Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Whither the New York Times? Noticing New York Comment Respecting a Manhattan Institute Sponsored Debate

Monday, Atlantic Yards Report reported on a question I asked about the cognitive dissonance of the New York Times coverage of Atlantic Yards, at a debate last month sponsored by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The debate was essentially a promotion for the book “Gray Lady Down” by William McGowan. The debate, moderated by Fred Siegel and hosted at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights was between author McGowan and Michael Tomasky, Editor of Democracy Journal and American Editor-at-Large, Guardian.

Mr. McGowan’s book posits that the Times has lost its way and much of its grandeur as a highly respectable publication mostly by reason of becoming a reflexively knee-jerk liberal and a politically correct organ on social issues. That then is pretty much what the debate was about. McGowan was clearly able to identify multiple mistakes made by the Times, but much of his fault-finding came across as strained. When he asked for a show hands it was interesting that although the audience had a predominantly conservative bent, few in attendance indicated that they had given up reading the Times. (The Times readership decline must be occurring elsewhere.)

Here is Atlantic Yards Report’s transcription of my question concerning the Times’ cognitive dissonance:
“Is the Times earnest and philosophically consistent, or is it making calculated decisions about its financial survival and benefit? As I go back in time and look at their coverage of eminent domain abuse issues, or, for example, the Columbus Circle development, and I compare to their coverage of what I think is a very big story, Atlantic Yards, which has to do with their real estate partner, Bruce Ratner, and it takes place after they engaged in buying a building with eminent domain for their new headquarters, I don't see consistency.”
Mr. McGowan’s response can be read as a part of the AYR coverage: Monday, March 21, 2011
"Gray Lady Down," a debate on the Times, and an AY mention. A video of the entire evening from which that response was extracted was made available is on the AYR site and reappears below:

Some Valuable Ideas from the Manhattan Institute. . .

The conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute can be a source of exceedingly valuable ideas, particularly in pointing out government interventions in the natural operations of the economy that wind up proving the law of unintended consequences. For instance, Peter D. Salins, a senior fellow with the institute, was a professor of mine at Hunter Urban Planning school (and also Dean of the school at the time) and is a thinker for whom I have particular fondness. I especially recommend an elegant if physically slim little volume (and now hard to find) he wrote about the decline of the Bronx: The Ecology of Housing Destruction (NYU Press, February 1980). Salins is not a fan of housing subsidies.

Based on what I know of his work, I predict that Salins would side with urban planner and author Alex Garvin (whose ideas were recently selectively popular in the Bloomberg Administration) in saying that if you want more affordable housing the better way for government to promote it is to invest in infrastructure that opens up a wider range of building opportunities for developers. In other words: `development-oriented transit’ is preferable to that which the Bloomberg administration is doing too much of- `transit-oriented development’ (e.g. Atlantic Yards).

Intending the Consequence of Improper Public Official Conduct?

One might say that Atlantic Yards itself is an example of the law of unintended consequences especially if one conceives that the law extends to government officials dishonestly conniving with a politically connected developer to abuse public programs. But, as powerful as the law of unintended consequences, may be, Atlantic Yards is not a true test of whether many of the programs involved in supporting the megadevelopment could actually work because public officials are not administering those programs as they were intended to be administered. The absence of bids is one thing, and then no one involved actually honestly believes that there was any blight at the site, although a blight-removing public program was invoked as a government tool to remove Ratner’s competitors from the vicinity of his other properties.

If the law of unintended consequences doesn’t already encompass it, then there should be another close cousin to that law: The law of unintended (or undesired) public official dishonesty. Consideration of whether or not the myriad public subsidy programs that Salins criticizes are inherently flawed or might, if they were properly run, achieve some admirable objectives ought to be tempered with another concern: Whether these programs are also inherently dangerous to the public given that they are so readily susceptible to being hijacked by “rent seeking” developers whose goals are to redirect subsidies intended to benefit the public to into their own pocket instead.

Noticing New York Philosophy

Where does Noticing New York stand on the political spectrum? Noticing New York attempts to apply both conservative and liberal tests of what good government should be. They overlap a great deal more than is generally acknowledged. Conservatives may fear big government and liberals may fear big business, but these days the preeminent problem both should unite to oppose is the collusion of big government to give big business the edge.

Examination of the Times

Surely, the Manhattan Institute has good work to do and surely a careful examination of the Times is an important undertaking. No matter what, the evening would have been valuably thought provoking, but whereas Salins' work is regularly on target much of the evening’s critique of the Times seemed like superfluous quibbling, off-target and not up to the best of what the Manhattan Institute has to offer.

The Line That Doesn’t Exist

The Times is having a harder and harder time not covering Atlantic Yards. That’s partly because Atlantic Yards is a bigger story than the paper has heretofore rightfully acknowledged. Basically, I think there was a decision at the Times made, albeit in the necessarily amorphous and unstated way that decisions would have to be made in such a news organization, to relegate Atlantic Yards, and more specifically the governmental misconduct and impermissible cronyism associated with Atlantic Yards, to the status of an official non-story within its pages. But the story won’t go away.

