Trying To Say ‘No’
At a July
12th public hearing on the project the town hall was jam packed with
valley residents, townsfolk and even a representative of the New York
State Council of Trout Unlimited who appeared to drop the bombshell
that the organization, which has a membership of several thousand,
opposes the project. Literally all present, estimated at over 170
strong, demanded the board deny the application by Andrew Poncic to
truck water out of the valley via tractor trailer twice a day five
days a week.
The planning board, which will decide on the matter next month, has
the authority to deny Poncic’s project. Should they do so, it
would break a long held precedent of approving pretty much any application
for a special permit laid on the table before them. Not since the
1980s has anything been denied regardless of controversy.
Also in terms of precedent, valley dwellers fear future applications
for not just water harvesting but rock harvesting. Landscapers throughout
the region as well downstate are quickly learning of the appeal of
the creek stone that lies in abundant supply in Woodland and other
valleys in styles that vary as much as snowflakes. Should Poncic be
granted permission it is fared there would be little defense against
any other plan involving trucking treasures out to parts unknown.
Resident Dakin Morehouse said that Woodland Valley residents are not
the only ones who should fear the ripple effects of the Poncic plan
if it’s approved.
“It appears no amount of appeals from his neighbors will sway
the applicant,” Morehouse said. “Not the 700 signatures
on the petition, the 91 officially recorded letters, nor the house
packed with concerned and impassioned residents – from all over
the township - for if passed, this would set a precedent which will
be felt in every hamlet and hollow of our town. Our zoning code will
be regarded as a farce and it will only be a matter of time before
all our taxpayers will have their dollars going into maintaining the
quaintly narrow road, a collapsed culvert or bridge and perhaps even
an accident leading to a costly lawsuit against our town for negligence.
Planner Gerry Setchko tried to convince the audience that even though
the board was accused of ignoring information they have indeed read
and reviewed everything submitted.
“Any decision we are making on this we are not taking lightly,”
So unified was the opposition at the hearing that even Poncic himself
did not raise his hand when valley resident Rolf Reiss asked if there
was anyone in the room that supported the project.
For three hours citizens that ranged in age between nine and 90 took
three minutes each to convince the planners that the plan would destroy
quality of life along the 6-mile dead end road.
The session was always civil, but frequently disrupted by loud applause
after speakers made their points.
And in case the planners needed reasons to deny the application, the
speakers provided ample amounts. Some quoted town law, children said
they would no longer be allowed to bike ride, mothers said they could
not safely stroll their babies along the thin windy road, engineers
challenged the technical claims of the applicant and lawyers challenged
the planning board’s authority to even consider the project
in its present form.
One man summed it up to just one issue. Noting that the board was
charged with protecting the health safety and welfare of the public,
Peter Bosch said it was clear that the project would not benefit anyone
in anyway, except the applicant himself.
“That’s the only question that needs to be asked,”
he said. “Where is the public good?”
The evening included lighthearted moments, as when valley resident
Wendy Grossman noted the irony of the need to close the meeting hall
doors on such a hot and steamy evening because tractor trailers were
shooting past town hall, overpowering speakers with too much noise.
There were a few gasps as well when Woodland Valley Association President
Howard McGowan stretched out a long tape measure to show that the
trucks planned for the water hauling would be longer than the meeting
There was even an enlightening videotape presentation showing the
journey of such a tractor-trailer through the valley, unable to stay
within the traffic lane.
The strongest audience reaction came at the end of the session when
Marcy Meiller, who has been at every meeting about the project for
over six years, thanked everyone for speaking out. She noted how at
one ill attended session planner John Horn remarked that the project
could not affect the community character because Woodland Valley has
Gesturing to the audience, Meiller disagreed with Horn’s notion
and said, “THIS is community character.”
Everyone gave Meiller a thunderous standing ovation and clapped and
stomped their feet for about one minute.
Morehouse, who noted that the only beneficiary of the project would
be Poncic himself, urged the board to weigh that against the how many
“One is reminded of the touching scene in Star Trek,”
he said. “ The coldly logical Mr. Spock is dying inside the
radiation contaminated engine room when he puts his Vulcan hand against
the glass and weakly states; “The needs of the many outweigh
the needs of the one”.
Town’s Tax Revolt
The first is an Article 78 proceeding seeking to reverse 2005
tax assessment changes pushed through as part of supervisor Bob Cross
Jr.’s push to raise the taxes on state lands in the municipality.
The other consists of three civil rights complaints, seeking damages
of $3 million, based on charges that Cross’s involvement in
the tax changes were for political gain, to punish his opponents,
to benefit friends, and served to lessen the value of the plaintiffs’
The original Article 78 lawsuit, filed by 22 local landowners on October
31 of last year, asks for a reversal to 2004 assessment figures based
on their charges that their 2005 tax assessments had been raised by
town assessor Rosalie Boland to $600 an acre for all undeveloped properties
in town owned by residents with over 20 acres in holdings, no matter
the circumstances of individual lots.
They term the reassessment was done in “an arbitrary and capricious
manner” that “lacks any rational basis in law or fact.”
The plaintiffs further charge that the town’s actions amount
to an unofficial revaluation, that individual assessment hikes show
a disproportionate rise in taxes for second-homers, and that by making
such changes unannounced, the town has pushed most of those effected,
and subsequently suing the town, from being able to address the actual
tax hikes, as well as what they see as a faulty process denying them
due process, because they were not sent notices in a timely fashion.
