Monday, March 13, 2006

Atlantic Yards site = open railyard? The Times plays dumb (again)

Last Friday I detailed the New York Times's resistance to correcting its description of the state overide of city zoning as "rezoning."

Today I examine two variations of another error that the Times has refused to correct: describing the Atlantic Yards site as an "open railyard" (even though little more than a third of the site would be a railyard) and stating that the project would be built "on the... railyards" (rather than on and around the railyards).

The Times's resistance is particularly disturbing because, after I sent the initial correction requests, the Times published another variation of the error in December. It then printed a correction, but refused to correct the earlier errors.

The errors redound to the benefit of project supporters and developer Forest City Ratner (FCR), which, in an October 2004 flier sent to thousands of Brooklynites, described the project as:
"Built over the 19th Century train yard at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues." 
It's in their interest to minimize the fact that the 22-acre site is a mix of housing, businesses, industrial buildings, vacant lots, and city streets, all of which must be acquired by or conveyed to the developer before the project can commence.

Why it helps

After all, if the site were really an "open railyard," there would be no lawsuit over the developer's plans to demolish five properties within the site footprint, and the Times wouldn't have run a 3/9/06 article headlined The First Sign of a Brooklyn Development Is a Demolition, and the photo above.

Similarly, the Times's rezoning description redounds to the benefit of project supporters. [Not much, comments a reader. Well, these aren't the biggest issues in the Atlantic Yards controversy, but corrections in the Times can shape public perception and keep other media outlets from making similar errors.]

I have no belief that the Times's resistance is connected to its parent company's partnership with FCR in building the Times Tower. The explanation is more likely intransigence in the face of a persistent critic or the professional tendency to resist admitting error. However, as I've stated before, given the business relationship, the Times has an obligation to be exacting in its coverage--and it has not done so.

The explanations and responses I've received from Times editors, as well as the independently-appointed Public Editor Byron Calame, have been evasive, defensive, and even inaccurate.

An "open railyard"?

In my report, I pointed out that then-architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, in his 12/11/03 assessment upon the announcement of the Atlantic Yards plan ("Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden"), wrote:
The six-block site is adjacent to Atlantic Terminal, where the Long Island Rail Road and nine subway lines converge. It is now an open railyard.

Map from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn
The site is not an open railyard--the railyard at issue, located between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street, would be only 8.3 [actually 8.5] acres of a 22-acre site [21 acres when Muschamp was writing].

What if the critic had actually walked around the site? At minimum, he wouldn't have called it an open railyard, and he might have started musing on how the project might--or might not--fit into the existing urban fabric.

And shouldn't Muschamp have been extra careful in writing about a Forest City Ratner project, given that he joined FCR executives on a committee that chose the architect for the Times Tower project? (See Chapter 14 of my report.)

He didn't disclose that relationship, nor did he include the now-standard disclosure that the Times Company and FCR are business parters. (Such disclosure was included in current architecture critic Nikolai Ouroussoff's 7/5/05 essay on a revision of the project.)

"On the... railyards"

The mistake was repeated, in different form, in an 11/13/05 City Weekly section op-ed by guest contributor John Manbeck (“The Project that Ate Brooklyn”), who described Forest City Ratner Companies' plan "to build a sports arena surrounded by 17 imposing high-rise buildings on the Atlantic Avenue railyards."

This mischaracterization of the site obscures the need to acquire private homes and businesses (as in the photo at right), convey city streets, and exercise eminent domain to assemble the site.

Political supporters of the project have also made the error. For example, a 6/27/05 mayoral press release described "the proposed Atlantic Yards project over the Long Island Rail Yards at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn."

Asking for corrections

Shortly after Manbeck's piece was published, I sent a correction request regarding both the Muschamp and Manbeck pieces to the general Times email address assigned to corrections. I heard nothing.

I later wrote Public Editor Calame and, as I describe below, he opined that no corrections were necessary.

A month later, I decided to try again. I wrote Assistant Managing Editor Allan Siegal, and received an auto-reply that he was out of the office. Then I wrote to Senior Editor Bill Borders, the newspaper’s corrections czar in Siegal’s absence. (I had met Borders briefly in the past two years because of mutual service to our college newspaper alumni organization.)

