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Outside Looking In

Ebola pandemic is a possibility

First published: October 19, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: October 17, 2014 at 6:10 pm

Like a slowly rising sea, Ebola has begun to make people turn and look — and not like what they see.

The prospect of a deadly pandemic is believable simply because it has happened before. The Black Death, a plague of a rapidly spread bacterium, killed between 75 million and 200 million across Europe from 1146 to 1353. It took Europe 150 years to regain the population loss; the episode had human, environmental and economic consequences that we can’t even now imagine.

And, of course, popular culture has found low-hanging fruit in the concept. Steven King’s book and movie “The Stand,” an allegory about good versus evil, is likely the best known of the genre. But other books and movies have echoed a similar theme: A disease sweeps across the globe, wreaking havoc and threatening society as we know it.

There is no sign at this point, of course, that the outbreak of Ebola stubbornly spreading globally from West Africa will become another plague. But to deny that the situation is dangerous would be the height of folly.

On Wednesday, World Health Organization officials predicted the outbreak would expand from 1,000 infections now to 10,000 cases by December. When things multiply by a factor of 10, it doesn’t take long before you’re talking real numbers.

The problem with Ebola, it appears, is that despite the miracles of science that we have come to expect, there is no easy cure. And as the cases of the infected health care workers in Dallas show, treatment has risks.

On CNN on Tuesday, chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon by trade, donned protective gear, put dye on his gloves and then used Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol to remove the gear. It left dye on a forearm and on his neck. It was a chilling example of how easily contact can spread and how difficult it is to take all the steps necessary to keep that from happening.

It is a dangerous world. According to the New York Times, Islamic State in Syria militants have control of a significant stockpile of old chemical weapons manufactured or purchased by Saddam Hussein. If stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin in the hands of that radical group doesn’t scare you, you probably don’t care about Ebola.

But anyone who doesn’t care about Ebola — and any past and future diseases that have the capability of fatally spreading across the face of the Earth — is whistling in the dark.

Right now, in this state, the only two hospitals capable of handling any cases of Ebola north of Manhattan are Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. In New York City, Belleview is the main hospital with certified quarantine rooms — and it has six of them.

Other hospitals that are ready to treat Ebola patients are in Atlanta, Omaha and Maryland. One of the nurses contaminated in Dallas is now in the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. She was flown there in a specially equipped and staffed plane.

Check your insurance policy, see what kind of coverage you have for a Medevac flight from Northern New York to Maryland, or New York City, or Omaha or Atlanta. Look for coverage for an isolation suite in a quarantine wing.

Figure out how any country, including the United States, is going to pay for the care a full-blown epidemic would require. And after you’ve done that, ponder this: How long is it going to take to develop an effective treatment, let alone a cure?

If you are even remotely inclined to pass off the threat from Ebola or some as yet unknown disease like it, don’t. Relatively common diseases brought to the United States from its first European explorers decimated the Native American population.

It took 150 years to recover from the Black Plague. The influenza pandemic of 1918-20 killed as many as 100 million people — which was 5 percent of the Earth’s population.

It can happen here; it has happened before. Let’s hope that modern science can keep it from happening again.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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A new life for an old paper

First published: October 12, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: October 10, 2014 at 5:14 pm

I cut my newspaper teeth in weekly community papers. Starting more than 40 years ago, I spent 20 years at community weeklies before coming to the Watertown Daily Times.

When you learn your trade that way, you are learning at a very organic level. I have people speak to me because of my job here. But when I was editing a community, county-seat weekly, EVERYBODY knew what I did, and they never spared sharing their opinion of it, especially when it wasn’t particularly positive. When you’re doing much of the reporting, writing the editorials and sometimes delivering the papers to news outlets because your delivery guy’s van broke down, you are involved with your product in a very intimate way.

Community weeklies live because they focus on the day-to-day lives of the people in their circulation area. The Times covers an area as big as some small states, with more than 30 school districts, dozens of police agencies, scores of municipal government units ranging from counties down to water districts. The hardest job at this paper is prioritizing events to determine which get attention from the news staff and which don’t.

At the weekly paper level, the choices are fewer. And although the staff is smaller, doing news triage is not so fraught with multiple choices.

And weekly paper editors have a much greater opportunity to visit the local coffee shop, chat up the postmaster, have lunch at the diner — and in all those pleasantries, pick up news tips.

I am pointing all this out because this company has just added the Jefferson County Journal to its portfolio, and we have hired an editor who is as gung-ho about the job as anyone I’ve ever seen.

The Journal, for all its strengths, was getting tired. That’s not an indictment; it’s a fact of life. As a small family-owned weekly, it had limited resources.

