Newsday coverage of Nassau County referendum was unbalanced

Nassau County residents’ resounding defeat of the proposed $400 million bond issue to build a new Nassau Coliseum was a clear indication of popular sentiment. Eighteen of 19 voting districts turned down the idea. Countywide, the vote was 57 percent against, 43 percent in favor.

And this despite Newsday’s best efforts to promote the deal. In the 10 days before the vote, Newsday published five staff-written stories that were solidly in favor of taxpayer support for the new arena and a nearby minor-league ballpark. Opposition views were mentioned in passing—or not at all.

  • July 21: “Labor unions step up push for Coliseum.” The story focused on the 3,000 jobs the development was supposed to create but didn’t mention opponents’ arguments that the number was inflated.
  • July 23: “Wang says new Coliseum key to LI growth.” This two-page spread reported on an interview at Newsday with Charles Wang, the billionaire owner of the Islanders hockey team. The Islanders’ lease of the existing Coliseum expires in 2015, and Wang had threatened to move the team if the referendum was defeated. The story focuses on Wang’s arguments for the deal. Opposing arguments are mentioned once – in the 27th paragraph.
  • July 26: “Wang: Privately funding Coliseum unlikely.” The story begins flatly, “New York Islanders owner Charles Wang said last night that there was no alternative to borrowing funds to build a new Nassau Coliseum.” The next 12 paragraphs described Wang’s address to “a friendly crowd of business owners and advocates.” At the end: three paragraphs quoting from an interview on WFAN with the county’s Democratic Committee chairman, who opposed public financing for an arena.
  • July 27: “Islanders ask fans to support referendum.” The paper’s coverage of a rally attended by “more than a thousand Islanders fans”—no source was given for that estimate—made no mention of opposition.
  • Also on July 27: “Mangano, Wang: Coliseum vote key to future.” Leading off with excerpts from a News 12 panel discussion of the referendum (News 12, like Newsday, is owned by Cablevision, whose chairman, Charles Dolan, endorsed the deal), this story did include an opponent’s comments in the fourth and fifth paragraphs. But by the eighth, it was back to the rally, and there it stayed until the 17th, when it switched to a brief, neutral comment from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Edward Mangano is the Nassau County executive.)

During this 10-day period, Newsday ran no stories that outlined opponents’ objections to the deal in detail.

The single story in all of July that scrutinized the deal ran more than two weeks before the vote. This July 16 story, “Lease details not final before arena vote,” reported that among the unfinished items were the Islanders’ revenue guarantee to the county—revenue essential to repaying bondholders—and revenue sharing from non-hockey events. It quoted extensively from people who had questioned aspects of the deal: the county legislature’s presiding officer, Peter Schmitt, like county executive Mangano a Republican; the Nassau Interim Financing Authority, a state watchdog agency created in January to oversee Nassau’s finances; and George Maragos, the county comptroller.

A story two days earlier, on July 14, had reported that the Nassau Interim Financing Authority had reservations about the deal. The panel complained of insufficient details on the deal’s revenue assumptions and said that total borrowing costs would be $800 million, or twice what the county claimed, over the 30-year life of the bonds.

The July 16 story on the incomplete lease reported that the county’s guaranteed minimum yearly revenue of $14 million was just over half the $26 million in annual bond payments. It noted that the lease gave the county no revenue from any media contracts. It said comptroller Maragos wanted Wang to put up a performance bond to pay for construction cost overruns, not merely cash or a letter of credit, as the lease required. The online version of the story included a copy of the 87-page lease.

This kind of scrutiny was standard practice for Newsday back in the 20th century, before Tribune, and then Cablevision, became its owners. And not only would the old Newsday have given a government deal of this magnitude a thorough going-over, it would have referred to its questionable aspects in subsequent stories. It wouldn’t have devoted four-fifths of a story to Wang’s appearance before a friendly crowd six days before the vote. I doubt that appearance would even have been considered newsworthy. It pains me to see what a shill Newsday has become.

    • WhatashillNewsdayhasbecome
    • August 5th, 2011

    Newsday also in effect banned the leading institutional critic from its pages in the 10 days before the vote. Assocation for a Better Long Island which has long been quoted in the paper’s pages was absent in the news pages and its op ed was not published. The paper can do as it wishes on the editorial pages but barring the leading critic of a vote such as this is appalling.
    It’s also worth noting that the coverage of the County’s fiscal crisis last year and this was minimal and ineffective and it wasnt until the New York Post ran an op ed by EJ McMahon followed by an editorial, the Daily News carried more than one editorial, the Times ran David Halpfinger’s front page news story followed by and editorial and the Journal ran a news story in the GNY section and an editorial that the world knew of the County’s fiscal collapse.
    A once great paper has become a laughinstock. Hurrah for your blog post.

    • Janet Krovoza
    • August 5th, 2011

    Great coverage and analysis worthy of the “old” Newsday. Sounds like everyone got their just rewards. but what if the vote had gone the other way? Troubling, to say the least.

    Great piece, Barbara.

    • Mark Hamer
    • August 5th, 2011

    Newsdays obvious support of the coliseum deal goes beyond poor journalism. The paper specifically refused to run an opinion letter from ABLI days before the referendum. The Dolan’s were featured in advertisements supporting the Vote Yes campaign. Cablevision and Newsday editorial staffs did not provide balanced reporting. Standard print and television media are meaningless in providing real news to Long Islanders. As a community, we need to refuse to support these outlets with our subscription and advertisement dollars.

    • Robin Reisig
    • August 15th, 2011

    I enjoyed reading the Newsday critique. I hadn’t realized
    that the paper’s coverage had become so uneven. In
    contrast, in the dispute about the Shoreham nuclear
    power plant in the 1970s, the paper’s editorial policy
    was pro-Shoreham — but Newsday’s news coverage provided
    the basis of the anti-Shoreham movement, I believe. It is invaluable that you are critiquing the paper!

    Robin Reisig

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