BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith called in to Fred Dicker’s radio show this morning to defend his story about the Cuomo administration’s critical take on reporting by YNN’s Liz Benjamin, one day after Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto appeared on the show to dismiss it as a non-story.
Dicker was admittedly skeptical of the merits of the story, but Smith made the point, in defense of the document as news, that it’s always interesting to see what kind of coverage gets under the skin of the people you’re writing about.
Dicker wondered if the “dossier” was a rogue act by the Governor’s press office that wasn’t done at Cuomo’s behest; Smith seemed doubtful that a governor who is notoriously conscious of his image wouldn’t be involved in such an act of press criticism.
Ultimately, Smith makes the point that a lot of Albany politicos seem to be making these days whenever speculation of a Cuomo 2016 presidential run comes up: If the Governor is offended by the kind of coverage contained in the documents, how will he react to coverage by the national press corps, who can be nasty in really original ways?
Dicker started out by explaining why he thought the story wasn’t one.
FUD: “We’re going to have an interesting show today. We’re going to be joined by one of the guys who’s one of the originators of Politico. Ben Smith, longtime at Politico, before that he was at the Daily News, the New York Observer. Now he’s uh, the, I think, editor in chief of BuzzFeed.”
“We were talking about BuzzFeed yesterday, with Josh Vlasto, from the governor’s office. He was taking exception to Ben Smith’s account of a so-called “dossier,” which was pretty laughable as a characterization. It was a file of some clippings from blogging done by well-known local reporter for YNN Liz Benjamin, that one of the governor’s people had apparently taken up to YNN to complain about her writing they didn’t like it. They had a compendium of her writing with some notes on it. To me, and I mentioned this yesterday, this was one of the silliest stories I’ve ever heard. In the sense that this goes on all the time, I mean, what’s the big deal? Governor’s press office doesn’t like some people, they complain, some of the writing, they complain about it.”
“As long as I’ve been in this business, as long as I’ve been a reporter, that’s a long time, there have been people out there, whether it’s a town supervisor or the school board chairman or the planning board member who doesn’t like a particular story, they call up an editor and complain. And as I noted here yesterday, I’ve had governor after governor directly, and not through staff, but directly, try to get me fired. I mean, that comes with the territory. The idea that it’s a big deal that the governor’s press office tracks reporters and objects to things that they consider to be factually incorrect or malicious, or I guess the term “snarky” was used. I don’t like the word “snarky” because to me I don’t like euphemisms. In journalism we shouldn’t use euphemisms. “Snarky” means nasty. And there’s a lot of nastiness out there. And if they object to that, if they think somebody’s nasty, that’s their right to protest.”
“Then the superiors, the bosses can make a decision whether the complaining politician or complaining businessman or complaining labor leader is right or wrong. This goes on all the time. Big deal.”
Then there were some scheduling SNAFUs. Smith was supposed to call in, but missed his cue and Dicker brought in comedian Randy Credico to warm the airwaves.
At about 18 minutes in, Dicker said,
“By the way, I wish I had Ben Smith’s email address. He’s not signed on, I usually can IM him.”
Credico: “What’s he running from?”
FUD: “No he’s not running, at least I don’t think so. Maybe he was disappointed that he left Politico and Politico wins a Pulitzer prize, Of course they won it for cartooning.”
Credico: “He can’t get one on the Snarkygate can he?”
Dicker got Ben’s email address from Politico reporter Maggie Haberman, wrote Ben a note while he was on the air, and then a short while later,“He just called in, there may have been obviously a mix up of some sort.”
FUD: “Good morning Ben, thanks for being with us.”
Ben Smith: “It was a mixup, Fred, I’m so sorry. I hope you were excoriating me for the last couple of minutes. I deserved it.”
FUD: “No, no I was expressing disappointment that you weren’t with us not excoriating you, I thought you were going to call us, didn’t I send you the number?”
BS: “Yeah, yes.”
FD: “You know what I’ll do is I’ll rearrange what we’re doing to give you more time, to give you a little bit more time because I’d like to give you a chance to respond. You know we had Josh Vlasto on yesterday, he was taking issue with some of your blogging about the so-called “dossier” and I’ve been mentioning as you may have heard, and to me it was not unusual for a governor’s press operation to be tracking what various journalists have done. I’ve had governors try to get me fired repeatedly in the past, so I didn’t think it was that big a deal, so I think you heard Josh or you heard what he said..”
FUD: “Do you think this story’s been blown up out of proportion? Do you think that maybe you contributed to that? What do you think of the critique that came from Josh Vlasto?”
BS: “I mean I don’t want to play media critic but I got this document which I thought offered kind of an interesting glimpse into both into how the Cuomo administration was going after a particular reporter, which, I agree with you administrations do try to get reporters fired, but if somebody tried to get you fired Fred, I would certainly consider that a story.”
FUD: “Now wait a minute I don’t consider that a story, as I said it’s happened repeatedly to me.”
BS: “If Governor Cuomo tried to get you fired I shouldn’t write that? That strikes me as a pretty good story.”
FUD: “If you find out about it that’s one thing, but we, I’m just saying that when it’s happened to me I haven’t publicized it, that’s just something you deal with all the time, don’t you, Ben, get complaints from various groups, haven’t you in the past about your own writings? Has that become a story because they complained?”
BS: “Of course, and I don’t go leaking them to the press, and YNN didn’t talk to me about this, but if somebody inside a press office gives you a document or you obtain a document from somewhere inside a press office that gives you a glimpse of how this stuff works it’s certainly interesting to see behind that curtain, but just to see what they considered what they considered over the line, which was, all sorts of stuff that didn’t strike me as, you know, terribly damaging.”
