Monday, October 17, 2005

 

Sneaky doings at the Brooklyn Standard: How did Ratner's propaganda sheet snag a NY Times contributor?

The Fall 2005 edition of Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn Standard pseudo-newspaper deserves detailed fact-checking, which I've done in another post, but the first thing to remember, as the 9/3/05 New York Times story put it in an article about the first issue, "O.K., the Whole Paper Is Basically an Ad."

So why does Times stringer Nate Schweber have his byline attached to four stories, including the lead, in the latest Brooklyn Standard? (The new issue isn't up on the web yet, but here's the top of the front page.)

I contacted Schweber, who said he didn't write that lead story, nor another with his byline, though he did write two others, at least in some form. He sent me a written statement:
I was shocked and sickened on Saturday when I learned that my name was attached to two Brooklyn Standard articles that I did not write.
I did not report or write the front page story, “MTA Approves Atlantic Yards Bid,” nor did I write the story on page 18, “Furthering the Arts in Brooklyn.” The fact that I am credited for those stories is an egregious error on the part of Manhattan Media and I have sent faxes, e-mails and certified letters to CEO Tom Allon as well as Brooklyn Standard Editors in Chief Barry Baum and Scott C. Cantone as well as Executive Editor Edward-Isaac Dovere demanding an immediate retraction and correction.


Schweber said in a letter to Allon, I also demand that my name be stricken from those articles in all future pressings of this issue of The Brooklyn Standard, as well as any and all archived issues including, but not limited to, the web page www.brooklynstandard.com.

I called Allon, who told me, "There will be a retraction in the next issue," but would not comment further. Given that the current issue is labeled Fall 2005, it's possible that the next issue might not appear until December.

So why did this happen? I can only speculate, but it's possible that Brooklyn Standard editors wanted some New York Times-tinged cachet on the front page. Or maybe the articles were all written by Forest City Ratner public relations staff, and they didn't want their names used. Several pieces in the Brooklyn Standard lack bylines, which suggests they may have come directly from Ratner staff: a two-page "Frequently Asked Questions About Atlantic Yards;" a Q&A with Council Member Lew Fidler; a Q&A with new Nets CEO Brett Yormark; and a story headlined "FCRC Associates Pitch In for Prospect Park."

The staff box in the publication says that the Brooklyn Standard is "A Forest City Ratner Companies Publication" and the editors in chief are Ratner employees. Allon, listed as the Managing Editor, is president/CEO of Manhattan Media, which publishes various Manhattan weeklies, under the slogan, "Neighborhoods are our business, our only business." Schweber said he had an ongoing relationship with the company:
I have freelanced for Tom Allon and his Manhattan Media companies since 2002, mainly for the West Side Spirit and Our Town, two weekly, community papers in Manhattan.
For the sake of my name, my reputation and my career I need to make four things abundantly clear. First, the assignment to write the stories on page two was given to me long before my first interview with the New York Times. Second, I turned in my copy before my first interview with the Times. Third, the printed articles differ greatly from the copy I turned in. And finally, I was assigned the articles before the first issue of the Brooklyn Standard had come out and I was led to believe that it was a community newspaper like the other Manhattan Media publications I freelanced for. Immediately after I found out about the stories that I didn’t write but to which my name was attached I researched the Brooklyn Standard and found out that it was not a newspaper but a publication paid for by Forest City Ratner Companies. I am taking steps to set the record straight on this, the first business day after I found out about this problem.


There's a time lag here, since Schweber, who lives in New Jersey, apparently did not notice articles on the Brooklyn Standard in Brooklyn and New York media outlets in June, generated after Forest City Ratner issued its 6/17/05 press release. Nor did he take action after the prominent (Metro section front) 9/3/05 Times article on the Brooklyn Standard, which pointed out:
To counter the impression that it is trying to fool anyone, The Standard avoids calling itself a newspaper, instead proclaiming itself "a Forest City Ratner Publication."
Efforts at transparency end there. The Standard is printed on newsprint, folded like a tabloid, laid out to look like a newspaper and distributed alongside real newspapers.


Still, Schweber's lapses are far less than the misleading copy in the "publication" itself.

The lead story, misattributed to Schweber, headlined "MTA Approves Atlantic Yards Bid," contains a deck stating "FCRC's $445 million overall offer exceeds MTA's appraisal." It also states that MTA board Chair Peter Kalikow noted that the amount of money the MTA was receiving was in excess of its own appraisal. The bid was also praised by the majority of those who testified at the hearing. The article further states that the development is expected to be generating $6 billion in new tax revenues over the next 30 years.

