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In the decade-plus I’ve been a reporter, there’s a been a disturbing trend. Governments have gotten savvier at putting out and controlling information. They’ve gotten nastier when reporters don’t follow the script.

Most recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo has gone to absurd lengths to protect even innocuous information. The New York Times and Albany Times Union reported on how his staff removed items from the state archive of Cuomo’s years as attorney general. Things like…a presentation on how to improve traffic to the office’s website.

But there was one document in the public interest that was removed after the governor’s staff found out the Times Union had it – a 2007 memo detailing the process for investigating the Troopergate scandal. The fact Cuomo’s people wanted it squashed likely made the memo a much bigger story.

Jimmy Vielkind of the Times Union, detailed multiple instances of the Cuomo administration’s lack of transparency. They’re adding up. The staff “routinely goes directly to nuclear level nuclear” on reporters. Cuomo doesn’t send emails and instructs his staff to use BlackBerry PIN, which doesn’t leave a trail.

This is a much broader issue than Cuomo. Pro Publica found that as newsrooms are shrink, public relations jobs are exploding. This is happening in government, too. There are more communications staffers at Rochester’s City Hall than each local television newsroom has reporters on the street.

Politicians and their staffs are more emboldened than ever before. They now ask to edit their own quotes before they appear in print! More shockingly, reporters for major news organizations agree!

Government officials used to be far more accessible. Politicians now have to go through spokesmen. Department heads have to get permission from other department heads. Everyone has to go through everyone else to give us basic information.

My boss now occasionally gets calls or emails from government spokesmen to complain about the mildest of stories. There were never any factual problems. The issues involved the relevancy of the stories themselves. Ten years ago, that rarely happened.

Over the years, I saw the type of information control change in the Rochester City School District. Superintendent Cliff Janey had no communication strategy, other than to keep stuff secret. He was fired. Six years later, we got a superintendent who was brilliant at spin. Jean-Claude Brizard was rarely called out for his highly questionable statistics and decisions and his lack of transparency. He was promoted.

A main function of the press is to hold the government accountable. It’s essential to democracy. And it’s gotten harder.

5 Responses to Closed Cuomo

  1. July 25, 2012 at 7:38 pm theodore kumlander responds:

    when it comes to poiticians I always look at what they do , never what they say they are going to do. actions always speak louder than words. I think with andrew cuomo your looking at the next president of the usa.

  2. When I worked in City Hall, I always felt that the Communications staff was much too large for a local government. It seems that the mayor is perfectly capable of speaking for himself, and he can certainly write his own speeches. So, why half the second floor of City Hall is staffed by Communications is beyond my comprehension.

  3. Someone reporting for UPITVN in the 60s would shove a microphone into the face of a politician and ask a question that hopefully could become a key element in a print piece or a key quote in a TV news broadcast. That’s still true, but in the 60s, the time it took to print it (or prepare it for TV) was measured in hours, and by today’s standards, the audience distribution was limited.The journalistic world today operates in 30 second increments, not hours: a 30 second sound byte can be broadcast in 140 characters or less across the globe in a few seconds without editing; common sense analysis, simple care for the truth, or presentation of two sides of an issue are often discarded in the process. (Consider the recent reporting gaffes on the Supreme Court Decision on Health Care). Don’t get me wrong: I have deep respect for your personal journalistic integrity, but I have sympathy for celebs and politicians who find their comments grossly taken out of context, or published without thorough analysis and careful journalistic balance. Cuomo’s staff — indeed, the staffs of most politicians today — are wary of this and take steps to protect themselves, sometimes overreacting by a lot. If both sides of this issue could act with greater restraint, we’d all be the better for it.

  4. July 27, 2012 at 9:43 am Michael responds:

    When will the American people ever learn? Politicians are all the same, regardless of party, sex, age race height, hair color and color of their eyes. They make promises they do not keep, hide and distort information, etc. It has been that way for more than one hundred years. The people allow it and even expect it.

    It is no different than the mall developers who get money from taxpayers and then do not fulfill their promises. Happens all the time, over and over again. But, the governments still bow down to the developers and then act surprised when they fail to do what they promised. Maybe it is stupidity or just human nature, but it has not changed over the years.

  5. July 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm lellingw responds:

    I certainly don’t want Cuomo for president. Right now the Democratic president has legalized killing American citizens without trial, indefinite detention without trial and a national education system based on privatizing schools. I don’t think the Democratic party would have allowed this to happen without a fight if a Republican president had done it. I don’t think most people know how much the nation has lost in communication and civil rights.

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