With new revelations like the Forest City Ratner pattern of being involved in the bribery of government officials, the recently unveiled ambition to make Atlantic Yards the densest forest of modular units in North America and EB5 program abuses in selling green cards to the Chinese solely for developer benefit the Atlantic Yards saga is a constant poster child for malefaction. But what the Times most misestimates is the extent to which the Times story interrelates with the coverage of the national and local stories it editorially believes it should be covering vigilantly.

I believe that the Times made a miscalculation that Ratner, as a financial buddy, could be off-limits for critical pieces- but not puff pieces- (Its own little behind-the-scenes deal with the devil), but that indulgences would come (in the good old religious sense of buying indulgences to recover from sin) via its moralistic vigor on national issues. But there is no such line to be drawn. Everything is connected. (This is one of the points of an epically idiosyncratic Noticing New York piece currently in the works: Adding A few More Off Topic Notes (Or Are They Really?).)

(* You encounter a similar Jekyll and Hyde split with Michael Ratner: On the one hand he is a defender of intentional human rights coordinating with the likes of Naomi Wolf and on the other he is feathering his nest with political contributions to now-indicted state senator Carl Kruger, no doubt with the intention of keeping the money flow from his brother Bruce Ratner off the radar screens)

The Times can’t write about race relations without observing the context in which white men like Ratner have attempted manipulate those concerns for their own financial advantage. The Times can’t cover Bloomberg and his potential run for president without observing how he favors awarding the development of big swaths of the city to a small in-crowd of connected developers. The Wall Street shenanigans covered by the Times very popular op-ed columnist Paul Krugman echo in the goings on with respect to Atlantic Yards as do all the Times stories about the accelerating redistributions of wealth from the middle class to the upper echelons.

The list of what the Times is missing by failing to make connections goes on ad infinitum. It also all relates to the question asked by the title given to the St. Francis evening debate: “Is the New York Times Good for Democracy?” The Times seriously hamstrings itself with respect to covering the big story on American Democracy by failing to adequately cover Atlantic Yards.

Noncoverage of Noncoverage

Here is another related story covered by the Atlantic Yards Report that the New York Times in its own noncoverage couldn’t report on: The sudden shift to noncoverage of Atlantic Yards by the Brooklyn Paper after that paper, like a lot of other local neighborhood papers was bought by Rupert Murdoch in 2009. (See: Sunday, March 20, 2011, Seven years ago, Brooklyn Paper house ad touted "the most complete and honest coverage" of Atlantic Yards and "changing face of Brooklyn".)
Notably, mega-mogul Murdoch is not only the owner of Fox News and the New York Post: With the acquisition of the Wall Street Journal he is intending to be, as was discussed during the evening’s debate, the Times number one competitor. Among other things to compete more directly with the Times Murdoch the Wall Street Journal has started covering local New York City news. The local news newspaper war aspect to this is a story in itself but the other big story on the multiple Murdoch-owned publications has always been the (largely right/Republican/big corporate player) slant to their coverage. (See: Any Jon Stewart Daily Show or The Raging Septuagenarian, by Gabriel Sherman, Feb 28, 2010.)

The recent Atlantic Yards Report piece takes us back down memory lane to March 20, 2004 when the Brooklyn Paper ran a full page ad toting its critical coverage of Atlantic Yards, including:
The proposed Nets arena is just a small part of the master plan, the most expensive Urban Renewal and property condemnation in Brooklyn’s history.

Only The Brooklyn Papers has asked: Is this the Manhattanization of Brooklyn ... or the “depeopling” suburbanization of our streets?

Are these projects good for Brooklyn?

Atlantic Yards is still the biggest story in Brooklyn but since the Brooklyn Paper was acquired by Murdoch (and Ratner became its landlord) it has been relegated to a non-story within that paper’s pages just as at the Times. Atlantic Yards Report comments: “The Brooklyn Paper did an aggressive job covering Atlantic Yards, though that's diminished since” the paper was acquired by Murdoch. `Diminished’ is a severe understatement. Among other things it hasn’t covered the EB5 story concerning the sale of green cards to Chinese `investors.’ And the paper would certainly never now run a full page advertisement trumpeting its critical coverage of Ratner.

"Grey Lady Down"

In the Atlantic Yards Report coverage of the "Gray lady Down" debate Norman Oder offers this assessment:
I have no doubt that the editorial page is committed, by virtue of the "spirit of the Times" (aka Sulzberger), to supporting Atlantic Yards, or, at least, keeping its mouth shut about dismaying details.

Is the Metro desk in the tank? I don't think so--and I can't let myself think so. But the Times has done, on the whole, a lousy job covering Atlantic Yards.
Though little discussed during the debate evening in terms of Atlantic Yards, the events organizers framed part of the overall concerns for the evening thus:
The Times’ editorial page has always set and followed an agenda. The problem, some argue, is that its editorial viewpoint has bled over into the news reporting itself.
“Is the Metro desk in the tank?” Mr. Oder says he can’t let himself think so and that is probably not 100% the case, but Mr. Oder answers his own question more or less when he concludes by saying:
Editors make choices, and the Times has chosen to put far less energy into looking carefully at Atlantic Yards than at a number of other issues. Meanwhile, the Sports section laps up Nets publicity.

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