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Analyzing the Times’ Woodworkers coverage

August 26, 2011

The blame game has begun.

Now that the town is facing the prospect of 40B housing at the Walpole Woodworkers site on East Street, Selectmen are shifting the blame to everyone but themselves. Selectmen are accusing some residents of spreading false information throughout the period leading up to the election that a 40B developer was not actually waiting to take the property if the town didn’t purchase it. A few selectmen are also blaming The Walpole Times for biased coverage of the issue leading up to the town election.

The first part is probably true. Yes, there were people, including two candidates for selectmen, who thought it was a big bluff that a 40B developer was waiting to buy the property if the town did not. But based on a 180 analysis of the Times’ coverage of the override, it is evident Selectmen were given, and utilized, extensive opportunities to reject those claims publicly.

I think I can consider myself to be an independent observer of the Times’ coverage, in that I have criticized the Times in the past and have also praised the Times in the past. Currently, I write a column for the Times, for which I am not paid, but I have no ties to the Times financially or in any other way. In some ways, the Times could even be a competitor to 180. I did oppose the Woodworkers override, but I opposed it because of reasons other than because I didn’t think a 40B developer would buy it. I opposed it knowing full well all along that a 40B developer would take it if we didn’t.

The following is VERY LONG. I literally went through each and every article, so just take my word for it: IT WAS UNBIASED COVERAGE. But if you care to read this entire analysis, go ahead:

I did a search of WickedLocal.com/Walpole, the Times’ website using the keyword “override” to find all Woodworkers override articles since it was first proposed in January of this year.

Since January, there have been 17 articles in the Times that have mentioned the Woodworkers override, including the most recent one regarding the 40B developer purchasing the property.

The first article was uncontroversial and presented the proposal to voters for the first time, as discussed by Selectmen. It presented their reasons as to why the land should be purchased. This is a direct quote from the article:

Fairfield Residential was interested in buying the property in 2008 to build a 200-unit housing complex but pulled their offer months later due to the sagging economy.

Selectmen said two more housing developers expressed interest in the property after the Fairfield deal fell through and worried that if a major complex were built; there would be an increase in traffic, higher cost to the school district and a rise in class sizes.

“We see this as a potentially proactive move for the town as well as a defensive tactic,” said [Selectman Eric] Kraus.”

Based on this, it appears the Selectmen are being given very fair coverage. The rest of the article was very similar. It was very evident Selectmen were trying to avoid 40B. There is no mention of the possibility of 40B developers waiting in the wings, but that didn’t need to be stated. It was clear that 40B was a key issue here. There were no argument against.

The second mention of the issue came in what was essentially a news brief in early March. It was as part of a larger article called “Walpole Board of Selectmen Notebook from the Tuesday, March 8 meeting.” The news brief announced that the first public hearing about the proposal was going to be held. There were no arguments for or against.

The third article about Woodworkers came in mid March in an article called “Residents push back on Walpole Woodworkers proposal.” It discussed the opposition from seniors at a Senior Center hearing about the issue.

This article was fair. It featured the following:

Town Administrator Michael Boynton said there are offers on the table from similar residential developers that top Walpole’s $4.5 million offer but the Woodworkers gave the town the first crack at the land last summer and are willing to turn it over for municipal use at a discount so long as the 80-plus year old business was allowed to keep their 1.5 acre frontage on East Street for a commercial presence.

There are a total of EIGHT paragraphs that outline Selectmen’s view that housing should be blocked.

The article included two quotes from people in favor of the override.

There is JUST ONE sentence where the reporter mentions that some residents are concerned the land could be contaminated or too wet. There are then a total of SIX sentences rebuffing this argument, including quotes from Kraus and Boynton.

There is one quote near the end from override opponent Al Crosby saying he thinks the land is a swamp. A quote from Boynton follows immediately after arguing against that point. There are two paragraphs about former Selectman David Sullivan saying he doesn’t think any other developer wants the land. A quote from Boynton immediately follows: “Don’t buy it and it will be a development, there’s no question about that.” One could argue that Sullivan gets more coverage than Boynton does on this particular argument, but it seems pretty clear to any intelligent reader that Boynton knows what he’s talking about while Sullivan merely thought that Woodworkers has nobody else in mind for the land. The coverage is fair, in my assessment.

