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10 May Truth in the Age of Snark.

In the age of the internet, to a disturbing degree, snark is much more important than fact. “Reputable” news gathering organizations seem to be devoid of fact checkers and editors are loathe to issue corrections even when the stated facts are clearly wrong. Snark is employed to tell the story the “reporter” sets out to tell, rather than having to do the work of finding out the story. While it is obviously more fun to be snarky than it is to be right, the end result is an extremely fluid relationship to the truth.

When powerful PR people push forth inaccuracies, like projected job numbers and fiscal benefits, it’s nearly impossible to get corrections. With very straightforward facts it should be simple to get a correction, but it never is. With our recent documentary about the Atlantic Yards situation, “Battle for Brooklyn,” we have chosen not to focus on the nitty-gritty details of the story, but we have taken great pains to make sure that our facts, when put forth, are correct. We consulted with Atlantic Yards Report blogger, Norman Oder, as we finalized the cut. Norman has been the Don Quixote of fact checking over the past six years. He drives the editors (and us) a little crazy, but if all media (and particularly news media which presents itself as dealing in facts) takes a pass on paying attention to the literal truth, we start to get into very murky water.

The most recent fact brouhaha he covered deals with a Crain’s Insider piece from May 4th—Daniel Goldstein, Film Star:

“Battle for Brooklyn will showcase not only the fight over Atlantic Yards when the documentary makes its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival next month, but also its protagonist: graphic designer Daniel Goldstein. In a press release, the documentary is described as “the infuriating story of a greedy corporate Goliath.” Goldstein, the film’s David, was the last to leave the area. He sold his condemned apartment for $3 million. ” (emphasis by Norman Oder)

As Daniel did not “sell his apartment,” he asked for a correction. After a long series of exchanges he finally got one.

From Crain’s Insider, today:

CORRECTION: Daniel Goldstein, who led opposition to the Atlantic Yards development, received $3 million to vacate his apartment and to compensate him for its acquisition by the state through eminent domain. The transaction was mischaracterized in a May 4 Insider item.

Norman further points out, “He may have received $3 million, but he didn’t keep it—a significant chunk went to his lawyer, with additional sums for taxes, moving, renting, and finding a new place.”

The story that the developer Forest City Ratner wanted to tell was that Daniel Goldstein was a “sell out.” It’s a very powerful narrative, even if it isn’t true. It clouds the judgment of those who are supposed to be focusing on the facts. It seems to be the story this “reporter” wanted to tell. Instead of agreeing to make the correction, the editor of the business paper’s Insider asked more questions about the settlement amount. Daniel agreed with the editor to discuss these issues but continued to point out that they were immaterial to the fact that was wrong. Only after a long series of exchanges that focused on the settlement amount did the editor agree to make a correction.

Recently we showed a rough cut of the film at a legal conference focusing on condemnation issues. We were surprised to find that the condemning judge and the Empire State Development Corporation’s (ESDC) attorney that led the condemnation legalities were in the front row (this is a fact). After the movie the judge had kind words for the film. The condemning attorney did not. In fact he demanded a special session the next day to clear up issues with the film. The following day at his special session it seemed that he only wanted to attack Daniel’s character. He discussed confidential negotiations that he had held with Daniel’s lawyer in order to paint Daniel as a greedy holdout. The following day Daniel’s lawyer emailed me the non-disclosure form that this lawyer had signed previous to his discussion.

In the early 90’s I worked as a fact checker at two trade publications, Magazine Week and News Inc. My job was to call people and check facts. In this case I would have read through every fact in the article and call to confirm them. I would have called Daniel Goldstein and asked, “Are you a graphic designer.” He likely would have answered, “Yes, sort of, mostly I have been fighting the Atlantic Yards project, but yes… I am a graphic designer.” Ok. “Were you the last to leave the area?” “I was the last former owner to leave, but I think there were a few tenants that were there a bit longer on Dean Street.” I would have made a note of that fact and the editor would make a decision about whether or not it was material. I would have suggested that the line be changed to “last former condo owner to leave the area.” I would have then asked, “Did you sell your condemned apartment for $3 million.” He would have answered, “No, it is factually incorrect to say that I ”sold” my condo. I did not sell my condo. It was forcibly taken from me by eminent domain by the State of New York, after a multi-year legal battle, on behalf of developer Forest City Ratner. It was officially taken, title transferred by the court to the Empire State Development Corporation, on March 1, 2010, by order of NY State Supreme Court, Kings County, Judge Abraham Gerges. At that moment ESDC became the owner and I became their tenant.”

This would have stumped me for a moment. The first fact was wrong, but the second was tricky. “Ok, did you receive $3 million for your apartment?”

“No, I received 3 million dollars, a significant portion of which went directly to my lawyer, for vacating the apartment in two weeks.” One can understand why the writer would rather just use the simple word, “sold”. He gave up and took the money right? He left. They didn’t have to drag him out. He sold out. The man who claimed he had all this integrity and would never sell…. well he sold. Except that he didn’t.

Instead, when he went to his eviction hearing, about a month after his home was taken from him, he was given a choice; take $510,000 and get forcibly removed in a couple of months, and then take many more months in court trying to get “fair market value” for the apartment that had been taken from him, or take $3 million and leave in a couple of weeks. He had no legal standing anymore as he was no longer an owner, so staying would have had no legal bearing on the project. Staying would not have impacted the project one bit. It might make him seem a bit more like a martyr, but that wasn’t his goal—and it served no purpose. With a wife, and child living in a ramped-up construction zone, there really was no choice.

Nobody in the press reported any of this. Nobody reported that the settlement had no bearing on the fight against the project. Nobody bothered to ask (or realize on their own) that surely over the years Ratner had tried to buy Daniel out, when even though Daniel could have named his price, he refused to sell, when selling actually would have been devastating to the community’s fight. However, the developer deftly spun the story in such a way that it made it appear that Daniel was in it for the money all along. And the press gobbled it up. The Daily News front-page headline was “It Pays to be Last”.

When facts aren’t important those with power control the narrative with incredible ease.

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