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To the NY Times Public Editor: examine the 8% AY cutback

[Update: I got a late-morning response from Public Editor Byron Calame that reminded me that he deals with complaints only after readers are dissatisfied with responses from the editors who handled the story. I responded that I had already informed the editors of the overlooked information.]

Dear Mr. Calame:

The Times has failed to report on new information that essentially demolishes the premise of the lead story published September 5.


On that day, the lead story—the most important piece of news in the world for a day—was headlined “Developer Is Said To Plan Cutback In Yards Project.” The deck said: “A Response To Criticism.”

The article, which suggested that developer Forest City Ratner would cut the proposed Atlantic Yards project by six to eight percent, was irresponsible in its execution and thus in its placement.

The article omitted a salient piece of information: the reduction contemplated would bring the project’s size, in square footage, back to the amount announced in December 2003. In other words, the developer increased the size of the project only to reduce it and to appear to be making concessions.

Had that context been included, editors and reporters might have thought twice about the news value of the article. And they might have been reluctant to suggest that the move was a “response to criticism.” An appropriately analytical deck might have read: “Response or Tactic?” [Update: I originally suggested "Criticism or Tactic?"]

Day-after context

Indeed, coverage in other media the next day demolished the premise, offering context for the cutback. The Times reported that the cutback might be considered a tactic, quoting planner Ron Shiffman, who said, “With practically every large development project, people ask for far more than they need.”

Other publications, such as Metro, pointed out that the cutback would only bring the project back to square one.

City Planning's "recommendations"

The story continued. On September 25, the City Planning Commission “recommended” that rumored eight percent scaleback; the next day, the dailies, including the Times, failed to explain that the reduction would restore the project to square one. The Times headlined its story "City Planners Recommend 8% Reduction in Atlantic Yards."

Only in coverage September 28, after the developer “accepted” the recommendation did the Times offer the crucial context: “Moreover, the new reduction only brings the project back to the original size proposed in 2003.”

"Precooked"

The Times's September 26 coverage of the City Planning Commission suggested some of the tactics:
As one executive who works with Forest City put it, “A lot of this was precooked.” Critics and supporters had long anticipated that Forest City would make cuts in the project in order to make it more politically palatable.

But were those actual cuts? The fact that they would restore the project only to its original size was one red flag.

Damning evidence

Now there's another. A document I obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request from the Department of City Planning shows that most of the proposed cuts had been on the table since January, in an option (20B) presented by the developer and architect Frank Gehry.

Now that we know the developer had already prepared for such cuts, the front-page story on September 5 could not have been describing a “response to criticism.” Nor did city planners, as the September 26 headline suggests, actually "recommend" much that the developer was not prepared to accept.

This new information deserves follow-up coverage. (The New York Observer and two Brooklyn weeklies have cited it.) The Times has failed, however, to offer it. As former Public Editor Daniel Okrent wrote (All the News That's Fit to Print? Or Just Our News? 2/1/04):
If the goal of newspapering is to inform the readers and create a historical record, shouldn't the editors be telling us about everything they think is important, no matter where they find it?

Enshrining myth

In the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) issued November 15 and reissued November 27, the Empire State Development Corporation told (p. 42) citizens who complained that the project was too big that “the project has been modified in response to recommendations by the City Planning Commission."

It’s the job of the press, including the Times, to tell the public that those recommendations were in large part preordained by Forest City Ratner rather than developed by the City Planning Commission in response to criticism.

And if the Times doesn’t do its job, you should do yours.

I don’t attribute the Times’s miscues to the parent company’s business relationship with Forest City Ratner. However, as I’ve argued, the Times has a special obligation to be exacting in its coverage of its business partner. It has not done so.

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