At the heart of the Moreland Commission scandal lies a firm so shrouded in mystery, news stations won't touch it with a hazmat suit on. Even MSNBC, that bastion of progressive television, specializing in governors-gone-wild reportage of late has not seen fit to delve into the dealings of Buying Time, one of the "subpoena proof" companies made infamous in the NY Times' July 23 bombshell "Cuomo's Office Hobbled Ethics Inquiries by Moreland Commission".
WHAT WE KNOW: Cuomo's top aide Larry Schwartz is alleged to have ordered the withdrawal of subpoenas to Buying Time and the Real Estate Board of NY. We know Schwartz instructed the commission to investigate legislators, but lay off the governor. We know Cuomo then aborted his much-ballyhooed corruption crusade amidst inexplicable secrecy, after commissioners followed the money trail right to Cuomo's "backdoor". Then, another aide Joe Percoco reportedly pressured Moreland commissioners to get in line even as US Attorney Preet Bharara was announcing an investigation of Cuomo's handling of the commission.
But supposedly "media-savvy" New Yorkers still don't know jack-squat about Buying Time, the DC based political ad-buying/strategy shop at the center of the controversy. We only learned of them because Cuomo's office wanted them un-subpoenaed, but who are they?
Described as "off limits" by the NY Times, Buying Time has served the DNC and the biggest Democratic races going back to Clinton/Gore '96, Gore/Lieberman '00 and Kerry/Edwards '04, later handling Cuomo's 2010 campaign. The company is located at the nexus of high-profile politics and broadcast media ad-purchasing, that nebulous, shadowy place where candidates hand millions in campaign funds over to media companies who not only run ads for them, they also cover their campaigns in so-called news departments, shaping public opinion as they decide who gets air time.
For Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu, two constitutional law professors running for office to expose the culture of corruption in Albany, the mass media could well decide this race in the next few days.
NO COVERAGE FOR FREE: With Cuomo unwilling to debate, a breakthrough into prime-time TV news coverage, or a national magazine cover might be the overnight cure for Teachout/Wu's anemic name-recognition. But will our market-driven media ecosystem ever allow NY to hear about this populist super-ticket? The answer to this might also lie in the murky unknowns of the Buying Time scandal.
Considering the lack of media covering Buying Time's activities, it's instructive to look at Buying Time's own website which trumpets it's "intimately negotiated buys", offering a "strategic winning edge for your advertising campaign" in radio, TV, print and digital advertising venues of all sizes. They crow about their "established relationships with media outlets" and placing "special emphasis on the competitive tracking of all aspects of your opponents' media buys".
But Buying Time also curiously boasts "knowing our competition's advertising plan and message in advance provides you with essential information". We wondered how they could know these things, until we read that their staff promises to "pressure traffic manager at stations" to faithfully execute orders on their client's behalf, again to "provide the edge over competitors".
UNTIL THEY DIDN'T: Cuomo reportedly turned over $20 million to Buying Time with $4 million more supplied through the Democratic Party, a healthy budget for them to use to get their work done. But now Buying Time is giving Cuomo his money back, with a $91,000 refund reported last week. Recent campaign spending disclosures indicate that Cuomo is now using the services of AKPD Message & Media, President Obama's preferred ad-buying agency, paying them over $1.2 million over a three week period.
GAME RIGGED: With over 90% of Cuomo's donations made by wealthy donors, isn't this campaign-to-media pipeline a convenient vehicle for politicians and their corporate backers to influence the networks? Everyone knows Cuomo has tens of millions to spend, the question is which stations will give him the most bang for the buck?
If broadcasters and news websites have lucrative financial relationships with campaigns through aggressive, competitive ad-buying consultancies, it raises questions - do the millions spent actually provide an "edge" as Buying Time suggests? For example, if they pump traffic managers for privileged information about a competitor, that's one thing, but could the cash avalanche also affect newsrooms? Could intrepid reporters who are supposed to serve the public interest be ordered to squash stories and interviews during campaigns?
I had to imagine this was happening the other night, when the NY Times' shock endorsement of Tim Wu for lieutenant governor and non-endorsement of Cuomo were red-hot stories, All In with Chris Hayes, having exhausted Ferguson stories for days and days, actually aired a segment on airline seats. This was notably odd because just a few weeks ago, Hayes rushed to get Zephyr Teachout onto prime-time cable before anyone else, in a highly condensed 4-minute segment.
Hayes' network did give Teachout daytime exposure on "The Cycle" and plenty of air time in a little-seen segment with Dorian Warren, a virtually unknown MSNBC host. But in all-important primetime hours, Rachel Maddow was instead breaking news of scandal-plagued governors Rick Perry and Bob McDonnell during this same time period. We have long wondered whether such coverage decisions are made by hosts like Maddow and Hayes themselves, or are perhaps directed by much-richer executives or well-connected advertisers. We can only imagine the exchanges, thanks to non-disclosure agreements typical at large networks.
A range of critics called out the MSNBC wonk-triumverate of Maddow, Hayes and Steve Kornacki for weeks of sustained coverage of Republican Chris Christie's Bridgegate saga, yet only fleeting mention of Democrat Andrew Cuomo's Moreland scandal closer to home. Up and down the dial on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and others, Moreland hasn't been explored at all, perhaps a product of Buying Time's "established" relationships with major media.
LOOK, A FISH: It's been noticed that Cuomo has ramped up official press releases since the Moreland mess began, setting records for the amount of statements about ho-hum bill signings, ribbon cuttings and state-issued fishing licenses. Cuomo's recent trip to Israel also was packaged into a very campaign-like video by his executive staff, prompting comparisons to Chris Christie's "Stronger Than The Storm" ads paid for by Sandy relief money. Primary opponent Randy Credico announced at a Democratic forum in Westchester that Cuomo indeed uses the same ad production agencies for official state and campaign business.