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Journalism of verification? Times Public Editor concurs that confirmation by Nets/Ratner (without document or Barclays) sufficient to report naming rights deal still worth "nearly $400 million"

Is the Barclays Center naming rights deal really worth "nearly $400 million," as the New York Times reported 7/19/11? There are many reasons for doubt.

However, as in the past, the office of the New York Times Public Editor, the independent, newspaper-paid readers' representative, has given its blessing to the Times's inadequate reporting.

In this case, the Public Editor accepted as sufficient evidence assertions by the New Jersey Nets and Forest City Ratner, despite much circumstantial and documentary evidence that the deal was worth less, including a report by an FCR-commissioned consultant valuing the deal at $200 million, the loss of architect Frank Gehry, and two renegotiations.

Worse, the Public Editor's office, failing to understand the basic nature of deal, told me that the Times had "checked with both parties involved in the transaction," the Nets and Ratner.

Actually, I responded, those two are one side of the deal; the counter-party is Barclays Capital.

Was that taken seriously? No. I was blown off.

So much for the "journalism of verification," the distinguishing factor, according to Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, between his newspaper's work and bloggers' journalism of "assertion."

An open letter

On 7/25/11, I posted an open letter to Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, in part pointing to several reasons for skepticism about the "nearly $400 million" claim.

I also wrote directly to Brisbane, noting that
evidence suggests it is not, but rather closer to half, but the Times has downplayed or ignored that evidence, and failed to act on my request for a correction."
I mentioned that I was a veteran journalist and even had contributed to the Times.

Our correspondence continues below verbatim. (I have excised a few pleasantries.)

First response: confirmation

I got a quick response from Brisbane's assistant, Joseph Burgess:
I reached out to the Times editor in charge of corrections to see whether this will warrant a correction (our office can not issue a correction), and he informed me that both the Nets and Ratner confirmed the reported number again on Tuesday after The Times looked into the correction request. Our office stands by The Times's decision not to offer a correction.
My reply

I wrote back:
I appreciate your response but am frankly flabbergasted that, given the significant evidence I described, the Times (and you) accept the statements by both the Nets and Ratner as sufficient confirmation of the reported number.

They can *say* the naming rights package is still worth $400 million, but documents and reporting [as cited my open letter] show:
--the original $400M deal was renegotiated twice
--the deal was referred to as $200 million in a report from a consultant hired by Forest City Ratner
--the deal was referred to as $200 million plus unspecified other fees in the bond offering statement
--after initial reports of $200 million, the Nets/Ratner were unwilling to confirm to the press that the total package was worth $400 million
--the Nets, in the person of CEO Brett Yormark, have a history of lying (and I do not use that word lightly; I have documented it)

So, without a document or outside confirmation that the deal is actually worth nearly $400 million, do you really consider it responsible to report that $400 million figure? Does that comport with the journalism of verification?
Second response: confirmation from "both" parties

Burgess responded:
The Nets/Ratner confirmed to The New York Times on Tuesday that the package was $400 million when The Times was looking into whether a correction should be offered. Both entities confirmed that this was the cost of the package. Since The Times checked with both of the parties involved in the transaction, our office will support The Times in not offering a correction on the article.
My reply: you're wrong

I quickly responded:
Thanks, but the Nets/Ratner are essentially one of the parties; the counter-party is Barclays.
I did not add the obvious: that, in a case like this, some documentation should be provided.

Nor did I add one additional piece of circumstantial evidence: a 3/27/09 article in the Independent on Sunday, Row grows in Brooklyn over Barclays' Nets deal, which noted:
The deal is a 20-year commitment, originally valued between $300m and $400m, but the bank is believed to have renegotiated the cost down since then.
My follow-up

Having not gotten a response, I sent a follow-up message a few days later:
I'd like to reiterate that, as noted in my message last Thursday, that the counter-party in the naming rights agreement, Barclays, did not confirm to the Times that the deal is still worth $400 million.

Beyond that, I'd like to point out that Barclays has consistently avoided naming a sum; for example, after one renegotiation, in November 2008, Barclays said in a press release that it was "steadfast" but no dollar figure was cited.

As I noted in my earlier message, there is significant circumstantial and documentary evidence that the deal is not the same--and thus not the same value--as the one first announced.

I should add another significant piece of circumstantial evidence: the original deal was signed for a Frank Gehry arena; now the world's most famous architect is off the project. [This was mentioned in my original open letter, but not previously in email correspondence.]

All these should be reasons for skepticism. Simply letting the Nets/Ratner say that the deal is still worth about $400 million is insufficient; there should be 1) confirmation from the counter-party and, even with that (which I believe is unlikely, given Barclays' reticence) 2) a document to rely on.

As I said in my earlier message, the Nets, in the person of their CEO, have a history of lying. I've said that publicly, and I know the laws of libel: truth is a defense.

The Times owes its readers credible coverage. On this issue, the Times falls short.
Third response: go away

Burgess responded:
Mr. Oder, thanks for writing back. It seems that The Times method of determining whether a correction was necessary was appropriate, but I appreciate you sharing your concerns once again.

Burgess resorted to the passive voice ("It seems...") while ignoring the obvious: the Times had neither checked with both parties, nor explored the additional evidence.

But why?

Is the Public Editor in the tank? I don't believe so--I can't let myself think that--but I don't think he appreciated me sharing my concerns. (When I say "he," I'm not sure how much Brisbane took a look at this or just left it to Burgess, the newsroom clerk in the Public Editor's office, who graduated from college in 2009.)

Rather, I translate that as Please stop bothering us, we have more important things to do.

I recognize that the Public Editor has a lot on his plate.

But distinguishing between the journalism of verification and the journalism of assertion should not be a tough call.