Pataki Uncovered

So what accounts for the steep drop-off? News deputy managing editor Rich Rosen cited Monica among the distractions, and he was echoed by Newsday national editor Lonnie Isabel, who added, "But that's no excuse. There has been a dwindling interest in political coverage over a period of time at our newspaper and at the others as well. And I've been disappointed with the coverage too."

In 1992, after all, there was a presidential race--and a Democratic convention here--to preoccupy political reporters. More likely the remarkable diminution in coverage is one aftereffect of the demise of New York Newsday, as well as what Isabel calls "the changing nature" of campaigns: "They're mostly ad campaigns, not 'the boys on the bus', and the finance stuff has gotten so totally out of control that it's hard for us to get a handle on it. Given all of that, papers have to learn how to catch up."

Numbers Game

Interestingly, the New York Post's senate coverage bucked the overall trend. At this point in 1992, the Post had produced 57 stories on the senate race; this year the Post has run 56. Of course, the Post's guy is in the fight of his life, involved in a genuine squeaker--a point the paper has been making for weeks, no matter what the numbers show (hint: get energized, conservatives!). The Post's number crunching even infused a Dan Seligman Post op-ed with unintended humor.

In the October 6 piece, Seligman scored the "liberal arts graduates who control the Times" for their "lousy math." Example? A September 10 Times article on poll data showed Bill Clinton's approval rating had fallen from 65 to 59 percent. But Times reporter Richard L. Berke argued that the shift was "barely significant, statistically, because the margin of sampling error in the poll is plus or minus four percentage points."

Snapped Seligman, "This is a common error in political reporting: Encouraging the reader to think that you can just subtract the margin of error from any differences shown in polling. In fact, it is just as plausible to add the margin of error... i.e., Clinton may have slipped by 10 points... And whatever you do with the margin of error, you need to keep reminding yourself that the reported six-point difference remains your single best estimate of what's happening."

Fair enough, but guess what? In the two weeks preceding Seligman's op-ed, the Post twice flunked the same math test. The paper called the D'Amato-Schumer race a "virtual dead heat" when a poll showed Schumer up by 4 percentage points (with a margin of error of 4), and proclaimed the race a "dead heat" when a poll put Schumer up by 5 (with a 5.5 point margin).

Then on October 9, three days after Seligman's salvo, the Post had "Chuck & Al neck-and-neck as pals go toe-to-toe" above these words: "A Manhattanville College poll found the race is neck-and-neck. The poll found 46 percent backing Schumer, 40 percent supporting D'Amato and the rest undecided. That's within the survey's margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points--meaning the contest is almost a dead heat."

Almost, indeed.

Off the Wall

The New York Times's coverage of last week's Merrill Lynch meltdown was curiously Rudy-friendly. The Times's Peter Truell quoted Giuliani to the effect that the job cuts of 3400--including 700 in the city--would be bad for New York, but did not note the mayor's own pivotal role in tying the city's fortunes so closely to Wall Street. As state senator Franz Leichter stressed in a David Seifman Post piece, "26 of the 39 corporate retention deals completed in the Giuliani Administration involved companies in the financial and insurance industries."

That largesse toward Wall Street has drawn fire from several quarters, all of which were missed by the Times. Newsday's Katia Hetter did better, noting the cuts came "only weeks after state Comptroller H. Carl McCall cautioned of New York City's extraordinary dependence on Wall Street," and the Daily News's Amy Feldman brought Leichter in to call the $28.5 million tax break the city and state gave Merrill Lynch last year "an outrage."

The News spread also included a chart listing "Big New York City lay-offs": Chase Manhattan--1125, Citigroup--1000, Merrill Lynch--700, NBC--200-300, and CBS--200. Each of these corporations won multimillion-dollar tax breaks from Giuliani before dumping workers. But even the populist News failed to make that larger connection. They, too, let Rudy slide.

Research: Lauren Reynolds

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