(Artvoice  27 July 2000)

The Buffalo News and the Peace Bridge:
Prospering and Pimping

by Bruce Jackson

 KANE: The “Chronicle” has a two-column headline, Mr. Carter. Why haven’t we?
CARTER: There is no news big enough.
KANE: If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.
                                                                    Citizen Kane, 1941

All the News that Fits What We Want You to Know
You must have seen it: a three-column two-tier headline piece by Patrick Lakamp in the Buffalo News of Wednesday, July 19: “Peace Bridge Authority’s new design: ‘Gateway Arches,’” There were three color photos, one of them three columns wide and in full color, all of it above the fold on page 1.The three-column photo was a computer-generated drawing of twin bridges curving south into Front Park, not a truck in sight. Three-column head and photo, all above the fold: that’s major stuff.

And, in the Buffalo News for Wednesday, July 19, 2000, major stuff was a slight modification of a design found faulty by everyone except the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and the small group of mostly-Canadian steel fabricators who stand to make millions of dollars if that anachronistic design is selected rather than the cheaper and environmentally superior six-lane concrete bridge advocated by the Public Consensus Review Panel, the New Millennium Group, and just about everyone else who doesn’t stand to make a buck from this nonsense.

The lead paragraph told us not only what the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority was up to, but what seems to be the official Buffalo News response to the design: “ The Peace Bridge Authority has  come up with a new, more  appealing twin-span design, and  community leaders such as Mayor  Anthony M. Masiello think it has  the potential to break the  deadlock over what kind of bridge  to build.”

Lakamp quoted Public Bridge Authority Chairman Victor Martucci (though he got the name of the organization he chairs wrong): "’From my perspective, it's truly a  signature bridge,’ said Peace  Bridge Authority Chairman Victor  Martucci. ‘There's nothing like it  in the world. And if that's the  definition of signature bridge, this  certainly fits the bill.’"

I think it takes more than being unique in all the world to be “the definition of signature bridge.” The root canal my dentist did the other day was unique in all the world, at least as far as I’m concerned, and I wouldn’t want to share that with anybody.

“Authority officials have had the new design in their hands for  several months but had declined  to release it,” Lakamp wrote. They should have declined: there’s nothing there. They probably feared that if the public got hold of the design they’d be ridiculed before they got a chance to elicit one-line statements from local politicians trying to be nice.  “Martucci agreed to  comment on it only after The  Buffalo News obtained a copy  from another source.” Well, Authority officials have been peddling the design to every politician in town and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership sent Natalie Harder down to Washington in the vain hope that she’d be able to convince Senators Moynihan and Schumer that this idea had some substance. If the News got it from “another source” it was probably the PBA’s partner in bad design and dysfunctional citizenship, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Lakamp’s article in praise of the new design consisted of 34 paragraphs of which

  • 18 described the PBA’s design or the general situation leading up to it;
  • 11 described it positively or quoted people saying positive things about it;
  • 1 said people questioned whether the steel twin span design was better than a 6-lane concrete design;
  • 1 quoted someone who didn’t think it was a very good design at all.
A single directly critical paragraph and one oblique critical paragraph out of 34 paragraphs of description and praise! And this is about a drawing—that’s all it was, a computer-generated drawing that glued MacDonald’s arches on the twin span design the Public Bridge Authority has been trying to peddle for the past six months, a design already faulted because it would pour heavy truck traffic through Delaware Park for six years, would enormously increase air and noise pollution on the far West Side, would send millions of dollars to Canadian steel companies and construction workers, would consume even more of Front Park, and would saddle all of us with decades of rehabilitative surgery on the geriatric bridge now spanning the mouth of the Niagara River.

The Medium is the Message
The only report in the  News of Natalie Harder’s failed mission to Washington was in “New design fails to impress senators,” an excellent  story by Doug Turner, which appeared in a single column back in section C on Saturday, July 22.

