This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
The newspaper strike dampened public debate. During the first eight weeks of the strike, many important decisions in government were taken in a semi-silence. Other decisions were not taken at all.
There was no public discussion before the election of Mario J. Cariello on January 2 to fill a vacancy in the borough presidency of Queens. The factionalism of Queens Democrats extended to the borough’s five-member delegation in the City Council, who were charged by law with filling the vacancy. All five were Democrats, but two had strong old-line ties, two were reformers and the fifth was a former insurgent. The newly installed county leadership, moving behind the curtain of the news blackout, sidetracked several candidates and persuaded Cariello to give up a twenty-one-year career on the bench—but without debate. When an identical situation existed in Queens in 1959, debate over the vacancy, fanned in the press, produced one of the most bitter primary battles in Queens history.
The void was noticeable again in the Board of Estimate’s decision to kill the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a project incorporated in the city’s master plan since 1941, There had always been some opposition to the $100,000,000 project, though the federal and state governments would have paid the bill. The board acted just after the city’s newspapers, most of which had strongly backed the proposal, had been shut down. The strike bottled up protests from organizations like the Regional Plan Association and the Commerce and Industry Association.
The muffling effect of the strike was evident again when the Board of Estimate approved a zoning change that authorized the razing of Pennsylvania Station, which some consider an architectural ornament, to make way for a new sports arena and office buildings.
Informal opposition, led by the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York, was given great leeway by the City Planning Commission. “But without newspapers to report our position, we could not capture the widespread public support needed to halt such action,” said Norval White, who headed the protest committee. “This project had the appearance of being rammed through.” He noted that the Planning Commission hearing was held January 3, and its decision was given on January 16. The Board of Estimate voted approval January 24.
The White committee, in fact, lost its last chance to oppose the project at the Board of Estimate hearing because it overlooked the item on the board’s calendar. “We goofed,” Mr. White said, “and it never could have been missed if newspapers had been publishing.”
New York State Democrats, with their center of gravity in the city, were hampered by the strike in executing major policy changes that needed broad discussion. Looking ahead to the 1964 election, the leadership wanted to overhaul the state organization to mend weaknesses revealed in the 1962 campaign.
A state advisory council, made up of leading Democrats now only periodically active, was to be formed. Announcement of plans for the advisory group was withheld for some time, and was finally made in the eighth week of the strike. It created hardly a ripple in the city’s stand-in press. A $250,000-a-year spending program, ambitious for a party carrying a campaign debt of more than $500,000, was proposed but never achieved.
Party leaders, including William H. McKeon, the state chairman, sought to break ground for the program in speeches in the city; without press coverage, they could not reach beyond their immediate audiences. “How can you spell out programs and the rationale behind them when half of the state’s people are without their major and basic source of news?” Mr. McKeon asked.
Feeling unable to mobilize public opinion, several members of the city delegation in the legislature who were unhappy with the Democratic party’s old-line leadership there abandoned moves for a showdown.
The annual exchange over finances between the city and state, almost always conducted extensively through the news columns, was once described by the late Leo Egan as a minuet. This year it was a minuet without music.