Thursday, November 14, 2013

From Atlantic Yards, a basic journalism lesson: Just because someone important says something doesn't make it credible

I'm speaking to a journalism class soon, and I plan to share with them some examples and lessons from the Atlantic Yards saga.

Here's a key lesson: Just because someone important says something doesn't make it credible. You don't have to publish it without comment or rebuttal. After all, your job is to serve the readers.

Such coverage suffers from “The View from Nowhere”--as elucidated by NYU media scholar Jay Rosen--in which journalists position themselves between poles to appear impartial, no matter who’s lying.

As former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent wrote (It's Good to Be Objective. It's Even Better to Be Right., 11/14/04):
Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue; it doesn't require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight.
A preposterous claim

For example, consider the 7/27/05 board meeting in which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to negotiate exclusively with Forest City Ratner to develop the agency's Vanderbilt Yard, the single largest piece of land within the 22-acre Atlantic Yards footprint.

The MTA had put aside rival bidder Extell, which had bid more cash but didn't have an arena nor as fully developed a package--because, of course, it had six weeks to respond to a project percolating for two years.

The key explanation came from board chairman Peter Kalikow. “I’ve been in business for 38 years, and I’ve achieved a modicum of success though I’ve had my ups and downs,” declared Kalikow, as recorded by WNYC. “In all those years, I’ve never sent two tenants a lease for the same space at the same time. It’s just not right. It’s immoral. It’s not the way I like to do business.”

Not actually a "lease"
In the "paper of record," the New York Times let Kalikow’s bizarro analogy stand without clarification, though lower in the article an opponent of Ratner's bid did criticize the MTA's action.

By contrast, WNYC's Andrea Bernstein declared flatly, “This is of, course, not a lease. It’s a 45-day negotiation.”

Who served the readers more?

A preposterous timetable

Equally strange was the 7/5/05 front-page New York Times article, Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan, which covered the release of revised designs by Frank Gehry for the project.

Forget, for the moment, the oddness of the "Instant Skyline" claim; there was always a skyline, though the revised designs were slightly larger.

2011 not a plausible completion date
Consider that Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey was quoted as saying the arena was "planned to open for the 2008-9 basketball season... with the entire project completed as soon as 2011."

That unrebutted claim meant a six-year buildout. Was that in any way realistic? No.

It didn't require the reporter to find an "opponent" to argue against Stuckey. All it took was pointing out that the developer had announced in December 2003 that the project would take ten years to build--and the timetable was already behind.

True, the same reporters were not writing both the December 2003 and July 2005 articles and, actually, the earlier Times coverage did not mention the timeline. But it didn't take that much digging.

Of course later developer Bruce Ratner claimed that ten years wasn't a serious deadline either, and the history of bogus claims has been exposed, though not in the Times.

Rail yards not actually transformed

A 4/17/12 Times article on changes around the arena preceding its opening focused on retail changes near Flatbush Avenue, some accelerated by the arena and some already in process. An excerpt:
For Forest City Ratner, the developer of the project, which was strongly backed by many city leaders, the changes are evidence that the arena has already met its goal of transforming a dreary section of Brooklyn — the Long Island Rail Road’s rail yards and surrounding industrial buildings, which the company’s spokesman described as “ a scar that divided the neighborhood.”
“That’s a sign of economic vitality, something that’s good for the borough,” said Joe DePlasco, the Ratner spokesman.
That suggests that the project had already successfully transformed the "scar"--the blight that was the justification for eminent domain, the state's power to take private property, with just compensation.

Looking west toward the arena from Vanderbilt Avenue
Forest City Ratner hadn't even paid the MTA for the development rights to most of the railyard. It renegotiated a 22-year schedule to pay and, it turns out, has twice renegotiated the start date to the permanent railyard.

As for the "surrounding industrial buildings," the largest (the Ward Bakery) was torn down for the interim surface parking lot and other large ones were condo conversions torn down for the arena.

It's especially risky to relied on the self-serving claims of the developer's paid spokesmen. Their job is advocacy and spin, not analysis.

A simple photo might have sufficed. The "scar" remains: above right is what the rail yard looked like last month.

A candidate gets the benefit of the doubt

A 10/31/13 Times article about then-Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio's record ended with seven brief paragraphs about Atlantic Yards, setting up a he-said, she-said sequence:
But it was the Atlantic Yards project, a gigantic housing and arena development at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, that cemented the image of Mr. de Blasio in some critics’ minds as a too-willing partner for developers.

Eric McClure, a founder of the civic group Park Slope Neighbors, met with Mr. de Blasio, hoping that 2,200 signatures he had gathered on a petition would be enough to turn the councilman into a critic of the project. He did not succeed; Mr. de Blasio argued that development was needed to create affordable housing.

“He was insistent,” Mr. McClure recalled. “We had an affordable housing crisis, sometimes you have to do certain things to get that affordable housing built that might rub people the wrong way, but that was the ultimate goal, and for that reason he was for the project.”

Mr. de Blasio, according to Mr. McClure, acknowledged that Fourth Avenue “had not turned out the way he hoped.” But he argued that Atlantic Yards would be different, because Acorn, a community organizing group with which he had a long association, had joined the developer, Forest City Ratner, to see that the affordable housing was built.

The Barclays Center arena opened in 2012, but the first affordable apartments are still at least a year away. Critics say that Mr. de Blasio was too close to the developer, Bruce Ratner, who hosted a birthday fund-raiser for him, and did not push the firm, Forest City Ratner, to deliver the promised housing.
On Monday Mr. de Blasio blamed some “objective reasons” for the delay, but said “it’s clearly behind schedule,” and allowed that “there were missteps by everyone involved.” He said the next mayor needed to hold Forest City Ratner and state officials accountable.
“On my watch, it will happen,” he vowed.
But de Blasio did not deserve the last word. Nor should it be simply "critics" who challenge him, setting up a framework in which the implied truth is somewhere between the presumably self-serving critics and the candidate himself.

There were three ways to end this, and the Times took the laziest way out. Instead of giving de Blasio the last word, the Times could have gone back to a "critic" to point out why de Blasio shouldn't be trusted. Or the Times could have used its own "objective" journalistic voice to point out that de Blasio, ever quick with the press release as Public Advocate, said nothing critical of Atlantic Yards.

Consider more critical coverage in WNYC and Capital New York, with my comments linked, that was tougher on de Blasio.

As I wrote, he could be challenged on:
  • his failure, as Public Advocate, to issue any comment on Forest City's failure to meet its promised goal of 50% (in floor area) family-sized units in the first tower, which is under construction
  • how exactly he has, as he's claimed, "pressured" Forest City on the housing? (he's said nothing publicly)
  • his failure to say anything about Forest City's failure to hire the promised Independent Compliance Monitor required in the Community Benefits Agreement he championed
  • how he plans to speed such housing as mayor--does that mean he'll devote more subsidies?

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