“The Peace Bridge Authority's new twin-span design failed  to draw support from the state's two U.S. senators, despite efforts of the  Buffalo Niagara Partnership to sell the plan in a closed-door meeting, it  was learned Friday,” Turner wrote. He quoted Senator  Moynihan's chief of staff, Tony Bullock, who called the proposal "the same old  plan with a new hairpiece....It doesn't change any of the complex issues that afflict the (Peace Bridge) authority's original plan....The bridge still takes off from the same place and lands in the same place. It still uses a 75-year-old bridge  that is in poor repair."

Marshall McLuhan’s famous line—“The medium is the message”—is usually brought up in conversations about television and film. It’s equally appropriate to newspapers. Content is not just what is said, but where it is said and how it is said.

Saturday is the least read day of the week for the Buffalo News. The greatest readership is midweek. You can’t miss three columns of text topped by a three-column color photo and three-column double deck headline on page one in the middle of the week. Even if you don’t buy the paper you see those big letters when you walk by the newsstands. It’s easy to miss a single column in section C on Saturday, no matter how well it’s written, how important its content. There were far more important questions raised about and cogent criticism of the PBA’s MacDonald’s Arches plan in Doug Turner’s Saturday single-column Section C piece than in the entire three-column above-the-fold (continued on p. A6) Wednesday page-one piece.

Editorial Gushing
Patrick Lakamp’s Wednesday article in praise of the pseudo-design turned out to be only foreplay. The lead editorial in the following day’s paper praised the design and suggested that anyone objecting to it should just shut up.

The title told you where it was going: “Making a statement for Buffalo.” That’s what the PBA and the Partnership were about in this design, making a statement for Buffalo?

Light traditionally appears at the end of the tunnel, not the bridge. Nevertheless, the metaphorical glow emanating from an alternative design for a new Peace Bridge could be a sign that the agonizing, endless debate over the Niagara River crossing is - maybe, finally, may it please the Lord - drawing to an attractive conclusion.

The Peace Bridge Authority this week reluctantly acknowledged the existence of a striking and hitherto secret design that represents a more-than-acceptable compromise on the contentious issue of a twin-span bridge versus a single, six-lane "signature" bridge, a design this newspaper would have preferred.

“More-than-acceptable compromise” to whom? To the New Millennium Group? No. To people concerned about disruption of major traffic patterns in Buffalo for up to a decade? No. To American skilled laborers who would will watch almost all the decent construction jobs go out of town if the steel bridge is built? No. To epidemiologists and parents concerned with increasing levels of lung disease among children on the West side? No. To people who would like to see less of the Peace Bridge’s toll money poured into patronage and good-old-boy checking accounts? No. To people who want to see Front Park restored? No.
Based only on appearance, it looks like a winner.’It's truly a signature bridge,’ Authority President Victor Martucci said, without exaggeration. Both Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and Common Council President James W. Pitts, who had criticized previous plans, praised the new design.”
Of course Martucci was exaggerating. And Masiello and Pitts were both qualified in their comments on the bridge, they did not simply praise the new design. And even though the News editorial writer may like and respect Victor Martucci, there is no reason for the News to promote him from chairman of the Authority to its president.

The editorial sounded only one sour note in this ecstatic paean:

Still, there are critics. Elissa Banas of the New Millennium Group, which has fought for a dramatic single span, dismissed the design as having "the same old problems," even though it is better looking. But the group should reconsider.

It has performed a valuable public service by forcing the authority to retreat from its hideous proposal of mismatched arches, but if this bridge debate is going to be resolved before the next millennium, everyone will have to give up something. On the issue of design, it is time for the New Millennium Group and its allies to declare victory. They have already exerted a profound and positive influence.

