Wednesday, December 20, 2006

MIA: the New York Times editorial page on PACB vote

You’d think that, in the run-up to an expected Atlantic Yards vote today by the state Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), the city’s newspapers would have weighed in. Indeed, most have done so.

The Post and Daily News endorsed the project. (The Post did so again today.) The conservative Sun opposed Atlantic Yards and published an additional op-ed. The Courier-Life chain cheered on the project and published an op-ed likely ghostwritten by developer Forest City Ratner. The oft-critical Brooklyn Papers chain expressed opposition.

The city’s leading daily, the New York Times, has been silent.

Times in a bind?

I can only speculate about the reasons, but the Times may have been in a deadlock of sorts. The editorial page has generally supported the Atlantic Yards project, though it called, ineffectively and inconsistently, for the city and state not to provide direct subsidies for the project.

Most recently, in August, the page gently advised a possible 15 percent reduction in the project size and called for a longer period in review.

But it hasn’t questioned eminent domain—indeed, the Times is a beneficiary of eminent domain for the new headquarters the parent Times Company is building in partnership with Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner.

The publisher offers both explicit and indirect influence on the editorial page (though not on the newsroom). So, given that the Times Company agreed to guarantee a loan to the developer, it's not unreasonable to think that the publisher Arthur Sulzberger is rooting for Forest City Ratner’s general success, and that has filtered through to the editorial writers.

Facing reality

At the same time, the editorial writers must have read the recent news coverage, including beat reporter Nicholas Confessore’s tough questioning of Empire State Development Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano, whose pattern of misspeaking about eminent domain has undermined his credibility.

And they must have read coverage of the nearly half-billion dollar fall in the projected net revenues from the Atlantic Yards project, a nearly one-third decline that neither Gargano nor fellow board members saw fit to mention publicly.

Opinion options

So the Times could have added its voice to the chorus urging the PACB, notably Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, to vote a certain way. It could have acknowledged the qualms but said that the project deserved to proceed.

It could have joined some civic groups, good government bedfellows like the Citizens Union, in concluding that enough questions had been raised that the project should be stalled until the incoming administration of Governor Eliot Spitzer. (Let’s assume that the Times wouldn’t opine that enough questions have been raised to kill the project.)

Indeed, the Times could have echoed its editorial published Saturday, headlined When Doing Nothing Is Better, urging that other items on "lame duck" Governor George Pataki's "parting wish list" be denied:
It will certainly be a different political mix starting Jan. 1. But we always need our legislators to take the time to do their work carefully — and, we hope, more openly. So at this point, this do-nothing session in Albany turned out to be the right thing to do.

Absent from that editorial was Atlantic Yards. And absent from any editorial prior to the PACB vote was Atlantic Yards.

On a pressing issue of the day, the Times was silent.

Often a failure to cover a Brooklyn issue might be blamed on a limited newshole and a limited attention span in a newspaper that must cover a region, state, nation, and world.

In this case, there's likely much more to the story.

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