Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cuomo Drowning in "Hallway Chatter":
Score Another for NY's Unchecked Capture

“I think the landowners’ consultants and the lobbyists for the pro-fracking groups would be better advised to spend their time actually getting out information to allay the fears of the people of this state than worrying about hallway chatter...  Their job is to communicate to the people of the state, to say that this is a safe process, to be open and available. And that’s what they should be doing.”
This is a testy New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday, March 11, 2013, during an exclusive exchange with Gannett's Jon Campbell.

The astounding thing to me is that nobody seems to have tried to interpret the heart of this pique.  Most observers readily understand Cuomo's complaints that the pro-drilling side has long ago lost the PR war, at least provincially.

But I want to tell you what I think the rest of it means.

First, here's the background: 

Michael Gormley of the Associated Press's Albany branch had dropped a weekend story March 2 or so.  In that piece, well-heeled downstate environmental activist, ex-Cuomo brother-in-law, and former natural gas supporter Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. led a committee of named and unnamed sources in painting a word-picture in which the Grappling Governor in a Blue Singlet had finally been turned on fracking.

According to these preposterously unreliable sources, Cuomo had hung up the phone with Junior and decided that New York would now embrace another year or more of continued delay — politically justified by the "sounds reasonable" desire to await the results of three or more expert studies of the Fracking = Negative Health Impacts hypothesis.

(Never mind that such results were years off, that some of the studies were envisioned to run more or less continuously, and that, even before the ink was dry on the research contracts, anybody who had spent any time even just leaning against the Ivory Tower could predict in advance that all of these studies would — in the end,
no matter the results — unanimously conclude with impassioned pleas for funds to support further study.  Science just goes on and on and on like that, with its hand out, and the world always partly uncertain.)

At the time of Gormley's construction, or shortly thereafter, there were some feeble denials from the Cuomo camp.  But nobody seemed to pay them much attention — not even the pro-frackers, whether they be industry, upstate landowners, or simply people who philosophically identify New York's human economy as the state's Biggest Fish to Fry.  Instead, Cuomo's last pillar of support for a rational, science-based, even-excessively-cautious regulatory scheme to check the actual, real-world impacts of a somewhere-necessary enterprise — the same as New York handles any other necessary enterprise — all that crumbled over the weekend due to lost faith, lost confidence, and lost patience.

The landowners were finally getting ready to wrap themselves in the American flag, hold up a copy of the Constitution, and sue for the taking of their property rights as an economically oppressed political minority — something I wish they could have found a way to do years ago. 

The loss of heart suffered by the regular people of New York was only confirmed by the tale from Kennedy and the green contingent, as told to a complicit AP.

That's what Cuomo, a week or so later, is reported to be upset about.  That's what Cuomo's reacting to when he decries the impact of "hallway chatter."  Neither Cuomo nor his specialist deputies have actually openly said shit — other than the usual science-and-facts-not-emotion shit.  But the pro-fracking side bought into the "hallway chatter," and continued a turn much more aggressively against his administration.

Mister "Open For Business."  The Ditherer.  Hamlet on the Hudson, Version 2.0.  The pro-drilling side had never really approached sarcasm previously — preferring instead to preserve a respectful relationship with both its hoped-for leader and its hopeful demographic.  It's the same reason that NPR's "Says You" and other weekend entertainments for the bookish left remarkably never, ever, ever make a joke at President Obama's expense.  It's just bad form, when you still have hopes of getting something.

Now, for the pro-drilling side, the hope is gone, and the sarcasm fills the vacuum.

Yesterday, with a remarkable lack of play statewide, the AP got around to contrarily reporting that Cuomo and his Health Department chief Nirav Shah were, in fact, saying New York's shale gas decision would not be unwisely and impractically hinged to a waiting game for further expert study results.  Cuomo and Shah said they never said that.

Now we have a chance to look back at Gormley's original piece and see that it was effortlessly planted, by one side in this debate, to run as The Inside Story, and that both sides were very successfully lulled into believing it:  The opposition because the story played to what they wanted to hear, and the proposition because it played to their deepest conspiratorial fears.  If you're able to establish the fictional narrative that the cat's out of the bag, maybe not even Cuomo will be able to summon the power, the courage, or the skills of leadership to hold onto the actual cat in the bag.

Gormley's original AP piece is truly a testament to the unchecked power of New York's environmental community to shape this state's provincial news, to control the narrative of its political conversation, to sculpt truth, and to get its stuff done.

The word that comes to my mind is "captured."

"Captured" is a word that has been traditionally used by the left to describe
the seamless way in which publicly spirited institutions, such as the press, do the bidding of monied, conservative special interests.  When it works smoothly, it's not really about favors, payoffs, or arm-twisting; it's really more of a cultural thing, a social rewards things, a group-think thing, a shaming thing, a peer-pressure thing. 

It's more about "How could you?"  As in, "How could you write that terrible story about how wonderful fracking will be for Upstate New York?"  Most working reporters in New York occupy a Bookstores, Coffee Shops, and Nifty Bars social class in which the courage to entertain certain Objective Facts from the Outside World simply brings too much grief — the same grief Cuomo has been dealing with since taking over as governor from David Patterson. 

You gotta be a conscientious iconoclast like the New York Post's Fred Dicker to devote yourself to taking the air out of that kind of pressure.

In New York, we've come full circle on "capture":  Most in-state media have long been "captured" by monied special interests disguised as environmental activism.  Of course, there are elements of ideology to this faction, but at the heart of this conflict it's mostly a war of both lifestyle and class that one side is in the process of winning. 

There's no justice for the losers.  Their losses are not even defined as an injustice.

In New York, public radio,
most of what's left of daily city-based journalism, and even a statewide news collective such as the AP — all function as branch offices of the Ithaca or Lower Hudson mindset.  Their preferred sources are protected by a heroic shroud of "good government."  Their preferred sources are only concerned about the environment, not about maintaining a particularly blessed, rule-laden lifestyle for their base, at the expense of others without advanced degrees.  Their preferred sources are not ideological; they're about doing the right thing.

The other side is only about ugly destruction and unseemly profit.  It's not about balanced regulation, property rights, working for a living, opportunity, hope, paying your bills, playing by the rules, or technological evolution, and the freedom to adapt to it. 

Oh, what a cage for New York!