If the Fowlers wanted to take a vacation, it was a major tactical task to figure out how to put out a paper while they were gone. They didn’t have a support network, didn’t have a larger organization to which to turn for help. After awhile, that is draining.

It was clear that the Journal was going to become just another dead masthead without intervention. Johnson Newspapers stepped in, and the southern Jefferson County area will continue to be served by its own weekly paper. I would like to see that happen without having to saddle the Journal with any baggage related to the larger company.

Our new editor, Heather Berry, is dedicated to keeping the Journal a hometown community newspaper. She spent her first week here touring the southern part of the county, talking to people from Henderson to Rodman. Before her second week is out, she’ll have gotten to know Worth, Lorraine, Woodville and all the other tiny places that make up the South Jeff community.

The Times is going to give Heather and the Jefferson County Journal all the support she and it need to thrive. We want to make it possible for her to focus on putting out a good newspaper, while the larger organization takes care of the support roles that have become so important in business — from computer networks with WiFi capability to taking care of subscriptions and classified ads. One immediate improvement over the old Journal we will have fully in place is home delivery of the paper so that subscribers won’t have to wonder just when they’ll see their copy arrive in their mailbox.

Another improvement is presenting pages with full-color reproduction, making the paper more visually appealing and a more modern, modular page design that is easier for readers to follow.

There is no intention, however, of making the Journal appear to be a clone of the Times. That won’t work, and that is not a goal that any of us have. While you may see some stories that appear in the Times, you will see many, many more that don’t. The Jefferson County Journal will remain dedicated to the southern portion of Jefferson County.

Our new office is on Church Street in Adams, in the old Chamber of Commerce spot. Stop in someday when you see the lights on and say hello to Heather Berry. Give her a news tip or drop off a press release. It’s your newspaper as much as it is ours.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Cut the head off the snake

First published: October 05, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: October 03, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Today, jets from several nations are flying sorties over the Middle East, releasing bombs and rockets that target members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Their formidable armaments are bound to do damage. But news reports have indicated from the outset of the bombing that ISIS has countered the bombing campaign by moving into private residences, daring the allied nations seeking to destroy it to go ahead and kill innocent civilians. Does anyone really believe that an air war can defeat a strong, smart and resilient insurgency? No one in the U.S. military does, as generals have said it will take “boots on the ground” to eliminate the ISIS threat.

And if boots on the ground are called for, you can pretty much bet that some of those boots are going to be worn by 10th Mountain Division soldiers. So the interest should be high in this latest threat from the region that we have been at war with since 2001.

What the United States and its Western and Arab nation allies would like to do is defeat ISIS without getting their combat hands dirty. That cannot happen.

Most observers agree that ISIS has supplanted al-Qaida as the most pressing threat from Arab militants; while al-Qaida leadership hides in caves on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, putting out occasional communiques and cursing the West, ISIS is taking the fight to the enemy. Hard. Effectively. Viciously.

Is there any question why this would appeal to itchy militants looking for live targets?

ISIS has become the poisonous snake in the laundry room for Western nations. The best way to dispatch a poisonous reptile is to cut off its head.

That formula worked for the U.S. when it found and eliminated Osama bin Laden. Now it has to do the same thing with ISIS.

The head of the snake that has to be chopped off calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Like Osama bin Laden, he is an organizational craftsman and a charismatic leader (or so the Western allies believe). Unlike bin Laden, he doesn’t appear to be enchanted by the sound of his own voice.

According to the Washington Post, his birth name is Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. The Post has speculated that he became a militant during four years of incarceration courtesy of the U.S. Army in Iraq. Judging by the talent that he brings to the game, however, he may have been brewing his hatred of the West for much longer.

He avoids the spotlight. There is only one known public speech he has given in the past decade. There are only two pictures of him in circulation. He shrouds himself in mystery and meets his minions wearing a mask. For the allies, he is a tough one: It’s hard to catch what you can’t see, even harder if you don’t really know if you’re looking right at him.

However, military experts have praised his tactics, his group’s professionalism. He is ruthless, as the beheadings of numerous hostages has made abundantly clear. He apparently is adept at raising funds. And the U.S. has posted a $10 million bounty on him.

The only way the Western and Arab allies will end the ISIS threat is to find and eliminate al-Baghdadi. It is a measure of the fear that he engenders that so many Arab nations have joined the U.S. in seeking his demise. The only way the U.S. is going to keep boots off the ground in this particular fight is to find the leader of the ISIS snake and cut off its head. Otherwise, we could be fighting this battle for years to come.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Contact him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Ol’ Man Winter is peering over the transom

First published: September 28, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: September 26, 2014 at 4:52 pm

For the past week, we’ve been having the weather we waited all summer for.

