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The Times's deceptive 421-a coverage--and the need for more disclosure

I’ve argued time and again that the New York Times should take special care in its coverage of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project, given the parent New York Times Company’s business partnership with the developer in the new Times Tower. And, as evidenced most recently in coverage a special tax break for the developer, the Times has failed.

In other words, Atlantic Yards deserves the same care that Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, in a column yesterday headlined When the Issue Is War, Take Nothing for Granted, urges for highly contested topics such as the potential for war with Iran.

Regading Iran, Hoyt concluded that the Times’s coverage has generally been good, but he still has some qualms, writing:
But there are special lengths that The Times — or any other news organization — must go to when dealing with an issue so protracted, so complicated, and so politicized. It must take pains when reporting today’s events to add yesterday’s perspective. It must attribute information exhaustively to keep sources’ credibility and motives in view. And it must be willing to revisit old ground when new developments change the context.

Looking at Atlantic Yards

Let’s apply that standard to coverage of Atlantic Yards, specifically coverage of the “Atlantic Yards carve-out” that remains part of the state legislature’s revision of the 421-a tax break, which awaits Gov. Eliot Spitzer's signature.

The law gives a tax break to new construction but in certain areas--a zone extended by the revision--only if affordable housing is included. On August 8, I analyzed the Times’s coverage, and it’s worth another look.

The Times reported, in an article headlined (online) Bill Aims to Spur Housing for New York’s Poor:
In addition, the Legislature’s [earlier] bill gave a new break to the Forest City Ratner Companies, the developer of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. City officials estimated that the bill gave Forest City Ratner an additional $300 million worth of 421-a benefits than what it would otherwise have received….
As for Atlantic Yards, city officials said the new agreement represents a fair compromise. To receive the maximum tax break, 20 percent of the units in any building will have to meet the new affordability guidelines, which are more stringent than those that originally applied.

(Emphasis added)

The reportage in this segment does not meet a minimum standard of good journalism, must less Hoyt’s more stringent guidelines.

The basic question for any reporter and editor should have been: if the previous iteration of the bill was to give a special $300 million 25-year tax break to Forest City Ratner, would the revision maintain any tax break or eliminate it?

The article doesn’t answer that question but leaves the impression that the tax break might be gone. Rather, a tax break worth $150-$200 million would remain, as reported by the Post and the Sun.

The Times failed to mention that AY condo buildings could still receive a special 15-year tax break. And the use of the word "originally applied" is very ambiguous. The new affordability guidelines are more stringent than those currently in place, but they are less stringent than the bill as passed by City Council and as originally passed by the State Legislature.

The bottom line is this: whether or not the guidelines are “more stringent than originally applied,” Forest City Ratner would still get special treatment.

A higher standard

Let’s look at the three guidelines promulgated by Public Editor Hoyt.

1) Adding yesterday’s perspective

The Times, in previous coverage, had raised more questions. A 6/29/07 article headlined City's Plans For Housing Flop in Albany reported:
But the bill would also provide what the city estimates are an additional $300 million in tax breaks for the vast Atlantic Yards complex being developed by Forest City Ratner Companies, the development partner with The New York Times Company in the Times' new Midtown headquarters, without getting any additional affordable units in return. [Assembly Housing Chairman] Mr. [Vito] Lopez said it was a concession sought during negotiations with Mr. Spinola and the Senate over his bill.
…Yet, State Senator Frank Padavan, a fellow Republican, contends that the Senate bill was rushed through with little discussion of the special deals for developers like Forest City. ''It didn't pass the smell test,'' he said.


So, the obvious questions would be: Does the revised bill pass the smell test? Were any critics of the carve-out quoted? No and no.

2) Sources' motives and credibility

While city officials “said the new agreement represents a fair compromise,” that doesn’t mean that we’ve been told enough, as Hoyt urges, “to keep sources’ credibility and motives in view.”

The city was negotiating with Lopez regarding the neighborhoods subject to the requirement, under 421-a, of providing affordable housing in exchange for the tax break. Under the compromise, the map Lopez drew remains; in exchange, Lopez agreed to relax the cap on Area Median Income (AMI), redefining “affordable” upward in order for the city to pursue its plans with major middle-income projects like Queens West.

Atlantic Yards was a sideshow. Given the city’s previous criticism of the tax break, something had to give, but the city, apparently, wasn't going to the mat to push Lopez. So the city wanted its result--a higher AMI--above all. It wasn't a question of principle regarding Atlantic Yards.

In the Times, some other sources, either neutral experts or Atlantic Yards critics, should’ve been quoted as to whether the result, indeed, was a fair compromise.

3) Revisiting old ground

The Times should have looked back on its previous coverage, as well as coverage by others.

Yes, Forest City Ratner would now have to include affordable units in every building to get the maximum tax break. But it would still get special treatment--at least $150 million based on a tax break available to no other developer.

That was clear to some other reporters that day.

I could imagine Times defenders explaining that it was a complicated story, with several elements, written under deadline and with space constraints.

All true. But that's an explanation, not an excuse. And the Times, if it wishes to meet the standards it professes, much less the standards Hoyt urges for sensitive topics, should not have misled the public.

Disclosure and its benefits

The Times in that article didn't disclose its parent company's business relationship with Forest City Ratner. Should it have done so?

Most people would probably say no, given that the article was about a broader topic. Indeed, former Public Editor Byron Calame in June 2005 suggested a standard:
Mr. Ratner’s project with The Times was mentioned almost every time he had a substantive role in an article.

I've agreed with Calame's formulation, but now I'm revising my views. I think that the issue should be not merely substance--a significant chunk of an article regarding the company--but controversy. Disclosure should be the default even if the controversy, as in this case, is described briefly.

Such disclosure should--in the ideal world--spur the reporter and editors to ensure that the article is not merely not inaccurate but intellectually honest. After all, the Times's coverage Aug. 8 was not inaccurate. But it was deceptive.

Even in a brief mention, the Times can mangle the historical record. Since the Atlantic Yards project surfaced in the summer of 2003, the Times has not met its responsibility to cover Forest City Ratner exactingly. Something has to change.

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