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Interview with Clarence Fanto/
Eagle Editor Defends WAMC Apologia

by G. M. Heller
June 9, 2000
With an air of Yankee certitude, Berkshire Eagle managing editor Clarence Fanto this past Monday (June 5) defended his decision to publish what he labels a "Commentary" apologizing for radio station WAMC 90.3 FM Northeast Public Radio's decision to cut back on classical music programming.

Mr. Fanto's column entitled "Lurtsema's Demise Not WAMC's Fault" touts the station and the wisdom behind the recent format changes. (To read Mr. Fanto's Apologia, Click Here!)

WAMC listeners have been flooding the newspaper with letters about the recent cancellation of Morning Pro Musica, WAMC's popular and longest-running classical music program aired weekends. 

The Commentary, published in The Berkshire Eagle last weekend (June 4-5), apparently to coincide with the return of summer residents to the Berkshires, comes at a time when WAMC is just weeks away from the latest of its thrice-annual fund-raising drives aimed in large measure at those very same weekend homeowners.

The editorial endorsement given by Mr. Fanto's apologia is sure to help WAMC towards its newest fund-raising goal despite the angry stir created amongst listeners by the programming changes. If the letters being published are any indicator, the bulk of mail being received by The Eagle decry the lessening amount of air time being given to classical music at WAMC

"A self-styled Walter Winchell"
In a lengthy, and at times contentious telephone interview, Mr. Fanto gave opinions on a wide range of topics of consequence to Berkshire folks. Mr. Fanto is a long-time employee of The Berkshire Eagle. A source within Mr. Fanto's organization, who asked not to be identified, described him by saying, "He's a self-styled Walter Winchell for the 90's."

Appears frequently on WAMC
Mr. Fanto is also a personal friend and admirer of fellow Eagle columnist Alan S. Chartock, WAMC's chairman and executive director, and has long championed the publicly-subsidized station in his role as an editor at The Eagle.  Mr. Fanto appears frequently as a guest on WAMC-produced programs, including many times with host Mr. Chartock as a panelist on The Media Project as well as on other WAMC shows.

Mr. Fanto defends his coverage of WAMC over the years saying that he believes he has been quite balanced and that his columns have chided the station just as often as they have been laudatory. He said it was unfair to assert otherwise.

Attempts to verify Mr. Fanto's claims of impartiality towards WAMC in past columns have been unsuccessful. The Eagle's website search engine for past articles has been down for weeks, displaying: "Our Archive Server is Out of Service."

Boosts station, but never asks questions
Mr. Fanto was asked why after all these years of writing columns boosting WAMC Northeast Public Radio, publication of which columns have certainly aided the station in meeting fund-raising goals, that The Eagle has never bothered to investigate just how the public monies channeled into WAMC's coffers are actually being spent.

Mr. Fanto was quoted examples of WAMC's inflated expenditures, such as the relatively high salaries being paid WAMC's senior management out of a budget that presently exceeds $4 million per year.

Circular logic
Mr. Fanto replied, "Why look if there is nothing to look for?" 

The circular logic behind this reply necessitated that this reporter next ask Mr. Fanto how he knew there was nothing to look for if he had never bothered to look, or never instructed his reporters to look. 

Mr. Fanto repeated his answer, saying "There's nothing to find."

When asked if he had ever bothered to look at a copy of WAMC's IRS Form 990, the federal Internal Revenue Service document required to be filed by all organizations exempt from income tax, Mr. Fanto admitted that he had not seen WAMC's in years.

WAMC's latest Form 990 filed for fiscal year ending 6/30/99, shows that Mr. Chartock alone received a total of $97,257 which does not include his travel expenses and a generous expense account and other perquisites---this salary is separate from the one he already receives from SUNY as a full-time tenured professor at the Albany campus. 

WAMC's budget comes not only from listener pledges, but also from government funding, private foundations, corporate underwriting grants, and underwriting contributions from local small businesses.

Moving steadily to All-Talk format
While WAMC in years past favored listeners with a diet rich in classical music programming, the past decade has seen the station move steadily towards an all-talk format. 

"All-talk" in this instance refers not only to National Public Radio-produced programming such as the nightly All Things Considered and Fresh Air, but also to WAMC's own in-house productions. Examples of these WAMC-produced shows include listener call-in (Vox Pop), one-on-one interviews (Me & Mario, Capitol Connection), public affairs kitsch (Legislative Gazette), panel discussions (The Media Project), as well as topical news and feature programming (The Environment Show, 51%, The Law Show).

Where the money is
Private foundations and corporate underwriters will give hundreds of thousands of dollars more in grant monies to a public broadcaster willing to create this type of  "educational"-- read "talk"-- programming than were that same broadcaster merely to run musical programming all day. 

This is one of the reasons that radio stations like Schenectady-based WMHT-FM, which devotes valuable time slots to classical music programming, are, in Mr. Fanto's words, "always hard-up for money." 

