Is Gov. Cuomo failing the transparency test?

DEC commissioner Joe Martens, standing at left, has endorsed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (seated at right) press policy, arguing that it maintains accurate information. NCPR file photo

Governor Andrew Cuomo is struggling to lock down the increasingly thorny narrative about reasonable press access to state officials.

Which is strange given that he’s invested so much time and energy trying to control that narrative.

The latest salvo comes from Albany Times-Union reporter Jimmy Vielkind, who reveals that the governor’s office is tracking all press calls to far-flung state agencies, routing them through a kind of central clearing house.

[A]ccording to interviews with numerous people familiar with the Cuomo press operation, the freshman Democrat has taken a heavier hand in agency affairs, particularly compared to the two preceding administrations.

Press releases must be reviewed before they are issued, and in some cases agency spokespeople cannot return or acknowledge inquiries without approval. The result, these sources say, has been a more restricted flow of information about state operations.

Team Cuomo has tried to justify this level of control by suggesting that it’s necessary in order provide accurate information.  Here’s DEC commissioner Joe Martens, speaking with the Syracuse Post-Standard.

“We simply want to make sure that any information conveyed to the press is 100 percent accurate, so there’s no miscommunications or understandings,” he said. “We’re very careful about whatever message we send to the public because we want to make sure it’s correct.”

This might be a fair argument to make, if the Cuomo administration could point to any instances where reporters interviewing taxpayer-funded public employees who are experts in their fields had led to some kind of misinformation or inaccurate reporting.

I’ve covered state politics — and a half dozen different state agencies semi-regularly — for a decade and a half.  I can’t think of a single time that that happened.  (It probably has, rarely, but I need to be convinced that it’s a real problem.)

But I can think of dozens of times when information dispatched from high-up in Albany, shaped by the political will of governors and their political staffs, has produced inaccurate, misleading and manipulative information.

And hundreds of times when unnecessary delays and obfuscation limited the public’s access to information.

I know, I know.  It’s always difficult to get the public to care about these “goo-goo” or “good government” issues.

From the lack of campaign finance reform to Cuomo’s continued reliance on Albany’s behind-closed doors “three men in a room” brand of politics, voters generally give a pass to a governor who can get stuff done.

My hope is that this story has real legs.  It’s good for New York and, one would hope, ultimately good for Andrew Cuomo if there is plenty of sunlight on our state government.

13 Responses to “Is Gov. Cuomo failing the transparency test?”

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  1. Paul says:

    “Team Cuomo has tried to justify this level of control by suggesting that it’s necessary in order provide accurate information.”

    Given the way things work nowadays there is probably a lot of truth to this.

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  2. Paul says:

    “Press releases must be reviewed before they are issued”

    Would you ever not do this?

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  3. The public cares about these goo-go issues in theory but it doesn’t really influence their vote at the ballot box. Problem is these underlying issues inform all others. For example, the way in which the gun law was rammed through bothered far more people than the law itself (which was controversial in its own right). Cuomo won’t suffer in NYS because the GOP will probably run another Tea Party nut next year. But sending in his jackboot to bash an ordinary bureaucrat (for PRAISING the administration) is going to be hard to defend on the national stage.

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  4. Paul says:

    Maybe, but i think that lots of people gravitate towards a tight running ship. It seems like people are craving authority these days. The whole gun control thing is a good example.

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  5. dave says:

    If our government agencies were releasing wrong information to the public or, just as bad, if they were releasing information without larger context… people would be just as upset and we would be reading articles about how the administration doesn’t have their act together, how they don’t have control of things, are not leading, that the tail is wagging the dog, and on and on.

    In the end, accurate information is what I care about. Not how it gets to me.

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  6. Mervel says:

    The point of information control is propaganda. The office of the Gov. does not know what is happening at the hundreds of state agencies and hundreds of thousands of employees the state has thus could not have any better information than from the source; the only reason to have this sort of control is political messaging. As Brian points out the information he has gathered has been more accurate coming from the particular agencies than it has coming from the political bosses.

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  7. Mervel says:

    There is a reason that until recently NYS government was ranked as one of the most corrupt state governments in the United States.

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  8. dave says:

    “The point of information control is propaganda.”

    That can be one point of it, yes.

    It certainly isn’t the only reason to do it though.

    Releasing wrong information is really bad. Sometimes it can even be dangerous. Having someone review information before it is released to make sure it is accurate, and includes appropriate context, is how you avoid that.

    As usual, we are talking about finding a middle ground here. Should a mid-level agency head in some corner of the state have the ability to inform the public about very basic issues without going through Albany? Of course. And that is currently the situation in most cases that I am aware of. Should that same person talk to the press about more complex issues, state-level initiatives, or topics that can be misinterpreted or misused absent additional information or proper context? Absolutely not.

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  9. Mary Thill says:

    Brian, Good post. This rings true: “But I can think of dozens of times when information dispatched from high-up in Albany, shaped by the political will of governors and their political staffs, has produced inaccurate, misleading and manipulative information.”

    When I’ve had the luxury of a long deadline, I’ve gone back to field staff who routed me to central press office to ask if they really wanted the official but inaccurate line to represent their agency. Sometimes it’s not a matter of politics or manipulation and the central office simply does not understand an issue.

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  10. Dave: if people believed the purpose of this was really about more accurate information, there would be little controversy. If there’d been a rash of misstatements, this would be an appropriate solution. But as Brian M pointed out, this is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. That’s why there’s controversy… it’s just a further illustration of the governor’s bullying approach.

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  11. The Original Larry says:

    “It seems like people are craving authority these days.”

    No, what people crave is leadership. Either way, neither leadership nor authority excuses the excesses of power-mad, self-important politicians.

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  12. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Does anyone really think we know what goes on in our gov’t? It’s all smoke and mirrors. I get a report from the Comprtrollers office saying the pension fund is in great shape. 2 days later DaNapoli is on TV saying the fund is in a shambles. The BoL reports a big jump in hiring for the last month. 3 weeks later there is a tiny blurb that revised figures show a .2% drop. They report a big drop in people seeking unemployment and 3 days later there is a tiny article on the cause of the drop being that 100K simply stopped trying to find work.

    Smoke and mirrors.

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  13. Jim says:

    King Andy is a master smoke and mirrors magician, creating the public perception of transparency and “getting things done” while consolidating power in the executive branch and generously rewarding his sycophants at taxpayer expense. Ask your legislator, or anyone “in the know” in Albany about his unprecedented power grabs and strong arming of the State agencies. A leader is someone that most willingly follow; his dictatorial, tyrannical style is anything but……

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