Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Times defends the front-page scaleback story, but then practices "rowback"

A month ago, on 11/29/06, I wrote an open letter to New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame, contending that the Times had failed to report on new information that essentially demolished the premise of the lead story about a "six to eight percent" Atlantic Yards cutback published September 5.

Calame wrote back, saying I should first complain directly to the newspaper. I did so, and got a response the next day from Deputy Metro Editor Patrick LaForge. I challenged the response and sent it to the Public Editor. Calame, responding five days later, found LaForge's response sufficient.

That was no surprise. Calame practices his own version of judicial deference, seeming to reflexively back the newspaper when I've questioned Atlantic Yards coverage. Could it be because he spent his career at the Wall Street Journal, where there's no metro desk? Or that he's too busy covering national news?

The Times's own coverage, however, suggests that they acknowledge the criticisms I made. Unlike in that front-page article, they've been careful to explain that the scaleback would only bring the size of the Atlantic Yards project back to square one.

But the damage had long been done.

The criticism

As I wrote on September 29, on Sept. 5, 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

I found another red flag. 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.

The Times's response

I got a timely but evasive response from LaForge, which I reprint in italics, followed by my verbatim rebuttal in my follow-up to Calame.

The public editor has forwarded your complaints about the Sept. 5 article on the Atlantic Yards project, which cited various sources who said that Forest City Ratner intended to respond to critics by scaling back the plan on the table, including a reduction in the height of "Miss Brooklyn." Those were newsworthy developments.
You questioned the front-page lead placement of the article, suggesting that the editors viewed this as "the most important piece of news in the world for a day." Actually, while this was important news, the article was not on the front page in editions distributed outside the metropolitan region.


I question its placement on the front-page locally, as well. And I question its placement as the lead story locally. (Several other people I spoke to, including people strenuously independent on the issue, questioned it as well.)

Other local news organizations agreed about its importance and followed up the next day, as you note.

That doesn't justify its placement. And, as even the Times's own coverage showed, they collectively undermined it. But the lead story placement suggested to the public that the cut was significant, and the article included insufficient context and skepticism.

The phrase in the headline that concerns you -- "A Response to Criticism" -- was accurate and appropriately neutral. Your suggestion -- "Criticism or Tactic" -- seems to reflect an opinion and would not have passed muster for style reasons not worth discussing.

"A Response to Criticism" was conclusory. Had the context been included, an alternate deck might have been devised. My suggestion was "Criticism or Tactic?", with a question mark. I recognize on reflection that that would've been syntactically and stylistically inappropriate, so "Response or Tactic?" would have been better--and no more of an opinion than "A Response to Criticism." Rather, it would have left open two interpretations of the move.

As for the suggestion that the article needed more context, it is always a judgment call how much background to include, given space constraints and the interest level of the general reader. Even so, this article explicitly reported that critics felt the developer's response was inadequate and took note of speculation that this was part of a long-planned public relations strategy. The article also said that "the size of the project swelled" over two years before the developer moved to scale it back.

Still, the headline(s) and the absence of precise context combine to suggest that the cut was significant, rather than a tactic. The story deserved far more modest placement and additional context.

Regarding the document that you mention, the editors and reporters have reviewed it and disagree that it "essentially demolishes the premise"of the article. Indeed, the project then on the table was later scaled back, as reported.

It demolishes the premise that it was a "response to criticism." Rather, the document shows that the developer had put the option on the table in January. But the Times and other news outlets reported that it was "recommended" by City Planning and "accepted" by the developer. Rather, it was orchestrated.

Over on our political blog, The Empire Zone, I did invite Atlantic Yards critics to post links, and you posted one about your commentary on this document, which I am sure was of interest to some readers.

My commentary included reporting of information of importance to this story. The information belongs in Times print coverage. My original criticisms stand.

The Public Editor responds

Calame wrote to me on 12/5/06:
I have reviewed your complaint about the response provided to you by Patrick LaForge regarding The Times's coverage of Atlantic Yards. I believe his answers to the questions you raised were responsive and reflected a fair consideration of the points you had made.

Calame's use of the term "complaint"--I used "criticism"--suggests that he may be helping deflect agitated readers rather than respond thoughtfully to a reporter who may have studied this topic more than anyone at the Times.

A bias toward scoops

Had Calame and LaForge been more candid, they could have acknowledged some other factors. First, given the dearth of big news on the Labor Day weekend, the threshold for front page placement was much lower.

Second, that a bias toward scoops--and the scaleback plan was one thanks to a leak from someone in City Planning and/or, more likely, Forest City Ratner--might lead to an emphasis on the scoop rather than an acknowledgment of counter-evidence that could move the story off the front page.

