When the Media Fails, the Public Loses
Since November 5, when voters approved an amendment to the state constitution to permit a mining company to mine 200 acres of Forest Preserve lands, we have learned much more about the proposition than we knew before the vote. We always knew that the company proposed to mine the Forest Preserve, and everyone, proponents and opponents alike, thought it at least noteworthy that two environmental protection groups dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the constitutional clause that states that Forest Preserve lands will remain “Forever Wild,” supported the proposition. But we did not know that the state officials who were lobbying the legislature to place the proposal on the ballot were unaware that the mining company already had access to a second mine on its own land, which it has not yet begun to utilize. We did not know that the company was spending at least half a million dollars to win passage of the proposition. And that’s not including the thousands of dollars it donated to the campaigns of Senator Betty Little, who sponsored the bill that put the proposition on the ballot. Rumors, of course, swirled around the politics of the proposition. Had Governor Cuomo pressured DEC Commissioner Joe Martens to elicit the support of the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club, and what inducements did he offer? Did economic interests play a role in the endorsements provided by wealthy Adirondack environmentalists? Why did editorial boards with a historical commitment to the Forever Wild clause, such as the Adirondack Explorer and the New York Times, endorse the proposal? (In the case of the Times, at least, there was no unanimity among the members of the editorial board, which is perhaps why its endorsement was so half-hearted.) Why, in fact, did the media accept so uncritically the mining company’s own narrative, disregarding its history and past practices? Had state media subjected the proposition to the same level of scrutiny they bring to political candidates, questions such as these would have been answered before the vote. A proposal to amend the constitution is, of course, a more difficult race to cover than one between two candidates, and perhaps that is why propositions receive less attention than they deserve. Proposals to amend the constitution lack easily identifiable ideologies, resist analogies to battles and contests, and are devoid of personalities. A proposal to amend the constitution does not tweet indiscretely or get arrested for driving while intoxicated. But because public referenda are less transparent than political campaigns and can be manipulated so much more easily, it’s all the more important that media scrutinize them. People are now debating who won or lost with the passage of Proposition Five. Governor Cuomo says he won: “As we continue efforts to grow the tourism industry and economy in the North Country, my administration is committed to ensuring that the Adirondack Park remains a place with vibrant communities to raise a family and grow a business, as well as a place of incomparable outdoor recreational opportunities for visitors.” Senator Little said she was “gratified” by the vote: “I’m very happy voters approved proposition 5, which is so important to families and businesses in the Adirondacks. Yesterday’s result was the culmination of great team work among many local, state, environmental and business leaders and partners, so credit goes to many but especially to those in the town of Lewis who had so much at stake and persevered.” We think the Forest Preserve lost. To put that in terms of an easy to digest slogan: “The Adirondack Forest Preserve: Forever Wild, until a corporation wants a piece of it.” But thanks to the inattention of the media, those who truly lost were the voters. Persuaded by a skillful media campaign that Proposition Five was a local issue, they never realized their legacy as the owners of the Forest Preserve was at stake.