Plaintiffs include Mark Byer of Windy Ridge Farm on Route 28, Edward
Bennett of Route 42, Randy Mann of Branch 7 Bergen Co. on Rose Mt.
Road, Sharon Umhey Callahan of Chichester, John Costa of Stony Clove
Road, Stephen Courtney of Crump Road, Bushnellsville, Robert Cruickshank
of Lasher Road in Big Indian, Walter Crump of Crump Road, Cutrite
Tree Farms of Old Route 28, John Mann of Lost Clove Road’s DA
Center in Big Indian, William Dilg of Broad Street, Joseph Friedel
of Moon Haw Road in West Shokan, Pierre Levesque of Brown Road, Stanley
and Karen Moculeski of Hinkley Road, Amy Wax-Orloff of Kelly Road,
Miles Parker of Oliverea, this paper’s publisher, Brian Powers
of Chichester, Jerry and Mary Sarlos of Oliverea, the Upper Esopus
Creek Fish and Game Club, and Peter Vinci of Rose Mountain.
When the town, through its Poughkeepsie-based attorney David Hagstrom
of the top gun Hudson Valley law firm Vandewater & Vandewater
(suggested by Dean Gitter and others in town), answered the first
Article 78 with a Motion to Dismiss — based on the fact that
the plaintiffs had not included “the other involved parties
such as the county and school district” — their original
complaint was amended as of January 6 by their attorney, David C.
Rowley of Albany-based Cooper, Erving & Savage to include those
parties, and limit the town’s defendants to the assessor.
It has been pointed out that with the town’s equalization rate
at 28 percent due to Shandaken’s not having completed a townwide
revaluation of its tax rolls since the early 1980s, the actual tax
hikes involved need to be seen in terms of real value, nearly four
times the $600 an acre amount being talked about of late.
At the time they were made, it should be added, no mention was made
of the uniform assessment rises. According to a press release released
by Cross on July 29, in the midst of what would turn into a very close
election, he “brought home the bacon for his township”
by ending the lawsuit filed against the town’s assessment office
by New York State, charging that Shandaken had been over-assessing
state Department of Environmental Conservation lands since 1992 with
his land value talk. At the time, talk of raising the state’s
tax rate from $400 to $600 an acre for a four year period was seen
as the gravy of what the supervisor called a “win-win situation”
The plaintiff’s subsequent civil lawsuit against the town, and
Cross in particular – filed April 14 as a complaint with summons
to all defendants – charges that the supervisor’s actions
were “an abuse of their taxing authority over a period of years
constituting a pattern of discriminatory conduct which culminated
in a selective reassessment,” and that their taxes were raised
“for the purpose of achieving a settlement with the State of
New York,” as well as “furthering the political aspirations
of Town Supervisor Robert Cross, Jr.”
More importantly, the suit seeks changes to the system of what it
sees as random assessment hikes instead of a standardized, process-oriented,
open government form of reval as practiced recently in the neighboring
towns of Olive and Woodstock, among others. They call what happened,
“based upon a discriminatory rationale and resulting in gross
disparities between owners of similarly situated properties”
and singled out that town assessor Rosalie Boland had stated that
her $600 an acre assessment figured was based on info given her by
the town supervisor, “because Robert Cross knows about timber.”
Hideki Onoue, Henry Williams, and Copperhood Inn owner Elizabeth Winograd
are also part of the Civil Suit seeking damages.
Cross is quoted in the lawsuit as having said he computed the per-acre
tax figure based on “a computational formula that he devised
that incorporated timber value, stumpage value and a third proprietary
element that he did not disclose.” He said this week, in one
of his only comments on the suit, that he had gotten comparable figures
for his calculations from John Horn, a planning board member who made
an unsuccessful bid for an open town assessor’s position running
on a slate with Cross last year.
Vinci said this week that he had worked to withhold news of the suit
from the media, and consequently the public, as he negotiated with
Cross in what he thought was a best-faith process. But that came to
a halt, he added, when Hagstrom answered the Civil Suit on July 6
by asking for depositions from all plaintiffs.
Vinci adds that although the town approved the hiring of the Poughkeepsie
lawfirm to handle the Article 78 lawsuit last autumn, there was no
mention of the subsequent civil suit by Cross, in any open, or official,
town meeting. Furthermore, he said, it turns out the town has no insurance
for such matters. He said Cross’ negotiations, which involved
four lunches and two dinners with Vinci, were “done on his own”
and had not been discussed in executive session with the rest of the
board until the recent July 10 meeting, at which point everyone agreed
that further negotiations were needed.
Cross admitted that he then called off those negotiations after sending
a videotape of the meeting where Vinci brought his case into the public
eye with passion to Hagstrom, who recommended against any further
discussions with the plaintiffs.
“It’s in the attorney’s hands,” he said this
week, talking about his bout of fisticuffs with the landowner who
has become spokesperson for the two lawsuits. “Mr. Vinci’s
actions the other night ended any chance at negotiations.”
Hagstrom said that he was expecting Judge Michael Kavanagh to rule
on his Motion to Dismiss the Article 78 proceedings within the coming
month… after having held off the motion over the recent weeks
since the civil lawsuit was filed. His motions tend to rest on the
fact that the plaintiffs had recourse via the normal grievance process,
whose dictates they have not followed, and should find other ways
of voicing their problems with the town’s process.
Joe Hesch, spokesperson for the state Office of Real Property Services,
said this week that towns can assess pretty much any way they want,
and be able to safely say they tried giving residents a chance to
grieve by sending out their notices ten days prior to Grievance Day.
