The prospect of a mayoral campaign by Manhattan Media publisher Tom Allon could raise some thorny questions for the city’s campaign finance board and for the journalists at his company who cover city politics.
According to Eric Friedman of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, his newspapers, which in addition to the neighborhood weeklies Our Town (which covers the east side) and The West Side Spirit (which covers the west) includes the political publications City Hall and The Capitol and the alt-weekly The New York Press are fine so long as they stick to straight news reporting. Anything that could be construed as promoting a Mayor Allon candidacy could be seen as an in-kind corporate contribution, even if the candidate and head of the corporation are the same person.
“His newspapers cover city politics,” he said. “So if they are covering it in a straight-forward way, is it a contribution? It gets into a little bit of a gray area there. If they put him on the front page and say, ‘Here’s why this guy is going to be a great mayor’ you get into a different set of questions.”
Friedman noted that there was hardly any precedent for such a campaign in the recent history of the CFB.
Generally, newspapers are seen as having a different set of guidelines in campaign finance than other corporations, since favorable articles and editorials are not regarded as something that can have a monetary value and thus need to be declared on campaign finance reports.
“Usually, in campaign finance, media is in a special place,” Friedman said. “When a newspaper makes an editorial endorsement or writes a story that might be construed as favorable it is generally not considered in a campaign finance context. Nobody is placing a dollar value on a New York Times endorsement. It is difficult to do so, and newspapers and TV stations live in this space that is not regulated in the same way that campaigns are.”
He added, “And yes, those considerations are muddied a little bit when the newspaper is owned by someone who is a candidate.”
It is a shrewd move for Allon to announce that he is considering a candidacy today, one day after a campaign finance filing period ended. Allon will remain not a candidate in the eyes of the CFB until the next filing in January, so he is free to do as he pleases from now until then.
Asked how the reporters at City Hall should cover an Allon candidacy, Friedman said that the question was more of one of journalistic ethics than campaign ethics, but he pointed to a statement in the newspaper’s morning email blast, which took a skeptical tone: ”What seems like a vanity run to push his pet issue of improving city schools is a long shot at best…We’re putting up a wall between Allon’s aspirations and our coverage of New York politics, and we’ll cover him like any other candidate – which means we’ll wait to see if he’s taken seriously before we do.”
Note: This reporter was a deputy editor at Manhattan Media in 2008-2009.