Saturday, September 03, 2005


The New York Observer blogs, but misses the point

The New York Observer came to the September 1, 2005 press confererence/demonstration held to release the report on Times coverage, but the writer decided to pursue snarkiness over substance. (Click on "Circulation War," 9/1/05.)

First, the writer decided to ignore the substance of the report but instead focused on some of the protestors: The 20 or so protesters milling about outside the New York Times building this afternoon were largely white, middle-aged and frumpily dressed. Just like Times readers, maybe just like Times writers and editors, except they were so steamed about how their morning read had been covering the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, they were just about ready to ... call a customer service rep and cancel their subscriptions!"I never looked at the Post until this whole thing," said Susan Butler, a Fort Greene resident of 22 years. "Or the Daily News."

Then he decided to get snippy because the whole report--as opposed to the executive summary--wasn't available in print during the time he was there. (It was available a bit later.) He wrote: The occasion for the gathering was the trumpeting of a 173-page treatise declaring that the paper of record had been papering over Forest City Ratner Companies’ Atlantic Yards proposal. It wasn't a "release" because the report didn't arrive in time to be distributed to the few reporters on hand. (It is up on the Web, though.)

Then he decided to characterize the contents simply as charges, rather than acknowledge that they were fully checkable. (Why not do a random check?): The report makes all sorts of charges, among them that the paper downplayed opposition to the project, and that it failed to examine the public subsidies, which reputable sources have put as high as $1 billion or higher.

Then, the writer completely missed the point: But what really ticked off Norman Oder, a journalist and tour guide, enough to contact the anti-Ratner group, Develop--Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and to volunteer to write this master’s-degree-in-journalism-criticism thesis, was a July 5 article headlined "Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Plan."Brownstone Brooklyn people don’t like anything instant--coffee, mashed potatoes, hot chocolate, chicken noodle soup--and they like least of all instant 600-foot towers. The non-instant version is bad enough to the Brooklyn sensibility.

The July 5, 2005 article was infuriating not because of my resistance to things "instant," but because, in December 2003, Forest City Ratner had announced an instant skyline, including the tallest building in Brooklyn. The later announcement was just an increase in height and bulk. The Times missed the point. So did the Observer, which is disappointing, given that the point is fairly obvious--at the press conference, we had visual aids: mockups of the skyline as proposed in 12/03 and 7/05.

The Observer continued, again missing the point: Oder wouldn’t go so far as to say that the paper’s coverage was biased, though he did not fail to point out Times ombudsman Byron Calame's wrist-slap; in a column, he complained that the paper failed to mention their relationship with the developer in a Q & A they published with the company's CEO Bruce Ratner.

My point, in conversation with the reporter, and in the report, is not just that Calame had criticized the paper, but that, after the criticism, the Times still refused to print a letter or correction disclosing the relationship.

Then the Observer punted: Does any of that matter, if the paper covers the issue fairly? No, not really. Whether they have, dear reader, is for you to judge if you care to pull on your Wellingtons and wade through it all. Times spokesman Toby Usnik e-mailed The Real Estate when we asked him about the report. "Please note that the Times newsroom operates wholly independently of the Corporate operations of the Times Company," he wrote. "The Company's development project with Forest City Ratner Companies is not remotely a consideration in the newsroom's editing decisions. The newsroom discloses the Company's relationship with FCRC in its pages when it is relevant, just as it would disclose any other such relationship -- for example, a review of a novel written by a Times reporter. "We report fully and fairly on any newsworthy project, ours or others’," he further wrote.

Of course a Times corporate spokesman would say this; that's his job. But there are too many episodes detailed in the report for the Times, in the long run, to get away with corporate boilerplate. Times editors, including the Public Editor, must respond.
--Why didn't the Times respond to Calame's criticism and post a disclosure?
--Why didn't Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, in his 12/03 valentine to Frank Gehry's design, disclose the Times's business relationship to Forest City Ratner, and his own participation in a group, including Ratner executives, that chose the architect for the Times Tower Ratner is building?
--Why did the Times ignore two polls, one its own (!) that showed that most New Yorkers oppose a taxpayer-funded basketball arena in Brooklyn?
--Why did the Times City Weekly section of 6/19/05, devoted to "The New Brooklyns," mention the arena only twice, but say nothing about the much larger development project around it? And why did the editorial in that section decry subsidies for stadiums in Queens and the Bronx, but say nothing about subsidies for the arena in Brooklyn? (Remember, this was an issue devoted to Brooklyn.)

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