How Welfare King Richard Schwartz Landed at the Daily News

What is the New York Daily News ? Is it the paper of New Yorkers like Pete Hamill, the old-fashioned, brass-knuckled newspaperman who has returned, almost comically–like Billy Martin strolling again through Yankee Stadium’s gates–for yet another ride at the tabloid?

Or is the News the paper of New Yorkers like Jim Dwyer, the passionate, two-time Pulitzer winner who made a reputation as a steadfast chronicler of the common man–but who recently stunned his colleagues when word slipped that he is fleeing to the elite confines of The New York Times ?

Or is the News the paper of people like Richard Schwartz, the acerbic yet powerful former Giuliani aide who was just picked–despite having no journalistic experience whatsoever–to take over as the paper’s editorial-page editor?

Whose tabloid is this, anyway? Struggling for definition, losing old friends, hiring old enemies– and back once again, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Pete Hamill! –it’s been a wild week at the News headquarters on West 33rd Street.

The first bombshell landed on Feb. 27, when it was announced that Mr. Schwartz would be taking over as editorial-page editor, a position that had been vacant since the former holder of that title, Michael Goodwin, took over as senior executive editor in April 2000.

For city reporters accustomed to getting the big blow-off from the former Mayoral aide and workfare consultant, Mr. Schwartz’s appointment was like hearing that the school bully got picked to be hall monitor. “I just find the thing very, very odd,” said one City Hall reporter. “I can’t for the life of me figure it out.”

But plenty of others chirped and speculated that there had to be ulterior motives for hiring Mr. Schwartz, who despite his accomplishments in public policy is as green as a 21-year-old copy boy. Was Mr. Schwartz there as a favor to Mr. Giuliani? Would his selection give the paper’s publisher, real estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman, increased muscle in city affairs? Was there– gasp! –a secret quid pro quo?

“He has vast experience and knowledge of public policy and could translate his experience onto the editorial page,” was how News spokesman Ken Frydman, himself a former Giuliani campaign flack, explained the hiring of Mr. Schwartz.

But what about Mr. Schwartz’s lack of journalistic experience? “He was hired because he met the criteria,” Mr. Frydman said. And what were the criteria? “Well, you can assume he met the criteria because he was hired,” was Mr. Frydman’s non-answer.

And so on and so on … no wonder the rumors were rampant that Mr. Dwyer, an unassuming, no-B.S. reporter whose dedication to average working-class readers was near-legendary, had finally gone Howard Beale and was not going to take it anymore. Mr. Dwyer wasn’t talking, but sources said he wasn’t terribly thrilled with the Ed Kosner editorial regime. Then again, sources said, the News brass wasn’t terribly happy when Mr. Dwyer told The Times he found Mr. Schwartz’s hiring “shocking.”

Well, maybe they can skimp on their star columnist’s goodbye cake. Mr. Dwyer planned to jump long before Mr. Schwartz came aboard. He will join The Times in May as a Metro reporter and a contributor to the Times Magazine . In the meantime, he’s going to take some time off to work on a book.

“It’s a blow to the paper,” said the News ‘ investigations editor, Joe Calderone, who described Mr. Dwyer as “the best columnist writing about the city of New York today.”

Indeed, no matter which way you slice it, Mr. Dwyer’s departure is a brutal loss for the News , which is running out of people who can remember strolling past the globe in the old 42nd Street headquarters, much less the Summer of Sam or the Great Blackout. Newspapers shed their skins all the time, of course, but it’s starting to feel like a full old-school purge in Mr. Zuckerman’s and Mr. Kosner’s nebulous newsroom, which is increasingly staffed by Generations X and Y.

And that’s why the March 6 hiring of Mr. Hamill–who edited the News up until 1997, when Mr. Zuckerman showed him the door–is such a bizarre hoot. Bringing Mr. Hamill aboard is a smart move in one respect–he’s still got the writing chops, and he’ll drag in some diehard readers–but it’s hard to figure out how he fits into the framework of the neo- News . After all, this is a man who once said, “I have yet to meet a publisher who could be the pimple on the ass of a good reporter.” Where does Mr. Hamill go in a newsroom that has lost Jim Dwyer and gained Richard Schwartz in one week?

Maybe we demand too much–asking these questions, demanding fast answers. Maybe there is a method–a master plan!–to this strange newspaper that we’re not seeing yet. Maybe this wild week in the history of the plain old New York Daily News , this unique convergence of events, is coincidence. But maybe, scarily, there’s no … plan … at … all.