It wasn’t necessarily right, but it was legal, he said. Matters
of processes whereby tax rates were set using non-open means, he added,
were a gray area between tax law and Freedom of Information laws,
and best addressed by court opinions.
Hagstrom agreed, saying that even if the plaintiffs had a valid complaint
about process, they may be going about it the wrong way. “But
they should have a good sense of how to do it by reading the briefs
I’ve filed,” he added with a little laugh.
A majority of the plaintiffs, it turns out, did file grievances on
time this past year, and after having them turned down because they
were process and not amount-driven, have started through yet another
appeals process against the town. To date, their actions represent
more movement in terms of assessment grieving than most local towns
have seen in years, even with revals.
Vinci, an inventor who dabbles in land investments, said that the
reason some of the town’s largest landowners have not complained
along with his 20 fellow plaintiffs against the town to date may be
because they’re looking to sell property at raised values.
“Someone’s seeding their bed for land sales,” he
said. “I’ve heard Cross tell me he’s revaluated
70 percent of the town with John Horn. But why?”
And what about a real reval?
“That’ll all come out in court,” answered Cross,
Meanwhile, the board also decided to re-open their search
for a new superintendent following a growing negative response to
its two finalists, recently presented at public meetings in late June.
The vote to appoint D’Orazio occured after trustee Rita Vanacore
nominated Patterson as president for a second term but he declined
the spot. Patterson said, “Rita I would like to thank you for
your confidence in my leadership, but after being contacted by a couple
board members expressing their lack of confidence in me and that my
leadership would not be in the best interest in the district, I have
to decline your nomination.”
O’Connor and Mary Jane Bernholz supported Patterson as president
in 2005, but turned their vote for board president to D’Orazio
this time, along with newly re-elected board member Herb Rosenfeld
and newly elected trustee Maxanne Resnick of Shandaken, who was sworn
in at the Tuesday night meeting.
Patterson and Vanacore voted against D’Orazio for president.
Vanacore also lost her seat as board Vice President to the board to
fellow Olive resident Bernholz, with Patterson the single vote against
her. Resnick replaced Lev Flournoy who chose not to seek a second
term as board member. Trustee Herb Rosenfeld was also sworn in for
a second term.
The school board then voted unanimously to rescind the special education
staff cuts that were made to assure a low tax levy for the voters
during budget hearings… against much opposition, and resulting
in a previous 4-3 split of board votes. The audience, nearly full
of special education employees and their supporters, met the decision
with loud applause.
Positions being restored so far are a full time teacher of the deaf,
a part time to full time social worker, and two part time to full
time and one full time special education instructors.
Business administrator Victoria McLaren said, “I will be bringing
a resolution to the board in August to take care of this because we
will have to increase the budget to accommodate these…”
She added that once the re-hiring of employees is completed they would
be using the two percent appropriated fund balance.
“That is what the fund balance is meant to be used for, these
types of situations where we had planned on a certain level of staffing
and due to unanticipated levels of staffing and due to unanticipated
IEP needs-where we are required to service students.”
Interim Superintendent Jack Jordan, who was not employed in the district
during the budget hearings, said, “We have revised data…and
this is based on the annual reviews and recommendation to the committee
on special ed and in order to meet the needs of our students, this
is our recommendation.”
O’Connor noted, “It was painstaking for everybody and
the people that were involved, the people that had to be laid off,
the people that spoke and I am not against this at all, if this is
what we need to do, we need to bring some of the positions back, but
to me there seems to be a way that we should have known this earlier.
I guess I am asking if this could have been prevented.”
Other school board members voiced similar concerns. O’Connor
requested to see the data that caused the change and asked if Independent
Education Plans (IEP) could be completed earlier. Patterson requested
to look into a policy where the annual reviews could be done earlier
to budget hearings, if complied with the law.
addressed Patterson, “Dave, if we really want to be easy on
the parents and the children and the employees, what we do is keep
increasing the budget. When you cut positions, which is the way you
reduce the budget, you are going to run into this kind of a thing,”
said Director of Pupil Personnel Barbara Boyce. “Frankly, this
year is not the first year we did a major cut in special ed, it was
actually the second year but last year we did not cut things that
were directly tied to staff, so it makes a difference.”
Boyce said she encourages the staff to try to get their referrals
for special education before the budget, but law does not allow a
set time frame. Although staff can make projected recommendations
on special education, referrals are usually done later in the year
because the programming is recommended for the following school year.
The decision to restart the Superintendent Search was announced after
the meeting, and an Executive Session on the subject, in a press relkease
“ The Board of Education wishes to announce that the negotiations
with the finalists for the Superintendent’s position did not
ultimately prove fruitful and that, therefore, we are continuing our
search for our Superintendent and that Interim Superintendent Jordan
will remain in place and fulfill all of the duties of the Superintendency
pursuant to Board policy,” read the release.
The board was considering Granville schools Superintendent Daniel
Teplesky and Cherry Valley-Springfield Superintendent Nicholas Savin.
Onteora has been without a permanent superintendent since February,
when Justine Winters stepped down because of health problems. Winters,
who was hired in 2004, died in May after a battle with cancer. Peter
J. Ferrara, a former Ellenville superintendent, was hired as an interim
successor to Winters but resigned a short time later after the Onteora
board learned of civil rights violations in the Ellenville district
during Ferrara's time at the helm. Jordan, a former Sullivan County
superintendent and current resident of the Onteora district who ran
unsuccessfully for a school board seat in 2005, was given the interim
post after Ferrara left.
