Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How 2005 fudge from the mayor's office on AY affordable housing led the Times into a 2009 error it won't correct

So, what happens when a newspaper relies on a governmental statement that's just not true, or is significantly overstated? Shouldn't that be worthy of a correction?

Last month I wrote to New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt about the newspaper's straightfaced reprint of an erroneous quote--from a spokesman for the New York City Economic Development Corporation-- that the Atlantic Yards site was "a site that is now an open railyard without any public benefit."

And now the Times claims that city officials were "signing off" on an "agreement" to help finance the Atlantic Yards affordable housing, even though the Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), excerpted at right, involved only Forest City Ratner's subsidiary Atlantic Yards Development Company and the advocacy group ACORN, not the city.

The error, as noted below, apparently was derived from a mayoral press release that inaccurately announced the deal as a fait accompli.

Bottom line

The bottom line: an error reprinted is an error, even if it can be attributed to a seemingly reliable source.

The larger context: the amount of time the Times spent in responding to me--and rather defensively denying that readers could be misled--could better have been used to print a correction or clarification regarding the article at hand.

Better yet, the Times could report on the gulf between the promises and probabilities of AY affordable housing, as noted in a lawsuit filed last week, which points out how the Empire State Development Corporation acknowledges that affordable housing is contingent on government subsidies. Or the Times could report on ACORN's unquestioning role in supporting the project.

My complaint

On October 20, I sent New York Times Senior Editor/Standards Greg Brock excerpts from that day's post, questioning the Times's description the previous Friday--in an article about ACORN and former city housing official Shaun Donovan, now the nation's top housing official--of "[t]he city’s agreement to help finance the [Atlantic Yards housing] plan."

As I wrote, that overstates the city's commitment, which was no more than conceptual, and should be corrected, given that it could mislead readers into thinking that the affordable housing--the major source of political support for the project--is guaranteed.

First Times response

Brock responded promptly:
I have looked at all this material and I see no reason for a correction. [Reporter] Mr. [Jim] Rutenberg was quite careful in his phrasing. I also ran this by Karin Roberts, who has become intimately involved with this overall issue, and she found no reason for a correction either.

We are always happy to correct our errors -- we have published more than 30 corrections on Atlantic Yards -- but this reference does not require one.
My first response

I wrote back:
Can you explain why you see no reason for a correction? Do you consider rhetorical or conceptual support for the Atlantic Yards housing plan the same thing as "[t]he city’s agreement to help finance the plan," especially given that there's no documentation?

I think those mean very different things to people who are hoping to live there or anyone trying to estimate whether the affordable housing would be built as proposed.

I'll point to the [Times's] Guidelines on Integrity, not because I believe you are unaware of them, but because the passage highlighted below speaks to the bottom line: informing (or misleading) the readers.

Corrections. Because our voice is loud and far-reaching, The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small. The paper regrets every error, but it applauds the integrity of a writer who volunteers a correction of his or her own published story. Whatever the origin, though, any complaint should be relayed to a responsible supervising editor and investigated quickly. If a correction is warranted, fairness demands that it be published immediately. In case of reasonable doubt or disagreement about the facts, we can acknowledge that a statement was "imprecise" or "incomplete" even if we are not sure it was wrong.
(I've added emphases throughout this post.)

Second Times response


Brock wrote:
As I said, I read all the material. So I assumed you understood that to include the extensive correspondence Jim had with you during the weekend. And he and I talked further. I agreed with his explanation to you, so I saw no reason to repeat it.

Had this been your first correspondence with us on this particular point, I would have given a fuller explanation. (I am relatively well-versed in our corrections policy since I am the editor who enforces it.) So the reason for no correction is the explanation Mr. Rutenberg had already given you.

I am sorry you do not agree with this decision. But we are not always wrong and every reader who complains is not always right. One of the challenging parts of my job is that I have to explain to hundreds of readers each month why they are wrong about our having made a particular error. Fortunately, they understand that sometimes we have to agree to disagree.
My second response

(I had had a cordial off-the-record conversation with Rutenberg about a number of things, and had sent him some material, but did not have an "extensive correspondence" with him, other than several exchanges setting up a time to talk.)

I wrote to Brock:
Thanks for your response, but that's not quite fair. I sent Jim some back-up info but we did not speak on the record. Nor did I get any on-the-record written statement.

So I cannot report his--and thus the Times's--explanation.