Another article appeared in April about a second public hearing that was held. The second sentence reads: “Residents are questioning what will be built on the site, potential hazardous material in the soil and cost to the taxpayer.”

So far, there is no mention of people suggesting that there is no other 40B developer waiting to take the land. Clearly, the three main arguments in opposition to the override that are being given first-paragraph second-sentence mention have nothing to do with 40B and are fair. Note the word “potential” preceding the term “hazardous material.” That is a keyword that gives very fair coverage.

There is one sentence discussing the potential contamination: “As a lifelong Walpole resident, Al Crosby said he knows the land is contaminated.”

Perhaps this sentence was a little too matter-of-fact. The term “believes” might have been a better term to use than “knows.” But in any case the sentence is immediately followed by TWO paragraphs outlining what Selectmen are doing to prevent that possibility, including environmental insurance.

Crosby’s argument was legitimate. He was a very vocal attendee at that meeting. While he may be completely wrong on the issue, he deserved to be put in this article because he made a point that a lot of people in town probably felt. Just because he was wrong does not mean he should not be in the article. He is mentioned only once in the entire piece, and it is immediately followed, as mentioned, by a discussion of why Selectmen think he’s wrong and what they’re doing about it. That seems fair to me. A fair point is fairly responded to with fair points.

The end of the article features FOUR AND A HALF paragraphs explaining that Selectmen want to block 40B, and includes this: “Kraus said there were other developers interested in the plot before the town entered into discussions with Walpole Woodworkers and the same companies would surely be interested if the voters should deny the purchase.”

This sentence is not followed by any arguments to the contrary, so actually you could argue this is biased in favor of Kraus.

Out of the 27 total paragraphs in the article, only four included arguments against the override. The rest were either just facts describing the issue or a discussion of Selectmen’s argument in favor of it.

Another article appeared about Woodworkers in late April entitled “Walpole Woodworkers plans to sell most of its land – even if the deal with Walpole is rejected.” This article made very clear to voters that the site was going to be sold off for housing if the town did not want it. This is the first sentence: “The president of Walpole Woodworkers says he hopes the deal to sell most of his East Street land to the town moves forward, but if voters reject the proposal, he won’t hesitate to sell the property to a developer that has a more lucrative offer waiting in the wings.”

There is also this further down:

Shortly after the town began discussions with Woodworkers representatives to buy the land earlier this year, Maglio said his company received another offer for the site. The Woodworkers president declined to discuss the details of the offer or name the interested company, but said that bid is “substantially more” than the $4.5 million purchase price the town would be paying Woodworkers. He also confirmed the interested developers would look to build apartments or homes on the central land.

And this also: “In speaking with the public, some selectmen have indicated that multiple developers are interested in the property.”

The article makes it very obvious that the property will be sold off for 40B. It comes directly from the Woodworkers president, a very accurate source. So it is hard to claim that Selectmen didn’t get a fair shake.

There were three articles published in April and May regarding Town Meeting and League of Women Voter’s Candidates Night that mentioned the override.

The first is just facts-based, describing what the issue is, and what amount of money the override is for.

The second included more in-depth coverage of Town Meeting’s discussion of the issue, but included quotes rebuffing every argument against the plan. There are FIVE paragraphs in that article of the possibility of housing on that site, explaining Selectman’s case in great detail. There is no mention that some people don’t think a developer is waiting in the wings. So, once again, that appears to be biased coverage in favor of Selectmen, if anything.

There is a mention in this article about Town Meeting Representative Deborah Burke’s concern that the land is contaminated. That is then rebuffed by FOUR paragraphs, including quotes from both Kraus and Boynton outlining why that is not the case and explaining that insurance is being purchased. This includes: “Boynton added that he is reasonably sure the land will be fine since the property passed both Fairfield’s legal and environmental teams when that company was trying to buy the land.” Perhaps the term “reasonably sure” sounds a bit too hesitant, but the point is clear. Anybody reading it can clearly understand that the land is buildable.

