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Local papers that pay off politicians?

The Brooklyn Paper
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Follow the money. That old journalistic mantra might be as applicable to Brooklyn’s competitive newspaper market as it was to Watergate, now that the Sheepshead Bay’based Courier-Life chain is revealed to have been giving thousands of dollars to the politicians it routinely covers.

And the chain’s co-publisher, Dan Holt, a resident of Plainfield, NJ, has given tens of thousands more, according to publicly available fundraising records analyzed by the Brooklyn Angle.

Such giving just isn’t kosher, journalistic ethicists said.

“It’s outside the norm of what journalists should be doing,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for Poynter Institute, a respected journalism school and think tank.

“The standard should be that individuals and companies in the media business should refrain from trying to influence the political process. Doing so creates the perception that their news product is biased.”

Courier-Life, which publishes community and ethnic newspapers, shoppers and specialty publications, has been doling out money to candidates’ campaigns for years — at least as far back as 1999, a period for which many records are available online.

In that period, the chain gave:

• $500 to state Sen. Carl Andrews (D–Crown Heights), who is now running for Congress.

• $2,250 to then-state Sen. Vince Gentile (D–Bay Ridge).

• $1,050 to state Sen. Marty Golden (R–Bay Ridge).

• $200 to Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D–Brooklyn Heights).

• $1,180 to Assemblyman Nick Perry (D–Flatbush).

• $2,000 to the speaker of the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver (D–Manhattan).

And Holt’s given considerably more.

Of several officeholders contacted by this columnist, only Andrews responded.

“I think their coverage hasn’t been flattering enough,” Andrews said. “But, seriously, I think their coverage of me has been fair and effective.”

Andrews called Holt “an upstanding resident of the community.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being associated with him,” Andrews said.

Not for Andrews. But journalism watchdogs said Courier-Life’s contributions should raise eyebrows with readers.

“It is certainly unethical for a newspaper that claims to be objective to contribute to the campaigns of politicians it covers,” said Adam Penenberg, a journalism professor at New York University.

The watchdogs said that once readers know that a newspaper has a financial relationship with the pols it covers, editorial decisions become suspect.

For example, was a recent glowing Courier Life story about Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman Vito Lopez —which gushed that Lopez “has managed to accomplish nearly everything he had promised” in cleaning up the tainted party organization — influenced by the $300 contribution the paper chain gave Lopez?

Newspaper companies, like all corporations, are barred from giving money in federal elections — so that’s where Holt comes in.

As an individual, Holt has given far more than his paper chain, covering the federal tab and supplementing the company’s local largess.

Holt’s dolled out $2,250 to Andrews’s congressional campaign, $1,250 to Golden, $2,000 to Gentile, nearly $4,000 to Borough President Markowitz, $2,650 to Rep. Ed Towns (D–Brooklyn Heights), nearly $6,000 to City Comptroller (and Mayoral wannabe) Bill Thompson and $5,500 to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D–Sheepshead Bay).

Published reports have stated that the New York Post is negotiating to buy the Courier-Life chain.

If the deal goes through, that could put Holt in like-thinking company — Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns the Post, is, through its political action committees, the single largest media donor to political candidates and parties, campaign finance records show.

Holt, who is chairman of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and is on the boards of several other Brooklyn organizations, compared himself to Murdoch, and to Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman.

“Both of them give money to candidates,” Holt said.

Holt told the Brooklyn Angle that Courier-Life’s giving “does not interfere with the editorial product.”

And he dismissed the notion that readers would come to see Courier-Life coverage as tainted because of the company’s financial relationship with the politicians it covers.

“We don’t publicize it, so the reader doesn’t know,” he said. “Our reporters are entirely independent of [the company’s] campaign contributi­ons.”

That said, Holt added, “The more informed the public is, the better.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Buying favors?

The Courier-Life newspaper chain, a Sheepshead Bay–based outfit that bills itself as an independent voice, is actually a large donor to many local pols. In addition to direct contributions to politicians, Courier-Life has given $3,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee and $600 to the Brooklyn Democratic organization. Courier-Life Co-publisher Dan Holt — a resident of Plainfield, New Jersey — is also a large contributor, having given tens of thousands of dollars to Brooklyn politicians. Nationally, Holt hedges his bets, giving $2,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee and $1,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Here is a list of just some of the recipients of largesse from the Courier-Life chain or its co-publisher, Dan Holt. — Gersh Kuntzman

CandidateAmountDonor
State Sen. Carl Andrews (D–Crown Heights)$2,750*Dan Holt & Courier-Life
Rep. Vito Fossella (R–Bay Ridge)$550*Dan Holt
City Councilman Vince Gentile (D–Bay Ridge)$4,250*Dan Holt & Courier-Life
State Sen. Marty Golden (R–Bay Ridge)$2,300*Dan Holt & Courier-Life
Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum$1,000Dan Holt
Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D–Bushwick), county boss$300Courier Life
Borough President Marty Markowitz$4,200*+Dan Holt
Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D–Carroll Gardens)$750*Dan Holt & Courier-Life
Rep. Major Owens (D–Crown Heights)$400Dan Holt
Assemblyman Nick Perry (D–Flatbush)$1,180Courier-Life
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D–Manhattan)$2,000Courier-Life
City Comptroller Bill Thompson$5,856*Dan Holt
Rep. Ed Towns (D–Brooklyn Heights)$2,650*Dan Holt
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D–Sheepshead Bay)$5,500*Dan Holt
* Separate contributions are added together / + Plus $600 from Holt’s wife, Rosemary
Source: Federal Election Commission, New York State Board of Elections, New York City Campaign Finance Board



Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at gkuntzman@cnglocal.com
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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