Friday, March 29, 2013

Saving Schools and Libraries by Giving Up the Land They Sit On? - Letter To The New York Times Editor (From Citizens Defending Libraries)

Delivering a hard copy of Citizens Defending Libraries letter to the editor, in addition to a previously emailed copy, for extra good measure did not work to get that letter published in the New York Times
This is about how news does, or does not, get out to the public in this city if the subject of a news story is the real estate industry.  In this case, the subject was a very big story about real estate and libraries.

Two Sunday nights ago the New York Times published an article confirming what most readers of New York already know: New York City libraries are being sold off to developers, implementing a new public policy.  The next day that story was on the front page of Monday’s print edition.  See: Saving Schools and Libraries by Giving Up the Land They Sit On, by Joseph Berger and Al Baker, March 17, 2013.

The one good thing about the article is that it clued people into the fact that (whether or not library officials were denying it) these sales were happening across the city. . .

. .  The article took almost a month to get written and get published.*  The fact that the practice was unfolding city-wide was something that reporter Joseph Berger didn’t know and that Citizens Defending Libraries informed him of when he met with me and CDL’s organizer in chief, Carolyn McIntyre (also my wife) nearly a month before its publication.  We also pointed out that, as was noted in the title of the Times article, what was going on with libraries was similar to what was going on with schools.  It’s all part of an across-the-board fire sale as Bloomberg city officials get ready to finish up Bloomberg’s third term.
(* I predicted in advance, and turned out to be correct, that the story, posing difficulty for the Times, would take a long time to come out and be converted to a multiple byline.)
Revelation of the city-wide nature of what was going was the main good thing about the article.  In virtually all other respects the article was simply a compilation of real estate industry talking points about why selling city libraries is supposedly a good thing.

Here is what the article did not include, expressed in a Citizens Defending Libraries letter to the Times editor from Carolyn McIntyre. The Times did not publish this letter.  Mind you, a letter to the New York Times editor cannot exceed 150 words so the unpublished letter boils down to 149 words its statement of what the Times article left out:
    * * * *

March 22, 2013

Letters to the Editor
The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, New York 10018

Re:    Saving Schools and Libraries by Giving Up the Land They Sit On (March 17, 213)
To The Editor:

Your front page article (March 17th) on selling libraries describes the policy "increasingly . . used" in the city to sell libraries on land "developers crave."

The article doesn't say these sales, since 2008's Donnell closing, involve shrinking the system.  The Central Library Plan is a consolidating shrinkage, including effectively decommissioning 42nd Street's Central Reference Library.  Brooklyn Heights' library sale closely clones Donnell's shrinkage.   

Unreported is that Brooklyn Public Library's CEO admitted (Daily News) that money from the Brooklyn sales doesn't go to the libraries or that the BPL, not prioritizing public benefit, fixed upon selling properties without arranging for money to return.

Underfunding of libraries, the excuse to sell them, is Mayor Bloomberg's program.  Funding our libraries less than Detroit when libraries are one of the highest priorities of community boards and usage is way up?

Citizens Defending Libraries has a new petition (8,500+ signatures) protesting this unjust, shortsighted policy.


Carolyn E. McIntyre
Citizens Defending Libraries

    * * * *
If you presume that the Times article omitted all of the above despite the fact that Citizens Defending Libraries called all of these things to the reporter’s attention at the outset, you would be absolutely correct.  Furthermore, it was not just what the Times left out; it was also what the Times wrote that was inaccurate and misleading.

When we met with Mr. Berger I carefully explained that these real estate deals don’t ensure that they will be to the highest bidder or provide the best return for the public.  That’s because they propose to use a RFP “Request For Proposals” process (side-stepping a simple “request for bid” process) to enter into “public-private partnerships.”  Forest City Ratner, a firm library officials say they expect could be among those they will do business with in connection with the library Mr. Berger arrived to report about, is notorious for its history of and expertise in abusing developer-driven partnerships.  Nevertheless, without indicating that there might be any other point of view, the Times article flatly states in the opening paragraphs that properties will be offered  “to the best bidder.”  (Was some careful thought given when that sentence was structured to say “best” rather than “highest”?)

This assuring pronouncement from the Times was notwithstanding that I had explained to Mr. Berger that I used to run the legal department of the state finance authorities. I did not explain to him that I was a principal author of their procurement guidelines. Had I done so I doubt that it would have resulted in a difference in his copy.

