Molokai Ranch should stop antagonizing the press

By Bree Ullman

At the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) meeting two weeks ago, I noticed Molokai Ranch CEO Peter Nicholas and his wife – both wearing green “Support the Plan, Support Molokai” buttons – standing at the edge of the crowd. I snapped a quick picture or two at a comfortable distance before Nicholas stormed over and demanded that I ask permission before photographing him. “You people are very rude,” he said. I was somewhat startled – though looking back, I probably shouldn’t have been.

The Molokai Ranch pulled its last remaining advertisement from The Molokai Dispatch two weeks ago, and several sources have said that the ranch’s community affairs manager, John Sabas, has been badmouthing the newspaper at events such as meetings of the Chamber of Commerce. My last phone conversation with Nicholas went something like this.

Nicholas: Hello?

Dispatch: Hi, this is Bree from the Molokai Dispatch. I was just wondering if you would like to comment on–

Nicholas: *Click*

Cell phones on Molokai are notoriously unreliable, so I can’t prove that the man is so brazen as to actually hang up on a local reporter. But considering the fact that he has not returned a single one of my phone calls since I arrived on Molokai in July, the odds are not in his favor.

I sometimes try to sympathize with the ranch’s plight. If my job was to save the last U.S. outpost of a multi-billion dollar foreign corporation by developing luxury estates on the last bastion of authentic Hawaii, I’d probably be pretty stressed out.

Add a “No to La`au” sign on nearly every home on the highway, a media center who tapes every one of your public input meetings turned anti-development rallies and an army of feisty Hawaiian activists thwarting your every move, and you have the ingredients for one hell of a bad mood.

That aside, it is simply bad business to antagonize the press. Secrecy and general hostility usually come back to haunt you. Let me backtrack for a moment. The ranch insists that the Dispatch’s reporting of the La`au Point controversy has been “biased” or “unbalanced.” The word “bias” implies that my articles are guided by some preconceived opinion on the issue, rather than by the facts at hand.

I arrived on Molokai with a clean slate regarding the ranch’s Master Plan, and I still have less of a dog in this fight than almost anyone here. I am neither hunter nor fisher and I’m fairly certain that it is not my ancestors that are buried in La`au lands. I’m not even a permanent resident.

I do, however, have a keen eye for injustice, and what I saw at the social impact meeting (held my first week on the island) put me on immediate alert. How can a plan be community-based if a large portion of the community would feel immeasurable losses from its execution?

Say what you will about the merits of the Master Plan, but the strength of the opposition is real. That is not a matter of bias – it’s reality.

Shortly after I arrived on the island, I conducted a brief survey to test the accuracy of the ranch’s “silent majority” claim. Out of 100 randomly selected respondents, only 14 said they could support a master plan which included the development of La`au Point. While I do not claim to be a professional pollster, 100 is not a bad sample on an island of only 8,000. And even if support for the plan were twice as high as my numbers indicated, the community-based label would still raise a red flag.

Who counts as community? Whose voice carries weight? Did the committees who developed the plan truly represent the wishes of Molokai, or were other interests at play? Why weren’t the committees elected? And how many of the famed 1,000 community members who worked on the master plan supported it in its final form?

I don’t know the answers to all of these questions yet, but they are questions that as a reporter I have a duty to ask. Nothing boils a reporter’s blood like being told how they should or shouldn’t report a story – and that is exactly what the ranch and some of its supporters are attempting to do.

On my first visit to Molokai Enterprise Community an administrator asked me if I would consider submitting drafts of my articles for their review and corrections. At a more or less private meeting of “consulted parties” (that I was alerted to by a friend), Sabas specifically asked reporters to “highlight the fact that this is an unprecedented step in opening up to the community.” He noted that he was pleased the media could make it.

Excuse me, but I don’t remember being invited. Neither was the island media notified of the State Land Use Commission meeting held out of the public eye in Hilo on May 4 or the recent hush-hush helicopter visit of Malaysian billionaire Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan, who is chairman of the ranch’s parent corporation, BIL International.

If the ranch wants to work with the community – if the public interest is of any importance at all – then the free press should be the company’s greatest ally, not its worst nightmare.

The notion of “balance” in reporting is an odd one because it implies that everything is a matter of opinion – that the truth is impossible to unearth.

If 350 people show up at a meeting to protest the ranch’s master plan and 80 show up to support it, should we crop the photo of the protesters so as to maintain “balance” in the paper? If we receive eight letters to the editor against La`au Point development and one letter in favor, should we only print one of each to even out the opinions page? A newspaper’s kuleana is not to level the playing field. Our kuleana is to tell the truth.

If Molokai Ranch would like reporters to stop exposing them in an unflattering light, then perhaps they should stop digging their own grave.

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