Monday, June 15, 2009

Sloppy and irresponsible, the Courier-Life’s Witt gives the Rev. Daughtry a platform to soliloquize without rebuttal

Update July 17: for my letter in the Courier-Life, Stephen Witt's response, and my rebuttal, go here.

The press can help set the agenda in multiple ways, via the length and placement of articles and editorials, as well as the decision to cover or ignore a story, such as the New York Times's unwillingness to write about Forest City Ratner's bailout of ACORN.

In writing a follow-up article on the May 29 state Senate oversight hearing, the Courier-Life’s notorious Stephen Witt irresponsibly chose to give an unskeptical platform to the Rev. Herbert Daughtry (at right, heckling), a project supporter and the most disruptive person at the event.

The article is wrongheaded and unfair, so I'll go through it line by line.

(Photo by Jonathan Barkey. Click on graphics to enlarge.)

Watching Witt

It's never been easy to take Witt's topsy-turvy approach seriously. His penchant for mangling reality was exemplified by his decision to quote Charlene Nimmons, a signatory of the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), as claiming Atlantic Yards critics “are the real land grabbers, because they took the property first and turned back what was jobs into condos.” (Actually, the factories had been closed.)

Few read Courier-Life articles online. The once-rival Brooklyn Paper periodically called Witt out, such as when he enthusiastically hugged Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner or did some impromptu stand-up at a Kevin Powell fundraiser.

But the Courier-Life was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and items from the weekly’s yournabe.com site now appear on the Post web site, as do items from the Brooklyn Paper, purchased more recently by Murdoch. Both newspapers are now tenants of Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner.

(Photo by Tracy Collins)

No longer does the Brooklyn Paper keep watch on the Courier-Life. And items from the Post’s web site, even if they don’t appear in print, have even been cited--unlike, say, posts from AYR, since blogs are verboten--in the Morning Buzz column in the New York Times’s City Room blog.

So, however shoddy Witt's work, it likely reaches more readers these days.

“Daughtry slams Yards critics”

Given Witt’s track record, it wasn’t exactly surprising to see an article this week headlined Daughtry slams Yards critics. But it still was cognitively dissonant to read on:
Following an animated showing at the recent Senate hearing regarding Atlantic Yards, one of the project’s most ardent supporters continued to lambast opponents.

Animated? That’s a euphemistic way of saying “most disruptive individual.” Witt missed the most obvious question for Daughtry: why did he disrupt a factfinding effort, more akin to a trial than to a public hearing?

The article continues:
In an interview with this paper, Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a 50-year veteran of the neighborhood and leader of the House of the Lord Church on Atlantic Avenue, also chastised some local officials for backing opponents.

Via his work and his activism, Daughtry is a veteran of Downtown Brooklyn, but he doesn't live primarily in Brooklyn. He testified at the 8/23/06 hearing (transcript in PDF) on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that he lived “not far from the project” but “also happen to live in New Jersey and I happen to live in Augusta, Georgia.”

That’s obfuscatory; his book No Monopoly on Suffering: Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights (and Elsewhere) explains that he and his wife raised their children at their home in Teaneck, NJ.

Elected officials "captured"?

The article continues:
“I think they [Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and City Council member Letitia James] have been captured by a tiny minority that are bent on destroying the project,” said Daughtry, a signatory of the community benefits agreement (CBA) with Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner (FCR).

Of course Witt doesn’t solicit responses from those accused, who surely would disagree.

A complicating fact is that one of Daughtry’s longtime allies and his former Chief of Staff at the National Black United Front, radical City Council Member Charles Barron, is a longtime opponent of Atlantic Yards. Barron is not the type to get "captured." (Daughtry held a fundraiser last October at his church for for Barron’s wife Inez, a candidate for Assembly, and she was elected.)

Another complicating fact is that longtime progressive allies like the Rev. David Dyson, who leads the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, have expressed concern, telling the Brooklyn Rail, “We feel that Reverend Daughtry and ACORN have been brought in by Ratner not as advocates for the community but as private business partners in the deal.”

Insensitive and cruel?

The article continues:
“To try to delay and stop the project is insensitive, cruel and smacks of hypocrisy. These are desperate times. People need the services that could be provided by the project,” he added.

(Photo by Jonathan Barkey; Daughtry's companion is apparently his daughter.)

The point of the hearing was to learn what was going on. Daughtry supports the project because, as he has said publicly, "I don't remember any developer stepping up" to provide benefits. He thinks the benefits of the project are worth the costs; others disagree.