The unremitting sunshine, coupled with balmy temperatures and pleasant evenings, has likely lulled us all into a false sense of euphoria. All the needed work to put up storm windows, get the lawn furniture in, get the grass ready for its long winter’s sleep — all of that has been put on hold. The ubiquitous quilted parkas of the north country have largely stayed in closets and nobody has dug out the snowblower, the snowsuits or the snow boots.

It is Indian summer in spades.

The danger, of course, is the false sense of security this gives us. No need to rush those winterizing projects, we think to ourselves or say to our spouses. No need to stack wood or put rope caulk around those pesky spots where the wood doesn’t quite meet the brick, or stone, or other wood. It’s 73 degrees, for cryin’ out loud!

As seductive as this all is, I still had Wendell the Furnace Guy come in last week and tune up the boiler. Next week I’m taking the snowblower to Mannsville for a tuneup and oil change. And I just got the car all fixed up and winterized; even Subarus need to be ready for winter. This weekend, I’ll take down the screens and put up those old wooden storm windows that all the old houses used to have. They are a lot of extra work, but at least they aren’t as efficient at keeping out the cold as combination storm windows.

For a number of reasons, I didn’t have a garden this year. But that has allowed me to be more current all summer on the lawn — something that pays off in the fall. Soon, though not as soon as is customary, I’ll give the lawns a last mowing and winterize the mower. Time is passing, and with it passes the weather I really enjoy.

This uncustomarily joyous turn of fall weather, with its persistent sunshine and great temperatures for walking, will not stand. Believe me — if you revel in this too much, you’re bound to be disappointed.

It could be only weeks before Mother Nature realizes she has been entirely too kind and decides to drop an October blizzard on us. And even if the first snow doesn’t come before Election Day, I promise you’ll have the warm clothes and cozy boots out and in use sooner rather than later. This is the north country, where men are manly, women are virtuous and winter lasts for seven months. Give or take a week or two ...

I hear a lot of people say that they just love the change of seasons. I would embrace that philosophy if the two seasons were fall and summer. Maybe with a month of winter surrounding Christmas.

I don’t like snow, never have, never will. How could you love something that you will have to move tons of, even though it eventually disappears without any human intervention? During last year’s January horror show, the snow got so deep in my driveway that it took me and my neighbor two hours to clear a path — a task made frustrating by the inch of snow that was falling every hour while we were blowing it away.

OK, I hear you snowmobilers and skiers. God bless you. I’ve even figured out a way to accommodate you without the rest of us suffering. I’m going to use my meager influence with the Weather Gods to get all the snow to fall on Dry Hill and the Tug Hill Plateau. You’ll be happy, and I won’t have to worry about the snarled traffic on Route 11 when I-81 gets shut down because of a 20-vehicle pileup.

However, I know that I battle the inevitable. Winter will come as surely as tax bills and politicians seeking votes. I just hope the politicians seeking votes are long gone before winter drops its first blizzard. Is that too much to ask?

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Contact him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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It’s time to stop St. Lawrence County’s civil war

First published: July 16, 2014 at 12:28 pm
Last modified: July 16, 2014 at 2:05 pm

A state Supreme Court judge has told St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain to do what many north country residents have been hoping she would do on her own for a few weeks — stop using her office as a political weapon.

Ms. Rain, in her sixth month as DA, informed county officials that she would take to a grand jury two actions that qualify, at very worst, as an error of omission and a just marginally questionable policy decision. In the former, the DA is suggesting that the county’s failure to reapply for a grant that would have ultimately benefitted her office is a criminal matter. In the latter, she is proposing that a decision on how to use legitimately acquired drug forfeiture funds constituted a crime.

Of course, the DA never came right out and said either action was criminal. But her decision to take them to a grand jury, and her subpoena of county records dating back 10 years, speaks for itself.

Tuesday, Judge Vito C. Caruso of the Fourth Judicial District put a halt to the DA’s probe and ordered her to show cause why Ms. Rain should not be disqualified from continuing the investigation. If she is unable to convince Judge Caruso otherwise, a special prosecutor would be appointed by the court.

The decision may have headed off a confrontation that would have been disastrous for the county. This civil war was not going to have any good outcome, and it was going to be a huge drain on the county’s taxpayers. The cost of complying with subpoenas and providing defense for county employees would have been an outrageous waste of money. And it would serve no legitimate purpose.

