Tuesday, November 01, 2005


An open letter to NY Times Public Editor Byron Calame: It's time to address Atlantic Yards

Dear Mr. Calame,

I know you've been busy writing about the Judith Miller "mess," an issue that also provoked a thorough review by a team of Times reporters. I hope you can address the Times's coverage of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project in your next column, scheduled for November 6. The project, encompassing 16 high-rise buildings plus a basketball arena, has emerged as a key point of difference between Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his Democratic challenger, Freddy Ferrer. The Times's coverage of that difference has been inadequate, both in a dismissive report Saturday on Ferrer's announcement and a failure Monday to analyze the statements made in the debate on Sunday. Your analysis would be most useful before the election.

I know you have received letters from numerous readers, as well as my report, released September 1, all criticizing the Times's coverage of Forest City Ratner (FCR). Some people think the Times is biased, given the parent Times Company's partnership with FCR in building the new Times Tower. I don't believe there are any orders to go easy on Ratner. However, I do think that, given the business relationship, the Times has an obligation to be exacting in its coverage--and it has not done so. You delineated the responsibility in your web journal on 6/29/05:
The Times's most important obligation, of course, is to make sure there's no bias in any articles it does publish about Mr. Ratner. But avoiding the perception of any tilt toward Mr. Ratner in its pages is also essential.

The coverage has improved somewhat in recent months, but on the whole, as I have detailed in my report and blog, it has been "inadequate, misleading, and mostly uncritical," to quote the subtitle of my report. [I originally wrote this next sentence: Perhaps this is "Afghanistanism," or what Sydney Schanberg noted is "the phenomenon of not covering your own backyard too aggressively." But the definition of "Afghanistanism," I am reminded, is that "news about something happening far away was less important," and this certainly describes how this Brooklyn project was treated for a while. The citation says the term was coined by J. Anthony Lukas in 1974, but a friend tells me that he used it before then.]

The Times missed important twists in this story. Once Forest City Ratner signed a so-called 50-50 housing agreement with ACORN, guaranteeing half the apartments as affordable, FCR changed its plans. The Memorandum of Understanding with ACORN covered 4,500 rental units--all the housing at that time. The Times covered this in a 5/20/05 news article, However--as I note in Chapters 1 and 6 of my report--the Times failed to cover the 5/26/05 City Council hearing in which Forest City Ratner announced an increase the size of the project, including at least 1,500 and possibly 2,800 market-rate units. (Ultimately, FCR added 2,800 units.) The developer traded office space (jobs) for luxury housing, and the Times ignored the issue. By not covering the hearing, the Times also failed to report authoritative criticism of the Community Benefits Agreement, while the developer and political backers have touted it as "historic." See Chapter 4 of my report and this criticism of the Times's later coverage.

The Times, in a subsequent 6/9/05 article headlined "Unlike Stadium on West Side, an Arena in Brooklyn Is Still a Go," failed to acknowledge the tradeoff. Subsquently, the Times's first account of the increased size,in a 7/5/05 article headlined "Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Arena Plan," focused mainly on the project as an architectural phenomenon, without asking the fundamental question: why did the project grow? As noted in Chapter 1 of my report, while Ratner officials claimed they were responding to the need for housing articulated by ACORN, the addition of market-rate units points to the developer's desire for increased profits ("economically necessary").

Had the Times noticed the changes in the plan, it could have produced a more accurate narrative, explaining that not only did the project get bigger, but also that FCR would no longer fulfill promises concerning affordable housing and jobs.

Some other issues not fully addressed include:

The total cost of the project
A 9/15/05 Times article finally acknowledged that the public investment would reach $1 billion. But this sum was acknowledged by Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing. See p. 29, or PDF p. 54, of my report. Why have no headlines or stories addressed this total cost? In fact, the dearth of such coverage probably contributed to the inadequate design of the most recent poll regarding Atlantic Yards.

The debate about the costs and benefits of the project
Chapter 3 of my report examines the reports by Andrew Zimbalist, the sports economist hired by Forest City Ratner to evaluate this urban develpment project, and raises several questions not addressed by the press. More recently, a study by the Independent Budget Office implicitly criticized Zimbalist's projections. This is important, because the mayor and the governor have relied on Zimbalist to project revenue for Atlantic Yards.

The arena--the most expensive ever
The Times reported, as an aside, that this would be the most expensive arena ever constructed. Surely it deserves analysis--and a headline.