Atlantic Yards bypasses local land use review, hence the need for Forest City Ratner to promise benefits in support for a state override of zoning. And Daughtry has maintained reflexive support even in light of information that casts doubt on the developer's promises.

Did Daughtry catch the acknowledgment by Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, that there could be only 300 affordable units in Phase 1? Did he further inquire to learn Forest City Ratner would have up to 12 years --in an agreement signed before the economic downturn--to build Phase 1 without penalty?

Timing of DBNA projects

The article continues:
Daughtry noted that the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance [DBNA], the organization he represents in the CBA, calls for a state-of-the-art health facility in an area with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the city.

According to Chapter 1 of the Empire State Development Corporation's Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), Project Description, the proposed facility would be built during Phase 1 of the project. That means it could take up to 12 years.

(Photo by Jonathan Barkey)

The article continues:
It also calls for an intergenerational complex that would combine a senior center with a youth and day care center, he said.

According to the Project Description chapter, the intergenerational center would be built in Phase 2, on Block 1120, the middle block of the railyard. There is no timetable for Phase 2, but the former CEO of the ESDC said in April the project could take "decades."

The day care center would have a capacity to accommodate at least 100 children and would be publicly funded or accept Agency for Child Development (ACD) vouchers. According to Chapter 5, Community Facilities, the project itself would “generate an estimated 486 children" who might be eligible for publicly funded day care. So it's hardly clear that the new center would do more than serve the new population.

Arena benefits?

The article continues:
Daughtry said the arena remains a major component in the CBA in that it calls for community access to games, players, and community events.

Witt chose not to examine complicating facts. State Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden, in her opinion upholding the ESDC’s environmental review, looked at the claim that Forest City Ratner would make the arena available for ten events a year to community groups and concluded that the pledge “is de minimis [trivial] when compared with the primary use of the arena by the Nets.”

(Photo by Jonathan Barkey)

Charges of hypocrisy

The article continues:
Daughtry said the hypocrisy stems from project opponents doing little or nothing to stop any of the other developments in Downtown Brooklyn, many of which have not used union labor, include minimal affordable housing, and have never met with the community

That’s not true. Some project opponents, among them Patti Hagan, Daniel Goldstein, Shabnam Merchant, Raul Rothblatt, and Lucy Koteen, did oppose the city's rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn. Some commented on the environmental review. (Another AY opponent, Ron Shiffman, worked on alternatives to the Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning and, at the May 29 hearing, expressed his sympathy for project proponents' desire for jobs and housing, and suggested alternatives; AY supporters like Daughtry gave no credence to opposing views.)

Some major project proponents, like ACORN’s Bertha Lewis, sat out the rezoning debate. And city officials, Daughtry’s ostensible ally on AY, promoted the rezoning. However deeply flawed, the rezoning went through a public process, while Atlantic Yards is a state override of city zoning, and the meetings with the community have been very selective.

Criticizing AYR

The article continues:
When questioned about how Atlantic Yard blogger Norman Oder, who many media outlets utilize for information without checking his facts, continually writes how CBA signatories have taken money from FCR, Daughtry said his CBA strategy comes from working directly with Martin Luther King.

Witt can’t get the name of my blog right. As for fact-checking, Witt provides no example of errors, but seems to imply that I’m incorrect in stating that signatories have taken money from FCR.

Freddie Hamilton of the Downtown Brooklyn Educational Consortium and James Caldwell of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) have confirmed it directly to me. FCR spokesman Joe DePlasco said the developer "has given money to some of the organizations, maybe all." Daughtry, Nimmons, and Delia Hunley-Adossa have ducked direct questions from me, though the Post reported that the DBNA got $50,000 from the developer.

A continuation of MLK's work?

The article continues:
“Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a sell-out? If he was a sell-out, then I’m a sell-out,” said Daughtry, explaining how he headed King’s Operation Breadbasket Initiative in Nw York City.

The purpose of Operation Breadbasket was to go primarily to corporate America and tell them they needed to be responsive to the community and to work with them so it would be mutually beneficial, he said.


Many might agree with that general principle, but it doesn't end the discussion, though Daughtry, heckling on May 29, complained, "They're blocking the program, with these complicated questions."

Witt hasn't examined the fact that experts on CBAs say signatories shouldn’t take money from the developers they deal with and also point out that the AY CBA could expire if Ratner sells the project.

Witt should take a look at August Wilson’s play “Radio Golf,” which delineates divisions in the post-Civil Rights era black community about working with developers.

Looking at the DBNA

Nor does Witt explore what it means to represent the community. Daughtry's DBNA seems to be an extension of his church.