In what was meant to be business as usual, with the school board voting
on the creation of various committees, a heated exchange arose with
D’Orazio dissolving all committees… at least temporarily.
The debate started with several board members asking for changes in
the wording of committee responsibilities, at which point D’Orazio,
in his renewed position as board president, noted how angry the board’s
management of committees had made him over the previous year, stating
that he is against “micro-managing.”
Vanacore requested that the board create a restriction where only
a school employee can only be head of the technology committee. Patterson
questioned the responsibility of the Future of the District Commission
and asked it be removed from the agenda. Vanacore questioned the facilities
committee responsibilities regarding the capital projects and asked
to limit their input.
D’Orazio becoming angry and said, “From now on, the board
is going to tackle these issues in open forum.”
Bernholz requested that all discussion of committees be removed from
the agenda and discussed at a future meeting.
“It is not the board of educations job to micro-manage the life
of the committees said D’Orazio. “The committees know
what they are dong; you just tell them to go out there and do something,
the way they set themselves up and they report back to the board.
I do not think it is our job to lay out specifically what they do
or what they are. I just don’t want to get involved with that!”
The board voted five-to-two, to remove the committee’s from
the consent agenda.
D’Orazio followed by apologizing for his outburst, blaming it
on his Italian heritage, his passionate nature, and the recent winning
of the World Cup by his heritage nation’s team.
Later during public be heard, Communications Committee president Kathy
Hochman, a former trustee, suggested the board keep the committees
Woodstock resident and parent Gordon Wemp added that he would like
to see the school board tap into the education channels available
on public access television. According to him, all towns in the school
district must have Time Warner contracts in place and Shandaken has
yet to complete their part. He offered to help set up the establishment
of the link.
Athletic director Mike Kocher addressed the school board on community
“misconceptions,” regarding the hiring of a school varsity
football coach. “At the beginning of the year, it was determined
by this district that Onteora suspend it’s varsity football
program for the near future thus fielding only a junior varsity and
a modified team for the 2006-2007 school year,” said Kocher,
“This decision was based on the lack of participation by upper
classmen of this school and the opportunity to rebuild the once flourishing
He noted that the next steps were to, “increase participation
and find a qualified coach to achieve this goal.”
On the agenda he pointed out the recommendation of Christopher Kasprzyk
as Junior Varsity head coach.
The school board has set an additional meeting on August 10 for the
sole purpose of a community-be-heard session regarding the Large Parcel
legislation. The school board must vote in favor or not in favor of
enactng the controversial bill no later than August 22. The meeting
will take place at 7pm at the Middle/High School.
On The Mainstream
Indeed, lively conversations
in the hallways outside the auditorium presaged the prevailing view
of the event’s speakers that today’s mainstream media
has drifted far from the role envisioned for the press in a free democracy
when the nation’s Constitution was framed 230 years before this
holiday weekend. The theme of the evening, Media Responsibility In
Time of War, as presented by U.S. Congressman Maurice Hinchey and
media experts Danny Schechter, Jeff Cohen and Amy Goodman, brought
most of the cheering throng to their feet several times during the
Olive’s gifted singer-songwriter Amy Fradon drew thunderous
applause herself by opening the proceedings with a stirring rendition
of her own composition, "Here’s My Flag," a song highlighting
freedoms represented by a banner for "right and left and rich
and poor." Fradon commented that she was moved to write the song
after experiencing censoring cautions from club owners and concert
organizers not to refer to the war in Iraq on stage.
The evening’s guest emcee, Alan Chartock, president and CEO
of WAMC radio and publisher of the <i>Legislative Gazette</I>,
said in his opening remarks that it was fitting that it was the Fourth
of July weekend since "So much of this centers on the very essence
of the government brilliantly crafted by out nation’s founders.
They saw, clearly, that an informed populace would be able to govern
itself in an enlightened way while ignorance opens the door to tyranny."
Chartock first introduced Danny Schechter (the "news dissector"),
a former Emmy Award-winning producer of ABC’s "20/20"
news digest, author of <i>The More You Watch, the Less You Know</I>,
founder of Mediachannel.org- the largest online network devoted to
media interests- and producer of <i>In Debt We Trust</I>,
a recently released documentary from the Globalvision independent
film company he co-founded.
The announcement bringing Amy Goodman on stage drew a lengthy standing
ovation, much to the chagrin of Chartock, who has long resisted carrying
Goodman’s national (and now international) radio program <I>
Democracy Now</I> on his station. Goodman is co-author of the
best-seller <i>Exception To the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians,
War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them.</I>
Also warmly welcomed was founder of the media watchdog group Fairness
and Accuracy In Reporting (F.A.I.R), Jeff Cohen, familiar to tv audiences
as the former co-host on CNN’s <i>Crossfire</I>
and as a panelist on Fox News’ <i>Newswatch</I>
program. Author of the forthcoming <i>Cable News Confidential:
My Misadventures In Corporate Media</I>, Cohen was also a prominent
pundit on MSNBC prior to the Iraqi invasion.
The introduction of Rep. Hinchey sparked a standing ovation to rival
Goodman’s and he earned further cheers with his remark that
it was "encouraging to know that there are so many people concerned
about this issue- which, frankly, I think is the most important issue
that we confront in our society. Maybe that’s always been the
case because it’s part of the First Amendment to the Constitution,
so it must have been seen as critical back in the 18th Century...but
it’s even more critical now because we have a conspiratorial
government working to suppress information...."
