Pataki Uncovered


When will New York’s daily papers show us George Pataki’s money? With only two weeks remaining before the gubernatorial election, the dailies have produced virtually no major investigations of Pataki’s unprecedented campaign fundraising haul. And though sources at two papers say that stories are in the works, those pieces will do little to alter the fact that this election season has seen a remarkable reduction in campaign coverage–a drop-off that suggests a creeping abandonment of political commitment at the dailies.

On Saturday the Times reported that Pataki had called the state’s campaign finance system “dreadful” and urged its overhaul. But when asked how he would change the system, Pataki admitted, “I do not have a plan.”

That’s not exactly a surprise, considering that the governor has already raised a record amount of cash for his re-election, as the Times noted. But Times readers were given no analysis of that $20 million pile–just as readers of the tabloids have heard little about Pataki’s campaign finances.

This despite the fact that Pataki has transformed New York politics by raking in astonishing amounts of cash for his campaigns. He is the leader in a movement that has produced at least a tenfold increase over the 1994 election cycle in soft-money payoffs. He has raised twice as much money from companies that do business with the state than his opponent, Peter Vallone, has scraped together in total. The governor has done nothing during his tenure to change the system of political financing, and the fundraising activities of both his campaign committee and the state GOP are currently targets of at least two federal investigations. Then there is Pataki’s alliance with Alfonse D’Amato, who has raked in more than $20 million in his own re-election effort.

Still, here in the city we’ve been denied the kind of basic information provided by the Albany Times-Union, which ran a package a week and a half ago disclosing, among other things, that some $9.5 million has flowed into Pataki’s campaign and the state Republican party from state contractors. These figures are surely low; still, they are a useful start.

The Times-Union series looked, for example, at money the governor and the Republicans have received from law firms hired by the state as bond counsels. Since 1995, when Pataki took office, the Empire State Development Corporation has hired eight law firms to handle about $3 billion worth of bonds. Seven have made substantial contributions to Pataki’s campaign, the state GOP, or the Conservative Party since Pataki ran in 1994. Another firm, city-based Haythe & Curley, has pumped nearly $100,000 into Pataki or GOP coffers–about $50,000 during the governor’s ’94 run. By the 1996­97 fiscal year, Haythe & Curley had become the Dormitory Authority’s number-one bond counsel, earning more than $1 million in fees–despite the fact that, before 1995, it had not even ranked among the top 100 bond counsels in the country.

This information has yet to make its way into the city’s papers–all the more surprising considering that, earlier this year, the four city dailies joined with 15 other newspapers across the state to computerize campaign finance records. The papers spent about $100,000 to hire a consultant who copied and keyboarded hundreds of thousands of entries.

Newsday did take advantage of this system, producing an impressive compilation of the state’s biggest contributors in August. The Times‘s Clifford Levy has broken several important stories about funny money, including investigations into Carl McCall’s and Dennis Vacco’s finances. And a News team exposed fishy parole board actions on behalf of Pataki contributors. Still, since Levy first called attention to a suspicious $100,000 contract awarded to a Pataki-friendly firm in the spring, the governor’s money machine has rolled on largely without media scrutiny.

“No one’s really paid attention to the race till now anyway,” says one daily editor, citing the lopsided nature of the Pataki-Vallone contest. But the papers have not given us a great deal to pay attention to, beyond coverage of the ad wars. Indeed, even if the dailies pour it on in the next two weeks, the amount of overall coverage–not only campaign finance stories–will not nearly match the ink spilled just four years ago. According to Dirk Smillie, whose News Research Group is tracking coverage of statewide contests, the governor’s race has so far garnered 105 stories in the dailies since the primary. By my count, at the same point in ’94, the governor’s race had rated 102 stories in the Times alone, and another 91 in the Post.

Granted, the ’94 campaign featured Mario Cuomo’s swan song, and unlike this year’s version, that contest was close. Times metro editor Joyce Purnick says the comparison with ’94 is “apples and oranges.” Still, the spotty coverage of the governor’s race appears to be part of a larger pattern of diminishing returns when it comes to political reporting. Consider this comparison: at this point in 1992, the Times had run 179 articles about New York’s senate race. This year, the Times has run 106 articles on the senate race. Similarly, Newsday had run 158 pieces to this point in 1992; this year, 87. If the Pataki-Vallone contest is an object lesson in foregone conclusions, then surely D’Amato-Abrams ’92 and D’Amato-Schumer ’98 and their attendant primaries offer kindred spectacles.

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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