Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Will the Times comment on Ratner's blatant bailout bid? Based on past performance, no

Will the New York Times editorialize against the private bailout Forest City Ratner apparently seeks, deploying federal stimulus funds to complete the new railyard the developer had committed to build?

It's doubtful, given the newspaper's steady path from criticizing AY subsidies to studious silence, even though a stimulus for Atlantic Yards is so contentious that it's drawn criticism from not only Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn but also BrooklynSpeaks and the New York Public Interest Research Group's Straphangers Campaign.

But maybe the news desk, if it truly believes in small-d democracy, will do some more reporting.

Inconsistent silence

Nearly two years ago, I pointed to the Times's inconsistency on public subsidies for Atlantic Yards. In a 3/27/05 editorial, the Times opposed having the city and state each contributing $100 million to support the project:
That’s unnecessary: Mr. Ratner should pay his own way.

In an 11/27/05 editorial, the Times reiterated its position:
There is no reason to expect taxpayer money to be used to help fund a profit-making real estate venture like this one; those costs should be absorbed by the builder.

In an 8/6/06 editorial, the Times backed off somewhat, targeting only a portion of the $200 million then committed in public funds:
Some $40 million, for example, is for land acquisition for the arena, which should be a developer expense. The project may require the city to build more classrooms, expand sewer and water services and provide more police on game days. It is up to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to demand from the developer every reasonable contribution to defray these extra expenses.


And then, silence

After that, the Times was silent. The newspaper failed to to comment on the doubling of the city's commitment, to $205 million.

The Times has comment on the developer's efforts, on multiple fronts, to increase cash flow through delaying obligations and accelerating the delivery of subsidies.

Now, the Times faces a bigger test.

"The spirit of the Times"

We have to remember that the Times's editorial voice depends fundamentally on its publisher, who just might be wary of antagonizing the developer that joined with the New York Times Company to build the new Times Tower.

I wrote 2/23/08, citing an interview with Editorial Board Member Carolyn Curiel, the main writer of editorials on local issues.

"Our goal is to reflect the spirit of the Times and the opinion of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.," she explained. "And a lot of it is driven by the news pages, but we don't consult with the news pages... It's not a democracy. Consensus is often arrived at, sure, but not always.... There is something of a position being hammered out at the table."

"Again, we're not a democracy," she affirmed. "We are reasoned, in how we come to opinion. But no, it's not a democracy; it's reflective of the spirit of the Times."

After Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu took a significant stake in the times, former editorial writer Andres Martinez commented last month:
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 same goes for editorials about (or avoiding) Forest City Ratner.

Time for Times city staff to step up?

New York magazine's Chris Smith, in a 1/24/09 article headlined The Zany Adventures of (Senator) Caroline Kennedy, suggested that the Times reporters had stepped up:
Kennedy also smacked headlong into a newly emboldened Times city staff. “We’ve grown a pair of balls, and I’m amazingly proud of the paper,” says a Times reporter. “The turning point was the editorial page’s rolling over for Bloomberg on erasing term limits. The reaction from the reporters and editors is that we’re the last line of defense—we’ve got to hold the line.” Not for or against any particular politician, that is, but to stand up for small-d democracy. After inflating her candidacy by making her simple declaration of interest in the job the lead story of the day, they compensated by hitting her hard.

Ok, but the coverage of this issue on the CityRoom blog, with an obligatory comment from AY uber-opponent Daniel Goldstein, doesn't cut it.

The effort to get Atlantic Yards a federal bailout is, to many, a blatant perversion of the goals of the stimulus program.

The coverage should be in depth, and in print.

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