What’s Up with the M.V. Times?

For the background to this post, see “Land Grab,” Aug. 17, 2011.

The story in today’s Martha’s Vineyard Times, posted to the paper’s website yesterday and dated Aug. 24, opens with this sentence: “Massachusetts Land Court Associate Justice Alexander H. Sands Friday granted the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) a preliminary injunction that directs an Island couple to refrain from any further construction activity on property they and the private, nonprofit conservation organization claim to own in the Quenames section of Chilmark.”

Sounds like SMF won one, doesn’t it? What actually happened goes something like this: SMF went into the Land Court hearing with two attorneys, a pile of documentation, and the intent to keep Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter off the land, period. Ben and Nisa represented themselves, armed only with two affidavits, a deed, and their knowledge of the land. SMF did not get what it wanted. The message I hear loud and clear in the judge’s ruling is “SMF, your claim to this property is not as certain as you think it is.”

In his order, Judge Sands also wrote: “Finally, both Plaintiff and Defendants shall refrain from arguing this case in the press.” His footnote referred specifically to the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the island’s other weekly (semi-weekly in summer), the Vineyard Gazette. Nevertheless, one of SMF’s attorneys, Diane Tillotson, is quoted at some length in the Aug. 24 story. What part of “refrain” don’t these people understand?

And how about “arguing”? What I’ve seen in the island papers so far, particularly in the Times, looks less like an argument and more like the product of SMF’s public relations office. Rather than acknowledge that Ben and Nisa in effect won this round — without lawyers — reporter (and managing editor) Nelson Sigelman, meanders on and on about peripheral issues. Is he in SMF’s pocket? Does he just want to make Ben and Nisa look bad?

I don’t know, and I don’t care. What bugs me — and it bugs me a lot — is that one of our two island newspapers is doing such an abysmal job of reporting the facts in a very important story.

At the same time Sigelman and his editor, Doug Cabral, miss no opportunity to slam Nisa and Ben for using social media to get the word out about their case. When the most widely read newspaper on the island is printing only one side of the story, what are they supposed to do?

#   #   #

The letter you won’t read in today’s Martha’s Vineyard Times:

I’ve long adhered to the maxim “Don’t attribute to malice what can be easily explained by stupidity” — or incompetence — so I’m not going to speculate about why the letter to the editor I submitted to the Times on Monday didn’t get into today’s paper. I am going to print it here, however.

To the Editor:

When I first got wind of what Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) was trying to do to Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter, neither of whom I knew, I couldn’t believe it. I read all the documents I could get my hands on and had a long phone conversation with Nisa. After stuffing my head with facts and mulling them over, I distilled them down to two key points:

(1) Over the last year, Ben and Nisa have tried accommodation, negotiation, and formal mediation to work this out with SMF. SMF has stonewalled their every attempt.

(2) SMF has announced that it has no choice but to pursue the matter in Land Court — the one option that Nisa and Ben cannot possibly afford, but SMF, with its $5.8 million in the bank and its affluent donor base, can.

This struck me as high-handed bullying of the worst kind. Have we on Martha’s Vineyard sunk so low that expensive court battles are seen as the best way to work out our disagreements?

How could Nelson Sigelman have missed this in “SMF goes to Land Court to fight couple’s claim to a lot” (Aug. 18) and the online update, “Sheriff’s Meadow counters couple’s claim to Chilmark lot”?

Last Thursday it seems a judge in Boston reviewed SMF’s own voluminous documentation — and came to the conclusion that ownership is not nearly as clear as SMF claims, hence he would not issue an injunction to keep Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter off the property that they believe, with good reason, is theirs. Good for him.

In his Aug. 18 editorial, Doug Cabral writes of social media that “it can enhance reputations and damage them.” So can the traditional news media. That’s exactly what the Times is doing: enhancing SMF’s reputation while damaging those of Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter, with precious little regard for the facts in the case or the general interests of Martha’s Vineyard. Faced with the inadequacy of Times reporting, what are we supposed to do? Shut up?

Of course not. So we’re doing what people invariably do to get the word out when official channels prove inadequate: using the grapevine. The grapevine now includes the internet as well as word of mouth and the telephone: e-mail, blogs, Facebook, and the like. The grapevine now has a reach comparable to that of the official channels. The official channels aren’t comfortable with this. It’s OK with them when Egyptian and Chinese dissidents use the internet to confront those in power, but it’s not OK when we on Martha’s Vineyard use the internet to confront those in power — meaning you. This grapevine is making you look bad, true, but the best way to fix that is to clean up your act.

Susanna J. Sturgis
West Tisbury

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to What’s Up with the M.V. Times?

  1. This is a typical case of yellow journalism from the MV Times. Nelson Siegelman thinks of himself as an investigative reporter, and indeed he does a great job with the fishing stories, but investigative reporter he is not. Instead he is a trash-mongering vicious writer with a real penchant for hurting people and institutions. Unfortunately, the Martha’s Vineyard Times gives him full authority and indeed encouragement to use the paper as a platform.

    If you want to know how much damage he can do take a look at the Nathan Mayhew Seminars. When he attacked the institution and personalities it was on the verge of becoming a college. Now it is a fallen down heap or on its way to becoming one.

    His reasoning? The Seminars was getting money from a state institution and the Nathan Mayhew Seminars was a private non-profit. Well, yes, after three years in the state legislature NMS finally got funding for attaching the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth for the purpose of distance learning. NMS got videoconferencing equipment and UMass Dartmouth started teaching. This was BAD BAD BAD in Nelson’s feeble mind. . . .

    And the list goes on. Suffolk University had had meetings with our Board of Directors and was prepared to start offering college courses at Martha’s Vineyard. Northeastern University was already on board. A college was in the budding stage and Nelson snuffed it out and laughed.

    So the Times is pretty nasty. I know that many people have their own stories. Perhaps this is the place to share them.

    Frank Brunelle
    Vineyard Haven
    Watching the tide rise as hurricane Irene threatens our shore 8 AM Sunday the 28th of August.

    Like

    • Frank, since I started blogging about Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter’s case, I’ve heard more stories about vindictive or sloppy reporting done by the M.V. Times. It’s sad, it’s infuriating — but this blog is a personal thing. I want to tell year-round island stories, and what Sheriff’s Meadow is doing to Ben and Nisa is such a story. If my blog had been around when Nathan Mayhew was under attack, maybe an independent voice would have helped?

      A blog devoted entirely to supplementing and refuting stories in the island media might be very useful. Hmm . . .

      Like

    • paul adler says:

      The Times, and before that the GrapeVine, was always a paper representing the unfortunate and unheard voices on the Vineyard. Now it is a tool of Doug Cabral, and often lacks any semblance to ethical journalism.

      Like

  2. susan robinson says:

    I don’t like that some people/organizations get away with telling others (on the other side) not to discuss the siuation in public. In my experience that always benefits the one who wants no airing. It’s like, Don’t tell on me, or Don’t tell on me or you’ll be sorry. The ploy of people who have no intention of cleaning up their act.

    Good letter..

    Like

    • It’s not an organization, it’s the Land Court judge, and so far he seems an astute fellow, which is to say that after a brief review of SMF’s documentation, he concluded that their case was not nearly as strong as they thought it was, and so far Ben and Nisa seem to be getting a fair shake even though they can’t afford counsel. I hope the judge finds out that SMF’s lawyer is quoted in today’s Martha’s Vineyard Times. The order was to not argue the case in the press. There’s no problem with discussing it in public. Where social media and the internet more generally fall is ambiguous, so Ben and Nisa are being cautious.

      Like

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