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August 24
, 2008


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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August 24, 2008

Glasnost At Hearst?

The ascension of Jay Jochnowitz to the Times Union editorial page may mean a new era of openness and accuracy, or maybe not

We were starting our two week vacation this past month in a cabin on the shore of Great Lake Sacandaga, which is in Adirondack Park just inside “the blue line.” We had quiet mornings, no traffic noise, no schedule, and all of the lazy outdoor activities that we wanted. But this peacefulness came at a frightful price: we had no internet hookup.

Our Rented McMansion  On Great Sacandaga
Our Rented McMansion
On Great Sacandaga

Plus, we had to go six miles to town to get newspapers. The Wife had just come back on her bicycle with the Sunday papers when she got a phone call from Rezsin Adams, the venerable president of Save the Pine Bush. “Look at the editorial page of today’s Times Union,” she said.

I was busy amusing myself by slowly and thoughtfully moving rocks up the beach to stop erosion of the shoreline. The Wife in her bike shorts and bicycle helmet came bouncing down the grassy slope from our cabin. She had a big smile and a copy of the Hearst Rag in her hands.

Here’s the beginning of what she read to me from the lead editorial:

To think that the 6000 acre Capital Region ecological treasure known as the Pine Bush was once almost 10 times that size, before developers started making their way into what still qualifies as one of the premier examples of an inland pine barrens ecosystem anywhere in the world.

My immediate reaction was to interrupt The Wife and at this point and wonder at this complete 180 degree reversal of Hearst Times Union editorial policy. The editorial goes on mostly about the plans by the Tharaldson corporation, builders of the well known Marriott Hotels, to “develop” some 3.6 acres of vital Pine Bush on the fringes of the City of Albany. Plans which Save the Pine Bush, by the way, has been fighting hard to stop.

What kind of petty nonsense could be behind such a sensible statement? Is the editorial editor trying to annoy Albany mayor Jerry Jennings, who desperately wants a hotel on Pine Bush land? Is the Hearst Corporation at war with the Tharaldson Corporation? Was managing editor Rex Smith treated rudely while staying at a Marriott? But wait, check out some of the statements in the editorial:

It’s almost as if there are two separate Pine Bushes, one for ecological protection and one for economic development... Let’s hear more from the experts, then, before another portion of the Pine Bush is bulldozed for a hotel that easily enough could be built somewhere else... Making a casualty out of the Pine Bush is out of the question.

As if that weren’t enough, The Wife then read the final paragraph, deliberately and loudly:

The [Albany] Common Council ought to heed the warning of Lynne Jackson of Save the Pine Bush. To wit: “There is only one Pine Bush. You can build a hotel anywhere.”

Whoa, doggies. There’s nothing too surprising about them mentioning The Wife, she loves to chatter and patter for the corporate media about her causes. People often tell us they see her on TV. She even talks to Fox “News,” although she is quite aware that they may very well slice up her voice and image to create lies.

The real four star stunning shocker is that the editorial mentioned Save the Pine Bush (SPB) with approval. The Times Union managers have up to now strictly followed the Hearst prohibition against writing positive copy about grassroots citizen’s groups. And SPB has always been a particular target of their corporate rage.

Stormfront Over Sacandaga
Stormfront Over Sacandaga

Basically, the Times Union content providers are instructed by their editors to never mention citizen’s groups without approval from higher ups. Only on rare occasions are citizen’s groups mentioned, like when they file a lawsuit or start a riot. Even then, the copy usually appears among filler items on the back pages.

Such copy routinely uses passive words and sentence structure to portray citizen activists. We usually read that “some of the neighbors” are “concerned “ and “worried” and “afraid” that the proposed crapola “may” increase traffic or “impact quality of life.” In contrast, the hit-and-run sprawl dumpers, euphemistically called “developers,” are presented as straight forward leaders concerned only with what’s best for the community.

The layout of these articles, the very structure of the sentences strongly indicates that the managers of the Times Union are apostles of sprawl, hardcore advocates of uncontrolled and unplanned “development.” And it indicates their contempt and fear of organized citizens, their hatred of the basic American democratic tradition of bottom up rule.

