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An open letter to the New York Times Public Editor: when it comes to Atlantic Yards, the editor heading the Corrections desk denies reality

Dear Ms. Sullivan,

On Saturday, Sept. 22, I attempted to get the New York Times to correct three clear, easily checkable errors in the upcoming Sept. 23 cover story in the Metropolitan section by Liz Robbins about the new Brooklyn arena, headlined In Brooklyn, Bracing for Hurricane Barclays.

I wrote to, among other people, Senior Editor in charge of Corrections Greg Brock, last month lauded by your predecessor as leading a "powerful engine of accountability."

My experience with Mr. Brock, unfortunately, has gone in the exact opposite direction: a tendency to downplay, disavow, and evade errors, coupled with a reflexive nastiness that is unworthy of that position.

The upshot: the uncorrected errors led to a less skeptical view of the controversial Atlantic Yards project than the facts would suggest.

Please take a look at this verbatim correspondence, augmented only by graphics and slight punctuation changes.

My letter: citing three errors

[The material in quotation marks is from the Times.]

1) "An independent compliance monitor was supposed to determine if the company hit its targets. If not, it would pay $500,000 to be used by the lead signatory, Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, or Build, a job-training group that, financed by Forest City, operates out of MetroTech. The monitor has yet to be hired."

The Community Benefits Agreement, on p. 9, makes reference to the compliance monitor. The $500,000 penalty, referenced on p. 14, refers only to the obligations to fund pre-apprentice training. In other words, if other targets are not met, the developer does not face a penalty. (And, of course, there's no monitor yet.)

2) "Forest City never clearly announced the number of jobs it would deliver."

Actually, in the developer's initial p.r. packet, it announced more than 10,000 office jobs and 15,000 construction jobs. P. 5 here.

That promise was echoed in promotional fliers, such as this.

3) "In June 2005, it signed a 'Community Benefits Agreement' with eight nonprofit organizations, establishing obligations of housing and hiring, and vowing to create amenities like a health care center, a meditation room, a school and eight acres of open space. The deal, lacking city authority, had inherent conflicts; three of the signatories got financing from Forest City."

Please note: none of the organizations, as far as I know, had financing from Forest City by the time of the deal. However, Forest City in 2009 acknowledged (video) "funding obligations and commitments to each of the organizations."

Brock's response

Dear Mr. Oder:

Years ago we drew up an extensive “fact sheet” on Atlantic Yards. And on top of that, our reporters, when writing new articles, fact-check everything a second and third time.

From a news standpoint, all of the three points are accurately reported in Liz’s article. Perhaps to someone who is an advocate or has an agenda, they are not. But there are no factual errors and there will be no correction.

Here is our fact-checking on these three specific points.
1. Liz asked Joe DePlasco, chief spokesman for Forest City, to clarify the $500,000 and he said it was payable to the executive board to be used by BUILD.
2. Promotional material from a PR company does consist of an announcement form Forest City. Regardless, we still asked Mr. DePlasco this and he confirmed our reporting – which is not based on PR releases.
3. As for the three signatories receiving financing, what we wrote is correct. BUILD, Acorn and Rev Daughtry's group all received seed money or political contributions. We have reported this in past articles (written by Nick Confessore). These are the three associations we can definitively say, based on Liz’s own reporting, that received money from Forest City

Sincerely,
Greg

My response

Dear Mr. Brock,

On behalf of the agenda of empiricism, I encourage you to consider the following:

1) It may seem like a small point, but again I point you to the underlying document, the Community Benefits Agreement, which states that the $500,000 is payable only in the case of the failure to pursue the job training obligations. Imagine if--as it has been inaccurately reported by other media outlets--it was possible for Forest City to get out of its affordable housing obligations by paying just $500,000.

2) I'm not sure whether you meant that "Promotional material from a PR company does [or does not] consist of an announcement form Forest City." Needless to say, Forest City worked with the PR company to produce that announcement. Moreover, as I indicated, Forest City's own promotional flier made the same claims: 10,000 office jobs, 15,000 construction jobs. (If you are in fact arguing that promotional material does not constitute an announcement from Forest City, I wonder how you can rely on information from Mr. DePlasco, who works for a promotional company engaged by Forest City.)

3) It's true that the three Community Benefits Agreement signatories you cite received financing. But the sentence as published is imprecise; it leaves the impression that the other five organizations did not receive funding. However, as subsequent reporting indicated, another organization announced funding.

And, as indicated in the video, Forest City acknowledged "funding obligations and commitments to each of the organizations." Perhaps this was not in the Times's clip file or brought up with the agenda-driven Mr. DePlasco. But it is empirical evidence nonetheless.

Regards,
Norman Oder

For the public editor

Ms. Sullivan, we have a problem here. The editor in charge of the Times's Corrections believes that the newspaper can create its own reality. (Mr. Brock did not respond to my second message.)

That reality relies on information from a public relations officer working for Forest City, which apparently trumps actual documents. It also relies on a self-referential clip file rather than an effort to canvass--or, after the fact, to acknowledge--others' reporting.

What makes this doubly disturbing is that the Times--and I know you're only concerned with coverage during your tenure--has, I'd contend, treated Forest City Ratner and its Atlantic Yards project rather gently.

Consider the editorial Sept. 21, which relies on a single source, Forest City executive MaryAnne Gilmartin, or today's softball interview with Gilmartin. Contrast them with the dubious coverage yesterday of Atlantic Yards opponent Daniel Goldstein.

The Sept. 22 article, interestingly enough, was perhaps the least gentle example, but as the correction request indicated, the errors redound to the benefit of the developer. Indeed, the article could have been much tougher in several places, as I wrote.

It should be noticed that, in that article and the one today, the Times was diligent about disclosing the newspaper's business relationship with Forest City Ratner, partner in building the Times Tower.

However, the Times has been very inconsistent about that once-routine disclosure, including in its Sept. 21 editorial, which offered measured praise for the project. Wouldn't such an editorial--more gentle than merited, I'd contend, given the numerous unfulfilled promises regarding Atlantic Yards and the Culture of Cheating--have been exactly the time to disclose the relationship?

Regards,
Norman Oder
Atlantic Yards Report
Brooklyn, NY

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