If Mary Rain thinks she is the defender of the public good, maybe she should have started by going after the state of New York — for diverting Lottery funds to the general fund, for example, or for failing to remove the tolls from the Thruway as promised when the toll road was built back in the 1950s or for Gov. Cuomo’s plan to use Clean Water Funds to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. Those are all public policy decisions that fly in the face of best intentions.

Or, closer to home, she could go after the town of Brasher for using casino funds to construct its new highway barn. Those funds are supposed to be targeted at economic development, after all.

Ms. Rain will not do any of these things, of course, for a couple of reasons. First, she is not in a political dispute with the state or the town of Brasher. More importantly, all those decision, while perhaps outside the pale of original intentions, served the general interests of the taxpayer. The actions she is pursuing against the county never come close to reaching the level of falling outside of the law.

The failure of the county to apply for the Office of Victim Services grant was not intentional, although the loss of the funds puts the county in a bind. But it would appear that Ms. Rain bears some responsibility for the missed grant application; the funds would have paid for two victims advocates within the DA’s office for five years. The application had in the past been completed by the Probation Department, but county officials say this was done as a “courtesy” and noted that the DA received five notices of the application deadline that her personnel ignored. The joint culpability here seems obvious.

And the county’s decision to use forfeiture funds for a sound system in a public room that is from time to time used as a courtroom and a grand jury room barely stretches the requirement that those funds be used to enhance the legal system — if it stretches it at all.

Everyone would applaud an effort by a public official to right wrongs and punish public corruption. But using public money to chase political foes is wrong. Ms. Rain and the county have clashed over spending since she took office, and the path from A to B seems pretty clear here. Unfortunately, already beleaguered taxpayers of St. Lawrence County are going to have to pay for this poorly designed action. If the court decides that this probe should go forward, it should put it in someone else’s hands. That will remove petty politics from the field of play, and assure county residents the will not be pawns in ill-advised conflict.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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‘Left-out’ officials can help make best of new Mohawk land pact

First published: June 01, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 31, 2014 at 11:42 pm

Now that the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe have reached a long-negotiated agreement to end the tribe’s land claim against the state, the voices of those who were not offered a seat at the negotiating table are being raised in protest. It is fair to suppose, however, that without a cerain constriction of the negotiation team, too many separate agendas would have made the pact impossible to ratify.

The land claim goes back to 1982. The genesis of the claim, however, dates to a 1797 treaty between New York and the Mohawks in which two deputies of the tribe, Joseph Brandt and John Deserontyon, agree to cede all tribal lands to the state in exchange for $1,000 for the tribe, and $600 apiece for the tribal negotiators. The treaty was never ratified by Congress, which was a violation of the federal Indian Non-Intercourse Act, designed to prevent the states from entering into often predatory treaties with tribes – such as the one with the Mohawks.

The federal government laid the foundation for future land claims with treaties beginning with the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwyx and most notably inclusive of the Iroquois Nation in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, which promised the tribes sovereignty within their established reservations, and promised, in addition, $4,500 per year from the federal government to provide for the general welfare of the tribes.

The Mohawk claim languished in the federal courts for decades, while a series of federal court rulings were issued that militated against tribal claims. The decisions leaned heavily on the principle of laches, a defense that an action could have an unfairly negative effect on parties not central to the action — in the case of the tribal land claims, the owners of lands within the claim area who would suffer if an adverse ruling were issued.

The Mohawk case was eventually broken open with a ruling that while 85 percent of the land claim was improper under laches, a three-sided area that appeared to have been carved from the reserve did not meet the laches test because tribal members already owned a significant part of the Hogansburg Triangle, and the case was allowed to proceed.

This ruling, and the desire by the state to break a boycott of tribal payments due from its Hogansburg casino, led to serious negotiations. They yielded an agreement that will see St. Lawrence County and the towns of Massena and Brasher receive compensation from both the tribe and the state, and in turn the tribe will receive payments from the New York Power Authority and an allocation of low-cost power from the authority’s Massena generating facility. No private landowners within the settlement area will be compelled to sell their land, but land purchased from willing sellers by the tribe will be added to the St. Regis Reservation.

In a difficult environment, it appears that a reasonable settlement has been achieved. The state and localities will receive the casino compensation that was long ago agreed to. The county will receive an unrestricted $4 million annual payment from the state. The tribe will honor its casino payment agreement, but receive compensation from the tribe from NYPA, whose Moses-Saunders site has affected tribal lands, and get low-cost power the tribe can use to try to lure job-creating industry to the reservation.

And within hours of the announcement of the agreement, supervisors in Massena and Brasher have commenced to whine about being excluded from the talks, and members of the traditional Mohawk faction are complaining they, too, were excluded.

