Unfit to Print

How the 'Times,' the 'Post,' and the Rest of the Media Conspired to Push Pataki

Two days after Mary Donohue was re-elected as George Pataki's lieutenant governor, her office put out a single-sentence release announcing that she was getting married on November 16. It's the third marriage for Pataki's Irish Catholic running mate, so the off-message nuptials became just one more pre-election state secret.

The marital maneuvering of the always beaming Donohue—who may actually become governor, since Pataki refused to say he'd serve out his third term—was the least offensive of a laundry list of surprises awaiting New Yorkers who re-elected the governor by 16 percentage points last week. The same day as Donohue's announcement, news accounts revealed that the MTA had quietly issued service-cut orders just before the election, with a probable fare hike around the bend. Mayor Bloomberg, whose first-year agenda was ostensibly crafted at the governor's campaign office, suddenly unveiled a $2 billion property tax hike proposal, not mentioning that it might just about cover the teacher contract he signed to buy a Pataki endorsement.

Concealed throughout the campaign, along with Donohue fiancé Anthony Ricci, were any plans the blank-slate governor might have to close the state's $10 billion deficit, rescue its bankrupt unemployment insurance fund, rebuild ground zero, junk the draconian Rockefeller drug laws, aid the busted city, secure Indian Point, end adult and nursing home abuse of the mentally ill, or refinance the Superfund.

In a conspiracy of omission and occasional commission, the four New York City dailies allowed a two-term incumbent who emerged from Peeksville obscurity eight years ago to run as if he were still obscure. Without so much as a moment of campaign clarity about any of these issues, George Pataki has become our second three-term governor in a row, an unprecedented indicator of the power of gubernatorial incumbency. He won by crossing the state looking for every extended palm and filling each with promises, even while his government was as broke as his campaign was flush.

Labor legend Dennis Rivera, whose health care workers garnered a $1.8 billion IOU, was just the best-known example of these counter-intuitive yet cozy arrangements. The New York Times, as Paul Moses revealed in the Voice ("The Paper of Wreckage," June 17, 2002), appeared in the same receiving line as Rivera, collecting $79 million in Pataki-orchestrated subsidies for its new Times Square headquarters, to be built on a site the state is delivering without allowing anyone else to bid. After taking that deal, the Sulzberger family was as likely to endorse a Pataki opponent as their newfound odd bedfellow Mike Long, the crusty Conservative Party patriarch whose gay-bashing, choice-opposing legions went for Pataki for the same, patronage-driven reasons as the Times.

So the world's greatest paper published a parody endorsement, starting with the declaration that third terms always disappoint, taking a horror-house tour through Pataki's first two terms, and closing with the hope that maybe he'll be better next time. The ever optimistic Times offered much the same assessment and hope when it endorsed Pataki in 1998, shortly before beginning its site negotiations with the state. In between, its editorials have given him "a D on fundraising and government ethics," noting that his actions "leave the strong impression his administration is up for sale," a description so ironically adept that we mere readers did not realize at the time that it might have been a form of thankful praise.

The Times news pages also did themselves proud. The paper ran on its front page an announcement that Pataki sidekick Joe Bruno would finally allow a bill that guaranteed minimal civil rights for gays to come to a vote, converting the governor's eight-year acquiescence to this bigoted obstructionism by a legislative leader he installed into a pre-election plus. It simultaneously buried in the final paragraph of a B-5 story a quote from Moody's top state bond analyst saying that New York had $5 billion less on hand than at the same time last year, and that it was "hemorrhaging cash," a banner line if there ever was one.

When Tom Golisano put an ad on the air railing about the four convictions in the parole-for-sale scandal, the Times' adwatch column called it an "old" charge, as deadly a put-down as it could muster, even though all the convictions occurred since Pataki's last race, one as recently as July 2000. Twice the Times wrote that "prosecutors" called Brion Travis, Pataki's neighbor and parole board chair, an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the case when the paper knew that a U.S. district court judge had issued a formal finding to that effect.

Of course the paper did give Clifford Levy's extraordinary series on adult and nursing homes front-page display six times. The Levy series may be the first ever nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by the Times in the same year that the paper endorsed for re-election the public official most responsible for the crimes it exposed. While Levy's series implied that the Pataki administration abused the mentally ill because it believed no one really cared about them, the endorsement proved that neither did the Times, cheapening the lives of the nearly 1000 who have died in adult homes without even a legally mandated report being filed. As chilling as Levy's stories were, they never exposed the lobbying and campaign-contribution connection between Pataki and the adult-home industry, though it was twice detailed in these pages.

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