Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Amazingly, 25,000 people soberly packed into the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Tuesday evening, never once brushing elbows with one another. They left the drugs at home and avoided the beer tent. They didn’t bother to tailgate or get rowdy.

No, they just stood there watching the Boss, one gigantic, pulsing entity unified in their good behavior. No booze-fueled arguments, no drug-induced romps through the woods with a wayward park police officer in tow; no smashing, grabbing, raping, pillaging or other felonious behavior. In short, nothing happened among the tens of thousands of fans that poured through the park, perhaps even picking up their garbage –down to the last cigarette butt.

Why were these fans so well behaved? Well, because they’re flag-waving Americans, that’s why. They’re the people that make this country tick. They are the heartbeat of a generation. They know how to stand at attention, keep a clean blood stream and watch a musical legend with uninhibited vision.

Or perhaps that’s the image the media and authorities would portend.

Wednesday’s rags gushed about Bruce Springsteen’s concert in the park. They prattled on about how the Boss belted out his best at the amphitheater and how the crowd swooned. But they never mentioned anything about clouds of marijuana smoke wafting over the crowd, or garrulous drunks bellowing into the night. The idea is that none of this ever happened, because the Springsteen crowd is older and more mature.

In reality, there’s no way to make 25,000 people of any flavor behave. In the realm of probabilities, it’s just not possible. There will always be one crazed addict among the bunch who will light up, party down and then play a game of grab-ass with the first fine piece of tail that saunters by. Unfortunately, this is the nature of humanity: There are assholes among us.

This is not to say the Springsteen crowd should be characterized by someone of this ilk. In fact, this sort of caricature stands in direct contrast to the image of a Bosshead many reporters would conjure: Late 40s, upper-middle class, law-abiding urban professional who probably came to the concert in a mini-van with his or her teenage daughter and their friends.

You can bank on the state Park Police having a similar concept of the typical Springsteen fan. Why side-step up to these people and demand to search their possessions? Why chase them like dogs or harass them intermittently? These are taxpaying citizens, not a bunch of dirty hippies, the reasoning goes.

This was not the case two weeks ago, when Phish took the stage at SPAC. Before the band could put down their instruments, the Saratogian was already demanding to know how many fans were arrested and what was seized. And the park police, county prosecutor and the Spa City cops were all the willing to oblige.

They even gave the reporter a weekend-long breakdown of the arrests: Cop assaulted on Caroline Street by a crazed Phish fan the day before the concert and lost a tooth; on the same night, an investigator gets splashed with liquid LSD by some drug manufacturing dopehead eagerly waiting to pawn his wares. The concert brings more assaults and arrests. The assistant district attorney’s phone is ringing off the hook; he gets no sleep that night. The jails are full. Saratoga is burning. The mayor is briefed and urged for a spell to call in the National Guard; maybe an airstrike. You can’t trust these fucking hippies; give them one night of bliss and they’ll take over the place.

In reality, the Phish concert brought about 22 arrests, which is less than a tenth of a percentage point of fans that were inside the venue. That’s not even taking into consideration the thousands of fans that were outside the sold-out concert that evening. Yet these are details that don’t make it into the paper.

Likewise at the Springsteen concert. Nobody wants to read about the drunks that were corralled for misbehaving or the tailgaters that were cited for a variety of indiscretions. These are things that Springsteen fans don’t do in the discriminating eyes of the media and law enforcement. Even if a curious reporter had bothered to ask about the tenor of the concert, chances are pretty good the cops wouldn’t have mentioned any of their work that night.

So there is a distinct flavor of injustice that is offered by this unlikely union between media bias and police prejudice. And it’s one they use with quiet precision to ensure only the right type of crowd is permitted into the homogenous confines of this upscale city.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Roadside hummers and other related thoughts

If the beast roars out, you have to give it sacrifice that will satiate its voracious appetite. And the quicker you can toss it a tender morsel of flesh, the safer the village will be in the end.

This was the message that flashed down the narrow dendrites in Sheriff Jim Bowen’s brain last week, when a husky voice on the other end of the phone started unfolding for him the events that transpired in Edinburg. Deputy Donnie Harder got caught with his pants down, the voice says. The dumb fuck decided to get a piece of action and he did it with the wrong woman, the voice explains. They’re going to rip you to shreds over this; you might as well hang up now and clear your desk.

