Sunday, July 27, 2008

Talk to the (NY Times) Newsroom: unanswered questions about Atlantic Yards coverage

New York Times Metro Editor Joe Sexton answered questions from readers July 21-25, and there were some interesting and thoughtful exchanges.

I sent a question on Monday, which I didn't exactly expect him to answer.

A letter to the Times

Mr. Sexton,

In a previous "Talk to the Newsroom" feature, in March 2007, you wrote, "Pick any major topic of the last several years in New York... The paper's coverage has been unmatched."

I'd strongly disagree with that regarding Atlantic Yards. In fact, I'd argue, the Times has a special obligation to be exacting in its coverage, given the parent company's business relationship with Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner, as partners on the Times Tower. (I wrote about that in a September 2005 report critiquing the Times, linked from my web site, and have continued my media criticism as part of my Atlantic Yards Report watchdog blog.)

A second look at Zimbalist

1) For example, the Times gave cursory coverage to a fascinating and strategic aspect of the Atlantic Yards fight, the developer's recruitment of prominent sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, a noted critic of sports facility deals, to write an economic impact analysis projecting huge gains in tax revenues from Atlantic Yards. When a critique of Zimbalist's work emerged in June 2004, the Times gave the last word to Zimbalist:

Dr. Zimbalist, for his part, said he had not seen the report and knew only what he had heard from reporters. Saying he was unsure whether Dr. Peebles or Mr. Kim had fully understood the economic issues, he added, "I was very careful in my use of numbers."

There's been no further coverage, even though the developer has regularly used Zimbalist's numbers. As I've written, the Times's approach to the West Side Stadium was more skeptical--and the Times last year pursued peer review of a study claiming NBA referees were biased.

Regarding Zimbalist, there was no peer review and no close reading. That's especially important in retrospect, given that the numbers have been repeated by project supporters, but Zimbalist's credibility on this project and others has been steadily undermined. (See here, here, and here.)

My questions: do you think the Times had an obligation to better analyze Zimbalist's report? Why can't the Times take a second look now?

Continuity of coverage

2) The Times in March broke the news that the Atlantic Yards project was delayed and, without context, reported that the planned arena would cost $950 million. The Times did not point out that the figure represented an approximately 50% jump in cost, perhaps because the reporter had not been covering the story steadily.

Three days later, I broke the news that a September 2007 State Funding Agreement gave the developer 6+ years to build the arena and 12+ years to build the four or five towers of Phase 1, even though, when approved in December 2006, the project was expected to take ten years to build. It took the Times more than a month to report that new timetable, when it provoked a lawsuit.

I know the Times in October 2005 assigned Nicholas Confessore to the Brooklyn bureau, with a responsibility to cover Atlantic Yards (among other things) and, after the project was officially approved in December 2006, promoted him to Albany.

In hindsight, given the ongoing controversy, and the complexity of the story, do you think it was a mistake not to aim for more continuity in coverage?

No comments:

Post a Comment