Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Time to Times; Dear, Dear, Dear

The IFC Media Project recently broadcast segment, Unreliable Sources, reported how, in a failure to serve the public interest, the major news story of the proposed Atlantic Yards megadevelopment has gone only “half-told” by New York’s three major dailies because of “government collusion with the developer and the developer's business ties.” The developer, (Forest City Ratner) business ties are to the New York Times. We were amused to see that the segment about the lack of critical coverage was recommended viewing on the Times TV page (see image above).

Opportune Time: Our Letter to The New York Times New Public Editor

This therefore seemed like an opportune time for us to continue with our series of letters about Atlantic Yards written to politicians and people of influence. In this post we publish the May 10, 2007 letter we wrote to the Times Public Editor, Clark Hoyt. We arranged for that letter to be on his desk the day he started his job as the Times new public editor. (Our earlier letters in this series to then Governor Spitzer and Mayor Bloomberg are available, respectively, at: Friday, August 22, 2008, Dear Eliot, . . . . . Please be a true reformer and Tuesday, August 19, 2008, Dear Mr. Bloomberg, . . . . . the Harm and the Foul.)

Times Created the Public Editor in 2003 as Ombudsman

The Times created the post of “public editor” in October 2003, after an internal review triggered by the Jayson Blair scandal. The public editor serves as an ombudsman and “readers’ representative” to investigate reader complaints and to sniff out and bring biased coverage to light. (See: Critical Acclaim, On the Media, April 29, 2005 and The Times Chooses Veteran of Magazines and Publishing as Its First Public Editor, by Jacques Steinberg, October 27, 2003)

The Brooklyn Museum Protest: Another Letter

Speaking of letters, we were pleased to see that the April 3, 2008 demonstration at the Brooklyn Museum protesting its highly inappropriate “honoring” of Bruce Ratner formed an important backdrop for part of the IFC piece. (For more on this see: Friday, April 04, 2008, "Shame!" Crowd outside museum shouts "Ratner's bad for Brooklyn") We note that you can find a letter on line from concerned members of the community that explains just how inappropriate it was for the Brooklyn Museum to honor Ratner and why that demonstration was held. We were, of course, a part of it. We are pleased that the IFC documentary served as a reminder to keep the question of the museum’s conduct in the public consciousness. The museum has yet to issue a suitable apology. The anniversary of the demonstration is coming up, so who knows, maybe a commemorating anniversary demonstration would be in order.

We Wrote The Times About. . .

Our letter below to the Times’ Mr. Hoyt references a number of reasons why the Atlantic Yards story should be better covered by the Times, starting with the issue of density and proceeding to questions of inappropriate government official conduct. For more on latter read the other letters in this series or follow the links in the letter below. (There is so much to say on subject of inappropriate government official conduct, these are just starter links.)

For more of what we have written on the subject of density and scale we recommend: Weighing Scale (Friday, September 26, 2008) and Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #4: Appropriate Density? NO (Saturday, November 29, 2008). We should also note that we separately approached the Times about addressing whether much of New York may be becoming too dense. The Times did not run the exact op-ed style piece we suggested but (coincidentally?) they subsequently ran a story consistent with our suggestion about whether increased density is going to overburden Bryant Park. It was a valuable article but its tone was dangerously close to one people may dismiss as “fluff.” Our complete story about what we sent the Times is at: Is NYC Becoming Too Dense? Who’s to Say? (Thursday, December 11, 2008).

(For more about the excellent design of Battery Park City referenced in opening of the letter below see: Tuesday, August 5, 2008, Two, and Fro? and Monday, September 22, 2008, Should a Teardrop be Shed- Considering the Burden?)

. . . And You Can Too (After Recommended Viewing?)

Please consider writing your own letters to the Times and feel free to crib as much as you like from anything we have written. You might first want to watch the IFC Media Project’s Unreliable Sources segment. It is available on YouTube, see the No Land Grab link. Remember, the Times TV page said it is recommended viewing!

Our letter to the Times

* * * *

May 10, 2007
Mr. Clark Hoyt
Public Editor
New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036

Re: Is the 1200 Pound Gorilla the Elephant in the News Room?

