The Untold Story Behind the Coliseum Referendum
The News Of The World scandal brought to light some of the more salacious dealings of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Empire. But as attention-grabbing as reports of phone hacking were, citizens of the UK were perhaps more shocked and ashamed by revelations that a cozy relationship had developed over the years between high-level government officials—as far-reaching as Scotland Yard and Prime Minister David Cameron—and executives from News Of The World, Murdoch’s now-shuttered tabloid.
A flurry of inquiries into the matter illustrated an almost symbiotic bond between Murdoch the man and government officials desperately seeking his approval. As much as an anathema as this is to purists in either journalism or the public sector, the fact is that media magnates have always curried favor with political leaders and well-funded private interests have unfortunately always had a penthouse suite in the fourth estate.
Less notably, to the outside world, Long Island itself has been besieged by our own local conglomerate in Newsday/Cablevision; one that quizzically evaded the scrutiny of the Department of Justice when it formed and is serving us its own unique brand of partisan influence, though political ideology appears to have little to do with it.
Long Islanders have come increasingly and unwittingly under the influence of Cablevision’s invisible hand as both News12 and Newsday play critical, daily roles in our community. To be sure, outlets such as the Press, local community weeklies and newer entrants such as Patch.com, have leveled the playing field to an extent; but never has this responsibility been so visibly abrogated since these organizations merged, than during the Coliseum Referendum campaign.
It was a story we planned to report, though it was not originally slated for our cover position. As the debate intensified and details of the project were being hastily, yet relentlessly thrown out from all sides, Michael Nelson, the Press’ Editor In Chief, decided upon a group assignment for the story. There were simply too many questions, too much posturing and too little time for one writer to pen a comprehensive piece. (CLICK TO VIEW COVER STORY)
This was a billion-dollar proposition. Those don’t come along every day.
All sides of the issue were pitted against one another and trading vituperative remarks, the most colorful ones coming off the record I can assure you. Former allies turned enemies. Civil discourse was abandoned almost from the start. Moreover, ideology was completely discarded as the Nassau Republican Party and the Nassau Democratic Party appeared to have switched sides somewhere along the way like a bad Hollywood “Mom-wakes-up-in-daughter’s-body” movie. Jay Jacobs, the Democratic leader, was vilifying taxes and union labor supported infrastructure spending while Republican County Executive Edward Mangano was proposing to increase taxes almost the same amount as the home energy tax he repealed; a campaign promise that, quite frankly, got him elected.
Charles Wang and Ed Mangano’s relentless public relations and advertising blitz to encourage the passage of the Coliseum Referendum had the very opposite effect on the pubic. The very thought that Nassau would undertake such an enormous taxpayer-financed project against the backdrop of a country raging against government and high taxes—and at the height of the debt ceiling debate in Washington—inspired an over-taxed population to draw its own line in the sand. But that’s not the most interesting, and tragic part of what transpired during this campaign.
Our cover story, “On Thin Ice,” scrupulously detailed every aspect of the proposed development absent any hyperbole; we also took care to represent every side of the issue equally, concluding that while the details of the plan as presented were shaky at best the decision was an emotional one because the Coliseum played an important role in Long Island’s history.
Newsday’s coverage couldn’t have differed more.
HOW NEWSDAY COVERED IT
With one week to go until voters would be asked to decide whether or not to allow the county to issue a $400 million bond for the Coliseum, Newsday ran a photo of Charles Wang on the cover of its Sunday edition, the most widely circulated paper of the week. The headline read, “Wang and the Arena.” It was billed as “an interview” though it ran in the lead news position and spread over three pages. The interview, conducted by veteran reporter Ted Phillips, was formatted as a news story rather than an interview as it quoted both Wang and Michael Picker, Senior VP of the Islanders, and carried several paragraphs of analysis. This is an important distinction, because a proper news format should have carried opposing viewpoints to the Coliseum plan, particularly since the piece relied on more than just Wang’s interview. Only there were none.
Perhaps these were observations that only other members of the media or opponents of the plan would recognize, but after speaking with a Newsday staffer on the condition of anonymity, this murky piece came into focus. It was full of “unchallenged statements and assumptions,” claimed the staffer, who followed bluntly with, “quotes from the other side were cut.”
Newsday, it seemed, was in the tank for the referendum. Any questions regarding this assertion were, in my mind at least, answered one week later.
On Sunday, July 31, the day before the referendum, proponents of the Coliseum redevelopment plan issued a torrent of positive information regarding the plan in Newsday. Both the Islanders and the Steamfitting Industry Promotion Fund took full-page advertisements encouraging Nassau residents to “Vote Yes.” The news section carried a two-page “Q&A” on the Coliseum with a picture of the proposed rendering with a caption that read “Courtesy of New York Islanders.” The rendering had appeared seemingly out of the blue, with no attribution other than who supplied it. No architect, no engineering firm. Nothing. For Newsday to accept this rendering without questioning the source or viability of it was incredible.
