Is it Illegal to Make a TV Show About Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes During Election Season?


You know, it used to be the case that if two New York politicians needed to settle a score, one could shoot the other in the gut. The contenders for Brooklyn district attorney aren’t so quaint. Still, at least one is using the most familiar weapon in his arsenal: The lawsuit.

Abe George is a candidate for Brooklyn DA (he’s also published an op-ed here on Runnin’ Scared) who believes that an upcoming CBS TV series about incumbent DA Charles “Joe” Hynes violates campaign finance law. Today, George and his political action committee are filing a complaint against Hynes and CBS, claiming that a “six-part news series” following the attorneys in Hynes’ office and airing May 28 amounts to undisclosed publicity–a “contribution-in-kind” from CBS that adds up to much more than the legal $5,000 campaign contribution limit from corporations.

“They’re going to say that this is a news program, and therefore it’s exempt,” George told the Voice. “We’re saying it’s an infomercial and therefore it’s not exempt.”

Most media outlets to this point have referred to “Brooklyn D.A.” as a “reality show,” which bears an entirely different set of connotations from “infomercial,” or “news program.” But if it’s truly reality TV, wouldn’t the show cast the DA’s office in an unflattering light? Would CBS still be supporting Hynes in this scenario, according to George?

“Any reality show even where you have villains, if you expose them long enough for a period of time they’re going to be liked,” George said.

Hynes’ reelection campaign has insisted that “Brooklyn D.A.,” produced by CBS’ true crime team behind “48 Hours,” is a news documentary series. If this were the case, George points out, it would mean that the show qualifies for a “news exemption” from campaign finance limits–still, George doesn’t think the kind of golden access CBS had to Hynes’ office qualifies as news-as-usual at all.

Without seeing “Brooklyn D.A.,” it’s difficult to tell how the show might serve as PR for Hynes. Its focus appears to be on the attorneys in his office and their drama, though the original press release doesn’t reveal much.

“What makes this series so unique is getting into the lives and personalities of the individual DAs, led by Charles “Joe” Hynes, who reflect the vibrancy and diversity of Brooklyn,” senior executive producer Susan Zirinsky said in the original statement about the show.

Meanwhile, both CBS and Hynes’ reelection campaign have dismissed George’s suit as a political tactic.

“We are surprised that this candidate would not know about the First Amendment. This is obviously a publicity push by a politician,” said CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair.

Hynes’ reelection campaign had a remarkably similar response.

“Since Mr. George has no record or vision for the office, he must resort to diversionary tactics in an attempt to muster any publicity to jumpstart his flailing campaign,” wrote Hynes’ campaign spokesman George Arzt. “I would hope George learned in law school the essence and meaning of the First Amendment. He sure doesn’t show it here.”

George, for his part, says he’s not trying to shut down the program, but postpone it until after the election. He argues that making a TV show about an official up for reelection creates an unfair advantage.

“The reason that we have campaign finance laws is because we protect the political system from a few operators with money to shape an election,” George said. “If their goal is not to influence political electorate, why not wait until November?”