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September 15, 2020 - 4:22pm

EDITORIAL: The Batavian will not be bullied by politicians

posted by Howard B. Owens in Nate McMurray, NY-27, news, notify.

img_2624itsathreat.jpg

Nate McMurray, candidate for the NY-27 congressional seat in this November's election, threatened me this past weekend.

The threat wasn't the first one McMurray has leveled at me.

The first threat was on a phone call on Feb. 16. That was the day we published this story: McMurray tweeted about his employer but mostly after he was put on unpaid leave.

Feb. 16 was also the first day in my professional journalism career, which goes back to 1986, that a candidate for public office, at any level, yelled at me over the telephone. To be honest, I shouted just as loud in my rejoinder. It was heated. I'm sure profanity was involved. It was a bizarre and disturbing conversation to have with a man who claims he's the best person to represent us in the House of Representatives. 

I don't have a recording of this conversation. Perhaps McMurray will release the recording he suggested he made. He has intimated -- part of his course of threats against me -- that he records all of his conversations.

I'm not sure what to say about a man who records all of his conversations without informing the other party. It's legal in New York. That doesn't make it ethical.

This conflict arose from a story we published Feb. 15: Nate McMurray's employer, owned by the family of his NY-27 opponent, placed him on leave without pay.

The story prompted Michael Caputo -- an Erie County resident, longtime Republican political strategist, and one of the early media supporters of The Batavian (he had me on his former television show once) -- to post a tweet suggesting I wasn't a real journalist for not including the assertion that McMurray was potentially placed on leave because of use of twitter to criticize Delaware North.

I immediately called Caputo and complained about the tweet but also admitted he was right: I should look at the timing of McMurray's tweets criticizing Delaware North. Caputo apologized for his rash tweet, and I believe he deleted it. (I can't confirm this because Caputo deleted all of his tweets after he joined the Trump Administration as assistant secretary of public affairs for Health and Human Services.)

I informed McMurray I intended to do a follow-up story. McMurray questioned my judgment. I told him -- as I remember it, but McMurray has the recording, not me -- that Caputo's criticism was valid. As a matter of journalistic ethics, I should look at those tweets. I also made the statement, as quoted back to me in a later text message by McMurray, "I do not want to deal with Caputo's army. I don't want these people on my back." I trust the accuracy of McMurray's quote since he apparently has a recording that I don't have.

As a Democrat, I'm sure McMurray is familiar with the concept of "cancel culture" -- the practice of bands of political extremists piling on people on Twitter to demean and threaten them, even threaten their livelihoods and personal safety, to enforce some perceived politically correct orthodoxy. It's not just a leftist thing. Trump supporters do it, too.

While I'm on friendly terms with Caputo, I also know the most single-minded of Trump supporters follow him on Twitter. Caputo is nothing if not expert at stoking the passion of Trump's base (as I think this New York Times article out yesterday illustrates (since this coverage, it appears Caputo has deleted his Twitter account)).

Any sane person would want to avoid getting "canceled" by the paranoid and angry mobs of either the left or the right. 

But that isn't the reason I wrote the story I did. Caputo had a legitimate point about the ethics of not including that information. It was something that I didn't even think about while working on the first story. It was an oversight that needed to be corrected.

My concern about Caputo was real, but that wasn't the reason I pursued a follow-up story. If I thought Caputo wrong about our failure to look a little deeper, I wouldn't have cared what he tweeted, but I saw no reason to volunteer for abuse in a situation where I had no real defense against his accusation.

There is a reason I never married the girl I dated in college. McMurray's twisting my statement into some a charge of capitulation to Caputo reminds me of her. She was an expert at turning an innocuous statement into an argument. It's what manipulators do.

The ironic thing is, the follow-up article, I contend, was quite favorable to McMurray. It showed Delaware North didn't suspend him because of his tweets. The tweets mocking the Jacobs family and Delaware North all came after McMurray's leave of absence began.

So while Caputo was right on the journalistic ethics of not looking at that aspect of events, he was wrong on the facts of the case.

Still, McMurray was angry. In our Feb. 16 call, he threatened to expose me as a toady to Michael Caputo. I loudly suggested to him that would be a bad idea, and he backed down.

Over the course of his threats, McMurray has questioned my journalistic credibility, calling me an activist. The insinuation is that I'm in the pocket of either Caputo or Jacobs, or both, or that I have a secret anti-McMurray, pro-GOP agenda.

The funny thing is the frequent commenters on Facebook who, every time we publish one of McMurray's press releases, try to engage in their own form of cancel-culture attacks on me and The Batavian, all think I'm on McMurray's payroll.

