Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Will a correction finally sideline the Times's "Downtown Brooklyn" mistake?

The Atlantic Yards project would be located near Downtown Brooklyn in Prospect Heights, but developer Forest City Ratner has from the beginning described the project as being located in Downtown Brooklyn: Frank Gehry, internationally acclaimed architect, unveils vision for world-class basketball arena and mixed-use complex for downtown Brooklyn.

Since then, the company has regularly used the term "Downtown Brooklyn," as have public officials and often the press. For example, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, in his testimony at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing, referred to "the Atlantic Yards project in Downtown Brooklyn." His biographical sketch says that "Marty conceived the idea of moving the team from New Jersey to a new Downtown arena at Atlantic Yards."

Also, FCR touts the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning (which does not encompass the Atlantic Yards footprint) as justification for the density sought in the new development. (The project would be located just below Atlantic Avenue, east of Flatbush Avenue, above.)

But there's a difference between downtown and a mostly low-rise neighborhood like Prospect Heights (where the Dean Street buildings at right in project footprint are slated for demolition). So the choice of language has a political implication, and numerous media outlets have used the inaccurate "Downtown Brooklyn" description. In my 9/1/05 report criticizing the New York Times, I pointed out dozens of such errors in the Times's coverage.

The Times: better but inconsistent

Has the Times improved its performance since my report? Yes, but it took months, and errors have persisted outside the Metro section. Just yesterday the "Downtown Brooklyn" description appeared in a Sports section article. Apparently, the Sports desk didn't get the memo--there actually is a memo, a stylesheet of "factual pitfalls" created by the Metro desk, as noted below.

The Times now more often uses the "near Downtown Brooklyn" term, but the newspaper has never published a correction. Instead, the use of the correct term represents 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."

But the Times has published so many errors--and enough recent ones, including the one yesterday--that a correction is overdue. Maybe that will put the entire staff on notice.

Remember, 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

Going to the sources

Before looking at the Times's record of coverage, note that, despite Forest City Ratner's definition, other sources locate the Atlantic Yards footprint outside Downtown Brooklyn. The Department of City Planning, which produced the map at right, describes Downtown Brooklyn as "generally bounded by Tillary Street to the north, Ashland Place to the east, Atlantic Center and Schermerhorn Street to the south, and Court Street to the west." On the map at right, the dotted lines encompass the area to be rezoned. The Atlantic Terminal mall appears in the southeast corner, with the Atlantic Center mall (not pictured) just to the east. Note that the two malls, both on the north side of Atlantic Avenue, would be across Atlantic Avenue north of the Atlantic Yards site, and that the far southeast tip of the rezoning was eventually taken out of the Downtown Brooklyn plan because it's in the Atlantic Yards footprint.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation, in a presentation called "Betting on Brooklyn" issued 12/9/04 (a year after the Atlantic Yards project was unveiled), treats Flatbush Avenue as the eastern boundary of Downtown Brooklyn (see p. 11).

An authoritative book, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn, published in 2004, describes the Atlantic Center Mall as being in Fort Greene and says that the western border of Prospect Heights is Flatbush Avenue and the northern border Atlantic Avenue. And the Times itself, in a 12/18/05 Real Estate section profile of Prospect Heights, mapped out the neighborhood in the graphic at right.

Several government entities have avoided using the term "Downtown Brooklyn." The Independent Budget Office, in its 9/05 report, Atlantic Yards: A Net Fiscal Benefit for the City?, describes "Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards area" and a "development [that] borders the neighborhoods of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, and Park Slope."

The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the rezoning for Downtown Brooklyn Development, issued in April 2004, doesn't use the term Downtown Brooklyn to describe the site for the Atlantic Yards project. Rather, on p. S-14 of the Executive Summary it calls the location "the Atlantic Terminal neighborhood." (More on ATURA.) The May 2005 Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Blueprint describes the Atlantic Yards project as in "the Atlantic Terminal/Atlantic Yards Area." The Empire State Development Corporation's Draft Scope of Analysis for an Environmental Impact Statement also locates the project "in the Atlantic Terminal area of Brooklyn," as does the Final Scope.

Recent errors, and precision

Since the publication of my report, the Times's description of the site location has been inconsistent, as the "Downtown Brooklyn" description has continued, but it has improved significantly in the Metro section, which now uses the term "near Downtown Brooklyn."

