Suffolk Closeup: Gotcha!


Furious over investigative reporting by Newsday, the Suffolk County and New York State chairman of the Independence Party invited me on his radio program.

Frank MacKay said he wanted to discuss “gotcha journalism.”

The show was recorded a day after Newsday ran a seven-page investigation headlined “The Insiders.”

Starting on page one, its sub-head was: “Suffolk judges violated rules while awarding Oheka Castle owner and associates lucrat­ive foreclosure work.” The exposé focused on Gary Melius, “a major political donor and influential member of the Independence Party,” who owns Oheka Castle, a mansion now a hotel and restaurant in Huntington.

Mr. Melius “and a network of his associates,” some also Independence Party figures, “benefited financially” with some payments “questionable or improper,” according to Newsday. Judges have used “appointments as a way to dole out lucrative favors to political insiders and reward party leaders for their endorsements.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Melius narrowly escaped death in an assassination attempt in which he was shot in the head. A criminal investigation is ongoing. The shooting led to “an examination” by Newsday of the “business dealings” of Mr. Melius.

Mr. MacKay and his party have, in recent times, been chastised not just by Newsday. The New York Daily News this year blasted what it called “the crooked and phony Independence Party.” The Southampton Press charged, “the Independence Party is apparently nothing more than Mr. MacKay’s personal political fiefdom, which apparently allows him to cut deals and hand out patronage jobs to his cronies.” Newsday editorially demanded: “Kick the Independence Party off the ballot.”

I’m afraid I disappointed Mr. MacKay during my appearance on his program.

He started off asking about the basis for investigative reporting, which just happened to be what I had given a lecture about a few hours before to my journalism class at SUNY/College at Old Westbury. I explained how its roots went back to brothers James and Benjamin Franklin and John Peter Zenger, who in their newspapers, before there was a United States, challenged rulers of what was then a colony of England.

This was at a time when the press throughout the world was tightly controlled by kings and queens and others in power. A crossroads came with Zenger’s trial in Manhattan in 1735. He had been jailed for taking on the corrupt colonial governor of New York. In a remarkable trial, a jury found Zenger innocent. It agreed with Zenger’s lawyer who called on it to support “a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing truth.”

The Zenger trial laid the foundation for our freedom of the press.

When the framers a few decades later went to work designing this democracy, the vision was to have executive and legislative and judicial branches providing checks and balances on each other — and a free press challenging the whole kit and caboodle. The press in the U.S. wasn’t seen as simply covering events but as an instrument for checking on government.

A century later, our press was flexible enough in “the Muckraking Era” to take on not only vested political power but also vested economic power, challenging the corporate monopolies.

The term “investigative reporting” has been used since around 1970 to describe this area of journalism, which is the quintessence of what the press in our system is supposed to be about.

But, said Mr. MacKay, what about ethics and investigative reporting?

I explained that in the U.S., unlike many countries, there is firm opposition to any licensing of the press or similar restrictions, but there are voluntary ethical standards that journalists take seriously. I read from the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, including a provision declaring that “journalists should … recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government,” and another saying “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Mr. MacKay is actively moving ahead, even thinking nationally. He’s published a book, “The Case For a Third Major Party in the United States.” In it he writes that as the Independence Party “has grown in numbers, a major criticism of some newspaper editors has been that we ‘stand for nothing’ … This could not be further from the truth … We stand for honest dialogue with the American people and an end to empty political posturing and rhetoric that has been fortified by the media in collusion with the nation’s two-party system … We believe that a non-partisan third major party is the most direct path to fixing our broken system.”

Mr. MacKay calls for “an independent non-partisan candidate” to run for president in 2016. His Independence Party in New York State, he says, “offers a model for change” for the nation.