Last week, the New York Post ran an important public-policy story, if I dare say so, as it was written by me: an exposé of New York City’s new plan to give debit cards to migrants staying in city shelters, so that they can buy their own food and supplies rather than rely on allegedly low-quality food currently provided by a city vendor. The city’s contract documents, which I obtained, are clear, and contradict Mayor Eric Adams’s assurances that the program will be a small, temporary “pilot.” In drawing up its no-bid deal last December with a financial technology “platform,” MoCaFi, whose founder, Wole Coaxum, Mayor Adams first met on the campaign trail, the city has given itself the scope to provide migrants with an unknown amount of money—“disbursements above $150,000,000” are accounted for in the contract’s “fee structure for this program”—via debit cards with a “total balance [that] cannot exceed $10,000 per card per cardholder.” The debit cards have full Mastercard functionality.

As the agreement notes, “cardholders can pay for any goods/services at any business merchant that accepts Mastercard, unless [italics mine] restrictions are placed on card acceptance.” The cards even have the functionality—including a fee schedule—for use at international ATMs.

This program is a big deal, and it’s no surprise that everyone from Elon Musk to the Daily Mail picked up on it.

So did the New York Times—not to use its vast reporting capabilities to advance other, unexplored angles of the story, but to smear my reporting as “incorrectly suggesting” inaccurate facts. 

Thursday morning, two days after my story ran, Times reporter Emma Fitzsimmons, a veteran City Hall hand with whom I’ve always had friendly, professional relations, got in touch for help on a follow-up story she was working on. Before we spoke by phone, she framed our proposed conversation as a way for me to help her with her own reporting, providing new questions and ideas: If I were asking questions of the people with whom she was about to speak, what would I ask? 

Over a phone conservation of 20 minutes or so, Fitzsimmons and I talked over various aspects of the city’s contract, and potential new angles. We discussed whether the city was right to use its no-bid “emergency” contracting powers, when this is not exactly an emergency: two months after the city signed its contract with MoCaFi, it still hasn’t dispensed one dollar. We discussed whether Adams’s public support for racial-minority contractors led him to do the deal with MoCaFi. I suggested that he hadn’t needed to do a no-bid deal to support a minority vendor; he instead could have launched a competitive bid through which several minority contractors could compete with one another. I suggested that Fitzsimmons ask the city why, if this really is a pilot program, as the city claims, the contract offers no concrete measures of success or failure. I suggested that she ask the MoCaFi founder whether he has ever donated to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, which doesn’t disclose donations.

At no time during this conversation did Fitzsimmons say, imply, or even remotely hint that she would cast my original Post story as “incorrectly” reported or allow me to comment on such an accusation. She never questioned any aspect of my reporting. We did discuss how the city government, scrambling to respond to my story after its publication on Monday, had released more fine-grained details Tuesday and Wednesday, including that a migrant family of four would receive about $15,000 a year. And we discussed the city’s plans to restrict how migrants will use the debit cards—for example, by requiring them to sign affidavits that they will spend the money only on groceries and other necessities. (Such restrictions aren’t binding in the contract, however; they are options, which the city can change or revoke without public notice.)

I made one public-policy remark that Fitzsimmons appeared to be interested in quoting, in that she asked me to repeat it, and I could hear her typing: that with this contract, the city, with no public discussion or debate and no consultation with the city council, is effectively creating a parallel public-benefits strategy, alongside traditional federally governed food stamps and cash welfare, but without the traditional checks and balances and fraud controls that such programs impose, and with no exit strategy. 

The city claims, for example, contrary to its contract documents, that it will spend just $50 million on this contract, and $3 million on fees to MoCaFi. But what is the city going to do when the $50 million is extinguished—simply cut off payments to families who will have grown accustomed to receiving funding each month? How do the mayor’s comments at a semi-public reception last month—that “we have to feed 172,000 people . . . or about 100,000 in our shelter system, migrant and asylum seekers and long‑term New Yorkers. Those are food contracts. That’s what MoCaFi was all about”—square with the city’s assertion that this contract is limited in dollars and finite in scope?

Early Friday, Fitzsimmons’s story posted on the Times website. Times readers did not learn about any of these public-policy issues. Instead, they learned about, apparently, what had been the real issue all along: me, and my “incorrectly” reported Post story. 

Debit cards “seemed like a common-sense solution,” the Times story reads, until “Republican leaders and conservative voices” came along and “ridiculed” it, making “people upset.” Chief among the people causing this public distress was me, for “incorrectly suggesting,” in my Post article, “that migrants would receive ‘up to $10,000 each in taxpayer money’ in an ‘open-ended, multibillion-dollar Bermuda Triangle of disappearing, untraceable cash used for any purpose.’” 