Once again, the so-called answers in this piece were barely vetted or questioned, instead offering a snapshot of the opposing sides. As they had done the week before, Newsday accepted what was given to them at face value, even though just a few days prior the Press’ cover story highlighted critical errors and inconsistencies in the same reports. Conspicuously absent from the July 31 issue was an Op-Ed piece from the Association For A Better Long Island (ABLI) submitted a full two weeks prior, which Newsday held and decided not to run. But the most stunning part of the newspaper came on the Editorial Page.
To fully appreciate the July 31 editorial, it is helpful to understand that Newsday’s honeymoon with the Mangano administration was short-lived. Consistently the Newsday Editorial Board and its columnists have chastened Mangano on several issues ranging from his ongoing feud with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) to his choice of key staffers and deputies. They have relentlessly hammered his fiscal agenda and the County Executive has responded defiantly along the way. This is why the Editorial titled “Vote yes for a new arena” was entirely anachronistic.
The editorial settles the financial argument by claiming that the worst-case scenario of the bond would be a $58 increase on homeowners’ tax bills and the best case is a profitable scenario that would “mitigate future property tax increases.” Nowhere in their calculations did they factor in the potential cost to commercial taxpayers, who pick up a greater share of the tax burden, thereby concluding: “So, $58 per year. That’s less than it would cost a family of four to travel to New York City to see an ice show, a boat show or a circus that they won’t see near home if the deal fails.” To paint the picture that $58 per year, per household was the worst-case scenario would be laughable if it wasn’t so troubling.
The remainder of the Editorial is a virtual press release for the Islanders. It offers a few minor hurdles, essentially admits that residents won’t have a full picture of the project and closes with “voters ought to get the process started by saying YES on Monday to sow the seeds for a vibrant and growing Nassau County.” Ignoring for a moment that the language and logic of the Editorial indicate that it was authored by a third-grader, the Editorial Board offered its full support for a non-binding referendum on a $400 billion bond by a county Newsday has positively excoriated for not paying its bills, laying off workers and ignoring a growing structural budget deficit.
Newsday was once a very good paper, and at times it still is. But its tacit endorsement of the Coliseum plan in news coverage such as the Phillips piece coupled with the outright support of the Editorial Board, suggests something is rotten in Denmark. Despite the fact that the Islanders appear to have spent a sizeable chunk of advertising dollars and that the Nassau Coliseum is entirely wrapped in an Optimum Online banner, this is more than the obvious advertising pay-to-play scenario.
What no one addressed at Newsday or News12 is that both the Islanders and Cablevision are controlled by two of the wealthiest individuals on Long Island. And their affiliation goes far beyond advertising.
Perhaps the disclaimer that should have appeared in Newsday’s coverage of the referendum is the best way to characterize their relationship:
Newsday’s parent company, Cablevision, owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers, a competing venue to the Coliseum and archrival of the New York Islanders, respectively. It is considered one of the greatest and fiercest rivalries in sports, resulting in increased ticket revenue for both organizations. According to Forbes, Cablevision reportedly pays the Islanders $15 million annually (nearly 25% of the team’s annual revenue) for broadcast television rights on a contract written through 2030 provided the Islanders remain in the New York marketplace. According to the NYS Board of Elections, Cablevision was one of County Executive Edward Mangano’s largest financial donors in the first half of 2011.
I am in no way insinuating that Cablevision/Newsday and the Islanders were conspiring to maintain a financially beneficial arrangement between the two organizations by issuing propaganda, omitting certain key details in news stories, relaxing reporting standards and pumping campaign dollars into the account of the local political leader. I’m merely suggesting that such a disclaimer would have been useful information for the reader.
Nevertheless, a crazy thing happened in spite of the efforts put forth by the above parties. The referendum failed. Badly. In the end, the outcome may have been less about the opposition from the development community spearheaded by the ABLI or the sniper attacks from the Democrats, and more as a result of simple voter awareness inspired by Mangano and the Islanders. Ironically, had Islanders owner Charles Wang and the Republicans left well enough alone and favored a quieter, more traditional Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign, their chances might have increased dramatically. Instead their aggressive campaign served only to wake the anti-tax giant in many Nassau residents and the proposition failed.
Though not on the scale of the News of the World ignominy, the failure to influence the outcome of the Coliseum referendum should be a lesson to the Cablevision and Newsday executives. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but not if it is filled with invisible ink; both your adversaries and your followers will see right through you.