A City Hall Affair to Remember
Capital New York’s City Hall correspondent is in a relationship with the mayor’s chief spokesman, but the website’s editor insists there is no conflict of interest.
This is a story about sharp elbows, rude words, constant combat, insinuating gossip, and bitter rivalries—most of it occurring in a tiny, cramped pressroom in the most media-centric metropolis on the planet—and it’s also about the power of love and its enduring capacity to find a way.
And, inevitably, it’s a story about love’s complications and the awkward circumstances they occasionally provoke. In this instance, the complications and awkwardness arise from a romance between New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief spokesman and the lead City Hall correspondent for the Capital New York online outlet, and they are prompting questions about journalistic ethics and governmental fairness.
At least one critic, Columbia University Journalism School Prof. Richard Wald, a former president of both NBC News and ABC News, suggests the arrangement smacks of “insanity” and can’t reasonably be sustained.
The setting is Room 9—a 455-square-foot holding cell of sorts on the first floor of New York’s City Hall, where some of America’s more rabidly competitive reporters, the ones covering de Blasio, are forever crawling over one another like scorpions in a bottle.
Given the persistently parlous state of de Blasio’s relations with his press corps—which nitpicks his every misstep, revels in his embarrassments, and shines a spotlight on his inconsistencies and minor hypocrisies (and in turn is treated by the mayor and his operatives with sporadic derision and scorn)—one might have expected Goldenberg and Walzak to be frequent antagonists, if not sworn enemies.
Instead they are seriously dating; indeed, spend time together in their respective apartments and have been romantically involved for more than a year (and a public couple at least since the New York Daily News’ gossip column, Confidential, outed the lovebirds last January, 28 days after de Blasio took office).
They are so intimate, say observers of the relationship, that Goldenberg once inadvertently sent out tweets from Walzak’s personal Twitter account—tweets that she (or perhaps Walzak) hurriedly deleted once they realized her mistake. As Goldenberg noted in an entry on her Facebook page, Aug. 9 was the anniversary of “my first date w/Phil! Love you!!”
So much for the mushy part. Now for the complications and awkwardness, to say nothing of elbows and gossip and rivalries and all that other stuff.
It goes without saying that the liaison between Walzak and Goldenberg presents any number of challenges and headaches for both the mayor’s office and the media outlet.
They are, if anything, exacerbated by the ambience of Room 9, where fierce rivals from the tabloids and the broadsheets among other news organizations are piled on top of one another, cheek by jowl, and must leave their cramped desks for the City Hall steps or elsewhere to conduct cell phone conversations with confidential sources and avoid being overheard by competitors.
The prevailing mood is highly pressured, nervous, and occasionally angry. Goldenberg, a reporter for the New York Post before being snapped up last year by Capital New York, has thrived there; Walzak, less so, judging by the mayor’s news clippings.
In an arrangement that strains the credulity of certain cynics in New York’s media-political complex, the mayor’s office has determined that any potential conflicts of interest have been resolved by a policy in which Walzak has no workplace contact with Goldenberg regarding her stories, and instead delegates the task to a deputy. It’s unclear whether this policy applies to pillow talk.
Top de Blasio aide Peter Ragone, the mayor’s senior adviser for strategic planning, stoutly defended both the policy and the press office. “First, all reporters get treated equally by our press team,” he emailed The Daily Beast. “Second, we’re comfortable with the procedures and processes we’ve put in place as it relates to our press office.”
Goldenberg—by all accounts a tough, resourceful, scoop-generating reporter who has cut the de Blasio administration no slack—is said to be acutely aware that even her offhand comments to colleagues and competitors, let alone her journalistic output, are subjected to microscopic examination, lest she be caught shilling for her boyfriend’s boss.
For instance, when she has echoed the complaints of her Room 9 colleagues about the alleged unresponsiveness of de Blasio’s press operation, some wonder if she is doing it for show, trying to tamp down the inevitable speculation about the supposed advantages that her personal life brings to her work life.
Recently, insiders wondered about the motive for Goldenberg’s tweet after The New York Times’s City Hall bureau chief, Michael Grynbaum, wrote an Oct. 9 story about the mayor’s apparent aversion to openness regarding his wife’s chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, and her failure to disclose details about her problematic live-in boyfriend, a man with a criminal record, including a homicide as a teenager.
To illustrate the de Blasio administration’s possible lack of transparency, Grynbaum wrote that after the mayor defended Noerdlinger in a news conference and declared the controversy “case closed,” the mayor’s press staff departed from its usual practice of sending out a same-day transcript and instead delayed for days.
Goldenberg tweeted: “Pretty sure transcript’s been on city site since monday”—the same day as de Blasio’s remarks. Was she rising to the defense of her boyfriend’s underlings—or simply making an accurate observation?
Walzak didn’t respond to an email seeking comment, and Goldenberg referred me to her boss, Capital New York co-editor and co-founder Josh Benson.
“I’m well aware of the perceptions. It’s not ideal, to say the least,” Benson, a former freelance editor for The Daily Beast, told me, noting that there have been internal discussions among editors and reporters about the situation. “But there’s also a reason I made this decision [not to reassign Goldenberg after she disclosed her romantic relationship to him, before it became public]. I didn’t take it lightly. The questions people are asking are completely correct and justified, and I expect to get more of them for as long as this arrangement is in place. But it comes down to a completely cold calculation about what serves our readers best.”
Goldenberg’s continuation on the City Hall beat is essential, Benson said. “Despite the appearances, and despite the correct questions, it’s just a fact that she breaks more news on her beat than anyone I know,” he said, “and I can’t afford not to be fielding the strongest team I can. I thought hard about it, and it wasn’t a simple thing, and I don’t enjoy having to think about this, because I think there are better things for all of us to be doing. But she’s not replaceable for us.”
Wald, meanwhile, said he probably would not have permitted such a situation to continue when he was running network news divisions with many hundreds of staffers, though he acknowledged that a relatively small operation like Capital New York (which has grown to something over 30 journalists since its acquisition last year by Politico) would have a more difficult time reassigning a talented reporter.
“What would happen in a large organization is either you move the person to a different beat or the other thing you do is disclosure,” Wald said. “You make it very obvious to everyone that her live-in… is the press secretary. The insanity of that is that the organization recognizes that it’s difficult for both of them, but the primary problem is for the audience—the consumer. And it’s not fair to the consumer to have this going on without your telling him.”
Benson said that Capital New York has not found it necessary to disclose Goldenberg relationship with Walzak—say, with a line attached to her stories—because it has already been disclosed by other media outlets. He said he’s considered doing so, however, and hasn’t dismissed the idea.
“I don’t think it’s something we’re going to put on every article, and we’re careful to avoid situations where there’s a direct conflict,” he said. “If there were any actual violations of principle here, this whole thing would be unworkable,” he added, referring to the high-wire act that Goldenberg is performing. “But no actual conflict is manifest in her writing whatsoever.”
The notion of disclosure to the readers of Capital New York is “a totally fair question. But it just seems that once this was already written about and out there, then it would be serving more a ceremonial function than a practical one.”
Love is strange.