McMurray conveniently ignores the fact that early in the 2018 campaign, The Batavian was the first publication in the district to take his candidacy seriously. We did the first substantial interview with him.

Covering McMurray has never been about McMurray's politics. He's a candidate for federal office. He deserves to have his voice heard. It would be unethical to deny him a platform to be heard. It's why we publish all of his relevant press releases no matter how inane I might find them personally. We've done nothing in publication but treat him fairly.

Even after these attacks from McMurray started, we showed up at one of his campaign events and published a video that most would think reasonably and accurately captured the event with no anti-McMurray spin.

I suspect McMurray's anger about the Feb. 16 article had more to do with the fact that I quoted Caputo at length in the story than the fact that I did a follow-up.

I already knew McMurray hated Caputo. He had made his animosity clear months earlier in a private dinner meeting at Eli Fish Brewing Co. I also knew Caputo hated McMurray. More than once, he's said to me, "McMurray is a punk."

The next conflict came up around June 16, when we published five video interviews with the candidates in the NY-27 special election. McMurray proudly tweeted out a link to his interview with The Batavian but falsely claimed that Jacobs refused to submit to an interview. I retweeted his tweet and pointed out this error, linking to the interview with Jacobs.

Within minutes, McMurray started sending text messages. Among his claims, that I had told him that Jacobs had refused to sit for an interview. I never told McMurray any such thing. I can guarantee you, McMurray has no recording to support that assertion. He also said, accurately, that I would inform him once I had secured an interview with Jacobs. I neglected to follow through on this promise, which I had forgotten about until he reminded me.  

Be that as it may, I would expect a candidate for federal office to be informed enough about the media coverage of his own race to know when an interview is posted with his chief rival before making a claim that is falsifiable. How he could have missed an interview with Chris Jacobs on the home page of the best-read news source in Genesee County is something I can't explain.

Our ensuring testy text exchange included McMurray stating, "Time to start calling you out, Bro," followed by "I got tape."

To me, this was another threat. It was another attempt at extortion, another attempt to bully me into not bucking McMurray's campaign narrative. 

Later in July, there was the debate about whether Genesee County is a "news desert," the latest trendy phrase among media pundits about rural counties without sufficient local news coverage.

Margaret Sullivan is the former editor of the Buffalo News. Currently, she is a media columnist for the Washington Post. Earlier this year, she published a book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.

According to excerpts of the book (such as this one from The Atlantic), Sullivan quotes McMurray about local coverage of his 2018 campaign against then-incumbent Chris Collins. As you may recall, Collins was under federal indictment -- charges he would eventually admit to -- for insider trading and lying to the FBI.

But in the more far-flung parts of the sprawling congressional district, voters were far less informed. The largely rural and suburban district includes Orleans County, which, according to Abernathy’s criteria, is a news desert—one of just a few in New York State.

“I’d be going door to door, or meeting with people at a diner or a fair, for example, and in the most isolated areas, a lot of people had no idea that their own congressman had been indicted,” McMurray told me. Orleans County, west of Rochester, he said, was “one of the toughest places.” Some people didn’t even know who Collins was, and many were incredulous when McMurray told them of the federal charges.

“People told me I was making it up,” said McMurray. That shouldn’t have been the case, given that television news stations in both Rochester and Buffalo were giving plenty of airtime to the scandal as it developed, and those stations were available throughout the district. Nevertheless, the constituents lacked access to the in-depth coverage that a newspaper would have provided. At one time, almost everyone in the district had ready access to print editions of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle or The Buffalo News, or were within easy reach of smaller newspapers in nearby Niagara Falls or Lockport.

This inaccurate take on the 2018 election was not only insulting to Tom Rivers, editor of Orleans Hub, but to me, as the publisher of The Batavian. I complained to The Atlantic, The Washington Post, which also Margaret Sullivan, first on Twitter, and then when she didn't respond, via email.

I believe these assertions are demonstrably, factually wrong. I believe corrections are in order -- and are still in order -- for the book, and these other august publications.

The Batavian reaches at least 70 percent of our market -- Genesee County -- every week. Our readership is 10,000 to 12,000 area residents per day. On a market-size-adjusted basis, the Buffalo News would love to reach as many people as The Batavian. In the past 10 years, we've published more than 900 items about the 27th district. While Jerry Zremski, of the Buffalo News, did Pulitizer-Prize-worthy work in uncovering the corruption of Chris Collins, an investigative enterprise, a publication like The Batavian could never hope to duplicate. I do believe our coverage after his indictment was as robust and thorough as any news publication in Western New York. And I know Tom Rivers covered the case thoroughly as well.

