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.

Even more surprising was that no other newspaper or television station in the city followed either of Levy's series. The blackout was so total that when Golisano did a nursing home ad based on Levy's revelations, the tabloids couldn't even do adwatch copy because their readers had no idea what scandal the commercials were amplifying.

Everyone was too busy with the Post's great scoop of the campaign: jobs letters that Carl McCall had written for his daughter and cousin. As juicy a handoff as any campaign has ever made to a newspaper, the McCall letters merited a Post front page. But the paper decided to reward its source with a bonus: four covers in five days, a savage drumbeat of damage that ended the McCall surge to a nine-point margin in the polls.

The Post's editorial and news pages threw a tantrum about this nepotism outrage for weeks after the initial exposé, published under the sturdy direction of Lachlan Murdoch, the 31-year-old son of Rupert's, selected on the basis of merit no doubt to run his father's loss-leader newspaper. Through it all, star columnist Steve Dunleavy remained uncharacteristically silent, chastened perhaps by his own boast in 1998 that Al D'Amato had gotten his son a job, which Dunleavy actually cited as an example of what the then senator did for his constituents, urging D'Amato's re-election becausehe took care of friends' kids.

The McCall campaign is said to have choked when faced with this assault. But in fact, it immediately pointed out that an in-law of the governor's who lived next door to him, James Copeland, had been awarded $800,000 in state architectural contracts that were so suspicious even Pataki's wholly owned subsidiary, the in-house inspector general, found they were a consequence of "favoritism."

The IG report resulted in the firing of a high state official who'd once worked directly under Pataki, indicating as well that two other top aides to the governor may have made calls on Copeland's behalf. It also said that Copeland told everyone he met in state government just how close he was to the governor. Yet even Newsday, which forced the IG investigation when a state agency gave it a fabricated document designed to cover up the fixing of a Copeland contract, was more focused on McCall's letters when it endorsed Pataki than the far more scandalous incest it had uncovered two years earlier.

Though all four papers endorsed Pataki, he managed to get only 38.9 percent of the city vote, a still substantial level of rejection for a governor with eight years to sell himself. Nonetheless, the same newspapers celebrated this vote as eight points more than he got when running against Mario Cuomo in 1994, ignoring how out of step their endorsements are with their own readers. As quiet as it is kept, Pataki got the second lowest statewide vote of any winning gubernatorial candidate since Franklin Roosevelt in 1929, 23 percent less than he got as an unknown in 1994.

The people know him better than the press.


Research: Sandy Amos, Yi Chen, Clementine Wallace, Will St. John, Bobby Smiley, and Emily Weinstein

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