|The Pocono Record in some ways reflects the community it covers.|
The daily newspaper still serves as a kind of town square even in an age of social networking and 24/7 cable news coverage, and that is especially true in smaller communities.
The Pocono Record is the sole media outlet of consequence in one such community -- Northeastern Pennsylvania -- but it failed its responsibility in remaining silent on its editorial pages regarding the biggest story in the region. That story was the year-long battle waged by the citizens of tiny Eldred Township to stop global bottled water giant Nestlé from taking its water. The Record also was played by a Nestlé ally who instructed the newspaper's classified advertising department to change the wording in a legal advertisement on a zoning ordinance central to the Eldred battle.
The purpose of the change was to intentionally mislead readers, and as a consequence of this mischief the township has withdrawn its advertising from the Record.
Newspapers have many responsibilities. These including basics like covering the news, providing accurate sports scores, getting the names in obituaries right, and publishing legal advertisements. Legal ads -- which in olden days literally were posted in town squares -- are required by law when government agencies propose significant changes to laws and regulations.
On April 14 and 21, 2014, the Record ran a legal ad for a proposed amendment to the zoning regulations in Eldred Township. The amendment benefitted Nestlé in its efforts to get township approval to sink two bulk extraction wells on private property and pump 750 million gallons of water over a 10-year period at little cost and for enormous profit -- estimated at upwards of $3 billion -- for its Deer Park Spring Water brand from the fragile aquifer under Kunkletown village in the heart of Eldred.
Nestlé, realizing it was on the verge of a potential public-relations disaster as news of its water grab spread nationally and then internationally, eventually abandoned those efforts.
|Moore found the legal ad submitted by Fareri's law office was misleading.|
The legal ad sleight-of hand was first noticed last month by Don Moore, an engineer, teacher and community activist who is skilled in the tedious work of examining public records.
Moore was a behind-the-scenes researcher and tactician for the Eldred citizens who opposed the Nestlé plan. In researching whether the zoning amendment had been legally adopted -- it had not -- he examined the legal ad published in the Record and noticed a discrepancy.
Moore filed a Right to Know request with the CJER Regional Planning Committee, a group made up of representatives from Eldred and three adjoining townships that had approved the amendment, in order to confirm that the wording in the properly worded legal ad initially submitted to the Record was identical to that approved by CJER. It was.
James J. Fareri was CJER's special solicitor for the amendment. He is a partner in the firm of Newman, Williams, Mishkin, Corvelyn, Wolfe and Fareri of Stroudsburg, which also represents Ricky Gower, on whose property Nestlé was going to pump water.
Because water extraction is only allowed in an area of Eldred zoned Industrial, Nestlé would have been unable to extract water from Gower's property, which is zoned Commercial, without the zoning amendment. The amendment, which applied only to Eldred, was taken up by CJER without the knowledge of the full Eldred Board of Supervisors and was expedited by Darcy Gannon, the Eldred Planning Commission secretary. Gannon's daughter, Gretchen Gannon Pettit, was a township supervisor at the time and Gower's girlfriend.
The original legal ad had been submitted to the Record by Tracy Davidson, Fareri's assistant.
The difference in wording between the submitted legal ad and the revised legal ad was small but significant. A portion of the original, correctly worded legal ad read:
While that portion of the intentionally misleading revised legal ad read:
The upshot of the sleight of hand was that readers were not informed of the existing zoning while the altered language obscured what effect the change would have, in this instance allowing an Industrial activity in a Commercial zone.
Patty Meadus, who is the Record's legal advertising representative and was the newspaper's account representative for CJER in 2014, told Moore that there were multiple email exchanges between Fareri's assistant Davidson and herself in the Record's CJER account regarding the formatting of the legal ad, but nothing about altering its text.
Meadus said she did not know who instructed that the changes be made and was surprised they were not made in writing, which is customary. Moore then approached Kelli M. McFall, who is Meadus's supervisor and the Record's classified advertising manager, to ask who had instructed the Record to make the change. She refused to say.
McFall kept changing her story.
She first told Moore that the change was in response to "an error" by the Record. When Moore pointed out that this could not be the case, she then said that "we no longer have access to records from 2014." When Moore noted that Meadus had shown him those records, she said Meadus "may have been giving out information to the general public that is owned by an advertiser and must remain confidential," although a legal ad is very much a public document. When contacted yet again by Moore, McFall refused to answer any further questions.