He responded cordially on 12/16/05, writing in part:
On Atlantic Yards, my colleagues and I respect your knowledge of the project, and we welcome your scrutiny of our coverage.
The article by John Manbeck was an opinion piece, designed to have a point of view. Moreover, as an Op-Ed article it is specifically outside the purview of the news department. It comes under the jurisdiction of Andy Rosenthal, the deputy editorial page editor, and David Shipley, who edits the Op-Ed Page. I will share your concerns about it with them.
As for descriptions of the project that are in the news columns, we have corrected them when they were factually wrong. And although I welcome your judgments on matters of nuance and interpretation that go beyond simple fact, we won't always agree on them.


The error recurs, and is corrected

Map from NY Times
However, two days later, the Times printed another variant of the error, in a 12/18/05 Real Estate section article, Living In: Prospect Heights, headlined "A Neighborhood Comes Into Its Own." The article described the plans of the developer Bruce Ratner to build a sizable complex of shopping, offices, housing and a Frank Gehry-designed arena for his New York Nets over the railyards on Atlantic Avenue.

I pointed out the error in an email to Borders that day:
I understand that there may be differing judgments "on matters of nuance and interpretation that go beyond simple fact." But the facts are clear. Either the project is coterminous with the railyard or it isn't.
Stating (whether it be in a news story, review, or column) that it is "on the railyard" because *part of it* is on the railyard is misleading and should be corrected. It is neither an interpretation nor a point of view to say that the project would be built "on the railyard;" rather, it is a sloppy and misleading shorthand. (As noted, a concise solution would be to say "on and around the railyard.") It is somewhat like saying that someone 6'6" is "five feet tall" because those five feet are contained within his total height.
And, as explained in my earlier message, because the 22-acre project would occupy much more land than the 8.3-acre railyard, it requires the purchase of private property, the conveyance of city streets, and, quite likely, a significant eminent domain battle. I should add that the competing bid by the Extell Development Co. for the railyard, announced in July, was in fact for a project that would be coterminous with the railyard. With Atlantic Yards, the arena itself would be built only partly on the railyard and partly on what is now an adjacent street.


A week later, in the 12/25/05 Real Estate section, the Times corrected the error: The "Living In ..." article last Sunday, about Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, referred imprecisely to a proposal by Bruce C. Ratner to build a nearby complex of shops, offices, housing and a basketball arena. It would indeed be built over the Atlantic Avenue railyards, but also on adjacent land now occupied by residences and businesses.

Another appeal

So I wrote back to Borders on 12/27/05, contending that, to be consistent, corrections should be printed for the essentially similar errors that appeared in Manbeck's op-ed and Muschamp's essay.

Borders, in one email, responded that you have made a lot of good points and led us to valid corrections, like the one we published in the Real Estate section the day before yesterday.

In another, however, he reminded me that the responsibility for Manbeck’s op-ed was outside his scope. He continued:
As for your suggestion that we retrospectively correct the Muschamp piece of two years ago, it seems to me, as I explained to you the last time you asked me about it, that it is kind of dancing off the head of a pin for us to correct an interpretation in a two-year-old esthetic essay about an ever-changing target like this one.

Fact or interpretation?

I responded on 1/18/06:
When it comes to the correction at hand, it regards neither an interpretation nor an “ever-changing target.” Yes, the proposal has evolved, but the essential nature of the footprint--once 21 acres (including an 8.3-acre railyard) and now 22 acres—remains the same. It was never “an open railyard,” as Muschamp wrote. It remains a plot of land that would extend significantly beyond the railyard, including city streets, homes, and businesses. This is a question of fact, not interpretation. It deserves correction, not matter how delayed, just as if Muschamp had, in his esthetic essay, located the site in Queens rather than in Brooklyn.

Borders replied the same day:
I don't know quite what to say. We simply disagree. You are not saying anything here that you have not said before. Neither am I. I don't mean to seem peremptory or arrogant about the Muschamp piece, but there we are.

But there shouldn't be a disagreement about facts. Either the footprint (which includes the building above, at 585-601 Dean Street) is an open railyard, or it's not. As Public Editor Calame wrote in his 9/25/05 column, about a mischaracterization of Geraldo Rivera:
Based on the videotape and outtakes I saw, [Times TV critic] Ms. [Alessandra] Stanley certainly would have been entitled to opine that Mr. Rivera's actions were showboating or pushy. But a "nudge" is a fact, not an opinion. And even critics need to keep facts distinct from opinions.

