Saturday, October 29, 2005


Ferrer, Sharpton, and the Journalism of Verification

So Democratic Mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer held a press conference yesterday in which he made his most forceful statement in opposition to the Atlantic Yards project, offering specific criticisms about the amount of affordable housing, the lack of community review, and the prospect of "nearly a billion dollars" (actually, more, according to the developer--see Chapter 3 of my report) in subsidies. But the lead in all the coverage is that the Rev. Al Sharpton disagrees with him, with no effort to factcheck Sharpton.

Now Sharpton's comments were newsworthy, but they need to be examined, and they shouldn't overshadow Ferrer's pointed criticism--showing a real difference with Mayor Bloomberg, who has backed the plan unquestioningly--which the press hardly cited. The New York Times's 10/29/05 story was headlined Ferrer Is Chided Over Atlantic Yards and, in the print edition, the deck stated "Sharpton Says Plan Could Mean Thousands of Minority Jobs." The article began:
Seeking to build support for his mayoral bid in brownstone Brooklyn, Fernando Ferrer said yesterday that he would stop the huge Atlantic Yards development project, but a major supporter, the Rev. Al Sharpton, sharply rebuked him for playing politics with a project that could create thousands of jobs for minority workers.

Thousands of jobs for minority workers? How does Sharpton know? As City Council Member Charles Barron (unlike Sharpton, an elected voice for a minority community, unlike Sharpton) pointed out in questioning Forest City Ratner's Jim Stuckey at a City Council hearing, no office jobs could be guaranteed to minority workers. As for the construction jobs, estimated by Ratner at 1,500 a year for ten years, and by Mayor Bloomberg at 1,200 a year, the Community Benefits Agreement (p. 13ff.) refers to pre-apprentice training for construction jobs, lists of unemployed local construction workers, customized job training for project tenants, retail leasing preferences for local businesses, and internships. It states:
The Developers will use good faith efforts to meet the overall goal during construction of the arena and the project by employing, or causing to be employed, not less than 35% Minority and 10% women construction workers, of which 35% of each category should have the status of journey-level worker.

If we're talking construction jobs, 35% of 1,500 is 525, and 35% of 1,200 is 420. Add a few hundred in the other categories and the term "thousands of minority jobs" is hardly appropriate. Why didn't Sharpton--or the press--mention that the promised 10,000 permanent office jobs at the project have been cut by at least two thirds, and the actual new office jobs could be under 700?

The Times article continued by quoting Sharpton:
In a statement sent by e-mail to reporters, Mr. Sharpton said that he and Mr. Ferrer "strongly disagree" on the project, which would place a ridge of skyscrapers and a basketball arena at a major Brooklyn intersection and straddle several low-scale neighborhoods where opposition to the project has recently intensified. Mr. Ferrer, he said, "needs to realize that failure to get projects like this done would be a terrible loss for communities of color throughout this city."

Yet the Times article--as did the Times article announcing Sharpton's support for the Atlantic Yards project (see my report, Chapter 4)--did not see fit to quote any other spokespeople for communities of color. The Daily News coverage of Sharpton's original announcement quoted a minister, the Rev. Clinton Miller, who, unlike Sharpton, is based in the community. And, of course, the elected official most prominently against the project is City Council Member Letitia James, who is far closer to the local communities of color than is Sharpton.

The Times article proceeded to sketch the backdrop without filling in some details:
In another sign of how aggressively the Bloomberg forces are campaigning to keep him in office, some of his supporters found a different way to overshadow Mr. Ferrer. Chanting "Jobs, housing, hoops," a group of union members who support the Atlantic Yards project disrupted Mr. Ferrer's news conference.

The Bloomberg forces? Given that Forest City Ratner representatives were present at the press conference, they were likely just as responsible.

The Times article continued:
Mr. Ferrer stood with several supporters on Pacific Street and cast the project as "the twin brother of Mike Bloomberg's West Side stadium boondoggle." But the larger group of union members, inflatable rats in tow, whistled and chanted while Tony Herbert, a Republican candidate for City Council who helped organize the protest, yelled, "Don't sell out the minorities, Freddy."

