WNBC News Guy, Hit at City Hall, Caused a Pile-Up

Call it Shovegate : Mayor Michael Bloomberg telephoned the general manager of WNBC television earlier this month to defend the conduct of a staff member following a hotly disputed run-in with are porter and cameraman on the steps of City Hall.

The collision in question occurred on April 12, when Mr. Bloomberg was entering City Hall to attend a meeting with the mayor of Vieques, Puerto Rico. As it approached, the Mayor-tourage was met by WNBC cameraman Lou Vale and reporter Carol Anne Riddell; Ms. Riddell wanted to ask Mr. Bloomberg a question for an unrelated story she was working on.

From here, accounts of what happened diverge. People present at the scene agree that Mayoral press secretary Ed Skyler and Mr. Vale, the cameraman, bonked into each other. The Mayor’s office said the two-man bump was unintentional and hardly N.F.L.-caliber-the result of mobile reporters eager to ask a question and aides hurrying Mr. Bloomberg to a meeting for which he was late.

But in a terse April 12 letter to the Mayor, veteran WNBC correspondent Gabe Pressman-writing as an officer of the New York Press Club-charged that Mr. Skyler was in the wrong. Mr. Pressman alleged that Mr. Skyler “pushed” the station’s camera away, “shoved” Mr. Vale, used profanity and denied Ms. Riddell-the Press Club’s president-her right to ask a question.

Mr. Pressman, the chairman of the Press Club’s Freedom of Information Committee and a sharp critic of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s treatment of the news media, wrote that such conduct was “unacceptable.”

“Mr. Mayor, you have a right not to answer questions, but under the First Amendment-we have a right to ask them,” Mr. Pressman wrote.

Three days later, on April 15, Mr. Bloomberg took the step of calling WNBC general manager Dennis Swanson to discuss the incident. It wasn’t an apologetic call. The Mayor did not call to say he was sorry, but rather to defend his actions and those of his staff, particularly Mr. Skyler, sources on both sides said.

The following day, Mr. Bloomberg’s director of communications, William Cunningham, wrote to Mr. Pressman, rejecting claims that Mr. Skyler “shoved,” “assaulted” or “pushed” Mr. Vale.

“That outrageous accusation bears no relationship to reality,” Mr. Cunningham wrote. Mr. Cunningham noted that footage aired during Ms. Riddell’s April 12 report on WNBC did not prove Mr. Pressman’s claims and added: “As the Mayor said to Mr. Swanson … reporters have the right to ask a question, but not in a manner that obstructs anyone’s right to move freely.”

A week and a half after the City Hall showdown, parties on both sides say everything’s hunky-dory and now consider the issue moot. Ms. Riddell and Mr. Skyler are said to have met and discussed the incident and cleared the air. Mr. Skyler did not return a call for comment, but through the New York Press Club, Ms. Riddell issued a statement: “We feel this matter has been resolved amicably. We harbor no ill feelings toward City Hall and are ready to move forward in a positive direction.”

Mr. Pressman, who is now reporting overseas in Israel, declined comment. A WNBC spokesperson said that Mr. Swanson and Mr. Vale also had no comment.

Mr. Cunningham, who has had his own run-ins with the press in the past-during the Mayoral campaign, the Daily News complained that Mr. Cunningham physically removed a News reporter from an event-agreed that the matter was considered over.

But the communications director re-emphasized his belief that the Mayor was entitled not to respond to press inquiries, and to move freely without being impeded by reporters.

“The press has every right to ask questions,” Mr. Cunningham said. “The Mayor has every right not to answer. And both the Mayor and the people with the Mayor have a right to continue moving in the direction they were already moving in. And that seems to me to be the bottom line.”

Mr. Cunningham insisted that Mr. Bloomberg’s administration remained receptive to the media.

“I think by any standard since the Mayor has been sworn in, we have been accessible to the press,” he said.

Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez is calling out the paper for what he deems a pro-Israel bias in the paper’s Middle East coverage.

In an April 10 memo obtained by The Observer , Mr. Gonzalez writes: “I am making a plea to the editors and my colleagues on the news staff to stop the unbalanced, anti-Palestinian coverage that has been filling our newspaper every day for the past two weeks.”

Mr. Gonzalez then tries to prove his point. He says the paper ignored humanitarian criticism of Israel by the International Red Cross. He chides the paper for putting more emphasis on, and showing more sympathy for, Israeli casualties, and faults the News for not reporting the beefs of international news organizations who have been barred from Palestinian refugee camps.

“With all respect,” Mr. Gonzalez goes on to write, “to those of you who feel strong emotional or religious attachment to Israel’s plight, our newspaper’s overall coverage is doing an enormous disservice to our readers and to journalistic principles by not presenting both sides fairly.”

Mr. Gonzalez did not return calls for comment. And when asked to comment on the memo, News editor in chief Ed Kosner said: “I just assumed he just sent it to me. I think I should respond to him, don’t you?”