The Akwesasne Mohawks across the border in Canada were not made part of the talks because their reservation is outside of the state. The traditional Mohawks were likely not included because they are almost always at cross-purposes with the recognized tribal government. It’s likely the recognized tribal government wanted to focus the tribal interests during the negotiations.

The matter of the lack of town representation in the talks is in keeping with what appears to be a basic practice of the Cuomo administration to do as much as possible in secret with the fewest possible participants. Then it trots out its agreement as a done deal, with everyone smiling in the background.

In this case, however, that process yielded results that have not been forthcoming over the past 30 years. And given the very narrow basis of the settlement — only a small portion of the initial land claim formed the basis of the settlement of the entire land claim, and the landowners within that area are protected from the forced loss of their land — it is difficult to suggest that the addition of two town supervisors into the negotiating mix would have provided any superior results.

Brasher Supervisor James Dawson and Massena Supervisor Joseph Gray act like they’ve been shut out of the benefits of the deal. Nothing is further from the truth; both towns have been guaranteed by the state that they will lose no tax revenues from land that is included in the reservation, both will have access to a significant amount of casino money that has been withheld for the past four years and Massena will get the additional benefit of a lucrative rental agreement with NYPA for a building at the town-owned airport that will bring it revenue for years to come.

This settlement is long overdue and everyone wins a little something. The tribe can add the Hogansburg Triangle lands, over time, to the reservation and it will get money and electrical power from NYPA. The state frees up the casino money for itself and the municipalities. The municipalities get a reasonably reliable infusion of money each year. And the land claim ends, giving landowners the peace of mind that they will not, at the whim of some court, lose their land.

Joe Gray and Jim Dawson have indulged in their whine. Now it’s time to figure out the best use of the settlement’s terms for the municipalities, and put this centuries-old dispute to rest.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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The swamp is dark and the water is rising

First published: May 25, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 24, 2014 at 10:31 pm

An unknown man shows up at a residence, passes himself off as a reporter (he’s not one) and starts asking questions about the family inside.

A different unknown man sits on a quiet street for hours, leaving only to follow the residents of a particular house he’s watching.

An operative of a Washington firm sends a series of documents to a paper in a rural congressional district, telling the reporter he contacts that if he doesn’t print them quickly, he’ll take the documents to someone else who will print them.

Television pilot? Self-published political thriller? LSD-induced hallucination? Nope. Just another day in the life of the 21st Congressional District.

For the staff of the Times, it was a head-shaker of a week. When Dan Flatley started talking about his encounter with a Washington private investigator, it piqued our interest. When we got a look at the documents, it got us shaking our heads. What is the point, we all asked each other. None of the documents was new, all of them were publicly available and their subject matter was, at best, snooze inducing.

Then we found out about the intrusions at one candidate’s house, and were reminded that we were recently told about the faux reporter incident at the other’s residence. Everyone involved in the 21st CD race seemed legitimately shocked and outraged, including the Democratic candidate’s campaign. What, everyone was wondering, is going on?

I’m not naming any of the candidates because, well, I’m tired of being accused of coddling one, or the other, or going after one, or the other. On the other hand, it’s impossible not to ask who gains from all this silly subterfuge?

Each Republican candidate suggested the other was at fault, until we asked “Who gains?” With the apparent targeting of each of them, they both suggested the Democrat gains.

But the Democrat logically responded that until there is a nominated Republican, going after both of them would be senseless. And expensive. And likely with no real gain.

So we return to the question: who gains?

We must return to the known facts. The documents we received which were reported to damage the campaign of one of the candidates did not plow new ground, did not provide unknown information, did not make substantive claims of a damaging nature. The mysterious appearance of unknown men at both candidates’ homes was disturbing but yielded no “dirt.” Thus, all the efforts were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as the Bard wrote.

A little investigation into the source of the documents, however, has yielded some interesting tidbits. Two of the principals have publicly documented ties to the upper echelons of the Republican Party. One partner was a top aide to House Speaker John Boehner, and before that an aide to the House Whip. He also was the chief researcher for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Another partner was a U.S. Senate staff member and worked on presidential campaigns. This is a firm connected at the hip to the top of the Republican Party. So one has to ask: why would they be dropping a dime on a candidate also deeply connected to the party leadership?

As to the “trackers,” all we can prove is that one is from Yonkers — that’s a pretty good haul from the suburbs of Albany — and the other one is NOT a reporter from the Watertown Daily Times. But somebody is paying them.

This swamp has gotten deep in a very short time. It appears that some of the key players are “not from around here,” as they say in Maine. The kerfuffle all this has caused has been a distraction from a campaign that is rapidly moving toward conclusion. And, as one Republican candidate noted, it really has nothing at all to do with issues of importance to the 21st Congressional District.

