Wednesday, November 07, 2012

My City Journal essay on the New York Times's record covering Atlantic Yards: "The Barclays Center's Media Enabler"

I have an essay in the online section of the urban-policy magazine City Journal, The Barclays Center’s Media Enabler: From the start, the New York Times was reluctant to challenge Brooklyn’s new arena.

An excerpt:
[The sanitized story] again signaled the paper’s inability to get tough on Forest City Ratner, the Times’s partner in the New York Times Building in midtown, which opened in November 2007. Atlantic Yards has involved nearly $300 million in direct subsidies from the state and city, substantial tax breaks, and an inside track (and discount) on public property for the developer, along with the state’s use of eminent domain to deliver purportedly blighted land for Ratner to warehouse. All of this presented ample opportunity for scrutiny.
...Ratner has enjoyed heavy-duty support from New York’s political class since announcing the project nearly a decade ago. That left the press as the only potential counterweight. The New York Daily News regularly cheered for Atlantic Yards. The newspaper now sponsors the Barclays Center plaza, and on October 28, it produced a 44-page special section, chock full of ads from arena sponsors. The New York Post, while occasionally critical, never really dug, while its sports page was predictably enthusiastic. That left the Times. While it occasionally broke news, the paper never truly mustered the effort to dissect Atlantic Yards. The Times ignored important events or relegated coverage to its online edition. Except for a 15-month stretch ending in 2006, the paper failed to make Atlantic Yards one reporter’s responsibility, losing institutional memory.
If there was no newsroom thumb on the scale for Ratner, neither did anyone dig too hard... Outside the newsroom, the Times’s preferences were more glaring.
For the rest of the article, click here.

Eminent domain

City Journal, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute ("new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility"), frequently challenges the Times and is a critic of eminent domain. (See the Winter 2010 article regarding Atlantic Yards, Eminent Domain as Central Planning, by Nicole Gelinas.)

With Atlantic Yards, it should be noted, critics of eminent domain span the political spectrum; after all, a leading voice slamming New York state's condemnor-friendly laws is longtime civil libertarian Norman Siegel, while liberal New Jersey law professor Ronald Chen has declared that "the New York Court of Appeals basically abdicated any meaningful role for the judiciary in determining whether a blight designation even passed the laugh test."

Beyond the article

Given the space constraints, there's much I can't address in the article, so I'll augment it here.

Do I recognize that the Times's staff was shrinking and that it's tough to cover complex stories? Yes. Do I recognize that the Times missed other big stories, such as NYU's absorption of Polytechnic University? Yes.

Doesn't coverage of Atlantic Yards reflect the fact that Brooklyn still lags in comparison to coverage of Manhattan? Probably. Do I think Times coverage suffered from “The View from Nowhere”--as detailed by NYU media scholar Jay Rosen--in which journalists position themselves between poles to appear impartial, no matter who’s lying? Yes.

Do I think those are excuses? No, not for not showing up or ignoring counter-evidence--especially with the copious information available from others' reportage (including this blog) and Brooklyn activists.

Yes, the Times has done some good work in the midst of its erratic, inadequate coverage. But the Times has made numerous groaningly bad calls, some cited in my City Journal article (the MTA deal, the Community Benefits Agreement, hyping Jay-Z, etc.), others not. Here are some of the latter:
  • critic Herbert Muschamp, in his rapturous 12/11/03 essay hailing Atlantic Yards, claimed, in glaring error, “The six-block site... is now an open railyard.” The Times wouldn't correct it
  • a 11/6/05 article that allowed Forest City Ratner point man Jim Stuckey to claim that criticism of the developer was "Orwellian, almost"
  • the 9/5/06 lead story that treated rumors of a 6-8% scaleback in Atlantic Yards as big news, even though that would bring the project back to the square footage initially announced
  • a month after Atlantic Yards was first approved, the Bloomberg administration in January 2007, quietly doubled the size of its direct subsidy for Atlantic Yards, to $205 million (now closer to $180 million). The Times waited until 4/5/07 to backhandedly mention the subsidy increase
  • the newspaper failed to cover the 5/29/09 state Senate hearing on Atlantic Yards, the only such state oversight hearing in the project's history
  • the Times on 4/17/12 unskeptical transmitted Forest City Ratner's claim that retail changes on and around Flatbush Avenue were "evidence that the arena has already met its goal of transforming a dreary section of Brooklyn," including the railyards--but they remained undeveloped
What it meant

Tougher Times coverage might not have killed Atlantic Yards. More responsible coverage, however, could have helped shape deals more in the public interest, delivered a project with less neighborhood damage, and dissected the flaws in the eminent domain process.

Above all, such coverage would have put public on notice that such high-stakes, decades-long real estate development demands steady skepticism and democratic oversight. Even after the project has been approved.

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