opinion

PHONY!

Donald Trump Talks About a War on the Press. Andrew Cuomo Is Waging One.

The Democratic governor is boasting about taking away the license to operate of one of New York’s key local news sources, and insulting one of its reporters.

opinion

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

On July 19, Zack Fink, the Albany reporter for New York City’s local cable news channel, NY1, asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo about the glaring lack of legitimate small donors to his reelection campaign. Cuomo’s response puzzled many: “I don’t want to argue with you,” he said. “I already have a lawsuit with your station, as you know.”

Except no one knew of any lawsuits against NY1. Cuomo was, his office later said, “joking” about the lawsuit while talking about the state’s ongoing regulatory fight with NY1’s owner, Charter Communications, which runs the cable and internet network that used to be Time Warner Cable, and which is the parent company of NY1. (Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in an email sent Friday morning, a few hours after this article posted, that " Zack Fink has covered the Governor for years and we respect his work.”)

On July 27, a week after that comment, the state abruptly ordered Charter to cease operating in New York entirely, following a hastily called special session and vote by an obscure regulatory body called the Public Service Commission. A few days later, Fink asked Cuomo another tough but perfectly legitimate question: whether he planned to return more than $400,000 in potentially illegal campaign donations from an upstate health care company currently under federal investigation for those donations. Cuomo punted on that question, and again turned it around on Fink:

“Speaking of fraud, Charter Spectrum has been executing fraud on the people of this state,” the governor told the reporter, who is an employee—and a rather low-level one, in the grand scheme of things—of Charter Communications. Cuomo then went on a brief tirade against Charter, which he concluded by telling Fink: “You are defrauding the people of this state. That’s a fraud.”

Cuomo’s decision to make Fink the face of his employer and to call that employer in effect an enemy of the people has New York’s political and media classes speculating—though none would speak to me on the record, out of fear of losing jobs or invoking the governor's famous wrath—that the state's actions are more about Spectrum's journalism than Charter's business practices.

Those business practices, to be clear, are probably worthy of sanction. When Charter gobbled up Time Warner Cable, creating Spectrum, the state agreed to allow the new entity to operate in New York on the condition that it greatly expand high-speed broadband access statewide, including to rural areas. The state says Charter has fudged numbers to meet required benchmarks.

Meanwhile, Spectrum cable technicians represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 have been on strike for more than a year over Charter's attempts to throw out the contracts the technicians negotiated with Time Warner Cable. New York City is investigating Spectrum's use of out-of-state workers, and striking workers hoped the city would end the company's franchise to operate when it comes up for renewal. Cuomo has been heavily courting union support in his reelection campaign, making a dramatic public fight with Spectrum a savvy political move (though it's not at all clear that any cable provider that would take over Charter's operations in New York would be any friendlier to the union workforce).

That's what makes the question of whether this is an attack on the press tricky: the state of New York has legitimate reasons to be dissatisfied with Charter, and Cuomo has plenty of political reasons to pick a fight with a cable company that have nothing to do with journalism.

What makes the question less tricky, to my mind, is that Cuomo has a Bond villain-esque habit of explaining his evil plans out loud, and the rushed PSC vote came very shortly after he responded to a tough question by saying he was coming after the questioner's employer, and as he’s in the midst of a primary fight of his own.

Nearly everything about the PSC vote was sketchy. People I talked to kept using the word "unprecedented." The commission's special session was announced on a Thursday night, to be held the next day, a day when the commission's main "voice of dissent," according to Albany reporter Jon Campbell, was on vacation. The state's Open Meetings Law, which requires 72 hours advance public notice for sessions like this one, appears to have been violated, at least in spirit.

Cuomo's office has said that he was unaware of the meeting and the vote until after it happened, though all five of the PSC's commissioners are appointed by the governor, who is notorious for ignoring the "independence" of various "independent" state commissions and agencies when it suits him. The PSC, as far as I know, has never voted to revoke a license to operate like this. Fines and other penalties are far more common (and in fact the PSC had already fined Charter millions of dollars over broadband expansion).