There’s nothing “incorrectly” suggestive about that quoted summation from my article, other than one mistake that Fitzsimmons herself inserted: I did not write that this Bermuda Triangle was an inevitability, but that the program “has the potential” for such a risk, which, indeed, it does. The only evidence Fitzsimmons could muster that I had been factually wrong in any way was the city’s verbal assurances to her and to others of how much and how the money will be spent—verbal assurances that are in some cases contrary to, and in others not guaranteed by, the contract documents themselves. For example, the city has not squared its insistence that it won’t spend more than $50 million with its fee schedule for disbursements above $150 million.

Fitzsimmons further assured her readers—without providing any skeptical countering view from a third-party observer, whether me or someone else—that “Mr. Adams,” the mayor, “argued that the plan would save the city money,” and that the mayor says he has “no relationship other than a professional relationship” with the contractor. (This second statement may be true: no one is claiming that the mayor and MoCaFi founder Coaxum are best friends, but rather, that it is reasonable to wonder how the mayor decided that this vendor, and only this vendor, out of New York’s deep pool of financial-services firms and benefits providers, is uniquely qualified to run this important pioneering project.) 

After Fitzsimmons’s story ran, I politely asked for a correction, also pointing out that she had never asked me to comment on the assertion that my story was “incorrectly” reported. At that point, Fitzsimmons told me that, indeed, “I understand why you read the contract the way you did, and that the city did not provide you with key details in advance of your deadline,” even though, as she knew from casual remarks during our phone conversation, that I had asked the city for such details, which, in any case, didn’t contradict my article when they emerged. “Your piece raised important questions and forced them to respond,” she told me. Yet the Times refused to print a correction—and refused to print this fuller, in-context analysis of my article. 

So, Times readers never benefitted from Fitzsimmons’s true journalistic judgment—her statement to me that “your piece raised important questions and forced [the city] to respond.” Instead, Times readers saw only her supposed judgment, contrary to what she had told me, that my article’s most salient point was factually wrong.

In lieu of a correction, the Times belatedly offered me a chance to respond to its mischaracterization of my work after the fact. The Times proposed, for example, that I say that I had written my piece “without the input or cooperation from the mayor’s office,” a bizarre non-sequitur that implies that one needs such “cooperation” for accuracy. After I had asked City Hall to answer my questions, and received no response, I had gone forward without such “cooperation,” as all journalists do. 

Beyond Fitzsimmons’s false characterization of my piece as inaccurate, she did a disservice to Times readers in other ways. She largely presents City Hall’s assertions on several points, without giving readers a different view.

Is a debit-card program the only way, or best way, to save money on migrant food, for example? Why not, as one former top state official suggested to me, issue migrants food vouchers that can be used at participating grocery stores and to-go restaurants within a radius of a few miles of shelters, with the merchants to redeem the vouchers to the city for cash? Why doesn’t the city simply stockpile common wares—basic foodstuffs, diapers, baby food—at its shelters, and allow the migrants to “shop” for what they want? It makes far more sense for the city to buy in bulk at wholesale prices than for migrants to pay Midtown Manhattan bodega prices for diapers and baby food. (This all assumes, of course, that the city should even try to provide shelter and food to the entire world on demand, a multibillion-dollar drain on a limited municipal budget.)

But the Times article is a success, from its ideological point of view. It got its desired point across to progressive readers: there’s no issue at all with New York City’s proposed debit-card program. This “common-sense solution” for migrants to buy “food and baby supplies” has now been totally vetted by the Times and found to be perfectly safe and sound. The only problem for Times readers to worry about over breakfast is “conservative voices” who “upset people” with “incorrectly suggest[ive]” articles. The Times gives Mayor Adams the last, authoritative, unchallenged word: this project is part of a strategy to “find ideas of how to run cities more efficiently,” he says.

And yes, as is standard journalistic practice, before writing this piece, I asked both Fitzsimmons and her editor for on-the-record comments on its substantive points, including how to square Fitzsimmons’s assertion to me that my “piece raised important questions” with her reporting to Times readers that my piece was simply “incorrect” in its most substantive “suggestion.” How can both of those things be true? I got a response from a Times spokesperson: “Our story is fair and accurate. When Ms. Gelinas sent a correction request, editors at The Times thoroughly reviewed the matter and found no correctable errors.” 

Read both articles, in full, and decide for yourself.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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