If you can provide me with that I won't bother you about this matter further.
Third Times response

Brock wrote:
Here is a summary of the main points Jim gave me, based on his reporting and from his telephone discussions with you. Based on this, I see no need for a correction.

The article was about the frequently mutually-beneficial relationship between ACORN's local housing arm and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan when he was Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's commissioner for Housing, Preservation and Development. Its reference to Atlantic Yards captured a specific moment in time when Mr. Donovan and other city officials worked directly with ACORN officials -- and, in this case, Forest City Ratner officials -- before signing off on the affordable housing plan that the city, the developer and ACORN introduced with much fanfare in May, 2005.

As the city press release put it at the time: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Forest City Ratner Companies President & CEO Bruce C. Ratner and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) Executive Director Bertha Lewis today announced that approximately half of the 4,500 new rental units in the proposed Atlantic Yards development will be set aside for low- and moderate-income households using financing tools created by the Bloomberg Administration's New Housing Marketplace plan."
Looking more closely

I don't disagree with Rutenberg's characterization of the subject of the article. Nor do I disagree that the Atlantic Yards reference captured a specific moment in time. Nor do I disagree that Donovan and other city officials expressed support for Atlantic Yards.

I do, however, dispute that, as Rutenberg characterized it, the city, ACORN, and Forest City Ratner were "signing off on the affordable housing plan."

The city press release was issued 5/19/05, to accompany the public unveiling of the Housing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which was signed two days earlier only by Forest City Ratner and ACORN.

The MOU said the parties agreed to work with governmental authorities "in order to secure necessary modifications to existing affordable housing programs." That appears to be prospective.

The city press release, however, was both prospective and definitive:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Forest City Ratner Companies President & CEO Bruce C. Ratner and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) Executive Director Bertha Lewis today announced that approximately half of the 4,500 new rental units in the proposed Atlantic Yards development will be set aside for low- and moderate-income households using financing tools created by the Bloomberg Administration's New Housing Marketplace plan. As part of the City's $3 billion housing plan to build and rehabilitate 68,000 affordable housing units, programs were designed to spur the creation of mixed-income housing. The current proposal for Atlantic Yards follows the model employed by the Mayor's Housing Plan, and establishes a new standard for income diversity that is a result of an innovative collaboration among the City, Forest City Ratner and ACORN.
It also stated:
As part of the plan, the Administration worked with Forest City Ratner and ACORN to increase the amount of financing provided in order to construct larger buildings with more units and to make the apartments as affordable as possible to families with a range of incomes.
That certainly sounds like the financing had already been provided, so I can see how a reader of the press release could have been misled. And it certainly sounded like the city had agreed to help finance the plan, as the Times reported.

What's missing?

But the city had not formalized an agreement to finance the plan. Similarly, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, according to a city press release, "signed" the Community Benefits Agreement even though the city was not a party to it.

In both cases, the city press releases overstated the commitment made by the city, which was conceptual rather than formal.

This is hardly the worst error the Times has made regarding Atlantic Yards. But this is, at the least, a "case of reasonable doubt or disagreement about the facts," so the Times could, as its policy allows, acknowledge that a statement was "imprecise" or "incomplete."

What's the difference?

Is there a difference between a rhetorical or conceptual agreement to finance the housing plan and a formal agreement to do so?

Surely. The latter could be used to predict, with much greater certainty, the likelihood of the affordable housing being built.

As I reported in August, an early draft of the Atlantic Yards General Project Plan (GPP), dated 4/10/06, shows that the approval process was to include city and state approval of funding for affordable housing financing.

A later draft excised that procedural requirement, though documentation released this September, after the approval of the 2009 Modified General Project Plan said the housing depended on subsidies.

There's no "agreement"--nor was there--despite the Times's language.

Note on timing

The correspondence with Brock took place a week ago. Why'd I wait a week to write about it? Because, despite little optimism that the Times would use the precious real estate on its Letters page to publish a letter from me, I tried:
Re "Acorn’s Woes Strain Its Ties to Democrats" (A1, Oct. 16), the Times cited "[t]he city’s agreement to help finance the [Atlantic Yards housing] plan."

At that time, in May 2005, New York City offered only rhetorical or conceptual support for the subsidized housing promised in the Atlantic Yards project. The housing Memorandum of Understanding was signed only by developer Forest City Ratner and the advocacy group Acorn, though the agreement was "announced" by the city.

Nor has the city since signed such a document; many questions have been raised about the whether the housing would be built in the quantity and time frame promised.
No, it hasn't been published.

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