9/3/05: The publication is paid for by Forest City Ratner, the company promoting a proposed $3.5 billion arena project for downtown Brooklyn, and most of the articles, well, promote a proposed $3.5 billion arena project for downtown Brooklyn.--Builder's Publication Supports Brooklyn Arena, Metro section

10/14/05: In the two years since he announced his ambitious Atlantic Yards development in downtown Brooklyn--from To Build Arena in Brooklyn, Developer First Builds Bridges, Metro section

10/19/05: Opponents, many of whom said they lived at or near the project site - near Downtown Brooklyn at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues--The People Speak (Shout, Actually) on Brooklyn Arena Project, Metro section

12/16/05: Another Step for Downtown Brooklyn Project--headline on Metro section article

1/15/06: Since Brooklyn is already roaring with controversy over new developments, including a planned Ikea and a Fairway in Red Hook and the Atlantic Yards project downtown--City Weekly section, A Desire Named Streetcar

1/19/06: "You should know that we have prepared a style sheet covering some of the factual pitfalls in covering this controversy, and your efforts have been most helpful in that regard."--New York Times Deputy Metro Editor Patrick LaForge, in an email to me

2/15/06: The project, which would rise over a railyard and adjacent land off Flatbush Avenue near Downtown Brooklyn--Demolition Can Proceed for Brooklyn Arena Project, Metro section

2/19/06: The Nets are playing in an arena surrounded by new parking garages for an amusement park that will be built before they split for downtown Brooklyn.--While Nets Are Headed East, Knicks Are Going South, Sports section column

3/9/06: The first visible change to the site of the proposed $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards development near Downtown Brooklyn--The First Sign of a Brooklyn Development Is a Demolition, Metro section

4/10/06: When Bruce Ratner first announced plans to build Atlantic Yards, a vast residential, office and arena project on 22 acres near Downtown Brooklyn-- Forced to Move, Some Find Greener Grass, Metro section

4/11/06: The Nets can't leave the Meadowlands soon enough for what they believe will be the friendlier financial confines of downtown Brooklyn.--Nets' Chances Look Good; Books Don't, Sports section column

Previous performance

Chapter 11 of my 9/1/05 report cites numerous errors over two years, from the summer of 2003 through the summer of 2005, along with occasional correct descriptions:

Between 8/8/03 and 12/23/03, 14 of 36 Times articles that mentioned Bruce Ratner and his effort to buy the Nets, most of which were in the Sports section, incorrectly located the project in “Downtown Brooklyn.” The most substantial story contained an accurate description (A Grand Plan in Brooklyn For the Nets’ Arena Complex, 12/11/03): a Frank Gehry-designed arena for the Nets basketball team near Downtown Brooklyn.

However, the following 14 articles incorrectly used the term “downtown”: YankeeNets Unravels, And Teams May Move, 8/8/03; 2 Investment Banks Asked to Help in Nets Sale, 9/16/03; New Bids for the Nets Are Due on Monday, 11/8/03; 4 Bids Entered to Buy Nets From YankeeNets, 11/11/03; A YankeeNets Split Is Not a Simple, Straightforward Transaction, 11/13/03; 4 Bids for Nets to Be Reviewed, 11/19/03; Delay in YankeeNets Breakup Makes Bidders for Nets Wait, 11/20/03; How the Nets Won The Right to Move, 11/25/03; Islanders Owner Withdraws Bid to Buy the Nets, 12/5/03; An Outline Is Approved For the Sale of the Nets, 12/9/03; Wooing Nets, McGreevey Plans Rail Spur to Meadowlands, 12/11/03; Port Authority Budget Is Approved on Schedule, 12/12/03; Developer Wants His Project, And Buying Nets Hinges on It, 12/12/03; BAT AND BALL; A TRAIN TO THE NETS?, 12/14/03

The errors continued in 2004. A front-page story repeated the geographical
mistake (Nets Are Sold for $300 Million, And Dream Grows in Brooklyn, 1/22/04): Bruce C. Ratner, the developer who wants to move the New Jersey Nets to downtown Brooklyn

Another Sports section story also erred (Ratner’s Path To Buy Nets Had Pitfalls
And Promise, 1/25/04): Ratner’s pursuit of the Nets began 14 months ago, long before he put the team and a proposed arena at the center of Atlantic Yards, a $2.5 billion commercial and residential complex in downtown Brooklyn.

