Saturday, January 24, 2009

New York Times criticized for a deal with (Mexican) tycoon; could those criticisms apply to its deal with Ratner?

With an investment of $250 million in the New York Times Company, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu has gained more than the newspaper, contends former Times editorial writer Andres Martinez, whose piece in Slate is headlined Slim's Pickings: Will Carlos Slim use the New York Times to bolster his reputation?.

A major stock investment is more impactful than a business deal to build a Renzo Piano tower, and Slim has an even larger impact on his nation's economy than fabled John D. Rockefeller. Still, Martinez's criticisms do not sound out of place when applied to developer Forest City Ratner, whose CEO Bruce Ratner, like Slim, has been described as personally modest and philanthropic.

(Ratner's been called a billionaire but is more likely not so flush. USA Today in 2005 reported his net worth at $400 million and, while his shares in parent Forest City Enterprises later skyrocketed, they've recently sunk well below 2005 levels.)

Looking at the criticisms

As I quote some excerpts from Martinez's essay, I'll suggest some similar criticisms may apply to the Forest City Ratner deal.

Whether a weak Mexican state can develop and implement muscular antitrust policies to rein in the likes of Slim and foster greater competition is one of the keys to our neighbor's prosperity, which shouldn't be a minor story for an American newspaper.

Whether major projects like Atlantic Yards can be built in New York City via a transparent and fair process, including the role of eminent domain shouldn't be a minor story for New York's leading newspaper, especially given that the Times Tower itself was an example of such challenges.

The point is, Slim doesn't have to interfere at all. I know from experience that publishers do intervene in the editorial process, as is their prerogative. And I can assure you that Slim's investment will be a factor, even if unspoken, in editorial decision-making henceforth at the Times. Perhaps Mexico's crony capitalism will remain a mostly neglected topic—but now conspiracies will be read into the neglect.

I'll take the Times at their word that the publisher doesn't interfere in the news coverage. (Michael Wolff suggests Ratner is "protected" and, while there's no proof of that, and there has been some tough reporting, there's been a lot of weak reporting, too, and never a major investigative piece.)

But surely the Times's editorial page support for Atlantic Yards--awkward, amnesiac, and, crucially, absent--reflects the "spirit of the Times and the opinion of the publisher," as an editorial writer put it.

As for the Times, the newspaper is taking on an untenable appearance of a conflict, if not the reality of one, of the type it typically rails against in other institutions.

The prestige of the New York Times is such that it wields an unparalleled moral suasion... But from now on, any Times utterances on Mexico will now be interpreted, fairly or not, through the prism of Slim's stake in the company.


The Times could have tried to avoid that appearance of conflict, via rigorous reporting and committed editing regarding anything Ratner-related, and even the hiring of freelancers. It still could do much, much better.

No comments:

Post a Comment