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Columnist Louis resorts to name-calling, still bypasses facts

In his latest Commerce and Community column, in the 7/1/06 issue of the Bed-Stuy-based Our Time Press, Errol Louis devotes the longest segment to an attack on me. Given that Louis doesn't respond to the errors I've found in his and others' writings, it's a journalistic version of an old lawyer joke: "When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. When both are against you, call the other lawyer names."

In the column, titled Atlantic Yards and the Oder Effect (it likely will remain online only briefly), Louis writes:
Continuing a strategy that is guaranteed to backfire, opponents of the proposed $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards Development continue to demonize anyone who won’t fall in line and join them in trying to kill the project. One of the leaders of the effort, a blogger named Norman Oder, makes a specialty of attacking journalists (including yours truly) by generating vast, tedious tomes of "analysis" that inevitably lead to the same self-serving conclusion: that nobody, but nobody – not one single member of the small army of reporters that has been following the project for years – knows as much about Atlantic Yards as Norm Oder. And therefore, nobody should write a word about it that doesn’t follow his line.

Louis, who is also a columnist for the Daily News, disparages the messenger rather than apologizes to his readers for the misinformation in his previous columns. As for Louis's journalistic role, consider his words, according to an 11/24/04 Brooklyn Downtown Star article :
"I'm not a reporter," he explained to the several reporters present. "I'm an opinion journalist. If I didn't have an opinion, they'd fire me."

Opinions and facts

There's nothing wrong with having an opinion, but opinions are more compelling if grounded in facts. Unfortunately, Louis too often ignores relevant facts.

Had he followed the project more closely and had he gone to the May 2005 City Council hearing on Atlantic Yards (or read the transcript), he would've known better than to write that Brooklyn politicians who have already wasted years opposing the project... should be negotiating the details of exactly how to make sure the coming jobs go to constituents who need it. That's because the lion's share of the jobs, the office jobs, are beyond any negotiations, as I've had to point out more than once.

Had he followed the project more closely, he would have followed up on his 1/6/04 New York Sun column, headlined Brooklyn in the Balance, in which he contrasted the NIMBY attitudes he perceived from arena opponents with the proactive, community-based role of the nation’s first university-based neighborhood planning organization, the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, where I work part-time.

In March 2005, the Pratt Center released a report, Slam Dunk or Air Ball? A Preliminary Planning Analysis of the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards Project, which said that "the process through which this development has been advanced has not been sufficiently fair or accountable" and observed that, without further information on traffic impacts and public subsidies, it is "impossible to render informed judgment on the project."

Has Louis mentioned this report? No, according to a search of the archive of the Daily News, his current citywide platform.

Defending the Crain's editor

Louis continues:
One of Oder’s most recent slash-and-burn efforts was directed at Greg David, the editor of Crain’s New York. "Crain’s editor Greg David gets it wrong," said Oder’s headline. But the article itself, as usual, contained little substance beyond a long line-by-line nit-picking whine about Crain’s article, combined with a rehash of the talking points opponents always use: that the project will be too big; that it will bring too many people to Prospect Heights; and that the many, many groups and individuals who support the project are either ignorant of the facts or corrupt dupes of the developer.

Little substance? David declared that Forest City Ratner decreased the amount of office space because of 9/11. However, the office space was announced in December 2003 and decreased in May 2005. Should the editor of the city's business newspaper have such a shaky grasp of the project timeline?

Looking at the economics

Louis writes:
In a typical line, Oder says: "As for the economics of the plan, why does David trust Ratner’s claims, given that the developer has been unwilling to produce his economic projections for the project?" In the world of real journalism, as opposed to Oder’s party-line manifestos, the job of the writer is to gather information, inform the readers where it comes from, then analyze it and move on.

So a columnist who seems research-averse chides me about "real journalism." The bidders for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard were supposed to provide their 20-year economic projections. Rival bidder Extell did so; Forest City Ratner did not.

As for "party-line manifestos," I've analyzed the various sources, several of them governmental, to conclude that FCR's claim of $6 billion in new revenue isn't credible. No one else in the press has attempted such a watchdog role.

Not everyone shares Louis's take. One of his Daily News colleagues, sports columnist Michael O'Keeffe, writing in the iTeam blog in May, declared my blog a "regular must-read" and added, Oder is certainly no fan of the Nets owner’s gargantuan proposal, but his blog is intelligent and well-reported.