One City Weekly section article sited the arena in Downtown Brooklyn and neglected to mention that the rest of the project extends into other neighborhoods (NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN; To Some, the Nets Are a Slam Dunk, to Others a Technical Foul, 1/25/04): …will bring a 19,000-seat arena and other improvements to Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Downtown Brooklyn.

A letter unheeded

The Times even printed a letter informing the paper of the correct location and neighborhood name (Proposed Arena: Location, Location, 2/15/04): Prospect Heights residents consider the site of this arena for the New Jersey Nets not Downtown Brooklyn but Prospect Heights. That’s where Bruce Ratner plans to destroy homes and businesses. Ours is a residential not a business district.

Is the location of the proposed project simply a matter of opinion, or can the facts be established? Though the Times published the instructive letter, the paper has not consistently heeded the letter writer’s admonition.

Indeed, a Sports section story less than two weeks later got the location wrong (Move Looms, but Nets Fans Aren’t Ready to Let Go Just Yet, 2/28/04): Bruce C. Ratner, who wants to make the Nets the centerpiece of a downtown Brooklyn development…

A subsequent article was more accurate (Arena Developer Rethinking Condemnation of Houses, 5/5/04): The proposed development, which would bring a Frank Gehry–designed arena along with 4,500 residential units and four office towers to the crossroads of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn

A City Weekly section editorial got it right (The Brooklyn Nets, 7/4/04): A basketball arena near downtown Brooklyn

A sports column got it wrong (Nets’ Future Is an Arena In Brooklyn, 7/20/04):
Some people believe that all Ratner wants from the Nets is an arena in downtown Brooklyn, surrounded by apartment buildings.

A brief article got it wrong (Developer Vows To Benefit Community, 10/8/04): the large project [Ratner] wants to build in downtown Brooklyn, which includes a new arena for the Nets, housing and commercial space.

Another article got it wrong (What the Teams Want And What the City Gets, 1/16/05): on a 21-acre site in downtown Brooklyn.

An editorial in the national edition repeated the error (A Triple Play for New York Teams, 3/27/05): a Frank Gehry–designed arena in downtown Brooklyn

A news story repeated the error (Miller Backs $3.5 Billion Plan For Brooklyn
Sports Complex, 6/5/05): City Council Speaker Gifford Miller announced his support yesterday for a $3.5 billion arena, office, and apartment complex in Downtown Brooklyn, giving the developer Bruce Ratner a key ally in his push for city approval of the project.

Occasional accuracy

When new Frank Gehry designs were released, a front-page story was more accurate (Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan, 7/5/05): a new Nets arena east of Downtown Brooklyn…

A follow-up article also was accurate (Brooklynites Take In a Big Development
Plan, and Speak Up, 7/6/05): a proposed Nets arena east of Downtown Brooklyn

An article the next day was close, but still wrong (Brooklyn Plan Draws a Rival,
And It’s Smaller, 7/7/05): ... Ratner’s ambitious plan to create a dense urban hub at the eastern edge of Downtown Brooklyn.

The Times repeated its general mistake in a City Weekly section editorial a few days later (Skyscrapers Grow in Brooklyn, 7/10/05): Reports that there are now competing bids to develop Brooklyn’s downtown

A headline on a letter responding to that editorial got it wrong (A Plan for
Skyscrapers In Downtown Brooklyn, 7/17/05). The error was repeated later that month (Rival Bid Tops Ratner’s Offer To Develop Brooklyn Site, 7/23/05): …a $150 million cash offer for development rights at the Atlantic railyard in Downtown Brooklyn

The error was repeated a few days later (M.T.A. to Deal Only With Ratner on
Brooklyn Bid, 7/28/05): the rights to build an arena for the Nets and office and residential buildings over a railyard in Downtown Brooklyn.
[This is a variant of the open railyard error.]

Another article that day repeated the error (M.T.A. Announces Big Surplus,
With New Plan for West Side Site, 7/28/05): at another railyard it owns in Downtown Brooklyn.

A columnist, in a casual aside, continued the error (Foreign Policy? Just Get Tips From the Cabby, 8/5/05): For instance, he [U.N. Ambassador John Bolton] might want to get together with the developer Bruce C. Ratner and also with critics of Mr. Ratner’s plan to build a sports arena in Downtown Brooklyn alongside skyscrapers that may rise 60 stories.

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