Monday, December 19, 2005


Times/Ratner disclosure absent from Real Estate article on Prospect Heights

The 12/18/05 New York Times Real Estate section article about Prospect Heights, "A Neighborhood Comes Into Its Own," didn't mention the parent New York Times Company's connection to developer Forest City Ratner--they are partners in building the Times Tower in Midtown. I critiqued the article previously; here I'll explain why I think it should've included the Times/Ratner disclosure, even though it's a close call.

The Times has consistently disclosed the Times/Ratner business relationship in its recent Metro section news coverage of Atlantic Yards and in its editorials. As noted in Chapter 10 of my report, the Times did not do so consistently in its early coverage of the impending project, including articles in the Sports section. Nor did the Times do so in some positive Real Estate section articles about other Forest City Ratner projects--relevant since they border the proposed Atlantic Yards and also reflect the developer's track record. Nor was there disclosure in then-architecture critic Herbert Muschamp's rhapsodic 12/11/03 essay ("Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden"), which later provided Forest City Ratner with quotes suitable for a p.r. mailer. Current critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, by contrast, did disclose the connection in his 7/5/05 essay ("Seeking First to Reinvent the Sports Arena, and Then Brooklyn") in response to the latest architectural drawings. Muschamp, as noted in Chapter 14 of my report, also failed to disclose that he served on a committee with Forest City Ratner executives (Bruce Ratner and Jim Stuckey) that helped choose the architect for the Times Tower.

Such disclosure decisions are judgment calls, so what's the standard?

Following the Times Magazine’s 6/26/05 interview with FCR President Bruce Ratner, current Public Editor Byron Calame criticized the paper’s failure to disclose its ties to the developer. Calame wrote in his 6/29/05 Web Journal:
Full Disclosure of Ties with Bruce Ratner
The New York Times, I believe, has an obligation to alert readers when they are reading substantive articles about a company or individual with whom the newspaper has some business or professional relationship. This obligation wasn’t fulfilled Sunday when the chatty “Questions for Bruce Ratner” in The New York Times Magazine failed to mention that the real estate developer and the parent company of this newspaper are partners in the construction of the Times’s new headquarters in Manhattan. Given the smiling, page-high cutout photograph of Mr. Ratner that accompanied the article, it was an especially inopportune time to fail to mention his ties to The Times. [Emphasis added.]

Calame added that "it appears to be an unusual lapse"--a judgment with which, as noted above, I disagree with somewhat.

So back to the recent Real Estate section article. Why require disclosure in an article in which only three of 32 paragraphs concern Atlantic Yards--plus another paragraph mentioning the developer? Because, on balance, I think the Times should err on the side of more disclosure, rather than less. That article on Prospect Heights will be cut out (or printed out) and read by many a house- or apartment-hunter, some perhaps new to the city or to Brooklyn.

Anyone moving to Prospect Heights should know that Atlantic Yards, the biggest project in the history of Brooklyn, would have major ripple effects in terms of traffic, transit, and construction, among other issues that I think were underplayed in the Real Estate article. Anyone moving to Prospect Heights should be put on notice that the Times has a business relationship with Forest City Ratner, and that a search for information on the neighborhood should involve not only the Times but other daily and weekly publications. As stated in my report, there's no evidence that Times reporters have been told to go easy on Ratner; it's just that, given the business relationship, the Times should report exactingly, to dispel the spectre of a conflict of interest, and the Times has not done so.

I don't think all articles that glancingly--as opposed to substantively--discuss Forest City Ratner deserve such disclosure. But this one does, especially since the article's offhand reference to the "stunning apartment building converted by the Forest City Ratner Companies" has such a rich backstory, unmentioned in the Times article.

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