Indeed, Calame's 12/3/06 column, headlined Scoops, Impact or Glory: What Motivates Reporters?, almost contained an explanation for the article that I'd criticized.

Calame concluded that, while reporters are not motivated by bias, they are competitive:
The drive to be first with the basic facts of a newsworthy development remains embedded in the culture of newsrooms and in the minds of reporters.


That might explain why the reporters seized on the news that a reduction might be coming.

But there's more. Calame continued:
But “intellectual scoops” — stories with new insights that are lauded on a regular basis by Bill Keller, the executive editor — are what reporters increasingly view as a more vital way to be first. As one editor told me in an interview, “When you can look at all the dots everyone can look at, and be the first to connect them in a meaningful and convincing way, that’s something.”

Had the reporters on that story, Charles V. Bagli and Diane Cardwell, actually connected all the dots, it wouldn't have been a front-page story. Indeed, Calame continued:
The dangers to readers of a rush to be first are obvious. Accuracy can suffer, and a fresh insight can be left without the convincing example that another day of reporting could have produced.

That second day of reporting is what Nicholas Confessore offered in the follow-up, buried inside the Metro section, not on the front page. Indeed, Bagli and Cardwell had covered the Atlantic Yards issue rarely since Confessore was assigned to the Brooklyn bureau in October 2005.

Near the end of his essay, Calame concluded:
While it’s no longer a dominant motivation, the hope of turning up a really big story that will make it to the front page never seems that far from the minds of many reporters.

So perhaps the drive to get on the front page, along with the slow news day and the absence of the reporter closest to the story, contributed to poor judgment by reporters and editors.

Judgment calls

So let's take another look. Regarding that 9/5/06 article, LaForge noted that it is always a judgment call how much background to include, given space constraints and the interest level of the general reader. Even so, this article explicitly reported that critics felt the developer's response was inadequate and took note of speculation that this was part of a long-planned public relations strategy. The article also said that "the size of the project swelled" over two years before the developer moved to scale it back.

However, the article never spelled out the size of the cutbacks. Here are the paragraphs:
Whatever happens, the planned cutbacks are unlikely to satisfy the most severe critics.
''I don't think the bottom-line community concern is really about aesthetics, which is what shaving a few stories off the heights of the buildings is about,'' said James F. Brennan, a Brooklyn assemblyman. ''I don't think this flies.''
Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn... said he suspects that the developer has had this proposal ''in their closet for a long time.''


None of that addresses whether the planned cutbacks would satisfy even mild critics, as the follow-up story, which quoted some random Brooklynites, showed.

Six paragraphs later, after quoting some politicians and citing some history, the 9/5/06 article nudged toward specifics:
But over the following two years, the size of the project swelled to 7,300 apartments and the high-rise towers -- 19 to 58 stories -- took shape, looming over the four- to six-story buildings in the adjoining neighborhoods. In March, Forest City reduced the project by 475,000 square feet by cutting 440 market-rate condominiums, but that went largely unnoticed.

Here's where the Times could have added the context, such as "It remained larger than originally announced, and the newly hinted cutback would bring it back to square one."

The follow-up

Confessore's 9/6/06 follow-up undermined the lead placement of the previous story simply by its headline, Developer’s Plan for a Smaller Yards Project Matters Little, More or Less, in Brooklyn. The article hinted at, but did not specify that the project would return to square one. But most quoted were skeptical. This article, however, was on page B3.

Later in the month, he spelled it out, in a 9/29/06 article headlined Atlantic Yards Developer Accepts 8% Reduction in Project:
The company's agreement was to some extent preordained: yesterday's formal recommendations followed months of discussion. Moreover, the new reduction only brings the project back to the original size proposed in 2003.

This article also appeared on B3.

Front-page news, finally

Last week, in the 12/21/06 front-page Times article about approval of the project, headlined, State Approves Major Complex For Brooklyn, Confessore crafted a careful description:
On paper, the project grew to a peak of more than nine million square feet, before shrinking back to the roughly eight million square feet originally planned -- a decrease that did little to mollify those residents and officials who said that the project had been far too big and dense from the beginning.

That, again, is called "rowback"--a change without an official acknowledgement that previous coverage was wanting.

The Times has practiced "rowback" on several aspects of the Atlantic Yards story: the location of the project in "Downtown Brooklyn," the description of the state's actions as a rezoning, and the description of the project as being located "on the railyards."

I'm sure such a practice isn't limited to the Atlantic Yards story. But it's still disappointing and part of the pattern that led to New York Magazine's Chris Smith conclusion that "the Times screwed up."

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