Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Memo to Gina: Ostrich Opinion Objection


We’ve written in the past about ‘journalist’ Gina Hamilton, generally because of something she wrote in The Coastal Journal, which she headed some years ago.  You can read what we said here: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/search?q=gina+hamilton

We just reread those items to remind ourselves what moved us to comment on her, and frankly, we’re impressed with how restrained we were in our comments.  She deserved far more in the way of a wire brushing if you think about her role at the CJ in those years.  No matter, it appears she got her just desserts.  Apropos that, one of the past items included this gem:

Its failings notwithstanding, there is much to be said in favor of journalism in that by giving us the opinion of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.
                                                        -Oscar Wilde

Gina, by her own accounting, has had a varied career, including these two positions:

  • adjunct physics and chemistry teacher; University of New England; taught physics and chemistry lab courses and occasional lecture sections
Given our recounting of her inability to deal with numerical facts with reasonable grasp, we can only say we’re more than astonished by the sloppy hiring practices of two local ‘institutions of higher learning,’ and in particular, an esteemed, very local, highly selective, small liberal arts college.

Al Diamon, a curmudgeonly media analyst if there ever was one, had this to say in July of last year about Gina and The Ostrich, where she now holds forth:

Bias? What bias? In early July, the Times Record, the afternoon daily in Brunswick, announced it had hired Gina Hamilton as a reporter covering Bath and Harpswell, as well as coordinating arts and entertainment news. Hamilton is the former editor of MaineToday Media’s weekly Coastal Journal, as well as the editor of the New Maine Times, a nonprofit website with a strong liberal bent. In addition, Hamilton writes a regular weekly opinion piece for both the Times Record and New Maine Times, which displays an obvious leaning to the left.

Nevertheless, Times Record managing editor Bob Mentzinger doesn’t have a problem with Hamilton’s dual roles, saying she’ll continue her column while adding reporting duties.

“There’s no overlap,” Mentzinger said. “She’s not opining on Bath and Harpswell .… There’s a pretty good firewall between what’s she’s opining about and what she’s reporting.”

Nor is Mentzinger concerned that readers will be confused by Hamilton’s shifting roles, saying they’ll have little trouble telling one from the other.

But will they?

To cite one possible conflict, New Maine Times has published several pieces critical of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to cut revenue sharing to municipalities such as Bath and Harpswell. While the Legislature reduced the size of those reductions, both towns will still feel some impact. Won’t readers wonder if Hamilton’s apparent opposition to those cuts in particular, and LePage in general, is somehow coloring her reporting? Isn’t there a danger this might reduce the newspaper’s credibility?

Hamilton says there’s no problem. “All of that stuff is economic analysis,” she said. “It’s not opinionated economic analysis. It just is what it is.”

Mentzinger may be comfortable with that explanation because he’s made the jump from journalism (city editor at the Kennebec Journal) to political advocacy (working on the 2012 U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Cynthia Dill) back to journalism, seemingly without ethical qualms. Although I notice he doesn’t mention his gig with Dill on his LinkedIn page.

Probably an oversight.

We need to point out that Mentzinger was recently canned by The Ostrich. And that the Ostrich web page has a button for ‘Paul LePage,’ but not ‘Eliot Cutler’ or ‘Mike Michaud.’  So ‘coloring reporting’ and ‘credibility’ are lingua franca non-grata at the local rag.

         Times Record LePage Tab                        

Demonstrating their commitment to staffing excellence, whoever owns/manages the Ostrich quickly promoted Hamilton from her lowly beat reporter stature to opinion page editor, where she spearheads the attitude formation mission of the so-called newspaper.  Given Mentzinger’s departure, she likely thinks she’s in the running for the Managing Editor post.  If you haven’t already cancelled your subscription with them, that should do it.


Carrying on for others, Gina continues the habit the old bird has of publishing editorials written by one who doesn’t even live in our perfect little community.

While she reminds un in many ways of former Opinion Editor Claire Bastien from the last century, at least Claire was a town resident.


Speaking of Gina’s opinery, this past Wednesday, April 9th, she ran an editorial entitled “The Train in Maine.”  We have a number of objections to what she wrote, not least of which is protecting wetlands over protecting established neighborhoods.  And a liberal dose of “it’s your own damn faults, you idiots.”

But rather than bore you with our usual diatribes, we have something different today.

Dennis Bailey, a consultant employed by the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, wrote back quickly to Gina with a direct and well articulated challenge to her editorial.  He’s given us permission to run it verbatim here, and we are, with gratitude.

To the best of our knowledge as of this moment, Gina has not responded, nor run Dennis’ item as a commentary.  Lucky for you, there’s another way to get the Other Side of the issue.  Dennis makes it pretty clear which statements of hers he’s responding to, so his work stands well on its own.  (If you want to read her original item, you’ll have to find it elsewhere.)

