Thursday, August 13, 2015

Open Letter To New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan Regarding Non-disclosures By Ginia Bellafante and the New York Times In Connection With Article About Proposed Sale And Shrinkage of Brooklyn Heights Library

The following is an open letter I wrote to the New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan concerning an article for which I was interviewed as co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries by that article's author Ginia Bellafante.

* * * *
To: Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor, New York Times

Dear Ms. Sullivan,
Subject: Non-disclosure of reporter's connection to significant aspect relevant to article about proposed sale and shrinkage of major Brooklyn Library, that private school will benefit very substantially behind the scenes.
I am writing to call to your attention to and ask for your evaluation as New York Times Public Editor of an article written by a New York Times reporter, Ginia Bellafante, with a slant that may not have been discernable to many New York Times readers, but should be very discernible to those who know the facts concerning the subject as well as I believe Ms. Bellafante did.  Ms. Bellafante's editor observes that the article reflects an "opinion" Ms. Bellafante's formed about a very important public issue, whether a major public asset should be sold for redevelopment, the Brooklyn Heights Library, the central destination library in downtown Brooklyn, proposed to be replaced by a luxury tower with a drastically shrunken library at its base.

The article is: Brooklyn Libraries, Development and Misdirected Fear, July 10, 2015

Ms. Bellafante left out of her article many facts, some might think oddly or preferentially, that would very likely have caused her readers to form an opinion, contrary to her own, and conclude that the proposed library sale and shrinkage is unwise.  Her omissions included leaving out the fact that, quite shocking to many, a private school, Saint Ann's, is benefitting to the tune of what is likely to be tens of millions of dollars if the library is sold and shrunk.  Behind the scenes the possibility of materializing this private benefit for the private school seems to be a significant factor in driving forward this public transaction with its attendant public losses.

More important, in terms of letting readers evaluate the objectivity with which Ms. Bellafante was presenting what she wrote, Ms. Bellafante neglected to disclose to them, something unknown to me when she was interviewing me for the article: that she is a parent with a child in that Saint Ann's school that stands to benefit from the transaction she was writing about.

In addition to Ms. Bellafante not disclosing this herself when she wrote the article, the New York Times thereafter chose not to publish a comment on her article (the article was one that was open for comment) that I wrote that would have filled in this omission.  My comment on the article, provided below, noted that Ms. Bellafante disclosed to me, as she was writing the article, that she already knew about how Saint Ann's, a private school, is getting a significant payday (in a currently undisclosed amount) if the proposed sale and shrinkage of the public's library proceeds. Plus my comment noted that Ms. Bellafante and I had discussed the issue of Saint Ann's lobbying for the sale and shrinkage of the library in the background.  I also noted that  Ms. Bellafante did NOT tell me during those discussions that she is a Saint Ann's parent.

The Times decision not to publish my comment was apparently made after my ultimately-not-to-be-published comment was forwarded to Ms. Bellafante's editor who, apparently after consultation with Ms Bellafante, contacted me to say that it was not being published and to explain her view as editor that these things were not of concern.  I do not concur with Ms Bellafante’s editor in this assessment and I am providing our email exchange about this below.

Unfortunately, the publishing of Ms. Bellafante’s article was very well timed to influence an important political vote by Brooklyn Community Board 2 about whether the transaction should proceed and was used as propaganda by those attempting to push the transaction forward.

It would probably be worthwhile to consider chronologically the following concerning Ms. Bellafante’s writing of the article.

On July 6, 2015, the Monday after the 4th of July weekend Ms. Bellafante showed up at a hastily scheduled meeting of the Brooklyn Community Board 2 Land Use Committee.   Because the meeting was atypically being set up ad hoc at the very last minute with notice not going out to the public until 8:55 PM, Thursday, June 30th (essentially for all practical purposes Friday morning of the 4th of July weekend) Citizens Defending Libraries of which I am a part and co-founder of, had a tough time notifying as many people as we could to get the word out that this meeting was to occur.