No way, Bowen’s Id cries out. That’s no way for a man of the law to go down, especially the longest-tenured sheriff in New York State. Find a sacrifice to the beast; give it something juicy from the get-go, so there are no other questions to answer.

Moments later, he’s on the phone with Jim Murphy, the unopposed Saratoga County district attorney and a card-carrying member of the same Republican cabal. He’s bastion of faith in the county, and a guy who hasn’t had a challenger in years. He’s safety.

Murphy understands the situation. Bowen is cashing in a political favor. He needs help on this, and the county’s top prosecutor is just the man to do it. He’s got a spotless record, and he’s often regarded as the man who modernized the prosecutor’s office.

Together, Murphy and Bowen lay the cards on the table: There’s a deputy who thinks it's alright to get a blowjob on the clock, and there’s a good chance his indiscretion isn’t the only one taking place within. There’s a challenger for the sheriff’s seat whose main claim to fame is a campaign to unveil the political favoritism in the village of Corinth. The mere notion of a corrupt sheriff’s department would be enough for him to steal the incompetence vote: The teaming volumes of people who pull the lever for a candidate simply because he or she purportedly represents change.

So they throw Harder to the wolves. Less than four hours after the alleged incident occurred, Murphy lodges a felony charge against the deputy that could land him a 25-year prison term. By noon the next day, Murphy and Bowen have the press conference scheduled. The call to the media is so quick that the normal channels of information dissemination –leaks through political enemies and social anarchists –don’t have time to start spreading the news.

By 2 p.m. on Aug. 12, Bowen drops the bombshell: My deputy coerced a woman into sucking him off, and he did it using his badge as prod. The story is sensational. The press and television reporters eat it up. When Bowen wakes up the next morning, Harder is corralled in Saratoga County Jail on $25,000 cash-bail and he’s not likely to get sprung. After all, Harder barely has time to break the news to his wife before his mug is plastered all over the internet and on the evening broadcast.

Every newscast and every newspaper contains the same story. The homogeneous coverage is to the extent that a reader could rip-off the by-line and not be able to distinguish between the articles. Curiously absent from each one is the notion that Harder’s indiscretion might be emblematic of a deeper, more sinister problem that has metastasized in the sheriff’s department under its geriatric leader.

These are problems that have slowly bubbled to the surface of Bowen’s ever-growing law enforcement complex. For instance, there’s the case of Deputy Bill Marshall, a longtime member of the sheriff’s department and Junior Baseball league manager, who escaped any sort of legal ramifications for falsely charging a teen that got punched by one of his players.

The quirky story was first covered by a Times Union sports writer and gained steam before Bowen and Murphy colluded to bury it. At the time, Bowen said Marshall’s behavior “didn’t look good” and swore he’d get to the bottom of it.

But the bottom turned out to be the charges getting dropped and the case being thrown out of court; the latter of which would have happened anyway. Yet nobody asked why Marshall wasn’t reprimanded at the very least; or even better, charged with making an unlawful arrest. The case virtually vanished until there were some murmurs about it after Harder’s arrest.

These are just the latest in a long string of very public misbehavior by Bowen’s boys or by Harder himself. Let’s not forget these are the same guys who happened to be speeding in driving rain four years ago when they slammed into Phil Eckstein, a popular Skidmore student who died from his injuries. And let’s not forget about the time they rammed a Saratoga Springs crew team in 2000.

Harder also has a penchant for slamming into things, no pun intended. In 2007, he rear-ended a car in Wilton with enough force to smash it into a third car. At the time, Harder was processing a shoplifter he picked up from the mall. The girl suffered a bruised forehead, cut nose and lost a tooth; injuries that suggest she was placed in the back of the cruiser, but not with a seat belt properly fashioned.

Interestingly enough, none of the news agencies made this connection while they lapped up Bowen’s story like warm milk on a cold day. Now more than a week later, they haven’t bothered to ask what Harder’s penance was for injuring a suspect. Why? Because Bowen generally doesn’t talk to the media. When he does, he spits out very carefully orchestrated sound bites that ensure there won’t be any follow up questions.

