Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Sydney Schanberg back story: "the city's newspapers, like the big politicians," were part of "the shame of Westway"

The other day, in writing about the estimable Times Metro columnist Michael Powell's understandable but still dismaying decision to steer clear of the Yonkers corruption trial, I made reference to columnist Sydney Schanberg, who crossed a line with his bosses in the mid-1980s.

The episode is instructive, though it doesn't suggest direct parallels, since Schanberg was an opinion columnist, on the Op-Ed page, while Powell is a Metro columnist, his conclusions based more firmly in reporting.

Could you imagine if the Times had an Op-Ed columnist willing to critique the paper itself? What might he/she have said about that softball interview with Bruce Ratner last week, which didn't even mention the Yonkers corruption trial that, even to a business booster like Greg David of Crain's, made the company look bad?

Or what might such a columnist say about the Times's Sunday Real Estate section, which has nothing to say to the 99%--or, in New York City, maybe the 80%.

The back story

Here's the key passage from Eric Alterman's 1992 book Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (p. 142):
The hero of the film The Killing Fields, Schanberg refused to cozy up to his publisher's pals and, rather amazingly, did not exempt the Times itself from criticism. Shortly before he went on vacation in July 1985, Schanberg wrote three columns in a row on subjects of particular sensitivity to the Times management. In the final one, he attacked the paper's news judgment in ignoring a series of scandals involving the construction of the Westway superhighway on Manhattan's West Side at the same time that it devoted fawning coverage to the chef of a popular new Cajun restaurant facing licensing problems. The Times editorial page, along with most of the city's power structure, was committed to Westway. That "the city's newspapers, like the big politicians" had "ignored most of the scandal" was part, in Schanberg's view, "of the shame of Westway." When Schanberg returned from his fishing trip in upstate New York, he was summoned to the office of publisher Punch Sulzberger's assistant, Sidney [actually: Sydney] Gruson. There he was given the bad news: there would be no Sydney Schanberg column the next day. Shocked and angered, Schanberg wanted to fight. he told Gruson, "You cannot keep your trust by killing a voice. An op-ed page is dedicated to diversity," he insisted. "You have put a taint on the Times." Gruson remembers telling Schanberg that he and the publisher "found the tone of the column to be too shrill." Nor did Gruson or Sulzberger approve of the way Schanberg returned to the question of New York real estate developers "day after day." Finally, to imply, as Schanberg had, "venality on the part of the Times with regard to Westway, that was more than we could accept." When Schanberg asked just how the paper planned to announce this, Schanberg says Gruson replied, "I'm not going to tell anyone. Are you going to tell anyone?"
From Schanberg's last column, Cajun Flies and Westway, 7/27/85:
Our newspapers, oddly, can't seem to find space for Westway and its scandal. The lone exception in the region is The Newark Star-Ledger, which has lately provided first-rate coverage. It is hard to understand the silence.
As a public works project, the Westway plan may be this generation's largest suggested misuse of scarce public funds, but we do owe it an educational debt - as a wondrous, unfolding case study of wheeling and stealing on a grand scale. Rather than using the money to build this brief underground highway through landfill that will gouge 200 acres out of the Hudson so that developers can erect luxury apartment towers on Lower Manhattan's West Side waterfront, we could spend it instead on an ordinary road that would move vehicles just as well. By that method -known as the ''trade-in'' alternative - we would have possibly $1 billion left over for rehabilitating the subways, which can use all the help they can get.
But the trade-in idea doesn't have many big friends in this city. The big unions say Westway will mean jobs. Big business says it will mean big business. The politicians don't want to offend anyone big because it's the big people who pay for their election campaigns.
...The city's newspapers, like the big politicians, have also ignored most of the scandal. The New York dailies, strangely asleep, run only occasional bland stories, sometimes just snippets - rarely anything about the chicanery. That, too, is part of the shame of Westway. 
And now

When Greg David of business-friendly Crain's suggests that the dailies under-covered the Yonkers trial, giving Ratner a pass, that's worth noticing. And, yes, the Times has picked up coverage of the defense case. But the newspaper missed the chance to cover the Forest City Ratner in detail.

And even in covering the defense case, the Times's beat reporter missed a piece of piquant testimony regarding Forest City Ratner's due diligence: Zehy Jereis, the fixer Forest City hired for an essentially no-show job, had such nonexistent computer skills he was incapable of creating a Word document.

(The reporter had actually left the courtroom, presumably calculating, not implausibly, that he had more than enough material from Jereis's direct testimony to fill the allotted space.)

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