According to what Robert Perris, the District Manager for CB2 told CB2 members later (July 11, 2015) when distributing and touting Ms. Bellafante’s “observations,” Ms. Bellafante “apparently walked over from her Brooklyn Heights home to attend the community board's public hearing on the ULURP applications associated with the Brooklyn Public Library's plans for its Brooklyn Heights and Business and Career branches” to attend the meeting.

Attending the meeting Ms. Bellafante heard discussion by a CB2 Land use committee that was obviously flailing about helplessly with, for instance, a total lack of knowledge about how much they were actually shrinking the library.  The public was not allowed to speak before the Land Use Committee voted, but it would be hard to think that anyone attending would not have been greatly affected, taking expressed sentiments to heart, when, at the end of the meeting, a long line of community members got up and spoke absolutely unanimously and very eloquently (we should get all our video posted on this) inveighing against sale and shrinkage of the library. No member of the public attending the meeting spoke any words of approval for the scheme.

In news coverage of that night summarizing many of the comments I am quoted as follows:
"This is a very sad vote," said Michael D. D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, which has been fighting the sale. "You've declared open season on selling off of libraries, you've declared open season on the selling off of public assets in general. And you've set the precedent for selling them off at an extraordinarily low price."
See:  the Brooklyn Eagle:  CB2 committee approves sale of Brooklyn Heights Library, with caveats, By Mary Frost, July 7, 2015.  I said much the same thing on News 12 coverage which, with a few short minutes and few words managed to cover other essential points Ms. Bellafante neglected in her article.

Apparently, however, Ms. Bellafante's point of view was not, and perhaps could not be, swayed by the public sentiments expressed that night.  Ms. Bellafante’s editor email to me stated that Ms. Bellfante’s “opinion” that “the redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights branch should go forward had already been formed” and, in fact, was formed before she learned that the Saint Ann’s school her child attends was benefitting.  We don’t know when Ms. Bellafante decided she would write her article, but it has come to our attention that Ms. Bellafante was informed that Saint Ann’s was benefitting at least by the evening of Monday, June 29, 2015. . .  which means that her “opinion” was already formed by that Monday.

Tuesday, July 7th, the day after the Land Use Committee meeting Ms. Bellafante attended, Ms Bellafante reached out to me leaving a message on Facebook at 3:42 PM.  See below:
Michael: I am a Brooklyn Heights resident and columnist at the NYT and I'm writing this week about some of the changes facing Brooklyn libraries (both at Cadman and Sunset Plaza).

I was at the Community Board meeting last night and noticed some folks holding up signs and assumed they were affiliated with Citizens Defending Libraries. I'd love to talk to you (and/or you and your wife, who I understand is also very involved in this issue) about some of your concerns. I live right on Willow so could meet for coffee in the AM if you have time or we could talk on the phone if that's easier.

Let me know. My email is  giniab[at]

Many thanks,
Ms Bellafante finally reached me the following afternoon (Wednesday July 8th) when she called my cell phone wanting a call back “before 6:30 PM” because she was “on a deadline.”

I called her back and we talked extensively starting about 4:30 PM.  In multiple respects I was surprised by how much she told me she already knew about the library sales.  Although she was contacting me with a stated deadline that was imminent, Ms. Bellafnate’s preparation for her article with its pro-development message the article did not appear to have been be rushed into production. 

Her article, published in the Metropolitan Section, was posted on line Friday afternoon.

In collecting more information from me, Ms. Bellafante let me know that she was already very familiar with many facts she later left out of the article, including how Saint Ann's private school is benefitting behind the scenes if the public's library is sold and shrunk.  She was also aware of the linkage between the sale of the Donnell Library for an inexcusably low price and the virtual carbon-copy replication of that model with the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library: She said she knew that when David Offensend was at the NYPL overseeing the much criticized Donnell sale, his wife, Janet Offensend, went to the BPL where she was key in evolving the "real estate strategy" and concurrent decision to sell and shrink the Heights Library.

