Second of two articles

Coverage of Larry Silverstein is the object of much consternation here at The Audit. Why do marquee papers still publish the same old fluff about him, violating basic journalism standards? As if it didn’t cause any harm? This is pack journalism at its worst.

Perhaps certain publications and their employees have lived in the alternate universe of ground zero non-development for so long that what would seem odd under other circumstances seems perfectly normal down on Liberty Street. Because reading the recent Financial Times profile (subscription) of Silverstein is like sitting down to tea with the Mad Hatter. Readers are, like Alice, “dreadfully puzzled.” “The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.”

Silverstein coverage falls into two periods: the days and months after the attacks of 9/11 and then the past few years. In that first period, after the towers fell, coverage was frequently excellent even before the hellacious circumstances are considered. But more recently, we too often get the same old story.

It’s not so much that the Silverstein story has gotten worse, but that it hasn’t gotten better. His myth persists despite the fact that there has been some solid reporting on the ground zero debacle. As time passes, and more information surfaces, reporting standards go up. So a fine story in 2001 is a travesty in 2007.

Peter Grant, driven from his office like the rest of the Wall Street Journal staff, wrote a story headlined “Control of World Trade Center Towers Moved to Private Hands Just Months Ago,” which describes Silverstein’s lease, offers a brief history of leasing the Twin Towers and explains Silverstein’s investment partners in some detail.

This story, which ran September 12, 2001, holds up better than the FT piece.

Eric Herman, then of the Daily News, various reporters at The New York Times, and especially Grant all do a great job of explaining brewing disputes between Silverstein and his insurers, and his then-tenuous relations with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

True, the Silverstein-as-gritty-battler profiles also emerge, but at the time, the story was a natural. Besides, he is a gritty battler. The prose seems purple in hindsight, but it reflects the emotional nature of ground zero.

The Times’s Alessandra Stanley:

Observing him as he lays the groundwork for what he described as a patriotic mission is a little like staring at an Escher print; in one blink, his persona is suffused in optimism, in another, shrewdness dominates.

The FT announces in July 2002, “Insurers have cast Larry Silverstein as a villain but the owner of the World Trade Center site tells Holly Yaeger and Adrian Michaels he wants what is best for New York.” Here the British paper errs in its headline, calling Silverstein the center’s “owner,” instead of leaseholder.

A year later, a profile by the New York Times’s Charles V. Bagli and Edward Wyatt ploughs the same ground: “At Helm of Trade Center Site,” announced the July 21, 2003, headline, “As He Always Planned to Be.”

His language and demeanor are no longer that of a mere businessman, but rather of a master builder, statesman and visionary.

Ayn Rand meets Barbara Cartland. But again, it’s still only 2003. (There is less excuse for the March 2006 Times piece, “Master of the Slow and Deliberate at Ground Zero,” which makes a virtue of the problem.)

But good work has been done; it’s been fragmentary, but it is there to be pulled together. In one of his best reporting jobs, Bagli broke the story about the late 2003 deal that gave Silverstein back most of his down payment on the World Trade Center lease, while leaving him in control of the site. The November 22, 2003, article contains a prime quote: “Only in New York,” says former city administrator Harvey Robins, “can a developer strike a deal with government to get his money back and still walk away with a prime piece of real estate.”

This important news, however, gets lost.

In February 2004, your faithful Audit editor, then at the Journal, and Alex Frangos make a modest contribution, noting that $1.3 billion had been spent at ground zero with nothing to show for it. The money had gone to Silverstein’s equity reimbursement, legal bills and development fees, and the cashing out of Silverstein’s lender, GMAC, and only credible partner, Westfield Group, the owner of the WTC’s underground mall. Both had had seen enough and wanted out.

The well-sourced Frangos continued to give voice to exasperated, unnamed Port officials who believed that Silverstein’s double-payout scenario was always a chimera and that he was incapable of rebuilding and therefore in default.

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