At least eight of the ten board members, as far as I can tell from reading its one extant report to the Internal Revenue Service, are associated with the House of the Lord Church, including his wife Karen Smith-Daughtry, whose address is listed as Teaneck, NJ.

The Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance (DBNA), according to the CBA, is supposed to form a Community Facilities and Amenities Council to gather input on the project components mentioned above. I couldn't find evidence such a council has been formed, at least according to a web search. Daughtry's DBNA has filed one Form 990 to the IRS, covering the year 7/1/05 through 6/30/06. It raised $106,042 and spent $81,907. (See graphic above.)

Though $79,034 was spent on "management and general" and $46,141 spent on compensation of officers and directors, the report does not explain, as it should, how much individual officers and directors were compensated. Nor does the report explain, as it should, the organization's primary exempt purpose. (See graphic above.)

Daughtry's side

The article continues:
Daughtry said that, to the best of his recollection, Oder has never contacted him for his side of the Atlantic Yards story.

Actually, after listening to Daughtry speak at a forum in April 2006; I approached him afterward; he wouldn’t answer questions about his group’s membership or its funding. Witt didn’t ask me or check my blog to find out if Daughtry's recollection was correct.

I’ve read Daughtry's statement in the CBA press release and on the AY web site (left), which contains the curious formulation, "The Forest City Ratner offer benefits all concerned…I have never witnessed any contract of this scope and of this diversity." (After all, Daughtry has never witnessed any other CBA.)

I've also learned how Daughtry influenced his friend the Rev. Al Sharpton to support the project and then trash mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer in 2005 (and that Sharpton's organization is supported by Forest City Ratner).

I’ve read Daughtry's op-ed in the Brooklyn Standard (below), fawningly describing Bruce Ratner as having a “customary, humble, winsome manner.” (Ratner has what some describe as self-deprecating charm, but it's accompanied by hardball business practices that include gag orders on people selling property for the project.)

I’ve watched and read Daughtry's testimony at the DEIS hearing. I’ve read his two books (the other is My Beloved Community) and learned, for example, about his efforts to keep the peace in Crown Heights even as he strove for justice--and was treated badly by the press.

I don’t think “his side” of the story has been obscured. His record of service and activism does not justify his disruption of a state Senate hearing nor excuse CBA signatories or the project from scrutiny.

The article continues:
I’ve been doing this kind of work in Downtown Brooklyn for 50 years. I’ve protested, marched and have gone to jail to gain from the private sector and the government for the people in the most need,” he said.

That doesn’t mean that the benefits he touts would be delivered as promised.

(Photo of Daughtry and Ratner at MetroTech tree-lighting ceremony last December by Jonathan Barkey.)

Taking on the IBO

In the final segment of the article, Witt makes an awkward segue:
Daughtry’s comments came after George Sweeting, deputy director of the city’s Independent Budget Office [IBO], admitted last week that the two-page testimony he submitted at the Senate hearing would be “generous to call a study.”

Witt, who, unlike most other reporters covering the hearing ignored the IBO’s findings, is harping on a minor point while ignoring the major point. Sweeting's testimony extended the analysis of a previous study.

The article continues:
The testimony indicated that the IBO’s 2005 study, which found the project would be a net plus of $25 million to taxpayers, would now be a net loss.

This is just sloppy reporting. The study covered the fiscal impact of the arena (not the project as a whole) on city tax revenues (not on combined city and state revenues).

The article continues:
Sweeting said he did not speak to FCR regarding the new figures, and the written testimony relied on “reported” figures.

Sweeting had no need to speak to Forest City Ratner, since the IBO’s calculations involved plugging new subsidy and cost figures into its previous analysis. By using quote marks around the term “reported,” Witt seemingly aims to cast doubt on the numbers. But even Forest City Ratner has acknowledged that city subsidies more than doubled.

Moreover, why does Witt think FCR is the gatekeeper for facts? The developer has produced its own spurious cost-benefit analysis, one that its lawyers falsely claimed came from the ESDC.

The article closes:
“They [Senate] asked us to testify and we said we can update a couple of numbers for you at this point,” he said.


Oddly enough, the article online, which can accommodate more text than print, is shorter--the last paragraph is omitted, as if aiming to cast doubt on Sweeting's testimony. (Click on graphic to enlarge.)

Moreover, Witt ignores Sweeting’s response to a question from State Senator Bill Perkins, in which he stated that, “with the project substantially changed, many of the numbers that were used earlier today" about the net benefit for the city required a reassessment.

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