Hinchey, who founded the FAM (Future of American Media) Caucus in
the House of Representatives, was in the forefront of the fight against
the FCC’s (Federal Communications Commission) efforts to "reform"
media ownership rules in 2003 and had his media "p’s and
q’s" honed to a point. That was apt since each speaker
was afforded only an initial ten minutes to make their essential points.
"The broadcast spectrum is owned not by any individual nor by
any corporation but by the American people," Hinchey said, drawing
reference to the original regulations governing spectrum use in the
1920's and 1930's and the "Fairness Doctrine" that was a
key component of the rules until eliminated under the Reagan administration.
Noting that the doctrine was applied partially in response to the
way the new medium was being employed by fascist regimes in Europe,
he added that "in those days, in order to be licensed to broadcast
on the radio, you agreed that if you have a political opinion to express,
you may do so but, if someone else has a different political opinion,
they should be given the right to express that as well."
Hinchey said that the Fairness Doctrine was scrapped by the design
of people advancing a "particular philosophy that did not want
that equality to exist." It was an early "overt example"
of what we call the neo-conservatives, or neo-cons, "trying to
control information that people have access to," he added.
There are only two ways to rule- by consent and by fear, Hinchey declared,
blaming an administration whose fabrications are accelerating and
a "rubber-stamp" Congress for creating and advancing a "culture
of fear" in the country and abroad. He spoke rapidly of pre-war
speeches by Bush Administration figures, an intimidated media, legal
actions against media for writing about illegal NSA domestic spying
programs, monitoring of banking records and internet activities, disinformation
and designed media leaks to push an aggressive agenda, links between
neocons of the Reagan and Bush eras and, of course, the besieged Bill
"This is supposed to be a nation of law based upon the fundamental
founding principles in the Constitution," Hinchey summed up.
"We all need to stand up against this administration and the
things that it is doing because those things are illegal- because
they impinge upon the rights and freedoms and privileges and opportunities
of all Americans and they are doing it in a programmatic, planned
way. None of this is serendipitous or accidental. It is all intentional
and it has a clear, planned-out objective to maintain and solidify
political power against the basic principles of our country. We are
facing, today, one of the most critical moments in our nation’s
history and we need to win this battle against these repressive, despotic
people who want to control this country on the basis of fear."
Jeff Cohen opened his remarks by noting how good it felt to be in
a "reality-based community" as opposed, he implied, to the
world of network news.
"There are half a dozen media conglomerates sitting on the windpipe
of the 1st Amendment and I’ve taken a paycheck from three of
them," Cohen confessed impishly before speaking of his experiences
as a pundit with the Phil Donahue prime time show on MSNBC before
it was terminated 3 weeks before the invasion of Iraq by an owner
(General Electric) poised to "profit handsomely" from the
Cohen said that in the "run-up to the war" he witnessed
how corporate media abides "rule by the worse- a system in which
those with the least principle rise to the top and those who challenged
evidence that Iraq was a threat were spat out of the corporate media
"Those who echoed the official deceptions have largely seen their
careers flourish," he continued. "There’s not a single
tv executive that I’m aware of- or an anchor or a pundit or
a correspondent or a so-called expert that lost their job over getting
the huge story of Iraq so totally wrong, as almost every one of them
Cohen sketched a comparison between his own experience of not being
able to "discuss even the weather without being balanced by at
least one fire-breathing right-winger" and the treatment of "military
advisors and so-called weapons experts who never required any balance
whatsoever" because "the rule was ‘They’re independent.’
‘They’re objective.’ The head of CNN even boasted
that he went to the Pentagon to get approval of his military analysts
for on and off the air advice and, yet, virtually everything these
weapons experts said, without balance throughout the media, turned
out to be wrong."
While itemizing the post-invasion excuses offered by the experts,
typified by "I certainly thought the administration was telling
the truth," Cohen commented that the tv audience had no way of
knowing that the retired general, used then and now by MSNBC as chief
military advisor, was on the payroll of a military contractor making
millions for his work on a tank model deployed in the invasion.
Any time the Donahue show wanted to book a guest with an anti-war
perspective in the months prior to the war, Cohen noted, MSNBC insisted
that 2 pro-war guests had to be included and that when film director
Michael Moore was suggested as a guest, management said he had to
be "balanced by THREE right-wingers!" Cohen quipped that
the show’s producers knew better than to mention a guest like
social commentator Noam Chomsky simply because the studio wasn’t
large enough to accommodate the opposition he would require.
Toward the close of his statements, Cohen quoted an internal MSNBC
memo mentioning the need to dispense with dissenting views and head
into full-time "flag waving" in support of the invasion
as a reason for ditching the show. He said that it was his observation
that when journalists were too busy "waving the flag," they
don’t do their job to help stabilize the checks and balances
of a democratic government.
"They don’t ask the tough questions before our young men
and women are sent overseas to kill and be killed," he said to
Cohen closed his segment with a Good News observation that "In
the last few years, millions of people have aggressively sought out
alternatives to corporate media. That’s why independent media
and blogs and community radio, Democracy Now, Common Dreams.org are
booming. "Media activism is going through the roof," he
said, urging audience attention to savetheinternet.com and the closely
looming threat to that urgently vital resource of public information.
"Don’t take the media lying down," he said.
Although there was a sprinkling of familiar faces from Olive in the
crowd, no one in the town has yet to take advantage of provisions
in the local cable contract to found an Olive public access tv station-
a "compensatory" option provided by the 1996 Telecommunications
Act (legislation which has led to the concentration of the majority
of U.S. media into the hands of five major corporations and which
was widely denounced at this gathering by speakers and attendees alike).