Banas never said that the MacDonald’s arches are better looking that anything; that’s the editorial writer’s opinion tacked on to her criticism. More important, this design does have “the same old problems.” Why should we forget about them because of two MacDonald’s Arches? If everyone is “going to have to give up something,” what is being given up by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority? What is being given up by Fort Erie or any Canadian political or private organization? All the giving up is by the citizens of Buffalo and Erie County. What kind of lousy advice is that for an American newspaper to give its readers? Why should the New Millennium Group, without whose heroic persistence in this sordid affair we’d be seeing twin spans already under construction, roll over and play dead now? That is insulting, patronizing, and contemptuous counsel.
But with looming business concerns threatening to overtake the issue, and cause this area significant economic harm, further insistence on a single span will soon devolve into obstructionism.
I’ll translate that for you: At the beginning of this, long before the public was involved, the PBA decided to build a steel twin span. Once people found out about that and suggested alternatives, the PBA had fake public hearings but never for a moment considered anything else. Once public opinion against the twin span plan really got going, the PBA started stonewalling. It stonewalled on the basis of a theory that went, if you stonewall long enough people will say that opposition to the steel twin span plan “will soon devolve into obstructionism.” Stonewall long enough, spread the patronage far and wide enough, and you’ll get what you wanted, only a little later than you would have liked.

What’s really weird about this is how quickly the News editors–both those who decide where and how much space a news story gets and those who control the editorial page–went intergalactic over this pseudo-design from the PBA. After all, the design was nothing new; it was, as Tony Bullock so eloquently put it, “the same old plan with a new hairpiece.” The News had never taken seriously any of the designs from internationally-known bridge designers like Eugene Figg and T.Y. Lin, yet here it was taking with utter seriousness and unrepressed gush something that was nothing more than the old drawing with two new computer-generated MacDonald’s Arches.

I didn’t understand the hyperbolic coverage on page 1 of Wednesday’s paper until I read the adoring editorial in Thursday’s paper. The Wednesday article had taken a non-event and turned it into news. What is news, after all, but what a newspaper publishes? That’s what Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane is talking about in the quotation at the beginning of this article. And once something is news, then there’s all the justification in the world for an editorial telling us how important that news is.

The Record
It was, in a word, astonishing—unless you’ve followed carefully the News’s coverage of the bridge affair the past several years. With rare exceptions, that coverage has been as mouthpiece for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Administration. Articles in the News articles present Authority and Partnership staff assertions as if they were fact;  News reporters rarely question any of those assertions, even in open press conferences. They gloss over or trivialize challenges or opposition to those assertions. The coverage of this story has never reflected the level of journalistic inquiry a project of this magnitude would have received from a major paper in any other American city: this is a two hundred million dollar project, it will last most of a decade, it is the largest single construction project in this area since the construction of the UB North Campus.

Columnist Donn Esmonde, editorial cartoonist Tom Toles, and Washington reporter Doug Turner have asked cutting questions and pointed to the real issues, but as far as the front page and editorial columns are concerned those guys might as well have been writing for another paper. Editorials have, with very few exceptions, told Buffalonians to shut up and take it; sometimes they’ve said that the News would prefer something nicer but since the PBA wasn’t going to give it to us we shouldn’t interfere with progress.

Lest you think I’m being cranky or engaging in name calling, I’m going to give you several examples of the kind of distorted and misleading coverage I’m talking about. Keep in mind that a newspaper distorts not only when it says something that isn’t true or presents something in a slanted way, but also when it doesn’t say things that are true but which are not to its editorial liking, or when it consistently fails to interrogate public officials whose utterances it publishes without question or qualification, or when it consistently distorts or limits statements from legitimate individuals who have another point of view. You present both sides of a complex issue and you’re doing journalism; you present one side and you’re doing public relations work or pimping.

What’s in a name?
At the risk of being repetitive—because I have mentioned this before in these pages—I have to note the single distortion of this story the Buffalo News engages in more frequently than any other: the matter of the name.

Buffalo News editorial writers and news writers almost never refer to the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority by its correct name. Columnist Donn Esmonde gets it right. Cartoonist Tom Toles gets it right, or is playing when he doesn’t. Why does the editorial page always call it the “Peace Bridge Authority”? Why does the news department always call it the “Peace Bridge Authority”? Why do the headline writers always call it the "Peace Bridge Authority"?

