Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Harvard vs. BC Town-Gown Story Bleeds Maroon and Gold, Not Crimson

Last week The Harvard Crimson, the university's student newspaper, published a news story ("Two Approaches to Campus Expansion," 4/28/08) contrasting the approaches to institutional expansion pursued by Harvard University and Boston College.

In covering the story, however, Crimson reporter Nan Ni did not include information either from an interview she conducted with BC Task Force member Kevin Carragee or from the discussion at a BC Task Force meeting she attended.

Both sets of information contradict her story's main thesis that BC follows a "policy of open disclosure" with Brighton residents over its institutional expansion plans, thereby resulting in a news story that appears biased in order to deliver a desired conclusion. The Crimson article is also at odds both with the experiences of many Brighton residents and the historical record.

And in an odd twist, the Crimson reporter appears to prefer shopping for handbags over balanced and fair reporting of local news.

Crimson: BC Has a "Neighborly Touch"

The supposed benevolence of BC toward the neighborhood described in Ni's story is supported by extensive quotations drawn from only one Brighton resident, John Bruno, a resident of North Brighton and a member of the BC Task Force:
Bruno said that he preferred BC’s approach to community relations [over Harvard's], calling it “negotiation with a neighborly touch.”
Bruno has admitted publicly that his son receives an Allston/Brighton Scholarship from BC and also announced in two public meetings in January that he had been contacted by the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission over potential issues of conflict-of-interest arising from that scholarship and his position on the task force. (The SEC itself is prohibited by law from confirming whether or not an investigation is ongoing.)

Neighborhood Reaction to Crimson Story

Reaction to the Crimson story was quick and negative among a number of Brighton residents familiar with how BC operates in the neighborhood.

"The Crimson article paints a very different picture from the one, we Brighton residents have experienced for the past year while the planning process has been moving forward," wrote Brenda Pizzo. "The trouble is that BC has been doing all the planning without any input from the neighborhood... BC disregarded comments, concerns and opinions from the neighborhood."

Pizzo also wrote directly to Bruno and the task force to express her disbelief.
John, are you kidding me? Let me tell you something, when you go to neighborhood meetings for an entire year and see the same plans over and over and attend meetings with Boston College and BC fails to make eye contact with the neighborhood because they view us as the enemy, that begins to feel like frustration and helplessness...

I'm gravely disappointed in the way you painted this picture, Mr. Bruno. It's not right.
Brighton resident Eva Webster echoed Pizzo's remarks in a letter-to-the-editor of The Harvard Crimson that is as yet unpublished. "BC held a number of meetings with Brighton neighbors prior to filing the [project notification form] for their upcoming Master Plan," wrote Webster, "but in each of those meetings, BC was telling the community what BC wanted to do, and showed little interest in learning, or heeding, what was important to us."

Charlie Vasiliades, the "Mayor of Oak Square," expressed his reaction to the Crimson story more succinctly. "What planet has the Crimson come from?"

Does BC act openly and benevolently in how they deal with the Brighton neighborhood? "In many ways they do," said District 9 City Councilor Mark Ciommo several days later. "You can't say they're the evil empire." Councilor Ciommo explained his point by citing a series of programs in which BC works positively with the neighborhood, including their volunteer organizations, the Boston College Neighborhood Center, outreach from the nursing school, and various sports and educational programs.

But when it comes to BC's process of institutional expansion into the neighborhood, the situation is less clear. "As far as the development issues, the jury is out right now," continued Councilor Ciommo. "Many of the neighborhood's issues [such as housing and athletics facilities] have not yet been addressed adequately" in their [institutional master plan (IMP) process, Councilor Ciommo said.

BC's failure to work with the neighborhood constructively -- or even to notify them in advance of plans -- was illustrated in a 2004 Boston Globe article describing BC's purchase of 40 acres of the St. John's Seminary land from the Archdiocese of Boston:
Even though the sale of the expansive archdiocesan campus to Boston College had long been expected by residents of the serene tree-lined blocks around the Brighton property, few neighbors were prepared yesterday for the news that the college is buying more than 40 acres in the neighborhood, 15 acres more than originally anticipated. Perhaps even more unnerving for some was the way the deal was done: sealed between the buyer and seller, with no consultation with the neighbors. [italics added] ...
Many city officials interviewed said they were not notified of the sale agreement until yesterday.
Thomas Keady, Jr., Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs told Crimson reporter Ni -- in the context of BC's 2006 desire to purchase land near the Chestnut Hill Reservoir -- that "it was important to keep the college’s neighbors abreast of its activities". This statement is directly contradicted by BC's actions in 2004 when they failed to inform both the neighbors and city officials in advance of their plans to make their largest land purchase in many decades.

Interviews with Brighton residents, as well as the historical record illustrated by the Globe story, demonstrate that Harvard and BC pursue institutional expansion in similar ways -- in contrast to how the Crimson article tried to draw a distinction between the two institutions.