Nevertheless, there were a fair number of things I told her that she didn't know that I noted didn't show up in her article even when I think they were of significance.  For instance, that Bill de Blasio had stood on the steps of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library in July of 2013 calling for a halt to the sale and shrinkage of libraries, including this particular Brooklyn Heights Library,* but then not long after, while developer applications were pending was taking money from the development team his administration ultimately selected as he let the sale proceed through to the next steps preceding the public approval process that Ms. Bellafante was writing about.  At Ms. Bellfante's request I directed her to a video available on the Citizens Defending Libraries YouTube channel of de Blasio's July 2013 statements appearing beside us to opposing the library sales.
(* Mr. de Blasio (7/12/2013): "It's public land and public facilities and public value under threat. . . and once again we see, lurking right behind the curtain, real estate developers who are very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties")
Instead of mentioning anything about de Blasio in connection with the above, Ms. Bellafante downplayed the likely legitimacy of suspicions about our top elected officials and the sacrifice public assets for real estate development by suggesting to her readers that such suspicions were a sort of reflexive hangover, an "aftermath of the Bloomberg era" (therefore safely past tense and dissociated from the de Blasio era?).

I was also able to inform Ms. Bellafante, because she did not know, that Scott Sherman, who had written a series of articles about proposed NYC library sales and shrinkages for The Nation, had a new book book just out, "Patience and Fortitude- Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library," that included in it new revelations about just how extremely little the NYPL netted from the sale and shrinkage of the Donnell Library: Less than $33 million.  From that amount must still be subtracted annual rent for a temporary replacement Donnell that started at $850,000 after Donnell, still not reopened in any form, closed in spring of 2008 and also must be subtracted millions of dollars paid to high-priced professionals associated with making that transaction materialize.  That very low net price was for a 97,000 square foot library shrunk down to a largely underground and largely bookless library of just just 28,000 square feet, while the penthouse apartment in the 50-story luxury tower replacing this public building is on the market for $60 million and other apartments in the building are selling for prices in the neighborhood of what the NYPL netted.

Ms. Bellafante did not tell me that she had already formulated an opinion that the Heights Library should similarly be sold and shrunk, but a few odd things indicated she might already have some leanings about certain things . . .  

Ms. Bellafante dismissed with disinterest the inconsistencies of the Brooklyn Heights Association respecting its position on selling and shrinking the library because of the gap in time between when it advocated the library be enlarged and its switch to now advocate that it be shrunk.

The fact that the library was significantly enlarged and completely upgraded with appreciable public expense in 1993, making the building essentially 5 years newer than the adjacent Forest City Ratner One Pierrepont Plaza, Morgan Stanley building, was irrelevant to her.  That Morgan Stanley building is where Hillary Clinton has chosen to locate her National Campaign Headquarters.  “After all,” that (1993) was “twenty years” back at the time the BPL announced it wanted to sell the library Ms. Bellafante reasoned aloud sharing her thoughts.

The Friday afternoon Ms. Bellafante's article went up, I immediately started posting comments to the article to add to it facts and perspective that I felt the article lacked.  Processing of comments was slow with some taking five hours to appear.

Publication of Ms. Bellafante’s article this particular weekend was very well-timed to have an influence on a CB2 vote scheduled for the following Wednesday, July 15, 2015, as to whether the library should be sold and shrunk and Saturday, the afternoon following the article’s publication it was sent around to all the CB2 members as propaganda by the CB2 District Manager suggesting the relevance of Ms. Bellfante’s “observations” to the upcoming vote.  See below:
July 11, 2015 at 3:20:21 PM EDT.

"Ginia Bellafante, who writes the "Big City" column in the Metropolitan section of the New York Times, apparently walked over from her Brooklyn Heights home to attend the community board's public hearing on the ULURP applications associated with the Brooklyn Public Library's plans for its Brooklyn Heights and Business and Career branches.  The applications are on the agenda for this Wednesday's general meeting, to be held at 6:00 pm at St. Francis College.  I thought the members of Community Board 2 and its Land Use Committee might be interested in Ms. Bellafante's observations."- District Manager Robert Perris.
(For what it’s worth, almost as soon as Ms. Bellfante’s article was posted on Friday, 3:04 PM, Ashley Cotton, Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff of Forest City Ratner, another of the real estate parities involved in the proposed library sale and shrinkage tweeted Ms. Bellafante’s article embedding a thank you.”)

