Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The IFC Media Project scoop: former Daily News reporter says she was pulled off AY beat (and source blames Ratner)

So, in all of eight minutes, the IFC Media Project tonight tried to address how the three major New York newspapers have covered Atlantic Yards.

The segment landed a body blow on the New York Daily News, treated the New York Post far more gently than it deserved, and took some swipes--only partly effective--at the New York Times.

Much was left out, obviously, and even within the segment, too much time was devoted to Michael Moore-esque efforts to confront developer Bruce Ratner and Daily News editor Martin Dunn. I’d have cut them down, not eliminated them--but maybe that’s why I write a blog and don’t work for TV.

[Update: video now available.]



The scoop

The big news comes when former Daily News reporter Deborah Kolben, who had previously worked at the Brooklyn Paper and later worked at the Village Voice, convincingly describes an episode in which “Ratner’s top people” told Daily News officials that they were unhappy with her reporting.

The response: an immediate message to the Metro editor to pull Kolben off the story, without even looking at her clips. Kolben blames the request on unspecified Forest City Ratner executives. The IFC Media Project cites an unnamed source who blames it on Bruce Ratner himself.

(Update: I conclude that, given Kolben's few bylines about Atlantic Yards in the Daily News, FCR likely was more concerned about her previous work at the Brooklyn Paper.)

Segment reporter Ali Farahnakian, known as an improv actor more than a news person, tries to chase down Ratner to no avail on the night the developer was honored by the Brooklyn Museum. (The segment captures the protestors chanting, “Ratner’s bad for Brooklyn” before we see museum officials calling for security.) Still, there’s one priceless shot of Ratner speaking to the crowd, his arms raised as if he was a conductor.

Farahnakian, unable to get a comment from Dunn on the phone, finally ambushes the editor on the street. Dunn professes no knowledge of Kolben or the episode.

“Do you normally pull reporters off at Bruce Ratner’s request?” Farakhanian asks.

“I don’t pull reporters off at Bruce Ratner’s request,” Dunn replies (below), pointing a finger at his interlocutor, “but I will say this. You obviously are not an editor. I run a newspaper. I can do what I like. And I can tell people to do what I want. That’s what I do. I run a newspaper.”

I’m not sure things are that simple, and an American editor might be counseled against such a combative tone. Then again, Dunn does come from the more rough-and-tumble British journalism tradition. And that tradition is one in which newspapers are more comfortable taking sides in both news and editorial pages, while U.S. newspapers profess (if not always follow) a separation between news and opinion as well as news and business.

The segment notes that calls to the Daily News did not yield a copy of the paper’s code of ethics. I haven’t found one either (though the New York Times has a voluminous one).

The piece closes with a quote from the “Statement of Principles” of the American Society of Newspaper Editors: “Journalists... must be vigilant against all who would exploit the press for selfish purposes.”

The Daily News’s record

The segment hardly explores what exactly the Daily News has and has not covered. The record is quite checkered. Perhaps most notoriously, Ratner’s 5/4/08 op-ed in the Daily News was accompanied by a news story excerpting Ratner’s piece but containing no countervailing evidence nor any questions for the developer.

The Daily News has done some decent reporting on Atlantic Yards; it’s the only daily newspaper so far to report on the cessation of work by Forest City Ratner at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard.

Then again, that scoop, like some other incisive stories, was relegated to the Brooklyn section. Meanwhile, as I’ve pointed out, the Daily News has given prominent placement to a slight and speculative story about vague and never-to-be-fulfilled Forest City Ratner promises for a new Brooklyn Tech High School as well as a report that Ratner paid for generous buyouts of footprint residents--even though no one followed up after I reported that city taxpayers actually supplied the cash.

The Post: is it really about access?

The only active reporter on a daily to get face time on the show is Rich Calder of the New York Post, who is treated sympathetically. “At the New York Post, despite one reporter’s interest, the lack of Atlantic Yards coverage has been more about access than conflict of interest,” according to the narration.

For a show that’s supposed to offer a sophisticated understanding of media, that’s a bizarre complaint.

Of course, the developer has not been forthcoming and to some degree, nor has the government.

But you don’t need access to cover (most of) the Atlantic Yards story. A careful perusal of the Empire State Development Corporation web site led to the State Funding Agreement. My Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request unearthed the City Funding Agreement and one by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods explained how the developer tried to get out of paying to replace demolished trees.

The various Atlantic Yards legal cases have yielded a plethora of documents, such as the one that finally revealed that the developer was counting on $1.4 billion in housing bonds. They also yielded affidavits in which Forest City Ratner executives Jim Stuckey and MaryAnne Gilmartin swore that work could continue on the railyard even as litigation continued--statements that definitively undermine the p.r. claim that work has been slowed by litigation.

Part of the way to transcend limits on access is simply to show up. Only by showing up at a Manhattan courthouse could a reporter hear a state appellate judge express skepticism of the state’s blight claims.