This is not to be wondered at. Like most media workers, the Times Union editors are extreme corporatists. The Hearst corporation, to which the editors owe primary allegiance above all things, is a top down pyramid much like say, the governments of China or North Korea. The shadowy creatures at the top of the pyramid give orders, and the lower echelon local bureaucrats are expected to send revenue up to the top and never ask questions.

The Times Union editors are chosen by Hearst for their adherence to the corporate political agenda, which is the establishment of total corporate control over our society. The editors in turn insist that their content providers submit copy that promotes corporate power. If a newly hired content provider refuses to toe the party line, then he or she will be reading the want ads.

Storm Over Sacandaga
Storm Over Sacandaga

Over many years I have been consistently angered and appalled by the haughty arrogance and sheer nastiness of Times Union employees and managers toward their readers. This was especially true during the pre-internet days of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s when the corporate media had a virtual monopoly on the flow of information.

And yes, I butted heads with them all the way back then. I recall a phone conversation I had with one of the editors back in the 1990s, after I bothered him about some outrageous set of misinformation that they had printed. “Why don’t you cancel your subscription and read the Daily Gazette instead?” he suggested testily. “No way,” I said, “someone has to watch you people. And I already read the Gazette.”

Actually, in the beginning I was very polite to their content providers, and tried to be helpful. But eventually I learned that was a mistake. For instance, one early afternoon in the late 1980s I was sitting at my kitchen table grabbing a quick lunch. The phone rang. A nasty voice yelled into my ear, “Is this Save the Pine Bush?”

I replied that this was my home, but perhaps I could help. The voice spit something unintelligible. I asked the voice to repeat what it said, and in a tone dripping with contempt, it snarled “Paul Grondahl. Times Union.”

Back then I tried to help out media people when they contacted us during the day, I know they have deadlines to meet. Eventually I learned the hard way not to give a rat’s butt about their schedules. They can wait for The Wife to get home and call them back, let her handle these asses if she feels like it.

“You have a fax machine?” Grondahl hollered into my ear. I owned up that we did. “Fax me that decision the court handed down yesterday,” he ordered, referring to a key Save the Pine Bush case. I very politely explained that the decision was seventy five pages long, and perhaps other arrangements could be made. After a long pause he said “Oh, all right,” and hung up in my ear.

Based on this encounter, my only one with him, I am of the opinion that Paul Grondahl is a nasty little shit who deserves a face full of spit. I soon learned that his attitude toward Save the Pine Bush was typical of the insular culture of the Times Union newsroom.

Out On The Lake During A Storm
Out On The Lake During A Storm

Some time after this I fielded another lunchtime call from a content provider named Michael McKeon, who insisted on interviewing me. I answered his questions as best as I could, telling him that he really needed to talk to somebody else. But he claimed that he was on deadline and needed a statement, so like an idiot I sympathized with this schmuck.

The next day, in his article, I read with horror a profoundly stupid statement that McKeon had completely fabricated, which he attributed to me as a “spokesman for Save the Pine Bush.” Later, McKeon left Hearst and became the spokesman for the NY Governor Pataki administration. I’m sure his communication skills served that failed regime well. I sincerely hope and pray that McKeon develops a painful lingering disease that slowly rots out his flesh.

In the early 1990s I found myself standing next to columnist Fred LeBrun outside a public event. We were both killing time waiting to go inside, so I respectfully asked about a recent column of his about environmental matters. (Too respectfully as it turned out. I hadn’t yet learned that treating self-important bozos respectfully tends to bring out the worst in them.)

After some conversation, LeBrun suddenly asked me, “Who do you work for, who do you represent?” Surprised, I said something along the lines of I work for myself and I don’t represent anybody, but my wife and I are heavily involved with Save the Pine Bush.

LeBrun stared at me as if I were a pile of dog crap on his coffee table. He muttered something about “enviros” and turned his scrawny back to me.

