Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Looking at Things From Another Point of View: Do We See Distinctions That Make A Difference?

(Click to enlarge image. More images for comparison in our original "Tales of Two Landlords" post.)

Sometimes when you are weighed down by concerns you want to try considering an opposite point of view because you really hope that doing so will change what you were thinking. We have been enormously worried about Rupert Murdoch's purchase of the Brooklyn Paper and what it means for coverage of Atlantic Yards and other local development stories.

Murdoch’s Acquisition of Local Community Papers

Murdoch’s News Corporation already owns the Courier-Life Publications chain and therefore the Brooklyn Courier, previously a much less estimable paper in many ways. Consolidation or some sort of folding together of the Brooklyn newspapers is likely. It is not just the fate of the beloved and mighty borough of Brooklyn about which we must worry. Murdoch has been buying up local papers in other boroughs as well. To wit, in Take Note: News Corp Quietly Owns NYC Neighborhood Newspapers, (In the Huffington Post, by Sharon Toomer, March 27, 2009), we read Murdoch:
. . . acquired these neighborhood publications:

• The Bronx Times and The Bronx Times Reporter.
• Times Ledger newspaper group in Queens.
• Courier Life group in Brooklyn (28 weekly papers, 27 of them geared to covering specific neighborhoods).
Bridging Two Separate Points of View

Our last post worrying about the change in the Brooklyn Paper’s ownership was Tales of Two Landlords Bridged by an Iconographic Clash (Saturday, March 21, 2009) wherein we also focused worriedly on the fact that the Brooklyn Paper’s new landlord is Forest City Ratner. In it, we wrote about how, Forest City Ratner has appropriated an iconographic view of the Brooklyn Bridge in its advertising (as Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report pointed out) which, ironically, just happens to be the same view of the bridge that another developer, the Walentases’ Two Trees Management, now proposes to obliterate with an outsized new building known as the Dock Street Project. Undergirding this irony is that while Ratner will be the Brooklyn Paper’s new landlord, the Walentases were, until this point, the paper’s landlord and it has been asserted that this fact has slanted the Brooklyn Paper’s reporting more favorably toward the Walentas project.

We got an e-mail response to our Tales of Two Landlords piece pointing out that the iconographic view of the Brooklyn Bridge in the Ratner advertisement is taken from the Manhattan side of the bridge while the view of the bridge the Walentas project will obliterate is the view of the bridge you see from Brooklyn. That is true. We can, and should, for accuracy’s sake consider them two separate points of view. They are two points of view but because they are visually almost identical they lead us to the same conclusion: One developer (Ratner) is appropriating Brooklyn iconography which another developer (Walentas) is on track to destroy; both developers have been landlords to the Brooklyn Paper and, in each case, concern applies that such landlordship undermines the paper’s critical and considered coverage of the developer’s projects. (We should mention that Ratner, the appropriator of the Brooklyn Bridge iconography, also proposes to destroy significant parts of essential brownstone Brooklyn.)

This is to say that while we acknowledge that these are two points of view, we wind up in the same place. In law school there was a shorthand phrase: “a distinction without a difference.” Before that, in high school we distilled the same thought down to the shorter flippancy of “same difference.”

Oder-ing Up a Gersh Kuntzman Point of View

In a very similar way we had the chance to try on a different point of view about whether our concerns for the Brooklyn Paper are real, and in quite the same way we found ourselves coming out in the same place as before. In a stupendous piece of reporting last week, (Wednesday, March 25, 2009, Gersh speaks! Award-winning Brooklyn Paper editor answers (sort of) questions about new Post parent, Courier-Life sibling) Norman Oder presented an 11-question interview with the Brooklyn Paper’s editor Gersh Kuntzman.

The questions, presented and answered by email, were, as preagreed, followed up on by Mr. Oder. Knowing how assiduous Mr. Oder is, no one should agree to be bookended by him, questions first and follow-up answers after, unless they are prepared to be absolutely straightforward. If you are concerned about good journalism in the borough of Brooklyn the interview is an essential must read. We would do a disservice to quote so much of it here that you think needn’t read it in full. When you do read it, click on all the links and spend time with them. Among other things, by doing so you will be reminded what excellent journalism the Brooklyn Paper has provided up to this point.

It should be clear that we share the concern made in a prediction by Mr. Oder “that The Brooklyn Paper’s news coverage of Atlantic Yards will diminish somewhat (as it already has), and its editorial criticism will diminish even more.” In theory, Mr. Kuntzman by being interviewed offered us the opportunity to take in another viewpoint. In fact, reading the interview led us to conclude these concerns about the paper’s future are absolutely valid.

