I’m usually not one to blog on a lot about my occasional criticisms of our predominant local paper, The Berkshire Eagle. Not so much out of any deference or specific loyalty to it or its parent MediaNews Group, from whom I’ve gotten numerous checks for work in a couple of their publications- and wouldn’t necessarily shoot down the idea of doing so again in the future; but honestly, because that’s already pretty well covered in other local blogs- the daily raison d’etre in certain cases. It’d just be redundant for me to plod along in those well worn tracks.
Nonetheless, I was a bit blown away when I saw the brief, terse editorial Sunday chastising Pittsfield’s City Council for its admittedly lengthy quizzing of Pitts. Economic Development Authority about its past and present activities as they relate to the current hot-button issue of a potential retail development at the PEDA-administered former G.E. industrial property known as William Stanley Business Park.
The first somewhat surprising thing is that, unless I’m missing something in a search of their site, Sunday’s four sentence blast of the council constitutes the paper’s sole reportage on the otherwise intensely scrutinized two and a half hour Q&A they had with PEDA director Cory Thurston last Tuesday. Everyone else in the attending press corp covered it – first PCTV obviously, then lengthy articles in iBerkshires and Pittsfield Gazette; YNN’s Brandon Walker presented a visually instructive recap on the issue last week for the benefit of our NY neighbors to the west. Even The Planet, who I was disappointed yet again not to meet in the flesh last week, weighed in for a paragraph of coverage more informative than anything one can gather from the Eagle’s dismissive Sunday editorial, which reads as follows:
PEDA ISSUE IS PHILOSOPHICAL
“The Pittsfield City Council asked a lot of PEDA head Cory Thurston Tuesday night. Mr. Thurston stood before the microphone for about two hours, which is no way to treat a guest, and the questions alternated among the incisive, redundant and irrelevant — the latter when they applied to the years before Mr. Thurston took over. (Good-natured Council President Kevin Sherman needs to ride herd on his flock, as well as on open mike pontificators who are bringing back the long-winded pre-Gerald Lee days). Verbiage aside, the PEDA question comes down to whether the William Stanley Business Park should be open to a major retail outlet, a shift from the park’s original mission, or whether PEDA should pursue a manufacturing opportunity that may not emerge any time soon. Or ever.” -Berkshire Eagle 2/19/12
I am flabbergasted by the scolding tone of this editorial and some of the flawed assumptions that seem to be built into it. Regardless of whether you’re for or against the retail project and its placement, it is hard to comprehend how anyone could take the position that the council’s questions about the events which ultimately led to what all parties involved acknowledge is a “shift” in direction on one of the city’s core development assets were somehow “irrelevant”. And while there may have been some repetition, it is worth noting that many of these questions inevitably came from many concerned consituents- the number and passion of which the Eagle has barely breezed upon over the past two months.
The City Council was unanimous and quite clear at its January 10 meeting, about its intention to ask for a lot of information from the quasi-public economic development authority. A lot of questions were to be expected. As the primary governing body of this city, there were not only within their rights but in my view obligated by responsibility to spend some serious time in illuminating for the public what has become an issue of extreme importance and divisive views for residents, on par with some of the biggest city issues in recent memory. The level of interest in this subject can not only be measured in the length of last Tuesday’s council meeting, but in the sheer volume of locals I saw actually Facebooking and Tweeting about the meeting as they watched from home.
That the councilors would have so many questions about the Waterstone deal and the seemingly abrupt redirection of the PEDA site’s planning efforts is pretty understandable, given the fact that most if not all were made aware of it about the same time as the general public, when they got the same press release we got back in December.
To be perfectly honest, I’m still very surprised that our former mayor, who sat on PEDA’s board throughout all the earliest negotiations of the deal, at no point saw fit to mention, even in passing, to our elected council that such a thing was in the works.
Councilor John Krol and former Councilor Mike Ward, who has been the point man activist against this proposed development, have already expressed disappointment, via Facebook. Ward commented, “Research assignment for the Berkshire Eagle. Why does the state offer tax incentives for R&D but not for big box retail? This is not a philosophical issue, it’s actually pretty black and white.”
Cory Thurston, to his great credit, several times reiterated that he was plenty willing to answer the Council’s questions, and looking to be as transparent as possible, even if- for reasons not entirely his fault- he didn’t always have a satisfactory answer. If PEDA is fine with being grilled on this, WHY is the Eagle editorial board so upset about it, with its huffy “that’s no way to treat a guest” tone?
Since the Eagle first put forth its initial pro-retail-at-PEDA editorial at the first sign of resistance in the community, it has become increasingly hard to understand the extent of bias in coverage on this issue, given the course and dimension the discussion has taken in the community, and according significance given it in every other media outlet, the hours of discussion that have taken place on every major local radio show, etc etc ETC. Only when the clamor reached unignorable levels did the publication once pay slight lip service to the position opposed to its own.
With the reasoning behind this rigid defensive position so unclear, one almost has to speculate and question motivation. Is this recent finger wag at the city council about consistency? Saving face? Loyalty to a previous administration? Certainly it couldn’t possibly be that chain retail operations, especially newly opened ones, are a plentiful teat of advertising dollars for the primary local paper in any locality.
Because I know things like that never, ever influence news and editorial viewpoints. Nope, not in this sainted business.