No, that’s not a typo. “Enviro” was an apparently pejoritive word for environmentalists that LeBrun tried to promote for a while, an attempt at giving voice to his spitting hatred of community based environmental activism. This from a guy who never has a firm opinion about anything, other than what his bosses tell him.

The funny thing is that LeBrun is supposed to be a big outdoors man, an avid hunter and fisher. And yet he is strongly in favor of destroying his favorite playgrounds. After all, if you are opposed to environmentalism, then you are an advocate who supports poisoning the air, land and water, and killing all the game. I would call you a pollutionist. Not to mention muddle headed and dumb.

Clouds At Sunset Over Sacandaga
Clouds At Sunset Over Sacandaga

Well, I could go on. I’m not repeating a few of these stories simply because I want to air the grudges and slights that I’ve been nursing for all these years. You’d better believe I’m gonna nurse my grudges. My point is that this is how things have always been at the Times Union newsroom but now something apparently has changed profoundly out in Colonie.

So what has happened? Are we witnessing an era of glasnost at the Soviet Hearst corporation? Or is this a Prague Spring at the Times Union, likely to be crushed by corporate tanks lest the liberal infection spread to other Hearst newsrooms?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is further down the editorial page. Jay Jochnowitz is the new Times Union editorial page editor. And his very first editorial, the first impression as it were, is this amazing pro-Pine Bush pro-Save the Pine Bush statement.

Jay Jochnowitz
Jay Jochnowitz

Mr. Jochnowitz stands out from the rest of the current Times Union editorial staff because he is an actual, honest to goodness human being. I’ve always wondered why a guy with real journalism skills is wasting his time writing content at a corporate mill. No doubt he would reply that he has to make a living, and such work beats managing a McDonalds.

I’ve observed over the years that Mr. Jochnowitz generally avoids the ham-handed writing techniques that the Times Union editors usually require of their content providers. He does not, for example, use passive words and constructions to characterize individual citizens who are trying to oppose corporate intrusions into their communities. In other words, he has always shown respect for the readers of the Times Union.

Somehow, without shamefully pandering to his employers, he has not only survived at his job, he has carved out a career and has even joined management. I don’t know the man very well, in fact I can count on one hand the times I’ve conversed with him over the last twenty years. But I would guess that it takes a certain firmness of character to remain human while working for a corporate combine.

My optimistic parts are hoping that Mr. Jochnowitz’s ascension to the editorial page is the dawn of a new era at the Times Union, a time when reporting straightforward news and disseminating information becomes more important than trying to manipulate public opinion. Perhaps he is one of those rare people who can effectively “bring about change from within.” And maybe we will see others like him join the ranks of management as the old boys and girls retire.

My more realistic parts, however, remember that as long as the Hearst corporation exists, the Times Union newsroom and what it produces will continue to be dominated by corporate political culture. Mr. Jochnowitz cannot change that, he can only accommodate himself as best he can to the regime. And perhaps he can continue to effect a political thaw from inside the creaking ice machine.

Sacandaga, A Pot Of Gold In Broadalbin
Sacandaga, A Pot Of Gold In Broadalbin

But really, the editorial page is not the most important part of the paper. The Wife usually reads the editorials, as do a number of other informed people that I know, but I rarely bother. I’ve always maintained that the real editorial page is the front page. The front is where the editors and the corporation put what they want us to see, and leave out what news they want us to overlook.

What it comes down to is that the Times Union, like the rest of the corporate media, is slowly and steadily losing revenue and readership. I’m fairly (but not completely) sure that the executives who run the Hearst corporation have finally figured out why this is happening. More and more people are tired of plunking down fifty cents to read a pack of lies and misinformation, they’d rather get their news from more reliable and trustworthy sources.

The sole purpose of a corporation, any corporation, is to funnel revenue to the top of the pyramid. In typical corporate doublespeak, they call this upward flow of cash “the bottom line.” To keep the money rising into their hands, corporate managers will even allow criticism of the corporate system itself if such criticism generates profits.

But since Hearst, like all corporations, is a dictatorship, this editorial permissiveness could arbitrarily change to a policy of repression literally overnight. (This is why no corporation should be allowed any sort of political power.) As such, Mr. Jochnowitz would be purged from local management and replaced by a reliable apparatchik who can be counted on to practice corporate political correctness.

