Last Friday, May 11, the Gazette published two op-eds about chambers of commerce.
The first, a letter to the editor written by “a group of residents of Amherst and surrounding communities, of Mexican and other Latin American descent, and allies” said that the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce [AACC] did not adequately apologize for a video they posted to advertise an event called “Margarita Madness.” The letter describes how the video depicted “non Mexican” board members of the AACC “portraying stereotypes of Mexicans.” The letter explains that “people of all backgrounds found it deeply troubling that local business leaders — not from Latin America of Latin American descent — used traditional cultural garb as costumes to promote an event centered on drinking alcohol.” Although the video was taken down and Chamber president, Peter Vickery, apologized for the offensive video, the letter states that “more is needed, including fuller indications that the Chamber understands what was problematic about what they posted.”
The second, an editorial written by the paper, was titled “Important role for chambers of commerce.” The piece praises various local chambers of commerce — Northampton, Amherst, South Hadley/Granby — for the role they play in helping to strengthen the local business community by hosting events for their members and for having “a strong voice as part of the town’s key decision-makers.” In other words, the political influence that they wield.
Northampton Chamber President Suzanne Beck is quoted in the editorial, saying, “Our real draw is we’re so focused on the well-being of the community as a whole.” I was surprised to read this quote given the Chamber’s recent approach to local issues like surveillance cameras and its role in the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling.
Four months before the public caught wind of Chief Kasper’s proposal to install police operated surveillance cameras for the downtown business district, Kasper met with the Downtown Northampton Association (DNA) — a self-proclaimed advocacy group, representing the likes of TD Bank, Coca-Cola, Smith College, and Thornes (among others) — to hear their concerns about “theft, shoplifting, and other crimes.” (For more, read our piece “Will Surveillance Cameras Stop Wage Theft?”) Further, Beck gave comment to City Council multiple times “on behalf of the greater Northampton Chambers of Commerce,” encouraging the council to vote against the anti-surveillance ordinance, and at one point even regurgitating Chief Kasper’s op-ed on the issue.
Likewise, DNA (which shares staff, resources, and an address — though separate bank accounts — with the Chamber) and the Chamber are members of the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling. The work group has functioned in secret because it is not subject to open meeting law. The work group has conducted two very problematic surveys about panhandling in Northampton. The first asked questions to people who seek assistance downtown, and the second was aimed at the greater Northampton population. Two city councilors, Alisa Klein (Ward 7) and Maureen Carney (Ward 1), went as far as to slam the work group’s second survey as “unscientific” and “misguided,” saying that it offered “paternalistic pseudo-solutions to deep societal issues.” The first survey (which was sometimes administered by police officers) offered $10 gift cards from the Downtown Northampton Association. And the Chamber promoted the second survey on their Facebook page.
Shoestring co-editor Blair Gimma and I met with Suzanne Beck to ask her about her belief that the chamber is supporting the community as a whole. She told us that instead of offering a positional response to downtown issues, the Chamber “places a higher value on introducing perspectives so there’s more balance on the polarized, often opposing viewpoints” that dominate the local civic discourse.
One of the more concerning aspects of the editorial from the Gazette is that it didn’t mention the paper’s involvement in the chambers of commerce. For starters, The Gazette’s publisher, Michael Rifanberg, sits on the board of the Northampton Chamber. The Gazette is also a “Silver Partner” of the Chamber, meaning they pay between $2,500-$5,000 in voluntary membership fees. The paper is also a member of the Amherst, Northampton, and Easthampton chambers.
The Shoestring reached out to Stan Moulton, the Gazette’s opinion editor, to get a comment. He suggested that Gazette’s membership and Rifanburg’s leadership role is a matter of public knowledge given that the information is listed on three different chambers’ websites and across at least three unique pages on the Northampton Chamber’s website.
The Shoestring also contacted Dan Kennedy, a journalism and media ethics professor at Northeastern University, to ask him if the Gazette should disclose any of this information regarding their relationship to various chambers of commerce. He said, “There’s nothing unusual or unfoward about a newspaper being an active part of the chamber of commerce or the publisher playing a leadership role. And I don’t think that relationship needs to be disclosed every time the paper reports on the chamber.” He added, “Sometimes, though, an issue rises to the level at which that relationship ought to be disclosed. It would have been a simple matter for the Gazette to include a note in the editorial that you’re writing about. I don’t think it’s a big deal, and my guess is that it probably didn’t occur to anyone at the Gazette. In the future, though, I hope they’ll be more transparent with their readers.”
At the end of the day, whether chambers of commerce are making racist ads or promoting policies specifically designed to target the most vulnerable members of our communities, according to the Gazette, they play a vital role in, as Beck put, the “collective benefit” they bring to the business community.