The power of the press

In 2010 it is time for us, as a society, to take a hard look at the role of the news media in our political and financial systems. After 7 years of following the Atlantic Yards development project I am troubled by both the print and TV media’s inability or unwillingness to engage in any level of real reporting on this story.

When Forest City Ratner’s project was announced in Dec of 2003 we were compelled to start our documentary because everything that we read was simply a regurgitation of press releases. Not one reporter looked to urban planners or others in government who might be able to respond critically to the information flowing from the developer and their government partners. In the days following the announcement of the project I talked to many of my neighbors about what was really going on, but I had no luck finding out useful or credible information. Those 7 long years ago, blogs were far from being a significant source of information and Facebook had not been launched, and as such the web was not a very useful source of information. The developer had staged a fancy press conference complete with pop stars (jay-z), sports stars (Bernard King), and starchitects (Gehry) in order to distract people from the enormity of what they were proposing. It worked.

About a week after the announcement I saw a flier attacking the project. I immediately called the number scrawled on the bottom and was connected to Patti Hagan. She had started the fight against the project months before it was even announced, and now she was desperately trying to make people aware of what was planned. While the media was talking about an arena and a professional basketball team, she was talking about 17 skyscrapers, 800 people displaced by eminent domain, the use of outdated super blocks, massive government subsidies, the suspension of city zoning regulations, and the closure of several city streets. As I followed her around for the next week I filmed as she spoke with many journalists. Most of them were surprised to hear that her facts were different than the developers, and yet few if any of them reported on what she showed them. The developer touted the benefits of housing, office space, jobs, and excitement. The press took a pass.

The developer worked closely with the very effective public relations firm Dan Klores communications. Mr. Klores has himself moved on to make very good documentaries and is quick to point out that he is no longer involved in his company. However, last year as the project moved closer to being a fait accompli, Mr. Klores, while promoting one of his own films on public radio, was very bullish on the project. Over the course of my shooting his company repeatedly barred me and other interested parties from press events, the developer’s primary venue for releasing information.

When the project was announced, the NY Times was in the process of building their new home on 42nd street in Manhattan. Their development partner was Forest City Ratner, the developer of the Atlantic Yards Project. The land that they were building on had been seized by eminent domain from another developer who had plans to build on the site. These facts alone do not mean that the Times could not cover the project properly. Norman Oder didn’t think they did a very good job and spent months creating a massive critique of the Times coverage.
As a veteran journalist (an editor at Library Journal) and a resident of the area, Mr. Oder was appalled by the Times’ lack of disclosure of its relationship with the developer as well as their shoddy coverage. After he released his report (which was basically ignored by the Times) he began furiously covering the project and the story through his blog, Over the next few years he wrote thousands of posts, and became the go to source for information about the project. He recently quit his job to focus on writing a book about the story.

This week he broke the startling story that the developer, in conjunction with the city and the state, is trying to take advantage of the Federal EB-5 green card program. This program was set up to encourage foreign investment that will create or retain jobs. For a $500,000 investment, the investor is given a green card and their money back after 2 years. The stated goal of the program is to create and/or retain jobs for US workers. In this case the developer wants to use the money to pay back loans, and for work on the railyard portion of their project. Mr. Oder has done the math, and makes it clear that no one in government has. The Daily News has picked up the story, but not the Times.

This is par for the course. During the course of following our main character Dan Goldstein as he fought the project, we have seen a series of reporters come and go. By the time someone has gotten up to speed on the complexity of the project they move on to another job. TV reporters are sent out to do a story and they are given no background information. Given this set of circumstances it’s understandable that the journalists don’t do a very good job. However, if the journalists aren’t doing their job, how is the public supposed to have any idea what’s going on?

When the project was announced, one of the main complaints by those opposing it, was that all of the developers promises were unenforceable. They also objected to its massive scale, enormous government subsidies, lack of public process and oversight, and the abuse of eminent domain. However, all of these complaints were waved away by saying that the project would bring enormous benefits.

Now the land has been seized, the streets have been closed, the subsidies have been given, and when the developer admits that he doesn’t plan to build the press barely covers it, and only as part of a story about the unveiling of a private plaza at the site.

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