Wednesday, June 07, 2006

From hasty email to Sharpton denunciation: sorting through the flap

I’ve been trying to sort through the flap around the Daily News’s publication of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein’s intemperate racially-charged email comments.

Had both columnist Ben Smith and Goldstein been more careful, the controversy would have played out differently, and surely not escalated to Smith's Daily News story today, in which the Rev. Al Sharpton attacked three very different people: Goldstein, a sometimes hotheaded community activist; Nick Minucci, accused of uttering racial slurs and beating a black man; and David Yassky, a white candidate for Congress in a black majority district.

(I clarify and correct my own accounts at the end of this post.)

In the beginning

First, it’s worth noting, this all happened on May 26.

Goldstein was CC’d on an email between Smith and another Brooklynite, who had slugged the email a “private” response to Smith’s coverage of matters related to Brooklyn politics and Atlantic Yards. Because several people were CC’d, Smith responded that the email was no longer private. Goldstein, one of those CC’d, retorted:
well, its no longer private. now Ben, when are you going to start outting all the bull shit on the other side of the Atlantic Yards issue? or is their power too scary for you that you have to smack tireless activists while plundering astroturf groups and their wealthy white masters avoid your wicked barbs.

That wasn’t the last email. Goldstein followed up fairly quickly, and I’ll get to that below. But the term "no longer private," at least initially, meant "among more than two people," rather than a public statement.

Column coverage

Smith, in his column Monday, wrote:
The group is known for its own sometimes over-the-top rhetoric. Its main spokesman, Dan Goldstein, e-mailed me not long ago, describing his African-American opponents as tools of "their wealthy white masters."

Were Goldstein’s remarks offensive and intemperate? Surely. (He didn’t even aim for good spelling and grammar.)

Did Smith misquote Goldstein? No, if you narrowly consider that Goldstein did use the term “their wealthy white masters.”

Was Smith fair to Goldstein? Not fair enough. Reporters must use shorthand, but he should have included more clarity and context.

First, Goldstein's phrase “plundering astroturf groups” diverges from Smith's designation of “his African-American opponents.” For example, if some black political leaders are DDDB’s opponents, they certainly don’t qualify as “plundering astroturf groups.” Smith would have been closer if he had written “some African-American opponents” or, better, identified the opponents more specifically as "astroturf groups" that are largely-African American, or as Community Benefits Agreement signatories.

Over the top rhetoric

Is it fair to say that DDDB "is known for its own sometimes over-the-top rhetoric”? Well, the group is much better known for other things, but commenters on some blogs have pointed to a DDDB blog posting headlined "Senator Schumer Hates You," which certainly pushes the envelope. (It's in response to Sen. Chuck Schumer's disparagement of "self-appointed" critics of Borough President Marty Markowitz, and it has since been changed to the more reasonable "No, Senator, we want to grow - just not like this.") So Smith’s jab was defensible.

Was Goldstein’s intemperate email an example of the group’s over the top rhetoric? That’s tougher to argue. On the one hand, Goldstein should know that, when he’s in an email exchange with a reporter, he’s representing the group.

On the other, if Goldstein had been intending to speak on behalf of the group, he surely would have composed his thoughts rather than fired off an email.

Press release or conversation?

Moreover, the comment should have been considered in the context of the sequence of emails. Within 14 minutes, Goldstein had sent another two emails, and, in that third email, clarified that he was referring to BUILD and ACORN, he says. (Then again, as I’ve written, ACORN can’t be considered an astroturf group. And ACORN represents the poor, rather than a specific racial group.)

So: was Goldstein's email like a press release, an item that stands on its own? Or should it have been considered in the context of a conversation, with the other emails? In this case, I’d say it was more like the latter. Thus, Goldstein's identification of BUILD and ACORN, while not in his initial email, was relevant.

Still, if he was on the record, even calling two groups beholden to "wealthy white masters" was way out of line--and he has apologized.

What about the CBA?

Did Goldstein intend to issue a statement from DDDB regarding "wealthy white masters"? Had he wanted to do so, he would've had a week between that email exchange and Smith's column.

He was reacting, apparently, to the fact that the legitimacy of the Community Benefits Agreement has hardly been questioned in the press. There are significant differences between CBA signatories in Los Angeles that refuse funds from a developer and signatories in Brooklyn that accept a developer's support.

Clarifying my own accounts

In my initial article, I wrote that "Goldstein's racially-insensitive email comment about two Community Benefits Agreement signatories had morphed into a larger racial generalization." I should have been more precise and written that the comment was about "astroturf groups" or "astroturf groups, quickly identified in a followup email as two CBA signatories."

In my follow-up, I wrote that Smith had not referred to the two CBA signatories in his coverage today. Smith wrote on the Daily Politics:
The usually-reliable Oder elsewhere accuses me of misquoting Dan Goldstein, and failing to include the context that he was referring to two specific groups. I failed to note that because he didn't say it. You can see the email here.

Ok, as discussed above, it's unfair to describe it as a misquote, and I've deleted any implication of that. As for the context--Goldstein did say it, he just didn't say it in the initial email.

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