Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Lie Du Jour

Old habits and old attitudes die hard. The NIMBY mentality has run Long Island for decades, and you would not expect those people to give up their perch without a fight just because the Lighthouse Project is on the agenda.

The opposition to the Lighthouse Project has not, so far, been organized, but their tactics have been insidious. People with an agenda and their enablers in the media have pushed these lies as if they are fact every chance they get.

First, Lighthouse supporters were dismissed as "just" Islanders fans, as if a group of Long Islanders could not stand for progress unless they are guided by blind loyalty to a hockey team.

When it became clear that people realized this was for Long Islanders, not just the Islanders, the talking points shifted. How, people claimed Lighthouse supporters were blindly in favor and did not know any specifics, another insulting position that falsely assumes that only a certain side of a debate is using its head.

As Lighthouse supporters made clear, at public meetings and on blogs like this one, that they knew exactly what was going on, opponents shifted tactics once again. Now, they claimed Charles Wang was paying us, as if some unseen cosmic force ordained all Lighthouse opponents as principled citizens and relegated all supporters to little more than paid dupes. We most famously saw this in May, when state GOP Chairman Joseph Mondello told Lighthouse Supporter Joe Conte to "blow it out [his] dufflebag" and suggested Mr. Conte was being paid by Charles Wang because he had the nerve to show up to a public event and let his voice be heard.

UNIONDALE, NY - MARCH 26:  A fan who identifie...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

As hearing after hearing came and went with overwhelming support for the Lighthouse - at least 90% present were in favor at each event - skeptics began to sing a new refrain: wait until the public hearing.

Now that we know how that turned out, the lie du jour has been revealed: Lighthouse supporters don't live in the Town of Hempstead; most TOH residents oppose it.

The Public Comments

Astute reader mrlbem asked the right question in yesterday's piece, when I reported that, according to Town of Hempstead figures, 503 comments favored the Lighthouse, 322 opposed it, and 4 were unclear (no, I don't know what the "Unclear" comments looked like either). mrlbem is absolutely correct that this is a much lower percentage of support than we have seen at any of the public hearings, and we should wonder if there is some kind of silent opposition that is afraid to show itself in public.

In my honest opinion, I don't see it at this point. We know the NIMBY history of Long Island in the last few decades, and we realize that the Lighthouse Project is on a scale that has been, to this point, unheard of on Long Island. Given that history, and my knowledge of the SEQR process, I feel pretty confident in saying that these sort of public comments periods attract only the most ardent supporters and the most ardent opponents. In addition - I can't imagine this sort of project attracts lukewarm opposition; in my view, most people either support it, conditionally support it, or are dead-set against it (this is not a catch-all - our friend NYI Fan has admitted the Lighthouse could be a catalyst for the area if the traffic situation is solved - I agree).

Despite all this, 60% of comments were still in favor, and this doesn't account for the overwhelming support seen in person at the public hearing, which is also part of the public record. This looks pretty good for us.

The Article

Despite this, yet another article appeared in Newsday that appeared to go out of its way to play a different angle. It was written by the same reporter who passed along the news of Kate Murray's stimulus "offer" with a non-critical eye and who sought out the only 3 people wearing Islanders gear at the February hearing to interview, on-camera.

The article pushes the meme that Lighthouse supporters mostly live outside the Town of Hempstead, while a small majority within the Town oppose it. The piece relies on two samples: a look through the first 200 comments, in which opponents outnumbered supporters, 59-57, within the Town of Hempstead, and another random sample of 65 letters from supporters, in which 38 came from "out-of-towners."

The article also discusses letters from opponents, highlighting one opponent from Garden City who used words like "tremendous," "gargantuan," and "impossible" to discuss issues like the size of the project and traffic - without mentioning any of the arguments from supporters.

UNIONDALE, NY - AUGUST 04:  New York Islanders...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The premise of this argument is flawed from the beginning. First of all, it is crazy to assume that people from all over Long Island and, indeed, the world would not be interested in the first true suburban "game-changer" since Levittown. James Castellane, who leads the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades commission, says that the construction trade unions on Long Island have 35% unemployment; those workers, no matter where they live, are interested in a project that will bring jobs and investment. Businesses who may want to locate offices or retail stores at the Lighthouse - thus creating jobs - have every right to care about what is going on. People who do not currently live in the Town of Hempstead but who would want to live or work at the future site also have a right to make their voices heard.

Long Island has for too long been limited by parochial thinking, in which villages act independently of each other without an eye toward doing something as a whole. That same thinking must not be allowed to poison the current debate surrounding the Lighthouse Project.

