the audit

Missing the Big Pfizer Kelo Story

The NYT is first out of the gate nationally four days after the news broke.*
November 13, 2009

(UPDATE: Ted Mann of The Day points out that he wrote a news story before the Times on the Kelo angle, which I linked to [best I could—he’s passed along one that actually works], so I’ve fixed the deck to clarify what I intended: That the NYT was out first among the national papers, which largely just missed the story. Also, The Day actually did have a column, not just an editorial, on the Kelo angle on the first day.

I’ve corrected these and noted them with asterisks. Thanks to Ted for pointing them out. And if you’re interested in reading more on the Kelo angle, see his very interesting 2005 story on how Pfizer was involved in the project despite its denials.)

It’s surprising to see how much of the press has just whiffed on a big story on Pfizer’s decision to close its New London, Connecticut, R&D headquarters. This one went right down the plate with the wind blowing out to left field—and most everybody can’t be bothered to swing.

Remember New London? You probably ought to, and journalists certainly should. It was the defendant in the infamous Kelo v. New London case where the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the government could take private property and give it to another private interest.

The Hartford Courant, fifty miles up the road, wrote a 900-word story the next day on Pfizer’s moves and barely mentioned the whole Supreme Court controversy that roiled the city and country for months. Neither did the Associated Press in a brief. The Wall Street Journal ran with 600-plus words on C3 and didn’t mention Kelo. This is all The Day, New London’s newspaper, gave readers in its five next-day stories totaling 4,000 words, according to Factiva:

Instead, Pfizer’s name became attached to a dispute over eminent domain that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that New London won on legal grounds even as it lost in the court of public opinion.

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*Only the paper’s editorial kind of gets into the issue (ADDING: As did this column—see my correction above), with what is pretty good story bait:

Back then the New London Development Corp. was attempting to evict property owners using eminent domain. In June 2005, four years after the grand opening, the NLDC won a Pyrrhic victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the taking of property was constitutional. It was a ruling so unpopular that city and state officials were reluctant to aggressively enforce it. Around the time the last homeowner left, leaving Fort Trumbull finally vacant, the recession had set in.

The lots left behind by the demolition of homes still sit empty. The NLDC is nearly bankrupt.

The Day did get to a Kelo-oriented story the next day.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page also got it the next day, even if its news pages still haven’t:

Now, four years after that decision gave Susette Kelo’s land to private developers for a project including a hotel and offices intended to enhance Pfizer Inc.’s nearby corporate facility, the pharmaceutical giant has announced it will close its research and development headquarters in New London, Connecticut.

The aftermath of Kelo is the latest example of the futility of using eminent domain as corporate welfare.

As did the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial page.

An Examiner blog and a Reason one, as well as noLandGrab, were on this on Monday, the day of the announcement. John Carney wrote about it on Tuesday, and Newsbusters, the right-wing media watchdog site, was on the missing-big media angle on Tuesday, though it wrongly attributes the lack of coverage to—you guessed it—liberal media bias.

Finally, today, the fourth day of the story, we have major papers covering the Kelo angle. The Daily News hits it, while The New York Times admirably puts its story —and it’s a good effort—on page one.

What took so long and why have other papers been missing on this? Are our institutional memories that short? Are we staffed that thin? Are we that disconnected from our readers?

Believe me, they remember Kelo.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.