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May 27, 2009

Can You Reclaim Editorial Neutrality Once You've Lost It?

Here's an interesting journalistic case study, courtesy of Peterborough This Week (a.k.a. MyKawartha.com).

First they back Dean Del Mastro's Little Lake Proposal (after first spelling out many of the proposal's fatal flaws).

Voting on the future of Little Lake  MyKawartha.com, 4/21

Votingonthefutureoflittlelakeouropinion MP Dean Del Mastro cannot seem to dodge criticism on the idea of developing the Parks Canada land along Little Lake's shore.

He brought the idea to council without checking with the public, some critics say. He is promoting a complex that will only benefit a private developer, say others.

He will ruin the lake. He will only bring low-paying service jobs to the community. He is selling an idea that will never fly!

We've heard them all. At least he has the courage to try....

[Del Mastro] has always been entrepreneurial and this is a wonderful example of him seeing the potential in a waterfront property with good road access and a water taxi in the summer.

So, we can take a chance and do something really creative or we can turtle.

In the past, we have voted on the side of caution. Is that what we really want?

Then, one month later, they (attempt to) adopt a more neutral editorial stance.

Open Your Mind and Join the Debate  MyKawartha.com, 5/20

Openyourmindandjointhedebateouropinion The best decisions are made when the people making them have information and understand that information. As the community newspaper that reaches all 91,000 voters, we feel responsible to deliver that information in a way that is clear and neutral.

We're hoping that voters will judge the project on its merits and not get caught up in the partisan who-said-what hooey that, frankly, is takes the level of debate down a notch.

So here's my question. Can a media outlet reclaim its editorial neutrality once it has lost it? If so, how long does it take to get it back - to earn back audience trust?

Please Note:
Screen captures were added 5/31 to address a reader concern raised in the comments section below. Please note that each piece contains the tag "Our Opinion" in the story header and each is written in the style of an editorial opinion piece (e.g., "We've heard" and "We're hoping") as opposed to a news story.

Related:

Canadian Broadcast Standards Council: Decision re: CJCH-TV (CTV Atlantic) re CTV News at 6 (St├ęphane Dion interview)

Canadian Broadcast Standards Council: Decision re: Mike Duffy Live Prime Time (St├ęphane Dion Interview)

Press release summarizing above two decisions


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Comments

I was also on Television in the same story as Ann. However, I am of a different political stripe than Ann (although we overlap somewhat in varying degrees)
and I am a member of a different party that the one you refer to in your post. She and I do agree on this issue with a resounding NO.

I'm really quote tired of the Tory side of this issue making this *about* politics. It's about the development, the environment, and a planning (non)process gone awry led by an MP that is out of control and off the rails (no train pun intended there!)

But okay, let's play YOUR Game and TALK about the politics of this, as reported in the Examiner last fall. Here we go ... follow the bouncing political donations ball ... THe rest of this post is directly from the Examiner and I feel that it bears repeating ... and repeating ...

Records link Towerhill Developments, Melody Homes to $90M Little Lake resort/convention centre pan
Posted By BRENDAN WEDLEY EXAMINER MUNICIPAL WRITER
Updated 7 months ago


The company behind the concept plan for a proposed $90-million resort on Little Lake is headed by a lawyer who represents Saverio Montemarano, a principal for Towerhill Developments and Melody Homes.

A corporation profile of Lift Lock Lands Ltd., the company named on the business plan for the Little Lake proposal, lists Nicholas Macos as the director, president and secretary.

Macos has represented Towerhill Developments and Melody Homes at Peterborough planning committee and city council meetings, as well as Ontario Municipal Board hearings.

Montemarano and his partner, Mario Cortellucci, are developers of Ecoplace Community in Whitby, a $3-billion residential/commercial development that will house 14,000 and employ 10,000 when it's done in about 10 years.

Melody Homes has built residential developments in communities including Peterborough, Scarborough, Bowmanville, Woodbridge and Brampton.

