A top aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo assembled a 35-page dossier on the work of an Albany political reporter considered hostile to his administration, highlighting any shred of criticism in a document that reflects the intense sensitivity of a governor on the brink of taking the national stage.
The document was provided to BuzzFeed by a New York City political operative who said he believes it reveals Cuomo’s “scary dark side.” And the document does offer a glimpse into Cuomo’s obsessive and often difficult relationship with the media who cover him. Communications Director Richard Bamberger, who acknowledged preparing the document, called it “meaningless” and “garbage,” while warning that its leak set a “dangerous precedent.”
The file, composed of highlighted and annotated blog items by Elizabeth Benjamin, one of Albany’s dominant political reporters, paints a picture of an executive branch that’s particularly averse to hints that Cuomo could be, as is widely assumed, conidering running for president in 2016. The document focuses particularly on seven items it describes as “GENERALLY SNARKY,” including one in which this passage is highlighted:
“The governor has already been speculated to harbor White House aspirations himself — an effort that would enable him to surpass the record of his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who contemplated, but never went for, a presidential run.”
Other sections of the document highlight any language that could possibly be interpreted as critical of Cuomo, much of it innocuous by most standards: The highlighted passages include Benjamin characterizing the Governor’s phrase “celebration on 9/11” as “an interesting choice of words” and her writing that he “declined to put even a ballpark figure on the coast of storm clean-up.”
Seven of the items are labeled “GENERALLY SNARKY”; an eighth, about parking placards, is given as an “Example of poor reporting/Inadequate fact-checking before distribution.”
Bamberger wrote in an email to BuzzFeed that preparing a document taking objection to such language “is as usual and customary as can be.”
“The only ‘news here is how my discarded papers, garbage literally, wound up in the possession of Ben Smith. In my 17 years as a journalist, I never condoned stealing personal documents. These are meaningless documents but they could have been important papers and it is a dangerous precedent,” he wrote.
Bamberger said the document was prepared for a meeting last fall between Bamberger, generally viewed as the most media-friendly of Cuomo's aides, and a top Cuomo confidant and campaign pollster, Andrew Zambelli; and senior executives at YNN, a Time Warner Cable subsidariy that provides local cable news programming to most of New York State, on which Benjamin hosts the public affairs show Capitol Tonight, also the title of her blog.
Bamberger declined to respond to the question of whether Cuomo himself shared the views reflected in the document or had been aware of the meeting with YNN or the complaints about Benjamin, but the governor is legendarily involved in every detail of his own press coverage.
Indeed, the documents’ main value is in highlighting the intense sensitivity in Cuomo’s office to even the shadow of criticism or hint that politics could be taking place in the hallowed halls of the statehouse. Even as Cuomo edges toward the far more intense public scrutiny of the national stage in an anticipated presidential bid in 2016, he has created what is, even for the typically difficult statehouse relations between press an executive, an unusually tense standoff with the statehouse press corps.
The website Capital New York, for instance, recently catalogued the invective Cuomo’s spokesman, Josh Vlasto, has hurled at a range of outlets, including staid mainstream sources like the Associated Press (“The Associated Press has now decided to fabricate stories…”) and the Wall Street Journal (“conspiracy theories”). Cuomo’s critics view the conflict as a reflection of the governor’s own most suspicious and combative instincts, which were reflected in a disastrous and bitter 2002 campaign for the same office.
"This is a glimpse at the old Andrew Cuomo we all knew and hated,” said the New York City politico who provided the documents to BuzzFeed. “He has worked hard to keep this scary dark side at bay, but every now and again it reveals itself, and it's ugly. The secret dossier on Liz Benjamin is the stuff of Richard Nixon and Eliot Spitzer.”
“One has to wonder if similar dossiers are being put together on other reporters,” he said.
Bamberger said that there are not files on other reporters. He also denied that the Benjamin document constituted a “file.”
But Cuomo’s press management has been a political success: His public approval ratings, two years into a job that destroyed the careers of his predecessors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, is at an all-time high at more than 70% of New Yorkers approving of his job performance, according to a recent poll from the Siena Research Institute.
Benjamin, Albany’s first major political blogger and a former staffer for the Albany Times Union and the New York Daily News, is a statehouse fixture, its most prominent female reporter and the longtime rival of the dominant Albany media player, the New York Post’s Frederic Dicker. Dicker laid low Cuomo’s two predecessors in a series of scandals (though the The New York Times broke the news of the prostitution arrests that ended Spitzer's career), and has been the target of Cuomo’s courtship for the better part of a decade. His warm relations with the governor have drawn protests outside the reporter’s office from liberal groups, and he’s been granted singular access for a biography of Cuomo.
Benjamin, by contrast, has been among the reporters on the receiving end of the ire of the executive branch, with Cuomo himself making a single appearance on her show.
The leaked document offers a glimpse at why: In innocuous clauses and mild criticism, the Administration appears to see a media enemy.
Neither Bamberger nor YNN’s Senior Director of News Operations, Anthony Proia, would discuss the details of their meetings, or what action, if any, they sought against Benjamin for her alleged snark. YNN appears not to have taken any action against her.
“Capital Tonight provides in-depth coverage of state government year-round,” Proia said in an emailed statement. “Our reporting speaks for itself."
Benjamin declined to comment in detail on the documents or her relationship with the Cuomo Administration.
“I don't comment on the tenor of my relationships with elected officials, but after 15 years in this business, my work speaks for itself,” she said in an email.