And the Times has published delayed corrections. On 2/1/06, the following correction appeared:
A front-page article on Aug. 24, 2002, about the importance of the New York Democratic primary for lieutenant governor to the party's candidates for governor that year referred incorrectly to the political career of Charlie King, a candidate for lieutenant governor....

Dealing with the editorial desk

Site plan from Empire State Development Corp. Draft Scope of Analysis
In his initial 12/16/05 note to me, Borders indicated that he had passed along my concerns about Manbeck’s op-ed.

I wrote to Op-Ed page editor David Shipley on 1/1/06 to follow up, pointing out that, a week previously, the Times had run a similar correction in the Real Estate section.

Note that the railyard extends only one block below Atlantic Avenue, but the project, in about two-thirds of the footprint, would extend two blocks south. The the segment of the footprint west of Flatbush Avenue is known as Site 5 and currently contains two retail outlets, not a railyard.)

Shipley responded on 1/3/06:
We ran a correction about the square footage and the number of buildings on 11/20/05. I'm afraid I disagree with you regarding the railyards -- for Mr. Manbeck to say that the project was on the railyards does not exclude the possibility that it could overflow them.

I replied the next day:
I'm not sure how to square your reasoning--"that the project was on the railyards does not exclude the possibility that it could overflow them"--with the 12/25/05 correction the Times printed in the Real Estate section. That correction acknowledged that a similar description--that the project would be "over the railyards"--was insufficient. If you can explain the distinction, please let me know.

Balkanization of corrections

He wrote back on 1/10/06:
Real estate and Op-Ed are different departments. They do their corrections and we do ours. The phrase in question, as I explained earlier, seems to me to be a question of interpretation: for Mr. Manbeck to state that the project was on the railyards does not exclude the possibility that it could overflow them.

I responded the next day:
I disagree, but without an arbiter of some sort further debate seems fruitless.
I'll just suggest that, if you ever find yourself in the area of the proposed project, take a walk around. You'll see firsthand the rather irregular nature of the "overflow," which would cross the rather wide Flatbush Avenue, among other boundaries. Footprint map is here.
(Photo shows Site 5, current home of P.C. Richard and Modells, across Flatbush Avenue, in the background.)

He responded: Thank you for your note. I will indeed.

So there you have it. I could imagine an editor defending the concept of "overflow" if the project were to go a few feet, or even a few dozen feet, past the railyard. But across Flatbush Avenue? And after that correction in the Real Estate section that acknowledged the same error?

Consulting the Public Editor

Calame photo from NY Times
Who’s supposed to be the arbiter of such disputes? The Public Editor, Byron Calame. But I didn’t bother, because he had already dismissed my concerns, using reasoning as strained as Shipley’s.

In third week of November, I sent him a copy of my 11/21/05 post requesting a correction in Manbeck's op-ed. As I wrote:
Commentator John Manbeck described Forest City Ratner Companies' plan "to build a sports arena surrounded by 17 imposing high-rise buildings on the Atlantic Avenue railyards."
The railyard constitutes only a little more than a third of the proposed 22-acre project site. Also, Manbeck's description could lead to the conclusion that the developer's purchase of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority land precludes any need for further negotiation with other property owners and the use of eminent domain.
A more precise yet still concise description could have been "on and around the Atlantic Avenue railyards."


Calame's response, in a 11/22/05 email, misread my request, because I never said the sports arena was "on the railyard site." He wrote:
I think your request for a correction about only the sports arena being on the railyard site is a fairly close call. But I don't think a correction is warranted.
The opinion component of op-ed articles entitles them to some leeway to which news articles aren't entitled. Also, I think the sentence can be read as communicating that the sports arena is being built on the railyards, with 17 high-rise apartment buildings surrounding it.


Leeway in opinion?

First, consider his contention that "[t]he opinion component of op-ed articles entitles them to some leeway to which news articles aren't entitled." In his 9/2/05 Web Journal criticizing New York Times columnists for not being forthright about corrections, Calame wrote:
Opinions expressed on the editorial and Op-Ed pages of The New York Times aren’t part of the public editor’s mandate. But the facts are. And so are corrections of any misstatements.

Calame seems to have contradicted himself. Manbeck wasn’t expressing an opinion; he was describing the site factually. And, as noted above, in his 9/25/05 column Calame wrote: And even critics need to keep facts distinct from opinions.

