Yours Truly has an article in the new issue of Upstate House about modern wood stoves. The link is here.
A series of media gaffes over the past five days has prompted Taghkanic residents to wonder: Why does the Register-Star seem to want a Republican candidate to be elected to the Town Board so badly?
On Saturday, an article in the paper by Katie Kocijanski inexplicably reported that Republican Carolyn Sammons was running unopposed for the Town Board seat vacated by Deborah Gilbert’s resignation.
But in fact, Sammons had an opponent: independent Linda Swartz, who was endorsed by the Democrats.
The Reg-Star had every reason to know that its “unopposed” claim was completely untrue. On July 17th, it had reported that “Taghkanic Democrats nominated retired New York State Department of Transportation official Linda Swartz to seek the Town Board seat that is up for election Nov. 4.”
Moreover, the Columbia County Board of Elections ran ads on that same day (as well as the Saturday before) which listed both Swartz and Sammons as candidates. The “unopposed” article appeared on page A11; the ad listing two candidates appeared on A9.
Howls of protest from Taghkanic readers forced the Register to run a corrective article which admitted that the paper “erroneously reported Saturday that Republican incumbent Carolyn Sammons was running unopposed for a seat on the Taghkanic Town Board,” followed by profiles of both Swartz and Sammons.
One would think that would have been the end of it. If anything, one might expect such a glaring mistake—assuming it were an innocent one—to lead to an increased sensitivity about the remaining coverage.
Ah, but no.
On Tuesday night, the Register-Star posted a video of managing editor Mary Dempsey reading results from around the County. Dempsey reported incorrect numbers indicating that Sammons had prevailed by some 79 votes.
In fact, Sammons was only ahead by 9, not 79—a major difference, since Taghkanic races for a long time now have been decided by absentee votes, which are not counted until several weeks after the election.
Almost every two years, there seems to be a hotly-contested absentee count for the Town. In recent memory, there was a bitter recount and protracted court cases related to absentees in Taghkanic which could have decided the Murphy/Tedisco Congressional race, which made Statewide news.
As reported here on Election night, a source present at the polls was certain that the Register’s numbers were incorrect, since they included more total votes than the number of people who turned out at the polls that day. A simple call to the Board of Elections by this site quickly verified that the gap was only 9 votes.
Moreover, the same Taghkanic source indicated there were roughly 119 absentee ballots pending in the Town. Democratic operatives estimated that these would break heavily for Swartz. If correct, Swartz would pick up about 39 votes, and eventually win by about 30.
Anyone familiar with local elections going back as far as 2005 would know that such is often the pattern in Taghkanic: The Republican runs narrowly ahead on Election Day, and the gap is significantly narrowed or trumped by the Democratic nominee’s absentee supporters.
Sometime early on Wednesday morning, Dempsey posted a second video with the correct numbers from the machines, but without any mention of the large number of absentees pending.
And then came the third blunder: The Register ran yet another Kocijanski article on Wednesday morning, with a headline claiming that Swartz “fell” to Sammons. The body of her article stated confidently that “Taghkanic residents will continue to have Carolyn Sammons on their Town Board.”
But as noted above, anyone familiar with Taghkanic—or just familiar with the fact that a nine-vote lead anywhere can easily be the erased by absentees—would know that the race remains too close to call.
Again, this prompted justified howls of outrage from the voting public. And so today, the Register-Star had to backtrack yet again, posting a corrective article whose title admits that “Absentee ballots could decide town board race.”
Why this should be so hard for the Register is anybody’s guess. The question now is: Will the paper’s coverage of the absentee count further extend this streak of unforced errors, or will the sorry experience result in greater care being taken from now on?
[NOTE: Most of the above mistakes since have been scrubbed entirely or edited after the fact to minimize their egregiousness.]
This site will leave it to others to continue debating the Union Street Guest House’s $500 fine policy (with an intensity more usually reserved to debating Israel vs. Palestine). Was it a “joke,” a scare tactic, or a scam? We may never know, and probably shouldn’t care.
Far more interesting to this observer is the question: Why did this particular story go “viral”?
So far, the story has been covered in at least 200 online and print publications, many of them with a global reach, such as CNN. Reportedly, the inn has been beseiged with requests to appear on national morning programs, as well as p.r. reps pitching their crisis management services to its staff—as if the USGH were Union Carbide.
So why should a story about a small inn in a small Hudson Valley city provoke such visibility, and such vitriol?
REASON #1: It’s August. August is known among news people as the Silly Season. Many public figures, journalists and the public are on vacation, and either not making news, craving lighter news, or not paying attention to the news at all. Hard news drops off, in favor of either titillating tales about bears falling down wells and birthday party clowns punching children, or heartwarming fluff about hayrides for the family at your local county fair... So the USGH yarn hit at just the right time to fill that August news gap.
REASON #2: The Interwebs. The mainstream news media is both notoriously clueless about the internet and easily lured into writing stories about mundane online stuff not normally worthy of coverage without a web angle. (People are meeting their soulmates—ON THE INTERNET! People are gambling—ON THE INTERNET! People are having arguments—ON THE INTERNET!) Since the threatened fine by the Union Street Guest House involved punishing negative online reviews, the story was that much more irresistible.
