Media donations to Cuomo campaign exceed $850K

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Cuomo campaign helped by media
Governor Andrew Cuomo. Image: MTA of the State of New York (CC2.0)

Since first running for governor in 2010, Andrew Cuomo has received over 23,000 campaign contributions totalling over $100 million. So vast is the Cuomo campaign chest that it is nearly impossible to keep track of how many interest groups he is indebted to.

Thankfully the Rochester-based Democrat & Chronicle has stepped in and helped out. Recently the newspaper put every campaign donation since 2010 on a searchable database for anyone in the public to access.

There are surprising numbers to be found with enough time and determination. For example, David and Julia Koch (more famous for bankrolling libertarian causes than machine politicians) contributed a combined $62,000 to the Cuomo campaign in 2010.

But most surprising perhaps is the direct financial support Cuomo receives from the media who cover him (or from their related companies). The Cuomo campaign has received at least $850,000 from media conglomerates that own much of New York’s major media, including WNBC, WCBS, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and until recently Spectrum NY1.

(a spreadsheet of all media donations located by News Growl can be found here.)

There is no direct evidence that these contributions indicate bias in coverage, but it will give the impression to many of complicity between big government and big media. And it could be indicative of an accusation many outside political groups regularly make towards mainstream media: a bias towards the two party-duopoly that shuts out insurgent third party candidates from coverage.

Major media donors to the Cuomo campaign

As conglomerates (or subsidiaries of conglomerates), modern media corporations are often spread out over several units which can regularly shift ownership. Still, it is possible to assign most of the Cuomo campaign contributions from the media to six major groups.

  1. Warner Brothers, Time-Warner, and the PAC belonging to their owner AT&T have donated $293,700 to the Cuomo campaign spread over 29 different contributions. Through its Turner Broadcasting System subsidiary, AT&T control CNN. Up until 2016, AT&T controlled local news channel Spectrum NY1 through its Time Warner Cable subsidiary.
  2. Comcast, including its NBC Universal subsidiary, has donated $267,100 spread over 19 contributions. Comcast notably owns WNBC, one of New York City’s major television channels.
  3. The CBS Corporation, including nine other CBS subsidiaries, has donated $87,500 spread over 18 contributions. CBS owns another major New York television station, WCBS.
  4. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, including 21st Century Fox and News Corp, has donated $39,000 to the Cuomo campaign ($25,000 from Fox, $14,000 from News America Incorporated, part of News Corp). Murdoch controlled media include the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, WNYW television, and WWOR television.
  5. Disney, owner of ABC, has donated $24,500 spread over five donations. Disney owns WABC television.
  6. Viacom and its subsidiary Paramount Pictures has donated $60,457.28 over four donations.

An additional $78,000 was contributed by other media, including SONY and Yahoo!.

Besides the vast amount of local New York media these companies control, including five of New York City’s top television news channels, these companies control nearly all of America’s nationally broadcast news. Their holdings include ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. Disney even owns the popular politics news website FiveThirtyEight.com.

Bias, the appearance of bias, or just a big stinking mess?

It would be nonsensical to accuse Fox News or the New York Post of bias in favor of the Cuomo campaign just because of donations by its parent company – if anything the evidence would suggest a bias by these outlets against Cuomo.

But even if there is no evidence of outright bias in favor of a single candidate, there are reasons for voters to be concerned. Media coverage can make-or-break a campaign, and the smaller and more insurgent a campaign is, the more it depends on media coverage to reach voters statewide. If media companies are literally invested in incumbents in particular, and major party candidates in general, this could be having an impact on their approach to third party candidates (whether wittingly or unwittingly).

And, for good or for worse, newspapers and local television stations play an enormous role in state-wide races across the country. They not only determine who gets coverage, but regularly choose who is included in polls and who gets invited to debates.

Polls, debates, and contributions

Tomorrow evening the one and only New York gubernatorial debate will be hosted jointly by WCBS television, and CBS 880 AM radio.* Both outlets have made significant donations to the Cuomo campaign, directly or indirectly, as part of the CBS corporate family. Only Andrew Cuomo and his Republican opponent Marc Molinaro have been invited to take part. The other three candidates on the ballot: Libertarian Larry Sharpe, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, and Serve America Movement candidate Stephanie Miner, have been excluded.

But even beyond this one debate, media contributions pose huge potential conflicts of interest for the media in races across the country and at all levels.

Contributions are regularly used by the media for determining whether or not a candidate deserves coverage. This means the media are in effect helping determine which candidate appears the most viable and therefore which candidate deserves their attention.

Media also regularly determine which candidates are included in polls. In a previous story about polling in the New York gubernatorial race, Marist Poll confirmed to News Growl that it allows its media partners to determine the questions asked in a poll, and cited this reason for leaving candidates out of previous polls. Marist’s most common media partners are WNBC and the Wall Street Journal – both connected to groups who donated extensively to the Cuomo campaign.

Lastly, campaign contributions and polls are often used by the media to determine which candidates should be invited to televised debates (which they often host and administer themselves).

Again, there is no proof of bias. But a system in which the media make contributions to some candidates who are then included in their polls and invited to their debates, but then decides not to contribute to other candidates who are then excluded from their polls and debates, is certainly questionable.

What the candidates say:

News Growl invited each of the five New York gubernatorial campaigns appearing on the November ballot to contribute to this story. As of publication we have heard only from Howie Hawkins of the Green Party, and Larry Sharpe of the Libertarian Party.

Speaking to News Growl in an email, Hawkins said:
“My campaign and the Green Party don’t accept contributions from any for-profit businesses or their PACs and trade associations.
“Of course media company contributions are corrupting — legalized bribery. They want access, favorable regulation, and campaign ad buys.
“That’s why they function like state media for the two-party system of corporate rule.”
Libertarian Larry Sharpe also describes the ties between the incumbent governor and the media in strong terms:
“My poll numbers prove that I could easily walk away with 30% of the vote and win if my name recognition were equal to that of Cuomo. That tells you that people want change, but they are kept in the dark by the media that is paying to play with Cuomo.
“I think it’s no coincidence that Cuomo has accepted hundreds of thousands in donations from big media who then turn around and actively exclude candidates who could actually beat him if given truly fair and unbiased media coverage.
“The media’s job should be to inform the people, not steer the election. They are doing a disservice to the voters and letting the people of New York down.”

The irony of “pay for play” scandal coverage

In today’s New York Post a headline screams: “Bidders cry foul after Cuomo donor lands $1B Coliseum contract.”

Inside the story a quote from a local developer reads, “Aside from reinforcing the considerable public cynicism already attached to this process, the real question remains whether all of this is just a precursor to the county being compelled to explain itself before the taxpayer.”

Ironically, the outrage over Cuomo donors gaining from state projects comes from a media organization that itself donates to Cuomo and benefits from covering him (even if much of that coverage is negative).

Aside from the considerable public cynicism already attached to the media, the real question remains whether all of this is just a precursor to the media being compelled to explain itself before its viewers and readers.

We will wait and see.

Republican Marc Molinaro, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, and Stephanie Miner from the Serve America Movement were all invited to contribute to this article, as was Marist Poll. We did not receive any replies to our enquiries.

* Please note: CBS Radio was sold to Entercom in February 2017 and is no longer, despite the name, part of the CBS corporation. WCBS 880 FM was however part of the CBS corporation during the time when the majority of contributions to the Cuomo campaign were made, including one $5,000 donation made directly by “CBS Radio Corporate.”

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