It was Fareri's responsibility as special counsel to CJER to review the zoning amendment and submit the legal ad. But curiously, Fareri did not bill CJER for either, although he did state at a May 1, 2014 CJER hearing that "all legal requirements have been satisfied" and introduced into evidence an exhibit — the misleading Record legal ad.
After being made aware of the Record legal ad wording switch, the Eldred supervisors voted on June 9 to henceforth publish the township's legal advertising in the Times News, another regional newspaper. The unstated implication was that the Record could not be trusted.
Meanwhile, an attempt by Moore to get further information from CJER was unsuccessful because Fareri forbade committee members from commenting although he insisted that everything had been done properly.
|Out-of-town media attention prompted Nestlé to abandon its plans.|
The doctored legal ad was part of a larger pattern of deception that was shot through Nestlé's efforts to separate the water beneath Kunkletown village from its residents. The attempted water grab was part of the Swiss-owned corporation's strategy to dominate the global bottled water market by making windfall profits on the backs of small communities it typically bludgeons into accepting its bulk water extraction schemes.
In addition to being helped by the actions of the planning commission secretary whose daughter was a township supervisor as well as Gower's girlfriend, Nestlé and its allies littered the public record with outright deceits, including willfully misrepresenting the boundaries of and right-of-way to its proposed well site property, and blocked a private road adjacent to the proposed well site without the permission of the people who had used the road for decades.
Those actions were the subject of a property owners' lawsuit in Monroe County Court of Common Pleas, but the lawsuit will not be going forward because Eldred fought back hard.
Nestlé's opponents argued that the corporation's plans were inconsistent with the township's comprehensive plan, substantial water tanker truck traffic would destroy roads while creating noise and safety problems, there would be no long-term public benefit while property values and tax revenues would plummet, no jobs would be created, there may be toxic dumps on the site that could leech into the water table, severe restrictions would be placed on the everyday activities of residents near the wells, and the township might eventually be wrung dry because Nestlé would be pumping from an area considerably larger than the Gower property, although it repeatedly and disingenuously argued otherwise.
On June 8, Nestlé withdrew its application for the wells. It was getting hammered before the township Zoning Hearing Board, the lawsuit was likely to prevail, and national and international media attention on Eldred had turned its scorched-earth tactics into a potential public relations disaster.
|The Frein manhunt was an international story, but the Record blew it.|
The Pocono Record in some ways reflects the community it covers. Monroe County has a somnambulant, nepotistic and deeply risk-averse political establishment, as well as serious problems that are swept under the table. The Record has shown no interest in reporting on that big-picture state of affairs in its news pages, let alone push for badly-needed reforms on its editorial pages.
The housing market crapped out in the mid-2000s long before the rest of the nation, and for a while Monroe led all counties in the U.S. in home foreclosures per capita, a story that the Record actually did a very good job of covering.
That was 10 years ago, and the biggest story since — in fact the biggest story of the new millennium in the Poconos — is that politicians, not content to try to continue to build a 125-year-old tourist industry and brand the region as a one-of-a-kind destination with beautiful woodlands chockablock with trails, waterfalls, creeks and rivers, as well as golf courses, ski slopes and family-friendly resorts, climbed into bed with rapacious developers and usurious financial institutions after the 9/11 attacks to sell the Poconos as a safe haven from a world gone crazy. That strategy has backfired badly, because a once special place has been transformed into a place like practically every other place with the same big-box stores, strip malls and fast-food restaurants, not to mention the same gridlocked traffic, an irony that has been lost on the business-friendly Record.
At first, the strategy seemed to work as people flocked to the Poconos from the Bronx, Queens and northern New Jersey by the thousands after 9/11. But the gauzy illusion that the area was a paradise soon gave way to a harsh reality of which wise locals were all too aware: Beyond the lethargic political establishment, many roads are more typical of those in Third World countries, social services are overwhelmed, schools range from mediocre to poor, crime rates are well above Pennsylvania county-by-county averages for telling indicators such as adult major crime, drunk driving and vehicular fatalities, there is an increasingly degraded environment and stratospherically high taxes that climb ever higher as Monroe bleeds people by the thousands who are ending up back where they came from, broke, broken and foreclosed on.