REASON #3: Boarding Paranoia. Pretty much everyone stays at a hotel, inn or B&B at some point, and business travelers stay in hotels a lot. Most have felt that sneaking suspicion that our bill might be getting padded, even when it isn’t. It’s always a surprise to see a whopping hotel tax and an added telephone charge at checkout time, even though we had every reason to see these coming. Thus when a story arrives which appears (fairly or unfairly) to describe a nefarious lodging proprietor tacking $500 onto a bill, patrons and reporters alike assume the worst.
REASON #4: Hating on Hipsters. Dissing hipsters is to media today what mocking yuppies was in the ’80s. Though the term no longer means much more than “people younger than yourself,” every publication knows that it can lure both clicks and snide comments by including the word hipster. (This writer is guilty as self-charged.) And this hotel story had an apparent hipster angle.
The USGH site’s policy describing the hypothetical $500 fine included a long explanation of why some wedding guests more familiar with Holiday Inns than the Ace Hotel might not “get” its vibe—an explanation presumably based in actual experience with guests. Terms like “vintage” and “hip” were sprinkled liberally on its site, before getting to the policy’s punchline: “If your guests are looking for a Marriott type hotel they may not like it here.” A few might call that refreshing honesty. But most received it as archly snobbish. Now, here was a rare chance to punish the hipster hotelier; and punish they did.
REASON #5: Schadenfreude. Once it became clear how much attention and anger was unleashed by the initial coverage, the rest of the press and the public rushed to kick the establishment once it was down. For some internet trolls and parodists, leaving negative feedback on a business they have never visited and never planned to visit is just another way to pass the day. This led to a second lede about the online backlash, further extending the life of the story. The USGH having to take down its Facebook page, and Yelp having to remove countless comments, just further stoked the flames.
REASON #6: The Interwebs—Again! The media has always had something of a herd mentality. Most writers know that paradoxically, it is much easier to sell a version of a story which has already appeared elsewhere than to pitch a novel idea for a piece. Many editors are very cautious animals, fearing to look stupid by taking risks on an article which requires more than five seconds to explain. So if it’s been in the New York Times or New Yorker already, that’s actually a plus: The story topic has been validated. The internet compounds this problem with its culture of linking. Countless sites do little more than collect links to other sites’ reports, or shamelessly repurpose others' content. Once the $500 fine story hit a few well-trafficked sites, it was bound to get copied-and-pasted in exponentially more.
REASON #7: The Policy Itself. Whatever the owner’s motivation—and I say this knowing and liking the owner personally—the policy was counterproductive to say the least. Worse, it was written in a catty tone which set people’s teeth on edge far more than boring legalese.
One can question the policy’s legal enforceability, while also noteing that not a single visitor has brought forward evidence of actually being fined. It looks like some threats may have been made to enforce it... depending on how much one believes semi-anonymous online reviews, which can be edited after the fact to fit a new narrative. On the other hand, many Hudson lodging establishments consider wedding parties as much a curse as a blessing. (Think: Puke on hallway carpets, trashed rooms, noisy sex, lost keys). So fans of the place may be tempted to theorize that this policy was less a “joke” than a roundabout way of deterring all but the most docile wedding parties from staying at the Union Street Guest House.
Still, all that said: The $500 fine idea clearly wasn’t a fine idea. As much as for any other reason, the story gained traction because the policy generated righteous indignation.
Meanwhile, though the Guest House itself will no doubt take a hit for a while, the rest of the local B&Bs and hotels may see an uptick in curiosity-seekers, as millions heard about Hudson for the first time via this story. It’ll be a test of whether all publicity is truly good publicity, a saying repeated far more often than it merits.
NOTE: A follow-up on why this story went viral has been posted at this link.
The Post’s story about the Union Street Guest House was quickly and gleefully picked up by Fox & Friends, TIME online, Business Insider, and others, leading to a raft of negative feedback on Yelp and Twitter. (This begs the question: Is all press really good press?)
The USGH’s longtime owner, former 3rd Ward Alderman Chris Wagoner, responded around noon to the outrage, noting that the proposed fine was for weddings only, had never been levied, and in any case was “tongue in cheek”:
The policy regarding wedding fines was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago. It was meant to be taken down long ago and certainly was never enforced.
If the fine were never levied, that might appear either to verify Wagoner’s claim that the policy was not meant seriously, or possibly that there were no Yelp complaints which triggered the fine—or else that the threat of a $500 penalty indeed deterred any from being lodged.
There certainly are many complaints now, though almost all of them from people who never stayed there and are simply visiting to pile on. Going back through the reviews, here is the distribution of stars prior to today’s episode:
So, prior to today’s news, USGH guests seemed to be polarized in a love it-or-hate it pattern. Now there are dozens and dozens of one-star reviews from people who have never been there. A lesson perhaps both to the inn, and about the perils of publicity.