Public access is also an option the Telecom giants are now working
hard to eliminate. Without a local access station, media in Olive
(excepting this newspaper, of course) is largely confined to the informational
feed provided by national and regional sources; a news stream with
a paucity of independent voices, at least in the view of these media
The next two speakers, taking an even tougher stance against a news
and entertainment system "totally dominated by corporate interests,"
questioned rights of access and non-corporate presence in the kinds
of information massively disseminated in the mainstream press and
on the "public" airwaves. Both Schechter and Goodman stressed
the crucial role of media outlets in shaping public opinion and effecting
the kind of world in which we live.
Danny Schechter, who shares some of Michael Moore’s rough-hewn
and rounded persona, prompted a wave of laughter by observing the
"funny thing" that happened to neo-cons who studied the
Soviet Union during the Cold War- namely that they decided they wanted
to <i>be</I> like the Soviet Union- and have, in the past
few years, been introducing Soviet-style laws and conditions. He charged
that media "sold" us the Iraqi war, saying that out of some
800 experts presented in its prologue, only six questioned it at all.
He recalled that at the international tribunal at Nuremberg following
the Second World War it was ruled that war of aggression was an even
worse war crime than the holocaust. The key role of the dominant Nazi
propaganda system of the era, he said, was found at Nuremberg to be
an integral part of the criminal activity leading to war.
"A dominating propaganda system (in place of a socially responsible
media) is not simply something to denounce but should be regarded
as a criminal enterprise," Schechter said, citing more recent
examples in history, such as genocides in Rhwanda and elsewhere, where
the role of media in a war helped lead to massive fatalities. He urged
that such media manipulations be viewed "not merely as a bunch
of mistakes but in terms of a crime against the American people, a
crime against the world and a crime against truth."
Amy Goodman, whose <i>Democracy Now!</I> program was founded
in the same year as the Telecommunications Act and grew from a few
Pacifica listener-sponsored stations to an independent entity (still
affiliated with Pacifica) heard and seen on over 450 radio and tv
stations in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia. She said its popularity
springs from its attention to the voices of the powerless and marginalized
many she called "the silenced majority."
Sticking to the topic of media’s role in the Iraqi War, Goodman
cited a study of the four major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS) by
Cohen’s FAIR organization which indicated that of 393 war-related
interviews televised during the period of the study only three featured
leaders espousing anti-war views.
"That is no longer ‘mainstream media’," Goodman
declared to a burst of applause, "That is an ‘extreme media’
beating the drums for war!
"Media are the most powerful institutions on earth and the pentagon
has deployed the media. We have to take it back," she continued.
"The public airwaves are a national treasure with the responsibility
to bring out a full diversity of opinion and if they don’t,
they should have their licenses revoked!"
Cutting into a level of sustained applause, Goodman spoke of the stark
differences between the reportage of "embedded" journalists
covering recent invasions and the spontaneity exhibited during a week
of unindoctrinated reporters in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane
Katrina. Despite advisements not to show bodies in the devastation,
news reporters in the waters with victims sometimes found such gruesome
floating displays unavoidable, she said, adding that the unsanitized
views of the tragedy enraged many against the government’s handling
of the situation.
"If, for just one week, we saw those images in Iraq, unembedded-
those babies dead on the ground, the women with their legs blown off
because they stepped on a cluster bomb in the wreckage or the old
men or the dead and dying U.S. soldiers- if we saw those images, I
really do think that Americans are compassionate people and they would
say ‘no- war is not an answer to conflict in the 21st Century."
Calling a corporate-based, government-embedded substitute for journalism
a "conveyer belt for lies," Goodman said she saw the media
as "a huge kitchen table that stretches across this country,
that we all sit around to debate and discuss the most important issues
of the day- issues of life and death, war and peace. Anything less
than that is a disservice to the service men and women of this country."
The Q&A session which followed produced a number of highlights
that included Jeff Cohen’s enthusiastic remarks about the event’s
"The alternates to corporate media are being built in this room,"
Cohen bubbled. "I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve
been in (media) for decades. We’ve got to bring more <i>Democracy
Now!</I> to this region," he continued to further applause
and to Alan Chartock’s chagrin. A little later, when Chartock
was reading Cohen a question about how independent media could be
promoted in the area, a loud voice from the audience cried out "By
putting <i>Democracy Now!</I> on WAMC!", prompting
loud cheers and an admonishment to the audience to not embarrass their
emcee which issued from conference organizer Andi Novick, who has,
herself, lobbied WAMC to do so.
To Chartock’s credit, it should be observed that his station
not infrequently affords a platform to critics of the current administration
which ranges from dissenting weapons expert Scott Ritter to David
Ray Griffin, author of <i>The 9/11 Commission Report Omissions
and Distortions</I> and <i>The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing
Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11</I>. But, since
most of the station’s funding comes from corporate underwriting
despite their impressive listener fund drives, a glaring clash exists
between his station and the insistently non-corporate Pacifica franchise.
The obvious problem in this standoff presents a microcosm of the national
media debate- WAMC dominates the dial for public radio in the region,
covering parts of seven states, broadcasting from ten separate locations
which could otherwise provide an opening for a public station that
<i>would</I> carry a program like Goodman’s.
