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Big online publication destroys a way of life in St. Lawrence County

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Bonjour. Bienvenue. Ah, oui.

Excuse my French. I just want to show what I might sound like if I lived in the shadow of Montreal’s suburbs — which the Atlantic magazine suggests I do in an online article called, “For the Amish, Big Agribusiness is Destroying a Way of Life.”

Allez Tricolore! (Go Habs!)

It’s sort of fun in a romantic way to imagine that I live only a bridge toll away from the suburbs of such a cool, cosmopolitan city. The truth is I am a bridge toll away from Cornwall, Ontario, Canada – which is 70 some miles and a world away from Montreal.

Here is my unofficial count of all the people in Cornwall who consider themselves living in a suburb of Montreal: Zero. Here is a count of all the people living just across the border in Massena who think of Cornwall as a Montreal suburb: Zero.

The Canadian cities aren’t even in the same province. And if Montreal had its way, it wouldn’t even share the same country as Cornwall.

Fantasy has its place, but it isn’t usually in articles published in such a well-known and respected magazine as the Atlantic.

The most disturbing part of this story is that the Montreal reference is not the most disturbing part of the story. The article in which it was said that St. Lawrence County “stretches from the Adirondacks to the suburbs of Montreal” got lots of other things wrong. Making Cornwall a suburb of Montreal was one of only two errors that the Atlantic editors refused to correct in the story online.

“The definition of ‘suburb’ is subjective and elastic. Our reporter spoke mostly to residents at the northern edge of the county, and they characterized the towns across the border as Montreal suburbs,” said the Atlantic spokeswoman Natalie Raabe in an email.

Note that I have lived here nearly 20 years and have never heard anyone living anywhere in the county make such a characterization. And the definition of suburb is no more subjective or elastic than the definition of poutine.

Suburb: A district lying immediately outside a city or town, especially a smaller residential community.

Poutine: French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.

You take away the cheese curds and you don’t have poutine – you’ve got fries and gravy. There is no elasticity there. Same goes for suburbs: You can’t add miles and miles and miles of cornfields between one city and another and conclude each is lying immediately outside the other.

Well, you can ... but you would be wrong. Which was a general theme of the whole article written by reporter and fellow at the Atlantic, Malcolm Burnley. For a more accurate picture of agricultural life in St. Lawrence County and the niche the Amish are filling in it, see the report done by Staff Writer Christopher Robbins in the Sunday papers published by Johnson Newspapers. http://watertowndailytimes.com/article/20120923/CURR04/709239987

Mr. Burnley got a lot wrong in his piece. To their credit, the Atlantic editors corrected many of the problems in the story when alerted. They also said they regretted what they called “immaterial factual errors and omissions” by the author. As well they should. The article’s errors and omissions on this list are surely nothing of which to be proud. The author:

n Failed to disclose that he had worked for Bittersweet Farm owner Brian Bennett, the source he used as the primary voice in the story.

n Reported big agribusiness was moving into the area, when the truth is there are a handful of family farms that have been around long enough to grow into big operations. No big agribusiness is moving into the county.

n Misidentified a large Canton dairy operation as being in DePeyster.

n Spelled the name of a source Inus instead of Enos

n Referenced the smell of “synthetic manure” – a product that doesn’t exist. There is nothing synthetic about manure.

n Described a farmer milking a cow by pulling on two udders, rather than teats.

n Wrongly said that Watertown suffers a high foreclosure rate. That city is actually booming with the expansion of Fort Drum and has a low foreclosure rate.

There were more errors, but you get the picture. They may be immaterial to the basic premise of the story – which I remind you was that big agribusiness is destroying the Amish way of life – but they are important to the reporter’s credibility. If he was so careless in all these so-called immaterial areas, it’s natural to wonder if he put more effort into getting the big picture right.

And the short answer is: No, he didn’t.

The editors at the magazine weren’t much better.

“This story was subjected to our regular editing process. It was edited and fact-checked by a senior editor of TheAtlantic.com,” Ms. Raabe said.

This, like the story itself, bends the truth to fit what Ms. Raabe wanted it to be. Fact-checking is traditionally done before a story is published. In at least one case - where they talked to a local real estate agent about land prices here to support the article’s claim that they were rising dramatically - they did so three days after being alerted about their facts being wrong and well after the article was published online.

Even more interesting is the “fact” they uncovered - that land prices doubled in the past five years - is something real estate agent Ken Friedel said he didn’t tell them. Mr. Friedel said that any example of land prices doubling that he gave them would have covered a 15 to 20 year span - not five.

Mr. Burnley took bits of truths and incorrectly blew them up into what he and Mr. Bennett wanted them to show. His editors appear to have followed suit. This method of reporting and editing produced a dramatic story that isn’t true. http://tinyurl.com/9e8scwu

The truth is the Amish population in St. Lawrence County is growing and thriving, so much so that they are more competing with themselves for land than any large farming operation. There’s no evidence that suggests their way of life is being destroyed or even threatened.

That’s the second error that the Atlantic editors refused to correct – and it’s anything but immaterial. They stand by the story despite its glaring flaws.

Maybe they are trying to emulate the news satire organization, The Onion, which makes people laugh by publishing reality-based fictional stories that look and sound like they are legitimate news.

I’ll admit the notion that Cornwall is a suburb of Montreal is pretty funny. And the mental picture of some chemist slaving away to develop synthetic manure has a lot of comedic possibilities. But they have a long way to go to compete with The Onion.

The Atlantic should go back to what they do best: Producing quality journalism through good reporting and fact-checking. That they chose not to do this with the poor journalistic effort by Mr. Burnley has a lot of people up here shaking their heads.

My reaction is this: “Sacre bleu!”

Excuse my French.

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