Chatter: Unsafe at Any Read
Ralph Nader has had a long and distinguished career as a consumer advocate, five-time presidential nominee, and champion of longshot left-wing causes. But last week’s cover story by Aaron Wiener surveyed Nader’s legacy through the prism of his latest incarnation—D.C. neighborhood activist—and a Naderite group’s opposition to the public-private redevelopment of the West End Library (“Wreck-It Ralph,” Oct. 4). Early this week, Oliver Hall, a lawyer for Nader’s Library Renaissance Project sent us a response, which begins, “We realized Aaron Wiener would not write a serious or substantive account of the controversy surrounding the West End library, but even we were disappointed by the extreme disregard for professional and journalistic standards on display in his 4,247-word screed against Ralph Nader and the District of Columbia Library Renaissance Project.” The letter goes on:
“Wiener’s ultimate conclusion is that ‘as long as there are libraries left to be renovated in D.C.,’ Nader and DCLRP will be ‘fighting the plans’ to do so. As Wiener knows, however, we support renovation of the West End library, but oppose this particular plan because District taxpayers will lose tens of millions of dollars in value on the deal, among other reasons. Wiener’s assertion that we categorically oppose renovation of any library in the District is therefore not merely false, but a seemingly deliberate distortion of the facts.
“Unfortunately, Wiener became visibly distracted when presented with evidence that taxpayers’ multimillion-dollar losses in the West End deal translate directly into windfall profits for the developer, EastBanc-W.D.C. Partners, and he declined to pursue the issue in his story. Instead, Wiener concedes that DCLRP’s claims 'are not unreasonable,' but suggests there is 'no way to prove' them. Why Wiener feels qualified to make that determination is a mystery. Wiener never asked what the relevant evidence might be, so he has no way of knowing what it proves.
“Because Wiener makes no attempt to evaluate the merits of the West End deal, the only question it raises in his mind is why DCLRP continues to oppose it. Wiener thus quotes a number of individuals purporting to speak on behalf of a ‘unified’ neighborhood, who insist that DCLRP and its members have no legitimate interest in the West End library. The presumption of these individuals, who claim sole authority to speak on behalf of a community that obviously is not unified, goes unquestioned by Wiener. Similarly, Wiener neglects to mention that the Court of Appeals squarely rejected their view, when it held that DCLRP has standing to pursue its appeal.
“Wiener repeatedly asserts that DCLRP’s appeal is causing ‘costs to the city,’ but he fails to clarify that the District is not incurring any of the ‘legal fees’ he cites. Instead, the District is relying on EastBanc’s lawyers to defend the deal. And while Wiener quotes EastBanc president Anthony Lanier at length, as he complains about the cost of the appeal, one wishes Wiener would devote the same attention to the money the public is actually losing in this deal.
“To cite just one example: Wiener reports that EastBanc will build 52 affordable housing units as part of its deal with the District, ‘albeit with a city subsidy.’ What Wiener fails to disclose is that taxpayers are footing the entire bill for the units—a reported $7 million in cash—even though EastBanc will own them and reap the rents they generate. Apparently Wiener is unconcerned that EastBanc obtained this ‘subsidy’ despite having a legal obligation to include affordable units at its own expense, pursuant to the District’s inclusionary zoning regulations.
“By our calculation, District taxpayers stand to lose an estimated $45 million in uncompensated property value alone in the West End deal, primarily because the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development agreed to convey this valuable property to EastBanc at a drastically discounted rate. We have the evidence to prove it, but City Paper readers will have to look elsewhere if they wish to evaluate that evidence. For Wiener, it just shows the deal ‘isn’t perfect.’
“In an email, Wiener suggested to us that ‘the story will not turn out well’ for DCLRP unless we continued to grant him access. He also threatened to use ‘a Nader bobblehead’ as a prop if his photographer ‘can’t get a decent photo.’ No serious journalist would not make such threats, even in jest. But as Wiener’s story shows, he is more interested in repeating unfounded personal invective than actual reporting on matters of the public interest.”
Wiener wrote this response:
“Throughout my conversations with the Library Renaissance Project, I tried to make clear to them that this was primarily a story about Ralph Nader—specifically, why a national political figure was getting involved in a community library dispute, and the neighborhood’s response. I aimed to present both sides’ arguments on the library deal—DCLRP’s against, and the city’s, library’s, and neighbors’ in favor—but ultimately I did not see it fit to adjudicate a matter that’s before the courts and has no single right answer. Instead, I focused on the dynamic of Nader’s involvement and the community’s reaction.
“In this sense, Hall’s letter is not so much a criticism of the story I wrote as a plea for the story I didn’t write. But he does make a few arguments that are disingenuous. He quotes my story out of context, claiming I wrote there was ‘no way to prove’ DCLRP’s case when in fact I wrote there was ‘no way to prove’ that the deal DCLRP opposes is the best one for the city. Likewise, he says the Court of Appeals ‘squarely rejected’ the view of the neighborhood groups, when the court actually rejected every argument made by DCLRP and sided with the views of those groups, except on the narrow question of whether the DCLRP subgroup had standing to bring the appeal. And he refers to my ‘assertion that we categorically oppose renovation of any library in the District,’ an assertion I never made, though I did point out that DCLRP has raised objections to a startlingly high percentage of recent library renovation projects.
“Unfortunately, I was unable to continue the productive conversations I had with Nader and DCLRP early on in my reporting of the story after Executive Director Robin Diener informed me that they would no longer speak with me. In response to Diener’s email, I urged her to reconsider, noting that when a reporter is examining a two-sided debate, if one side is cooperative and helpful while the other shuts down access and cancels meetings, the latter probably won’t come across as well in the story. Likewise, I asked her to allow our staff photographer to take photos of Nader, since the story required artwork and in the absence of photos, we’d be forced to ‘pull some silly stunt like holding a Nader bobblehead in front of the library.’ Fortunately, we were able to take photos of Nader at a public event.
“Perhaps if they’d maintained a dialogue, they could have gotten more of their perspective into the story. I hope they’ll reconsider their decision next time I call them for an article.”