The ombudsman, or public editor, of the New York Times has belatedly acknowledged the point that we made in a recent Media Monitor  about the scandal involving the Air America radio network. Writing on August 17, Byron Calame, former Navy officer and deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal before becoming the Times’ Public Editor, said that “Readers of The Times were poorly served by the paper’s slowness to cover official investigations into questionable financial transactions involving Air America, the liberal radio network.”
Incredibly, some responded to our article by saying, “Where’s the scandal?” It’s two-fold. On the facts, the Bronx, New York-based Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club is one of the country’s largest social-services providers, assisting some 20,000 people, mostly disadvantaged youth and seniors. It received in 2003, for example, $3.7 million in government grants, plus another half-million in government contracts. The person who was director of finance for the organization, Evan Cohen, was also the CEO and co-founder of Progress Media, Inc, the original parent company of Air America.
Cohen had won the confidence of the board of the Gloria Wise Club, and received approved loans totaling $167,000. But according to Jeanette Graves, the president of the club’s executive committee, he also received another $213,000 for Air America “authorized with a rubber stamp of her signature on a document she said she never saw.” And later, a wire transfer of at least $400,000 went from the Gloria Wise Club to Air America without her knowledge.
As a result, the New York City Department of Investigation has suspended about $10 million worth of grants and contracts with the Gloria Wise Club organization, much of which it has made up with private donations. The organization apparently does good work, but was scammed out of a lot of money to help keep Air America afloat. And I believe Al Franken, the Air America star talk-show host who is reportedly pulling down a million dollars a year from the network, that they were lied to by Cohen.
Back in May of 2004, Progress Media was taken over by Piquant LLC, which claims that it doesn’t owe any of the money back to the club, but is willing anyway to pay it back, to preserve Air America’s good name, and began by putting $50,000 into an escrow account.
To make matters worse, Piquant was sued by a company called Multicultural Radio, one of the largest minority-owned broadcasting companies in the country. Multicultural originally sued for $255,000, claiming that it dropped Air America from stations it owned in two cities back in April 2004, shortly after the network came on air, for failure to pay its bills. The court in New York agreed and ordered Air America to pay up. But again, Piquant claimed it wasn’t responsible for Progress Media’s debts.
An attorney for Multicultural is now seeking more than $1.5 million, and claims that the transfer from Progress Media to Piquant was a sham transaction to get rid of the liabilities while holding on to the assets, and that several of the principals remained the same in both companies. We’ll have to wait to see how this plays out.
While the besieged network is fighting for its life, it actually has grown from 25 affiliates to 69, plus XM Satellite, though its ratings are rather weak. The network claims its cumulative Arbitron rating has grown from 1.3 million listeners to 3.1 million. However, in the key markets of New York and Washington D.C., it isn’t doing well. In New York, its flagship station, WLIB, is mired in 24th place, ranking below the ratings of the Caribbean format it used to carry. And in Washington, according to the most recent Arbitron ratings, it garnered just 0.4 percent of the audience 12-years old and older.
The second part of the Air America scandal is the coverage of the scandal. When the network came online last year, it received massive coverage in the New York Times and other liberal establishment publications. Times ombudsman Calame of the Times admits that “The Times’ recent slowness stands in contrast to its flurry of articles about Air America in the spring of 2004, when the network was launched.”
And he even calls the recent events a scandal. Calame quotes Times associate managing editor Rick Berke as saying, “We were slow in the first place and need to do more.” Calame claims, “While it’s no excuse for such a belated response to the brewing scandal, it’s true that pieces of the unfolding story fell in the domains of three different parts of the newsroom: the metropolitan desk, the business desk and the culture desk. There was, my inquiries suggest, a lack of coordination and awareness of what the paper’s competitors across town were writing.”
Calame says there’s “another reason to get to the bottom of the scandal. It’s the perception problem?a perception of liberal bias for which I haven’t found any evidence after checking with editors at the paper.” No evidence? His predecessor wrote a whole column on the liberal bias of the Times. We’ve documented it as well. We suggest Calame sign up for our daily email newsletter at www.aim.org . We guarantee he’ll have plenty of liberal bias to write about and document at the Times.