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The Untold Story Behind the Coliseum Referendum

August 10th, 2011 in Journalism by

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.

BILLION-DOLLAR BATTLE

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.

VOTE YES

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.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

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.

Author: Jed Morey

Jed Morey is the publisher of the Long Island Press, LI's Cultural Arts and Investigative News Journal. The Press has a monthly circulation of 100,000, and www.longislandpress.com, welcomes more than 500,000 unique visitors every month. He serves on the board of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Nassau County, as well as the President's Council of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Long Island. In addition to the contributions on this blog, Morey authors a column for the Long Island Press titled "Off The Reservation" and is a staunch advocate for Indian rights. The column was voted Best Column in New York by the NY Press Association in 2010 and third overall in the nation among alternative publications by the Association of Alternative Weeklies in 2012. Morey lives in Glen Cove with his wife, Eden White, and their two daughters.

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17 Comments

John Ryder

August 10th, 2011

Jed,
Although I am a Suffolkian now, I will always be a transplanted Nassau County born and raised man. I was following the Coliseum vote very intently…to quote movies…something smelled rotten in Uniondale. And the link between Newsday and Cablevision is questionable…Newsday has become a pennysaver advertisement of sorts for Cablevision. And your description of the Coliseum is dead on…one big Optimum On-Line Advertisement…I think they ruined the look of a nice looking arena, cheapened it…would FIOS be even able to buy advertising space on that building? I think not…there should be NO advertising on the outside of that building…it is Nassau VETERANS MEMORIAL Coliseum…Nuff said…Thanks John

John J. Hanley

August 10th, 2011

Jed:

Another great, well-thought out, and hard hitting story. I believe that, as you brought out in this piece, the more we as taxpayers heard about it, the more we heard about it, the more it just didn’t sit well with the citizens of Nassau County. In paying the most taxes of almost any other County in the nation, any increase for something as “frivolous” (this coming from a die-hard, is there any other kind, Islander fan for 39 years) as a coliseum. Adding fuel to the fire, Mr. Wang was confronted with the insanity of asking taxpayers to pay the freight on this project. He responded that it wasn’t his fault, because four years ago he was going to finance it himself and all he was requesting was Zoning Board Approval. I also don’t believe that the jobs that would have been created would be local jobs– cheap labor from the south would have been brought up.

BTW: Glen Cove’s Planning Board approved the Piazza tonight 4-3. There was heated opposition, but the PB voted in favor anyway. Would love to see a story or two about this in your paper.

Stay well.

JV

August 11th, 2011

So all the other stories printed in Newsday on how the Coliseum bond issued would have increased corporate taxes, etc. etc. don’t count. Just the one editorial piece where they endorsed the Coliseum deal and you state there is something fishy?

Also, I love your facebook status:

Publisher Jed Morey calls bulls@#t on Newsday for their one-sided reporting. Agree?

Your publisher should be fired if he said that

Frank

August 11th, 2011

The odd thing is, that it is in the best interests for Newsday and the Dolans if the Islanders actually leave. The only reason the Islanders (And the Devils) get such a large sum from the Dolans for the rights to their hockey games is so SNY or YES can’t challenge MSG via hockey. The Islanders are perennially buried on MSG +2,the third network in the MSG family, with little to no advertising.

Also it should be noted that the 58 dollar tax raise was ONLY if the Arena made no money. But that wasn’t even going to happen because Wang had a minimum payment of 14 million (or 11% of ALL Arena revenues, whichever was more) to the County every year. Your also ignoring that the Democrats had Auto-Callers going all day Sunday, calling up seniors and telling them that a yes vote was going to raise their taxes. Some people reportedly got between 3 and 5 calls.

Also of note is that the minimum amount Wang would have paid back of the bond + interest over the life of the lease was 70%. On average most sports arena bonds (including the recent Mets and Yankees bonds) only pay back 40% of the bond directly from the team.

The ABLI was nothing but a fake organization setup by Developers who want their cut. They don’t actually “care” about Long Island. They see the possibility of development in Nassau county, and they want in on it. They basically let Wang and his people do all the hard work and spend their money, and now that something was finally getting done, they wanted in. It was a joke.

The worst is no one believes that the Islanders might move. Why? Because the short sighted politicians who led the No rally cry don’t have an answer for if the Islanders do leave. If the Islanders leave, Nassau Coliseum is closed. Lets not even begin with the amount of people who work at the Coliseum itself, but the businesses around the Coliseum. How much are they going to lose without the Coliseum drawing people into the area? How much tax money is going to be lost from that? We don’t know now, but at the rate it’s going everyone will find out once 2015 rolls around.

The reason this was somewhat rushed is that Construction has to begin now for the Arena to be ready for 2015, when the Islanders lease is up. Speaking of the lease, remember that Wang and the Islanders are technically tenants of the County. Wang doesn’t own the Land, and the idea that he should out of pocket build JUST a new Arena he wouldn’t own for the team is ridiculous. It should also be noted that the original lease signed in 1985 said that Nassau would completely renovate the Arena (which was already in poor shape at the time) in 1990. Yea, that didn’t happen.

Good work though, you really busted this story wide open! Congrats on Calling BullS#!t!

Your Name

August 12th, 2011

This story is an irrelevant drip of words.

Jed Morey

August 12th, 2011

JV… I am the Publisher. Soooo…. no. I won’t be firing myself. My job, you see, IS to call bullshit when we see it. Just doing my job! (Salutes)

Frank… This piece wasn’t about the deal, Wang’s motivation or the county’s need to get a project done. Our cover story was. This column is about journalism and integrity. And even though I sense a wee bit of sarcasm in your retort, I’m happy you read it.

