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The "activist press" and the "Atlantic Yards Narrative"

Last night's panel on New Media, New Politics? Jane Jacobs and an Activist Press began with an introduction by the Municipal Art Society's Kent Barwick, who described how Jacobs once wore white gloves to a protest and later took them off for another--and how it was now time to "take off the white gloves." About 130 people attended the event at the Housing Works Used Bookstore on Crosby Street.

It was an interesting discussion, if not always focused on urbanism, given the diversity of the panel--along with me, panelists included Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush of El Diario, author Gay Talese, Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, a nationally influential political blog, along with moderator Sewell Chan of the New York Times's CityRoom blog.

(Here's Chan's account, which counts 100 people. I was going by the number of handouts distributed.)

I'll describe some of the back and forth below, but first the text of my main presentation. The images below were part of an annotated handout I distributed.
(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

The Atlantic Yards controversy

I'm going to take off the white gloves, but first, let me start with some background. Atlantic Yards would be big--16 towers and an arena for the Nets basketball team. It would occupy 22 acres, less than 40 percent of which would be railyards—despite the name.

It would begin at the eastern edge of Downtown Brooklyn but it would be located mainly in Prospect Heights, which is mostly a low-rise neighborhood.

You’ve probably heard the shorthand: proponents cite jobs, housing, and hoops. Opponents say it’s too big and would cause too much traffic.

But the central issue is this: will the developer, Forest City Ratner, gain a huge increase in development rights, which allows them to build a project of unprecedented density?

Will the developer gain special benefits--subsidies, tax breaks, an override of zoning, and the conveyance of city streets? And will the state use the hammer of eminent domain, thanks to a highly debatable declaration of blight?

(R.-l.: Talese, Oder, Hamsher, Vourvoulias-Bush, and Chan)

We hash most of this out through the city’s land use review process--usually. In the case of Atlantic Yards, unlike even the Columbia University expansion, we get a state override, which short-circuits the role of community boards and the City Council.

The Atlantic Yards Narrative

And we also get what I call the Atlantic Yards Narrative. The Atlantic Yards Narrative is created by the developer, backed by the political establishment, and too often aided by unskeptical or cheerleading media coverage.

The narrative involves political advertising--Forest City Ratner has sent out six glossy brochures promoting this project.

It involves a magazine called Brooklyn Tomorrow, published by the New York Post’s weekly newspaper group, seemingly advertorial but not labeled as such.

And the narrative involves the developer’s recruitment of grassroots support by paying local organizations, some with no track record in the community.

[I could have mentioned that critics and opponents have also contributed to a counter-narrative that has not been ignored. And a reader reminds me of Brian Carreira's valuable November 2005 article in the Brooklyn Rail, A Call for Narrative. Another reminds me that there has been some good coverage by Brooklyn-based papers; the Brooklyn Paper has been tough on the project from the start, though its stories got shorter and snappier under the editorship of Gersh Kuntzman. And, as I've mentioned before, the best mainstream coverage has come from Matthew Schuerman of the weekly New York Observer.]

Challenging the narrative

My job is to challenge that narrative and help build a more credible one. That does not necessarily involve activist journalism. Much is just responsible journalism, filling in the gaps, covering the meetings and court hearings, delving into documents, and filing Freedom of Information Law requests. OK, there's a more activist part; that comes in the commentary and media criticism.

[NoLandGrab contributes in the latter role as well.]

In the Jane Jacobs era, that role was played mostly by the Village Voice. Today it’s more likely to be a blog, and it's daily.

That’s where New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller comes in. A couple of years ago, he said, "Most of what you know, you know because of the mainstream media… Bloggers recycle and chew on the news."

The Times, he said, practices a “journalism of verification," not a journalism of "assertion.”

Now I pretty much agree with him. Most journalists do more than most bloggers. But a blog is just a platform, and I’m a journalist using a blog.

Now, I’m not neutral—I think an intellectually honest approach leads to more critique than endorsement of this project.

But that doesn’t mean I take what opponents say as gospel. I try to practice the journalism of verification.

Covering Brooklyn

So why do the media miss so much about Atlantic Yards? Partly it’s that Brooklyn is neglected. Only a handful of reporters cover what could be the country’s fourth-largest “city.”

Atlantic Yards is complicated --it involves multiple beats: urban planning, politics, sports, business, architecture. To cover it right, you have to stick with the story. That’s how I broke news that the state cut its Atlantic Yards revenue estimates by nearly half a billion dollars. And that’s how I discovered the city doubled its cash contribution to the project.

There’s one more twist. The New York Times Company, as many of you know, is business partners with Forest City Ratner—they built the new Times Tower.

That doesn’t mean Times reporters are told to go easy on the developer. But the Times, I believe, has a special obligation to cover Forest City Ratner exactingly—and it has not done so, not enough.

