Monday, March 10, 2008

All The News That's Fit To Suppress

The Democrat and Chronicle on Thursday, March 6, carried a story headlined in the print edition "Brooks, Spitzer Trade Barbs."   It reports the County Executive's press conference on Wednesday, where she criticized the Governor's state budget proposals that adversely affect the County, and the Governor's response.

What the paper omits is that Brooks wasn't acting alone.   She was part of a bipartisan group of County executives around the state who -- regardless of party -- leveled exactly the same criticisms against the state budget proposal.

As it often does when deceiving its readers, the D&C clothes its conduct with a fig leaf.

In this case, it tried to slide past the larger significance of the story by stating:   "Brooks said county executives across the state held news conferences charging that Spitzer balanced his budget by shifting millions of dollars in expenses to county governments."

"Brooks said ..."

Makes it sound like a mere unsubstantiated assertion by Brooks, doesn't it?

But isn't it a newspaper's job to check out what an officeholder tells it?   How hard would it have been to fact-check this one?

Unlike the seasoned professionals at the Democrat and Chronicle, we have no journalistic training.   Thus handicapped, we gave it a shot anyway.   Here's what we found through a simple Google search:

From Long Island's Newsday on March 5 -- the day before the D&C story:


"The state's county executives and Gov. Eliot Spitzer's budget office swapped charges yesterday, with the local officials claiming state budget cuts will force them to raise property taxes . . .."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who held a joint morning news conference in Westchester with top officials from Westchester, Rockland and Putnam, said Suffolk is losing $10 million under Spitzer's proposed budget, an amount equal to about 20 percent of Suffolk's general fund tax levy.

"I don't know why they continue to deny that there are significant cuts to the county," said Levy, head of the state county executive association. "We understand these are difficult financial times but the first step in bridging the gap is to understand the counties lost money."

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is a Democrat.

So is Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano.

A day after hosting a press conference with other county executives from the region to criticize Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s budget, Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano took his campaign against unfunded state mandates to the state Commission on Property Tax Relief,  said the White Plains Journal-News blog on March 5.

The White Plains Journal-News also carried this story on March 5:

"We agree with the governor taxes are too high - that they have to be affected," Spano said. "But they can't be affected if you shift the costs down to the locality and we have to raise property taxes here."

Spano, who was a strong supporter of Spitzer's 2006 gubernatorial campaign, said he remains good friends with the governor but is disappointed with his budget.

In the same story the Journal-News noted:

"[Rockland County Executive C. Scott] Vanderhoef was among a host of county leaders from the metropolitan area -- including Nassau County Executive Steve Levy and Putnam Deputy County Executive John Tully - who gathered at Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano's office yesterday to protest Spitzer's actions and plead for state lawmakers to provide relief."

So there you have stories about four county executives, from the Hudson Valley and Long Island:   two Republicans (Vanderhoef and Tully) and two Democrats (Levy and Spano) doing exactly what Maggie Brooks said other county executives were doing, and leveling the same criticisms as Brooks.   These reports appeared on the web before the Democrat and Chronicle wrote its article, and were discoverable by the D&C as easily as they were found by us.

The point is not that they were discoverable by the D&C, but that they were, undoubtedly, discovered.   But once discovered, the paper never mentioned the facts behind them.

Of course it didn't.   Because reporting the full truth would substantiate not merely what Brooks said about other county executives, but also the position she and the other executives are asserting.   When County Executives of both parties are on the same page, you're looking at more than just partisan sparring between a governor of one party and a county executive of another.   It indicates an issue of merit genuine enough to overcome ordinary partisan divisions.

The Democrat and Chronicle never would concede that to Maggie Brooks.   So it deceived its readers through omission.

"Brooks said County Executives across the state criticized the Governor," is the Democrat and Chronicle's way of inducing the reader to think, "Self-serving and unsubstantiated weasel words from a politician."

Reporting it fully -- stating "County Executives across the state, of both parties, criticized the Governor" -- connotes something so different as to change the reader's understanding of the entire story.

We do not make the mistake of thinking that the Democrat and Chronicle has any obligation whatsoever to report truthfully on any subject.   It is not a charitable or philanthropic foundation, nor has it a duty to comply with any concept of moral or civic virtue.

The Democrat and Chronicle is a business.   Its morals are those of the marketplace; its job to make money by selling advertising and newspapers.   Conflict sells newspapers.   (Fellow bloggers will know this, if they track their blogs' statistics.   Our hits went through the roof during the recent troubles with David Gantt.)

The consistently reliable bias the D&C always will have is the bias toward presenting news as conflict, and where not enough conflict exists, to make it appear to exist, or to instigate it.

If the D&C can't move the product, it won't meet profitability targets.   If it doesn't, it might be next on the list of regional papers unloaded by its corporate parent, Gannett Co., Inc.

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