Unfortunately though, judging by the tone of letters published in The Eagle in the weeks since WAMC canceled Morning Pro Musica, this expanding talk format has done little to soothe the ears of those who like their listener-subsidized radio to include more Brahms and Saint-Saens than Blah-Blah and Yadda-Yadda. This is especially true given the scarcity of broadcast classical music anywhere but on the public broadcasting end of the FM dial.

Never looks at indy websites
Mr. Fanto gave his opinions about a number of other Berkshire topics as well.  When asked if he had been reading any of the independent, alternative Internet websites lately sprouting up around the Berkshires and dealing with local issues, websites such as the controversial NorthAdamsFree.com, or this reporter's own BerkshireEagleDotNetwork and its sister sites --  WAMC Northeast Pirate Network and BerkshireRecordDotCom, Mr. Fanto claimed that he "never bothers to look at" any of those sites.

He accused each of the sites of having a "hidden agenda", but when asked to be more specific, Mr. Fanto was at a loss to offer concrete details as to what those agendas might be.

NorthAdamsFree.com - vast tracts of words
The NorthAdamsFree.com website is operated by two North Adams residents, William Davis,  a retired North Adams police detective, and John Choquette, a local landlord. Using the site as their soapbox, the two men have written extensively and apparently without limit -- vast tracts of words that seem to go on forever -- accusing North Adams Mayor John S. Barrett III of all manner of behavior both in and out of office. This landscape also features piles of verbal abuse heaped upon the Mayor and various of his cronies in city government.

A few nuggets of 24k gold
Yet, buried in this Great Plains of text, are a few nuggets of what appear to be 24 karat gold, certain very specific allegations of wrongdoing which, according to one local criminal attorney who requested anonymity, "if true, would appear to violate a number of state laws, and possibly some federal laws including anti-racketeering statutes." 

There are also documents displayed on the NorthAdamsFree.com website, which documents the site operators say provide evidence that backs up certain of their allegations. Many of the documents have been obtained via requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

So far, Mayor Barrett has steadfastly denied all the allegations, and he has filed a complaint against the two site operators in state Superior Court alleging libel and slander. The case is scheduled for trial in the fall and the defendants have publicized their intention to produce witnesses and evidence not only to defend themselves, but to prove their allegations against the Mayor.

Those allegations include misuse of public funds, misuse of office, selective enforcement, extortion, and even abuse of children at a time when Mr. Barrett was 4th grade teacher at the local Johnson elementary school.

See no evil
Mr. Fanto was asked whether he thought there was any factual information or documentation contained within the NorthAdamsFree.com website which would warrant an investigation by Eagle reporters into the allegations of wrongdoing being made against the Mayor. Mr. Fanto replied, "Nothing! Not a one."

Hear no evil
Mr. Fanto was then asked whether reporters for The Berkshire Eagle had actually looked into any of the allegations being made against the Mayor by Mr. Davis and Mr. Choquette, especially given the seriousness of those allegations. Mr. Fanto replied no. He said that The Eagle was not going to give "credence" to unproven allegations by having its reporters look into rumors circulated by people "with an agenda." 

Contradicting Mr. Fanto's statement, sources within New England Newspapers, Inc., parent company of both The Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript, have told BerkshireEagleDotNetwork that NENI employees have indeed investigated certain of the allegations made on the NorthAdamsFree.com website against the city's mayor.

Speak no evil
But, according to these same NENI sources, who requested anonymity, editors at both The Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript have purposely refrained from publishing stories that might be harmful or embarrassing to the mayor and, of greater significance, have decided not to pursue fertile leads. The editors have let it be known in no uncertain terms that if any of their reporters file stories about political skullduggery in North Adams, they will soon find themselves reassigned to quieter beats.

Don't mention it
Mr. Fanto was next asked to comment about statements made off-the-record by NENI employees to BerkshireEagleDotNetwork to the effect that senior editors within both The Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript had instructed reporters to make no mention whatsoever in news stories about the existence of the independent BerkshireEagleDotNetwork website. Mr. Fanto denied that such an order was ever given to Berkshire Eagle personnel.

Mr. Fanto was explicitly frank on his view of the Internet medium and about the type of people who not only create websites, but also those who view them and rely upon them for information. At one point he stated that "Nobody looks at (BerkshireEagleDotNetwork, WAMC Northeast Pirate Network and BerkshireRecordDotCom)."

When asked whether he was sure of his facts, and his source as to the number of visitors to those websites, Mr. Fanto backtracked and imperiously intoned, "Well, nobody significant looks at them."

Mr. Fanto then questioned the veracity of any information that could be gotten off independent or alternative websites, websites not owned or operated by recognized media companies.

Mr. Fanto questioned the motives of those operating alternative websites and alluded to the personal agendas of site operators, even going so far as to question the mental fitness of those who would operate such sites.

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