Second - the "sample." A random sample of what amounts to less than 300 comments does not and cannot tell the full story. The author did not share her methodology for picking these letters; it could have been just as easy to pick 65 support letters that were overwhelmingly from Town of Hempstead residents. In addition, there are important pieces to this discussion the author left out:
  • Every comment made at the public hearing is added to the public record. At the hearing, most speakers were Town of Hempstead residents, and the turnout was overwhelmingly positive.
  • Charles Wang, during his opening address, unveiled 15,000 letters - all from supporters - that were added to the public record. Many of these letters came from Town of Hempstead residents, and counting this figure would undoubtedly tip the scales in our favor.
  • The public comment period is supposed to have the most bearing on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), but it is not the only measure of support. Don't for one second think the Town of Hempstead is now ignoring the huge favorable turnout at all the Lighthouse hearings because of a random sampling of letters as part of one step in the process.
  • The issue of ardent supporters from earlier is very telling. In my immediate family, there are 6 voters, all of whom support the Lighthouse and live within the Town of Hempstead. Only 2 - including me - sent in comments. This likely played out in many other families as well, though I imagine opponents took every opportunity.
Next, I need to address the framing of this debate. The author goes out of her way to discuss issues like traffic and water quality, and she mentions a letter from an opponent that used words like "impossible" to describe the issues surrounding the Lighthouse. There is no mention of the comments from agencies like the New York State Department of Transportation, which, as part of the public comments period, was required to give its opinion on traffic, or the Nassau County Department of Public Works, which can do the same. According to the official Lighthouse Project blog, these agencies support the Lighthouse Project's methodology and findings, and I have not found any information that would contradict this. Given the importance of these issues, the reporter should have taken steps to include comments from those relevant agencies in the article.

The most troubling sign? This has previously been a Town of Hempstead talking point, as a TOH insider told my friend BD Gallof months ago that the Town noticed many of the check-in cards at Lighthouse meetings came from Suffolk County residents. To have this point mentioned now, using a clearly flawed methodology, must raise serious questions.

Bottom Line

Town of HempsteadImage via Wikipedia

The Lighthouse Project is a pivotal point in the history of Long Island, and it will shape our destiny for generations to come, whether or not it is approved. It is therefore insane to let the debate fall into innuendo, half-truths, and questionable methodologies. It is just as misguided to see this as a "Town of Hempstead issue" rather than what it is, a Long Island issue, and, in some instances, a national issue. Therefore, I am very sad to see that too many people reporting on this issue are treating it as if it is the Bellmore Army Base.

In the same vein, I am disturbed that certain people with an agenda seem to be going out of their way to give the opposition equal air time when it has been proven time and again that those citizens are a minority.

To me, it begs the question: At what point do you stop trying to appease opponents that have yet to show up in an organized way? When do you concentrate on the citizens who have overwhelmingly supported the Lighthouse and who are determined to not repeat the mistakes of the past?

If you are in the media, and you have an agenda, please say so in an open, honest way. Your responsibility comes from reporting the full story, and that does not mean reaching for negative stories about a widely-supported project in pursuit of some dictum of balance. The media's responsibility is to report the facts, not to play referee between two points of view, regardless of how divorced from reality one or both of those points of view may be.

Over 60% of the public comments submitted supported the Lighthouse, and that does not count the 15,000 letters and thousands of citizens who have shown up to the public hearings and rallies to make their voices heard. To write a piece like this, which again seeks to de-legitimize us, is an insulting reach.

What can we do? We can continue to stand up and combat the Lie du Jour, like all the previous false memes. Those with an agenda and their enablers in the media have been pushing lines about us since the Lighthouse was first conceived, and nothing has been able to stick. We must continue to positively advocate for what we know is right for our home, and we must not be afraid to stand up as one to defend these positions.

Please share your thoughts in comments. Petition. Email Me. Follow me on Twitter.

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  1. Thank you Nick. This answers my question quite well. The NIMBY'S are a persistent bunch aren't they. As well as the negativity in the media.

    I feel that if there is a legitimate opposition to the Lighthouse, it should be heard. But if, as you infer, there are certain individuals (especially in the media) who either oppose the project or just want to "stir the soup", that is just irresponsible.

  2. The term NIMBY is casually thrown around when a project of any size is proposed; I think if more time & effort by the LH people were used in showing how they proposed to improve infrastructure, this project would be less of a threat to NIMBY's. Millions of $$ on websites, RAH-RAH meetings, flaunting buildings,plazas, etc & virtually nothing on transportation improvements. That is my main beef, but, if more actual examples are put forth to area residents,it could change more minds. There is a silent majority of letter writers against this, as noted in the Newsday article; quite possibly hard-working TOH residents that actually work for a living & could not be there. It is a shame that the meeting was cut short (did CW have anything to do with it) before working residents (8 to 5'ers)could get there. Just my 2 cents, Nick.

    August 20, 2009 8:57 AM

  3. NYI Fan - it's good to see you again. Hope the move went well.

    To your points...Kate Murray adjourned the meeting when everyone who was present and wanted to speak had a chance. We all expected to be there all day, so it was pretty surprising to have the meeting end when it did. Many people didn't get the chance to speak because they couldn't stay, but everybody was given a card with the email address so those who could not speak could still make an official comment. To be honest I was very surprised that fewer people submitted comments than attended the hearing.

    For the NIMBY line - I was personally referring to a mentality that nobody can deny has gripped this Island and to a certain group of people who militantly oppose this because, well, they oppose everything. Never meant to imply that I saw everyone in that way.

