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Hynes' Dubious Battle


Former Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes (Bryan Thomas for the New York Times)

As revealed by the recent Department of Investigation inquiry, former Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes spent a significant amount of his final year in office fretting about local media coverage.

Despite the raft of negative stories about various aspects of his tenure that appeared in all the dailies, Hynes seemed to think that endorsements from the city's leading editorial boards could carry him to reelection. As a result, he continually tried to spin his actions in ways that would impress these opinion-makers.

Is this how any elected official, scandal-plagued or otherwise, should act?

Hynes seemed particularly concerned with winning the Grey Lady's nod, stating in one email that it was the "only opinion page that matters." The D.A. likely perceived that the Times held sway over voters in Brownstone Brooklyn. Other emails captured his considerable frustration with the views of the Daily News and Post editorial boards.

In his attempt to impress the Times, Hynes went so far as to assemble a 9.5-page brief outlining his case for reelection. In preparation, he solicited feedback from Judge Barry Kamins, a frequent adviser, whom Hynes in his letter said was known for "his expertise in Legal Ethics."

Here as elsewhere, Hynes either defended or distanced himself from many ongoing charges, notably those involving his alleged mishandling of child sex abuse cases in Brooklyn's Ultra-Orthodox community as well as the murder cases involving Detective Louis Scarcella. As Kamins had recommended, amidst the campaign Hynes formed a high-profile review panel to study the Scarcella cases.

But throughout the summer, challenger Ken Thompson kept attacking Hynes on these and other issues, and the six-term incumbent could not shake the perception that he had mismanaged the D.A.'s office. As the September primary approached, only the Daily News editorial board weighed in on the race, giving a notably lukewarm boost to Thompson based on its "judgment compelled by serious evidence that Hynes has presided over miscarriages of justice."

Hynes' failure to win over the leading editorial boards thus contributed to his lopsided defeat in the primary. Yet even if he had the endorsements he coveted, it's unlikely they would have made much difference. In the mayor's race, Christine Quinn ran the table, but nonetheless went down to a humiliating defeat.

Newspaper endorsements, of course, cannot alone shape popular perceptions of candidates. One of the leading criticisms of Quinn was that she remained too close to Mayor Bloomberg - which also explained why she got the support of the same editorial boards that helped sanction Bloomberg's third term. So "playing to the boards" certainly can be a losing campaign strategy.

Moreover, as the role of social media expands, the views of powerful opinion leaders will face increasingly more competition. Online readers are paying less attention to what's on A1 of the Times, raising questions about the future influence of the official positions taken by the city's legacy media institutions.

It nonetheless would be a mistake to dismiss Hynes' view of the dominance of editorial boards as a thing of the past. They obviously can still steer the popular discussion. Consider the tabloids' relentless charter school advocacy, the Daily News' crusade to save horse carriages, or the Times' robust support for reforming stop-and-frisk. And as evidenced by the Espaillat campaign's enthusiastic reaction to receiving the Times' endorsement, all candidates still welcome the instant credibility provided by a leading board's support.

The best lesson that the Hynes example teaches current and future elected officials is simply this: spin things all you want, but you're not going to impress any civic leaders when you're not upholding the basic responsibilities of your office.

Theodore Hamm (@HammerDaily) is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.


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