The Times and "Downtown Brooklyn"

Louis continues:
But Greg David didn’t do the proper antiproject dance, so he got added to the Oder hit list. Oder has also gone after the Daily News, and by now has made a cottage industry out of nit-picking every word written about Atlantic Yards in the New York Times – including an especially silly minicampaign that accused the Times of deliberate bias for referring to the project’s location as Downtown Brooklyn, rather than Prospect Heights. Oder, who lives in Park Slope, probably has no idea that folks in East New York, Coney Island, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy and even Crown Heights routinely refer to Fort Greene and anything near Atlantic Terminal as downtown. Understanding that would require knowledge of the borough outside of Park Slope.

Silly? Why then did the Times publish a megacorrection that gained the attention of the trade magazine Editor & Publisher? Note that the Department of City Planning, which worked on rezoning the downtown area, and the authoritative book Neighborhoods of Brooklyn do not consider Downtown Brooklyn to include the proposed project footprint.

I haven't accused the Times of deliberate bias. I accused the newspaper of repeatedly making mistakes, and pointed out that, after the Metro section had become meticulous in its descriptions, the rest of the paper had not followed suit. (That's evidence of clumsiness, not bias.) Unlike Louis, the Times will sometimes own up to its mistakes.

As for my "knowledge of the borough outside of Park Slope," Louis doesn't know where I've been, who I've talked (and listened) to, or what I've read during my 15 years in Brooklyn, so he resorts to a smear.

Mad math

Louis writes:
I call Oder the "Mad Overkiller". My last article about Atlantic Yards ran 626 words; Oder wrote more than 2,300 words to attack it. Oder’s inability to form a concise argument is more than just a sign of weak writing skills: there’s also an attempt to accomplish, on a small scale, what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did to candidate John Kerry in the 2004 presidential elections.

Louis can't get his basic facts straight. My column covered not one but two Errol Louis articles on Atlantic Yards. Nearly a third of my column consisted of direct quotes--from Louis, people testifying at City Council, and other sources.

More importantly, the space available on the web allows for thorough analysis and transparent factchecking. Does Louis really think that the largest project in the history of Brooklyn gets enough coverage from the Manhattan-based media? His newspaper, the Daily News, didn't even cover the session held last month by the Municipal Art Society, which drew more than 400 people to hear about design principles for the Atlantic Yards project.

Swift Boat sliming?

Louis continues:
The Swift Boat people slimed Kerry up and down, over and over, publishing charges that were marginally true and in some cases completely false. Kerry made the mistake of not responding to each charge. That allowed the Swift Boat faction to build a mountain of damaging charges that like-minded people dutifully cited and cross-referenced through the magic of the Web. Eventually, newcomers to the debate, including members of the media, looked at the mountain of cross-references and, unable to plow through every accusation, gave the whole smear far more truth and credibility than it deserved. By the time Kerry woke up, it was too late to undo the damage.

So why hasn't Louis addressed the following issues:
--He wrote that his claim of 15,000 permanent jobs was just an estimate, but that the important thing was that there would be jobs. Doesn't he think that a 75% cut from that number is a meaningful difference?
--He wrote that politicians should negotiate the remaining jobs at the project. I pointed out that negotiation had already concluded about construction jobs, and that the largest share, the office jobs, were outside political control. So what set of jobs is he talking about, and how many?
--He related the Supreme Court's Kelo eminent domain decision to "places like Prospect Heights, where the railyards have been basically untouched for about a half a century..." But how does that fit, given the railyards could have been put out for bid anytime and are not subject to eminent domain?

Misunderstanding links

Louis may not understand how blogging works. He writes:
Something similar is being attempted on the Atlantic Yards Project. Three blogs might cite a post by Oder – but when you probe his writings, half the references are to earlier Oder blog posts. The effect is like walking down a hall of mirrors with the same dubious accusations multiplied as if by magic.

While I do cite my previous posts, that's merely to point out how basic factual issues must be revisited again and again. Ultimately, my blog points to sources--articles, reports, and other documents. It's far more transparent than trusting Louis in print.

Fundamentally dishonest?

Here's Louis's closing:
But more and more journalists are getting wise to the game. The main result of the bloggers’ attacks on the media is the creation of a large and growing club of journalists (welcome, Mr. David) who dismiss the opponents as not only misguided and rude, but engaged in a fundamentally dishonest exercise.

Fundamentally dishonest? I source my conclusions, and if I make an error, I correct it.

Consider that, after I wrote last December that Louis "ran" for City Council, he sent a followup e-mail saying that "I never officially declared, never formed a campaign committee, circulated no petitions and was enrolled in law school weeks before Primary Day. In other words, I did not run for council in 2001."

I printed his response, along with links to contemporaneous news coverage that described him as leaving the race for City Council, after losing an endorsement to Letitia James. So he was in the race but he didn't "run."

And Louis accuses me of nit-picking.


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