Because that is the name preferred by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, which has come to hate the attempts of citizens' groups and public agencies to shine some light into its operations. You call the PBA office and the automated voice tells you that you’ve reached the “Peace Bridge Authority.” You get their press releases and you see they’re coming from the “Peace Bridge Authority” and they’re telling you what the “Peace Bridge Authority” is doing for you or to you. I can understand why the PBA would want to try to get the public to forget that they are a public agency; if I were engaged in all the flim-flam going on down there, I wouldn’t want the public poking around either. But why should a free and independent newspaper collaborate in that endeavor?

Recent Exempla
Okay, let’s look at some examples of the pattern of coverage:

A March 31, 2000, page 1 story by Patrick Lakamp, headlined “Authority Stands by Support for Twin Span”:

"The (authority) is extremely disappointed as to the outcome of a process that held great hope of bringing this debate to a conclusion," Martucci said. "Although the Public Consensus Review Panel could not agree to ratify the engineers' report, a clear and strong consensus did emerge among elected leaders, business, labor and the community at large, on both sides of the border. The consensus was in support of the engineers' report."
Martucci said this, but it isn’t true. LaFalce is for the twin span but both senators are for the signature span; the Erie County Legislature is for the twin span but the Buffalo Common Council is for the signature span; Fort Erie citizens are for the twin span but Buffalo citizens are for the signature span; the Public Consensus Review Panel voted 20-1 against the companion span; the mayor and county executive endorsed the Panel’s vote. There’s disagreement over, not support for, the engineers’ report. There’s nothing wrong with Lakamp including this long quotation from Martucci, but wouldn’t it have been responsible and fair to pair it with a quotation from someone who might have had another opinion? Why quote only one side of the argument?
A unified, full-blown environmental review on a new Peace Bridge and U.S. plaza.
Lakamp used the same phrase in his 19 July piece praising what the PBA calls their ‘Gateway Arches’: “The authority's opponents said they want the authority to undertake a  unified, full-blown environmental review before building a new Peace  Bridge.” “Full-blown”–why that modifier? What's the alternative to full-blown: half-baked? Why not just say what it is, “a unified environmental impact study”?

A March 31, 2000, editorial, “Time to Move Forward”:
An excellent editorial, one of the most well-balanced the News has done on the subject. It says that the companion span would be the lesser choice. The graphic accompanying it, however, was of the  companion spans without a single truck in sight. Why mix the message?

In rejecting the recommendations of a bi-national team of engineers for twin spans with matching arches and a new northern plaza, the panel decided to fight for what it considered best for the region. It could easily have accepted the recommendations and claimed credit for getting the project off dead center and ending the acrimony of this long-running debate. It could not have been pleasant to reject the recommendations of the engineering team that the review panel itself had put together.
Not true. The Review Panel hired one team, the PBA hired the other. According to all reliable accounts, the two teams cut a deal: the Americans agreed to let the PBA have its steel companion span if the PBA would relocate the current plaza to the north, thereby freeing Front Park.
The panel believes, as we do, that the single-span concrete bridge is preferable in cost and beauty to the compromise twin-arch proposal. Our concern is that the single-span concept is not worth a protracted delay -- as predicted by the authority -- that would cost the area economically as we lose business to other crossings. In addition, the deck of the current bridge is deteriorating and may not last until a new bridge is built, causing increased traffic problems.
Where’s the logic? If the old bridge is going to need serious reconstruction then we won’t be at 6-lane capacity for several years after the new bridge is built anyway. If more open lanes will benefit the area economically, it’s the 6-lane concrete bridge that will get there first. They say this later in the editorial; why doesn’t it figure here as well?

Donn Esmonde, “Citizens Panel Puts Sense into Bridge Process,” April 3, 2000:

The authority's Steve Mayer admitted Friday what everybody already knew: The authority decided to twin the Peace Bridge six years ago. Suggestions otherwise since then were circular-filed. Alternative-design bridge charettes have been charades.

"The decision was made (in 1994) that the Peace Bridge was in good condition," said Mayer. "We excluded (considering) a six-lane bridge because it didn't make any sense to us to take the Peace Bridge down."

