Saturday, October 15, 2005


More on the Times's BUILD story: no verification, and trusting a discredited source

The 10/14/05 Times article headlined To Build Arena in Brooklyn, Developer First Builds Bridges deserves even more scrutiny, especially the lead, and the closing.

The lead: In the two years since he announced his ambitious Atlantic Yards development in downtown Brooklyn, Bruce Ratner has lined up an impressive roster of supporters, including Gov. George E. Pataki, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and even the rap artist Jay-Z.

Well, Pataki and Bloomberg were backers from the start, two years ago. As for Jay-Z, he's an investor in the Nets. All investors are de facto supporters, so that's hardly impressive. The only one of the four who wasn't part of the prepackaged support was Sharpton, who announced his support in July 2005. The context, as I noted in Chapter 4 of my report, was that the Times reported Sharpton's support in a single-source story, but the Daily News quoted the Rev. Clinton Miller, who actually represents a church in the area in question, as pointing out, "It's misguiding, and it makes it seem that African-Americans should be behind this project." Again, the Times ignores that context.

So, those are three figures who were supporters from the start, plus one opportunistic minister/public figure, who claimed, at least in the Times's paraphrase (Sharpton Backs Developer's Plan for Brooklyn Arena and Towers, 7/19/05), that the plan would provide needed jobs and lower-cost housing for largely poor and minority areas nearby.

Had the Times had practiced the journalism of verification in this case, it might have examined Bloomberg's uninformed claims about jobs and housing, and told readers exactly how many jobs and how much low-cost housing the plan actually would provide.

It's not like the Times can't do some checking--a 10/15/05 story headlined Reality Check: Two Different Kinds of Math, and Two Spins on Unemployment contained this passage:
At the heart of Mr. Ferrer's attack is his claim that 40 percent of the city's black men, and 33 percent of its Hispanic men, are unemployed.
Just how accurate are Mr. Ferrer's numbers? Not very.
Mr. Ferrer's aides said his unemployment figures were based on a report by the Community Service Society, a nonpartisan group that fights poverty. The report, released in February, is titled "Unemployment and Joblessness in New York City, 2004: Better but Still a Long Way to Go."
The author of that study, Mark Levitan, the group's senior policy analyst, said that he never made any such claim about minority joblessness being that high. "My report definitely does not say the unemployment rate among blacks is 40 percent," Mr. Levitan said.

Back to the 10/14/05 story, which states:
Mr. Ratner has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on publicity for Atlantic Yards, the sprawling Frank Gehry-designed office, retail and residential development with an arena for the Nets as its centerpiece.

This should be an occasion for analyzing the content of the publicity, rather than simply reporting the fact of publicity. Also, as the article later reveals, Ratner has spent $100,000 as well on Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), which goes a lot beyond publicity.

The Times article states:
But opponents see the outreach as something more sinister: a campaign to divide opponents, co-opt those local figures who were interested but skeptical, and create the appearance of broad support where they say little exists.

Again, this is cast as a "he said, she said" dispute, with no attempt at evaluation. The issue of "broad support" can be evaluated. As I explain in Chapter 5 of my report, two polls, one by Quinnipiac University in 2004 and one by the Times itself in 2005, show widespread opposition to a taxpayer-funded arena. The Times, however, did not report on that aspect of its own poll. Also, in the Democratic primary election last month, City Council Member Letitia James, a diehard Ratner opponent, trounced a challenger who co-founded BUILD.

The Times failed to stress Ratner's evasions:
The company has denied that it provided financial support to launch the group, but a spokesman said that as part of the community-benefits agreement, the company recently gave Build a $100,000 grant and covers its overhead costs.

The issue was not whether Ratner supported BUILD's launch, but whether company spokespeople (and BUILD spokespeople) lied last month to reporters about whether the company had paid any money to BUILD. And, as the Times article shows, they did--unless you believe the later explanation that Joe DePlasco was out of the loop.

Again, let's look at the article's ending:
Mr. Caldwell, the group's current president, and Marie Louis, its treasurer, said late last month that Build was not yet receiving money from Forest City and that neither of them was yet drawing a salary.
But on Tuesday, Mr. DePlasco and a new spokeswoman for Build, Cheryl Duncan, revised that account.
In August, Mr. DePlasco said, two months after the agreement was signed, Forest City disbursed $100,000 to the group. The company also provided space for and is paying the overhead of a new Build office near the Atlantic Yards site, and along with other supporters donated furniture and computer equipment to the group. On Sept. 5, Ms. Duncan said, Build began paying several staff members, including Mr. Caldwell and Ms. Louis, who she said are currently being paid at a rate equal to half the salaries listed on the group's original I.R.S. form. Before the signing of the community-benefits agreement, the staff had been working as volunteers, she said.
Mr. DePlasco emphasized that the money given to Build was intended to fulfill the company's obligations under the community-benefits agreement.
"No money was given to Build prior to the community-benefits agreement. What they're supposed to do is begin outreach and job training so that people are ready to apply for these jobs when they become available. If you are going to commit to programs that otherwise don't exist, you have to find the funding for those programs - or at least a big chunk of that funding," he said. "Forest City Ratner Company believes firmly that supporting nonprofits and community groups, and working with them to identify and address needs, is at the foundation of what they do. It's that simple."

So, Forest City Ratner and BUILD admit that they lied [or, in Ratner's case, DePlasco was out of the loop, came the explanation], but the Times refuses to call it a lie. Rather, it's having "revised that account."

You'd think that DePlasco, having just admitted lying [or, in the later explanation, being out of the loop], would have lost all credibility. But no, he--the developer's spokesman--is granted the last word, and says something that is both self-serving and highly dubious.

Is supporting nonprofits "at the foundation" of Forest City Ratner does? Actually, according to Ratner's own mission statement, the foundation sounds more like profits than charity: Forest City Ratner is an owner and developer of real estate, committed to building superior, long-term value for its stakeholders.

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