This past Monday was not a fun day to be Mayor Bill de Blasio.
As he prepared for an appearance on MSNBC, the mayor may have read the Daily News story headlined “Horse Feathers: Liam rips stable no-show Blaz,” about a very handsome actor impugning the mayor’s manhood for not showing up to debate a proposed carriage horse ban. In the New York Post de Blasio could see himself manhandled in “Pataki rips DeB ‘abuse of power’,” “Rev. Blas preaches ‘tax the rich’” and “Blasio’s blarney.” The New York Times metro section had the lower volume but similar pessimism in articles like “In Rent Plan for Charters, Mayor Faces a Hard Road” and “Among de Blasio’s Priorities, Minimum Wage Waits Behind Pre-K.”
Then de Blasio went on the air to endure a long, hostile and not particularly well-informed grilling about charter schools on Morning Joe. The mayor’s security detail showed admirable restraint in not tackling Mika Brzezinski, whose white-hot-angry stare threatened to bore a hole in hizzoner’s skull.
That was just one bad morning in what’s been a tough month for the mayor. What’s driving all the bad ink? Is it that de Blasio (or his team) is bad at communicating? Or is it that the press is treating him unfairly?
Is “none of the above” an option?
Look, de Blasio has misplayed his hand with the press a number of times: the off-schedule visit to AIPAC, the habitual lateness to press events, the ducking out of the room when he should have answered questions and ended the dust-up over his motorcade’s disregard for traffic rules. The mayor acknowledged on Morning Joe that the PR on the charter school co-locations decision was botched.
At the same time, the press is not being easy on de Blasio. The tabloid story about the mayor’s call to the NYPD regarding the arrest of a supporter simply wasn’t front-page material, because there was never any evidence that de Blasio meant to influence the cops. Stalking the mayoral motorcade was an aggressive move by WCBS that never really considered whether, just maybe, the mayor of a large city being driven by police officers has a legitimate reason for rolling through stop signs. As noted in an earlier blog, I think the Times article about the alleged leftist occupation of City Hall was off-target. The coverage by many outlets of the charter school decision was abysmal, devoid of all context and proportion.
Still, given the small sample size just two months into his term, I don’t think the totality of coverage by the mainstream working press has been systematically unfair to the mayor. By “mainstream working press” I don’t include the editorial boards—the Daily News editorial page has been against de Blasio since day one and the Times editorial unit has offered modest doses of support and deep skepticism—or the Post, which is a right-wing publication and no more a part of the MSM than The Nation or City Limits.
I do think the media are being tougher on de Blasio than they were on Bloomberg in his early days, but I was overseas back then and can’t pretend to speak authoritatively. Over his full term I think Bloomberg got way too little criticism in the press. Comparisons aside, being tough is not unfair; it’s journalism, and it’s what we’re supposed to do. While it’s frustrating when journalistic skepticism happens to align with what the wealthy elites are saying in defense of the status quo, skepticism is an important asset for journalists. Hopefully, Andrew Cuomo and Eva Moskowitz will start feeling the sting of more of it. A more credulous press is not what progressives want, even if that means some scrapes and bruises for their causes.
Here’s what I feel is happening: Bill de Blasio is trying to do ambitious and, in many cases, complicated things—truly universal pre-K with a solid fiscal underpinning, the creation of 190,000 units of affordable housing, zero traffic deaths, a more inclusive kind of education reform and so on. These are hard things for a politician to explain, and de Blasio is not doing a great job of explaining them. They are also tough subjects for the mainstream media—with their daily deadlines and space constraints—to cover with the kind of depth and detail the stories merit, and we see that playing out, too. These mutual shortcomings are why the charter school thing blew up. They’re also why Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan died in Albany. It happens to lots of guys. Really.
The great politicians (like FDR, LBJ—on The Great Society, not Vietnam!—and Reagan) have found a way to solve that problem through relentless communication, making it possible for the ever-imperfect media to cover them right. So, does de Blasio’s Brooklyn pad have a fireside he can chat from?
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