Instead I wrote back and asked Calame about the other correction requested in my initial post, regarding Muschamp's error.

Calame, in an 11/28/05 response, first asked to see copies of my previous correction requests and the responses I received (none). He observed that matters from 2003 get a lower priority than current issues, noting that both he and predecessor Daniel Okrent decided to focus on issues that arose during their tenure. (Calame began in mid-2005. Note that his column yesterday reviewed two years of coverage of the conservative movement.)

I replied that his basic policy was reasonable, but that any review of the Times's Atlantic Yards coverage would have to go back to 2003, given the controversy over the Times's performance.

The Public Editor punts

I sent him copies of my correction requests. Calame responded in an 11/29/05 email:
Thank you for sending copies of your two earlier requests for a correction of the Dec. 11, 2003, Muschamp article. I don't think they make a case for a correction.

So the Public Editor apparently believes that it's OK to describe a decidedly mixed neighborhood--the nearly six-block site proposed for Atlantic Yards--as "an open railyard"?

Or does he torture syntax and conclude that Atlantic Terminal is an open railyard? (It's not. It's a mall over a Long Island Railroad terminal and subway station, as well as the name for a larger urban renewal area. The railyard is called Vanderbilt Yard by the MTA.)

I don't know. In an 11/29/05 email, I requested that he supply his reasoning for denying the correction, noting that he had previously explained why he didn't think the Manbeck op-ed deserved a correction.

He didn’t respond.

Misdescribing the arena site

Finally, I took another look at the Public Editor's initial 11/22/05 email to me, noting that he had written:
Also, I think the sentence can be read as communicating that the sports arena is being built on the railyards, with 17 high-rise apartment buildings surrounding it.

I wrote to Calame on on 12/8/05:
In fact, the arena would be built only partly on the railyard. The railyard is located between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street, while the arena would spill over onto the area between Pacific and Dean streets. That's part of why the developer cannot confine the plan to property it has already purchased and quite likely will require the state to exercise eminent domain.

I asked if a correction was not in fact merited. I didn't hear back.

Corrections policy

In his first column, on 6/5/2005, The New Public Editor: Toward Greater Transparency, Calame reminded readers of his role: an outsider dedicated to representing readers and serving as a watchdog over the paper's journalistic integrity.

The Times's policy, according to its 2004 Ethical Journalism handbook, states:
The Times treats its readers as fairly and openly as possible. In print and online, we tell our readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.

Do "open railyard" and "on the... railyards" constitute "the complete, unvarnished truth"? I think Times editors, including Calame, should take this policy more seriously.

Another version of "rowback"

I noted Friday that the Times no longer describes the project as being located in Downtown Brooklyn, but has not published any correction regarding the multiple references to Downtown Brooklyn in past coverage.

This is a variant of "rowback," which former Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent described in his 3/14/04 column as "a way that a newspaper can cover its butt without admitting it was ever exposed."

The same goes for the railyards issue. Besides the examples mentioned above, I also found a 7/19/05 article (Sharpton Backs Developer's Plan For Brooklyn Arena and Towers), which erroneously stated: The Rev. Al Sharpton said yesterday that he was backing a plan by Bruce C. Ratner, the developer, to build a canyon of skyscrapers and an arena for the Nets over railyards near Downtown Brooklyn. (Emphasis added.)

Three articles limited the arena to the railyards, though it would spill beyond them, as noted in the graphic near the top of this article.
A 7/15/05 article (Arena Project For Brooklyn Wins Approval From M.T.A.) stated: Mr. Ratner's project includes plans to build the arena at the railyard....
A 3/4/05 article (Deal Is Signed for Nets Arena in Brooklyn) stated: Mr. Ratner... would build a $435 million, glass-enclosed arena designed by Frank Gehry on the railyards... 
A 5/5/04 article (Arena Developer Rethinking Condemnation of Houses) began: Building a glittering new Nets arena over the Atlantic Avenue railyards in Brooklyn...

Such descriptions no longer appear. On 2/15/06, Times Brooklyn beat reporter Nicholas Confessore carefully wrote that the project "would rise over a railyard and adjacent land off Flatbush Avenue near Downtown Brooklyn."

(Emphases added.)

Such precision is welcome, but the record should be corrected as well.

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