    For the infrastructure improvements - good enough; if it would help you and others to understand exactly how the Lighthouse plans to improve infrastructure, please ask them - their official blog is in the Links section. My understanding is that they've committed over $50 million to improve infrastructure in the area. In addition, I also understand that some plans by definition can't be specific because they depend on other government bodies (for example, Hempstead Turnpike and the Meadowbrook Parkway are State roads, so the State would have to be a part of any planning and approve any ideas). I'm as interested as any to see the final plans, because I understand as well as you do (and, it's my feeling, the Lighthouse does) that the project can't succeed unless something is done to improve area infrastructure.

    As for the "silent majority" argument - I can see where you're coming from, but I disagree. As I mentioned in the piece, the whole argument is based on a random sampling of less than 300 comments. The only statistic quoted in the article was that out of the first 200 responses, opponents were ahead 59-57. In a Town with over 750,000 residents, when I can personally identify over 20 voters in the Town of Hempstead who want this and didn't send in a comment, and where the overall turnout for the public comments period was 60% in favor, I don't believe the numbers back up what you're saying. If the public comments had been 60% against the Lighthouse, this whole piece probably would have been talking about how you could be right....but that's not how it happened.

    I get a little touchy when I see things like this in the media because it seems, to me, to be yet another attempt to marginalize supporters. As Islanderbill said, we want to hear from opponents - and you're the most eloquent one we've had around here - but we don't think it makes any sense to invent a story in the name of some phony ideal of balance, which is what I think this particular reporter did.

    For the infrastructure - I hope you'll go over to the Lighthouse blog and tell them that you believe more people could be brought on board if they knew exactly what was going on. It's a good point.

  4. i am going to go out on a limb here... we need more PRESS on this matter..... at this point i don't care where the press comes from as long as we get it!!! The type of coverage we need is in the form of" The Daily Show with John Stewart" where he could just show how dumb the opposition is for not approving this. Look at what John did to Jim Cramer!!! He was funny and yet serious and a lot of people watch his show!!! Anyway the Lighthouse group can get in touch with the show and maybe get Charles Wang to appear on it?

  5. NYI Fan your right NIMBY really shouldn't have been used in my comment but I feel the rest of it is true....this reporter did take the random sampling a small piece at 200 and it happened to support her arguement and that is why it was used. The overall picture is bigger here, and that was what I was trying to say

  6. ms. laiken should look into how many of those 'dozens' of supporters from outside the TOH originally were TOH residents but left because of the very reasons the LH should be approved.

  7. This "new media" is really what's gone wrong in america. Ms. Laiken is probably on someone's payroll and coughGARDENCITYNIMBYScough, excuse me, and is coming across as an awful excuse for an reporter. I agree. We DO need OTHER news outlets involved. Newsday USED to be Long Islands paper but is now Chuck Dolans'.
    Draw your conspiracy theories as you will.

    MY Bottom Line: If October 3rd comes and goes and then we hear out of FATTIES' mouth that this will never get done under HER watch, we need to get this thing pushed through on the STATE level and override these POS NIMBYS.

    Do you all think this would have gone down 50 years ago? That if someone wanted to build something grand and different that (small time) politicians would have stood in its' way? Somewhere along the line, we've screwed things up here on long island. We've gone backwards and let the NIMBYS and the small time politicians and the PC Police ruin our gung ho mentality that served us so well in the 40's and 50's.

    It's high time we took it all back.

    We need to fight this with all we've got and get this approved and shovels in the ground.
    Otherwise, if it doesn't, we might as well all pack up and move out west somewhere where we can AFFORD to live.

    -Big Van Vader

  8. This entry is outstanding, Nick. I love it and I hope everyone reads it!

  9. Day1fan, I am (was) one of those TOH people you referred to. After raising 2 children, who both still live & work successfully on the Island, the congestion got too much for me to take in my 'golden years' so, a decision was made to get out of the TOH before the LH. I am happy I did; yeah, I sent in several letters to the County & the TOH, both before & after I moved away, voicing my concerns. As long as the state, county & TOH address traffic & crowding concerns, nothing will rescue LI from it's choking doom, whether it is major parkway improvements or mass transit, (LIRR) this must be addressed, approved & implemented BEFORE any work is completed at the LH, if they wait till after the LH construction starts, it will be a logistical nightmare for the next decade for surrounding area residents. (There I go again with the T-word!)

  10. When I read that article I was surprised to see a reporter try and make it a close battle when we all know that the opposition hasn't shown its ugly head in an organized way, as you said...It was another injustice by another idiot newsday reporter, again...

  11. nyi fan - fair enough.
    i'm from levittown and 'grew up' at the coliseum, from inception. decades later i'm in brooklyn and can't go to games because i choose not to own a car and there's no link from the LIRR to the game.
    with this project, there will be no rail line built through garden city. but as i understand it, there will be a real bus link between the LIRR and the coliseum. at least on game nights. i'll be able to go to games again, and i am certain many like me from brooklyn, queens and even manhattan will come too. there are issues to resolve and problems to be dealt with before the thing is shoved down TOH's throat. no question. none are insolvable. this should get done. it will be a grind and annoying at times of course, but it's a forward looking and positive enterprise for Long Island in many ways. and can you imagine if the team gets really good ? (which clearly is possible now.)