Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To the Times's new Public Editor: Get up to speed on Atlantic Yards

Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times's new (and fourth) Public Editor, wrote his debut column, Why I Would Do This, on August 29.

I posted a comment, which appeared yesterday:
Mr. Brisbane, welcome.

Please consider reconsidering one of your fundamental beliefs: "I believe there is no conspiracy. Neither Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. nor Bill Keller is the Wizard of Oz, dictating an agenda from behind a screen."

Well, I don't believe Keller dictates an agenda. But the impact of a non-agenda--an unwillingness to devote consistent resources and attention to a controversy like Atlantic Yards, the massive development project in Brooklyn--means that coverage gets scanted.

Consider that, at the arena groundbreaking in March, the Times sent a reporter who had never covered the project and swallowed whole some dubious predictions.

And it's naive to say that Sulzberger's views don't hold sway. As editorial writer Carolyn Curiel once said, "Our goal is to reflect the spirit of the Times and the opinion of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr."

Is that an agenda? Not always. But consider that Atlantic Yards is the work of the developer Forest City Ratner, business partner of the New York Times Company in the recently constructed Times Tower. E&P wrote about how the newspaper guaranteed a loan to the developer but never disclosed it.

While the Times editorial page generally favors Atlantic Yards, it argued three times that direct city and state subsidies were unnecessary, and that developer Bruce Ratner should pay his own way. That was not to be.

Then the public subsidy increased. In March 2007, after the city subsidy more than doubled, the Times passed on an opportunity to restate its stance. And last year, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority revised a deal in Ratner's favor, the Daily News endorsed it, the Post criticized it, and the Times was rendered mute. More here.

I know, I know. As a new Public Editor, you only look forward, not back. But you should know that the Times, in editorial, op-ed, and news coverage of Atlantic Yards, has not come close to meeting its standards.

(I write this having examined and critiqued the Times coverage for more than five years and, yes, having an op-ed on Atlantic Yards finally published this past June.)

Your predecessors as Public Editors have not distinguished themselves regarding Atlantic Yards, either offering weak defenses of the newspaper or ignoring issues completely.

(The Times followed up on the ACORN/Forest City Ratner story six months later, parenthetically.)

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