FUD: “Well, it’s certainly their right, you wouldn’t contest that, to make complaints about people they think are unfair to them? And that’s what this was right?”
BS: “I’m not sure it’s the job of people on state payroll to complain about people who mention the governors political ambition, I guess that’s someone else’s decision, I guess the taxpayers…”
FUD: “Are you serious about that, the taxpayers should have a role in there?
“By the way you did say, is that a Freudian slip, that you were given these documents by someone in the press office?”
BS: “It was like the opposite of a Freudian slip, Fred.”
FUD: “Meaning what? What’s the opposite of a Freudian slip?”
BS: “That it wasn’t revealing at all, I hope.”
FUD: “What was consequential in this dossier? By the way, I thought dossiers were when you do backgrounds on people and try to dig up dirty stuff. You don’t put together their clips and call it a dossier, but what was revealing to you in it that was significant?”
BS: “To me what was revealing is that he had highlighted as “snarky,” that was the thing he said, the criticism he raised seven times, stuff that struck me as just totally par for the course coverage of a public official and particularly things suggesting that public officials sometimes have political ambitions that aren’t totally related to the job at hand.”
FUD: “Well, if it’s gratuitously done that can certainly be considered nasty, if there seems to be malice behind it, and I gather that’s part of what they’re arguing…”
BS: “It didn’t strike me as anywhere near gratuitous and nasty and I do think if Cuomo thinks he’s going to run for president, like, this is the mildest thing he will ever see on the national stage.”
FUD: “Well, I mean, I don’t think they blew it up, it’s not Cuomo doing it, do you think he authorized Bamberger to raise this with YNN? Why would he care very much about a blog coming out of YNN?”
BS: “I mean you obviously covered him more closely than I ever did, but when I dealt with, I mean there’s obviously some politicians like, I think like Governor Pataki, who didn’t obsess about the day-to-day clips, or some like Chuck Schumer who read everything and engage their press staff about everything. In my limited experience, Governor Cuomo is in the category of people who read the news quite closely and cared a lot about what was read and who wrote what and called reporters and kept them on the phone for awhile and was very engaged. So yeah, I would assume that his press staff’s opinion about people pretty much tracks his opinion.”
FUD: “We’re talking to Ben Smith, by the way, whose father is a member of the Court of Appeals here in New York.”
BS: “Full disclosure.”
FUD: “Are you editor in chief of BuzzFeed? What’s your title there?”
BS: “I am editor in chief of BuzzFeed.”
FUD: “…Relatively new position, he came there from Politico. What is BuzzFeed for people who might be curious about it? They can read it, is it BuzzFeed.com?
BS: “We’re trying to build a news organization for the social web for a world in which most people get their news from Twitter and Facebook, not from the front pages of websites, so we’re probably the leading social news organization right now.”
FUD: “Why, other than because you found it an interesting story, would BuzzFeed care about this esoteric story out of Albany where a press secretary to the governor raises some questions about local coverage?”
BS:”Um, I think part of the beauty of covering the social web, it’s not like our front page audience has to care about it. If you can write something that somebody somewhere cares about it, its worth writing, and that’s kind of always been my view and I think probably yours too. An interesting story is an interesting story.”
FUD: “Did you notice the well done little story in the Times today by Tom Kaplan in which he quoted Morgan Hook who had been a press secretary to David Paterson and George Arzt who had been Mayor Koch’s press secretary, saying that this is just stuff that goes on all the time, this is routine, press offices keeping track of various reporters that they think are unfair?”
BS: “Well absolutely. I think it’s interesting to see what press offices think, what kind of coverage gets under people’s skin and bothers them, when they think it’s a big enough deal to complain to some of these editors. I don’t know, if somebody had handed you this document, you wouldn’t have written about it?”
FUD: “I’m not sure, I might have used it in a column, I’m not sure I’d even call it a document. But is there reason to believe, what if you just had a press office that was concerned that the governor wants to get good press, which any governor would want, and didn’t have any communication with the governor about it, but on their own went out and just challenged some journalists and what they were doing? Is that a plausible scenario then, to blame Andrew Cuomo himself?”
BS: “I asked Richard [Bamberger] repeatedly whether Governor Cuomo was involved or was aware of this and he wouldn’t say one way or the other.”
FUD: “Anything more going to come of it then, or is it all over for now?”
BS: “I don’t know, I think, like the story of Cuomo and the press, I was actually kind of surprised the Times picked it up but obviously pleased. That just kind of suggested to me that there’s kind of a level of interest up where you are about that relationship between Cuomo and the press.”
FUD: “Oh sure, I think it’s more though on the part of some members of the press than it is on the part of the public. Wouldn’t you agree with that one?”
BS: “What, the press more interested in media coverage than the public?”
BS: “Perish the thought!”
FUD: “Sometimes there’s a transcendent interest, but in this case I don’t think there is. I mean, Cuomo is a relatively available governor, as you noted he often speaks to reporters on the phone. Some of those reporters should have been around here for say, George Pataki for twelve years, who never spoke to anybody on the phone, unless maybe it was a fundraising call that he made or looking to make an investment in some property. In a way, people may take for granted the relative accessibility of this governor compared to other ones.”
BS: “Um, I think there’s always a push and pull, and there’s certainly a level where executives are kind of damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”
FUD: “Well Ben, very interesting, best of luck, are you feeling any regrets now that Politico won a Pulitzer Prize? I guess it’s their first one, of course they won it just for an editorial cartoon, but nevertheless, any pangs of remorse having left there since they did get this honor?”
BS: “I mean I was really psyched for them that they got it. It’s sort of amazing, people are writing what a sort of shock and surprise it was that online outlets were getting Pulitzers, but it feels to me like that’s, I don’t know, just the world we live in.”
FUD: “The Future.”
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