I began, in fact, as a media critic; I wrote a report—September ‘05—a report about the Times’s shortcomings in covering this story. Then I started a blog, and it just grew.

A political campaign

The Atlantic Yards brochures are produced by a political consulting firm. If this were a political campaign, the press might critique them, as I and others do.

The first thing they’d notice is the developer’s unwillingness to acknowledge the scale of this project.

A “vision for Downtown Brooklyn,” but no tall buildings. (And, remember, it’s not downtown.) You get a slice of skyline and a slice of open space. No context.

Atlantic Yards in neighborhood scale

The effort to illustrate the impact of Atlantic Yards began online, with a blogger and a photographer. I linked to them.

New York magazine commissioned an illustration (above right). Some streetscale images are available on the Atlantic Yards web site—self-serving, but they're images just the same. Even better images are buried in the state’s environmental review. I’ve copied one (right); that’s page four--you can see four-story buildings next to a planned 27-story building.

Overstating the case

You haven’t seen that in the Times. Ok, the Times has limited space. Sure, but it has buttressed the Atlantic Yards Narrative with some inadequate reporting about scale.

In your handout, page five, you can see the September 06 front-page story saying the Atlantic Yards project might be cut six to eight percent. Biggest news of the day.

I pasted in my critique, but here's the important thing--they left out the context: the cut would bring the square footage back to the total footage originally announced.

Not a big deal.

But the Times put it on the front page and described the plan as a “response to criticism.” That was the journalism of assertion, not the journalism of verification.

I’m out of time, but before I stop, let me point to my handout—I think you can conclude that there’s still a need for the journalism of verification, the journalism of exploration, and the journalism of investigation.

More from the dialogue

Talese, author of The Kingdom and the Power, a history of the New York Times, was quite skeptical. "I don't trust the paper," he said. "I don't trust any paper."

"Not believing government should be a cardinal rule of journalism," he added.

"It's hard to be a good reporter, and it should be hard, because it's a noble calling," he said later, citing colleagues of his generation like David Halberstem and Robert Caro. "That sounds cranky, but Jane Jacobs was cranky... so I'm proud" to be associated with her.

(I suspect he wouldn't trust this Daily News editorial that was part of the handout. A partial critique.)

Vourvoulias-Bush suggested that "the dead tree business" (Hamsher's phrase about print media) is doing pretty well. "What's not doing well is the journalism. We're asking more and more of fewer and fewer journalists," he said.

He pointed out how his paper, as do other papers aimed at ethnic audiences, pursues stories its readers value but the mainstream news outlets often ignore.

Different era?

Talese said he thought times had changed since the 1960s. "There was a willingess to be different, to be contrarian," he said.

Who is the Jane Jacobs of today, he asked? "We do not have anyone who represents dissent." Hamsher disagreed, citing widespread activism, and a member of the audience cited's leaders.

Talese pointed out that journalists of his generation were social outsiders, often the first generation to go to college. Many in today's educated class of journalists has lost their skepticism in their quest to follow Woodward and Bernstein and become famous, he contended.

Vourvoulias-Bush said "there's no substitute for an active, independent, and diverse press," but such outlets must be supported. "We can't depend on the Times to do everything." Indeed, judging from the claps from the audience when someone dissed the Times's Metro section, he was preaching to the choir.

Blogs & soul

Chan raised the issue that, while blogs have proliferated, the phenomenon is hardly universal across city neighborhoods, and asked if that was a problem. I said I was less disturbed by the disproportionate number of bloggers--some good, some not--in Brownstone Brooklyn than by the fact that the Brooklyn bureaus of the city's dailies each have only a handful of people.

Still, there are a lot of stories not being written--someone with more language skills and time than I should be telling us about the life and work, for example, of immigrant construction workers.

An audience member asked what could be done to help New York from "losing its soul," the topic of last Wednesday's panel. The panel had no easy answers; I suggested that citywide and regional organizations like the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association--the latter actually a corporate-influenced group needed to do more.

And, I said, our under-resourced state community boards--the size of small cities, really--need much more to function as more democratic entities.

There was some more interesting discussion about the future of the media--perhaps others will write about it. Given the wide-ranging topic and broad interest, we could have spent well more than 80 minutes discussing the issues raised.


  1. "Active Press" might in some places mean an even handed view of the subject. Not so at the Atlantic Yards Report where there can be no variartion of the propaganda of the Atlantic Yards Report "all developement is the work of Satan".
    The benefits of the project are always couched in the fundamentalist terms of an evil against humanity. Osama would be proud of the retoric.
    "A Peregrination"

  2. What the bravely anonymous commentator doesn't understand is that it would be easy to do propaganda. It's much harder to actually read documents, cover court hearings, and try to analyze what's going on.

  3. Wow a critique of this site's objectivity that offers no facts to back up the claims and invokes the name "Osama" for hyperbolic effect!

    I feel my mind being changed already.


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