Categorized | Our Town

When a Story Gets Bigger Than its Britches

Posted on 16 March 2012

By Christine Bellini

Serendipity would have it, the very week Brian Boyhan, editor and publisher of this very newspaper, The Sag Harbor Express, asked me to write a column “on the media,” I was interviewed by “the media” in my capacity as neighbor and all-around opinion monger, on what my thoughts were concerning the Village Zoning Board’s ruling on “The Legs” erected as sculpture alongside a private residence on Henry Street.

“The Legs,” as they are euphemistically called, have become something of a news darling for neighboring weekly newspapers, the Long Island daily, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS’s Local internet and television programming.  Each presenting the debate over side yard variances, art verses architecture, and local predilection from their respective vantages points, I am reminded of the somewhat arbitrary nature of news-worthiness as it gets gobbled up by bigger fish down the pike.

My culturally-inspired, considered opinion aside, the manner by which I became a viable voice in opposition to the village ruling was one of sheer happenstance on both occasions. I happened to be walking by, as I am prone to take a brisk walk into the village as a way of breaking up my otherwise desk-bound work day.  The two media outlets represented ‘the town’ and ‘the city’ in approach, presentation and curiosity, holding true to form to their prescribed audiences.  The local weekly newspaper reporter was quick to take down my name and affiliations, credentials by which my opinion would be judged worthy for inclusion by the local reader. She asked me how long I have lived in the neighborhood and why I thought the village was taking the controversial stance of making the owners take them down.

The city-based television anchor was keen to secure a quick side shot of The Legs with a well-timed sound-bite to offset the other snippets they had gathered from passersby on Main Street and the sculpture’s owners who have been battling the village ruling for some time now.  Their coverage amounted to a more cheeky report on small town, big city thinking, the legacy of the artist Larry Rivers and “Hamptons” headline grabbing in an otherwise dull January news week.

Hence the curious feeding frenzy of news gluttony which resulted in endless articles appearing in rapid succession in Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, Curbed Hamptons, a cadre of local web outlets  and most recently, speaks to the nature of how local news becomes bigger news.  Let it be said the hometown media, represented by this newspaper and its neighboring weeklies, have amply constructed the crux of the debate and laid out the matters of precedence and zoning mandates which entangle The Legs in their controversy.  Yet, the further out from the debate, the more myopic the controversy appears.  One can almost imagine a New Yorker cover drawing of the Atlantic Ocean, The Legs, the Manhattan skyline and the Hollywood sign looming in the distance in a Saul Steinberg drawing.  Any good news person worth their salt knows all news is local if you can just connect the dots.

Which brings me around to a bigger question – when does media coverage become part of the story? When do the scales of overexposure tip a controversy, extrapolated by far away press coverage?  In this curious case of social climbing, the much larger issue of freedom of expression as it relates to home ownership comes to light. It is one thing to gain news prominence on the merits of local zoning restrictions and altogether another thing to gain news prominence on the merits of social and cultural association, ie:  The Legs to The Hamptons, Larry Rivers to The Contemporary Art Scene, Manhattan press to national news to Art News Worldwide.  In one fell swoop, Sag Harbor is now indelibly linked to the question of freedom of expression, which would have pleased Larry Rivers to no end.

Having said that, news from The Hamptons makes for curious news cycles, just ask Madonna about the time she had the misfortune of falling off her horse.

A former news editor, essay writer Christine Bellini is an editorial consultant who spends a good deal of her time pondering the cultural curiosities of The Hamptons from her Sag Harbor treehouse.

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