The New York Times unloads a devastating story about the alleged New York City snowplow slowdown that became a big story in the right-wing media.

Naturally, the rabidly anti-labor Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post led the charge, helped by a Republican City Councilman, Daniel Halloran, who happens to also be a little, well, off.

But the more that investigators look into Mr. Halloran’s story, the more mystifying it becomes.

Mr. Halloran said he had been visited by two supervisors in the Transportation Department and three workers in the Sanitation Department. But the two transportation supervisors did not back up his story in interviews with investigators, according to two people briefed on the inquiries. And Mr. Halloran has steadfastly refused to reveal the names of the sanitation workers.

Here’s the background on Halloran:

He is an adherent of Theodism, a neo-pagan faith that draws from pre-Christian tribal religions of northern Europe, and he led a branch in the New York area.

My favorite bit is that last month Halloran requested a building permit for a $60,000 expansion of his house, which Wells Fargo began foreclosing on a year ago. Meantime, his wife, whom he is divorcing, has filed for bankruptcy. Oh, also: They say they’re selling the house.

But there’s a media angle here, of course. What doesn’t have one these days?

There is no question that the account has brought unusual attention to Mr. Halloran, who was a fixture on both national and local news networks for a week and a half after the blizzard.

In a letter published in The Chief-Leader, which focuses on municipal labor issues, Mr. Halloran seemed to feel conflicted about all the uproar. In the letter he defended his original assertions about the slowdown, but also suggested it might have been small in scope, involving “a few bad apples.”

“My goal was never to make headlines or anger people,” he said.

So let’s look at how this thing bounced around the mostly right-wing echo chamber.

Murdoch’s Post, on December 30, started the story, naturally:

Selfish Sanitation Department bosses from the snow-slammed outer boroughs ordered their drivers to snarl the blizzard cleanup to protest budget cuts - a disastrous move that turned streets into a minefield for emergency-services vehicles, The Post has learned…

“They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important,” said City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Queens), who was visited yesterday by a group of guilt-ridden sanitation workers who confessed the shameless plot.

Investor’s Business Daily, which makes Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal editorial page look like Marxists, said “But in casting blame, look for the union label.”

Dagen McDowell of Murdoch’s Fox Business Network, pronounced that “It illustrates to some the stranglehold that unions have over taxpayers, state and local and state and local governments.

CNN got into the act, saying:

Here is what we have just learned. CNN has learned of this possible slowdown, an intentional slowdown, by transportation and sanitation workers, a slowdown ordered from high above. CNN has learned that five workers have admitted to one city council member that their supervisors ordered a slowdown to protest impending budget cuts.

Great journalism, CNN. Not only were you apparently relying on the word of “one city council member,” and you pretended like it was you who got the scoop. Cool.

Later that afternoon, Fox News’s “Your World with Neil Cavuto” brought on Councilman Halloran to push the “evil unions” story. Meantime, CNN pushed the story all day. Randi Kaye teased it at one point like this:

And just ahead: If true, it’s an outrage, allegations that snow removal workers in New York City were slow removal workers, a deliberate slowdown. Workers say their supervisors ordered them to take it easy, leaving the city crippled, and you won’t believe why.

The next morning, Investor’s Business Daily wrote, and I am not kidding here—this lede for its editorial headlined “Bloody Snow”:

A New York City councilman has exposed that labor bosses don’t need “On the Waterfront”-style corruption to kill innocents. Sometimes all it takes is a snowstorm.

The Post got more outraged, too:

There was a method to their madness.

The selfish Sanitation bosses who sabotaged the blizzard cleanup to fire a salvo at City Hall targeted politically connected and well-heeled neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn to get their twisted message across loud and clear, The Post has learned.

The news flitted around the TV networks again and Halloran would end up making several appearances.

By the next day, the Post had downgraded its “selfish Sanitation bosses sabotaged the cleanup” story to “allegations”:

There have been allegations that some sanit workers engaged in a slowdown and even ignored some streets at the direction of their bosses, who are angry over upcoming budget cuts.

A few days later, the Post ramped it up again after learning authorities were looking into the rumors. Here’s its lede:

There may be blood on their hands.

Federal and state investigators are probing whether the fleet of selfish Sanitation bosses who allegedly intentionally left city streets clogged with snow are responsible for the deaths of New Yorkers who couldn’t get swift medical aid, The Post has learned.

Bloomberg columnist Kevin “Dow 36,000” Hassett, also of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, seized on the unsubstantiated reports to file an atrocious column headlined: “Snowplow Slowdowns Might Become American Way.”

If city workers did undermine the slow-clearing effort to protest budget cuts, they may have contributed to the death of a baby girl in Brooklyn, who waited with her 22-year-old mother nine hours for emergency crews to fight their way through the snow-covered streets. A Queens woman watched her elderly mother die as she waited three hours for an ambulance to arrive.

Americans better get used to this treatment.

And that was the aha moment for me—a signal to keep an eye on this story. See, there’s been this intense campaign recently from the likes of Hassett, AEI, Newt Gingrich, and the Murdoch press to scapegoat public-sector unions for high taxes and the budget woes of the states. These people hate labor and, having essentially killed private-sector unions, are now trying to choke them out of the public sector. And it’s a two-birds-with-one-stone deal: Public-sector unions are heavily Democratic voting and give lots of money to liberal politicians’ campaigns.

On January 7, F. Vincent Vernuccio, of the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute, led off an op-ed in The Washington Times with this:

“Cross us and people will die.” That is the message the public can take away from last week’s New York snow-removal meltdown (no pun intended). The debacle showed how government employee unions, by holding a monopoly on services, can cripple communities in retaliation for not getting what they want. And they will do it time and time again.

Reports show that members of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association Local 831, an International Brotherhood of Teamsters affiliate, slowed down cleanup efforts, turning last week’s blizzard into a disaster for New Yorkers as emergency-response vehicles could not get to those in need.

Vernuiccio’s takeaway from the “slowdown”?: That states and cities should revoke collective-bargaining rights for government workers and privatize as many services as they can.

So fishing around for the perfect anecdote to illustrate the perfidy of organized labor, these folks happen upon a loon from Queens whose story, as the Times notes, evolved along the way, allows them to allege New York sanitation workers waged an illegal slowdown and have babies’ blood on their hands.

Never mind that the story is almost certainly garbage (no pun intended), as the Times has now shown. Kevin Hassett isn’t going to go back and file a column apologizing for his earlier one. CNN probably won’t revisit the story, Fox surely won’t and the Post will find a way to slough it off.

Even if they do correct the record, it won’t reach the saturation coverage and contain the purple language the original reports did. Facts be damned: The vicious anti-union propaganda is planted in the public’s mind.

And that’s the whole point.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.