Oder supplies his own short “takeaway” from the article, (but read the whole thing):
To summarize the news:
• Kuntzman doesn't think anything's changed with the paper's historically critical Atlantic Yards coverage (I disagree)
• he acknowledges that his newspaper can no longer critique its former rival
• he doesn't know if the two chains will be consolidated (I predict some level of that)
• he doesn't notice advertising in the paper (I think he should)
More FCR Appropriation of Thematic Brooklyn in Service of Destroying Brooklyn

A couple of things: Oder spends time (question #11 about Forest City Ratner’s advertising in the paper) on the subject of Ratner’s appropriating what is valuably and validly Brooklyn in his head-on course to destroy it with the anti-Brooklyn. Mr. Oder harkens back to a parallel Brooklyn Paper story from May of 2006 about how when Ratner used happy-Brooklyn photos (posed for as stock shots) to sell the idea destroying Brooklyn, Sahara Meer, the model who posed for the shots, surfaced to object to the use of her image. The Brooklyn Paper’s front page story concluded noting that Ms Meer “wants to channel her anger and is now volunteering with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.”

Gehry Truth-Gaffe Coverage

Mr. Oder’s article was published on Wednesday, so he had to prognosticate on the following:
Then again, I fully expect the Brooklyn Paper to cover architect Frank Gehry's "I don’t think it’s going to happen" bombshell.
He was, of course, correct. When the week’s edition of the paper came out Thursday there was an article by Mr. Kuntzman himself on the front page, its headline a trifle confusing, Weary Gehry Leery, Then Turns Cheery: Architect was `misconstrued’ about Yards. The current headline on the paper’s website is different: Gehry says he was ‘misconstrued’ over predicting Yards demise (March 26, 2009). - - We focus on the headlines because that is often the extent of what people take in.- - The text of the Brooklyn Paper article played out as a sort of he said/she said story. (Mr. Oder referred to the Gehry remark as “a bombshell.”) Reading carefully you could detect a jaundiced skepticism as architect Gehry carefully corrected his truth-based “gaffe” in parsed-out public relations terms, and as developer Bruce Ratner tried to spin that into something more favorable. The paper was working from “a statement issued by his [Gehry’s] Los Angeles-based firm.” Develop Don’t Destroy and the opposition was given a credibly generous amount of ink before the article was through.

Off-Kiltering Antics

Where does this lead? A trait we have noted with Mr. Kuntzman and which comes through in the Oder interview is that he often spars with an antic humor that keeps others off kilter, sometimes experimenting with a feigned insincerity that may not always be entirely mock. We wonder if we will see more of this from him, which will for a while make it more difficult to identify the ongoing changes at the paper. Notwithstanding, Mr. Oder has done a superb job of pinning down where things are apparently heading.

Back to Port With Dock Street?

We said we are worried about the Brooklyn Paper’s coverage not only of Atlantic Yards but of all Brooklyn development. As fate would have it, Mr. Kuntzman defended his journalistic efforts with a list of nine articles he had worked on last week (actually authoring six), leading off with a Kuntzman-bylined article critical of the Dock Street project. As previously mentioned that project is being developed by the Walentases, now the ex-landlords of the Brooklyn Paper. The material for the article was choice and the article made the most of it. It starts off:

The School Construction Authority was not being honest last June when it stated publicly that it did not “identify a need” for a new middle school in Brooklyn Heights or DUMBO because the comment came while the agency was in the midst of negotiating with a DUMBO developer to build just such a school.

That’s the most stunning news buried in dozens of pages of just-released documents made public by the SCA after a freedom of information request by Councilman David Yassky (D-Brooklyn Heights), who is an opponent of a project by David and Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management to build an 18-story tower and public middle school on Dock Street near the Brooklyn Bridge.

“It’s always troubling when government agencies, which are accountable to the public, are doing one thing in private yet saying something else in public,” said Yassky. . .
(See: Did city lie about its Dock Street plans? By Gersh Kuntzman, March 20, 2009.)

That’s tough on the peculiar politics of the Dock Street Project, but the Walentases are not the paper’s landlord anymore.

Note: The revelations about the School Construction Authority comport with our previously expressed suspicions:
The following coincidences are therefore unnerving. The School Construction Authority until recently used to say that the neighborhood did not need a new middle school. Now the School Construction Authority has suddenly backed the idea that there should be a new school in precisely this spot and precisely in this building. Next, testimony at the hearing by Historic Districts Council President Paul Graziano made clear, with the use of a map, that while there is a confluence of designated landmarks and historic districts where the project is proposed to go, there is also an ominous hole in their contiguity that surrounds the project site. Creating such an absence of historic designation takes a certain amount of political artistry.
(See: Saturday, March 14, 2009, At the City Planning Commission Hearings on Proposed Dock Street Project: A Reprise.)