We shall see. “The timing,” said one News source, “is certainly interesting.”

Two sides in a Florida courtroom. A befuddled county supervisor looking to a judge for guidance on how he should tabulate Presidential votes. Accusations flying over who’s acting out of principle–and who’s just stalling for time.

Any of this sound familiar?

No, no, George W. Bush and Al Gore aren’t at each other’s throats again. This time it’s the news media, colliding over who gets dibs on nearly 300,000 disputed Florida ballots.

The argument centers on ballots in northwestern Duval County, home of Tallahassee, the state capitol. There, representatives of the Miami Herald and New York Times -led media consortium’s recount efforts are feuding over how the county supervisor of elections should count some 291,000 votes.

Yeah, it’s that undervote and overvote thing again. The Herald , which published its Miami-Dade County recount results last week, reporting–surprise!–that Mr. Bush still won, wants the supervisor to sort out just the undervotes, which are the ballots that did not record a vote for President. But the eight-organization media consortium wants to sort all the overvotes, too–the ballots with more than one vote for President.

It’s easy to see why The Herald wants just the undervotes. Its ballot-counting effort is based strictly upon the undervotes, whereas the consortium’s effort is counting both. In Duval, there are some 5,000 undervotes, but there are 22,000 overvotes.

The Herald was all set to start looking at ballots on Monday, March 5. But then The Washington Post –a consortium member, along with The New York Times , the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal , Times Mirror (which owns the Los Angeles Times, among other papers), CNN, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post– filed a request to be part of the ballot examination in Duval County.

The Herald was steamed. “The process would be twice as long,” Herald attorney Rutledge Liles, of the Jacksonville firm Liles, Gavin & Costantino, told Off the Record.

But Tracey Arpen, Jacksonville’s deputy general counsel and the attorney representing the election supervisor, said that he’d rather sort out both overvotes and undervotes at the same time, because it would keep the ballots closer to their original condition on Election Day.

After Dan Keating, database editor at The Washington Post, made a public-records request on Friday, March 2, Mr. Arpen filed a “motion of clarification” asking that the court add the consortium to the ballot-review process. The Herald opposed the motion and, at a hearing on Monday, Duval County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Haddock ruled that The Herald would get the first crack at the ballots.

The consortium now claims that The Herald is unfairly blocking its access to ballots. Mr. Keating, who is one of the key organizers of the consortium’s efforts, said The Herald was the one stalling them. “They’re playing hardball, and at this point they’re winning,” Mr. Keating said.

Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Herald , said that the consortium was doing the stalling. “Our effort to get access to these ballots began many, many weeks ago,” he said. “In that entire time, the consortium said nothing and did nothing, although it easily could have gotten involved and had its say. Only now that we have obtained access to the ballots does the consortium seek to have a court stop the process in midstream and order a procedure that would significantly impede our ballot review. You have to wonder why the consortium chose to do nothing for weeks and weeks, but decided to intervene now. Who is trying to delay whom here?”

Mr. Keating, the Washington Post editor, was adamant that it was The Herald trying to stall their project. He said the consortium first filed a request for both the undervote and overvote ballots that has been pending since Dec. 19 ( The Herald filed its request on Dec. 1). He said he had spoken with Mr. Arpen several times since, but was told that nothing could be done until The Herald ‘s lawsuit was resolved. On March 2, he said, “We reminded them on Friday that we have a pending request for unders and overs. As soon as it was done being litigated, we stepped right in.” He added, “It seems quite clear to me that they are trying to keep us from the [overvotes].”

Either way, reports from both efforts are some weeks off.

According to Herald managing editor for news Mark Seibel, The Herald is already late on its ballot-review process. Mr. Seibel said that the paper had hoped to publish the results of the project over the weekend of March 3. “I would have liked to have our story in the paper this past weekend, before the legislature goes in session [on March 6],” he said. “We missed our deadline.”

He added that beating the media heavyweights in the consortium with the first 67-county recount story wouldn’t have hurt, either. “It’s nice to be first, but the real important thing is to be right,” Mr. Seibel said.

As it stands, The Herald expects to be done with Duval County by Friday, March 9. The only other ballots The Herald hasn’t looked at are those in tiny Holmes County (population: 18,700), which Mr. Seibel said should take half a day and is scheduled for the week of March 12. No date is set for the final report, but it should follow within a few weeks, he said.

Mr. Keating said the consortium still has ballots to look at in some of the larger Florida counties, and that they are still negotiating to get into Duval as well as Palm Beach County, home of the infamous butterfly ballot. “We’re mostly done.”