Why the New York Times Love Eminent Domain: Elite Newspapers and Liberal Activists Embrace the Kelo Decision at Their Long-Term Peril

Article excerpt

On September 24, 2001, as New York firefighters were still picking their comrades' body parts out of the World Trade Center wreckage, New York Times Co.Vice Chairman and Senior Vice President Michael Golden announced that the Gray Lady was ready to do its part in the healing.

"We believe there could not be a greater contribution," Golden told a clutch of city officials and journalists, "than to have the opportunity to start construction of the first major icon building in New York City after the tragic events of Sept. 11." Bruce Ratner, president of the real estate development company working with the Times on its proposed new Eighth Avenue headquarters, called the project a "very important testament to our values, culture and democratic ideals."

Those "values" and "democratic ideals" included using eminent domain to forcibly evict 55 businesses--including a trade school, a student housing unit, a Donna Karan outlet, and several mom-and-pop stores--against their will, under the legal cover of erasing "blight," in order to clear ground for a 52-story skyscraper. The Times and Ratner, who never bothered making an offer to the property owners, bought the Port Authority-adjacent property at a steep discount ($85 million) from a state agency that seized the II buildings on it; should legal settlements with the original tenants exceed that amount, taxpayers will have to make up the difference. On top of that gift, the city and state offered the Times $26 million in tax breaks for the project, and Ratner even lobbied to receive $400 million worth of U.S. Treasury-backed Liberty Bonds--instruments created by Congress to help rebuild Lower Manhattan. Which is four miles away.

If you think the Times' editorial division would be outraged to see the business side trampling the Little Guy, you probably haven't been following the political evolution of the nation's leading newspapers. For decades now, the country's elite dailies and those papers that emulate them have deliberately eschewed individual stories in favor of broader "trend" pieces (especially when it comes to crime); routinely endorsed government action to cure society's ills; and mocked the "tabloid" populism of the more right-leaning media organizations that dwell on single cases of outrage. Like the activist who loves The People but despises every actual person he meets, the Times' editorial page takes liberal stands when the issue is safely abstract--but when it comes to the paper's profits and political battles, the Little Guy can get bent.

Nowhere was this anti-populist, endsjustify-the-means approach on more naked display than after the Supreme Court's 5-to-4 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. That June 23 decision upheld governments' broad leeway to use eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to a richer one--in that particular case, from Connecticut homeowners to an upscale real estate development. While much of the country howled in protest at the fact that, in the words of dissenting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory," the Times, in an editorial entitled "The Limits of Property Rights," let out a lusty cheer. Kelo, the paper declared, is "a welcome vindication of cities' ability to act in the public interest" and "a setback to the 'property rights' movement, which is trying to block government from imposing reasonable zoning and environmental regulations."

Even more interesting than the scare quotes around "property rights" (imagine replacing the word "property" with "civil") was that the Times--normally the benchmark upon which other newspapers measure and model themselves--was almost completely alone in its judgment. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, for example, headlined its editorial "Court-Endorsed Theft." The Hartford Courant went with "A Sad Day for Property Rights," the St. …