Saturday, September 26, 2009

When it comes to the changing AY deal, again the press falls short; but the press sure does love a billionaire

The deal to buy the New Jersey Nets has finally gotten some scrutiny in the New York Times, but the Empire State Development Corporation's willingness to offer concessions to developer Forest City Ratner still hasn't drawn coverage, even as the Times is willing to write whimsically about comparisons between Mikhail Prokhorov and Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Lessons from Times Square, again

Way back in April 2006, I wrote that the press, in covering Atlantic Yards, had not met the challenge in Lynne Sagalyn's book on Times Square redevelopment, Times Square Roulette (MIT Press, 2001).

Sagalyn observes that, when it comes to real estate deals, the press has a power it does not necessarily exercise:
Local newspapers have the political power and institutional capacity to press public officials on the issue of financial accountability—the cost/benefit question. They can knock away at the issue with special reports, editorials, and op-eds, if they so choose.

She adds: The tenor of its editorials, their overlap with news stories and the selections of letters to the editor and op-eds--all these forms of editorial voice put pressure on both city and state officials who, after looking at what stories appear on the front page, turn instinctively and immediately to the editorial page.

What about the Times?

As noted in my report, Sagalyn quotes Charles Bagli, a reporter for the weekly New York Observer during the Times Square redevelopment era (and now a reporter for the Times), on how reporters often don’t dig:
“You take the press release,rewrite it,throw in a few quotes and bang! You’re done. And that’s it. And... the press release doesn’t tell half the story,” said Bagli, who focused hard on the project’s deal dynamics in the mid-1990s when few other reporters seemed willing to touch the topic... The way he saw it, part of the problem was rooted in the unwillingness of the government and the developer to fully engage in that debate.

As noted at left, Bagli, in covering the approval September 17 of the Atlantic Yards deal by the Empire State Development Corporation, ignored the project's deal dynamics. The only (paid) reporters to pay attention were the current Observer reporter, Eliot Brown, and an Observer alumnus, Matthew Schuerman of WNYC.

(Click on graphics to enlarge)

The power of the press

Sagalyn's book is worth a further look.

Continuing from the passage quoted above, Sagalyn concludes:
That reporters and editors, as professionals, are not analytically trained to answer the cost/benefit question is not material. Using the appropriate forum, their job is to lever the press's political power as a vehicle for accountability from public officials who are responsible for providing forthright answers and full documentation of both costs and benefits. A mandate for broader and deeper investigative review of public subsidies sadly does not exist; seemingly, it has no constituency. At this point, at least, what is missing is a depth of concern about policy implementation--the politics of managing the government's business, process beside results. Process, though, bears heavily on the policy issues of public-private development and public trust of the strategy.

Maybe there's no mandate. But you don't have to be an expert to conclude that the New York City Independent Budget Office's (limited) Atlantic Yards fiscal analysis is better than the Empire State Development Corporation's "economic benefit analysis."

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