First of two articles

We here at The Audit understand the constraints under which the business press operates, and we’re particularly sensitive to the access problem. Business is hard to report on because its officials, by and large, don’t have to talk to reporters. We get that.

This is particularly true of closely held businesses, and triply true of real estate companies. Commercial real estate is secretive to begin with. In fact, that’s part of its charm.

And we’ll even concede that ground zero—the site of the former World Trade Center—presents its own difficulties.

Even so, there is no excuse—none at all—for the Financial Times story that ran last month under the headline, “Cometh the Tower, Cometh the Man,” a regrettable profile of World Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein.

We’re not out to embarrass anyone, so we’ll leave off the byline. But this piece isn’t just valueless; it seriously detracts from the public’s already shaky understanding of the world’s most important real estate development. To those who watched with their own eyes the World Trade Center fall, the money grab at ground zero and the attendant failure to rebuild has been heartbreaking enough. The subsequent press failure to hold the leading actors accountable has been like salt in the wound.

And while the business press isn’t to blame for that seventeen-acre hole in the middle of the financial district—that would be the fault of ex-New York Governor Pataki, followed closely by Silverstein himself—it is certainly to blame for the public’s continuing confusion surrounding the project.

The fact is, some outlets, particularly the FT, the New York Post, and Esquire magazine, have been played like a circus organ by Silverstein’s public-relations man, Howard Rubenstein. Meanwhile, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have been disappointingly inconsistent, considering that, for the Times, this is a hometown story close to the hearts of all New Yorkers; and that, for the Journal, the Trade Center, besides representing a story of international significance, just about landed in its newsroom.

The highly-overrated Rubenstein, by the way, is a PR craftsman with but a single tool—a screwdriver—and he wields it crudely. He controls access to Silverstein, and that’s it. But the truth is, Silverstein has had nothing new to say for years. By the looks of the coverage, no one took the scary but liberating step of disregarding either man to tell the story what has become of ground zero, any fair rendering of which would name Silverstein and his shadowy financial backers as a leading reason why there is no iconic Freedom Tower or anything else over there.

In any event, the hypocrisy and general b.s. surrounding that project has to stop, and we’ll use the FT story as an opportunity to review press coverage of the failure at ground zero and Silverstein’s role in that failure.

The FT’s story, it turns out, is only the latest and worst example in a galling genre: the profile of Silverstein as gutsy underdog, the can-do developer in a hurry who would have had the World Trade Center rebuilt by now if not for evil, foreign insurance companies, bungling bureaucrats, and unnamed powers that be. He is a man on a quest with a dream/vision. He is a man who does not buy green bananas because at his age, seventy (seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-four, seventy-five, seventy-six), he has no time for them ripen.

And while the headline, “Cometh the Tower, Cometh the Man,” is intergallactically stupid, the subhead shows that the premise of the story is fatally flawed.

Larry Silverstein overcame all the odds to buy the Twin Towers in July 2001. Six weeks later, they were rubble. But before he could rebuild, he had to persuade America he was worthy of the task.

Readers struggling to understand what’s happening on Liberty Street must have wondered if they had read this story before, and in fact, the premise is wildly dated. Many news outlets have described Silverstein’s struggle to win the lease over larger competitors. These stories came out at the time of the deal, in the days after 9/11, and then regularly until the present. Peter Grant and Jim VandeHei provide an early example, full of detail, in The Wall Street Journal on November 2, 2001.

Grant and VandeHei related a nice anecdote in which Silverstein, after being hit by a car, negotiates from a hospital bed.

But Mr. Silverstein proved relentless. When he was struck by a car and broke his hip shortly before one of the bidding deadlines in January, he continued working from his hospital bed.

Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.