Some of the biggest ups and downs of the year include:
Foraging for ingredients turns out to have its limitations. Before long, Pelaccio suggests we give up the mushroom hunt. Emde reluctantly agrees. “I mean, I can smell mushrooms though,” she says, then tells me about recently sniffing her way to ramps. “Zak calls me a hound dog.” She gives an animalistic howl. “It’s weird, that’s the sound I make when we’re having sex.”
“It boosts my self-esteem,” says Pelaccio.
“Like you need it,” she returns.
“We always need it,” Pelaccio says.
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Last week’s New York Observer included a chart entitled “What Your Summer Home Says About You,” with contributions from Yours Truly. The non-Hudson Valley entries were written by Jennifer Wright.
As a bonus to local readers, here is a second Hudson Valley column of runner-up items for the chart:
Want to Prove They’re so over the Hamptons
Transport Jeep Rubicon Unlimited
Rubbing Shoulders With Ellsworth Kelly & Martin Puryear
Traveling With Back issues of The New York Review of Books
Drink Pimm’s Cup with locally-grown organic cucumber
Dish Kale salad with pecorino at Mercato
Shoe Merrell slip-ons
Swimsuit Handmade one-piece bought on Etsy
Pet Bernese Mountain Dog
Kids Are... Catching candy thrown by firemen in parade
Overheard “We just joined a C.S.A.”
My Q & A with Peter Biskind about his latest book, My Lunches With Orson, is now live at Rural Intelligence.
Biskind, who lives in Spencertown, is known locally as the head of the Chatham Film Festival, and nationally as a film critic for Vanity Fair and author of various books of Hollywood history.
The book is Biskind’s selection of the most illuminating moments culled from three years of taped conversation between Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom.
The Columbia Paper editorialized last week that TCI of NY has “a good environmental track record.” Was the writer actually referring to the same company whose plant burned to the ground last summer?
Over the past 30 years, all three of TCI’s PCB-handling facilities in the region have suffered fires, explosions or both:
Try that in your backyard, and see if you’re still considered a good neighbor.
Multiple explosions endangered the lives of firefighters, generated a massive plume, showered neighbors’ properties with oily pellets, and led to most Columbia County residents being told to spend the next day indoors.
And while the editorial calls TCI a “loyal employer,” the above series of calamities and dubious management have put company workers at risk:
Compounding such problems is TCI’s apparent habit of keeping host communities in the dark about its intentions and operations:
Meanwhile, though the Columbia Paper writes of “lost tax revenue” from TCI’s possible departure, the editorialist may not realize that this multimillion-dollar company paid less than $5,000 in Town, County and fire taxes in 2012.
A local fire company had to request a $10,000 budgetary increase to help cover expenses from responding to the TCI fire, making their presence a net loss for Ghent.
One gets the sense that the editorialist was striving so hard to appear balanced, that common sense fell off the beam. If TCI’s corporate history constituted a “good” track record, what would be a bad one?
NOTE: The above was submitted as a letter-to-the-editor this past weekend... Let’s see if The Columbia Paper prints it.
My preview of Fish & Game, Zak Pelaccio’s new Hudson restaurant which officially opened this week, went live at The New York Observer (not to be confused with The Hill Country Observer) on Thursday—link here. Below are some bonus pictures by Laetitia Hussain:
Over at The Gossips of Rivertown, Carole Osterink reports that the debate about whether Standard Oil occupied a key parcel in the City of Hudson has been settled—with skeptical citizens fully vindicated.
The City’s title searcher has belatedly conceded to Giff Whitbeck (who strove mightily to prop up his law partner Cheryl Roberts’ untenable claims) what resident researchers such as Tim O’Connor and Cheryl Stuart already knew. Namely, that the oil company most certainly did have a presence on the acreage in question.
The immediate impact of this tardy and grudging acknowledgement should be for the City to stop dodging a full environmental assessment of the land they want to acquire. But don’t hold your breath on that due diligence. Given Roberts’ monomaniacal obsession with securing State approval for her deeply-flawed waterfront plan at any cost, it would hardly be surprising if some new rationale for ignoring potential contamination emerges.
There ought to be another, more lasting impact of this sorry episode: Hudson elected officials finally may be forced to doubt the integrity of their counsel’s advice.
A review the recent reporting on how this matter was handled does not redound to the City’s credit, to put it mildly. There’s no getting around the stark fact that the claims and retorts emanating from the official side of the table in response to sincere, well-researched citizen input have been egregiously (and even offensively) mistaken. Officials took their experts’ vague assurances as gospel, while undercutting every piece of citizen research, at their own peril.
Start with the howlers contained in The Register-Star’s April 21st, 2013 article:
Now head back to Gossips on April 18th:
Gossips continued its pursuit on April 25th:
It’s now painfully clear that each of these official, lawyerly, patronizing assertions were at best laughably mistaken, at worst nastily misleading:
Hudson has many unique features, among these being a rare species of elected official who, unlike the rest of the human race, lacks a natural distrust of lawyers. Renewing a skepticism which traces its lineage at least as far back as Shakespeare, once again local citizens have witnessed firsthand how possession of a law degree does not in itself guarantee the deliverance of honest, well-informed counsel.
When it comes to professionals in the pay of City Hall, the operating principle seems to be: Don’t trust us. We’re experts.