There's a dangerous element quietly entering our community, insidious and threatening to a degree matched only, perhaps, by the zebra mussel. Good people of St. Louis, be alert: we are encountering editorial creep.
The most recent, and flagrant, example graces the front page of the Jan. 18-24 St. Louis Business Journal, under the headline "Historic Battle." The story, nominally about the clash over the fate of downtown's historic Century Building, is accompanied by two telling tip-offs to the author's bias: the first,
a clever deck that is, in reality, not well supported by the whole of the accompanying story ("Preservation group fights the hand
that feeds it" is the real blurb, although "fights the hand that slaps it" might be more apt); the second, that time-honored slight of good propagandists, the Somewhat Unflattering Visual. Underneath a pen-and-ink drawing of the Old Post Office sit two head shots, one a campaign-esque photo of Mayor Francis Slay and his serious-leader half-smile, and the second a seriously out-of-focus picture of Landmarks Association head Carolyn Toft, with her eyes (you can make this out if you squint a lot) seemingly closed. "Who is this fuzzy woman with her fuzzy, quaint ideas about preserving historic buildings?" the story's images beg you to ask.
And in fact, the lead itself wastes no time in asking just that. "How long would you give money to a building consultant who kept standing in the way of fixing your house?" the lead asks. "That's not unlike the situation between the city of St. Louis and the Landmarks Association."
Whoa, Nelly. Just to clarify, this story appears on the first page, ostensibly in the straightforward, business news section. The three other stories on page one are all blessed with factual leads of the classic, inverted-pyramid style. "A team of attorneys from St. Louis-based Bryan Cave has been retained by beleaguered Arthur Andersen to review its document retention practices and procedures" and such you can't get any drier or more fact-based than that.
After this story's sensationalized start, no one bothers to clarify that the
money funneled through city government to Landmarks is not just wads of cash
lying around in general revenue coffers, but is in fact federal funding,
designated by the city specifically for historic preservation activities.
Unwitting readers could easily be lured into imagining that "city" money
better spent on fixing their alleys.
Worse, the story doesn't even live up to its own slanted intro, where "fixing your house" can only be construed as ignoring the brick-huggers at every development juncture. After firing the opening shot about battle lines and conflict, the text (after a jump to less-visible page 62) quotes city development czar Barb Geisman as conceding, "More often than not, we do agree with Landmarks. We agree that the Old Post Office, the Arcade, Paul Brown and Syndicate buildings need to be saved."
But agreement is so much less sexy, wouldn't you agree?
In fact, there once was a sexy (or, at least, attention-grabbing) agreement around the same issues now in conflict: Once upon a time, in a downtown far, far away, all the major players agreed on a magical Downtown Development Action Plan. People throughout the kingdom commonly referred to it as the "Downtown Now! Plan." Political leaders, urban planners, ordinary citizens and many others rallied behind the plan's guiding tenets, including a few that are germane here, like the clear admonition against siting parking facing the Old Post Office (unless it goes underground) and the two-pronged approach of giving priority to pedestrians on 8th, 9th, Olive and Locust streets while discouraging auto traffic and parking garages in the immediate area.
It seems misguided, with that background, for the Business Journal to announce that, "increasingly Landmarks' mission seems to conflict with the city's vision." Which vision are we talking about? To this point, the official, signed-off-on-by-all-parties vision is the Downtown Development Action Plan, the tangible result of the kind of drawn-out, consultant-led meetings and focus groups for which St. Louis City in particular has become infamous. But this plan, at least, had legs, in the form of broad support (at the time) of stakeholders far and wide. Maybe all those "pick-your-top-three-priorities-from-the-list-on-butcher-paper" sessions were worth it after all?
Sadly, as mid-January's Arch City Chronicle observed, "your dot didn't matter." In the end, money, politics and the misapplied suburban model of development talked, and the public process walked.
Makes you wonder, though, why the paper has to resort to the misplacement of a story that clearly belongs on the editorial page? Maybe the reporter has never read through all the riveting leads to the inside back two pages, to find where the editorial section resides. Maybe the proponents of demolishing the Century Building for a parking garage (the Business Journal and the Slay administration, to name two) have caught on that St. Louis city residents are hardly in lockstep with them on this issue, and so pursue "news" stories to shore up the case that the editorial page version ("Taxpayers shouldn't pay") can't seem to make on its own.
For the record, The Commonspace.org has taken no official position in the Century Building debate; our editorial staff has not had time to meet and hash it all out (we've both been so busy...).
But if we did, you'd read about it here on our editorial page.