This article, however, isn't journalism. Reporters who covered the hearing noted some dramatic opposition to the MTA's decision from members of the public and elected officials, as well as dissenting board member Mitchell Pally's forceful challenge to Kalikow's willingness to accept the bid. That information isn't mentioned in this article.

No source was given for the $6 billion, but a similar number has been estimated by Andrew Zimbalist, the economist who is Forest City Ratner's paid consultant on the project. Zimbalist's projections have been widely criticized--see Chapter 3 of my report, and the recent Independent Budget Office report.

More fundamentally, the article falsely reframed the bid amount. The New York Times's 9/15/05 article, headlined "Arena Project For Brooklyn Wins Approval From M.T.A.," better contextualized the bid amount:
[T]he authority's decision to accept the $100 million offer by the company Mr. Ratner heads, Forest City Ratner, for the 8.3-acre railyard. The offer was $50 million less than a rival bid from the Extell Development Company and $114.5 million less than the transportation authority's own appraisal.

The comparison between the Times's account and that in the Brooklyn Standard is worth noting, because the Times's own Ethical Journalism handbook states that outside contributors should meet the Times's standards:
152. Times readers apply exacting standards to entire paper. They do not distinguish between staff written articles and those written by outsiders. Thus as far as possible, freelance contributors to The Times, while not its employees, will be held to the same standards as staff members when they are on Times assignments, including those for the Times Magazine. If they violate these guidelines, they will be denied further assignments.

However, staff members are not supposed to be writing for publications that don't meet the Times's standards, The Times handbook continues:
97. Before accepting a freelance assignment, a staff member should make sure that the tone and content of the publication, Web site or program are in keeping with the standards of The Times. In general, a staff member should write nothing elsewhere that could not fit comfortably under his or her byline in The Times or that implies The Times’s sponsorship or endorsement.

Are the other puff pieces attributed to Schweber in the Brooklyn Standard up to the standards of the Times? Well, no, but as my report indicates, the Times doesn't always meet its standards either. One that Schweber wrote (at least in initial form), headlined "Small Businesses Flourish at MetroTech," quotes five happy small business tenants, thus suggesting that Forest City Ratner cares about small business, but it also points out that MetroTech is much bigger than that: Ratner's MetroTech Center provides New York City with more than 22,000 jobs, with a payroll of close to a half billion dollars annually.

A few paragraphs lower, the article acknowledges that the list of tenants includes government tenants, such as the New York City Fire Department, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication, the Police Department's Public Safety Answering Center, the New York City Human Resources Administration, and the Kings County Family Court and New York State Supreme Court Criminal Term. The article does not point out, as critics have regularly observed, that Ratner's projects often rely on government tenants. The article also quotes a florist as saying, "Plus, you end up working less because it's a 9-to-5 work environment." The article does not acknowledge that MetroTech has been criticized because it's empty at night and on weekends.

Still, Schweber said in his statement that the printed articles--the "Small Businesses Flourish" as well as a profile of a hardware store at MetroTech--differ greatly from the copy he turned in. The fourth story that bears his byline, which he says he did not write, profiles Brooklyn Academy of Music President Karen Brooks Hopkins.

Freelancers for the Times are supposed to avoid conflicts of interests. Work for Forest City Ratner, a partner with the parent Times Company on the new Times Tower as well as the subject of major coverage in the Times, could present at least the appearance of such a conflict. The handbook states:
153. Before being given an assignment, freelance contributors must sign a contract with The Times. These contracts oblige them to take care to avoid conflicts of interests or the appearance of conflict.

Schweber has been a stringer for the Times only since September 2, and has contributed to 22 articles, nearly all spot news stories from New Jersey. His work covering New Jersey doesn't intersect with his work for the Brooklyn Standard. Still, Times contributors should not be compromising the newspaper by writing for Ratner's propaganda sheet, and Schweber, who turned in his Brooklyn Standard copy before he started writing for the Times, obviously now recognizes that.

An 8/14/05 column by Public Editor Byron Calame, headlined Outside Contributors: In The Times, but Not of The Times, acknowledged that it was hard to police standards among freelancers:
Monitoring and maintaining the paper's ethical and reporting standards among the growing and far-flung army of freelancers is a crucial and complex task. Two years ago, The Times acknowledged that it needed to do a better job of checking out new freelancers and requiring them to pay more attention to the paper's ethical and reporting standards. But the goals are proving tough to achieve.