What will the new job do to Jay Jochnowitz? Will he continue to balance his common sense and decency against the dehumanizing demands of the corporation hovering over his head? Or will he follow the path of least resistance and transform into a self hating corporate cog like his current colleagues in management? Time will tell, we shall soon see.

We had another lovely vacation at Great Lake Sacandaga. We’re having a wet year, so the water is high and I’ watched the storm clouds move across the lake, interspersed with periods of sunshine. And one night we traveled to a nearby lakeside restaurant in our boats, The Wife in a little black dress and fishnets. We paddled home in darkness, the only craft on the lake, a full moon to light our way.

Full Moon Over Lake Sacandaga
Full Moon Over Lake Sacandaga

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Posted by: Jay Jochnowitz
Posted on: 08/28/2008
Thank you for the kind words, but there are a few misconceptions here I should clear up.

While I entirely agree with the editorial, I didn't write it. It was written by the very able Jim McGrath. Moreover, for context, there was no resistance to it from any supposed corporate overseer nor was it snuck in under some corporate radar.

The description of Paul Grondahl, with whom I've worked for many years, could not be further from the reporter I know. Paul is one of the most gifted writers at the paper, and has one of the biggest hearts. He carved a special niche in writing about the conditions under which New York imprisoned mentally ill criminals, work which has been widely recognized as powerful, effective journalism. Yet Paul is also one of the most soft-spoken, unassuming people you will ever meet.

As for your depiction of the TU, I'm not sure where you're getting your information from, but it clearly isn't from first-hand experience in the newsroom or any reliable source.

I've been at the TU since 1987, and very early on, as a city hall reporter, wrote story after story about the Pine Bush and the issues of development. I came to know (and quote) many people from Save the Pine Bush, including Lynne, Reszin, John Wolcott and Lew Oliver. Never -- absolutely never -- did an editor or anyone at the paper communicate to me that this scrutiny of development and concern for the impact on the environment were clashing with some nefarious corporate agenda.

You must be thinking of a different paper than the one that has written story after story about the Pine Bush, or dispatched a team of reporters to spend a summer researching and writing about pollution in the Adirondack lakes, or called attention to the toxins in the soils of Sheridan Hollow and Arbor Hill around the Answers plant, or took the city to task for draining a reservoir and killing thousands of fish. And those are just some of the stories I was involved in as a government reporter. Our environmental reporters have done far more over the years on a host of other issues.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond.

Posted by: Uplander
Posted on: 08/31/2008
Your portrayal of the Times Union as a tentacle of some vast corporate conspiracy is pretty lame. The TU isn't the best paper, and I've taken issue with editorial and news coverage on a few occasions -- but they generally do a pretty good job.

Newspaper circulation is down nationwide, for lots of reasons that many people have spent lots of time discussing at length, so I won't go there. I think the TU management has seen the writing on the wall for a long time, and has always had a website that is ahead of the curve, and even a BBS when very few media outlets published electronically.

I live in Westerlo, up in the Hilltowns of Albany County, and was active in two reasonably-sized groups who took "activist" stances against things that affected our community. One was the proposed Mereco (sp?) plant in the Basic Creek watershed (Albany's water source) and the other was the braindead decision by the City of Albany to drain the Basic reservoir (and leave thousands of fish to rot for a year) to facilitate 60 years of deferred maintenance.

While I wasn't a leader of these movements, in each case the reporters from the Times Union were respectful and responsive. We weren't mocked and the people quoted were quoted in a fair light.

Ultimately, their involvement got the word out and made a difference. In the Mereco case, they published a couple of front-page stories, and I believe the fish story was featured prominently as well.

I find it funny that you, a gifted propagandist, would criticize a journalist for crafting their language to depict people in a certain light. You routinely use weasel words, grammar and pictures to characterize people and events in a biased light.

Posted by: Dan Van Riper
Posted on: 08/31/2008

Thank you Mr. Jochnowitz for your response. And thank you for being the first Hearst TU editor to publicly acknowledge that this blog exists.

