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For Cuomo, term ‘bully pulpit’ takes on a whole new meaning

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A significant part of the job of reporting the news has to do with providing information to the public on various aspects of the work of their government, at every level. That information is not always easy to get, but reporters here at the Times and elsewhere quickly learn the most effective ways to pry information loose.

Technology has helped in this, for certain; a treasure trove of government information is available on the Internet, for example, and email has streamlined the process of using the written word to obtain information. But one method, the method that has been around since cave dwellers chiseled or painted information on the walls of their subterranean homes, has been simply talking to sources.

It’s reliable, it is usually quick, it allows reporters to tailor their questions to what the speaker is saying. It provides the broadest possible range of information because it has no script — you ask, they tell you, you ask again and so forth.

I have been in the newspaper business for more than 40 years and the interview has always been my preferred way of getting the information that I have passed on to the public. When I started in this business, I could call a contact at the state Department of State, or the Department of Agriculture and Markets, or nearly any state agency, and find the person knowledgeable enough to get me the information I needed.

At some point, all these agencies began to filter their contact with the press and public through public information officers, but for a long time, they would listen to my request and then pass me along to the person who knew the answers to my questions.

Some variation of that process existed for state and local governments right up to the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Then, rather suddenly, it stopped. The governor, who has displayed remarkably thin skin for the state’s top elected official, has severely ratcheted down the flow of information, and he has applied remarkable control over the free flow of information both from his agencies, and the local agencies that rely on state assistance.

Our reporter Rebecca Madden, who covers the health and social agencies beat, has seen first hand over the past three weeks just how tightly Mr. Cuomo has squeezed the information pipeline. On two very important stories, this bullying control of information has made it very difficult to give the public important information it really needs to know.

When Rebecca was trying to let people know how to enroll in any of the health insurance plans provided by the Affordable Care Act, she started calling the groups contracted to help the public do that. And what she heard, from every “navigator” agency, was that they’d like to give us the information, but the state Health Department prohibited them from doing so. Then last week, when the North Country Children’s Clinic all but imploded and then was given a last-minute reprieve brokered by the state, Rebecca was told by both the Children’s Clinic and Samaritan Medical Center that suddenly, they could give us no information, that it would have to come from the state Health Department.

When we talk to local agencies that have been hit with a Cuomo administration gag order, their frustration is clear. In about 90 percent of the news stories we publish, we’re giving out what should be readily available information that most agencies and departments want to make public.

But we have been denied access to either the information, or the people that have the information, time after time. Previously reliable spokesmen and women have been forced to tell us that they’ll have to clear the release of that information before they can provide it. When they say clear it, they mean there is a tiny, tightly controlled funnel through which all state information must now squeeze. The directive comes from the state’s Chief Bully, Andy Cuomo, and woe be unto anyone who violates it.

That the governor wishes to control his own press office should be expected. Most of what people seek from the governor’s office is political, and everyone who covers the administration understands that you get what you get when the governor wants to give it.

But state agencies are a whole different kettle of fish – there is, as my buddy Bob Freeman at the Committee on Open Government always preaches, the presumption of openness provided under the state’s Public Officers Law, commonly known as the Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Law. The information of government is presumed to be public, and in most cases, the press provides a significant amount of that information to the public. Access to that information should be available to everyone, without some administration flunky making sure it’s vetted and spun to the greatest advantage of the governor.

The fact that this stranglehold on public information and denial of access to state officials is now trickling down to local agencies ought to scare the devil out of everyone, not just frustrated reporters. Did you REALLY elect Andrew M. Cuomo so that he could tell Samaritan Medical Center officials what they could say to the Watertown Daily Times? I can’t imagine hearing an affirmative answer to that question from anyone.

We’re going to keep pushing against this rising tide of obfuscation and control. We’ve got a lot of skills in prying information loose from tight-lipped officials by going around them and over them and under them, and we’re putting them all in play. The best way to bust the governor’s information logjam is to kick it apart piece by piece, and that’s what we here at the Times, and at every other credible news organization in the state, will do. But I thought you ought to know what a bully your governor has become.

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