GreenWatch: Dumb and Dumberer. How the Buffalo News is dumbing down the Dumbnation

by / Oct. 16, 2015 8am EST

I was shocked  when I opened my copy of the Sunday Buffalo News last week, turned to my favorite section, Sunday Viewpoints, and discovered that the last page, the science page, was missing. In its place was a badly printed rendition of the Buffalo News cover from a century previous. This was interesting and I like history, but I wished I could read it. It was a very poorly reproduced full page, and I could not read, even with a magnifying glass, the attempt by the Buffalo News to congratulate itself for a century of service. I looked forward to seeing the science page return on the following Sunday. I get the Sunday News to read this page. Being relevant is an important editorial choice by a newspaper.

I soon discovered that the missing science page was not an aberration. In fact, it has been removed from the Buffalo News permanently.

This is shocking. The science page was one of the few places in local media where people could get relatively reliable information about new scientific studies, climate change, ecology, medicine, and emerging technologies. Important stuff. Always promoting critical thinking. And, oh yeah, it used to be the place where we could read Gerry Rising’s wonderful weekly column, “Nature Watch,” about local nature issues, places, birdwatching, biodiversity, math, and the occasional review of important books about ecology, nature, and the outdoors. “Nature Watch” has always added much value to the Buffalo News.

Gerry Rising has been publishing in the Buffalo News since April 1991. Twenty-five years and more than 1,200 wonderful columns. Prior to Gerry’s always interesting columns, David Bigelow for many years published a  local nature column in the news. Bigelow was the original naturalist at Buffalo Audubon’s Beaver Meadow Nature Center and was a fascinating man and a deeply connected ecologist.  Both of these men brought us important, entertaining, interesting, and significant information about the natural world with an intense focus on local people, places, and things.  This work has enriched the lives of all of us, and it has been a consistent reason for decades to read the Buffalo News. Gerry tells me that a week ago he received a one sentence note from Buffalo News editorial page editor John Neville to the effect that the science page is no longer to appear in the News and that he will thus no longer need my columns. 

Not even a gold watch?

And so the Buffalo News has made an editorial choice to vanish nearly a half a century of investment into our community of locally important stories about the outdoors, our nature, and our environment. I am shocked and saddened. As my friend, GreenWatch co-founder, and former Buffalo News environmental editor (yes they actually had an environmental editor once upon a time) Paul MacClennan used to say, “Never forgive, never forget.”  Count me among those that are no longer interested in paying for the vapid Buffalo News.

The truth is that the Buffalo News, like other local media but standing alone as a long time main stream local print publication, has been engaged in the business of dumbing down the population for a long time. While we have always enjoyed the intellectual acumen of many reporters (you know who you are and I love you), some of the editors, and a few columnists, we have noticed that the direction of the paper has, like most American press operations, tanked in recent years.  At least since former editor in chief Margaret Sullivan left in 2012 to become the public editor of the New York Times.

The News’s braintrust makes the excuses that the news business has changed, the economics have changed, and they need to continue to reach an audience. I get it.

But who is the new audience? Based on the evidence of commentary on most of the Buffalo News’s online postings, the audience of posters consists of the uninformed, often illiterate, intemperate, ignorant dissemblers and the nattering nabobs of yore. Does the Buffalo News recruit this vastly underthinking audience, or are they just pouring out of the nooks and crannies of our crumbling civilization? Of course it recruits. Or at least it panders. Clearly the News curates comments, as many readers of this publication who have tried to post reasoned comments will attest. Although I am not a fan of anonymous comments, which the Buffalo News encourages, the curating of them leads to a manipulation of real public dialogue. So does the allowing of anonymous posts. Not that the Buffalo News has any interest in real public dialogue. They pander to an audience that they have created in order to sell product. Is this working? The obviousness of the continuous downsizing at the News suggests that it is not. We are losing our information sources.

A great press is informative and expands dialogue. The Buffalo News seeks to manipulate the agenda and constrain ideas. Does the Buffalo News seek to inform readers or manipulate them into engineered beliefs about right and wrong, up and down, and inside and out? You be the judge. When was the last time you got the idea that the News was interested in teaching people critical thinking skills and how to manage the emerged multiplatformed media universe other than to direct them to push polls or to buy products? Instead the Buffalo News congeals around editorial platforms such as the privatization of our educational system,  the downsizing of government, and the elimination of public and private unions. It beats these issues to death with virtually no room for informed discussion or debate. If this all depresses you, go shopping. Make sure to let them know the sNews sent you.

This is one of the reasons that the publication that you are reading now, The Public, is important. We do offer new ideas, new writers, and new strategies to make our community better. Our audience is growing. Thanks for your support.

I have had recent experience with the Buffalo News commenters. This week I was interviewed for a story by someone I consider an excellent reporter, T. J. Pignataro. The story was about the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve’s concerns about how the permanent night-lighting of the adjacent Connecting Terminal grain elevator at a cost of nearly $4 million had not been scrutinized for its potential environmental impacts on the nature preserve regarding migrating birds. If you have read any of my columns at The Public, you are probably aware that I have a deep concern about the natural world and recognize and report about the significance of our region and our waterfront to things like migrating birds. This is part of the internationally recognized Niagara River Corridor Globally Significant Important Bird Area (NRCIBA), for gosh sakes.

I am not alone in this. I cited, and was quoted in the Buffalo News article, as referring to Governor Cuomo’s April 2015 Policy Initiative which he adopted in collaboration with Audubon called “Lights Out New York.” 