Crimson Reporter Does Not Include Information Contradicting Story's Thesis

On the evening of the April 22nd meeting of the BC Task Force, Ni interviewed Kevin Carragee, resident of Brighton and a member of the BC Task Force. Neither the Carragee interview nor any similar interview contradicting the Crimson story's thesis were included in the story that went to press.

Carragee said later that he did not agree with the central tenet of the Crimson story comparing how Harvard and BC treat the neighborhood in the process of their institutional expansion. "There's more continuities than discontinuities" in the way the two institutions approach the neighborhood, he said.

Ni was also present throughout most of that April 22nd meeting. At that meeting, Carragee and other neighborhood residents repeatedly requested that BC meet with the neighborhood over the modifications to their institutional master plan (IMP) following the Boston Redevelopment Authority's scoping determination in February. BC Vice President Keady repeatedly refused to agree to meet with the neighborhood for any such meetings on the substance of BC's revised master plan, saying that BC would only do so the night before BC files their revised IMP (the draft project impact report) with the city.

During the meeting, Carragee said that "it would be a mistake" if BC came with the final IMP in the manner that they planned to do. Other residents, including Shelby Marshall, voiced strong support during the meeting for Carragee's position. "Is it just an up-and-down-vote?" asked Marshall increduously about the non-collaborative way BC was behaving with the neighborhood. Webster was also at the meeting and called BC's actions "self-centered."

With all that openly expressed opposition to how BC is dealing with the neighborhood, how could the Crimson reporter not catch a single piece of that information that was contradictory to her story's thesis?

The answer is simple: Ni was busy throughout the meeting shopping on the internet with her laptop computer.

I know. I sat directly behind her. I watched her screen over her shoulder as she shopped. I didn't realize she was a reporter until after the meeting -- when I saw her walk out to meet with Keady and briefly overheard their conversation in the parking lot as I got in my car. The web surfing was distracting and amusing... although I still managed to ask a few questions and take pages of notes.

During the meeting Ni shopped for handbags, sunglasses, skirts, and tops. I didn't see her make any actual purchases, but neither did I see her take any notes of what was going on at the meeting. The handbags she was looking at appeared to be quite fancy, at least relative to my frugal preferences. And the skirts and tops appear to be very cute, too; she seems to have a nice, albeit expensive, taste in clothing and accessories.

Noting Ni's attendance at the meeting but failure to report on what transpired, Carragee later said, "I don't think she was sensitive to what was happening at the meeting."

Ni did not respond to an email request for comment (sent to a gmail address provided by the Crimson staff, not the email address in her byline which bounces), nor could she be reached through a number of phone calls both to the Crimson offices and her dormitory room.

Cherry-Picking Quotations

A casual reader of the Crimson story might assume the reporter was simply clueless about the relationship between BC and the neighborhood. It's easy to understand that a reporter might throw together a quick story without looking deeply into the issues -- and thereby get the story wrong through inadequate investigation.

After looking into the reporting in this Crimson story, however, the picture emerges that the reporter was exposed to an alternate point of view coming from a number of different Brighton residents -- Carragee, Marshall, Webster, and others who spoke up at the 4/22 meeting attended by the reporter, as well as Keady's dismissal of their requests to work with the neighborhood. Presented with this information, the reporter ought to have written the story very differently.

While John Bruno was the only Brighton resident quoted referring to the nature of BC's relationship with the neighborhood, it should be noted that the story also included quotations from BC's Vice President Keady -- who can hardly be considered to represent an independent evaluation of his employer's institutional behavior toward the neighborhood. In light of the SEC investigation, Bruno may not have been the best choice for a Brighton resident to quote extensively -- and exclusively -- in the story. That's why reporters usually call a few people, in order to weed out the one person who's story doesn't match all the others.

By comparison, Ni's story quoted three residents of North Allston and North Brighton about how Harvard University behaves towards the neighborhood.

Did Ni work on this story with a pre-ordained conclusion in mind? No one but she (or her editors) will know, but her outright rejection of the contradictory information which confronted her seems to indicate that is how she approached the story. Quite simply, the information she used in the story appears to be cherry-picked to support her thesis.

She also appears to have been played -- quite well -- by BC's Vice President in making the institution appear in a far more favorable light than the neighborhood residents believe. A simple search of the newspaper archives for the time of BC's purchase of the St. John's Seminary land -- the key property purchase involved in today's town-gown dispute -- would have produced the April 2004 Boston Globe article contradicting Keady's key assertion of how BC considers "it was important to keep the college’s neighbors abreast of its activities."

And, in the end, by doing all of the above, Ni has unwittingly made herself and her shopping habits a part of the story.

Getting played by an interviewee, ignoring one side of a story, and becoming part of the story itself are all mistakes every journalist tries to avoid.

Image of sunglasses by Spanner Dan, and image of handbag by coutorture, provided through a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

10 year said...

Thank you Michael. Thanks Brenda, Kevin, Eva, Charlie. Councilor Ciommo you wrote a great letter with your colleagues to the B.R.A. - we know you hear us. Please continue to advocate on our behalf. Thank you.