F.A.Q.: What is it like to cover a candidate who will say anything?
A conversation with WNYC political reporter Azi Paybarah about Carl Paladino's "homosexuality" speech in Williamsburg.
Josh Benson: So how did it happen that the female reporters were invited to, but couldn't get into, that Paladino event in Williamsburg? Not a whole lot of advance work for this one, I'm guessing ...
Azi Paybarah: None at all, apparently. At first, the guys inside 207 Ross Street didn't know there was an event scheduled. Maybe that's just a Williamsburg thing. I mean, I've heard of female journos and photogs getting separated at religious events. Reminds me of when I was a wedding photographer. Same racket.
Josh: I would love to hear more about your wedding-photog racket, actually. But first, the event: What happened next? What was the speech like before Paladino said the thing that eclipsed all the other things?
Azi: He tried brandishing his social-conservative credentials.
Josh: So I gather!
Azi: For some kind of tax credit that makes it easier to send kids to religious schools, against same-sex marriage, etc. etc. Amazingly, what he then said was slightly toned down from what was in his prepared remarks.
Josh: I wonder if that was accidental. Because why tone it down at all if what you wind up saying, as he did, is, "I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don’t want them brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option. It isn’t.”
Azi: It's like that part in the movie Reversal of Fortune where a law student says, "There are some things even mistresses won't do."
Azi: I guess there are things that even Candidate Paladino won't say.
Josh: Well but, I mean, he kind of said it! I can't suppose there is much difference, transactionally, between saying that homosexuality is not valid and just saying "I am anti-gay." Hasn't this guy ever heard of code words?
Azi: That's good old-fashioned politics you're talking about, and he's not talking like a politician.
Josh: Right. Once again, everyone loves a straight-talker, but maybe not so much when it's Carl Paladino. Although I don't assume that the reaction to his statements in the press was necessarily illustrative of the way he was received at K’Hal Aadas Kasho. What was the immediate in-house reaction to his speech among the non-reporters?
Azi: Applause. It went over well. The rabbi who introduced him was tearing up.
Josh: I presume it wasn't just the gay line they were applauding and tearing up at.
Azi: They applauded when he spoke about not letting illegal immigrants "who just crossed the border last night" get "an educational subsidy."
Josh: Any other particular crowd-pleasers?
Azi: I think he got applause when he said we should stop "treating our decent law-abiding religious citizens as pariahs, as second-class citizens."
Josh: Ah. That makes sense. OK, so. What was the reaction from the (male) reporters in the room when he said that being gay was not so valid? I notice it did not take you long to tweet, and that was what kicked off the big reaction outside Williamsburg.
Azi: I actually tweeted a line right when the speech was handed out, as did Reid Epstein from Newsday (who quoted another part of the speech that was ultimately not delivered). We sort of looked at each other from the corners of our eyes like, "Yep, we've got a story."
Azi: One interesting thing, to me at least, was that Cuomo was in Rev. A.R. Bernard's church in East New York earlier that morning, talking about Paladino. Cuomo noted some of Paladino's positions on putting welfare recipients in retrofitted prisons, and cracking down on illegal immigrants. Cuomo did not mention Paladino's opposition to abortion (which might have backfired in a religious setting). And Cuomo didn't differentiate himself from Paladino on any LGBT issues while he was there.
Josh: I wonder if Cuomo had any idea this was coming.
Azi: Not sure anyone knew this was coming. But the Empire State Pride Agenda dinner is coming up, and this will be an obvious line to attack him on. (Even though Cuomo, from my understanding, isn't a featured speaker at the ESPA dinner.
Josh: Well I don't suppose ESPA particularly needs an excuse to dislike Carl Paladino.
Azi: Today sort of reinforced my notion about the weird coverage bias in this year's governor's race. It seems like there were way more reporters at Paladino's Williamsburg event than were at Cuomo's church event. Because the chances of Cuomo saying something newsy are rapidly diminishing, there's a diminishing incentive to cover him. With Paladino, you hang around him, you get that video, or tweet, and boom: you're on a media rocket for about an hour or two.
