Saturday, September 03, 2005

 

The Times (belatedly) takes on The Brooklyn Standard

Well, better late than never. The New York Times, on 9/3/05, finally noticed Forest City Ratner's promotional sheet The Brooklyn Standard, which, as my report points out, was published in mid-June. (See item 7.2 of report, p. 67.)

Still, the Times took a refreshingly skeptical tone, starting with the headline: "O.K., the Whole Paper Is Basically an Ad." Also, rather impressively, the Times give the story a very prominent place, with two photographs, on the front of the Metro section. In fact, this was, as far as I can recall, the most prominent placement in the Times of an article critical of Forest City Ratner's tactics in the Atlantic Yards project.

So, was this prominence a response to the September 1 release of the "High Rises and Low Standards" report criticizing Times coverage of Ratner's Atlantic Yards? We can only speculate. The story was obviously already in the works, and the placement of a story depends on multiple factors, including other stories competing for space and the photographs/illustrations available to accompany the story. Still, as noted below, the article missed some important points and, remember, it was two-and-a-half-months late!

Included in the Times article:
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. Hawkers hand it out by subway stations, and its masthead is full of people with newspaper-sounding jobs like executive editor and photographer.
Articles by writers of obvious bias are consigned to pages marked Editorial and Op-Ed. In that space, an article in the first issue was signed by Bruce Ratner, namesake of the development company behind the arena project, known as Atlantic Yards. Another article was about him. In it, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry described a talk Mr. Ratner gave to schoolchildren and said Mr. Ratner was "relaxed, smiling and seated on a child's chair, in his customary humble, winsome manner."
The first issue also published letters to the editor from politicians who have endorsed the arena project, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Marty Markowitz, the borough president. Both men enlivened their prose with exclamation points. Mr. Markowitz used three.


Still, the Times could have been even more skeptical. As I wrote in a letter to the Times:

"This welcome, if belated, skeptical look at Forest City Ratner's promotional sheet, The Brooklyn Standard, could have been even more skeptical. For example, State Senator Martin Malave-Dilan, who wrote a 'letter to the editor' to the Standard, told The Brooklyn Rail that he wouldn't have written such a letter had he known that the Standard, which appeared in mid-June, wasn't a real newspaper.

Also, the tabloid includes some enormously misleading financial information: 'Expected to generate $6.1 billion over the next 30 years for the city and state...' The Standard doesn't print the source of that figure, but it most likely comes from FCR’s consultant, Andrew Zimbalist, whose tax revenue estimates are based on many questionable assumptions. Moreover, the editors of the Standard did not choose to inform readers of the enormous public costs the project would incur--well over $1 billion, according to Forest City Ratner itself.

Also, it's incomplete for the Times to describe 'the dispute between the arena's supporters and opponents' as 'amount[ing] in some ways to a clash between low-rise brownstones and large-scale public works.' I and many critics of the Forest City Ratner proposal don't oppose large-scale public works. We do question developers who provide misleading information and government officials who abdicate their responsibility to look carefully at this project, which--given that most of it is luxury housing--could hardly be described as 'public works.'"

 

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.)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

 

About me

[This incorporates the original "About Me" text on the TimesRatnerReport blog home page, plus multiple changes made at various times since 2005. It's posted with a September 1, 2005 date, so it could be at the beginning of this blog.]

Contact: AtlanticYardsReport(at)hotmail.com.

My background

I've been a journalist for more than 25 years--as a daily reporter, and later as a freelancer for publications from The American Lawyer to Columbia Journalism Review to the Village Voice. I still freelance. From 1996 through early October 2010, I worked at the trade magazine Library Journal, unrelated to this project.

I decided to leave Library Journal to work on a book about Atlantic Yards.

Before I began Atlantic Yards coverage, I won a Silver Gavel Award (while at the Charleston Gazette, WV) from the American Bar Association and a year-long fellowship for journalists at Yale Law School, where I earned an MSL (Master of Studies in Law).

Praise from observers

Atlantic Yards awards are described further below, but my work has been praised by Chris Smith in New York Magazine ("a skeptic in the tradition of I.F. Stone"), David Smith of the Affordable Housing Institute ("Give this man a Pulitzer"), journalist Tim Sohn ("one of the finest pieces of local journalism on the internet"), Malcolm Gladwell in Grantland ("brilliantly obsessive coverage"), and Matt Chaban in The New York Observer ("incomparable Atlantic Yards watchdog"). In April 2009, AYR was cited in a debate between Paul Starr and Steven Johnson about the future of news.

How the blog started

This blog grew out of the report I wrote, issued 9/1/05, critiquing the New York Times’s coverage of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project.