On Sunday, July 12th when I learned in the afternoon that Ms. Bellafante was a Saint Ann’s parent I submitted the following comment to the Times article (I was still awaiting publication of a previous comment about digital books).  This is the comment the Times would not publish:
When I spoke with Ms. Bellafante there was a great deal of information she impressed me by telling me that she already knew,, most of which doesn't appear here.  For instance, the background connections explaining how this proposed sale is modeled on the Donnell sale debacle, conceived at the same time.

Ms. Bellafante also explained that she knew all about how Saint Ann's, a private school, is getting a significant payday from the sale and shrinkage of the public's library in a currently undisclosed amount.  We discussed the issue of Saint Ann's lobbying for the sale in the background.

What Ms. Bellafante did NOT tell me and I now understand to be true is that Ms. Bellafante is a Saint Ann's parent, something not disclosed in this article.
Here is what Ms. Bellafante's editor wrote back to me at the end of the next day confirming that Ms. Bellfante was a Saint Ann's parent together with reasoning about my comment that was not being published:
From: Virshup, Amy  
To: mddwhite  
Sent: Mon, Jul 13, 2015 4:39 pm
Subject: Your comment on Ginia Bellafante's column

Dear Mr. White,

I am Ginia Bellafante's editor at the Sunday Metropolitan section of the Times and your comment about Ms. Bellafante's recent column on proposed library redevelopments in Brooklyn was forwarded along to me. The comment was not posted on the site, as I'm sure you know.  But I didn't want to let the moment pass without getting back to you.

I spoke to Ms. Bellafante about any possible conflict of interest. She began following the library issue before she knew that any possible sale of air rights by St. Ann's could be part of the project. She had not heard that anyone in the school was lobbying for the redevelopment to go forward, until you and other opponents claimed to her this was the case. Her opinion of whether the redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights branch should go forward had already been formed and was not influenced by this news, or by the fact that she has a child at St. Ann's.

As citizens of New York, we here at the Times often end up writing and editing about things that intersect with our own lives. There are cases in which we feel that a reporter or columnist is simply too close to an issue to write fairly about it. We don't think this is one of those cases.

Amy Virshup
Here is what I wrote back:
Monday, July 20, 2015 9:21 pm

Dear Ms. Virshup,

Yes, thank you, I am aware that the Times did not publish my comment.

When I talked with Ginia she told me that she knew all about the Saint Ann's payday.  I was surprised by how much she knew about this and other things like the linkage between Donnnell and other library sales with the Offensends (from our shared Brooklyn Heights neighborhood*) in the background and somewhat surprised by how much she chose to leave out as too unimportant to specifically mention, and too unimportant apparently to weigh in the balance of her conclusions.

        * We also similarly talked about Mr. Gutman.

Talking about Saint Ann's, we talked about the PowerPoint presentation that Saint Ann's did for its faculty about the library sale.  We also discussed at length the issue of Saint Ann's lobbying for its private benefit behind the scenes to drive forward this transaction where the public incurs significant loss.  I don't know when Ms. Bellafante first became well informed about the Saint Ann's payday before talking to me, nor do I know when she formulated her opinions, but I firmly feel it was, as a matter of good journalistic practice, a matter for her to disclose to her readers.  Ostensibly, at least she was formulating her thoughts when seeking information from me, and perhaps she should still have been.  On the other hand you are suggesting she already had a fixed idea of the conclusions she intended to promulgate before contacting me.

Failing disclosure in her article, I think it would have been fairest to the public and Ms. Bellafante's readers to at least learn that Ms. Bellafante was a Saint Ann's parent via my comment when I offered it rather than blocking it. This would have been especially valuable to have done on a timely basis, because Ms. Bellafante's article was used as a propaganda piece sent out officially by the CB2 office for CB2 board member consideration in connection with their vote before the CB2 members voted.  It was very well timed and well written for that purpose.

I could quibble about other matters in the article that look like they reflected an agenda on Ms. Bellafante's part, but I suppose I will only add that Ms. Bellafante did not mention to me that she was was going to depict Citizens Defending Libraries as having a sort of a feud with Urban Librarians Unite.  I don't believe she mentioned Urban Librarians Unite at all, and she certainly didn't mention her intent to have them comment on Citizens Defending Libraries or offer any opportunities of balance in that regard.