Another passage stated:
A new electronic freelance administration system will include a process requiring all freelancers to respond to a set of pointed questions about possible conflicts of interest when they sign a contract. The new system, which began its rollout last week, initially will link freelance contracts to assignments and payments. The Times expects to incorporate the conflict-of-interest questions, which are ready for use, into the electronic system "within a few months," according to [Assistant Managing Editor] Mr. [William E.] Schmidt.

Not soon enough, apparently. The Times may have to add a question that goes something like this: "If you've turned in some freelance work for a publication that you later learn is of dubious quality, have you taken action to try to keep it from being published?
[Note: previously I had written, "Have you taken action to make sure it won't be published?" but I'm told that writers in that position probably don't have such leverage.]

Comments:
Did you really have to attempt to destroy a 26 year old kid's budding career just because he wrote two adulterated articles about Ratnerville BEFORE he was hired as a subcontractor for the NYTimes? This is an ex post facto lynching of Schweber, who, having grown up in Missoula, Montana neither knew, nor should he have known that he was going to be used, abused, ripped and (w)rapped up all over NYCity for writing what he,in good faith,, believed was a simple community piece on an infill development. He wrote the articles as a favor for Tom Allon who hired him fresh out of The University of Montana J-School to work at the West Side Spirit. Allon had never mislead him previous to this offense. Schweber's mistake was trusting Allom, when quite possibly, in NYC he should never trust anyone. To add insult to injury, Schweber neither asked for nor received a dime for the work he did for Allon.
And now you are attempting to portray Schweber as a propagandist for all things Ratner and the other predators on his payroll insinuating that the NYTimes is among those rolling on that gravy train. And you expect us to believe that Schweber is the engineer of the train? Hello?? He's a New Jersey stringer who is motivated primarily to respect and cultivate carefully his chosen career. He's been suckered, but he's no sneak. And he is certainly no power-broker. He depises people like Ratner in the most fundamental way, which is why, if you'd gone to any trouble to check the story behind the stories before the blogging, you would have realized that Allon had to dupe Schweber into writing them. There is no connection between the Ratner stories and Schweber's stringer job at the NYTimes because the two jobs did not co-exist. Schweber had no idea when he wrote the stories that the Times would add him to their list of writers. Sorry, but this was all an unfortunate co-incidence and Schweber should not have to pay the price of your libel.
Further, there's no litmus test that any newspaper, even the almighty NY Times can create which would weed out every stringer who has ever written a column containing some scintilla of a conflict of interest involveing the Times. No questionaire could ever be that objective. And there'd be no stringers left to hire after the test.
Yes, I know there's a mass of money and people on the line involved in this Ratner deal and you perceive your job as citizen watchdog to take on all who would dare breath a word in favor of this hated project. But before you take down a no-contract stringer's reputation (a political nobody whose name you can slander without fear of reprisal) you should consider the damage you do by just blogging your heart out (literally) without probbing the motivations and the agenda of the players you write about. I suspect YOUR agenda is mere self-aggrandizement. Which is perfectly acceptable in America, but not at the expense of Schweber's job. You owe him an apology for jumping to too many wrong conclusions without getting your facts straight first. Funny, you accused him of doing that very same thing.
Kay Vinci, Esq.
 
Kay Vinci (a name I couldn't find in any legal directory) charges me with not checking. Of course I checked, which is why I asked Schweber for a written statement and quoted him at length. And I state clearly that he wrote the stories for the Brooklyn Standard before he went to string for the Times, and that his Times work in New Jersey has no connection to the Standard.
 
If you'd like to check my credentials, review me at the State Bar of Montana, Helena Montana.
Once Schweber turned in his stories to Tom Allon, they became the property of Manhattan Media, regardless of the fact that Schweber wasn't paid for them. There was no legal way for Schweber to prevent the publicationn of what he's written once he's given over the material.
The real enemy here is Tom Allon who lied to Schweber about the nature of the assignement, distorted the work product and fraudulently used Schweber's name.
It would be much more effective if you were to work with Schweber to establish the fact that Manhattan Media is just another propaganda arm of Ratner, Inc, than attacking Schweber. He's hardly the villan here; just another lowly victim without much recourse against a monster developer machine. And Ratner has suceeded in dividing his enemies, always a good strategy when consolidating your power.
Think about it, if you were to help clear Schweber's good name with the Times, he just might have information you need to further your own crusade. Score and even the score, I say.
 
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I did check with the State Bar of Montana, which told me that Carolyn Kay Vinci is a member. She points out that there was no legal way for Schweber to prevent the publication of what he had written, and I've adjusted the last paragraph of my story accordingly. The headline says Schweber was "snag[ged]," not that he was a propagandist for Ratner.
 
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