The Delia Hunley-Adossa Candidacy: The Setting of a Bar By Which to Gauge

The Oder interview gets into coverage of the Delia Hunley-Adossa candidacy to unseat City Council Member Tish James as a gauge of the extent to which the Brooklyn Paper will be adequately covering Atlantic Yards (see question #8). Tish James is a stalwart Atlantic Yards opponent. Stripping away the trappings of a phony community-group “charity” Ms. Hunley-Adossa is essentially an employee on the Ratner organization’s payroll. The Brooklyn Paper hasn’t covered this attempted developer takeover of local politics and the non-coverage is a good gauge of what there is to be concerned about.

The depth of concern about the Brooklyn Paper's coverage is not as apparent from the interview as it is in another extraordinary piece of reporting Mr. Oder did two days later, thereby setting the bar. (See: Friday, March 27, 2009, Behind Hunley_Adossa's campaign, treasurer Nimmons heads another dubious nonprofit, with Ratner funding.) The Brooklyn Paper has heretofore run some very important stories about the abuse of charities for political purposes, but this article of Mr. Oder’s is leaving them in the dust.

Twisted Sister Coverage of Hunley-Adossa Campaign

While The Brooklyn Paper hasn’t yet covered the Hunley-Adossa campaign, the Brooklyn Courier with which it is likely merging is covering that campaign involving the Atlantic Yards developer’s extreme abuse of charities as if it were an ordinary campaign and one that the challenger is "winning." Mr. Oder is on hand to tell us more about this. (See: Saturday, March 28, 2009, "Dee raises more than Tish" and other reasons for more journalistic voices (plus a new 35th District candidate.) By remaining silent the Brooklyn Paper is allowing its confederate sister paper to report PR manipulations as actual news.

Dropping a Dime on the Hunley-Adossa Campaign as a Non-Story (The Dime Upon Which Things Turn)

In the Oder interview Mr. Kuntzman takes the position that the campaign is a non-story:
. . It is a story about an election that is months away. Besides, Delia has not raised a DIME yet, which is typically our standard for determining whether a candidate merits coverage. Our lack of coverage of Hunley's longshot campaign should not be interpreted to mean anything — though you, no doubt, will continue to interpret to mean everything.
As noted, by weeks end the sister Courier was uncritically reporting that Delia had not only raised Kuntzman’s proverbial dime but had `outraised’ Council Member Tish James. We think there is a story to report here: Part of the story is the Courier’s uncritical coverage and another part is the Brooklyn Paper passivity while its sister paper engages in that unbalanced journalism.

Critical Coverage of Abuse Of Charities for Political Purposes

At the heart of the Hunley-Adossa Campaign story is the subject of abuse of charities for political purposes, which is an absolutely critical one in the city these days. See our own: “Charity?” We Begin to Groan (Monday, October 20, 2008) and we have written more on the subject. At the moment it is difficult to say how many in the next cycle of elections will turn on the issue, including the mayoralty campaign.

Real estate developer funding is frequently a big part of the charity abuse picture, but Mr. Oder may have documented a direct abuse of charities by a developer for political purposes that is more blatant than anything seen before. It is not on the scale of what goes on in the case of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city’s richest individual, but it must command attention when such abuse takes off initiated by a developer (and his faux charity) with no pre-existing politician helping to instigate it. Here the abuse generates the politician rather than vice versa. We hope the IRS wakes up and takes notice. We hope that the Brooklyn Paper decides to cover these things before the IRS wakes up rather than afterward.

From All Points of View, Big Concerns Remain

We said at the outset that with the Murdoch takeover of the Brooklyn Paper and other local papers, we were worried about coverage of all Brooklyn real estate development. Truthfully, you should be able to tell from what we just said that we are worried about coverage of real estate development throughout the city by all of the media and, beyond that, we are also worried about coverage of the political process in the city as a whole.

We had our concerns. We read Mr. Oder’s interview with Mr. Kuntzman and we think we have considered Kuntzman's alternative point of view. But considering that alternative point of view has brought us back to the same place. We are still concerned. And yes, there is also that thing called “hope.” We can hope that our concerns are unfounded. Hope aside, we know that there is a critical role for good journalists to be playing in this city right now. The question remains: Who is going to do it?

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