O'Reilly: A news media constant -- short attention spans

Free press in the digital age. Free press in the digital age. Photo Credit: iStock

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William F. B. O'Reilly Portrait of Newsday/amNY columnist Bill O'Reilly (March 28,

O’Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor. ...

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There's a dirty little secret you learn quickly in the political campaign PR business: The news media have little interest in public policy issues. What reporters like to cover is the horse race, the back-and-forth between competing campaigns.

There's a lesson reporters learn upon entering their business, too: Dry material doesn't move papers or draw clicks on websites. Human interest stories do.

That's not to say serious topics aren't covered. They are. But the stories that pop tend to be about bears being stuck in trees in city downtowns -- did you miss the news in Albany last week? -- rather than analyses of what discount rate a state comptroller is using. I'm no different from most people; my eyes naturally wander toward the bear, which, in this case, sadly fell to its death after being shot multiple times with tranquilizer darts.

But the dry stuff really does matter sometimes. Witness an opinion piece in the New York Post on Friday by E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy. He wrote about health care benefits for New York State public employee union retirees. It's a piece most people would probably skip over, but they shouldn't. The subject McMahon was writing about could have very real consequences for the lives of New Yorkers for years to come.

McMahon's piece shines the spotlight on the New York State Legislature, which is about to vote on a bill that would make it impossible to amend the way lifelong health-insurance coverage promised to state and local government employees is administered. Similar legislation was vetoed by the last three governors, but now it's back, and as far as I can tell, McMahon is the only one writing about it.

If this bill becomes law, New Yorkers will be on the hook, irreconcilably, for $250 billion -- with a "B" -- in unfunded liabilities in the future. All leverage in renegotiating those benefits will be signed away. The $250 billion will have to come from somewhere, and it will: It will come out of school budgets, infrastructure budgets and from the personal budgets of New Yorkers in the form of higher taxes. It's these little boring bills that can sock it to us the most.

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Another matter occurred quietly in Albany this past week that involves New York taxpayers. It was learned that the Public Service Commission has overcharged New Yorkers $250 million -- with an "M" -- in a surcharge on their utility bills. The PSC is refusing to give it back, and something tells me the agency will get away with it. The story doesn't exactly leap from the page. Still, the $250-million PSC story has gotten more ink than the $250 billion health care benefit story, maybe because it's more immediate. Who knows?

An old press hand who passed away a few years back once told me a tale about the 1978 gubernatorial campaign of Perry Duryea, a policy-heavy Republican from Long Island. Duryea was convinced that he could vault to the head of the polls in his race against Gov. Hugh Carey after delivering a grand and detailed policy speech on the future of New York. He put countless hours into the thing and asked his press aides to spare no effort in drawing reporters and news cameras to the affair.

The day came, and so did the press. It was blisteringly hot outside, and, according to my friend, the candidate droned on and on with page after page of policy prescriptions as everyone wilted in the heat.

And then, down the street, a miracle happened. An ice cream truck exploded. It showered frozen custard all over the street, on cars and into the trees and bushes. Neighborhood kids delighted, lapping the stuff up wherever they could. And one by one, the news cameras moved to cover it all. Who could blame them the next day, when the exploding ice cream truck dominated the headlines?

But I do wonder now what was in that Duryea speech. Maybe there was a policy prescription that would have gotten us out of the jam that McMahon is now alerting us to.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.

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