Dear Mr. Hoyt:

Welcome to New York. If you haven’t already done so, I suggest that you put on your list of new-to-the-city things-to-do, taking a visit to Battery Park City. Have a meal or drinks and take in the harbor at one of the waterside restaurants. Then I suggest that you take a tour which you combine with the following homework. Wander through the streets of Battery Park City and look up at the buildings.- - Ask yourself this question: Is Battery Park City too dense, not dense enough or just about right?

I think the answer is that the density is just about right, though the answer that suggests itself as you experience the streets might change with the development’s final build-out, just as it has shifted somewhat over the years of its construction since I graduated from urban planning school. If the experience is that the density of the development is “just about right” this is in no small degree a matter of Battery Park City’s excellent design, that it sits on the water, and that it has fabulously conceived open spaces, some of them sweeping and all of them superbly thought through. The development even has rooftop heliostats to redirect sunlight to shadowed plazas!

Now ask the question, if this is the right density for such a project under these excellent conditions, then what about the phenomenally greater density proposed for the Atlantic Yards project? Not only is Atlantic Yards proposed to be the most dense area of the United States, but it is poorly designed. Further, as a lawyer who has only just left government service, I feel ashamed and associationally tarred by the disregard for proper process and fundamental fairness that is bringing it about.

I invite you to visit the web site “Atlantic Yards Report” and to watch Isabel Hill’s 2007 documentary “Brooklyn Matters.” Even if you were to quibble in any way about details in either one, you cannot disagree that each is an example of excellent journalism.

Central to the unfolding story to be told is the theme of politicians acting out of character with their promises and advertised personas and how it may all come home to roost.

Some day a great book will likely be written about what happened in the center Brooklyn, particularly if anything like the monstrosity proposed ultimately materializes and affects generations. The New York Times will be mentioned but, as things stands now, every last footnote mentioning the Times will be about how the Times did not adequately cover this story. No doubt analogies will be offered with regard to the Time’s other recent failures of coverage while mention will have to be made of the possible influence of the business relationship between the Times and Atlantic Yards’ oddly selected developer.

There is still time to start covering a major story.- Obviously, there is also an obligation to the public to do so.


Michael D. D. White

* * * *

A Parting Mention: Great Public Expense

Signing off, we will note that the IFC documentary piece covered the fact that Atlantic Yards will be costing the public a huge amount in public subsidy, between $2 and $3 billion. We didn’t write about this in our letter to the public editor, but it is something we worked on with New York Post reporter Rich Calder when he wrote Your 'Net' Loss, $2B in Taxes to Ratner (April 14, 2008). The estimated minimum figures that can be calculated with reasonable definiteness come to a total of $2.1 billion. The actual total will probably be higher still, perhaps much closer to $3 billion. (Though it can be pointed out that the $2.1 minimum subsidy number could be better established, any substantial issue with the number is probably taken mainly by those calculating the numbers inconsistently intending to disingenuously minimize depicted costs: Stadium Finance: Mayor, Professing to Know Numbers, Should Know He Can’t Have It Both Ways (Unless He’s Keeping Two Sets of Books, Monday, December 15, 2008.))

Rich Calder, interviewed in the IFC piece, complained about a lack of access to information. I think that Mr. Calder was referring in part to the fact that the public agencies responsible for Atlantic Yards are not supplying the public with information to facilitate knowledge of what the actual costs likely are. The developer, Forest City Ratner, fuzzes up the numbers to the best of its ability and the public agencies are more or less complicit. Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report advocates that when a news story and numbers aren’t handed to you, reporters need to go out and get them: The IFC Media Project scoop: former Daily News reporter says she was pulled off AY beat (and source blames Ratner), Tuesday, December 09, 2008.

According to Mr. Oder, himself an excellent reporter who diligently collects and marshals all his facts, the Times is still failing to pursue the story. (See: Thursday, December 11, 2008, "Unreliable Sources" redux: only one of three dailies covers the Forest City conference call and Monday, December 08, 2008, A dozen Atlantic Yards stories that have gotten scant or no coverage.) That brings us back to what we believe the Times needs to do: The Times needs to get out of its glass tower (built in partnership with Forest City Ratner) and do what it promises to do: Report All the New That’s Fit to Print.”

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