Monday, February 08, 2010

A Crystal Eagle Award for me: "a champion of property rights" vs. "a champion of good government"

On February 5, I got an award for my Atlantic Yards coverage:
Owners' Counsel of America (OCA) will honor two journalists in 2010 with the Crystal Eagle Award for their remarkable journalism and unwavering effort to be critical and objective, specifically with respect to their investigative reportage and balanced analysis regarding the government’s use of eminent domain.

Annually, OCA identifies individuals who have made a substantial contribution toward advancing private property rights, presenting the Crystal Eagle Award to each as a symbol of the freedoms protected through their work. Past recipients include Gideon Kanner, Esq. (Professor Emeritus, Loyola School of Law and of-counsel, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, Los Angeles), Dana Berliner, Esq. (Senior Attorney, Institute for Justice), Dean Starkman (Journalist), Professor James Ely (Vanderbilt University and author of The Guardian of Every Other Right), Dennis Hartig (former Journalist and News Editor, The Virginian-Pilot) as well as Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes (Fox News Channel talk show co-hosts).
The group is watchful of eminent domain abuse:
Owners' Counsel of America is a voluntary network of experienced eminent domain attorneys from every state of the nation, representing property owners facing condemnation or other infringement to their constitutional right to own property, and dedicated to advancing the cause of property rights.
Champion of property rights?

I traveled on the OCA's dime to the OCA meeting this past weekend in Scottsdale, AZ, to accept the award and speak about my work. (The amount of time I spent in transit was about the same as the time I spent awake in Scottsdale.)

I had qualms about being described, at least according to some OCA members, as a "champion of property rights."

I responded that I was a "champion of good government" and if that, in the context of examining eminent domain in New York makes me appear to be a "champion of property rights," so be it.

After all, I started looking into Atlantic Yards as a media critic and then expanded into reportage and commentary; eminent domain wasn't on my radar screen.

I said that I saw my job as bridging the gap between reality and the state's self-serving record, a record to which courts defer. After all, the Blight Study submitted by the Empire State Development Corporation was produced by a consultant (AKRF) that always finds blight, using the flexible terms "substandard" and "insanitary."

So with the deck stacked in favor of the state, it's rational, I said, to become a critic of the process.

(I point back to Daniel Okrent, former New York Times Public Editor, who wrote, 11/14/04: "Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue; it doesn't require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight.")

The AY context

I talked about Atlantic Yards, with a slide show, and saw some knowing reactions when I showed a slide of the Blight Study's documentation that cracks in the sidewalk constitute blight.

In several conversations, I got a much stronger sense of how New York is seen by the eminent domain bar--at least this side of the bar--as an outlier, a state with notably condemnor-friendly laws and procedures.

(Eminent domain opponents aren't the only ones raising questions; planning professor Alexander Galvin wrote in a textbook that the ESDC has "truly amazing powers.")

Awards and advocacy

I recognize that accepting an award from an advocacy group can be dicey. Though several journalists have won the OCA award, it would likely violate a New York Times ethics guideline:
Staff members may not enter local, national or international competitions sponsored by individuals or groups who have a direct interest in the tenor of our coverage.
And guidelines from the Society of Professional Journalists also raise questions:
Journalism contests sponsored by corporations or by trade, education or other non-journalistic associations... should meet the following specifications:
1) The contest purpose should not state or imply favorable treatment of a cause or subject and should seek journalistic excellence.
But what if a critical approach toward AY seeks journalistic excellence?

I queried a couple of journalist friends, both of whom said my track record is the most important thing. As I've said, I'm not neutral but I aim to pursue the journalism of verification.

The big picture

Do others in the media pursue the journalism of verification when it comes to AY?

Why have so few raised questions about the ESDC, when it punts on questions of blight, claims there would be no development without the project, and claims an arm's length relationship with developer Forest City Ratner when negotiating the AY development agreement?

And why didn't anyone else notice the bogus report on crime in the AY footprint? Or the dubious claim that the ESDC board, not AKRF, finds blight? Or the KPMG report to the ESDC that made up numbers about the percentage of condos sold in some prominent developments?

The Rikon connection

I didn't apply for the award; the nominations come from OCA members. I was nominated by the New York OCA member, Michael Rikon, a prominent eminent domain attorney who reads my blog and has been quoted periodically.

He represents clients in the Atlantic Yards footprint on compensation issues, though not the larger challenges to the project. I will have to footnote future references to him.

1 comment:

  1. Go Norman! Well deserved.

    Izzy Stone would have been proud. (He would have probably accepted the award, too. I wonder if he would have blasted some of the previous winner sin his acceptance!)
    Paul Bass

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