Here is Dennis Bailey’s memo:

Hi Gina,

I’d like to talk to you sometime about your recent editorial “The Train in Maine.” There seems to be a lot of information and facts that are either being ignored or misunderstood.

Perhaps the most egregious line in the story is near the end where you write that the Brunswick West neighborhood "had every reason to expect train facilities in their backyards.” Really? How?

If you check the records, you’ll find that all tracks except the Mainline, one relatively short freight rail siding and one very short spur were removed from the “Marshaling Yard” more than 25 years ago. All buildings were removed in the same time frame. Many years prior to that, passenger rail service had been discontinued and freight rail had severely diminished.

Only 550 carloads were carried on the line in 1983 compared to 3,300 in 1982 (this is from a Times Record article 7/24/85). With these kinds of facts, what any neighbor could reasonably expect is that trains were going the same way as the Dodo bird.

On top of that, the area in question was zoned by the town as a Mixed Use 2 Zoning District. The town, through it’s political process, had determined that large, industrial buildings are inconsistent with the Brunswick West location, which had been earmarked for mostly residential housing. The largest building permitted in this zone is 20,000 square feet, but as you know the proposed MLF is three times that size.

I don’t know if you’ve ever bought property, but I have, and one of the first things I do is to check the zoning and see what is permitted in the area. This usually gives me a relative sense of security knowing what I can expect to be built around me.

So to say that the neighbors “had every reason to expect train facilities in their backyards” means that they should have known that passenger rail service would be revived after it had long been discontinued, that NNEPRA would be created, that it would claim pre-emption status so it would not have to comply with local zoning laws, and that a huge industrial facility would someday be built in their backyard to service trains that didn’t exist at the time.

I know most of the members of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, and I haven’t met anyone yet with clairvoyance this keen. To say they should have expected a noisy, smelly industrial facility the length of two football fields on abandoned property outside their bedroom windows is like telling someone who moves next door to a gas station they should have known that an oil refinery would be built there someday.

There are other points in your editorial that display the same faulty logic. You summarily dismiss other possible locations for the facility, probably based on the consultant who was hired by NNEPRA to examine alternatives.

You should know that NNEPRA entered into an agreement to acquire the Brunswick West property BEFORE it engaged the consultant to do the analysis (this is well documented), which throws serious doubt over the report’s objectivity. The alternative sites have yet to receive a truly independent analysis (one of the reasons why a full environmental impact study is needed).

Also, your editorial suggests that the expansion and success of passenger rail service to and from Brunswick is somehow dependent on the construction of the MLF. Really? You should perhaps talk to people who work for AMTRAK (not NNEPRA). I have, current and former employees.

Many of them believe that Brunswick is the worst location for a facility of this type, for a variety of reasons that you may find interesting. It was originally planned for Portland but was moved to Brunswick for reasons we believe were mostly political. Seems odd that a facility that promises all the jobs and economic advantages that you claim would be unwanted in Maine's largest city.

What’s more, the success of passenger rail service is, or should be, dependent on ridership. Like any business, expansion should occur when demand warrants it. Have you looked at the actual ridership figures for the Brunswick line? Not the PR fluff that NNEPRA puts out but the actual daily and monthly ridership figures? We have, although it took a FOI request to get them.

What they show is that 90% of the time the train to and from Brunswick is below 10% capacity. 90% OF THE TIME. In other words, a train that can hold up to 300 passengers barely contains 30 on most days. Some days it’s even less. Some runs it’s none at all.

So explain to me: how will building a huge layover and maintenance facility for $12-$15 million in (mostly) federal funds to service these (mostly empty) trains expand the use of passenger rail service? How in the world will more people be convinced to utilize passenger rail service that they are not now using just because there is a gigantic layover facility nearby?

What’s the connection? I’m sorry, I don’t see one. And shouldn’t the justification for expanding passenger rail service and adding routes come AFTER the trains are unable to serve their current passengers? It certainly would in the private sector, but obviously a highly subsidized enterprise like AMTRAK operates under different rules.

Look, everyone loves trains. Who doesn’t? Even the members of BWNC love trains. They’ve got no beef with trains going by their house a few times per day. None at all. But having watched this issue unravel over the last year and seen the many serious and very legitimate concerns (for the community and the state, not just for the neighborhood) that have been raised and mostly ignored but the press, I’ve come to the conclusion that the news media have blinders on when it comes to passenger trains.

The usual skeptical scrutiny that the press gives most businesses is not applied to passenger rail and NNEPRA. Maybe reporters are just afraid of the facts, like they’ll be accused of killing Santa Claus. But I’ve known you to be an engaged and independent journalist, and I implore you to look beyond the spin that is being offered by NNEPRA and its advocates, and examine the real data and hard facts around this issue.

I’m happy to discuss this further at your convenience.

To which we say Bravo Zulu.  Which is probably why Ms Ostrich Opinion hasn’t bothered to respond.

If and when she does, we’ll let you know, but we wouldn't bet a Kuppa Kool-Aid on it.

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