Neither Macos, a lawyer with Black Sutherland LLP in Toronto, nor Montemarano could be reached for comment yesterday.

Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro presented the concept plan for the development of the Parks Canada property on Little Lake at the planning committee meeting two weeks ago.

He refused to tell city council or county council during his presentations the name of the developer who commissioned the business plan.

Del Mastro wouldn't tell The Examiner the name of the owner of Lift Lock Lands Ltd. yesterday.

"I'm not really certain why it's relevant," he said. "I know (Coun.) Ann Farquharson and others think there's a conspiracy.

"There is no need to identify the person that's involved."

Farquharson could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The Little Lake proposal is a concept plan, Del Mastro said, and the community may decide it wants a different type of development on the property, or may want to do nothing with the Parks Canada land.

"It has the potential to harm their business," he said, referring to the unnamed developer. "I don't want somebody to look like they've lost out on something."

The resort detailed in the concept plan would be built near Lock 20, across the canal from Rogers Cove and next to Johnston Park.

The developer paid for the business plan and proposal for a public-private partnership for the Trent Waterway Resort, Del Mastro said.

Del Mastro said he approached other developers about the potential to develop the site but told them to hold off on putting together a business plan until after the community is consulted on the idea.

"It's very expensive to do a plan like that," he said. If the community decides it wants to redevelop the

property, the project would go through an open-call-for- proposals process, Del Mastro said.

The federal government owns the 7.2 acres of land. Under the current concept, the government would retain ownership of the property and enter into a long-term lease with a developer.

The federal government will make the decision on the potential development of the property following input from the public in Peterborough, Del Mastro said.

"It won't be political at all. It will be made by the executive officers

within the bureaucracy of Parks Canada," he said. Montemarano and Cortellucci have been financial

supporters of the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

During the 2002 Progressive Conservative leadership campaign, Montemarano and Cortellucci contributed $44,600 to Ernie Eves through seven subsidiaries, gave $46,000 to Jim Flaherty (the current federal finance minister) and $40,000 to Tony Clement (the current federal health minister).

Thank you for your commments, Edward.

Every private citizen as the right to express his or her own views on any issue at any time in this country, whether or not they support a particular political party. As it turns out, I am not actively supporting any political party at this time. (I am less than impressed with the political party system in this country.)

I am, however, always on the lookout for great ideas. I have taken the opportunity to compliment Del Mastro whenever I have agreed with his point of view. (Apparently you're not a regular reader of this blog.)

Responsible citizenry involves questioning our leaders, not hopping on their bandwagons - or trains. You have to think critically for yourself, not just parrot what your leader is telling you.

Have you toured the property in question? You may want to do so or view maps/videos of the property in question. It includes premium waterfront, which, of course, is why it is of interest to the developer in question.

Del Mastro has been less than forthright about this issue, a point that other citizens have had to address in the media in order to ensure that the facts are on the record. (I'll be posting some of their letters in a subsequent post, with their permission. Two of their letters were aired on CBC Radio in an effort to correct some factual inaccuracies that arose during an Ontario Morning interview with Del Mastro.)

With regard to process, having a sole-source developer come forward with a proposal, pitching that proposal on behalf of the private developer, and then asking for other proposals is both inappropriate and backwards.

Holding public consultations, deciding on the will of the people (with input from urban planners and other experts), and then going to tender with appropriate specs in place is the appropriate process. That way, the voice of a private developer isn't heard too early in the process.

This is no ordinary project after all. We're talking about a proposal involving a 99-year lease involving Parks Canada land. There are environmental and heritage issues to be considered, as well as appropriate allocation of a public resource.

With regard to your final point: The ballot design was very confusing. On one side of the ballot, citizens were left with the impression that they were voting on the private developer's proposal, as presented in the media and in the descriptive text on the ballot. On the reverse side, citizens were given the impression they were allowed to choose from a menu of options. This is the key point I made in the television: the ballot was very poorly designed. It should have been designed by a professional experienced in survey design.