Anonymous Fella… Sorry you thought this was an “irrelevant drip of words.” It must be frustrating knowing that you’ll never get back those precious minutes of your life spent reading these drippy words.

gazaroog

August 12th, 2011

Jed, this is the most hypocritical article I think I have ever read. What you failed to mention is all of the Randi Marshall articles that blasted the plan. There were much more articles against the plan than for.

It’s a totally contradictory to the premise of what you are implying of your story above.

What a poor job on your part.

Jed Morey

August 12th, 2011

What I’m addressing here is the fact that as the vote drew nearer, the cover story “interview” was deliberately edited to favor the proposal and that the Sunday edition on the 31st was a pro-referendum edition cover to cover. Don’t forget that I spoke to staffers that confirmed this was the case. The truly important part here is full disclosure. Not once did the paper mention the close ties between Cablevision and the Isles. This article is not about the Coliseum. It’s about journalistic integrity.

Terry Sharpe

August 15th, 2011

You sold WLIR for 30 pieces of silver, Mr. Morey. So, getting rid of Nassau County icons is your stock in trade.

Jed Morey

August 15th, 2011

Ummm, that was my father. I’m the newspaper guy. But thanks for writing in!
And it was a whole lot more than 30 pieces of silver, thankyouverymuch. Having said that, it was also my father who preserved the WLIR alternative format for a decade after the original owner was stripped of his FCC license. Moreover, he employed every single person from the original WLIR who wanted to stay with the frequency. Now, thanks to the advancement of technology, you can access great heritage alternative music from a variety of sources. So you’re point is???

NYIFC

August 16th, 2011

Your research was painfully flawed and lacking.

Dolan/Cablevision/Newsday/Msg could not outright lobby against the project but they got out every negative thing they could in Dolan’s paper and on News12 before the half-hearted endorsement at best. George Marlin got two articles at a time he was not supposed to have a viewpoint, Jay Jacobs got his editorials. Dolan even made sure Schmitt and Magagos had questions. Dolan could not come off as complicit in getting out his competition and saving hundreds of millions on his television contract but his paper influenced
a negative vote long before a lukewarm at best endorsement. And all those events that to go NYC go to taxpayer exempt Msg getting 11m a year since 1981. This paper failed to get true story out and missed here too.

NYIFC

August 16th, 2011

You should have referenced John Mancini former Newsday editor, Wallace Matthews and James Dolan, to vet the Dolan’s lack of journalistic integrity which puts down the Isles at every turn and makes Charles Wang reality tv but does not dare mention Dolan or poor team performance by the Cablevision Knicks and Rags. You want disclosure you should check out the Dolan’s tv and coverage disparity of the Islanders vs Msg teams in Dolan’s paper.

NYIFC

August 16th, 2011

And the other poster was right. Randi Marshall, Brodsky, every article for weeks had a negative slant that influenced the vote before the half-hearted lukewarm endorsement at best.
Even Dolan did a personal video message endorsing it to deflect his true agenda as his paper and tv coverage did all they could to defeat this. If this were something for Cablevision not one negative word would be permitted much less one mention of the name Dolan. Instead your outlet served up a cartoon
entry that missed on what really happened.

NYIFC

August 16th, 2011

You want to impress us from here, follow closely how Dolan’s teams are covered on Msg and in Newsday vs Charles Wang’s. The depth and bulk from the sports department. The MSM is blasting the Isles for a viewing party on Friday for a game Dolan’s Msg is showing. Come camp not one Islander game will be televised while Dolan’s team will be on 24/7/365. Then you will discover how you missed here and did a sloppy job. The Isles are Msg’s enemy they are paid to be hidden.

NYIFC

August 16th, 2011

When all is said and done Dolan will keep the team hidden, work the negative coverage on no new arena to get his tv money back and maybe get in on renovating the Coliseum himself as soon as the Islanders leave, just as Msg did in Hartford and what they are trying to do in LA with the forum. Hundreds of millions in savings and full territorial rights for his teams in Nassau County and LI Rangers AHL at a renovated Cablevision Coliseum with all events.

NYIFC

August 16th, 2011

Mr Morey we challenge your paper to put it’s money where it’s mouth is. A full time 365 day New York Islander professional beatwriter and blogger from day one of camp traveling with the team for 82 games that calls out Dolan owned Newsday coverage disparities and ratings disparity between Msg, Msg+ and Msg+2. You can start with Monday’s article on taxpayer funded elections (about Coliseum referendum) vs taxpayer subsidies for pharmaceutical companies in the lead of Dolan’s paper. Or is your paper going back into hiding covering the New York Islanders, the only US team who’s coverage in print and television is by another NHL team.

Jed Morey

August 17th, 2011

NYIFC: You make a lot of points here and quite frankly I’m not finding much to dispute. But perhaps what you’re missing about my column as well as the cover story the Press wrote about the deal is that Newsday didn’t cover very obvious and important details about the referendum. Period.

Furthermore, as I report here, they cut entire quotes from the opposition in their Sunday cover story with Mr. Wang and the Op-Ed endorsement omitted key facts as well. This is a piece about journalism, not the Islanders or the Coliseum.

I’m also not arguing one way or another about how the Dolan family treats the Islanders on the MSG network. It is crucial, however, in our field that information about relationships – particularly finanical ones!!! – are offered as disclaimers. This is the major problem with a company that routinely hands out campaign contributions and has competing or collaborative business arrangements with the companies they cover owning a newspaper without providing full disclosure of their relationships and political activities.

As for your challenge, I must demur. The Press is an alternative newsweekly that does in-depth reporting, not daily sports coverage. It’s simply not what we do. Frankly, there are a few Islanders blogs out there that do a better job covering the Isles than Newsday does.

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