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A theater critic lectures The Civilians on journalism regarding "In the Footprint." He has a point. Maybe the Times should follow it, too.

This is kind of rich: New York Times theater critic Jason Zinoman pens a Critic's Notebook column for tomorrow's paper, When News Events Are Retold Onstage, raising (reasonable) questions about the balance in The Civilians' IN THE FOOTPRINT: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, then lectures solemnly about the value to a documentary theater company of "the rules taught in journalism school."

Well, if the New York Times were following "the rules taught in journalism school," it might be giving paying attention to stories like state Supreme Court Justice Marcy Friedman's decision last month rebuking the Empire State Development Corporation for "what appears to be yet another failure of transparency" regarding Atlantic Yards.

Instead, we got a blog post a day later.

If the Times were doing its job, we might see some coverage of Forest City Ratner's attempt to save some $191 million--a conservative estimate-- by marketing green cards to Chinese millionaires enticed to invest in an arena that doesn't need funding.

If the Times were doing its job, we might have seen a dollop of skepticism in the Times Magazine 10/31/10 cover story lionizing Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the new Nets owner.

Instead, in the last month, we've seen two feature articles and a review regarding The Civilians, as if Atlantic Yards is ovah, history, an arts story. Nah.

Journalistic standards in theater

Zinoman raises this point:
If the company uses tools of journalism and benefits from the authority of real reporting, does it have an increased responsibility to journalistic standards?
He thinks it does, and he makes a partly plausible case:
Judged by these standards, the show succeeds much more often than most examples of its genre, but not as much as it could. The arguments by those opposed to the Atlantic Yards are more fleshed out than those in support of the project, partly because they are based on actual interviews, while major players on the other side, like the developer Bruce Ratner and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, did not agree to talk. Their lines were taken from public events, making them seem remote. Instead of being played by actors, they are represented by symbolic props. (Mr. Bloomberg is an empty suit.) In a show that humanizes a wide range of real people, they are figures from a morality tale.
I wonder if Zinoman has done the journalistic work to learn that Ratner does not appear in public outside of very controlled events, or that Bloomberg is similarly shielded by press aides and prepared statements.

They're figures from a morality tale because they've chosen to pull strings rather than be accessible, or to answer tough questions.

The Goldstein issue

Zinoman writes:
Atlantic Yards supporters generally come off as defensive, while the opponents are reasonable and endearingly ordinary. The most obvious example is the portrait of Daniel Goldstein, the spokesman for the activist group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, who refused to sell his apartment to Forest City Ratner, which needed to empty his building of tenants before it could break ground. Instead of taking the payout like his neighbors, Mr. Goldstein dedicated his life to fighting some of the most powerful interests in the city for several years.

Mr. Goldstein seems like a character tailor-made for gripping theater, and yet this is where the dramatic and political interests of the play seem at odds. News reports describe him as a passionate, sometimes abrasive, force, but in the play he seems to be an anxious and mild-mannered citizen struggling to make his point at a public hearing.
He's got a point. In my review, I wrote that Goldstein and Council Member Letitia James had "their rough edges sanded down."

The complications

Zinoman writes:
[Director and co-author] Mr. [Steve] Cosson said he wanted to humanize Mr. Goldstein. It’s also true that the story he wants to tell is about how rich and powerful players in business and government pushed through this project and how that is a “prism” for examining the impact of gentrification on low-income and minority populations.

It’s a powerful narrative, but not one that neatly fits with a portrayal of Mr. Goldstein, the son of an investment fund manager who sold his condo for $3 million, as a hero. His character’s final monologue, where he criticizes the news media for inaccurately reporting his deal, makes a semantic point about an issue in which symbolism matters as much as substance.
Well, no, and yes.

Whatever Goldstein's background or the money he got, it's dwarfed enormously by the rich and powerful players. And Goldstein in the play makes the valid point that the developer and the state wanted him out so the deal to sell the Nets to Prokhorov could go through.

But Zinoman's point lingers: Goldstein's decision to reach a settlement, under pressure from a judge, and the varied reactions, from supportive to nasty, could have been the source of some provocative theater.

Somehow I suspect that the scene came so far late in the overall narrative that there was no room to revise or lengthen the show to accommodate the richness of response.

The Bertha Lewis complication

Zinoman closes:
There’s nothing wrong with crusading social theater that takes a stand, and the conviction of “In The Footprint” is as refreshing as it is laudable. My favorite moments, however, are when the show dares to complicate its own point of view. Bertha Lewis, a community leader, did talk to the troupe, and her character gives the most full-throated defense of the project. She argues that it will bring low-income housing to the area and that its critics are politicians feeling left out of the process and upper-middle-class residents who couldn’t care less about gentrification.

Her speeches prove that the virtue of balance is not merely that it makes better conflict, although that’s true. It also forces you to think harder, engage and work through some complexities of the issue. That is an underrated pleasure, one that might not make you cheer at the curtain call but that will stick with you long after. The artists in the Civilians have no obligation to follow the rules taught in journalism school, but they might benefit from considering them.

Well, why does Zinoman presume that every self-serving statement in the show is valid? I quoted Lewis:
Now here’s the thing with the CBA [Community Benefits Agreement]. Now I don’t need no politician to make my stuff tight cause I know how to guarantee my stuff.
That’s nonsense. Forest City Ratner got contractual terms that allow for extensions based on affordable housing subsidy unavailability. A good chunk of the subsidized housing would be unaffordable to ACORN members. (Here's my review of a chapter about Atlantic Yards in a new book about ACORN.)

And still, last year, ACORN brought members--working-class people who have a legitimate need for better housing--to testify in favor of the project. And they were sadly misinformed.

Maybe Zinoman doesn't know this because the Times never reported it.

Does he know that "community leader" Lewis got a $1.5 million grant/loan from Forest City Ratner to help bail out ACORN after an internal embezzlement scandal scared away funders (before the "pimp" scandal)? The Times barely reported that, and only belatedly.


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