Josh: Right. Well I guess we're exhibit A here, talking about Carl Paladino—who is probably not going to matter all that much after Nov. 2 to anyone who doesn't live in one of his buildings in Buffalo—instead of the guy we're going to be living with as our governor for, I assume, at least the next four years.
Josh: I also guess this is a rare instance in which being ignored by the media is just fine by Cuomo. Don't you think?
Azi: Sorry. Getting a phone call from Paladino campaign.
Azi: I'm back. Had to defend myself.
Josh: Were they angry that you wrote down what the candidate said and published it? Because it wouldn't be the first time they've gone after a reporter for doing that.
Azi: They said they heard reports that I was using the harsher "dysfunctional" line from the prepared speech. ("There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual.") Which I didn't.
Josh: That would be a pretty rich criticism anyway, wouldn't it? Write what we say, not what we write!
Azi: Caputo, the campaign manager, made the point that the campaign didn't hand out the speech to the public. But Paladino was reading from the same speech that was handed to journos. So it was at least someone that helped him write it. I saw the Newsday reporter turning the page and following along as Paladino delivered it.
Josh: Right. So has Carl Paladino denounced the rogue adviser who committed to writing this slightly stronger version of exactly what he said? Or is a condemnation forthcoming?
Azi: No condemnation forthcoming as far as I know. His campaign manager, in a surprisingly calm conversation with me, said that Paladino's position is the same as the Catholic church's on LGBT stuff and on abortion and challenged me (and I guess the rest of the media) to probe that wedge between Cuomo and the Catholic church. First one to call Donohue wins!
Josh: Will it be a revelation, this daylight between church and state? (I thought we settled that one a while back ... )
Azi: If you've got 20 points to gain on a liberal Catholic candidate, I guess, maybe you figure it's worth revisiting it.
Josh: Hm. Conventional wisdom suggests that attacking Cuomo for his willingness to support public policies that differ from church teaching, in a statewide election in New York, would not be the best way to make up ground.
Josh: Well so, what happened right afterward? In another tweet, you described the rolling-maul press availability after the event as having been somewhat unsatisfying.
Azi: That was the weirdest part, I thought. He walks out, journos following, and he keeps walking, and the sidewalk is narrow, and the photogs are doing the parade round-robin trick: stand, snap as the subject approaches, turn, run 20 paces back, take another stand, repeat. I ran into more than one photog who was doing this.
Josh: And Paladino? Were you asking him anything? Was he saying anything?
Azi: Actually, when I got close to him, and wasn't stepping on photographers, I asked about the three-minute video he released, and whether it had the desired effect.
Josh: Ha. I still don't know what the desired effect was! The tone of voice was "don't be afraid of me, brothers and sisters" but the words amounted to "I WILL END YOU."
Azi: It's amazing, the line he tries walking. Tough and brash and angry yet "live and let live."
Josh: Sounds great!
Josh: So meanwhile I guess this means whatever little chance there was of seeing what Andrew Cuomo looks like when he's forced out in the open is now gone until after the election. I mean, there's nothing Cuomo can do to top this guy.
Azi: Right. This won't do much to shed light on Cuomo's agenda as governor. I almost feel as if I'm going to wind up having to write some apologia after this is all over, for spending so much time on the personality and outrageousness of Paladino rather than the substance of what he and Cuomo are saying.
Josh: It's not just you, and it certainly doesn't serve the public particularly well, to have successive cycles about boxes full of mistress-allegations, and "prowess" speeches and unvarnished expressions of bias.
Josh: But it would have to be a most determined and inventive deadline journalist who could find something new to write about Cuomo that's more interesting than what Paladino says on any given day. It is absolutely a form of rubbernecking to pay him this level of attention, but then again, he's a major-party nominee for governor. And unfortunately for the party that nominated him, it was always going to be extremely hard for his outrageousness not to be the story.
Josh: Do you think you might even miss him a little once the election's over?
Azi: I think any reporter sort of misses something like this when it runs its course. And heading into 2011, with no races in New York, it'll be a year of policy reporting.
Azi: So, a little.