But in appraising the paper’s Middle East coverage overall, Mr. Kosner said: “I think we’ve done a very good job on it. We sent Zev [Chafets], and we have an excellent stringer there. I think it’s been energetic, comprehensive, straightforward and good.”

New s publisher Mort Zuckerman through a spokesperson declined to comment.

-Sridhar Pappu

Three months ago, the Daily News had a bright idea. They decided to launch a new section to boost their Sunday sales, a pull-out section all about sports on television. They dubbed it SporTV and set a launch date of Sunday, April 21. It was an ambitious undertaking for the News , hyped in numerous house ads and even a $1 million television ad campaign that featured a couch potato so engrossed in watching his game that even his naked wife doesn’t distract him.

It wasn’t exactly a state secret that the News was set to launch its new section, but News editors went ballistic nevertheless when they saw the New York Post on Friday, April 19-the issue that introduced the Post ‘s brand-new section, TV Sports. A four-page color pull-out with TV listings, Phil Mushnick’s column and Jason Kidd on the front-just like the mock-up the News featured in their commercials-the Post ‘s section wasn’t as substantive as the 20-page section the News had ready for Sunday, but the News is screaming rip-off !

Post editor in chief Col Allan copped to the charge. “All true. We’re guilty. It’s called competition,” he said. “If the Daily News can’t handle it, they should pack up and leave town.”

Mr. Kosner, editor in chief of the News , fired back, “We’re happy to supply Mr. Allan with ideas, because he obviously doesn’t have many of his own.”

-Gabriel Snyder

Asbestos levels remain a concern as The Wall Street Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones, evaluate returning to the World Financial Center.

The results of the most recent round of asbestos testing commissioned by Dow Jones revealed higher-than-acceptable asbestos levels on the 11th floor, Dow Jones vice president Steve Goldstein said. Dow Jones alerted Brookfield Properties, owner of the W.F.C., who subsequently re-cleaned the floor, he said. Mr. Goldstein said that another round of tests was planned and characterized Brookfield as “extremely cooperative” in this regard.

“We continue to do testing throughout,” said Mr. Goldstein. “But our plan is to return there sometime in late July.”

Carlos Tejada, a reporter with The Journal who has monitored the issue for IAPE Local 1096, the union representing Dow Jones employees, characterized the development this way: “As far as the time table goes, I don’t think it means much. But what it means to me, though, is that we have to be extra-vigilant to make sure Brookfield has it right.”

Ric Clark, president of Brookfield Properties, was out of town and couldn’t be reached for comment; calls were referred to Robert Du Bois, director of marketing, who was not immediately available for comment.

-S.P.

Hello, pastel front-page boxes; goodbye helicopter! Lately, executives from Dow Jones, who once used the company helicopter to travel-à la Rick and T.C. on Magnum, P.I. -from Manhattan to the company’s quarters in South Brunswick, N.J., have had to find other means of transport.

“We have closed our aviation department,” said Mr. Goldstein. “We once did use a helicopter to transport people between sites in the Northeast. Due to the economic climate, we closed down the aviation department. It’s grounded.”

Mr. Goldstein added: “People would occasionally use the helicopter based on what the needs were for that day. But, for the most part, they’d drive or take the train to Princeton Junction.”

When asked what the company planned to do with the Dow Jones chopper, Mr. Goldstein said: “We don’t know. That’s what we’re looking at right now.”

-S.P.

Ex- Talk ie Ron Galotti returned to Condé Nast as GQ ‘s publisher two months ago, and we checked in the other day to see how things were going. “I’ve got a warm feeling,” said Mr. Galotti, adding that the Condé Nast receptionists, office service managers and even the guy who fetches town cars outside all still remember him.

Mr. Galotti was forgiven for defecting in 1998 to Talk because he can sell ads, and GQ is in particular need of them. Mr. Galotti said his biggest challenge in selling the book was overcoming the notion that GQ was just a fashion magazine. “I really never spent a lot of time with the magazine,” Mr. Galotti said, and conceded that even he had thought it was mostly fashion.

Business so far, he said, has been emphatically O.K. Hit hard by the ad recession, GQ ad pages were down more than 13 percent for all of 2001, and for the first three months of 2002, down 12 percent over the dismal 2001 numbers.

Mr. Galotti said he expects the worst is over and has even seen some categories, like automotive, picking back up. “People are starting to plan their budgets again,” he said. GQ posted modest ad-page gains in March and April, and Mr. Galotti expected them to be up in June as well.

On the evening of Monday, April 22, GQ hosted a party at Elaine’s for Ted Heller’s new novel, Funnymen . Condé Nast chief executive Steve Florio made an appearance and said of Mr. Galotti, “He kisses me every morning-on both cheeks!” Mr. Galotti walked up a few moments later, and indeed, the two made like The Godfather as Mr. Galotti kissed Mr. Florio on both cheeks. “And the ring,” Mr. Galotti added, lifting Mr. Florio’s right hand to his lips.

-G.S.