Only a reasonably lengthy treatment of Forest City Ratner’s “Brooklyn Day” rally last June could tell the story. The Post gave it 92 words. (When the Post did get access to the developer's planned Barclays Center suites, well, that story yielded 659 mostly gushing words.)

I don’t particularly blame Calder. He has a lot of other things to cover and very little space in which to do so. But the Post doesn’t deserve a pass.

(Update: The Post also publishes the notorious annual supplement Brooklyn Tomorrow, a copy of which I gave to the segment producers.)

The role of the blogosphere--both the stories I've covered and the relentless commentary and response by NoLandGrab and DDDB--surely deserved a mention.

Swipes at the Times

The segment on the Times proceeds from the notion that the newspaper’s coverage of Ratner is tainted by the parent New York Times’s business relationship with Forest City Ratner.

Indeed, producer Meghan O’Hara connects the dots on the Huffington Post:
What happens when New York City's three major papers have to cover the biggest real estate development in Brooklyn? Here's a hint: The New York Daily News is operated by media and real estate magnate Mort Zuckerman and The New York Times hired the developer of Atlantic Yards to build its new headquarters.

I don’t think it’s that simple--the Times will swear up and down that its business interests are separate from its news coverage (though not its editorial page). As I’ve formulated it--perhaps too elegantly for TV (which may be why I was interviewed for hours but did not appear in the segment)--the business relationship does not mean there’s a directive to go easy on Ratner, but it does mean they have an obligation to cover the developer exactingly, and they haven’t.

The failure to disclose the business relationship in 27% of article tracked is not, to me, a smoking gun. (Update: I do think the Times should disclose the relationship, because it at least alerts readers to look at the coverage carefully.)But there is a record of extremely variable coverage--some reasonably tough, some wildly inadequate, and some simply, unforgivably absent.

Is that because Ratner built the Times Tower? I still can’t say. The Times, as well as other newspapers, has either bungled or ignored coverage of the enormous New Domino project in Williamsburg, and I don’t think the developers there have any particular relationship with the fourth estate.

Part of that is because newspapers are stretched thin, because reporters don't have time to read documents, and because there are not nearly enough reporters available to cover Brooklyn.

Almost no coverage?

“It’s one of the biggest projects in New York’s history,” says Gersh Kuntzman, editor of the Brooklyn Paper, “and there’s been almost no coverage.”

Well, that’s not true at all. There’s been not enough of the right coverage, and not enough incisive coverage. The Times had a Brooklyn reporter assigned significantly to the AY beat from October 2005 through December 2006. His initial pieces bent over backwards to give the developer the benefit of the doubt. But he ultimately got tougher--and then got promoted to Albany after the project was approved.

“Long, negative investigations maybe don’t sell papers,” Kuntzman declares, and that may be true, though the Times does devote investigative energy to some stories. But this week that’s like the pot calling the kettle black, since Kuntzman’s own newspaper has ignored two big AY stories.

(By the way, the IFC Media Project calls Atlantic Yards a $4.2 billion project, while the project was approved at $4 billion. It also claims that AY involves $2.1 billion in public subsidies, which is not at all established.)

Wolff’s analysis

Author and journalist Michael Wolff, author of a new biography of Rupert Murdoch, sketches the issue without offering any specific examples regarding the Times's coverage of Ratner. “No paper is going to go out of its way to put itself in a position where it is sacrificing an important relationship,” he said.

“Does the New York Times have people who it explicitly protects? Is Bruce Ratner one of those people?” he asks rhetorically. “They’d rather not alienate Bruce Ratner.... Would they do a story and not push it all the way? Absolutely.”

Well, there's never been an investigative profile of Ratner. There’s never been a rendering of the project in neighborhood scale. And that front-page scaleback scoop was irresponsible. But the Times did do a somewhat critical piece on blight in the AY footprint.

And its commercial real estate reporter, Charles Bagli in March broke news of the first Atlantic Yards stall and Ratner’s cold-calling attempt to find an anchor tenant for the AY office tower.

Too little too late? Well, the better reporting has mostly come sporadically, and after the project was approved. And as I plan to show more definitively later this week, the Times, especially in the years 2004-2006, too often gave the benefit of the doubt to the developer in stories that did embrace multiple points of view.

Meanwhile, the Times and others keep missing stories. The beat goes on.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the mention, Norman, but saying my complaint about the dailies' inability to cover Atlantic Yards is a "pot/kettle" thing is a bit unfair. After all, I was interviewed for the IFC piece MONTHS ago, while the stories you say that we "missed" in The Brooklyn Paper are current. This pot can indeed call the kettle black, given the daily papers' woefully weak coverage of Atlantic Yards from 2003 until the moment I was interviewed by IFC.

    If the dailies are doing better since then, well, perhaps you have finally shamed them into better coverage.

    GERSH KUNTZMAN
    Editor
    The Brooklyn Paper

    ReplyDelete
  2. Point taken. You were interviewed a while ago.

    But I didn't say you "missed" the stories, as if the use of quote marks somehow undermines my case.

    I said you missed them.

    ReplyDelete