I approached Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) about my proposed report because I knew they and others would both be interested in the topic and in publicizing it. While DDDB and other neighborhood/activist groups endorsed the report, the responsibility for it is mine. (Had I known that it was more than a one-shot--that I would wind up writing a long-running blog including reportage, analysis, and commentary--I might have kept more of a distance.)

In the aftermath of the report, I began a blog, the TimesRatnerReport, on 9/1/05. I intended it to briefly track coverage of my report. I began to offer analysis of both the Atlantic Yards project and the media coverage of it, then began to include more original reporting.

On 3/1/06, I changed the name to Atlantic Yards Report. The overdue name change reflected my broader approach to the topic.

I do this as a volunteer; I don’t get paid, unless I do freelance work. I don't accept ads on the blog.

Freelance work on Atlantic Yards

In July 2006, I began writing for the weekly Brooklyn Downtown Star; my last piece was in 2008. The pay was quite modest.

In June 2008, I wrote Atlantic Yards: This Generation's Penn Station? for Places Journal.

The Spring 2010 issue of the Urban Lawyer, a law journal devoted to urban issues, contains an article I co-authored, Urban Redevelopment Policy, Judicial Deference to Unaccountable Agencies, and Reality in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards Project.

On 6/22/10, I published an op-ed in the New York Times Sports section headlined A Russian Billionaire, the Nets and Sweetheart Deals.

On 9/30/10, I published an op-ed in the New York Observer headlined KPMG's Fuzzy Math on Atlantic Yards.

On 1/21/11, I wrote a New York Times "Complaint Box" essay headlined Powerless in Brooklyn.

On 3/18/11, I wrote an Columbia Journalism Review online essay headlined A Sports Myth Grows in Brooklyn.

On 6/3/11, I wrote a Dissent review of the film Battle for Brooklyn, headlined The Epic Battle Over Atlantic Yards.

On 8/1/11, I wrote an article for Urban Omnibus on Atlantic Yards Watch: Tracking Daily Impacts.

Speaking engagements/tours

I am available to speak at classes, conferences, and other forums. I have given several walking tours to visiting groups of journalists, urban planners, and architects--and to student groups.

On 2/24/07, I spoke at the Grassroots Media Conference on "objectivity, neutrality, and integrity" in covering Atlantic Yards.

On 10/9/07, I participated on the Municipal Art Society's panel on New Media, New Politics? Jane Jacobs and an Activist Press.

I was a guest on the TV show Brian Lehrer Live in May 2006, October 2007, and June 2009.

On 10/3/09, I spoke at the Dreamland Pavilion Conference in Brooklyn, on “Atlantic Yards: Brooklyn’s Most Controversial Development through the Lens of Public Relations and News Coverage."

On 8/12/11, I lectured on "Why Atlantic Yards Makes Me Angry (and makes me a better journalist)" at the Galapagos Art Space's "Get Smart" series. (Here's a review: "Oder is funny when he's angry.")

A "watchdog" blog

I call this a "watchdog" blog because it's devoted to a close look at Atlantic Yards and associated issues. I'm concerned about accountability.

From where I lived in Park Slope from 1992 through mid-2011, it’s about a seven-minute walk to the project footprint; that sensitized me to issues like scale and traffic. I moved in 2011 within Brooklyn and am now 12 to 15 minutes by subway from the project site. I don’t own property in Brooklyn.

Regarding Atlantic Yards, I’m a reporter and a critic--a critic of the project, the press coverage, and also the governmental process for evaluating and approving the project.

I don’t have a blueprint for the result, but I’m not neutral. I am often skeptical of the claims made by the developer and the supporters of the project, such as the expected economic benefits or the fairness of the process. I believe the press should serve as more of a watchdog.

Such skepticism aligns me closer to project opponents than to project supporters or Forest City Ratner. But those opponents do not control my blog and I don’t necessarily share their views or analysis. Most of the material I cite is in the public domain, so my choices and my analysis—about what to include and how to frame it—are often checkable.

I testified critically about this project in July and September 2005 before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and also in October 2005 before the Empire State Development Corporation. In each of those cases, I cited my research, reminding listeners of Forest City Ratner's record in Brooklyn, describing the contents of my report, and criticizing the claims in Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn Standard publication.

I've subsequently testified briefly at lagging, late moments in two Empire State Development Corporation public hearings, calling attention to pending Freedom of Information Law requests that I had filed but which had not resulted in delivery of documents.

Those activities go beyond what reporters typically do; they could be considered the equivalent of a newspaper column. This blog melds reportage with analysis and commentary. Such multiple formats may be found in one publication but usually not from one journalist.

Such is the world of the niche or stand alone journalist, who, according to Chris Nolan, "succeeds in getting stories told in an honest and forthright manner without benefit of working for a larger news outlet."

