- A mayor’s aide audibly saying “fuck” when he got irritated at a citizen’s public comments;
- An elderly alderman routinely falling asleep during meetings;
- A less-elderly alderman appearing to surreptitiously suck his thumb during Council meetings, as well as periodically grabbing at his own groin;
- Another alderman making a derisive Heil Hitler salute to emphasize his point;
- The same alderman reading a thinly-veiled homophobic prepared statement; and
- A mayor directing the flow of meetings from the hallway just outside the Chambers with hand gestures to the Council President.
Each of these events involved political figures who were plainly favored by Register-Star management in their endorsements and/or coverage.
Yet none of these occurrences got reported in the local paper at the time. (Two of them were, however, captured in the PBS documentary film about Hudson, Two Square Miles.) Some of the above predate the current management’s tenure; but the patently biased mindset persists.
This short trip down recent local history lane is prompted, of course, by the fevered-but-belated defense offered by Reg-Star management for its recent firing of reporter Tom Casey. Central to their rearguard action is the notion that if something unusual occurs at a meeting, it should be covered.
“Did it happen? Yes? Then go write it up,” wrote publisher Roger Coleman and executive editor Theresa Hyland in a joint statement released last Friday. Sounds sensible at first glance.
But when it has suited the paper’s interest not to make an issue of something, it is often kept it out of the Register’s pages. In this current case, because 3rd Ward alderman John Friedman is not an automatic vote for the status quo, it is hard to escape the impression that someone high up there wanted the alderman’s inobtrusive action in print.
Similarly, when certain factions—particularly that of Rick Scalera and Don Moore—have wanted Aldermen whom they consider disloyal shamed on the front page, the Register-Star has been all too happy to oblige. Some aldermen, for example Friedman’s 3rd Ward colleague Chris Wagoner, can hardly sneeze without the paper portraying his sternutation as rude and disruptive.
The crux of the paper’s dispute with Casey was not really whether real news should be reported, but whether a quiet action taken by an alderman—one which aroused no public outcry—was newsworthy at all... And secondarily, whether the reporter present would follow his bosses’ orders.
Rather than compromising like adults about a simple difference of opinion—by publishing the additional paragraphs coerced from Casey under duress, while respecting his wish to keep his byline off the story—Coleman and Hyland went nuclear and fired him. Then, the pair evidently took such a hard line with those who quite calmly and reasonably protested the firing, that three of Casey’s colleagues felt compelled to resign.
Former city editor Francesca Olsen says in a statement provided to prominent media watchdog Jim Romenesko:
When I got into work Wednesday afternoon I was called into a conference room meeting with Coleman and Hyland. Coleman had a copy of the letter and asked me what my name was doing on it. I told him I stood with my staff and said Tom’s firing was an outrageous decision.
I didn’t get a lot of opportunity for discussion. Coleman asked me repeatedly if I was resigning, and when I said I stood with my staff he asked if that meant I stood against him and Hyland. I said it wasn’t really that simple. After it became clear we weren’t going to have a reasoned and even-toned discussion about this I said I would resign.
This leaves a strong impression that ego—the desire to send a message to other reporters that they had better not disagree with management—not journalistic standards—was the key motivator here.
And even if one accepted the Register-Star management’s dubious assessment of this being newsworthy, that leaves two major questions: Why was the difference of opinion with a reporter in good standing worthy of firing? And, why doesn’t the paper actually apply its newly-expressed standard consistently across various political factions?
It’s not merely that events far more outrageous get played down if they do not reflect well on the establishment view—or blown out of proportion if it serves a factional purpose. In addition, anyone who’s attended even a couple Common Council meetings also knows that comments from the audience which contradict the official line often get erased entirely, or minimized by glossing them over in a blunted form.
If six citizens speak against an action being backed by City Hall, the typical Register-Star report will avoid presenting them verbatim, instead either omitting them altogether, or saying something like: “Some in the audience took issue with the Mayor’s position.” The more convincing detail and key substance of independent viewpoints cannot be allowed to reach the ears of more passive readers.
Another corrollary of this predictable media formula is that if a member of the public is the least bit passionate or intense in their manner of speaking, they will frequently be described as “strident,” “vocal,” “angry,” and the like.
Coming a full week after Coleman and Hyland’s firing of Casey drew media scrutiny locally, regionally and nationally, the paper had to say something. The Register-Star could not continue to remain silent, as it needed a document to provide the public and reporters seeking comment, as it did with Chris Churchill of the Times-Union. And as the blue chip Columbia Journalism Review notes in their coverage today:
More than anything, Coleman and Hyland’s statement betrays a deep disdain for their (former) reporters.
That disdain is also for a large portion of their reluctant readers. The arm-waving and sarcastic tone of their explanation, coupled with its obvious double standard, is not merely unconvincing; it is all too typical locally. More generally, as the founder of The Aspen Daily News all the way over in Colorado wrote about the Hudson, New York controversy:
A gnawing discomfort lurks when higher powers at a media outlet try to impose their will on a reporter [...] Differences between reporters and their bosses about stories are a very touchy subject. Publishers, who normally have business backgrounds and are considered inept at concepts such as news judgment, are supposed to stay out of newsrooms. Some often stay away out of intimidation.
Publishers usually don’t write, and are often too cozy with politicians and advertisers who are fond of being able to control them, writers believe. The issue is particularly sensitive when an advertiser threatens to boycott the paper if it doesn’t write what he or she wants — or more to the point — omit what he or she does not.
Vainly attempting to position themselves above the fray, Register-Star management declares that there are two types of people “when it comes to the news business[:] those who will do anything to get something in and those who will do anything to keep it out.”
Unfortunately for readers and residents, the management of their City and County’s only daily newspaper seems to fit both of these categories. It just depends on which side of the political aisle the paper’s ally (or target) happens to stand (or sit).