In his email, Cuomo spokesman Azzopardi said that "The facts clearly debunk any conspiracy theory and in fact everything has been played out in public."

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There is though a long and ignominious history of Cuomo's disdain for journalists and the lengths he will go to to avoid or punish those he deems hostile. In 2012, Cuomo's communications director compiled a 35-page dossier on Liz Benjamin, one of Albany's top reporters, documenting every instance they could find in Benjamin's work of her sounding even slightly critical of Cuomo. (One representative example of her supposed bias: noting that "Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie reportedly both pushed for a larger role" at a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11.) The file, Ben Smith reported at the time, was prepared in advance of a meeting between Cuomo aides and executives for Benjamin's employer, for purposes unknown but easy to imagine. Her employer was Time Warner Cable. She is currently with Spectrum News.

Her colleague Zack Fink is one of Cuomo's toughest regular questioners—when Cuomo deigns to be questioned at all. By the end of last year he'd begun avoiding gaggles with the Albany press corps and instituted a bizarre practice of holding press conferences over the phone, with his aides choosing to take questions only from reporters who agreed to ask about specific topics in advance. In other words, he avoids situations in which he is directly questioned about the sorts of things Fink has been questioning him about. And when he gets those questions, his first instinct is to attack the questioner.

Spectrum News is one of the largest strictly local news outlets in the state, and its coverage of Albany in particular is vital and important. It is the primary place where millions of New Yorkers learn what is happening in the notoriously corrupt and opaque statehouse (it's worth noting that Spectrum's NY1 has scheduled a Democratic gubernatorial primary debate this month, which Cuomo has not committed to attending despite his apparent promise in May to debate progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon). Andrew Cuomo is threatening to blow it up, either because he doesn't care about the collateral damage of his war against Charter, or because blowing it up is the point of that war. In Spectrum's newsrooms, many journalists believe it's the latter.

When the deer tick on the ankle of the American newspaper industry known as Tronc announced its plans to slash the staff of the New York Daily News, Cuomo issued a public statement decrying the cuts and even offering state assistance, saying, "I urge Tronc to reconsider this drastic move and stand ready to work with them to avert this disaster." (He was notably vague on the specifics of the assistance, but Cuomo, like many New York state politicians, has rarely encountered a problem that couldn't be solved by steering massive tax credits to large corporations promising job creation.) For Spectrum's many journalists potentially at risk of losing their jobs because of the state's decision, the governor has, so far, not even offered crocodile tears.

When Donald Trump threatened to take away the broadcast licences of TV networks whose news coverage he didn't like, it was treated as an attack on the free press. His Justice Department's decision to sue to block the AT&T Time Warner merger was widely seen as being retaliatory against CNN.

A Democratic governor in a large, liberal state is going further in a fight against the corporate parents of a media enemy—while yelling "fraud" at reporters asking him fair questions—and it’s attracted scant attention from the usual champions of a free press. In fact, New York reporters seemed, publicly at least, more vocal about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s latest insults about New York’s “corporate media” in general and the New York Post in particular than they were about Governor Cuomo’s hit.

Even Spectrum News itself has gone mostly silent on the subject. The New York Times reported earlier this week that Spectrum's news channels have studiously avoided the PSC vote and Cuomo's criticisms of Charter's business practices, implying that Charter officials have ordered the channels to keep quiet in the hopes of placating the governor or simply burying the news. (Spectrum wouldn't answer my questions.)

It's possible Spectrum will sue New York, and win, and continue operating as before. It's possible another cable company will take over its operations and run the news division mostly as-is. It's also possible Charter will order its reporters to avoid tough coverage of the governor, in order to get him to back off, or that some future corporate parent will gut the news division and focus on traffic and weather and sports instead. That would mean far fewer reporters covering the Cuomo administration and the state legislature.

Andrew Cuomo would consider that a victory.