The number of jobs at the project
The most recent Times coverage, as of 6/28/05, said there would be 8,500 permanent jobs. See p. 17, or PDF p. 42, of my report. However, 11 days earlier, Forest City Ratner's own Brooklyn Standard (see p. 3) was promising only "6,000 new permanent jobs." A document released by the Empire State Development Corporation on 9/16/05 shows less than a third of the office space originally promised, which would mean some 2,229 office jobs and fewer than 700 new jobs. Even if the Times finally reports on this issue before the election, the story will have come too late for the mayoral debates--just as the Times's belated coverage of the FCR's Brooklyn Standard came ten weeks after the "publication" was issued. The developer's slogan for this project is "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops." Those shouting "jobs" are generally people who hope for construction jobs, which would be temporary. But the developer promised, in December 2003 announcement, and in May 2004 and October 2004 mass mailings, 10,000 permanent office jobs.

The number of construction jobs
In covering other developments, the Times has used the more accurate figure of job-years to analyze promised construction jobs. The Times has most recently reported that the project would bring 12,000 construction jobs. Forest City Ratner says 15,000. Both estimates are in job-years, counting annual jobs over ten years. The accurate construction jobs number would be 1,200 or 1,500 jobs.

Substandard coverage
Some Times coverage has failed to meet the newspaper's standards of fairness and thoroughness. Here are some examples:
--Recent coverage of Freddy Ferrer's stance on Atlantic Yards ended with an unspported quote from Forest City Ratner.
--A story about the developer's attempt at community outreach revealed that, contrary to previous denials, the group BUILD had been paid by the developer yet concluded with a self-serving quote from the developer's spokesperson, who had just been unmasked as either uninformed or a liar. The article claimed that the developer's outreach efforts constituted a "modern blueprint" without offering any solid evidence. The Times hasn't yet reported on further aspects of the story.
--A story about Forest City Ratner's bid for the MTA railyard, which was doubled to $100 million, left out the fact that the land was appraised for more than double that, $214.5 million.
--As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, a Times story on the Rev. Al Sharpton's support for the Atlantic Yards plan failed to quote any critics.
--As noted in Chapter 3 of my report, a Times story on the Kim/Peebles economic study criticizing economist Andrew Zimbalist gave Zimbalist and Forest City Ratner the last word, with no attempt to evaluate the criticisms.
--As noted in Chapter 4 of my report, a Times story on the much-criticized Atlantic Center Mall allowed Bruce Ratner to offer explanations without quoting any critics.

Double standards
--As noted in Chapter 5 of my report, the Times ignored the results from two polls in which New Yorkers said they opposed a taxpayer-funded arena. Notably, the Times reported on other aspects of those polls, thus deeming them legitimate.
--As noted in Chapter 3 of my report, the Times has periodically quoted representatives of the Pratt Institute for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED) regarding development projects, but the Times has not quoted PICCED's pointed criticism of this project in both an extensive report and testimony at City Council.
--As noted in Chapter 3 of my report, the Times has periodically quoted transportation engineer Brian Ketcham regarding various projects. His significant criticisms of Atlantic Yards have not appeared in the Times.
--As noted in Chapter 3 of my report, the Times has periodically quoted the watchdog group Good Jobs NY regarding various development projects. The Times has not quoted the organization regarding Atlantic Yards, even though (see Chapter 4) the organization offered authoritative criticism of the Community Benefits Agreement.

Many other concerns are detailed in my report and blog. Here's one more issue that I hope you address. On 6/26/05, the Times Magazine published a chatty Q&A with FCR President Bruce Ratner (Stadium, Anyone?), which failed to mention that Forest City Ratner is The New York Times Company’s development partner on the new Times Tower. In your web journal on 6/29/05, you chastised the Times Magazine for not disclosing the FCR connection. The Times still hasn't disclosed that connection and, as I point out in Chapters 10 and 14 of my report, the Times has failed to disclose the business relationship in some other relevant articles, most notably architecture critic Herbert Muschamp's rhapsodic initial review of the plan. Muschamp also failed to disclose how he worked with Ratner officials in choosing an architect for the Times Tower.

Mr. Calame, the press should serve as a watchdog on governmental and private power, as well as a forum for public policy analysis. In the case of Atlantic Yards--unlike the West Side Stadium, where a corporate heavyweight, Cablevision, could amplify the voices of critics--the mayor and other leading public officials have joined forces with the developer, endorsing the project without looking closely. In such a case, the role of the Times becomes even more important.

Newspapers like the Times, asserted Times executive editor Bill Keller, should practice "the journalism of verification." I agree, so I look forward to your review.

Yours truly,
Norman Oder
Brooklyn, NY

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