Is the pressure getting to Newsday?

››› ››› JOE STRUPP

Did Newsday reassign two reporters after receiving complaints from Steve Levy, the county executive of Suffolk County, New York? Significant evidence suggests that the newspaper -- the largest daily on Long Island -- did, including Levy's own admission that he urged the paper to reassign one of the reporters.

UPDATE: Newsday responds to this article.

In a statement to the website Journal-isms, Newsday editor Debby Krenek responded to this article:

"Our coverage is determined only by sound journalistic practices and judgment. ... No one outside of our news staff influences what we cover or how we cover it. Reporters' assignments have never and will never be made based on outside requests or influence."


Did Newsday reassign two reporters after receiving complaints from Steve Levy, the county executive of Suffolk County, New York?

Significant evidence suggests that the newspaper -- the largest daily on Long Island -- did, including Levy's own admission that he urged the paper to reassign one of the reporters.

This raises serious concerns for the paper's readers and local community leaders, who must be able to trust Newsday's coverage of politics and government.

Some community leaders and Newsday staffers say they have seen Levy's influence at work. They say he has sought to keep comments from sources critical of him out of the paper and that he pounces on the daily when anything negative is written. This could hurt Newsday's credibility, to the detriment of its real shoe-leather reporting.

Since taking office in 2004, Levy has taken a hard line with the press, a fact that has become well-known locally.

Levy has a history of criticizing Newsday's coverage -- writing lengthy letters to reporters that pick at every bit of coverage, complaining to editors, and even calling press conferences to take issue with the paper's work.

At least two reporters assigned to beats that required them to cover Levy -- Bart Jones and Chau Lam -- were reassigned in recent years after he complained about them to Newsday's management, according to sources connected to the newspaper. Neither reporter would comment on the situation for this report, and Newsday officials declined to comment as well.

Lam, a reporter at the paper since 1994, covered county government from 2005 to 2007 before being demoted to covering the city of Babylon in 2007. She has since been reassigned again to a general assignment beat.

Jones covered immigration prior to 2007 and was criticized by Levy for stories that involved his well-known views favoring restrictive immigration. Jones is now on the religion beat.

Levy "absolutely takes exception with stories he doesn't like in ways that are remarkable," says Carl MacGowan, a reporter for Newsday. He is "more vindictive than other politicians."

One Newsday reporter who asked not to be identified said that the paper's management has succumbed to pressure from other political figures as well. "I think that we are too deferential to local elected officials too often. There is a lot of pressure to get a lot of reaction from them up high," the reporter said.

The reporter cited a February 24 story about Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's appointing someone to a top position who had been convicted of attempted bribery in 2005. Instead of focusing on the felony, the headline focused on Mangano's response: "Exec defends hire." That drew angry reactions from some in the newsroom.

But the Long Island political figure who has exerted the most pressure on Newsday has been Levy. Newsday editors did not respond to requests for an answer about the reassignments, but Newsday staffers and community leaders have speculated that Levy's complaints played at least some part. What does that say about how dedicated the paper is to hard-hitting journalism?

"One of the reasons I left is that I don't believe in government by press release," says Paul Sabatino, an attorney who served as Levy's chief deputy from 2004 to 2007. "It was an obsession with the media, and that is not the way government should operate."

But Levy, 50, contends he has had problems with only two reporters at Newsday: Jones and Reid Epstein, a county government reporter. Several staffers say Levy's dislike of Lam's reporting is well-known.

Levy claims Jones fabricated a photo for a story about a person who said county officials made him homeless when they ordered a landlord to vacate an overcrowded home. Levy also says that one of the men whom Jones identified as having been made homeless by the order never actually lived there. Neither complaint drew a correction.

"The bias from Jones was so blatant," Levy says. "He was painting law enforcement as the bad guy."

Jones was contacted for his view, but he did not respond to numerous requests.

Levy says that when he took his complaint to editors in 2005, he suggested that they move Jones to the editorial pages because of his alleged bias.

As for Epstein -- who declined to comment and remains on the county government beat -- Levy says he has taken many quotes out of context.

Levy cites as an example remarks he made on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. At a breakfast that morning, Levy spoke about improvements for the African-American community on the island, noting the increase in the number of African-American police officers under his watch and the benefits of an anti-discrimination law. "Even Shaniqua could file a complaint," he said, according to a Newsday report. The paper later quoted Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director of the NAACP, stating in a letter to Levy: "The ongoing African-American and Hispanic references and stereotypical generalities that were entwined in your remarks are unacceptable, disturbing, and contradicts any commitment to eliminate discrimination."

Newsday columnist Joye Brown was critical when she wrote about the remark: "[R]epeatedly, he shows a penchant for being out of touch with the diverse community he was elected to serve."

Levy says that comment was among those taken out of context by Epstein, adding that he used numerous examples of minorities who would be helped, not just one. "I have still not gotten Newsday to put that in the proper context," he says.

In December 2008, Levy wrote a three-page letter to Epstein detailing specific complaints about quotes taken out of context. In it, he complained about Epstein's "negativity toward the administration" and called for "a more balanced approach in the questioning and what ultimately appears in these articles." Newsday issued no corrections or clarifications based on the complaints in Levy's letter.

One comment that offended many, and one that Levy claims was taken out of context, came after the murder of local Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in 2008. Levy criticized the amount of coverage the story received, saying that in any other county, it would have been a "one-day story."

In June 2007, Levy called a press conference to address a Newsday story in which Epstein had reported that Levy "announced that he would not move to block a day laborer hiring site as long as it's not on county land."

At the follow-up press conference, which included blown-up posters of Newsday stories, Levy sought to make clear he had not announced it, but had responded to a reporter's question. An article about the news conference included clarifications about the facts, but no correction or admission of any inaccuracies. It quoted Levy as saying the paper had a "pattern of bias" in its coverage of immigration.

Local community leaders say Levy's efforts to control the press also extend to others who are quoted or not quoted.

"We have heard he [Levy] tries to keep immigrant rights advocates from being quoted," says Patrick Young, a lawyer who blogs for Long Island Wins, a local immigrant rights group. "As soon as there is some negative story about him, he calls to try to set the record straight."

"Setting the record straight" is an interesting choice of words. If the allegations against Levy and Newsday are correct, "straight" is far from what the record becomes.

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