A discussion about Cuomo’s relationship with the press zeroes in on ‘Post’ statehouse guy, Fred Dicker

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Fred Dicker. (Photo via howiewolf on Twitter.)
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For the most part, last night's panel discussion at New School University's Milano School about Andrew Cuomo and the media was a tame affair, even if the assembled speakers—reporters from various news outlets around the state—were pretty critical of the governor's relationship with the press.

Though the discussion had been planned for some time, Cuomo's relationship to the media has itself been a topic in the media over the last week because of the recent release of his public schedule to the press—something his office long resisted, and for which he's been criticized over the last several months.

The bulk of the conversation was about administrative transparency, recent and pending legislation, gay marriage, ethics reform, mass transit, the millionaire's tax; then, during the Q. and A. portion of the evening, a member of the audience brought up Fred Dicker.

"[A] man who's elected by the Democrats and Working Families Parties as governor ... often acts as if his electoral mandate is to please Fred Dicker with his policy choices," the man said.

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"The Post is the elephant in the room," Wayne Barrett, the veteran New York City muckraker who now works for Tina Brown's Newsweek-Daily Beast mash-up, responded.

Dicker, who was not on the panel, is the long-time New York Post statehouse editor and host of "Live from the State Capitol," a twice-daily radio broadcast on the Albany area's Talk 1300 A.M. station.

"I can't think of anything that the governor has done that Freddy would disagree with," said Barrett.

Liz Benjamin, veteran Albany reporter and blogger and host of the public affairs television show "Capitol Tonight," served as moderator of the panel, which, in addition to Barrett, included Siena pollster Steven Greenberg, New York State Public Radio capitol bureau chief Karen DeWitt, and New York Times political reporter Nicholas Confessore, who had brought up Dicker earlier in the evening, though not by name.

"I've had one fully on-the-record interview with the governor, and that was in October of 2010 after about six months of asking for it," said Confessore. "He does take a lot of questions from press conferences. But I do think there's a specific public value in an extended engagement, on the record, over a series of topics by an informed person or reporter or panelist or whatever."

He paused.

"Very, very few of those. The exception is a radio show with a few listeners in Albany. He does a lot of that show."

"I've had many on-the-record interactions with him," said Barrett, before cutting to the punchline: "When he was 19!" (Barrett later confessed that Cuomo was actually 24 when Barrett first grilled him.)

There'd been plenty more before the Post columnist had become an explicit topic in the room.

"Red Room press conferences," said Benjamin, "which is where the governor holds press conferences on the second floor of the Capitol, used to be available live. They would give you the satellite coordinates and say, 'Take this,' and you could run it live. And you would have seen him punt. You would have seen the uncomfortable exchanges that he sometimes has with reporters. Now, almost never do they do that. He's not a TV-friendly governor."

Nor is Cuomo's office apparently helpful when it comes to requests submitted under the Freedom of Information law.

"We've had issues with the FOIL law with them," said Confessore. "All governors are bad with complying with the FOIL law, and they all break the law routinely. Governor Cuomo's not a lot different in that respect."

He rattled off a list of FOIL requests that have been obstructed by the administration, including one submitted by the Associated Press for Cuomo's travel records; they were eventually handed over to the wire, but not before being redacted to an "outrageous" degree.

As for Cuomo's public schedules: "They're sanitized," said Benjamin. "They just are. I'm sorry. They do not include everything. There are some things that just say, 'meetings.' None of those have long lists of who was there. ... It's selective revelation, really."

Not every comment was a criticism. Cuomo is highly engaging, and a good listener, too, the panelists agreed. When speaking with him, you might feel like his eyes are glazing over, but there's no doubt he heard every word that you said. Plus, he can work a room like no other. And, surprisingly, they seemed to agree he doesn't take things personally the way his father, Mario, did.

"I've taken some real shots at Andrew, real shots, and he'd be on the phone with me the next day," said Barrett.

Then came that question about Dicker.

"The thing that troubles me much more than the coverage in the Post is the radio show," said Barrett. "To me, [the governor] oughtta have a consistent policy. If he's not going to do radio and television interviews that applies to everyone; if he's just gonna do Freddy Dicker's radio show, than he's sending the message that, 'To get me on the air, you have to be Freddy.'"

DeWitt intervened.

"Well, he's done [John] Gambling. And Susan Arbetter," she said. "Last Friday and Monday, he did four radio interviews. I was one of them."

"I'm trying to help you guys!" Barrett shot back, generating bursts of laughter from the audience and the panel. "Isn't it true that this has been his policy? That the only guy he'll go on the air with [is Dicker]?

"That's a media strategy that to me is very short-term. If you're gonna do that, you can't go on Freddy's show every other day and talk about everything under the sun. You've gotta be at least consistent, because otherwise, and I have no idea why the people who are the victims of this disagree with me, you're sending the message that you have to be Freddy to get access!"

He was shouting now.

"And how many times has [Dicker] written, 'Breathless!' He uses the word 'breathless' repeatedly in his copy! 'It's a breathless new something that's never happened in 50 years!'"

Barrett settled down and the laughter subsided. Greenberg, who'd earlier cited Siena's latest poll showing that Cuomo's favorability rating had risen 3 percent from last month to 72, had a follow-up question.

"What are the implications for the governor for doing this strategy?" he asked.

"Your numbers," Barrett replied. "It's working."