Cuomo’s spokesman scandalizes Capitol press with serial accusations; he says he’s aggressive, just like them

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Josh Vlasto, left, and Andrew Cuomo. ()
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On Oct. 4, The Wall Street Journal's Jacob Gershman reported: "The Cuomo administration has quietly authorized a $50 million bailout of an insurance fund for the 1199SEIU health-care workers, a decision that a union official said helped secure its endorsement of the state's Medicaid budget."

The article was widely regarded among Albany journalists as a scoop, based, it seemed from the language used to describe the multiple anonymous sources cited in the article, on background interviews with several union sources.

Also in the very same article is a quote from Governor Andrew Cuomo's spokesman Josh Vlasto which denies the premise of the article but also seems to seek to discredit the newspaper: "The Wall Street Journal's conspiracy theory is bogus as this was wholly separate from the Medicaid Redesign Team and this year's budget process."

The episode was an illustration of how wide the gulf between the governor's office and the media that cover it has become: Both that the governor's spokesman should use such extreme terms to characterize the reporting of a well-credentialed and respected news organization and that his strenuous objections did not give pause to the editors of the newspaper in publishing Gershman's reporting.

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The Cuomo administration's not-infrequently hostile interactions with the people who cover it have been a topic of interest in recent weeks. The list of gripes Albany reporters have aired lately includes tightly controlled access to the governor, unavailability of public records to reporters and what they say is the sanitization of the governor's schedule.

But they have in particular objected to what they perceive as Vlasto's slurs on their ethics or professionalism, employed they believe to knock down stories ad hominem, and often, they have argued, when Cuomo's office must have known the stories were substantially true.

On June 30, two New York Times reporters published a story online showing that the administration, via the Department of Environmental Conservation, was "seeking to lift what has effectively been a moratorium in New York State on hydraulic fracturing," as the final version of the article that appeared in the next day's print edition puts it.

Following the earliest Times report on the matter, Vlasto dismissed the story as "baseless speculation." Several hours later, a D.E.C. press release went out confirming that the agency would recommend lifting the fracking ban outside of state-owned land.

More recently, on August 14, Michael Gormley of the Associated Press reported that the governor "used state aircraft for 16 flights to or from his home following statewide tours in which he called for belt-tightening and budget cuts for schools and other services," despite the fact that "ethics officials have made it clear in past advisory opinions that state aircraft should not be used essentially for commuting." The report was based on public records the A.P. obtained through the state's Freedom of Information Law.

Vlasto responded to the wire: “The governor uses the plane in furtherance of state business. Every trip is approved by the counsel’s office and the secretary to the governor and to the extent Governor Cuomo’s use of the plane is noteworthy, it’s for its limited use and anyone familiar with the relevant law or practice would know that."

Then he levelled a serious charge: "It’s outrageous that due to an apparent lack of news, The Associated Press has now decided to fabricate stories.”

Nicholas Confessore, who co-bylined the hydrofracking piece in the Times with Danny Hakim, declined to comment for this article, as did the Journal's Gershman, who wrote the unions story. Gormley did not respond to a request for comment; the A.P. declined to offer one on his behalf.

Two of the pieces were analyzed during a public discussion among political reporters at the New School on Sept. 27.

"Capital Tonight" host and blogger Liz Benjamin, who moderated the panel, suggested with regard to the fracking story that the administration was none too pleased the Times had hijacked a different announcement that had been queued up that day.

"The prison closure announcement was supposed to come out," she said. "That's a big deal for upstate. It's also impacting New York City because the governor wants to spread the pain around and not have too many people too angry at him in one concentrated area. So basically instead of getting that very managed message, they had instead a breaking news story from the Times on the hydrofracking report that was going to come out, another controversial issue that they are not doing fabulously on in managing the message."

Later on in the event, Confessore, one of the panelists, said of the aircraft-use story: "The Associated Press is the gold standard for a lot of journalism, and they accused the Associated Press of fabricating the story. That's pretty outrageous rhetoric."

"It was curious that they seemed so angry at the A.P.," New York State Public Radio Capitol bureau chief Karen DeWitt agreed. "They kind of reacted very badly."

Privately, reporters covering the governor complain that Cuomo's office frequently uses invective in an effort to undermine tough stories so as to cast them as spurious—or just downright made-up.

"I've never seen this done before as a strategy, as a pattern of response to critical media articles," said one veteran Albany reporter. "It's a top-down, heavy-handed approach. ... They want the Capitol press corps to lay down and play dead. That seems to be their entire style."

Vlasto, contacted for this article, would only say: "I respect aggressive reporters and they should respect aggressive spokespeople."

Indeed, in so saying, Vlasto underlined a caveat several journalists and political press people interviewed for this story introduced. Political reporting ain't easy. There are black eyes. But several said they had never seen such routinely aggressive efforts to quash stories or reduce their impact by impugning the credentials of the reporters and news organizations that produce them, in New York or anywhere.

“The relationship between press officers and reporters is often strained and adversarial, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be mutual respect," said Darren Dopp, a former communications aide to Mario Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer. "To make it work, press officers must be forthright, and reporters must be fair. Of course, you will probably argue about what constitutes being forthright and fair, but you can do so without resorting to insults.”

Asked whether the above exchanges veered outside the realm of mutual respect and fairness and into insult territory, Dopp replied: "I believe [they're] on the verge of doing so."

Not unrelatedly, the push-back may be achieving the opposite of its intended effect.

"It's troubling," said one reporter who has covered the Capitol. "But mostly, I know when I see a denunciation that I'm reading something that must be true."