Hell to The Chief

Irked by a newpaper's coverage, the PBA tries a little "razzle dazzle" of its own

The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association is the powerful union representing New York's 23,000 police officers, and while it wields immense political clout in this town, sometimes it can be profitable to have its leaders mad at you.

For instance, the union has lately been raging against The Chief-Civil Service Leader, the weekly newspaper that's aimed at municipal employees. Its solution? Spend $50,000 to take out ads in the paper, condemning its coverage.

Below Canal Street, the old-style broadsheet with the red banner sporting a rising (or is it a setting?) sun is known simply as The Chief. It has a circulation of 30,000 and is considered the bible for those seeking a civil service post or interested in the antics of municipal labor chieftains and their attendant scandals.

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Tune in: Talking With New Editor Tony Ortega


Under longtime editor Richard Steier, the paper has been a feisty voice on all things labor, breaking many scoops and often provoking controversy. One of those hullabaloos erupted last month when the PBA accused The Chief of parroting Mayor Bloomberg's position on now-stalled bargaining talks over a new contract.

The elements of this feud are about as easy to grasp as the Kyoto accords, but the gist of it is that the PBA claims that The Chief took Bloomberg's side in a dispute over the selection of arbitrators for a panel convened to consider the union's contract demands. City officials accused the union of stalling and suggested that PBA president Patrick Lynch was hoping to delay the contract settlement until after he faces reelection this spring. The Chief printed those statements, along with Lynch's response. But the battle was joined and the union vowed to retaliate.

For the little revenue-hungry newspaper, however, the PBA's form of punishment has been fairly sweet.

A week after the offending article appeared, the union purchased a blaring full-page advertisement in the paper—the first, the union, vowed, in a monthly year-long series. "It's cheap," said PBA spokesman Al O'Leary, who helped craft the ads. "And fun."

The first one ran on February 9 under giant headlines intended to mimic The Chief's own graphic style which resembles a mix between the old New York Herald Tribune and some official daily published in an East European capitol, circa 1962. The police ad came out swinging: "Setting the Record Straight, PBA President Speaks Out on the Issues," blared its headline. The subhead, alongside a photo of union president Lynch (the same stock photo that The Chief uses in almost every issue), offered even tougher stuff: "Of Omissions, Distortions And Other Inaccuracies . . ."

"Although it seems strange to say that a newspaper that began its career as an advocate for civil service employees is now a management mouthpiece, the conclusion is inescapable," the PBA ad stated.

"We're going to keep them coming, one a month," promised O'Leary. He said that union president Lynch was so pleased with the first ad that he had it blown up to poster size, laminated, and prominently presented at last month's delegates meeting. "They loved it," said O'Leary.

"The feeling we get here," O'Leary continued, "is that we can't get a fair shake at The Chief, from their news stories, their editorials, and especially the 'Razzle Dazzle' column."

"Razzle Dazzle" is editor Steier's weekly column (a baseball fan who can list every Mets and Yankee lineup since the '60s, Steier, 53, wrote a column of the same name for his school paper at Brooklyn College). The column regularly tweaks those on both sides of the labor-management divide, although some subjects tend to be more sensitive than others. Municipal labor leader Lillian Roberts, a frequent target, has also publicly fumed about The Chief's coverage.

Steier said he doesn't believe there is anything to apologize for regarding the police union. "I don't think that the PBA is in any hurry to get a deal with the city," he said. "They would rather that whatever bad news they get in a new contract comes after the union elections, not before."

The chief of The Chief also said he finds the pro-management tag the police union has sought to pin on him amusing. Steier was fired from his first journalism job in 1979 when he tried to form a union at a Brooklyn weekly. Later, while covering labor at the New York Post, he was sacked again after a 1993 Newspaper Guild strike when owner Rupert Murdoch selectively rehired from those on the picket line. Steier, who wrote a pro-union op-ed piece for Newsday during the strike, didn't make the cut.

Still, he maintains a steadfast equal-opportunity approach to his critics. "I want the PBA to know we will print all of their advertisements," Steier declared. "Whatever they want to say."

 
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