Not to credit the media for its unbelievable lack of effort. They have become complacent with the way Bowen and Murphy run the show. Today, they don’t bother calling Bowen for information, because they realize there’s only one way they’ll get it: At an abruptly called news conference with Murphy by his side.

Well boys and girls, it’s time to start asking some goddamn questions. Letting Bowen squirm out of the Harder story, the Marshall affair or any of these disasters of injustice is simply appalling. He needs to be taken to task for his mismanagement and inability to keep his cops out of trouble. After all, shit flows down stream. And if a lowlife deputy like Harder is getting blown in his cruiser at the bottom of that stream, there must be some serious issues at the top.

Friday, August 07, 2009

If at first you don't suceed...

...then fail and fail again. This seems to be the mantra of the Schenectady Daily Gazette’s business model, which is sort of like watching a 12-beer drunk stagger home after a long night of imbibing. The drunk has enough primal cognition to realize they must affect a change in their surroundings immediately before happening upon an inhospitable circumstance; but they lack the coordination to navigate and therefore make the same flawed decisions with almost comical repetition. Take two steps, fall down. Take two more steps, fall down again. Fiddle with the keys. Drop the keys. Take another two steps, fall down; repeat.

The whole scene isn’t one that anyone can correct. From afar, an observer can chuckle, maybe even chortle at the bloke. But anyone with a conscience will feel a twinge of remorse for this schadenfreude; a sense that this somewhat humorous spectacle is indicative of a greater looming problem that will foment tragic circumstance as the failed attempts at navigation mount.

This week, the Gazette’s leadership took a bold step into a dark and perilous forest by abruptly clipping off their freely published Web content. The paper’s leadership claims the sudden shift in was necessary to remain viable in an otherwise hostile market, which has hemorrhaged profits at an unsustainable rate. Without ad revenue coming in from its free content and with circulation dwindling, the paper needed to do something to move toward sustainability, Editor Judy Patrick claimed in a column published shortly before the switch Monday.

To date, the paper has clipped off free-access to everything except its small collection of blogs and a generic classifieds search engine. Articles posted online contain about 20 words of the lead, which the papers’ brass dangles like a carrot in an attempt to lure online subscribers. The bold move came shortly less than two years after the Gazette first stepped into the light of online publication and at a time when its Web presence had fallen to a very distant second to the Albany Times Union, which virtually presides over the Capital Region’s slice of cyberspace.

The Gazette’s new format charges $4 per week for a print and online subscription, which is a penny less than it costs to receive the paper delivered to your doorstep. Online only subscribers can expect to pay $2.95 per week for full access to the Gazette’s content. Print-only subscribers pay $3.99, thereby reducing the monthly cost by a whopping nickel.

Needless to say, the Gazette’s online readership was not pleased. The general feeling among these readers was that they’d gladly take up reading the TU online for free and gleefully watch the Gazette spiral into insignificance and anonymity. And an informal survey conducted by the paper affirmed these attitudes. Of the 928 readers that cast a vote, only 127 said that papers should charge for online content.

“I think this signals the [Daily Gazette] going back into the ‘dark ages’ and will not help the long term outlook of the Daily Gazette and the potential it had in its hands that the stuffed suits let go,” wrote one online reader. “Are you telling me that the 1,200 paid online subscribers you might get back at $4 each are really worth it?”

Others noted that the paper chose one of the worst times in the industry to shift to online readership and an even worse economic time to be demanding cash from the readers now accustomed to getting the paper for free. Some offered the Gazette’s decision as further indication of its inability to change with the times; something that has been a hallmark for just about everything that is associated with Schenectady.

“I can imagine the management team of the Gazette in the 1870s telling [its] customers and employees that there's no need to cater to these newfound railroads, or a few years later explaining to their board that telephones will never be necessary for businesses,” wrote another poster.

