While much has been made of The New York Times’s lamentable coverage of the events leading to the war in Iraq, another story calling into question the integrity of the newspaper has been largely overlooked–a story concerning the paper’s possible collusion with a rapacious developer. Bruce Ratner’s plans to build seventeen high rises and a sports arena in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, using public and speculative financing and the threat of eminent domain to displace upwards of 500 people, have galvanized the affected communities into active opposition. Meanwhile, distressed Brooklynites have grown weary of The New York Times’s coverage of the proposal, as the articles on the topic have read like glorified PR materials, trumpeting the alleged benefits to the city and ignoring the civil liberties that are at stake.
It all started rather innocuously back in January 2004 with an article titled "Nets are Sold for $300 Million, and a Dream Grows in Brooklyn." As The New York Times would have us believe, Mr. Ratner’s purchase of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and proposal to build them a new arena in Brooklyn represent a gesture of extraordinary largesse–bringing Brooklynites, still smarting from losing the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, a bona fide professional sports team while rescuing an elite basketball team that had been languishing in New Jersey. However, the story was just one of nine in the paper’s January 22, 2004 edition that touched on the purchase and proposal, and the column inches devoted to Ratner’s plans did not seem warranted. The New York Times did not stop there and since then has been engaged in a virtual PR blitz, publishing no less than fifty articles on the subject, the overwhelming majority of which speak of the Ratner plans in very uncritical terms. To date, The New York Times has not published any article analyzing the crucial, and disturbing, elements of Ratner’s proposal, a laundry list of unprecedented sleaze. No investigative reporting, for example, on:
(1) the use of eminent domain to condemn thirteen acres consisting of private property, homes and businesses;
(2) the use of tax incentive financing (TIF), whereby Ratner will be issued a huge loan by the state, and instead of paying it back or paying property taxes, the property tax revenues will be used to pay back the loan;
(3) the bypassing of city review of the plan; or
(4) the lifetime gag orders imposed on individuals who negotiated the sale of their property to Forest City Ratner (FCR), Ratner’s development company. Most bizarrely, in May 2004, The New York Times ran a story on the front page of its Metro section "explaining" Ratner’s Atlantic Center Mall, a white behemoth that is an unmitigated eyesore to locals, not to mention a financial disaster that has been propped up by the state, whose Department of Motor Vehicles rents around 50,000 square feet of space there for $1.6 million per year. In that article, the Times reporter did not cast a critical eye on the fact that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the state body with the power to seize and condemn property through eminent domain, is also housed in the mall; nor did the reporter bring to readers’ attention the chummy relationship Ratner enjoys with both ESDC head Charles Gargano and Gargano’s ultimate boss Governor George Pataki, who is an old friend of Ratner’s from Columbia Law School. Nevertheless, the Times’s editors apparently believed that a positive story on an ugly mall in Brooklyn was newsworthy.
But even the most unwavering proponent of the Times’s objectivity must have entertained a doubt when in early June, Ratner’s company, FCR, sent out a promotional mailing to 350,000 Brooklynites, and there amidst the anodyne photographs of smiling people was the approximately 42-point size New York Times logo with pull quotes from a Times article, exclaiming that Ratner is "building a Garden of Eden in Brookly". The mailing was also passed out by FCR to the union men they bussed in to a pro-arena rally in Brooklyn on June 17, 2004. As the mailing did not contain FCR’s name, the recipient was left to suppose that the brochure was sent by The New York Times.
The Times’s feverish support of the Ratner plan is explicable in that this is indeed the same Bruce Ratner who is also building the Times’s new midtown headquarters, a project that also displaced residents and business owners through eminent domain. This apparent conflict of interest was not lost on the Canadian journalist Simon Haupt, who wrote a June 19, 2004 article in the Globe and Mail, writing: "If you’re wondering why you haven’t read much critical press coverage … in The New York Times, it could be because [FCR] is partners in developing the Times’s new headquarters." Nor did New York Post architectural critic Steve Cuozzo treat The New York Times with kid gloves, as he wrote a column questioning the objectivity of the Times’s coverage of Ratner. In a letter to Mr. Cuozzo, Daniel Okrent, Public Editor of the Times, remarked: "The partnership with The New York Times Company was mentioned in seven [articles] … I don’t think there’s a magic formula to apply, but I do feel that the connection should be noted more frequently, and in major articles … it should be noted higher up in the piece than has been the case … I don’t think the paper is shilling for Ratner; I do think the extent of the coverage has been slightly out of proportion." To date, Okrent has not addressed the fact that The New York Times has not published any investigative articles on FCR’s proposal and its treatment of the local communities. This despite a steady stream of correspondence between Develop Don’t Destroy–Brooklyn (DDDB), the umbrella group leading the opposition to the arena development, and the Times, and DDDB’s repeated requests for clarification on the biased reporting and the use of The New York Times logo in FCR’s promotional mailing.
In a letter to DDDB, Allan M. Siegal, Assistant Managing Editor and Standards Editor of the Times, wrote that he had been unaware of the mailing until DDDB brought it to his attention. Siegal explained: "The quotation used in the brochure … is accurately reproduced, and because it is brief, its use is within the rights of [FCR]. But we have asked our corporate colleagues to get in touch with the sponsors and induce them to discontinue the use of our logo, which is indeed a registered trademark we control. We don’t wish to be depicted as favoring any side in a civic disagreement that we strive to cover impartially." Still, the editors of the Times have refused to grant DDDB’s requests to meet with the Times’s editors to discuss the issues further.
The aggrieved residents of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn have plenty of battles to fight in their task of stopping the proposed development. Little did they know they would also have to contend with newslpaper that is plainly "favoring" a "side in a civic disagreement."
TROY SELVARATNAM is an attorney and writer who lives in Brooklyn. He is a member of Develop Don’t Destroy–Brooklyn.