As for the rest of the radio dial, of the 40 commercial stations in
this listening area at least 24 of them are owned by San Antonio-based
Clear Channel Communications (CCC operates at least 1,225 radio stations
in the U.S. and, with international partners, hundreds more in Mexico,
Australia, New Zealand and Europe) or Atlanta-based Cumulus Media
Partners (343 U.S. stations), both corporations have close ties to
the current administration and have staged pro-war rallies throughout
the country and banned artists from their airwaves for expressing
sentiments which divert from that focus; a censorship effectively
blocking the airwaves from the expression of dissenting political
During the build-up to the Iraqi invasion, for instance, CCC, which
is the home of syndicated shows by Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger
and other stars of the political right, distributed a blacklist to
its chain of stations, banning songs like the Youngbloods’ 1960's
classic "Get Together," which "seditiously"urges
people to "smile on your brother...try to love one another"
and 157 other tunes they frowned upon. Cumulus has staged CD-smashing
events that featured the public destruction of albums by the Dixie
Chicks- a country group that expressed disapproval of the President
from the concert stage. (Clear Channel’s television stations
have also refused to accept advertizing with an anti-war message).
When it is noted without precision that "at least 24" stations
out of 40 in this listening area are owned by CCC or Cumulus it is
because companies like Concord Media Group, which are listed as "independent"
in ownership inventories such as one compiled by the nonpartisan,
non-profit Center for Public Integrity are, upon closer inspection,
run by Clear Channel. Also, according to <i>In These Times</I>
magazine, evidence was submitted to the (conglomerate-friendly) FCC
which indicates CCC "illegally ‘parks’ or ‘warehouses’
radio stations it’s not allowed to own, by selling them to front,
or shell, companies... These front companies would allow Clear Channel
an easy way to buy back the stations if the FCC were to further reduce
ownership limits." Clear Channel CEO, Mark Mays, has indeed been
lobbying Congress to increase by 50% the amount of stations one corporation
can own in major market areas.
Clear Channel’s industry-leading tour management division has
been fighting lawsuits from groups which represent recording artists
who claim CCC coerces low artist fees for concerts by threating not
to play their work if they don’t meet the company’s terms.
Musical playlists are centrally composed for distribution to stations
across the country with local call letters spliced in to give the
appearance that the station’s region has local representation.
While their executives scorn charges of illegal monopoly practices,
Clear Channel has also been under legal fire for anti-trust violations
and is being eyed in ongoing payola investigations (including Eliot
Spitzer’s) and has recently been ordered to pay a $90 million
for anti-competitive practices (less than the "golden parachute’
arranged for CCC-founder and Chairman Lowry Mays and his two sons.
Also in the Mays family is Lowry’s son-in-law Michael McCaul,
who was elected to Congress in Texas’s 10th District with no
Democratic opposition after Tom Delay’s 2003 redistricting in
the state. McCaul is up for re-election this year but 80% of his district’s
voters will be using electronic machines manufactured by a company
in which Clear Channel’s vice-president, Thomas Hicks, is a
heavy investor.) Meanwhile, CCC continues to expand, with its outdoor
billboard division announcing its purchase of Interspace this month,
which advances its presence in North America, the Caribbean, Latin
America and the Pacific Rim at the same time it is establishing a
strategic alliance with GIIR Inc., Korea’s second largest advertizing
firm. Other divisions are busy gobbling up newspaper and magazine
distributors in the U.S.
What’s left for local media consumers hoping for untilted news
coverage is a patchwork of smaller stations largely dependent on mainstream
network news feeds and the overriding presence of Chartock’s
WAMC, which carries the NPR news packages that distress many of the
attendees of the NCRM event. Charges that the daily massage of programs
like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered"
is a slickly manipulated "PsyOps" (psychological operations)
campaign was fodder for discussion in the hallways of the auditorium
if not upon its stage.
Such accusations link directly to NPR president Kevin Klose, former
Moscow bureau chief for the <i>Washington Post</I> in
the Reagan era before becoming head of U.S. government overseas propaganda
organs Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia as Director
of International Broadcasting for the CIA-linked U.S. Information
Agency. Stir in the underlings and associates Klose brought to NPR,
which reaches 22 million listeners a week, to help "manage"
the news and add the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s head,
Robert Coonrod, who oversaw Voice of America operations and Radio
Marti, which targets Cuba with U.S. programming (as well as its tv
division) and you begin to see why some listeners, who call Klose
NPR’s "propaganda czar," are upset with the network’s
handling of news.
The Pentagon’s announcement at the outset of the current conflict
in Iraq, that it would "embed" reporters and manage the
flow of information (or disinformation) during the engagement, didn’t
specifically refer to intelligence assets in the media but some observers
have noted the implications.
Robert Parry, a former reporter for the Associated Press, <i>Newsweek</I>
and PBS’s <i>Frontline</I> series, devoted a book
(<i>Fooling America: How Washington Insiders Twist the Truth
and Manufacture Conventional Wisdom ) to the "Vietnam Syndrome"-
which was a perceived reluctance on the part of the American people
to initiate wars since the misadventures of Vietnam. The Pentagon
and war industry hawks of that era, including current administration
figures like Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, blamed the syndrome
on the American media and, according to Parry’s research, vowed
to co-opt that element of "media damage" during any further
military ventures. Parry currently operates a media watch website
Klose has also been active in the suppression of licenses for low
power radio (10 to 1000 watts) stations (operating as ‘Class
D’ non-commercial FM stations) which were ironically outlawed
by the FCC in the late 1960s shortly before National Public Radio
was cemented as a national entity that has expanded its corporate
sponsorship stealthfully ever since. Coonrod, as president and CEO
of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was also instrumental
in the takeover of the Pacifica Foundation’s executive board
in 2001, months before Goodman struck a deal to turn her program into
a separate (but linked) nonprofit organization.
