Benjamin’s famed Rolodex has proven an asset in her TV role at Capital Tonight—she often books guests directly herself, taking to her BlackBerry to coax the state’s leaders into an appearance at YNN’s Albany headquarters or to a satellite studio to be beamed in for an interrogation. The Capital Tonight office is adorned with political signs and posters for guests past—“Carl Country,” “Lazio/Edwards,” plus a David Paterson bobblehead, which Benjamin says predates her. A huge whiteboard, ruled-up as a calendar, shows who’s coming up today: Carl Paladino, Roger Stone, and Harry Wilson.
Why TV now? I ask, when she finally pauses after a blur of activity—phone calls, two recorded TV interviews, several blog posts—to notice I’m there. Her answer is characteristically blunt. “TV’s still the best way to reach people and newspapers are not,” she says looking every bit the anchor in a fitting brown patterned dress and slick primetime-ready bob—she had her long curly hair colored, straightened, and chopped when she got the new gig. Has her newspaper past helped her adapt? I ask. “There are two kinds of people in political TV news: people who started there, and the people who are the print journalists. The print journalists are a thousand times better. They have the context, they can break the news, and they can do reporting.”
Since Benjamin came on board, Capital Tonight has become more interview-based, and Benjamin’s style is as tough and direct as it was in the statehouse. She copped flak from viewers after testy interviews with GOP gubernatorial primary nominees Myers Mermel and Rick Lazio, whom she asked repeatedly to acknowledge the challenge from Carl Paladino. And the direct approach has worked against her, at times, allowing politicians to wriggle their way out of an answer. When Benjamin asked Cuomo, “Will you seek to take [Silver] out?”, Cuomo responded, “Do you mean for lunch or coffee?”
“She asks questions the way average working, thinking people might ask them, and unfortunately the politicians up here are such liars and evasion artists that she needs to refine her style,” says Bob Port. “I chalk that up to youth but I don’t really care. She’s in your face, she doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions; we need more of that, not less.”
Benjamin knows what some lawmakers—and their staff—think of her. “Everyone says, you’re so tough, we don’t want to come on the show because you’re too difficult,” she says. And the view is not much different among some in the press corps; words like “difficult” and “bitch” sometimes come up when you discuss Benjamin with others. “I’d be curious to see her elementary school report card to see if any teachers thought she played well with others,” says Times Union blogger Jimmy Vielkind, a good friend of Benjamin’s.
Politico’s Maggie Haberman can sympathize with charges that Benjamin’s a spitfire. “I think she’s aggressive, but I think she’s appropriately aggressive,” says Haberman. “It’s New York and she’s a woman. People can pretend that it’s the same for us, but it isn’t. Even more so in Albany. It is such a man’s world; just look around at all the women lawmakers.”
“You don’t have that many options as a woman in Albany or in politics in general,” says Benjamin when I ask her, weeks after we meet, about her tough reputation. “You’re either written off because you’re a woman and it’s a boys’ club, you’re viewed as a sex object, or you’re a hard-arsed bitch.” She’s been called all three; criticisms that have intensified since she began on TV. Mail—much of it from older women—regularly arrives at YNN complaining that Benjamin is too abrasive and not deferential enough to the politicians she interviews. But Vielkind is quick to defend his friend. “In the halls of power, people respect power,” he says. “As many of us remember, sometimes the only thing you can do to make a bully stop picking on you, and take you seriously, is to punch him in the nose.”