Meanwhile, the Record has furloughed most of its reporters in an era when newspaper owners too often value making money over making news, which is the case with Middletown, New York-based Local Media Group, the Record's owner.
The Record now has only a fraction of the full-time news reporters it had 10 years ago, and that was painfully obvious in its coverage of one of the more compelling stories of recent years, the manhunt for Eric Frein.
Frein, a survivalist nutcase who is charged with murdering a Pennsylvania State Police corporal and attempted murder of a trooper in September 2014, eluded a massive search by federal, state and local law enforcement authorities in the Pocono woodlands for 48 excruciating days — inconveniently at the height of the fall foliage tourist season — before being captured.
The Record, gifted an international story right in its front yard, rolled over as out-of-town media broke the big stories while it dutifully kowtowed to the state police and took everything they said at face value even as it became obvious that the hugely expensive operation to bring Frein to ground had unraveled.
|Nestlé was another international story right in the Record's front yard.|
The biggest story in the Poconos since the Frein drama has been the Nestlé-Eldred battle, and like the fugitive manhunt, the Record made a concerted effort to blow that, too.
In the weeks since Nestlé literally pulled up stakes in Eldred, its defeat has reverberated through the international environmental community. There have been dozens of articles on websites and in publications about the lessons that can be learned from a small community that fought to preserve its way of life, took its environmental stewardship seriously and battled back against an opponent with substantially greater resources. Al Jazeera, the Middle East-based global news network, dispatched its chief American correspondent to Eldred to do a story, and that probably was the last straw for Nestlé.
What do Al Jazeera, all those websites and publications and this writer know that the Record doesn't know?
To give credit where it is due, Record staff writer Howard Frank followed the story diligently despite being kept on a short leash by his editors, but the Record's editorial pages have been silent with one inconsequential exception, and again it fell to out-of-town media to give the story the kind of scrutiny and attention it cried out for.
A Record insider explained away the editorial page silence by noting that Paula Heeschen, the editorial page editor, is married to Arthur Zulick, the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas judge assigned to hear the Eldred property owner’s lawsuit.
But that does not wash twice over:
* The Eldred-Nestlé story has been in the news since September 2015 and Zulick was not assigned to hear the lawsuit until mid-April of this year.
* When an editorial writer has a conflict of interest and a newspaper still wants to editorialize, an executive not connected to the newsroom can be tasked with writing editorials so the newspaper does not have to remain silent.
Heeschen refused a request to be interviewed, saying that she was much too busy to take out time for a mere blogger. (This mere blogger has nearly 50 years of experience, has been nominated for several Pulitzer Prizes and received awards the Record's staff can only dream of getting. His mere blog is closing in on 2 million visitors.)
Heeschen did helpfully point out that she has written six editorials since 2011 on water-related issues. Five editorials took the courageous stand that using disposable plastic water bottles is bad for the environment, while the sixth editorial, published in November 2015, praised the Eldred Township supervisors for doing the obvious by hiring their own hydrogeologist to monitor a Nestlé test well.
It is unclear whether Heeschen is merely indifferent or is clueless, while the larger point is not that the Record didn't take a stand against Nestlé.
The larger point is that the story was too big and too important to ignore, but it was ignored. The Record could have supported Nestlé and argued on its editorial pages why drilling for water in Eldred was not a bad thing, or even written plain-vanilla On The One Hand-On The Other Hand editorials, but Heeschen and the Record as a whole (staff writer Frank excepted), took the cowardly way out and rolled over. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.
Emails and telephone calls for comment to Record Publisher Joe Vanderhoof and Executive Editor Tom DeShriver were not returned.
The Record has plenty of company in not taking seriously its responsibilities to its readers. Too many other newspapers of all sizes also are indifferent, but that does not excuse the Record's long tradition of trafficking in mediocrity.
If you believe your newspaper should not automatically parrot the official government line and be an informative and conscientious voice for you on issues that could have a substantial impact like the Eldred-Nestlé battle, then the Record reliably falls far short.
And the community it is supposed to serve is the worse for that.
Click HERE for an index of Poconos water-related stories.
Frein photograph by Mark Maketa/Reuters