We want to know what’s going on and we’re going to keep digging to find out. But we hope all the candidates, from all the parties, remember that this is a vital political race to determine who will represent a deeply under-represented area in Congress. The Republican candidates, especially, need to stay focused on the issues of critical importance to the north country: jobs, health care, Fort Drum, the border, the St. Lawrence Seaway. They need to forget about the subterfuge that is plaguing the race and instead convince the voters that one of them is worthy to represent us in Washington. Then we have to hope like hell one of them is.

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What they don’t say when they speak through emails

First published: May 18, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 17, 2014 at 10:59 pm

Technological advances have been great for journalists. We have the ability, today, to report instantaneously from remote locations, to provide decent quality video by virtually every reporter, to live Tweet breaking news events to keep our audience “live at the scene.”

And at the Times, we’ve invested to stay current. We have tablets and Chromebooks and notebooks and laptops that can hook remotely to our content management system, meaning we can send stories into our system as quickly as they can be typed, rather than having to bring the reporters back to the “mother ship” to write their stories. We have numerous devices that can shoot both still and video photos, in extremely high resolution.

All this combines for a more immediate and timely report, delivered on multiple platforms. We are no longer tied to our print product; with our social media feeds and website, we are as immediate as you can get. But all that can mean a lot less if we can’t deliver all the news of a particular story. And the technology that has so liberated us in other areas has constricted us in reporting our stories because email and text messages are proving to be extremely frustrating contact points to our sources.

On the surface, one might think that email transmissions would make our report more accurate, because no one can dispute the accuracy of a quote delivered by email. And when no other contact can work — say your source is in Nepal, with no reliable phone service but with an Internet connection, as an example — a series of emails can get the job done.

Sadly, we don’t have that many situations in which we need to interview a source in Nepal, or Diego Garcia. Nearly all our sources are in New York state, and the majority of them are in the north country. Yet, we have many people who request that we email them our questions, and they’ll get back to us.

Those that do, in many cases, do so because they have found this to be a convenient way to offer not-entirely-responsive answers, to provide “on-message” sound bites of very little value or to offer as a quote words that have been written by someone else.

I wrote a story this week about a Matthew A. Doheny campaign flier that contained false information about the Times. My contacts with the Doheny campaign were a not particularly satisfying combination of phone calls and emails. My contact with the Stefanik campaign, from whom I sought reactions, was entirely by email. In fact, efforts to get a voice associated with the Stefanik campaign has become increasingly difficult as the campaign has progressed.

And it’s not just campaign organizations that want to control their message so tightly that no actual words ever leave their candidates’ lips. Far worse, from the standpoint of the public’s right to know, are the responses of state agency “spokesmen.” I use the word in quotes because in more and more instances, these spokespeople never speak. They seek an email list of questions, they respond to any of them they wish to and they ignore those that make them uncomfortable, and our reading public often ends up with less public information from state government than they have a right to have.

I counsel our reporters to be persistent. To call early and often. To drive to a government office, if it is located somewhere near us, to seek a face-to-face meeting. Despite that, a reporter getting information from multiple sources, as we always demand, often finds that email responses provide an additional “voice” that adds to the story. And, as many reporters have pointed out to me, with some sources, it’s either an email exchange or no exchange at all — especially with state agencies.

But reporting, when it’s done right, is an endless uncovering of information. If you’re a good reporter, the answer to one question more often than not kicks up another question. And the answer to that may kick up yet another query. And so it goes. Except with an email exchange — that finite process stifles follow-up questions. It allows sound-bites and rote answers to supplant real information. It allows “speakers” to be spoken for by their hired flacks. It allows sources to provide answers that don’t really respond to the question asked.

In short, email interviews too often interfere with the reporting process, and too often interfere with the truth.

The rule that we follow at Northern New York Newspapers right now is, if a quote comes from an email, it must be designated as such. If an entire exchange is from an email, that must be adequately explained. That rule lets readers know that this quote might be tainted, which is important. But it doesn’t address the greater question of whether we should routinely be resorting to email exchanges in lieu of a voice-to-voice interview, or if we should place some restrictions on that as a news gathering resource. Our reporting staff is mulling the question, and I hope to find a place where we can establish processes and policies that answer the deficiencies of email interviews. If you want, I can send you an email on that.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at 661-2351. (Or, if you must, at pwhite@What they ...)

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A story best written as an autobiography

First published: May 13, 2014 at 12:37 pm
Last modified: May 13, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Darrel Aubertine, one of the best known political figures in Jefferson County whose career has ranged from farmer to county legislator to state legislator to commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, can’t seem to stay away from political IEDs.