Inclusion of what was significantly left out of the Times story would have turned the Times story virtually on its head since the story’s essential points were that the sell-offs of the libraries a.) could not be helped, and b.) were for the public’s benefit.  Neither is the case.

Getting word out about the Times omissions presented a daunting proposition.  Even though the library story was a front page story of intense local interest the Times did not open that article up to public comment from its readers.  Had the article been open for public comment Citizens Defending Libraries and other New Yorkers could have pointed out the many flaws in the article, its bias and the dismal underlying flaws of the policy that article was supporting.  Comments could also have corrected the failure of the Times to mention to the campaign Citizens Defending Libraries is waging against the new policy and its petition now approaching 9,000 signatures both online and hard copy.  (Here is a link to the petition: Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction.)

The Times has likely learned from past experience and comment pages that opened up the subject of the Donnell Library closing that comments critical of selling off libraries come fast and furious.

Under the circumstances, the only way to correct the "paper of record" was to get a letter to the editor published.   The unpublished letter to the editor that appears above had to be withheld from public view until right now.  It had to be withheld until it was known that the Times wouldn’t publish it because the Times Letters to The Editor policy states (emphasis supplied): “Letters to the editor should only be sent to The Times, and not to other publications. We do not publish open letters or third-party letters.”  (See: How to Submit a Letter to the Editor - The New York Times.)

Meanwhile, the uncorrected Times story was having what is described as “The Times Effect.” The story was suddenly deemed to be news.  As soon as the Times story ran a slew of other publications and media published the same story, often repeating it in very much the same terms as in the Times.  For instance, Joe Berger was interviewed on WNYC, where he said much the same thing written in the story: Libraries Eyed as Ripe for Development,  by WNYC Newsroom, Monday, March 18, 2013. Similarly, an unbylined article appeared that day in Business Journal: Can New York's libraries and public housing be saved by private developers? March 18, 2013.

The most recent problematic echo of the Times article occurred on today's Brian Lehrer show where a misinformed moderator substituting for Brian Lehrer at the very end of the segment  puts out as a `correction’ her misimpression that sale of the libraries is not about eliminating library real estate, telling the audience with treacherous authoritativeness that the libraries (as opposed to shrunken libraries) `are being put back.’  See: The Brian Lehrer Show: Funding Public Services Through Real Estate Development, Friday, March 29, 2013.

The most thoughtful article in the slew of articles appearing, one that intuited that something was wrong with the Times reporting and followed up with some independent investigation that cast doubt on the Times narrative appeared in The Observer: Is the Public Getting Swindled By the City’s Short-Sighted School and Library Sell-Offs? By Kim Velsey, March 18, 2013.  (“Is the city is making bad—or at least short-sighted—deals in exchange for a little cash right now? . . . when private, rather than public interest dictates the city’s real estate decisions, that’s a real cause for concern. .  The Brooklyn Public Library. . does not dispute that the value of the real estate is a huge factor in the decision. “ etc.)

The problem for The Observer in making its assessments is that it wasn’t working with any hint of the information Citizens Defending Libraries had supplied the Times, which could have helped sharpen its assessments still further.

While it wasn’t possible to comment on the Time library sell-off story directly, it was typically possible to comment on these echoing stories.  Which should come first: Writing a letter to the Times Editor, or commenting with speed to correct the echoing stories (birds in the hand) but taking care not to use the same language as, and thus disqualify, a letter to the Times editor?  Additionally, it was altogether a very busy week for libraries with several public meetings that needed to be attended, something I will be writing about in another piece.
Citizens Defending Libraries probably should have gotten its corrective letter into the Times more promptly: It got its letter in within five days and the Times prescribed period is to get letters in within seven.

But getting a letter to the editor published in the Times doesn’t mean that the letter will say what you want it to say instead of what the Times wants that letter to say.

Three letters opposing the library sell-offs appeared in the print edition of the New York Times Saturday published Saturday morning.  See: Letters - A Plan to Demolish Libraries to Save Them, March 22, 2013.

I repeat them in full below.  One of them, which I have set forth as the first below (it actually appeared last), was from Martha Rowen from our Citizens Defending Libraries team.  Her letter was edited by the Times.  I have included in bold and brackets what the Times edited out and didn’t print from her original letter.  The Times editor screening her letter also indicated to her that if she had been prompted to write her letter by virtue of a website they would be disinclined to print it:
    * * * *

To the Editor:

[Saving Schools and Libraries by Giving Up the Land They Sit On (March 17, 213), quotes a claim that “people don’t want to raise taxes” and characterizes the sale of our public property as an “intelligent investment”.   At a time when polling shows Americans consistently in favor of higher taxes on the rich, I question the premise and ask, “Who are the people who do not want to raise taxes?”]  Any plans to sell our public resources to private developers should be voted on by residents of New York City — stakeholders at least as important as developers.

