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"Living Large at Barclays": How could Times let staffer accept $6,189 freebie package?

Update Dec. 19: Public Editor Liz Spayd agrees that this seems to violate the newspaper's ethics rules, and an exception wasn't warranted, writing, "It surely wasn’t the intent, but this instance has a strange ring of pay to play." Online commenters, though, were significantly divided.
From the web version of the article
So today's New York Times Sports section has one of those massive features, with lots of photos filling nearly two pages.

On the web last night it was posted as Chauffeur, Shootaround and Boneless Chicken Wings: Living Large With the Nets, subtitled, "Some people have it all, but still crave luxury, novelty and access without irksome hurdles. At Barclays Center, that’s the Nets’ Brooklyn Experience."

In print today it's "Living Large at Barclays," subtitled "Are You a Fan Who Craves Luxury? The Nets Have a Package for You."

It's writer-at-large Sarah Lyall's entertaining and not-too-enthralled account of a new "experience" marketed by the arena operators.
She writes:
From the print Times
Nothing at Barclays Center shouts “us” and “them” as emphatically as the Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment Experience, the super-deluxe fan package my friend and I were experiencing that conjures a parallel universe of individually tailored privilege.
Few people experience the Experience. For one thing, it is so intricate — requiring so much planning, such precise choreography, so many people to attend to your every need — that the arena can’t reasonably be expected to pull together more than a couple of Experiences at a time.
Also, it costs $6,189.
...(I didn’t pay for it. Seeking publicity for the program and also possibly for the Nets, who are having a bad season and suffering from low attendance, Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment offered The New York Times a look at it.)
Was this OK?

I'm baffled that this article, which seems to violate the NYT's ethical guidelines against accepting freebies, got the green light. As author Ricardo Cortes tweeted, "NYT running essentially a longread ad for beleaguered Nets lux packages, presented as journalism?"

(See below for the response from Times Associate Managing Editor for Standards Philip Corbett, and my response.)

Yes, Lyall--who's always an enjoyable read--somewhat bites the hand that feeds her, but it's still an advertisement of sorts for the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center, if not as much for their VIP packages. So it's a coup for arena CEO Brett Yormark and chief flack Barry Baum.

After all, the Times has parted ways with freelancers who accepted travel junkets from other publications. This isn't quite a travel junket--[updated] I agree with Corbett that there's little benefit to the writer--but it's not that much different, at least in terms of benefit to the freebie-giver.

From Times Handbook
And the Times's Ethical Journalism Handbook (p. 10) warns against accepting hospitality from sources to report news:
  • "Whenever practical, however, the reporter should suggest dining where The Times can pay."
  • "Staff members may not accept free or discounted transportation and lodging except where special circumstances give us little or no choice."
But this was no "military or scientific expedition," the examples given that allow some wiggle room.

Yes, press passes to cultural and sporting events are OK, but this was a VIP package. Lots of Times reporters and staffers cheered this article, but I'd be interested to learn what the Public Editor thinks.

A dialogue with the Times

I first wrote to Corbett, in part:
It seems to violate the Times's ethical standards against accepting freebies.
It's the equivalent of a junket, which is banned for travel writers, and does not seem to fall into the exceptions--"except where special circumstances give us little or no choice"--regarding news coverage, such as for military or scientific expeditions. And it was much more than accepting a free press ticket to an event.
And while the article did poke fun at the purported value of the $6,189 "experience," it otherwise served as an advertisement of sorts for the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center, which was surely quite valuable to those who offered the freebie to the Times.
His response:
I discussed this issue in some detail with the editor in sports before the story was published, and we agreed that we were comfortable with how we handled this situation.
Of course, as you say, our normal practice is to pay our own way and not to accept gifts from news sources. Still, there are exceptions. For example, sports reporters do not pay for tickets to the games they cover, and Broadway critics do not buy tickets for the shows they review -- even "Hamilton," for which civilians might shell out $1,000 or more. In many other cases, too, companies and institutions make special provisions for press access.
In this case, The Times would not have opted to pay more than $6,000 in expenses to report this story; it wouldn't have been worth it. But when the Nets offered to provide press access, we decided it would make an eye-opening and amusing feature that many readers would find interesting. With that in mind, we decided to accept the access, but also to make very clear to readers in the story what the arrangements were and what the team's motivation was.
As for the reporter, she was simply working -- an interesting assignment, but an assignment nonetheless. She was certainly not doing this as some sort of personal benefit. A final thought: Given the article's arch and skeptical tone, I don't at all think that it functioned as an "advertisement" for the team.
My response:
I recognize that the reporter wasn't getting a personal benefit.
And I do recognize that companies and institutions "make special provisions for press access." I'm still not fully convinced by your explanation, however.
This is a good distance from the press access examples in the Times's Handbook (military & scientific expeditions). And, while civilians may pay $1,000 or more for Hamilton, I'm certain the ticket price wasn't that high when Times reviewers/writers first went. Even if Times reviewers/feature writers today get the benefit of $1,000 Hamilton tickets, I think there's still a big gap between $1,000 tickets for an event that thousands of people attend weekly and $6,189 packages that a handful of people (any?) have paid for.
You wrote: "Given the article's arch and skeptical tone, I don't at all think that it functioned as 'an advertisement' for the team."
I agree that it certainly didn't function as an advertisement for the $6,189 VIP experience. But I do believe that, given the prominent placement, in print and on the web, with many photos, it certainly did promote the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center. The New York Times doesn't even assign a beat reporter to Brooklyn Nets home games. So this certainly put Nets home games on the radar screen for lots of people.
Beyond that, I'd add that Corbett's explanation--that they'd take a freebie rather than pay because "it would not have been worth it"--suggests a slippery slope that justifies accepting all kinds of other VIP experiences and junkets.

