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.”
The man at the top of Albany’s press corps pyramid is Dicker, the polarizing Post columnist and host of Albany radio station WGDJ’s 10 a.m. hour, which airs live from the capitol. Since taking the Capital Tonight role, Benjamin is seen as a challenger to Dicker’s supremacy in state political coverage. Albany has noticed the rivalry. “Both Fred and Liz are people who strive to be the best,” says Vielkind. “If they’re both striving to be at the top of the same game then tension is inevitable.” Azi Paybarah laughs when asked if there’s room at the top for both Benjamin and Dicker: “Ask Hamlet how many kings can be in the court at the same time.”
Benjamin is diplomatic on the subject of a rivalry. “We have a love-hate relationship,” she says. “I admire him for fully embodying who he is, and he’s damn good at being Fred Dicker. He has an unusual instinct for seeing the forest for the trees, making news happen. It’s not my approach, but it works for him.”
But it’s more than that; sources say the pair can’t stand each other. “People are not wrong,” Benjamin responds. “It goes back a long time. He’s a worthy adversary, we just aren’t terribly fond of each other.” Dicker, who declined to be interviewed, did offer this when I ask via e-mail if there is a bit of a rivalry. “I’m not aware of any rivalry from my end, neither ‘a bit’ nor a lot.”