I believe that with full disclosure of the facts and figures, including statistics on rising library use and the modest cost of consistent guaranteed funding, ordinary New Yorkers are quite capable of making intelligent decisions on issues that will profoundly affect them for generations to come.

    Brooklyn, March 18, 2013

[The writer is a member of Citizens Defending Libraries.]*

(* NOTE: This edit made it impossible for Times readers to find out about either Citizens Defending Libraries or its petition.)

    * * * *

To the Editor:

The front-page picture of a Brooklyn public library building that may be torn down (“Saving Schools and Libraries by Giving Up the Land They Sit On,” March 18) brought me grief. My childhood and professional life were partly lived in that borough.

That a building so rich in its beauty, character and connection to the past is now on the chopping block to make money for apartment house developers is a shameful comment on the city. I have traveled to places worldwide that treasure their history and do all they can preserve it. It’s what gives a city and a nation its identity.

I’m hoping to see demonstrations imploring the city to let that Brooklyn library, and historic reminders like it, remain standing.

Rockville Centre, N.Y., March 18, 2013

    * * * *

To the Editor:

It is the siren song of money, no matter the public interest and cost.

The Brooklyn Heights library may not be a New York City-designated landmark, but it is a landmark to our families. When our children enter this easily recognized building, they feel that they are entering a special place of learning, connecting with centuries of “great books” and their own history. In doing so, they start on a unique adventure, a lifelong journey.

In placing the library as a minor part of a high-rise building, more than the original library building is lost.

A part of us is lost.

Brooklyn, March 19, 2013

The writer is a former chairwoman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
As you see from all of the above, the Times with its editing out of facts from its articles, and even the editing of the Letters to the Editor opposing that edited article’s point of view, has tightly controlled the framing of the public’s dialogue about the disposal of these vastly valuable, precious public assets.

Why is it that the Times needed to edit from Martha Rowen’s letter her astute observation that, contrary to Times reporting, the public is actually interested in seeing the libraries properly funded, something that was also indicated in the unpublished Citizens Defending Libraries McIntyre letter?  Unfortunately, in only 150 words you can’t add that libraries are a pittance to fund in terms of the city’s overall budget or that their funding is typically one of the highest priorities of the city’s 59 community boards.

The choices the Times made with respect to what to include can be interesting. . .

. .  Meeting with Joseph Berger in February we referred him to the new Center For An Urban Future Report released in January about usage and funding of the libraries.  The Times article actually included a quote from David Giles, the research director of the Center, who authored that report, getting a blessing from Mr. Giles that “there was wisdom to the approach” of selling off the libraries.  But, in doing so the Times made no reference to the existence of the report itself or its principal conclusions, the main reasons we said it was important to refer to it: That library usage is way up (40% programmatically, 59% in terms of circulation), that the underfunding of libraries by the mayor is aberrant and unwise and that the annual budget dance in which New York City libraries wind up being underfunded is simply a “kabuki dance,” the kind of political theater that ought to be dispensed with.

We’ve talked and communicated with Mr. Giles.  His report and its principal conclusions were, no doubt, an unexpected upset for those intent on converting libraries into real estate inventory.  I expect the upset generated difficult discomfort.  Mr. Giles tells us he agrees with efforts of Citizens Defending Libraries to obtain the funding for libraries that they deserve.  He doesn’t agree with us on everything.  What he believes, and we don’t agree with him on, is that the significant people now in charge at the libraries, who are intent on selling them off while shrinking the system, are people who are earnestly looking for `creative solutions’ the primary purpose of which will be to benefit the libraries.

Once again: The Times has tightly controlled the framing of the public’s dialogue about the disposal of these vastly valuable, precious public assets.  Why is that and is that how it should be?  Could it be that real estate advertising is very important to the financially beleaguered Times?  I am sure that others will have explanations to offer although they may not be radically different. 

Citizens Defending Libraries has added a web page to its collected web page where all the responses to the Times article promoting the idea that libraries should be sold can be published to correct the record and balance the dialogue no matter what the Times would edit out.

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