The most recent example of this is the assertion by state Sen. Malcolm Smith that he “bought” the votes of eight fellow senators in 2008 to help him be elected majority leader. According to state Board of Election records, Darrel’s campaign committee received five donations from Sen. Smith totaling $9,500 in the month before the general election.

The New York Post reported that Mr. Smith alleged the eight candidates he supported were “on the payroll” to vote for him. The allegation is damning and needs to be addressed by Mr. Aubertine. But we presented him a number of opportunities to respond to them before we published Ted Booker’s story on the allegations, and he failed to respond.

Tis a pity. Because I suspect that Darrel’s reaction was one of surprise rather than resignation. We can’t know how all this went down, but let’s be fair: quid pro quo among senators in the same party is part of the definition of politics, and this type of quid pro quo hardly qualifies as being “on the payroll” for anyone.

A quick look at the campaign finance records of any state legislator who has faced a tough election battle will reveal that other state legislators of the same party facing little or no opposition frequently “share” their campaign chests with their embattled colleagues. As a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, Darrel NEVER had an easy campaign. That he would get help from his colleagues should be expected, not wondered at.

Sen. Smith is now under investigation for trying to bribe his way onto the Republican Party line in the last New York City mayoral election. This should tell you all you need to know about Mr. Smith’s ethical challenges and his problem-solving skills. With a couple dozen people seeking a ballot spot to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many of them real Republicans, any Democrat who thought cash would bring him an easy Wilson-Pakula designation to run on the party’s line was short in the reasoning department.

The allegation that Sen. Smith had fellow senators “on the payroll” was made to an FBI informant at a restaurant, and smacks of baloney and bravura. It doesn’t ring at all true.

And had Darrel jumped out in front of this, explained this was Sen. Smith’s version and that it didn’t reflect what he and the other senators understood, the lede on the story would have been very different. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Like a lot of politicians in this era, Darrel adopted a rope-a-dope strategy, pulling into a shell until it all blew over. Such a pity, when the truth would have served so well.

It unfortunately doesn’t end there, however. The continuing controversy over Cape Vincent’s Water District 2 has embroiled the Aubertine family, and the dispute, which would likely be a mere kerfuffle in most towns, has once again pitted Cape Vincent residents in a pitched battle. The wind farm developers may have folded their tents and trudged out of town, but the discord they fostered just keeps on and on.

Like the Smith allegations, had Darrel jumped out in front of the water district issue, it probably wouldn’t still be simmering. When the district was formed 17 years ago, it included just four parcels, including the Aubertine’s. In the ensuing years, seven more property owners have tied into public water on Darrel’s property. The problem, boiled down, is simple: those users are not in the water district, and if they want public water, they should be. But Darrel stuck a rake in the propeller on this issue when he refused to let town consultants on his property to check the hookups.

It was a stubborn and retributive act, but it wasn’t sinful. There is no evidence that Darrel is unduly profiting from the outside users tapping into his line, nor other signs of impropriety. The town would be satisfied to resolve this by expanding the district, changing the manner of charging for water to make it fair for everyone, and moving on. But the families involved, including Darrel’s, were on the other side of the wind farm issue from the majority of the Town Council, and that has clouded everyone’s view. Although, to be fair, the council appears poised to compromise more than Darrel and his District 2 neighbors are.

So here is this man, a farmer at heart, embroiled in a couple of major controversies that he needn’t be tangled in. A simple statement of fact in the matter of the dubious Smith allegation, and some movement toward meaningful compromise in the water district matter, could completely clear the air. To date, neither appears to be forthcoming.

We all write our own stories. Our decisions speak for us and when those decisions don’t include explanations, we allow others to edit the text of our lives that we should control. Darrel Aubertine has had a remarkable life by any standard. He has served the town, the county and the state at many levels, and served well. His book is rich and full and fascinating, and now, at this point in his life, he should speak up and make sure he continues to write his own libretto.

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They gotta accentuate the negative

First published: May 11, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 10, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Politics in the era of the tea party, the Internet and partisan polarization has become a blood sport. Campaigns in recent years have been marked by the nasty, accusatory and personal (remember the Swiftboat Veterans) and have become more than ever marked by rote sound bites and unwavering, largely irrelevant messages.

Until the very recent past, however, primary campaigns have eschewed the take-no-prisoners tone of general elections. With the divisions in both main parties — ultraconservatives and moderates in the Republican Party, deeply liberals versus mildly progressives in the Democrats camp — primaries now have become the places where campaigns appear poised to eat their young.

And probably nowhere in the country is there a more bitter, personal campaign than the one between Republicans Elise Stefanik and Matt Doheny. A lot is at stake personally while, ironically, little is at stake for the party.

