November 30, 2006
by MARCY BURSTINER
You can't underestimate the level of Balloon Track paranoia. That's what recently hired Times-Standard editor Rich Somerville told us exactly two weeks before the election.
If you compare coverage by the Eureka Reporter and the Times-Standard of the Rob Arkley-proposed shopping center on the former railroad property, it seems as if both are a bit prickly on the subject, and not just over whether to call it a "tract" or a "track."
Somerville had referred to an Oct. 19 story in the Eureka Reporter with the headline, "Balloon Track Opinions Polled" and a subhead that read "Couple claiming to be with Times-Standard surveys businesses along the Waterfront." The Reporter's story told how some business owners felt that the people "claiming" to be from the T-S had tried to pressure them into admitting that they'd been pressured into supporting the Marina Center development.
It turns out that the T-S had sent a team of reporters to survey all the businesses in the vicinity of the shopping center that Eureka Reporter owner Rob Arkley has proposed for the Balloon Track. On Oct. 31, the T-S's Ann Johnson-Stromberg explained that her paper decided to poll businesses after "rumors surfaced over several months regarding business owners being pressured." The T-S did find a few people, unidentified in the story and accompanying poll, who said that they felt they'd been pressured to support the project and one person, also unidentified, who said that Rob Arkley himself directly pressured him.
A week earlier, in explaining its decision to endorse Larry Glass, Ron Kuhnel and Mike Jones for the Eureka City Council, the T-S had this to say about the Balloon Track issue: "The sides have lined up like the English and French at Agincourt. Seems like everyone is being sucked into this longtime political rivalry, whether they want to or not, and that includes newspapers as well as candidates. It is assumed that The Eureka Reporter, the Arkleys' free newspaper that went daily this year, is the mouthpiece of the Marina Center. Therefore, says conventional wisdom, the traditional paper in town, the Times-Standard, must be the anti-Arkley publication ... In truth, for the record, the Times-Standard has not made up its mind about the Marina Center."
Since no one has asked my opinion on the issue, I'm assuming I'm not the conventional wisdom that's been talking that trash about the T-S. And speaking of paranoia, Kuhnel, the candidate who won the endorsement of the T-S but whose vote count as of the preliminary count fell 81 short of winning the election, did ask my opinion, but not on the Marina Center. He wondered how much effect a subliminal message in a newspaper photo and story placement might have on undecided voters.
It turns out that the day before the election the assumed mouthpiece of the Marina Center ran a front page story with this headline: "Police investigating reported homicide in Old Town." What, you say, does that have to do with either the Balloon Track or the election? Well, above the headline was a photo of the front of an S Street house where parolee Anthony Evans had been found bleeding to death. Off to the side, and clear as can be, are two campaign signs for Kuhnel and one for La Vallee. On the other side of the house is a Halloween faux gravestone and finally, crossing the driveway directly in the path of the photographer Tyson Ritter's camera lens is a black cat. So that frames, in the same photo, Kuhnel, La Vallee, a gravestone and a black cat, all above the words "police" and "homicide." And while I haven't sent a team of reporters to survey people, I would bet that there are 81 registered Eureka voters who get the willies when they see a black cat around Halloween time.
Meanwhile, you didn't really need to assume that the Eureka Reporter is the mouthpiece of the Marina Center after reading the paper's Sept. 30 editorial on purchase of the Balloon Track by the paper's owner. The 498-word editorial began this way: "Rob and Cherie Arkley should be commended for their purchase of the nearly 40-acre blighted, polluted and at times dangerous Balloon Track." Further in the editorial is this observation: "...the Arkleys' purchase signals a positive, forward-looking era that will launch a small renaissance of new businesses, new homes for existing businesses, some residences and many jobs that go with all of the businesses that will hopefully find a home at the Arkleys' proposed Marina Center."
I'd hate to be in Wendy Butler's shoes these days. It was her job to cover Security National's news conference two days earlier announcing the Balloon Track purchase, a conference at which Cherie Arkley spoke and offered a champagne toast. (Although I might have been more loath to be Ritter, whose job that day was to take the photo of said toast.) When I used to write for an online financial publication, I often wrote rather harsh articles about one particular stock even though I knew it was a favored holding of the publication's owner. I knew it because every time I filed a story on it, he e-mailed me without fail to tell me how much of an imbecile he thought I was. But that was at a time when I could afford to lose my job. These days I have a 20-month-old daughter to raise and bills to pay.
By the way, have I told you how great the HSU administration is?
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She once taught Eureka Reporter photographer Tyson Ritter, but as it was in a credit/no credit class she feels no disclosure is necessary at this time.
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