The article about Candidate’s Night went over the candidates’ opinions on the override. The article made clear that David Sullivan was vehemently opposed because he was against all overrides – there was no mention about what he thought about contamination or 40B. In fact, there was no mention of 40B or contamination at all in the article. Russell Jones appeared to be neutral on the issue, while Gallivan was in favor of it. There was not a lot of discussion of why Gallivan was in favor of it, but each candidate’s position was explained in about a paragraph each so no one candidate got more coverage than another. The coverage was therefore fair in my assessment.

In late May, the Times featured their last full-length article about the override, with the headline: “Walpole selectmen make final push for Walpole Woodworkers purchase before town election.”

The article includes the following: “Town officials are also looking to block a potential bid from a housing developer, similar to one seen in 2008, arguing a high density apartment complex on that parcel would cost the schools more money than would be brought in from its taxes and cause traffic issues downtown.” Clearly, this seems like a fair overview of the housing argument that Selectmen were using.

The article includes a quote from resident Dick Guisti arguing the land is not buildable. That quote is then immediately followed by this: “It’s a fact that the land was good enough for Fairfield Residential – a developing firm that offered $7 million for the entire 16 acre parcel – to construct a 200-unit apartment complex.” Note the words: “It’s a fact.” Sounds like pretty fair coverage of the 40B issue to me.

The article also includes:

“Walpole right now is at a disadvantage right now in marketing itself,” said Berry, adding housing would essentially be the only attractive option at the site for a private developer. If the town doesn’t buy the land, he said, the likelihood of a housing development going in there is “indisputable.”

Most of the article includes a discussion of the price of the land. Some were opposed because they thought the cost was too high, so there is a discussion of that and responses from Selectmen. The coverage of that was fair to both sides.

The article includes a few quotes from Crosby, once again asserting that the land is not buildable. There are FIVE paragraphs with Crosby’s argument, including quotes. There are THREE paragraphs rebuffing this argument. Although that number is less than the space alloted for Crosby’s argument, the quotes from Crosby are not backed up by any sound facts, whereas the arguments against his points include mention of “studies done by Fairfield” showing the land is indeed buildable. The facts about the land being buildable are backed up, while Crosby’s quotes are included just to allow a response. The coverage is unbiased in my assessment.

The Times also had three candidate’s profiles in late May that included the candidates’ positions on the override. Gallivan was for the override, and explained why in multiple paragraphs. Both Jones’ profile and Sullivan’s profile include mentions that both candidates do not believe a 40B developer is genuinely interested in the site. These arguments are not followed by any argument to the contrary, so one could argue this is biased against the override. But these are candidate’s profiles, after all. These are supposed to outline the views of the candidates, whether they are wrong or not. Based on the previous coverage of the issue before this article, there is no reason to believe these single sentences on their views on the override would immediately cause people to vote no.

The same arguments were made in a “Candidate’s Cheat Sheet” published a few days before the election outlining the candidates’ views on the override and other issues. Sullivan did not make the argument that a 40B developer was not waiting in the wings, but Jones did. Jones said: “I would conditionally support it only if: First, it were proven to me that there was a buyer ready to purchase the land for that amount of money …” There is no argument made against this, but again it is meant to be a clear outline of the candidate’s views. There does not need to be an argument against, as it is a candidate’s cheat sheet.

A few days before the election, the Times published an article entitled: “Walpole override overview: Seven reasons to vote for the Walpole Woodworkers proposal, seven reasons to vote against it”

Two of the reasons listed to vote against it were that the site might be contaminated, and that a 40B developer may not actually be interested in the site and Selectmen are using that as a scare tactic. But of course the article is designed to be seven arguments for, seven against, so it is hard to argue the piece is biased. It is not the Times’ responsibility to filter out information the other side feels is incorrect in an article like this where each side is given the space to make their case. Among the reasons listed for voting for the override are:
“ – There are several “out clauses” in the sales contract that would allow the town to back out of the deal if the land is contaminated or not buildable and environmental insurance would be acquired before the purchase is made.”

There was one article that described the election and the issues on the ballot. This was published a few days before the election. There were no controversial arguments made in the article. There was a final article about the issue after the election, describing its loss. Again, nothing controversial.

The most recent article about the issue was the one that was published recently about a 40B developer buying the property.

Therefore, I am deeming the Times’ coverage of the Woodworkers override FAIR and NONBIASED.

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