A deeper view of media mergers and manipulations in recent years can
only widen the concern for a democratic media (small ‘d’).
CCC’s vice chairman, Tom Hicks, made the current president a
multimillionaire by purchasing the struggling Texas Rangers baseball
franchise from him and turned over control of funds for the University
of Texas Investment Management Company (which he founded before putting
Lowry Mays on the board of directors) to Bush-linked companies like
the Carlyle Group. Colin Powell, whose son was appointed head of the
FCC, was on the corporate board of America Online, which merged with
CNN owner Time-Warner. Carla Hills, a AOL/Time-Warner board member,
was also on the board of Chevron Oil (along with Condoleeza Rice)
and had been trade representative for the current president’s
father, who was also a Carlyle Group board member. Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld was a board member of the Tribune Company, which operates
the <i>Chicago Tribune</I>, <i>Newsday</I>,
the <i>Los Angeles Times<i> and numerous other newspapers
and television stations. J. Richard Munro, a director of Exxon-Mobil,
was also a Time-Warner board member. And on and on...
The point is- can listeners, viewers or readers expect a unbiased
view of world events when a board of directors member for the <i>New
York Times</I> and <i>Boston Globe</I> (Charles
Price) also represents the interests of Texaco, on whose board of
directors he cocurrently serves or from the <i>Wall Street Journal</I>,
whose board member Rand Araskog also sits on Shell Oil’s board?
Or how about Hollinger International, which owns London’s <i>Daily
Telegraph</I>, the <i>Chicago Sun-Times</I> and
the <i>Jerusalem Post</> and whose investment division
was headed by Richard Perle, who also sat on the Pentagon’s
Defense Policy Board at the time of the 9-11 attacks and won millions
from the Homeland Security bonanza for his Trireme Partners company.
Henry Kissinger, who was picked to head the 9-11 investigation until
he opted not to disclose his clients list, is an advisor for Trireme
and a board member at Hollinger.
It gets much deeper than we can detail further here but more than
enough is sketched above to lend weigh to the claims of a media in
crisis. The corporate drive to take over the internet, spearheaded
by Verizon and AT&T (another San Antonio-based company), paints
an even darker picture for the future. How are American interests
identified as feasibly separate from corporate interests when it is
corporate interests and corporately influenced interests in charge
of the discernment? In the context of how news is distributed in the
airwaves of Olive and the rest of Ulster County and the Hudson Valley,
these questions were key issues on the evening’s platform.
By their buttons and conversation, as well as by their response to
statements by the speakers, a primary concern in the audience appeared
as questions about the absence of media outlets for voices in opposition
to the war. Jeff Cohen extended the question into the political sphere;
"In a country where most of the people want to set a timetable
to bring our troops home from Iraq- and in New York State that majority
is even higher and, among New York Democrats, that majority is almost
a unanimity, how is it that we have two senators in the State of New
York who just voted <i>for</i> the war?" Cohen asked
before endorsing Jonathan Tasini in the Democratic primary for U.S.
Senate, another comment which drew approval from the crowd. (A drive
to support Tasini in the lobby passed out flyers that registered the
cost of the Iraqi war to Kingston, alone, as $23.9 million thusfar,
which could have paid for 1,019 four-year university scholarships
or other listed preferences. The flyers included the names of local
residents who did not return alive from Iraq as part of the human
costs of the war.)
"Overall, the public has historically had an expectation that
the media reports facts, does it job fact-checking and investigating
the truth," said NCRM founder Andi Novick when reached days after
the event. "That’s not been true for a while and I don’t
know how much of the public has caught on to that. It’s much
worse now because of consolidation and because of the control the
owners assert over their editors and journalists. Whatever firewall
existed between the owners and the news department doesn’t exist
Novick said that the goal of the new group, formed officially at the
beginning of the year, was to spread attention to the work of independent
media as widely as possible and "raise awareness of the shortcomings
of the existing predominant system so that people become aware that
we don’t have a free press- that the media system we do have
is the result of corrupt government policy and monopoly control that’s
been condoned by government. Hopefully, awareness of those issues
will cause people to want to become more active and fight back against
"Americans have lost the right to elect their government,"
Novick said, noting that was marked as a key theme of the evening.
"We wanted to draw connections between what was intended as a
free press and the Constitution and why it is necessary to have a
free press- so that you have checks and balances on those in power
and how that’s been lost. Once that’s lost, everything
else gets lost- like the rest of the rights declared in the Constitution."
A summation of the views expressed at the Citizens for Responsible
Media’s groundbreaking event can be said to approximate the
If "information is the currency of democracy,"as Thomas
Jefferson wrote, then corporate media is bankrupting America. A stifling
of dissenting or even inconvenient voices tends to distort the complexion
of national opinion. Against the rocketing rise of alternate media
outlets, the primary entities downplaying the media crisis, as proclaimed
by the stunning success of this event, are in interested parties in
government and in mega-media itself.
Presently, the general drift of mainstream media is not about the
truth of what happens but about managing perception of events. However,
a democratic electorate, to be part of a viable, effective system,
must be concerned with actuality rather than manipulated perception.
The difference between an informed electorate and a misled population
defines the very meaning of a democracy.
When information is designated to be a strategic resource in an ill-defined
war at the same time that war is extended into the perpetual future,
it is tantamount to saying that we are no longer entitled to truth.
This is a condition no democracy can survive.