Republican strategists have looked at the 21st Congressional District and seen two young, attractive candidates slugging it out to represent the party against an engaging but politically naive Democrat, Aaron G. Woolf, who came late to the race and whose campaign has yet to gain a lot of momentum. For groups like the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, it is easy to stand aside while Ms. Stefanik and Mr. Doheny wale on each other. They are pretty confident that whomever emerges bloody but victorious from this primary will be ready to overwhelm Mr. Woolf in the general election.

And they’re ready to back up that conviction by having a pile of money waiting in the wings — for the winner. The loser can go home and lick his or her wounds.

It seems that a number of opportunities are being lost along the way. And from the peanut gallery, you can see all of the candidates employing strategies that you have to wonder about.

Take Mr. Doheny, for example. He has jumped into the pit on this campaign, slinging arrows at Ms. Stefanik for all manner of perceived failures of ideology on her part. They range from marginally appropriate to just plain silly. The Americans for Tax Freedom pledge not to raise taxes, for example, has been a major Doheny attack, because Ms. Stefanik refuses to sign it.

Matt: nobody cares. Ms. Stefanik was formed in the crucible of the Bush White House and Paul Ryan’s vice presidential campaign. Of the things you could legitimately criticize, her conservative credential is not one of them. She pledged to the residents of the 21st CD that she won’t raise taxes, and frankly, if I cared about that pledge (which I think is a short-sighted promise by any candidate), I would prefer she pledge me than pledge to Grover Norquist, who is so far out on the radical fringe he makes Attila look like a moderate.

And Mr. Doheny has made other claims that are at best tenuous. For example, I view it as walking pretty close to the edge for him to “blame” Ms. Stefanik for Bush’s fiscal policies to combat the country’s economic meltdown. Matt Doheny made millions of dollars on Wall Street, yet he castigates Ms. Stefanik for bailing out Wall Street and the big banks. If Mr. Doheny really doesn’t think the Great Recession needed government intervention to get the country back on track, he hasn’t adequately studied the potential consequences of the Bush administration standing down during a national crisis. And without the bailout, how would Mr. Doheny’s own financial statements look right now? He is a creature of Wall Street; he still makes his living in the world of finance, and while he should be proud of that, this attack on Ms. Stefanik smacks of hypocrisy.

It isn’t all about Mr. Doheny going for the jugular, however. The Stefanik campaign has been equally ruthless. She has criticized the timing of Mr. Doheny’s entrance into the race, his failure to oppose the state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Act, his Wall Street connections and even his conservative credentials.

Stop. From the standpoint of political philosophy, these two are mirror images.

Once you reach a certain point on the political spectrum, comparatives are irrelevant. Both of these candidates are at that point and beyond. Let’s stipulate they’re conservative and move on.

As for the SAFE Act, Ms. Stefanik has implied she is more interested in repealing it than Mr. Doheny. He has responded that no, he is more interested in repealing it. So, time for a quick political primer: federal elected officials are not allowed to dabble in state legislation. So they both ought to stop saying they’re going to help repeal it, because they can’t.

The irony of this bitter campaign is that there are very few points of contention between the two candidates. They both want to change the tax system, give breaks to taxpayers (when they really mean the top 10 percent of taxpayers), get rid of the Affordable Care Act and eviscerate environmental protection laws in the name of being “business friendly.”

Given the similarities, it was probably inevitable that the campaign become personal.

All Matt Doheny needed to do to win was campaign on his north country connections. That was a badge he earned in his prior runs against Bill Owens. He has been of the north country nearly all his life, and now he is of the north country, not of Manhattan. Elise Stefanik can trot out her Northern New York connection all she wants, but while she portrays it as a mile wide, any real probe shows it’s only a foot deep.

She looked around at the political atlas, saw a Democrat who might be vulnerable to a young, aggressive, attractive conservative female candidate, and made it happen. And you can’t hate her for that; from Bill Buckley to Robert Kennedy to Hillary Clinton, the state has a rich legacy of people moving here from elsewhere to pluck a political jewel or two.

But in the 21st district, all other things being equal, what sets Mr. Doheny apart from Ms. Stefanik is that he can legitimately claim he is “from here.” And with the name recognition from two other campaigns, that should have been enough to push him to a win in a sparsely attended primary. Had that been his campaign — “hey, I’m just as conservative as her but I’m your north country guy” — he’d have won.

Now, there is baggage from a negative campaign. While it extends to both candidates, it has more chance to slap Mr. Doheny upside the head. If it does, he has no one but himself (and his hired guns) to blame.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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