Certainly you will defend your employers and your corporation. I respect that, and I hope that your "corporate overseers" will continue to allow more journalism at your place of employment.

As for Paul Grondahl, I've known many people who become totally different personalities when they are dealing with persons whom they consider their inferiors. It's a serious character flaw, like Jekyll and Hyde.

And by the way, if any more Times Union managers like "Uplander" would like to FLAME the comments, please go right ahead. I'm delighted to read your reactions.

How do I know that "Uplander" is a TU manager? No one, and I mean no one, besides a ranking Hearst employee would claim that the Colonie Times Union is not ruled by the corporation that owns them.

Nor would a non-employee display such raw vehemence in defense of the indefensible. I'm just sorry you don't have the courage to identify yourself, Mr. "Uplander." But please... tell your co-workers to add their flames.

Posted by: Soundpolitic
Posted on: 09/07/2008
While the article on the Pine Bush was good and it is a very important issue for the Albany Weblog, I don't believe that the Times Union is deserving of any praise whatsoever. It's easily the worst rag being published throughout the region. If you want real news, pick up the Altamont Enterprise for a buck a week and Metroland for free.

My biggest problem with the TU right now is their lackluster coverage of our busy Democratic primary season in Albany County. Especially on the 46th State Senate District Primary, in which a real race has been going on as David Weiss challenges incumbent Sen. Neil Breslin. What did Mr. Jochnowitz have to say about that in one of Charlotte Grimes recent editorials, which she only published after I e-mailed my concerns to her?

"I'd say it comes down to how we answer the question, 'Is it a real race?'"

That statement, as well as nearly all of that August column's conclusions, were both arrogant and ignorant, including nearly all the quotes from all TU staff members. You can read the rest of my thoughts on that one here: A column that just asks hypothetically how many petitions were collected when David Weiss collected more signatures by himself than any of the Congressional candidates; that asked whether the candidate was well known outside of politics when David Weiss if founder of the world's largest environmental organizations; that asked whether he can draw a crowd when he produced the single largest women's rights rally in history.

In short, a newspaper that asks questions it never intends to answer to help keep the incumbent in power and deny voters the information required to make a real choice, be it one way or the other.

And Fred LeBrun's about-face on the 21st Congressional District is laughable. Back in May, he wrote off Phil Steck and Paul Tonko and praised Tracey Brooks, so much so that his quote made it all over her silly, women-vote-pandering palm cards. Reading it, you'd think that Tracey Brooks had won the election before Paul Tonko even got in and that Phil Steck was just a nasally nobody who wouldn't even make the ballot. What did he say last week? "Too close to call." And where are we now? Phil Steck has placed himself in the top tier and is poised to very possibly win, Tonko is still a big name, and the Brooks campaign is floundering, trying to get every last lady in the district to believe the stupid idea that they should vote for her because Hillary didn't win the Presidency.

Every day I pick up the Times Union not to find out what's going on, but just to keep tabs on how terrible it's coverage is. The purpose of doing so? To hold our "free" press to account. Because we cannot have accountable politicians without an accountable press.

PS - Keep up the good work on trying to save the Pine Bush. I'm from Hilltowns as well, and I believe in the preservation of all of Albany County's green gems of land, which includes the historic Helderbergs and the unique home of the Karner Blue. Peace.

Posted by: super freak
Posted on: 09/08/2008
The TU has an agenda and its all about money.

Since Newspapers all over the US are losing circulation and Neil's brother Mike can make or break the decision on where County ads are put for "public Notice" or for bids, the TU does not want to tee them off. One negative word from Mikey B and the TU will lose much needed revenue..

Otherwise, they would have endorsed a challenger in the primary instead of remaining noticeably silent. (They endorsed in the 21st)

Posted by: CommonSense
Posted on: 09/10/2008
@super freak -

That makes little sense. Committee assignments are usually based on seniority, so getting rid of a Senator who has been around forever, right before his party takes the majority would be pretty retarded.

I think that the Weiss made a good showing and will eventually end up in an elected office.

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