Monday, June 27, 2011

The demise of the New York Times's once-routine Forest City Ratner disclosure (as mandated by the Public Editor), and another reason why it's meaningful

The New York Times has much less frequently been appending a once routine disclosure to its articles about Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project. And that's meaningful for a reason I haven't previously stressed.

Consider, for example, the 6/24/11 blog post headlined In Brooklyn, the Rats Move Out Before the Nets Move In. No disclosure appeared, though an 11/25/09 article, Ruling Lets Atlantic Yards Seize Land, contains such a disclosure:
The company, which was the development partner for the Midtown headquarters for The New York Times Company...
Disclosure dropped

No did such disclosure appear in the 6/16/11 review of the new documentary Battle for Brooklyn, the 3/17/11 article headlined Prefabricated Tower May Rise at Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards, and, more crucially, a 3/18/11 article headlined With Federal Case and Modular Building Plan, New Attention for Atlantic Yards Project.

Why was that more crucial? Because, as the headline suggests, the Times itself is responsible for part of the new attention and, as I wrote, the Times soft-pedaled a key issue: Forest City Ratner's apparent exploitation of the federal government's EB-5 investment immigration program.

Importance of disclosure

There are at least two significant reasons why disclosure is important, and one of them I haven't previously stressed.

The more obvious reason is that disclosure puts readers on alert, as well as reporters and editors, that Times coverage should be exacting--and sometimes it isn't.

The other is simply that it should put readers, reporters, and editors on notice that Times coverage should appear in the print paper, not, as with the article on rats, relegated to the City Room blog.

In other words, the disclosure, along with the decision to publish only online, should get readers wondering whether there's any connection. And it should get reporters and editors wondering how such decisions are perceived.

The Page One review

As Michael D. D. White points out in his Noticing New York review of the new documentary Page One:
It is easy to make that case by pointing out that the narrative of “Battle For Brooklyn” has been largely unreported by the Times... 

“Page One” convinces us that the Times is a superlative newspaper, one that can and should be held in high esteem in many regards. It is. But there is a story going on the Times own doorstep which the Times reporting is not doing justice and that may soon be discovered to be a bigger part of the story than many now imagine.

The obligation being ignored

Former Public Editor Byron Calame, in a 6/25/05 blog post, Full Disclosure of Ties with Bruce Ratner, cautioned:
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.

...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.
That obligation is being ignored too often.

(As I point out today, the Times, thanks to a quirk in its content management system, no longer attributes that post to Calame.)

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