Millions of birds are killed each year, including in the Great Lakes, by lighting and buildings. The governor’s policy initiative encourages state buildings and facilities to turn out the lights during specified periods (11 pm-dawn) during bird migration periods between April 15 and May 31, and between August 15 and November 15.  I told the ECHDC in a letter that stimulated the News story, and it was reported in the article, that “the ECHDC needs to be aware of the governor’s policy initiative, and consider it here because of the very special location of the Connecting Terminal, on the shores of Lake Erie, next to an important to migrating birds nature preserve, and as the gateway to the Niagara River Corridor Globally Significant Important Bird Area. “

We wrote about this initiative in The Public in April.

The Friends also pointed out that because of the special location of the Connecting Terminal next to an important migratory area and the nature preserve, and because of scientific evidence that migrating birds are flying in great numbers here at dusk, that the lighting of the elevator should be prohbited from dusk till dawn, not just 11pm to dawn as the governors initiative advocates. We need to take heed of special cirmstances at our waterfront.

The governor also cited the need to control energy costs as a part of the Lights Out initiative. By the way, in addition to this initiative of Cuomo, there are well-established avian conservation design guidelines that have been adopted by many North American cities, including several in the Great Lakes. One of these powerful strategies is called Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP).

 FLAP or similar programs have been adopted by many Great Lakes cities including Toronto, Chicago, and Detroit. It saves birds’ lives, and we know that most bird populations are in precipitous decline.

The backlash on the Buffalo News webpage was immediate and astonishing. There are a lot of comments, most if not all anonymous. At least the Buffalo News is reaching its audience. I was thinking that I must be reading the millennial vacuous comments often posted ad nauseum on Buffalo Rising. But I was not. This was the Buffalo News. The once important Buffalo News and its new audience. As of last Sunday now devoid of the informative science page.

This audience of commenters made remarks that were way out of context. I was personally attacked for my positions about protecting birds, nature, and the nature preserve. I was called everything from a bouncing booby to a nitwit, nitprick, virus, parasite, and much worse. I was also called an obstructionist who hates Buffalo, hates progress, wants to destroy the economy, and hates hates hates everything good, except for the silly birds.

 Several posters, correctly perceiving that I am asking for legitmate and publically available environmental reviews of projects conducted by the ECHDC under SEQRA, in essence asking for transparent science to participate in decision-making about one of the most important environmental resources in the Great Lakes (which are dying due to human abuse), said that I should do the studies with my own dime, not taxpayer money. Do they not perceive that the ECHDC is spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money, $4 million alone on the Connecting Terminal lighting project? Do they not perceive that the ECHDC spent over a ¾ of a million dollars for a 30-or-so-page “blueprint” that is all words and pretty pictures? This marketing document panders to the uninformed who believe that Buffalo’s future rests on our ability to build fast food restaurants and private condos on current public space in the Outer Harbor. They do not believe, apparently, that we have an obligation to protect the Great Lakes, our water supply, and our future economic vitality from inappropriate development. They do not believe that we should have environmental reviews of this publically funded development as a part of the public money. Maybe the Buffalo news failed to inform. Maybe this is a deliberate decision.

One of the posters demanded that I work to “preserve people not birds.” Exactly my point, by the way. Another said the best use of Times Beach, “that overgrown wasteland on the outer harbor” is to “turn it into a complex of homes and businesses.” These are  interesting if uninformed and misdirected points. They might be more credible if they were not delivered with the ad hominem vitriol of a drooling hyena. One person even posted a photo of me at a Times Beach rally from last fall and stated, “Burney needs to worry about his fat stomach, and not birds.” Touché again. Maybe she could join me for a hamburger next tuesday and a big gulp o’ Brawndo.

I do love the downtown Canalside and how it has changed Buffalo and our downtown density. I also love the openness and nature of the Outer Harbor. I believe that this greatly complements and increases the value of our city and region. And I resist moving this entertainment center to the Outer Harbor without real environmental scrutiny. This includes things such as lighting the Connecting Terminal and turning the Bell Slip into a paved-over visitor center and moving the Thursday concert series to the so called “festival grounds.” It also includes promoting sprawl on the Outer Harbor, which is the intention of the ECHDC. I am not saying “no” to anything except the sprawl. I am just saying let’s take a fair look at the potential impacts and lets make our choices based on information, not marketing and PR. Is it too much to ask that the ECHDC, with its economic strength deep into the taxpayer pockets, spend a few thousand of those dollars to transparently follow laws that engage environmental review and citizen interests? Tom Dee says that they did the environmental assesment regarding the impact on birds of the lighting of the Connecting Terminal. Let’s see it. Is it another secret document? 

 Is it too much to ask of the our community to try to comprehend that the protection of biodiversity, the waters of the Great Lakes, the changing atmosphere, and the vitality of our economy and the sustainability of humanity are linked to these concerns? Or do we let these unremarkable and fast tracked development schemes that have little scrutity and big consequences and are paid for on the public dime, rule the day?

Clearly real intellectual engagement is too much to ask of the idiocracy that is now the online engaged Buffalo News audience.

The unremarkable and expensive ECHDC vision for the Outer Harborr, coupled with a fast track and an intentional lack of scrutiny, is our future.

So spend the goddamn taxpayer money on concerts and light shows. Forget science, forget birds. Forget that we once had an opportunity to clean the water and build a future that will enhance and not deplete the quality of life for generations to come. We used to have a nature preserve on the Outer Harbor at one of the most important locations in the Great Lakes. Now learn to swim in the shit that is become our shorelines.

Progress and promise indeed. Here is a toast to the Buffalo News audience. No wonder the human race is facing extinction. Now I am going shopping, to try forget my troubles. Let’s go Buffalo! Je suis, Gerry.