Tony Herbert is running against Letitia James. James already trounced an Atlantic Yards supporter in the Democratic primary. In a heavily Democratic district, she will undoubtedly defeat Herbert. So Herbert's credibility should be contextualized.

The last three paragraphs of the Times article finally touched on Ferrer's critique:
Mr. Ferrer, who said he saw the hand of the Bloomberg campaign in the disruption, has long complained that the development, which is subject to state review rather than to the city's rigorous approval process, was planned in secret. Still, he had supported the developer's promises that 50 percent of the new homes would be subsidized for low- and middle-income residents and that minorities and female-owned contracting companies would be hired.
But it was only recently that he said that the development, proposed by Forest City Ratner, should be halted altogether and its scope reassessed because the project has expanded since it was first announced, raising questions about how many apartments would be subsidized and who would be able to afford them. "Recently it's come to light that this proposal is not what we all thought it would be," Mr. Ferrer said. "Along with my concerns about infrastructure and total lack of community participation it's clear that this project just cannot go forward as it's currently structured."
But Mr. Ferrer drew fire from other supporters, including Assemblyman Roger Green and Bertha Lewis, leader of the housing advocacy group Acorn. Bruce Bender, an executive at Forest City Ratner, the development partner in building a new Midtown headquarters for the New York Times Company, accused Mr. Ferrer of misrepresenting the facts.

Raising questions about how many apartments would be subsidized? The Times didn't point out Ferrer's answers, but they come from the ESDC's project description. While 50% of the first 4,500 rental units would be "affordable," Forest City Ratner subsequently added 2,800 market-rate units. As Ferrer said accurately at the press conference, "fewer than 15%" would be truly affordable, aimed at people under Brooklyn's median income. Why couldn't the Times report this?

Roger Green and Bertha Lewis might be expected to criticize Ferrer, since they could also be described as partners with Forest City Ratner. Green helped develop the Community Benefits Agreement (see Chapter 4 of my report) and Lewis's group, which gave Ratner street cred after the 50-50 affordable housing plan was announced (for the first 4,500 rental units only), is contractually obligated to support the Atlantic Yards development (see Chapter 7 of my report).

Bruce Bender, an executive at Forest City Ratner, the development partner in building a new Midtown headquarters for the New York Times Company, accused Mr. Ferrer of misrepresenting the facts. The article ends with an unspecified accusation. What facts were misrepresented? And couldn't Forest City Ratner itself be accused of misrepresenting facts? Let's take, for example, the company's Brooklyn Standard.

The coverage elsewhere similarly featured Sharpton, with even fewer details. The New York Post also led with Sharpton, with the headline REV. TURNS ON FERRER. Here's the Post's paltry attempt at details:
Ferrer spoke out against the massive project — which includes some units of "affordable" housing — as "the twin brother of Mike Bloomberg's West Side stadium boondoggle."
...Hours later, Sharpton — who supports the project — issued a statement blasting Ferrer for campaigning against a project that would produce jobs and housing.

The New York Daily News offered the headline, Freddy gets slap from his pal Rev. Al. The article stated:
Sharpton is on record supporting the Atlantic Yards, where developer Bruce Ratner has promised to set aside 45% of construction jobs to minorities and women and market 50% of rental units as affordable.

Unmentioned were the total number of housing units. Also, as I've noted before, if 35% of construction jobs would go to minorities and 10% to women, the only way they could add up to 45% would be if all the women were white--an untenable scenario.

Newsday, in a story headlined Just call it flashback Friday, also treated it as a story about campaign tactics:
The Rev. Al Sharpton did so by registering his disagreement with the man he endorsed for mayor, Democrat Fernando Ferrer, over a controversial Brooklyn development plan.
Ferrer has said he opposes the Atlantic Yards development project in Brooklyn, which would include an arena as well as high-rise housing and commercial space. Sharpton, in a letter circulated by his publicist, said, "Freddy and I agree on a lot, but we strongly disagree when it comes to the importance of the Atlantic Yards project, [which is] exactly what we need in Brooklyn."

Sharpton's statements deserve scrutiny, not stenography. With relatively little effort, reporters could have both factchecked his assertions as well as found elected minority representatives from Brooklyn who could argue why Sharpton is wrong.

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