No. Some insiders may have known this and some other people may have suspected it, but Mayer’s statement that Friday was the first time a bridge official admitted it in public. This key item appears here in an opinion column three days after Mayer made the admission in response to two questions from a reporter from Artvoice. It was not quoted or cited in the news articles about the press conference, even though reporter Patrick Lakamp was there when Mayer made the statement.

A page one story on April 7, 2000, with the headline “Court Order to Delay Bridge Project”:
This headline belies the article and the event it reports. Why not “Court Orders PBA to Obey the Law” or “Court Orders Environmental Impact Study”? Why headline the PBA’s lament rather than what the judge did or what the public got? And even if this were the substance of the story rather than the PBA’s take on it, does the court order delay the start or the finish of the bridge project? Headlines should inform, not mislead. This one misleads.

Patrick Lakamp’s page 1 story on April 8, 2000, “Ruling Casts Doubt on Bridge Project,” begins:

 A judge's ruling Friday not only delays the building of a new Peace Bridge but raises the question of whether it will be built at all.
Judge Fahey’s ruling delayed the start of construction, not completion of it. More important, the headline and the lead focus on how the PBA’s plans are impeded, but not on the decision itself, which said that the PBA hadn’t followed the law and now would have to. This is like telling us Fred’s plans for a trip to the Riviera were ruined and not telling us that the reason they were ruined was because Fred got caught stealing the money for the trip and is locked up in jail.

Lakamp goes on to quote PBA chairman Victor Martucci rather than any of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the guys who won: Andrea Schilacci of the Olmsted Conservancy or Edward Weeks of the Episcopal Church Home or Mayor Masiello. The heart of this story, told much later on in it, are about the benefits of the environmental study the PBA tried to avoid and what was wrong with how they tried to avoid it. But the lead paragraphs and headline focus only on the PBA.

"I don't think this is a day for celebration," Martucci said after State Supreme Court Justice Eugene M. Fahey ruled the authority's previous environmental study for a new bridge was flawed.

"It's a sad day for this region and the other side of the border," he said. "We're not a community that has a surplus of jobs and growth that we can afford to delay the promise of new jobs and economic growth this project would result in."

What jobs are lost because of the judge’s decision? Martucci didn’t say and Lakamp didn’t ask. The PBA and Andrew Rudnick of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership are always going on about the jobs that will be lost if a steel twin span doesn’t go up yesterday. They always avoid being specific about those claims.

An editorial titled “Starting Over” on April 8, 2000:

Now that a court has ordered a full environmental study for a new Niagara River bridge and plaza, the Peace Bridge Authority ought to view this as the chance for a new start, not the start of a new fight.

In a decision that was widely expected, State Supreme Court Justice Eugene M. Fahey ruled that the authority must conduct a comprehensive environmental impact statement for construction of both a new bridge and plaza. He said the separate environmental assessment for the bridge and a more thorough environmental impact statement for the U.S. plaza violated environmental law.

What that means is that we are very nearly back to square one in the planning stage for a new bridge.

This isn’t true. The only thing it meant was that the PBA couldn’t begin construction in June. A huge amount of planning and research has been done since “square one,” much of it applicable to any new design, much of it useful for the EIS.
We have long felt that the single-span bridge was preferable, but the compromise of a twin-arch -- replacing the ugly mismatch of an arch and the Parker Truss -- along with a new northern plaza was an acceptable compromise to a bitter feud.
It’s not just a matter of bridge aesthetics. The PBA’s companion span design would result in huge disruption on the city’s West Side for years. Thousands and thousands of huge fume-belching trucks would be routed through city streets and along Route198. Large numbers of jobs and manufacturing orders that would otherwise come here will go out of state and out of the country. Why does the News say that is “acceptable”?
The authority has legitimate complaints. Americans got into this debate late,
It was only after the decision to twin the bridge was made that Americans were allowed to participate in the process, which is to say, the only process they were allowed to participate in was no process at all.
and often were not sensitive to Canadian feelings. John A. Lopinski, authority vice chairman, reflected that sentiment with his response to Fahey's ruling: "Canadians are very disappointed that some people in Western New York don't realize that there are two countries involved in this decision."
Yes, but the United States is one of them too. Where has there been an iota of interest in American feelings or needs from the Canadian side? What Lopinski is saying is, “We said what we want and we’re disappointed the Americans haven’t given it to us.” We don’t expect more from Lopinski, but why would the News quote him on this and not note the hypocrisy?
We can't undo the past. But we can learn from it. That means a fresh start and an open mind on both sides of the dispute. As long as we have to start over, let's do it right this time.
Other than work and play well with others, what does “do it right this time” mean?