Not surprisingly, the Gazette’s move sent ripples throughout the publishing industry. Most notably, the change prompted a response from the all-free-content New York Times, which is struggling with its own financial issues. David Carr, the writer who pens the Times’ Media Decoder column, tried to log onto the Gazette’s Web site to read about the switch, but was asked to subscribe to receive the full content of the editor’s letter to readers. Not being that interested in Schenectady, Carr attempted to gain access to just Patrick’s column and was asked to pay $2 –half the amount for receiving a full week of coverage.

“Here at Decoder, we’re still deciding whether to pony up the two bucks to find out the rest of the story,” he wrote. “Sure, we could pick up the phone, but that is so old media.”

Carr brings up a remarkably interesting point, even if it’s at the expense of poking fun at one of the many loopholes in the Gazette’s logic. There is always a way to package and market online content, but it’s not in the same manner that one markets something tangible. Just ask the recording industry about that.

Less than a decade ago, the free proliferation of music via Napster and other peer-to-peer sites threatened to decimate the recording industry. In response, a select group of money-grubbing musicians decided to hire a team the most expensive lawyers the world had to offer and go after Napster’s jugular. And when they dispensed of Napster, they went after the scores of college students and housewives download the free content.

The whole affair drew the musicians, the recording industry and the lawyers more bad press than any of them ever imagined. The legal battle fanned the flames of the fire Napster lit, prompting a veritable revolution of open source software aimed at subverting the wrath of those who demanded penance for their creative property. So whenever the lawyers nailed one site, another four would pop up.

Reason finally reached the industry with the rise of Apple’s iPod. The creation somehow convinced producers to see beyond the money they were making with tangible compact discs and understand that the online format wasn’t nearly as valuable as they had originally figured. Suddenly, songs were being sold by iTunes for less than a dollar. And suddenly, paying for a song didn’t seem that far out. The American consumer rationalized that paying what amounted to a third less than a Double Mochachino at Starbucks was worth it to know the product they were getting was genuine and received through legal channels.

Now imagine if the news industry adopted a similar model. Imagine if the news industry understood that not all readers want to read every last detail about Schenectady or even the Capital Region. Would readers pay a nickel to read the text below a salacious headline? How about buy five for a quarter and get the sixth free? Reader accounts could be billed monthly via credit card, which would allow them to click away feverishly if they wanted. At the end of the month, settle up.

Still, the whole approach to balancing the waning ability of ad departments on the backs of readers is ill thought out to say the very least. Entire papers once sold for an infinitesimal fraction of the cost to produce them. Oddly enough, people stopped buying them around the same time the industry started raising the newsstand price. First, prices were raised from a nickel to a quarter, then from a quarter to 50 cents, and to nearly a dollar now. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people aren’t reading them anymore.

Yet the industry as a whole refuses to address these issues. And pretty soon, the only alternative will be wholesale changes in the product itself. Take for instance a recent move by the Times Union to seed community-based blogs throughout its coverage area. They started with Bethlehem, a large suburb that the paper has seemed wholly unwilling to devote its coverage. The experiment was wildly successful and now the effort has spun blogs to East Greenbush, Albany, Scotia-Glenville and yes, Saratoga Springs; all with limited success. Given the recent layoffs at the TU, this could very well end up becoming the future of their local coverage.

The bottom line is there are no easy fixes to the ailing media. To credit of both the TU, they’re trying something new, even if that something seems like a poor substitute to the professionalism of modern journalism. The Gazette, on the other hand, is showing exactly how long in the tooth its thinkers truly are. And they’re bringing new life to the axiom, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Negotiator

The scanner chirps to life shortly after 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The tones are followed by a gruff voice, which seems none too pleased to be barking out orders at the crack of dawn.

“Tone is for SEMS. One-car motor vehicle accident with entrapment on Henning Road by Union Avenue,” the voice orders. “Delta response. Med Flight is on-standby.”

Seconds later, you’re off. The pall of darkness over the city limits is torn open by the ambulance’s flickering red lights. Adrenaline fills your veins as the rig speeds closer to the scene. Flares illuminate the street just enough for you to see the crumpled wreckage wrapped around a tree. Police are on scene investigating, riffling through a pile of wreckage that seems to contain a number of beer cans and a now-empty bottle of Palace Vodka. You realize quickly this is a case of drunken driving.

