Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2006 | Does the tendency of journalists to squeeze events into a narrative make a difference in how those events are perceived? I think so.

If something is contentious – say, a redevelopment project in a blighted area, or a massive power line through the desert – there will be two sides. But rarely do the two sides really come off equal in the press. One side – usually the one with money and/or power – always seems to wind up coming off as the villain.

Don’t get me wrong: There are true villains in this world, people who are greedy and selfish and sneaky. But I submit that most situations have no bad actor. Most projects have all sorts of people who are, from their standpoint, doing the right thing.

For every cut-and-dried villainous act – Duke Cunningham’s bribery scheme, for example – there are probably dozens of situations where someone did the best they could with the information or the circumstances they had at the time.

There are always gray areas and nuances that only those closest to it understand. Even when reporters are among those people who get the whole picture – and that’s not a given – they are faced with the task of boiling it down to (1) fit the news hole, which doesn’t leave room to convey the complexity; and (2) make it accessible to people who know nothing of land-development laws or the realities that accompany any massive undertaking.

The end result of this is, it winds up as a story with the narrative arc I mentioned.

Just as an example, let’s look at the Navy Broadway Complex or Liberty Station. There has been much lamenting over these two parcels’ use – about how the people of San Diego are being “robbed” of these precious lands that, if it weren’t for greedy developers, would be glorious parks.

That is the generally accepted narrative on these two matters. But in reality, the people of San Diego – as members of the public committees that govern the planning process – are the ones who came up with the planned use for these projects. These plans weren’t hatched in a fog of cigar smoke in a private room at Dobson’s. These were long, public processes. The developers merely provide the specifics (design), the capital, and the execution.

The reality is, no one ever even conceived of NBC or the NTC as parks. The park idea is pure fantasy that someone came up with after the fact that truly has no part in intelligent discussion of the projects.

NBC is Navy land, and guess what? The federal government is not going to give that prime land to the city for free to make a nice waterfront park, then buy another parcel elsewhere on which to build a headquarters building. It’s a completely absurd notion.

And the NTC? It was gifted to the city by the Navy as an economic development conveyance, which means the economic engine – the dollars pumped into the local economy – needed to be replaced in any new use. I like parks as much as the next citizen, but they’re not economic engines.

As for the Navy Broadway Complex: I’m not going to argue about the beauty of the architecture of the Manchester proposal, but I do know that the plan for the property, drawn up in 1992, was reaffirmed twice in the past five years. San Diegans had ample opportunity to lobby for alternate uses for that piece of property.

But the reality was, the plan called for a Navy headquarters building – that one was not negotiable – and other commercial and community uses, along with some open spaces. So Manchester comes along and gives us a plan that fits the required use to a tee, and now the guy’s a villain because the architecture is “uninspired.”

But back to the framing by news stories. Every project has naysayers who file lawsuits or go to the press with reports of failures by the developers to meet the specifics in their agreements with the city. But as soon as a reporter does a story about the lawsuit or the allegations, he has automatically given weight to those allegations. The allegations could be completely unfounded, but once it’s in print, the “villain” is in the position of being defensive, getting “second say,” and immediately has less weight.

The businessperson’s motive is always quite clear; they stand to make money off the deal. But the agitator’s motives are almost never reported – usually because they’re tougher to track. It’s automatically assumed they’re just “concerned citizens.”

These stories on small developments form the frame for the story. And reporters can really get stuck in that frame, no matter what facts surface to tell them the agitator is dishonest or motivated by their own greed/insanity/publicity seeking.

Look at all the failed lawsuits in the wake of the ballpark or NTC or – soon enough, I bet – the NBC. But even the losses serve the purpose of the agitators, because the stories done before the judge puts the kibosh on the cases accomplish a far more important goal: framing the David-Goliath story that lingers around a project long after it’s built and operating and successful.

And especially now, once a story is written on a subject, the developer is at a disadvantage the next time the matter comes up for a vote, because the council is already on notice because of all the apparently bad moves they – or even their predecessors – made in the past.

And all of a sudden some person’s allegations – pulled from the ether or not – are what drives the process.


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