In a huge Sunday Viewpoints column titled “More bridges to cross: There's no way now that a beautiful new Peace Bridge can be built expeditiously, but perhaps we can look at what went wrong in the planning process and learn from our mistakes,” on April 9, 2000, Mike Vogel, a member of the editorial board, wrote:

The Peace Bridge debate was done wrong. In the process, a major opportunity - an opportunity to quickly build a bridge both beautiful and functional - was lost.

It was lost because the Peace Bridge Authority focused so narrowly on its mandate to move traffic across the Niagara River that it failed to see a chance for greatness. It was lost because political leadership faltered during the long community battle over the fate of its bridge. It was lost because the community itself didn't awaken in time to make a real difference.

This isn’t true. It wasn’t just greatness they missed in their narrow focus: their design would have been the slowest, most costly, and most disruptive of all of them in delivering six lanes; it would have been far longer delivering increased traffic flow than a 6-lane bridge. And more important, the community did awaken in time to make a real difference. If it hadn’t, we’d be seeing construction trucks in Front Park this summer.
The Peace Bridge Authority did reach out to the community, after the first concerns surfaced. Late in 1996, a public design competition hosted by the authority and this newspaper drew 479 entries and a symposium brought architects, engineers and others into the process.

It was too little, too late. The authority estimated a gateway bridge could add seven years to a timetable that already included two years of design and 31/2 years of construction. To meet the authority's 2002 deadline for opening a new bridge, that symposium should have been held in 1989.

Also not true. The PBA didn’t “reach out”; it reacted defensively, and, more important, it reacted deceptively. Why not note that in all of these discussions and competitions the PBA excluded anything but a companion span–as admitted publicly by Bridge operations manager Stephen Mayer at the PBA press conference March 31 attended by News reporter Patrick Lakamp?

And why not question the 2002 deadline? Why should that drive everything? Why not ask questions here rather than simply accept at face value everything said by the PBA?

The authority never wavered. Within a few months, it released its design for a "twin." If the contest and symposium were late, the first serious challenge - businessman Jack Cullen's push for a "SuperSpan" in October 1997 - was even later. So were newspaper crusades and a 1998 public design charette hosted by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
Which also, according to Mayer, was a sham, because of that same early decision to exclude anything but a twin span. As noted, Patrick Lakamp was there when Mayer said it; this isn’t arcane or suspect information. It had already been published in Artvoice and in  Donn Esmonde's April 3 column.
While Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan championed a bold approach fit for an internationally significant bridge, the authority commissioners responsible for the decision sought security. The two-bridge concept keeps the crossing open if an accident or terrorist attack closes one span; there was comfort in a tried-and-true, conservative approach to everything from building materials (steel, like the Peace Bridge) to aesthetics (a near-mirror of the 1927 span).
Surely he jests. The PBA came up with this paranoid rationale only after opposition to the twin span built up. It’s fine to report they claimed it, but hardly responsible to ignore the disingenuousness of it.

Business reporter Chet Bridger, on April 14, 2000, in an article titled “Forum hears ideas for an 'open border,’” wrote:

State Supreme Court Justice Eugene M. Fahey recently ordered the Peace Bridge Authority to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study before constructing a new bridge and plaza. The ruling is expected to delay construction of a new bridge across the Niagara River by at least a year.
How could the judge order them to “conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study” when they never did one and were fighting not to do one? This paragraph gives the impression that Judge Fahey is merely imposing a more difficult EIS on them when in fact he’s telling them they can’t avoid the law by refusing to do one at all. Furthermore, the delay depends on what the PBA does next. According to the panel of engineers, the total construction time will be reduced, even with the EIS, if they build the 6-lane concrete bridge.