As for the question of when a columnist is too close to an issue to write fairly about it there will be different opinions. I, myself, personally, believe it is often necessary to write about things intersecting closely with our own lives. .  although maybe this is less often the case at the Times where the staff is large.  The lack of disclosure is what is troubling.

As to whether these or other relationships affected Ms. Bellafante's judgement in these matters, some of her logic troubled me like quickly dismissing the oddness of so drastically shrinking a library we so recently expanded (effectively the library is five years newer than the adjacent Ratner building, One Pierrepont Plaza, where Hillary Clinton has located her national headquarters).  Right now I'll leave the question of whether Ms. Bellafante's judgement was affected to others to consider without stating my own conclusion.  It's something I believe you and the Times should still be thinking about.   As for the public, it  won't be able to evaluate the question for itself without disclosure.

Citizens Defending Libraries 
Noticing New York
National Notice
W: (718) 834-6184
C: (917) 885-1478
mddwhite [at]
I did not get a response back.

One additional afterthought I’ve had is that, even if Ms. Bellafante formulated her apparently irrevocable opinion that the library should she sold before she formally knew that Saint Ann’s was getting a great deal of financial benefit in the background, she still formulated her opinion with that Saint Ann's sale being part of the milieu, the background and social environment of people around her, against which she formulated her thoughts.  Without being very careful it is not so easy to say that there was no consequent influence.

The purpose of this letter is not to point out where Ms. Bellafante and I may disagree in about conclusions that could be subjective, but pointing out some of these differences will help indicate instances where more wary and alerted readers might conclude that Ms. Bellafante's judgment was off.

Ms. Bellafante is entitled to a personal observation upon which she describes the library as "dilapidated," especially since she told me that she has visited the library with her son, but it is an assessment we don't share and I directed her to an extensively complete set of photographs including all the space not normally viewable by the public that I believe supports a different conclusion.  While it must be treated as Bellafante's own assessment it seems less accurate than an indication that she was looking to pass along promulgated talking points of the BPL.  Using sarcasm to belittle the idea that there is need for scrutiny because the BPL estimated costs of $9 million in necessary repairs for the library, $3.5 million for a partially out of commission air conditioning system (actually estimated by the BPL as higher than that) are likely inflated, Ms. Bellafante tossed off to her readers a disbelief that library administrators are interested in doing real estate deals, but the BPL's minutes show that when Linda Johnson arrived as BPL president she told her board that real estate deals were her top priority.

While Ms. Bellafante's quoting me about digital books is an accurate portion of our conversation about digital vs. phyical books it is a highly truncated one.  Yes, as recently covered by a WNYC "On The Media" segment and National Notice article, digital books and keeping physical books off site does mean libraries cease to have zones of privacy, but in saying that we are not against digital books I cited librarian John Palfrey's new "BiblioTech" book as calling for digital plus physical books (requiring more, not less, room), and I noted that people tend to prefer physical books (probably in part because they learn better with them- as covered in the Times) so that, despite the push of the BPL and NYPL toward digital books, circulation is way up with almost all of that circulation being physical books.  I also cited the just-out Washington Post article about how much more expensive digital books are and how with a push to digital rental models and increasingly consolidated content control digital books may mean that content winds up just vanishing from the libraries. . . .

. . . Instead, Ms. Bellefante's article uses was written to imply that the Brooklyn Heights Library is being shrunk based on "library science."

In conclusion, I believe that that there is substantial evidence that Ms. Bellafante approached her subject with bias and a fixed predetermination about what she would write that improperly fore-ran her collection and analysis of relevant facts and that, partly because that fixed predetermination persisted the way it did that Ms. Bellafante being a Saint Ann's parent, a school benefitting very significantly from this transaction, should have been disclosed in her article.  Similarly, I think the Times should have published rather than blocked my comment that would have provided an alternative, though less effective, disclosure of that relevant fact.  In fact, I see no reason why the Times did not publish my comment other than the original lack of disclosure might have been viewed as potentially embarrassing.