Is it for real?

Lyall wrote that "Few people experience the Experience," with the implication and explanation that it's hard for the arena to accommodate many takers.

But what if very few people choose to buy it? Shouldn't we know how many people have actually paid for this? (Online commentators generally scoffed at the cost.) What if this is an advertisement for something that barely exists?

A summary

To summarize the article, Lyall recounts the following:
The teaser on B1
  • private SUV transportation
  • "a small but enthusiastic welcoming committee that includes two Brooklynettes dancers"
  • a special dressing room
  • a chance to watch the pregame news conference
  • a private buffet dinner at the Calvin Klein Courtside Club, with a visit from the executive sous chef
  • a chance to shoot on the arena practice court
  • watching the national anthem up close
  • a chance to watch the game up close, with Lyall "struck by how gorgeously the athletes play"
  • a halftime visit to the Billboard Lounge, where "someone offers us free drinks"
  • a visit to the broadcast booth, with play-by-play announcer Chris Carrino
  • a chance to have their faces broadcast live on the scoreboard
  • participation in the T-shirt Toss
  • a V.I.P. exit
The second (full) page in print
What's missing

For those of us who know more about the Nets and the Barclays Center, there's a general sense of an absence of proportion, a failure to analyze the knottier questions regarding the arena and team--financial, neighborhood impact--while focusing on the glitzy (and easier to write about for a newbie).

One passage from the beginning is particularly glaring:
We clamber into the car — me, my friend Craig and a Times photographer, Hilary Swift — and glide down Atlantic Avenue. It turns out that there are three Barclays Center entrances: the democratic one, for fans with normal tickets; the Calvin Klein V.I.P. one, for fans with better-than-normal tickets; and the supersecret one around the back, for players, executives, talent, higher-class V.I.P.s and us.
Actually, the "supersecret one"--leading to the loading dock--is not so secret to those in the neighborhood, and its use has caused all kinds of problems.

And on first read I missed this:
Kate Girotti, vice president of global marketing for Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, which owns Barclays Center...
Actually, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment owns the Barclays Center operating company. The arena is owned, nominally, by New York State, to further tax-exempt bonds. Which points to the machinations behind the arena.

Other critics

From online comments on the article:
David Williams Brooklyn
Again, tell us how this relates to the average Brooklyn resident? To the average NY Times subscriber? More Brooklyn bull from the Brooklyn-obsessed NY TImes. Why don't you spend some of that investigative capital on the land scam that made the dark, cramped Barclays Center and its surrounding cheap-looking gaggle of new buildings, or the backgrounds of Bruce Ratner, developer and Mikhail Prokhorov ... or the borderline ethics behind this click-bait hack job about a second-division NBA franchise and its fifth-division arena?
Cloud 9 Pawling, NY
Disappointing that the Times would shill for Barclays. Also, sounds like a pretty vapid experience. A close up with the radio announcer. Whoopee!
And then:
HJayS Montreal, QC
Isn't there a Times policy specifically against accepting gifts, perks, tickets, etc. for free, especially if an article is going to be written about said experience?
AJ is a trusted commenter Midwest
Oh I hope not because this article was hilarious and 100 percent made my day!
Bill Asheville
I think it's fine to accept the stuff if we readers know the circumstances under which the article was written.
John
Hey, it was fully disclosed, and fun to read -- and I don't give a fig about sports! Nicely written, with a wry tone, and great photos. Nice that the writer gave credit to the photographer.
Jack Middletown, Connecticut
Based on the article and comments I bet the Nets just fired someone in sales.
Mariana Keller Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Exactly. How is this different than a "Travel" section article about Maui, paid for by 4 Seasons Maui?
Also:
Ray Zinbran
Another day of privatized gains and public losses.
Did you know the Barclay Center is a public entity but leased for 1$, one dollar, to the Brooklyn Events Center LLC? Being considered public, its bonds were offered tax free.
So the taxpayers footed the bill through tax free municipal bonds. If Capitalism and sports teams are so great, why did they need tax exempt bonds? Now that there is profit to be had, that has to be private. Ask that the people who can pay $6,189 for a night of role playing pay a fair tax--or an estate tax, or any tax, and you are a Socialist.
This is America at its worst.
Kelly Maryland
And please don't forget that Eminent Domain was used to obtain the land itself. The City, in cahoots with the Ratner, declared the land/neighborhood blighted. This "blighted" neighborhood was thriving all around the land specifically designated for the stadium. It was "blighted" because Bloomberg and Ratner deemed it so. Theft of public lands.

Comments

  1. Correct me, but isn't the arena owned by the state of New York?

    I wrote to NYT, because this detail says a lot, and the Times got it wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are absolutely correct. Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment owns the arena operating company. Arena is nominally owned by NY state, to enable tax-exempt bonds. I was so focused on the fact of the story that I missed that.

    ReplyDelete

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