Firefighters are already having at the vehicle with a variety of hydraulic saws and pliers. They’ve almost gotten the badly injured man from his mangled car when he summons you over. The man, who is remarkably conscious and still clutching a can beer, talks in a voice and tenor that astounds you for the condition of his twisted body.

“Look,” he says pausing for effect. “Before we get started, I want to negotiate some details.”

You blink. Negotiate? You’re partially embedded in a tree, you think. What’s there to negotiate? But astoundingly the man continues, occasionally taking sips from his beer.

“First of all, I hope you realize that without fellows like me, there would be no job for you,” he says pointing the can in your direction. “So I’d like a bit of respect.”

“Now I understand you don’t pay rent,” the man continues. “And with the city’s finances these days, that’s simply unacceptable, so we’re going to have to change that before we get started here.”

You blink a few more times just so the fellow knows you haven’t drifted into a coma.

“Next, I think you should pay me for this ambulance ride you’re about to provide, seeing as though my insurance reimbursements are bound to make you money,” he says in a tone that seems far too nonchalant for a guy facing felony DWI charges. “After all, big cities make money off their ambulances, so why can’t we?”

He pauses. You stammer.

“So why can’t we?” he asks again, only louder. “Look, you freeloaders need to start ponying up some cash, or else I fear we’re at an impasse. I’m going to need…let’s say a twenty-spot…before you get started with the work at hand. And some licorice whips too…you know…my blood sugar is starting to drop…”

Characterizing Public Safety Commissioner Ron Kim’s negotiations with the Saratoga Emergency Medical Services as a crippled drunk driver dickering with a paramedic is way too easy. In fact, nailing the comparison is sort of like shooting a five-foot long carp in a bucket with a twelve-gauge shotgun: With every pump, you’re going to hit something on the mark.

Kim started this dreadful process with SEMS when he insisted the city’s ambulance service should be a profit-driven model that earns money for his department’s enormous budget. He caught the attention of several like-minded city officials, who figured putting the ambulance contract “out to bid” couldn’t hurt anything by the egos over at SEMS.

Well the bids came back and two of them offered the Spa City exactly what Kim proffered. But suddenly, the prevailing thought among the commissioners swung away from disbanding the service that has faithfully carted injured Saratogians to the hospital for decades; suddenly, it didn’t seem like such a good idea to callously shear off a cost-free operation that both employs local people, puts volunteers to work and saves lives at the same time.

That’s when Kim arbitrarily decided to continue negotiations with SEMS, even after the city council accepted the “request for proposal” the company submitted months ago. So imagine the company’s confusion when they showed up to sign the contract they submitted and it miraculously turned into something wholly different. The proposal that involved paying a small fee per ambulance trip and a token $1 per month in rent for the city-owned ambulance station somehow ended up becoming a $50,000 annual payment to the city, plus another $50,000 worth of “service fees” for “certain calls.”

Even disregarding the fact that Kim flagrantly flouted the process of seeking and accepting requests for proposals, his mind-numbingly stupid logic makes no sense. Anyone who can balance a checkbook would realize a non-profit ambulance company isn't designed to make money. That's the whole purpose of being a non-profit agency. But under Kim’s misguided accounting, SEMS should assuredly be able to handle a measly $100,000 payment without facing financial peril simply because they have a $1 million budget. Failure to do so means the company simply isn’t being “accountable” to the people, he told the Saratogian this week.

“I’m aghast at their continuing desire to not be accountable,” he said.

Under this logic, being “accountable” means a non-profit agency should have no problem billing residents more or going into insolvent levels debt to kowtow to the demands of a public safety commissioner, who has already proven his inability to balance a budget. Being accountable means gutting a system that has worked without failure in the city during a time when community-based ambulance companies are failing at almost unprecedented rates due to the inhospitable environment presented by the healthcare system.

Well, the voters of Saratoga Springs should show Kim the true definition of accountability. An official who is accountable to the electorate is rewarded with another term in office. Conversely, those who create problems and put the community in a situation where it could feasibly lose a life-preserving service should be shown the door; or better yet, keelhauled on the Minne-Ha-Ha.

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