to be objective despite his point of view. Doolittle is a good journalist, but I maintain that an important, purportedly objective story about the APA should not have been assigned to someone with a open, public contempt for the APA. If the Adirondack Council's John Sheehan had done a purportedly objective report for the same paper on the exact same cases, its appropriateness surely would've been called into question too.

Anyways, Doolittle's first piece uncritically echoed claims by one of the aggrieved parties that the APA and Nature Conservancy were colluding but did not offer a shred of evidence to that effect.

North County Public Radio's highly respected Brian Mann further investigated some of the claims reported in Doolittle's pieces and came to a different conclusions.

Mann's research conclude that 'No, the APA did not conspire illegally with the Nature Conservancy'.

Additionally, Doolittle reported on a four year enforcement case by the APA on a John Maye, a former forest ranger and Clinton County landowner. The case dragged on but was dropped abruptly after a meeting between APA and Black Brook officials in which the latter accused the former of colluding with environmentalists.

The unwritten implication is that the threat of 'exposure' caused the APA to drop its patently unfair case.

Another piece by NCPR's Mann suggested otherwise. During the meeting, town officials shared a key piece of information with the APA rep. The APA claims that it was because they received that key piece of information that they dropped the case.

They claimed that Maye had refused to allow APA officials onto his property and failed to respond to APA inquiries. Both of these are his legal right but it's a bit dubious for him to then claim that the APA was prolonging the case simply to harass him.

I suspect Doolittle was guided, perhaps even subconsciously, to fail to ask the questions and investigate further that Mann did.

Mann wrote, Will Doolittle has expressed a firm opinion about this episode. He thinks the APA mistreated the Mayes and was then suspiciously eager to drop the case.

For my part, I'm just not sure.

The APA had been asking for a chance to look at that foundation for four years and they finally got it. That's a significant fact.

The accounts by Doolittle paint a portrait of a power hungry bureaucracy out of control, opposed only by heroic Clark Kent-like property rights defenders. Mann offers a more nuanced picture; his pieces reflect an agency whose real failings in the case seemed more about understaffing and general bureaucratic inertia.

And this perfectly illustrates the difference between pieces on the APA written by an openly anti-APA journalist and those written by one with no apparent agenda.

There are very real issues with the APA.

The fines it can impose should have a cap or at the very least, should have some kind of explicit structure. The Agency's defense of exorbitant fines ($2.9 million in one of these cases) is that it never actually collects the huge amounts; this is unpersuasive. Perhaps, fines above a certain amount can only be imposed by a court (see below).

There should be some legal obligation of responsiveness by the Agency to inquiries from property owners and municipalities. Perhaps there should be an independent ombudsman to address complaints where such responsiveness was not forthcoming or other unfair treatment alleged.

The APA board should comprise entirely full-time residents of the Park. Localities and counties should have some input into the Agency's staffing and board composition.

Most importantly, there should be some sort of judicial review available of the Agency's decisions, within the context of state constitution's Article XIV ("Forever Wild"). The APA is described by some as the zoning board for the Adirondack Park. But most zoning boards have zoning boards of appeal and this one should too. One of the reasons for the very real resentment of some Park residents is that the APA is viewed as judge, jury and executioner. Judicial review would help alleviate this.

I believe in Forever Wild. And I believe that the APA should play an important role in maintaining this. The Agency has its faults and should be reformed. And Doolittle's pieces really did expose a few disturbing facts that should be a addressed. I believe that in trying to protect the little guy from abuse by a government agency, we shouldn't go too far and expose the little guy to abuse from big developers who can do much more long-lasting damage.

But The Post-Star's inexplicable decision to assign this legitimate story to its most adamant anti-APA reporter to do this investigation was a journalistically indefensible, one clearly illustrated by the omissions that Mann revealed.

I urge you to read Doolittle's and Mann's pieces and judge for yourself.


Nick Reisman said...


I think the nuanced approach you took in this post is pretty cool.

You're right -- the reaction to this series has been pretty interesting. Brian Mann and Will Doolittle are both good journalists who did an equally thorough job in their reporting but came to vastly different conclusions. I agree with you, and I think Will would, too, that everyone should listen to Mr. Mann's pieces and read the series he wrote to get the full flavor of the debate.

I disagree, however, with the idea that Will's previous commentary colors his reporting. Take for instance Michael Pollan. There's no guessing what his opinion is when it comes to food and agribusinesses. Yet he's a respected reporter and an authority on food science. Also, John Sheehan -- a good source for me and a nice guy -- probably wouldn't be assigned to work on a story about the APA for The Post-Star because he's a paid spokesman for an organization with a clear, demonstrable stake in the outcome.

But this is a philosophical debate and one with no clear answer. I'm no expert.

(Point of disclosure: I was assigned the Tuesday story on the reaction of officials and environmentalists that was a stand-alone article from the series.)

Brian said...

Nick, thanks for your comments.

I think if you become well-known for consistent and vocal opinions on an institution, it would be wiser to assign someone else to do an investigation into said institution. I don't think this is a particularly radical journalistic concept.

I mean if Tim Havens did a purportedly objective investigation into an EPA enforcement case, I think some people might be a little skeptical.

Or Nick, what if one of your family members got arrested. You could probably try to be objective, but I seriously doubt you would be assigned to write the story.

It was not intended as a shot at Will's journalistic integrity. Only a claim that the stridency of his point of view makes him a less than ideal person to do a dispassionate analysis of the facts in this case.

Again, it's not just that he has an opinion about the APA. It's that he's expressed it vocally and harshly and publicly and frequently.

So when a guy who regularly takes shots at the APA and green groups in his columns does a report in which he echoes claims of collusion between the groups he regularly takes shots at and deems them plausible ("A hint of collusion") WITHOUT EVIDENCE OR EXPLANATION or the follow up that Mann provided... surely you understand my skepticism.

In any case, I've informed Will of this piece and offered him an opportunity, if he so chooses, to have a reply published.

Brian said...

Or, if I can use a better (and umm... cheekier :-) analogy... what if Mark Frost did a purportedly objective investigation into goings on at the Post-Star?

Nick Reisman said...


Points well taken -- especially if Mark Frost can find the blue pens I keep misplacing en route to story assignments.

If a family member of mine was involved in a story, I'd recuse myself. Tim Havens is the head of an organization that is stridently against the EPA's dredging project.

Will, to the best of my knowledge, has no business pending before the APA, has no financial or emotional stake in the outcome. Those are the concepts news organizations use when deciding if a reporter has been ethically compromised in writing a piece.

I simply don't see a conflict of interest here. He took the facts and applied them one way and Brian Mann took them and came to an alternative conclusion. Getting back to the original point of your post and our point of agreement: The public has been pretty well served by two reporters at the top of their game looking into this issue.

Brian said...

Just a clarification: I'm not saying there's a conflict of interest. As far as I know, there isn't.