There is simply no way that one single voter in either Genesee or Orleans counties went to the polls in November 2018 without knowing Rep. Chris Collins stood accused of federal crimes.

I heard locally many times in 2018 that people would prefer to vote for a Republican accused of insider trading and lying to the FBI than vote for a Democrat, no matter how much that Democrat might admire Ronald Reagan.

I tried to make this clear to Sullivan. Still, her response was, "Nate McMurray was emphatic, in our interview, that he encountered a surprising number of people in some parts of the district (we specifically discussed Orleans) who weren't aware of Chris Collins' indictment. He tied this to news coverage."

In other words, if there were going to be any retraction of these bogus claims of misinformed voters, it would have to come from McMurray.

So I sent a text message to McMurray about his quote, and the conversation soon devolved into an argument about my journalism bona fides and how I had, in his view, capitulated to Caputo. He mentioned the "tape" again.

"You actually said that bro," after I accused him of lying about the substance (not the statement itself, as quoted above, but the meaning) of my comment, "and maybe I record all my calls."

It's evident to me that Nate McMurray, much like Donald Trump, will browbeat and bully reporters who won't genuflect at his feet. If the coverage isn't fawning, it's fake news. If the journalists report the truth, they're an enemy of the people. This is the mindset of the narcissist and the authoritarian. 

We saw it on public display when McMurray blasted the Buffalo News for reporting on his unhinged tweets attacking Democratic leadership.

Apparently, in McMurray's world, when the press cover's Trump deranged tweets, it's news. When the press covers McMurray's off-the-wall tweets, it's "gossip."

What set off McMurray this weekend was my response to one of his tweets about a campaign appearance in Batavia without appropriate notification to the local news outlets. 

So I tweeted, "Another politician avoiding the media."

It didn't take but seconds for McMurray, who seems to be obsessed with Twitter, to send me a text message, setting off another argument leading to another threat (screenshot at the top of this editorial). He claimed in the course of the argument that the event wasn't public, but the pictures show it took place at DeWitt Recreation Area. And he posted pictures about it on a public forum. To claim it was a private event is disingenuous. He used a public space and publicized it after the fact in an open forum.

In my jurisdiction, when a candidate for state or federal office makes a public appearance locally, the local media should be notified; otherwise, the candidate is merely dodging public scrutiny. That shouldn't happen in a democracy. In the age of Trump, it's all that much more important to cling to these democratic norms.

And for those who think I might just be picking on McMurray, earlier this month, we received a press release from Rep. Chris Jacobs about his tour of GCASA. While GCASA is essentially private property, the fact that Jacobs thought it public enough to issue a press release about it makes it clear, it was a public event.

The press should be informed of his visit. The fact no invites went out to local reporters is, to me, a clear indication Jacobs wishes to avoid any tough questions about his time, thus far, in office. I can assure you, Jacobs' staff heard a detailed complaint from The Batavian about this failure to inform the local media about his visit to a location in Genesee County.

The fact is, Nate McMurray and Donald Trump are more alike than McMurray will ever acknowledge. Both claim to be men of the people (I'm reminded of the song by The Blasters, Common Man) but are elitist -- Trump by his money (no matter how overstated his actual wealth) and McMurray by his big-corporation attorney pedigree. Both love the media limelight. Both use Twitter to cultivate devotees. Both are narcissists with authoritarian tendencies. Both blame others for their failings and never acknowledge their mistakes. Both attack reporters who dare to tell the truth about them or challenge them in any way.

If you're among those who support either of these men, fine. It's a free country. We don't cover Donald Trump, but we do cover the NY-27, as well as several other local political jurisdiction, and we want to make it clear, The Batavian won't be bullied by any politician. 

We've never been afraid of politicians. We weren't scared when Jane Corwin refused to answer questions about the conduct of her campaign. We weren't fearful of Kathy Hochul when her campaign misquoted our interview with Chris Collins. We didn't cower when Chris Collins ran away from our interview attempts.

If Nate McMurray thinks he can bully us in order to keep us covering him without fear or favor, this editorial should emphatically answer that question. He can't.

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The tweet that prompted Nate McMurray's most recent threat against The Batavian.

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McMurray misrepresenting the reason for our follow-up story about his being put on leave by Delaware North.

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The messages from McMurray after my tweet about him saying Jacobs refused an interview. Note, "Time to start calling you out bro" and "I got tape."

UPDATE 7:20 p.m.: Here is McMurray's text message in response to this piece. He's also blocked me on Twitter.

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