Historical Perspective
All of those examples are from one two-week period last spring. They’re recent, the pattern is not. One example: the April 25, 1999, man-in-the-street article by Patrick Lakamp titled “In Fort Erie, twin span support is solid.”

The longest quotations were from a man identified only as “Fort Erie lawyer John Teal.” Teal got to kvetch without challenge about all the things presumably wrong with the signature bridge proposal and its proponents. “Where were these people seven years ago?” he said. “I see no reason to debate this. It starts to strain the bounds of logic. This is just politics on the American side. It’s a shame that would get in the way of this project.”

Buffalo News reporter Lakamp didn’t include in his article two key facts he knew about John Teal: John Teal is the brother of Peace Bridge Authority board member Dr. Patricia Teal. He was also the mayor of Fort Erie from 1988 to 1997. John Teal was not a random man-in-the-street. He was a spokesman for the Canadian half of the PBA and the Buffalo News reporter knew it and didn’t tell you.

The Buffalo News never saw fit to do a man-in-the-street piece story on the Peace Bridge on this side of the river, not even a straight one.

Warren Buffet’s Lesson
So the Buffalo News consistently favors statements and positions from the Public Bridge Authority and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership over statements and positions that challenge those two organizations. So it suppresses or misrepresents key facts and gives far greater voice to one side than the other. So it never examines any of these issues in depth and its reporters just parrot what they’ve been told.

That’s deplorable, but it’s not what’s really bad here. What’s really bad is that the editors of the only newspaper in a town with only one daily paper have a terrific amount of power and a huge public responsibility. The News has utilized its power, and it has abandoned its public responsibility. It is perhaps fulfilling its responsibility to interests and powers it does not care to name in public. It is surely fulfilling its responsibility to its owner, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. Buffet bought the paper in 1977 for less than $90 million in current dollars; it has a profit of well over a million dollars every week. (There’s an excellent article by former Buffalonian John Henry on Buffet and the News in the November/December Columbia Journalism Review: “Buffet in Buffalo: His paper prints money. What else does it print?” You can find it online at www.cjr.org/year/98/6/buffett.asp.)

The lesson we should take from this goes beyond the Peace Bridge. We’ve been lucky with the Peace Bridge because the lawsuits, the work of the New Millennium Group and the work of the Public Consensus Review Panel brought to light huge amounts of information that would otherwise have remained hidden. We’ve been lucky that the county, the city, the Wendt Foundation and the Community Foundation were willing to underwrite that PCRP inquiry.

We know how badly we were served and how consistently we were misled. But what about those instances where we haven’t benefitted from those huge voluntary assignment of resources? How shall we regard the coverage by the Buffalo News of other major public issues that will affect our lives and our children’s lives—the waterfront, the proposed convention center, political campaigns, corruption or the presumed lack thereof?

With care. With great care. And with reservations. Read the Buffalo News, for it is the only daily paper in this one-paper town, but always remember that what it prints is what it chooses to print, not what you ought to know or what you need to know. It is a source of information, but don’t–when the issues at hand matter to you—let it be your only source of information. Keep in mind that the worst sins of bad journalism don’t necessarily occur in distorted news stories and editorials, but in stories that aren’t covered at all, in important issues that are ignored or downplayed or simplified.

“Freedom of the press,” the great journalism critic A.J. Liebling wrote, “belongs to those who own one.” And, we might add, is in great danger when there is no real competition. When Warren Buffet drove Buffalo’s other daily paper, the Courier-Express, out of business in 1982, Buffalo’s citizens lost more than a choice in whether they would read the morning paper or the evening paper. We lost the only real check on journalistic laziness and cronyism: competition. “Buffet must be mindful of the potential threat to journalistic quality when he publishes the only newspaper in town,” wrote John Henry. He quoted what Buffet said about the paper in his 1984 annual report, two years after the death of the Courier: “‘Once dominant, the newspaper itself, not the marketplace, determines just how good or bad the paper will be. Good or bad, it will prosper.’”

Prosper it has. What else has it done?

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