Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New York Times Sports section buffs Prokhorov, ignores unflattering details; shouldn't the Times disclose business relationship? (updated)

Updated below with response from the Times's Sports editor and my response.

New York Times sports reporter Howard Beck, in an article headlined
Russian Billionaire Is White Knight for the Nets, buffs expected Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov:
But we will soon begin to see what one hypercompetitive individual with a bottomless bank account can do for a team.

The 44-year-old Prokhorov, the second-richest man in Russia, is expected to assume control of the woebegone Nets within the next few weeks. It may be the most anticipated ownership change in N.B.A. history.

Prokhorov is relatively young, wealthy, charming, tall, athletic and adventurous, a modern-day renaissance man with an air of cold war mystique. He could pass for a Bond villain, or a double agent in a Tom Clancy novel. The NetsDaily blog has dubbed him “the Most Interesting Man in the World,” after the suave fellow in the beer commercials.
Beck, with the assistance of two Times reporters, quoted the following sources in the article: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, agent Marc Cornstein, former CSKA Moscow (and Prokhorov employee) Ettore Messina, former CSKA president Sergei Kuschenko, and Russan sports journalist Andrei Mitkov.

Beck writes:
When a “60 Minutes” interview veered into sensitive areas, like his 2007 run-in with the French police over suspected prostitution, Prokhorov defused the tension with humor and an impish smile.
What's missing

Here's what's missing from the piece: questions about Prokhorov's business practices, including alleged sanctions-busting in Zimbabwe; Prokhorov's use of sports as a platform for business investment in the United States; and Prokhorov's belief that, despite the Kremlin connections that fostered his wealth, he's a self-made man.

Remember, even mostly-fawning 60 Minutes described his stake in Norilsk Nickel as part of a process "probably not even legal under Western standards."

As for "the most interesting man in the world," could that really be ascribed to someone with such a Luddite streak? Remember, Prokhorov doesn't use a cell phone or a computer.

Disclosure missing

Missing from the article is any disclosure that Prokhorov, slated to buy 80% of the Nets, would also own 45% of the Atlantic Yards arena in partnership with a Forest City Ratner entity.

Forest City Ratner was the New York Times's business partner in the Times Tower, and the Times still (intermittently) discloses that relationship.

The then–Public Editor, Byron Calame, wrote 6/29/05:
The New York Times, I believe, has an obligation to alert readers when they are reading substantive articles about a company or individual with whom the newspaper has some business or professional relationship.

This obligation wasn’t fulfilled Sunday when the chatty “Questions for Bruce Ratner” in The New York Times Magazine failed to mention that the real estate developer and the parent company of this newspaper are partners in the construction of the The Times’s new headquarters in Manhattan. Given the smiling, page-high cutout photograph of Mr. Ratner that accompanied the article, it was an especially inopportune time to fail to mention his ties to The Times.

But it appears to be an unusual lapse. The Sunday article spurred me to check on how the paper has been doing overall during the past two years. Mr. Ratner’s project with The Times was mentioned almost every time he had a substantive role in an article.

Consistent disclosure of the newspaper’s relationship with Mr. Ratner is especially relevant as he moves ahead with plans to build an arena for the Nets in Brooklyn as part of a broader real estate project there. There’s vocal opposition to the Brooklyn project — and The Times will have to cover it. All the while, work will be proceeding on The Times’s new headquarters across the street from the Port Authority.

The Times’s most important obligation, of course, is to make sure there’s no bias in any articles it does publish about Mr. Ratner. But avoiding the perception of any tilt toward Mr. Ratner in its pages is also essential. One of the best ways to avoid a perception problem is to make certain that substantive articles about Mr. Ratner and his real estate dealings include full disclosure about his business relationship with The Times.

Contact the Public Editor

Shouldn't the guidelines Calame set out for coverage of Ratner apply to the Times's coverage of Ratner's business partner in the arena, Mikhail Prokhorov?

The current Public Editor is Clark Hoyt: public@nytimes.com.

Letter to the Public Editor
Dear Mr. Hoyt,

I write yet again about the New York Times's questionable coverage of Atlantic Yards.

Today, the Sports section produced a very flattering portrayal of prospective Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Missing are several less-flattering details about Prokhorov's business practices.
http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2010/04/new-york-times-sports-section-buffs.html

Also missing is any disclosure of the Times's ties to Prokhorov.

What, you might ask, are those ties? Well, the Times regularly discloses its business relationship with Forest City Ratner, developer of the Atlantic Yards project and former partner of the Times on the Times Tower.

Prokhorov not only will buy most of the Nets, he'll buy 45% of the Atlantic Yards arena. In other words, the interests of Prokhorov and Ratner are intertwined.

If the Times's disclosure policy has any consistency, it should extend to Prokhorov.

And then it might lead to some caution regarding cheerleading articles such as the one published today.
(I forwarded the letter to Sports Editor Tom Jolly, as well.)

Response from Tom Jolly
Dear Mr. Oder,

The concerns you raise are not new, as you know. We've dealt with similar ownership issues relating to The New York Times Company's ownership of the Boston Red Sox and we've followed the same practice in regard to the Times Company's relationship with Bruce Ratner. If the story deals with real estate or business issues beyond the playing field (or court, in this case) and the Times's relationship is pertinent, we note it paranthetically.

The story you refer to is focused narrowly on how Mikael Prokhorov might use his money to improve the basketball team. He is not someone we have written about on only one occasion, nor are the Nets or Atlantic Yards. Given that, it's reasonable to expect that most of our readers have an understanding that there are other issues around him, the team and the community -- in no small part because of your efforts to keep those issues in the public consciousness.

As has been the case in the past, we will address those other issues, both in the sports and metro sections, as they become pertinent to a particular development or story. In fact, we are reporting another story that touches on one of the issues you raise about Prokhorov and, if the reporting leads to an article, I expect you'll see it soon.
My response
Dear Mr. Jolly,

Thanks for your quick response.

I understand how game coverage should exclude the ownership issue and I understand your general reasoning.

However, I think you should consider the broader picture, including Mikhail Prokhorov's goal to use the team and arena as a springboard for American business opportunities.

Coverage of Prokhorov as team owner cannot be disconnected from coverage of Prokhorov as arena co-owner. (After all, an improved team makes the arena a much more viable business.) And that can't be disconnected from co-owner Forest City Ratner, the NYT's partner.

While the story may be "focused narrowly on how Prokhorov might use his money to improve the basketball team," the portrait is wholly admiring, with the only reference to any warts a description of how Prokhorov "defused the tension with humor and an impish smile."

Disclosure, presumably, would serve as a caution to Times editorial staff and readers that the Times's coverage should be careful, rather than cheerleading.

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