Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Breaking: Legally blind governor still legally blind

From the front page of today’s New York Sun:

Seeking to establish himself as a fiscally prudent leader, Governor Paterson is signaling that he will cut spending and eschew tax increases to weather the economic storm barreling down on the state...

“Though our budget is sound now, it will be dependent on whether or not people get the message that we so vitally need to understand, which is that our economy is reeling,” he said yesterday...

Mr. Paterson, who is legally blind, delivered the more than 30-minute speech from memory, at a breakfast at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown hosted by the Association for a Better New York.

That’s right, the man who has been governor of New York for three weeks now — and was first profiled as the clear successor to Spitzer four weeks ago — still needs to be identified in news stories by his disability. Because that fact has serious importance when it comes to delivering speeches on budgets and spending. How can Gov. Paterson expect to see the effects of his policies when he’s the first legally blind governor of New York? He claims that the state’s budget is “too big and bloated” — but can he actually see the bloating, or perhaps do his totally blind left eye and legally blind right eye only detect some sort of fuzzy, shapeless budgetary swollenness? Is this governorship sponsored by LensCrafters?

The news world took notice of his blindness, legitimately, in the midst of the Spitzer scandal. Until then I had no idea who the Lieutenant Governor was, and I’ll bet you didn’t either. But most news sources have cooled on it since then. The Times, Journal, Daily News and Post haven’t mentioned it in weeks. Why did the Sun throw it in there? And in the fourth graph of the story, before the details of his actual proposal?

Is it notable that he made a 30-minute speech from memory? I doubt it. Politicians like to talk. And from the sounds of it this was a pretty rote speech with promises to create a commission to study transit spending, Bloomberg’s traffic plan, blah blah blah.

The Times covered it in an unbylined 213-word story that said nothing about either his blindness or the heroic feat of talking for 30 minutes. The Post managed the same in its 167 words on the subject. (And also avoided the temptation in an editorial, as did the Daily News.)

Many papers have policies that they refer to physical disability — or to race or religion — only when relevant to a story, or when necessary for a thorough biography. This doesn’t qualify in either case should have been blue-pencilled immediately.

The worst thing about this is that it smacks of exoticism. Clearly there’s no news relevance, but I also doubt that there’s any real concern for whether this is breaking a significant barrier or changing our perceptions of blind people. Helen Keller pretty much took care of those perceptions a hundred years ago. But not for the readers of the New York Sun.

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