Fairness, not objectivity

My goal here is fairness, not some “he said, she said” version of objectivity. As former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent wrote (It's Good to Be Objective. It's Even Better to Be Right., 11/14/04), "Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue; it doesn't require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight."

I also take a cue from a "Journalism Manifesto" by former Wall Street Journal writer G. Paschal Zachary, who wrote: "Let subjects have their say, but tell readers why one side is fudging, lying or worse... The critical measure of a journalist's stature is whether they got the story right, not whether they were fair and balanced... Declare your agenda. All journalists have one. Be honest about yours...Fair and Accurate. Stop talking about journalists’ ‘objectivity’ and instead promote the concept of journalistic 'integrity.'"

Journalists make choices, based on their knowledge, the time they have available, and the space allotted, among other constraints. In my report and blog, I’ve pointed out numerous examples of the “uncritical reporting” Okrent might cite.

My claim to authority

Do I simply have a "slant," as one reporter suggested to me, or is my perspective and analysis rooted in any authority? My record, I submit, suggests the latter.

NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen observes:
Your authority starts with, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” If “anyone” can produce media and share it with the world, what makes the pro journalist special, or worth listening to? Not the press card, not the by-line, not the fact of employment by a major media company. None of that. The most reliable source of authority for a professional journalist will continue to be what James W. Carey called “the idea of a report.” That’s when you can truthfully say to the users, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Or, “I was at the demonstration, you weren’t, let me tell you how the cops behaved.” Or, altering my formula slightly, “I interviewed the workers who were on that oil drilling platform when it exploded, you didn’t, let me tell you what they said.” Or, “I reviewed those documents, you didn’t, let me tell you what I found.” Your authority begins when you do the work. If an amateur or a blogger does the work, the same authority is earned. Seeing people as a public means granting that without rancor.
On objectivity, neutrality, and integrity

Also worth noting: my comments in February 2007, part of On objectivity, neutrality, and integrity in covering AY:

I have been highly critical of the project, and I’m not neutral. That means I don’t think that balancing a quote from the developer and the opponents necessarily makes for honest journalism. That’s pseudo-objectivity.
I am often skeptical of the claims made by the developer and the supporters of the project. So that aligns me closer to project opponents, and that’s why I’m here today. But they don’t control my blog—I mean, today’s coverage, I wrote a nuanced piece on the judge’s decision and DDDB issued a press release—different content, different goals.
Still, it doesn’t make sense to try to find a mythical middle if you don’t do any digging. I mean, I don’t have to ask [DDDB's] Candace [Carponter] here if the project’s too big. Frank Gehry thinks the project’s too big.
I don’t have to find an activist to say that the approval process for this project isn’t democratic. The Regional Plan Association, mainstream group—they say the process is lousy.
So my criticism—or what seems to be opposition--emerges from my journalistic examination of the project, not the other way around.

On editing and responsiveness

This is a blog. Many but by no means all of my writings emerge unedited; for more complex or controversial topics, I sometimes send pieces to friends for a read. I frequently correct minor errors--typos or missing words--after readers catch those mistakes; I consider such changes the equivalent of a newspaper tweaking a story between its first and final editions.

Sometimes more significant changes are required, because I have made errors or new information has surfaced. In many cases, I aim to add inserts that indicate that changes were made after the initial posting. I have made changes in response to occasional requests for corrections or clarifications. I welcome feedback as well as notification of typos.

Awards and notice

On 6/7/07, I was honored with the Park Slope Civic Council's (PSCC) Lovgren Volunteer Award. I've been a member of the PSCC for several years, and annually volunteer for the Park Slope House Tour, but haven't participated in any of their policymaking. (Here's coverage of the PSCC.)

See 2/7/07 interview and 10/12/10 profile in New York Observer and online, coverage here and here in the New York Daily News's I-Team blog, coverage of the AY blogosphere in the Times, and 2007 Brooklyn Blogfest coverage (also see Times coverage).

In May 2008, the New York Observer named me #77 (!?) on its quite arbitrary list of the most powerful people in New York real estate. I have not been on subsequent lists.

In February 2010, I was honored with a Crystal Eagle Award from the Owners' Counsel of America, an organization of attorneys who represent those facing eminent domain. As I wrote, I had qualms about being described, at least according to some OCA members, as a "champion of property rights."

I responded that I was a "champion of good government."

I was nominated for the award by New York attorney Michael Rikon, who represents some property owners in the Atlantic Yards footprint regarding condemnation awards (rather than larger challenges to the project). Here's coverage of Rikon.

In August 2011, Brooklyn-based The L Magazine named Atlantic Yards Report "Best Local Blog" in its Best of Brooklyn awards.

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