As the dozens and dozens of other letters submitted by citizens to the local newspapers have since indicated and the comments on the www.protectlittlelake.ca petition indicated, people were extremely dissatisfied by the way the ballot was conducted.

Del Mastro lost considerable credibility in this community by ignoring public outcry about duplicate ballots, ballots received by long-decreased residents of households, etc., and forging ahead with the ballot regardless. A mockery was made of the voting process. People are understandably outraged.

You raise the question of Ethics... I have one question, when you were on Chex tv last week, did you let the reporter know that as a "concerned resisent" you may have not been the best person to speak to because of a possible ethical conflict? You know seeing as you make it a priority to slam Del Mastro every chance you get? Also I'm willing to bet, had Peter Adams brought this up 5 years ago, or had Betsy McGregor won and proposed this that you would be all in favour.... Just my opinion!
Oh and before I forget, a few facts about the Little Lake development. If anyone disputes the results of the Del Mastro poll, they are more than willing to check the results, which will be formally tabulated. Secondly, the land in question isn't used for anything now outside of the crappy concrete path that very few already use, and the Parks Canada building. Third, if there is a desire for the plan to proceed, of course there would be an number of issues to be dealt with from EA studies and more, but lets not jump on Del Mastro's back for presenting an idea. Its just an idea right now, and lastly... as for the developer, I'm sure that I've already read that the orginal design was created by a developer but there would be an open bidding process.
Oh and one last point, why does everyone assume that the current design has to be the final design, its going to be open for interpretation i'm sure.
Thanks for listening.

One additional comment, Lois.

I was pretty sure I had been comparing apples and apples (editorial opinion piece to editorial opinion piece), but I wanted to be sure, so I went back to your site and grabbed screen images from each of the items cited above and added them to the post above.

As I noted in an amendment to the blog post above,

1. the 4/21 and 5/20 pieces are each tagged "Our Opinion"
2. are written in the collective editorial voice ("we've heard"; "we're hoping") typical of editorials
3. are unbylined (typical of editorials; not typical of news stories).

I therefore concluded at the time (and still believe) that these each functioned as editorial opinion pieces.

If you disagree with this interpretation, I'd appreciate hearing why.

Thanks,
Ann Douglas


Hi Lois -

Let's be clear about what's happening here.

The citizens of Peterborough are very unhappy with

(1) the balloting process (which is terribly flawed)
(2) the private developer's proposal which is being pitched by Del Mastro (and the potential conflict of interest issues this raises)
(3) the environmental issues related to the potential development of Little Lake.

These issues are not being adequately addressed by your newspaper; nor has your newspaper chosen to write about the biggest story to emerge in recent days except in a very cursory way - the petition launched by Jeannine Taylor so that citizens can have their say in a meaningful way. (Yes, you gave the petition a paragraph-long mention at the end of your interview with the Mayor, but that's not the same as focusing attention on the petition as a story in and of itself.)

All other major media outlets consider the petition to be big news this week: CBC Radio. Chex TV. The Peterborough Examiner, incidentally. On Twitter, you went so far as to state that you were intentionally ignoring the petition because only "a few squeaky wheels" were behind it. Last time I checked, over 800 very articulate squeaky wheels had signed the petition in just over 72 hours.

But back to your comment.

The point I was making in my post above was that you advised readers how to vote on the Little Lake project on 4/21 (in your editorial on that subject) before retreating into more neutral editorial ground. Perhaps I didn't express that clearly enough.

I certainly don't think your charge that I was skewing information is accurate.

What's more, accusing a reader of "skewing information" when she raises valid concerns about the coverage being provided by your newspaper is rather insulting, don't you think?

Is this standard procedure at Peterborough This Week?

It was drawn to my attention earlier today that Jeannine Taylor has been treated with similar disrespect.

I am disappointed and dismayed.

Respectfully,

Ann Douglas

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