Sunday, February 25, 2007

On objectivity, neutrality, and integrity in covering AY

[From my remarks yesterday at the Grassroots Media Conference. A lively crowd of about 50 came to listen to and question the panel, organized by Stuart Schrader of Picketing Henry Ford. Also participating were Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab and Candace Carponter of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. Attendees might notice that this version differs slightly from that delivered orally.]

I’m the most mainstream person sitting on this panel, and I don’t think there’s a contradiction between using mainstream training and experience in the service of grassroots media.

In fact, I think that grassroots media, held to professional standards, can be more intellectually honest and more responsible than the mainstream media.

I try to read everything. I read all the press. I read the documents regarding Atlantic Yards. There's lots of information in documents. That was the lesson from I.F. Stone in the 1950s and that's still true today.

The news ecosystem

Let me talk about the ecosystem for news coverage.

There’s an incredible mismatch between the news potential of this project and the attention and effort that most media outlets devote to it. Part is simply that Brooklyn’s an afterthought. Paul Moses, who teaches journalism at Brooklyn College--he says, “Nowhere in the country do so many people get so little local coverage.”
(Photo of crowd by Jonathan Barkey. Here's a full image gallery.)

Think about it. Brooklyn would be the fourth largest city in the country if it were independent. But the dailies covering Brooklyn assign maybe four or five reporters—for the equivalent of a city. If this were Philadelphia or Houston, the biggest project in the city would be on the front page--a lot. It would generate op-eds and columns and all sorts of careful coverage.

Instead, Atlantic Yards--even though the activism and blogging and independent journalism has had some effect—Atlantic Yards still does not get reporters looking much beyond the surface.

That’s left room for me.

I’ve dug into Forest City Ratner’s pattern of campaign donations. I scoured the state’s blight report—the highly questionable blight report—I’ve shown how their analysis of crime around the project site just isn’t believable. I’ve gotten documents from city agencies that show that Frank Gehry, the project architect, is working on another Forest City Ratner project across the street. Never announced. And I source what I do—it’s a blog—so my work is checkable.

I haven’t been completely successful. No one will reveal the housing subsidies for the project. And that’s key information, because it would help the public figure out whether Atlantic Yards is really worth it—and it would place the “affordable housing” issue in some context.

Mistakes still made

The press has gotten somewhat better, but they still make mistakes, way too many.

This past Tuesday, the Times reported that “the city and state approved the project.” The city had nothing to do with approval. They still haven’t printed a correction. Why does it take so long?

Today [Saturday], they published a really disturbing mistake. They ran an Associated Press story on the pending eminent domain lawsuit, saying that a magistrate had recommended that it be tossed out of court. “A U.S. district judge still has final say on whether the suit survives.” But that misses the point—the suit wouldn’t die, it would be transferred to state court.

[Apparently what happened was: the first version of the AP story left out the state court option. An updated version of the story added that important fact, but the reporter and editor didn't revise the lead. The Times, and some other news outlets, cut from the bottom but didn't rewrite the story, thus excising the state court option. Irresponsible.]

Journalist or opponent?

I actually called the Associated Press yesterday to say they needed to fix their story, after it first appeared, and they told me, "Well, we haven't been able to reach either side," and they asked me, “Are you an advocate?”

I’m like, "Well, opinions differ, but I did read the judge's decision and your guy apparently didn’t, so do your homework." And then I said bye—if I were really an advocate I would’ve stayed on the phone.

People call me a blogger or an opponent, and I’m not too happy with that shorthand.

I’m a journalist who writes a blog, and the reason that’s important is that the blog is just a format. People do different things with that format.

As for opponent or advocate. I resist that language, even though it may be futile.

I have been highly critical of the project, and I’m not neutral. That means I don’t think that balancing a quote from the developer and the opponents necessarily makes for honest journalism. That’s pseudo-objectivity.

I am often skeptical of the claims made by the developer and the supporters of the project. So that aligns me closer to project opponents, and that’s why I’m here today. But they don’t control my blog—I mean, today’s coverage, I wrote a nuanced piece on the judge’s decision and DDDB issued a press release—different content, different goals.

Still, it doesn’t make sense to try to find a mythical middle if you don’t do any digging. I mean, I don’t have to ask [DDDB's] Candace [Carponter] here if the project’s too big. Frank Gehry thinks the project’s too big.

I don’t have to find an activist to say that the approval process for this project isn’t democratic. The Regional Plan Association, mainstream group—they say the process is lousy.

So my criticism—or what seems to be opposition--emerges from my journalistic examination of the project, not the other way around.

What’s neutrality?

Calling me an “opponent” is a way of diminishing the credibility of my work. It also suggests, falsely, that other journalists and media outlets are really neutral.

And if I'm an opponent, that means that lazy and irresponsible journalism can turn journalists, in effect, into project proponents.

Objectivity is dead

Let me talk briefly about the death of objectivity. Here’s quote from Brant Houston, he’s the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a professional group. He says:
“Objectivity” was probably well-meant, but it’s been distorted, become so thin – sometimes meaning: Opinionless. Mediocre. Without a point of view. Disingenuous. Cowardly. I don’t want to discuss objectivity. I want to discuss credibility, accuracy. Is something as thorough about a subject as it can possibly be?... The idea is to know what your point of view is, to be open to other points of view, and to be open to your hypothesis being proved wrong by your findings.”


Let’s talk about fairness. Here’s a quote from Daniel Okrent, former New York Times Public Editor (It's Good to Be Objective. It's Even Better to Be Right., 11/14/04):
"Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue; it doesn't require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight."

The city doubles the budget

Here's an example of some bad reporting. A little while ago, I discovered that the city had put $205 million in the budget for Atlantic Yards—that’s double the official pledge of $100 million.

That wasn’t hidden; it was right there for everyone to see, it’s just that none of the reporters either remembered the pledge or thought there was news.

I wrote a story. DDDB put out a press release. The Post and the Sun wrote stories. The Daily News and the Times ignored it.

So, am I and the others who reported this story opponents or responsible journalists? And are those who ignored the story irresponsible journalists? And does that make them, in effect, proponents?

The six-to-eight percent cut

Here’s a failure of commission, not omission. On September 5 of last year, after Labor Day, a slow news day, the lead story in the New York Times—the lead story, in the top right of the front page—had this headline: “Developer is Said to Plan Cutback in Yards Project.”

The second headline, what’s called the deck, said: “A Response to Criticism.”

That sounds like big news. Front page. Cutback. Response to criticism.

Now the Times, in the article, did report skepticism about the plan, but here’s what they didn’t say. The rumored six to eight percent cutback would bring Atlantic Yards back to the same size—in terms of square footage—the same size as it was when announced in December 2003.

Here’s what happened. The developer had increased the size of the project, then offered strategic cuts that were essentially meaningless.

Let’s look again at that second headline: “A response to criticism.”

That’s conclusory. How do we know it was a response, or just a tactic? The numbers suggest it was just a tactic.

In other words, the placement and framing of this story served the developer’s ends. It made something look like a concession even though it was most likely a tactic.

Then I got proof.

Some weeks later, thanks to a Freedom of Information Law request, I found a document that proved that most of this cutback—this front-page news—had already been proposed back in January by the developer. In other words, it was clearly a tactic.

Now this scoop made news in the Brooklyn weeklies, and the New York Observer, but the Times, and the other dailies, they ignored it.

Again, am I an opponent or a responsible journalist? Does the failure to consider that newsworthy demonstrate their journalistic integrity? Does it make them proponents?

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