Had readers been informed by such disclosure there would have been cause to be more alert for the balance that I believe was missing from Ms.Bellafante's article.

Here, albeit with a few overlaps from what is cited above, are things Ms. Bellafante left out of her article:
    1.    The mistake of shrinking this library ( last enlarged with public expense and sacrifice Oct.1993) down to just  one-third size* can  never be corrected, nor can the “replacement” library, stuck in the bottom of a luxury residential tower, ever grow with the neighborhood, CBD, borough or city.  Though this shrinkage is to a preordained size, no replacement library has been designed and  no estimation at all has been done of how many books it should hold.

            (*  63,000 square feet to just 21,000 square feet.)

    2.    The BPL is selling a  sturdyreadily adaptable library in good shape, together with its land and development rights worth over $100 million (probably $120 million or more) to the public in order to net next to nothing in a transaction that may even incur a  net cash loss.  Further, there is no assurance that the paltry sums, if any, gleaned from the sale,  all going to the city, would ever subsequently go to libraries.  Libraries, highly valued by the public, cost relatively little to fund, but this sale is apt to encourage further underfunding like this.

    3.    This sale would sacrifice one more public asset (an education-supporting one at that) to build yet another new, huge residential tower that would further burden the public infrastructure such as PS8, already at  140% capacity.

    4.    The gentrifying aspects of this project are unmistakable with a public asset democratically serving everyone equally being shut down, lower income patrons coming to the neighborhood  kicked out, and so-called “affordable” housing units built  “poor door” style at a far remove from Brooklyn’s burgeoning downtown and upper crust Brooklyn Heights.

    5.    The developer has  refused to say how much of a payday the private Saint Ann’s School is getting from the public’s sale and shrinkage of the library, because that’s a “ private” transaction, even though  it’s driving this  public one.  Shouldn’t Saint Ann’s be paying the BPL?  (It may likely get more from this sale than the BPL is getting.)

    6.    This sale sets the unfortunate precedent for serially underfunding and selling off other libraries (per the BPL strategic real estate plan) and other public assets (like  public housing) setting a template for how public assets can be picked off one by one.  This developer is making hundreds of millions of dollars: The incentives for other such deals will always be there.   If we can’t stop them at libraries . . .where can we stop them?

    7.    It’s improper that while the developer’s application for this project was pending Bill de Blasio was taking money sent to him by its development team,  in his words“lurking right behind the curtain . .  very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties.”

Here are links I supplied Ms. Bellafante as research resources to supplement what I understood she had found:
    •    This Citizens Defending Libraries page with a handout we gave the CB2 Land Use Committee members (linking to other handouts including the memo about environmental issues).  It links backward to other valuable sources.  Monday, July 6, 2015,  Handout Number 1 For July 6, 2014 Brooklyn Community Board 2 Land Use Committee Meeting- Let's Get the Record Straight! Concerns Re Proposed Library Sale+Shrinkage To be Voted On 
   •    This is the Citizens Defending Libraries YouTube 12-minute interview with the 2-minute de Blasio clip right after the introduction.  BK Indie Media Interviews CDL On Library Selloff Schemes
    •    This is the product of the Citizens Defending Libraries forums we've had on the subject of selling off and privatizing public assets in general.  Our Public Assets Under Attack- A Calamity of the Commons Unfolding That We Must Act Collectively Against- How best To Express It? 
   •    This presentation of the tour photos showing the library to be in very good shape with lots of readily usable space.   In A Closed Library, A Tour of Much The Public Doesn't Get To See- Don't Let Them Close This Library, The Brooklyn Heights Library On Cadman Plaza West, Corner of Tillary & Clinton

    •    This is Citizens Defending Libraries statement of principles posted in connection with the Sunset Park library proposal.  Monday, November 3, 2014,  Proposed Statement of Principles Concerning Any Possible Redevelopment of Library-- Sunset Park Branch.
    •    Reference to recent Noticing New York articles I wrote about the libraries from July and June.


Citizens Defending Libraries 
Noticing New York
National Notice
W: (718) 834-6184
C: (917) 885-1478
mddwhite [at]

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