By Albert Samaha
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After his speech on environmental reform, reporters and photographers literally chased him through the conference center halls. His words and picture ran in more than 100 publications. New York's dailies sent reporters who relayed hourly dispatches back home.
Despite this wall-to-wall coverage, the mayor's office insisted that the city have its own camera crew on hand to record him. On December 12, a couple of days before the mayor flew out on his private jet, a pair of technicians from the city's TV station, NYC Media, grabbed their camera equipment and took a taxi to Newark Airport. They paid an extra baggage charge to stow their gear, flew overnight to Copenhagen, put up at decent hotels, rented a car, and followed the mayor around, grabbing a bite when they could.
All told, the five-day trip cost $11,220. You can add another $1,500 for a week's worth of wages for the hard-working cameramen who had to hustle through airports and foreign streets. Net benefit to the city? Their video footage ran for awhile on Channel 25's "City Scoop" program. Then it went on a shelf in the archives, where it remains today.
Just why it is that taxpayers pay the tab for these out-of-town mayoral movies is a mystery. The Voice reported in March that Bloomberg is the first mayor to insist on a traveling video crew wherever he goes. (See "Bloomberg: The Movie (At Your Expense)" from March 16, 2010) More than $142,000 was spent to film him on his world tours from January 2006 to May 2009. It took nine months to pry that information loose from the city's Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, so an added request was made to find out what was spent in the interim. The answer, as of April, was that another $16,000 went to film seven more outings, including the Copenhagen spree, and $2,200 to film the mayor shaking hands with federal health officials in Atlanta.
This mayoral moviemaking also puzzled Manhattan City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, the new chairman of the Council's Committee on Technology. At a hearing last month, he asked top station officials about it: "So if I wanted to take a trip to Los Angeles to explore infrastructure issues, and I wanted NYC Media to film my activities, would you come along?" he asked.
The question jolted station manager Todd Asher, who envisioned 51 Council members each demanding their own camera crew. "I don't know," he said nervously. "The challenge we have is you are a much larger body. Following each of your activities would not be possible physically."
Sitting beside him, Asher's boss, Katherine Oliver, rushed to confirm this. "It's a resource issue," she said. "We just don't have the resources or budget to supply that."
Garodnick relieved their anxiety. "OK, well, I wouldn't ask it, either," he said. "I also wouldn't ask it of the mayor. I think there are a lot of ways for us to get the necessary clips of the mayor speaking in Copenhagen than to have our own city, taxpayer-funded cameras following him around."
For a tiny agency that should be right in the mayor's sweet spot of expertise—he is, after all, a media mogul—NYC Media has had an awful lot of headaches since Bloomberg took over.
This week, the former chief of operations began serving a 15-month prison sentence for embezzlement. After he was nabbed, the executive said he'd gotten away with his scheme because the station's general manager was never around to check up on him. Five other officials were forced to resign. The ex-manager, a former Bloomberg campaign aide named Arick Wierson, was cited for using city workers to run personal errands and work on a private movie.
None of this has ever been acknowledged by Bloomberg's City Hall. But when tough questions started coming their way at the April 15 Council hearing, the current NYC Media executives were quick to say how bad things were at the agency they inherited.
"When I was asked to take responsibility, it was immediately following a publicly reported arrest of a senior member of staff," testified Oliver, who also heads the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting. "It was a very troubled agency that had not been managed effectively." She ticked off a laundry list of unhappy management indicators, including a workforce in shell shock from a lengthy investigation. "You can only imagine what it was like," said Oliver.
Basic tasks also went undone. At the hearing, a casual question about the availability of city stations on satellite TV evoked a startling admission: "Unfortunately, in the past, we failed to file a document to continue our coverage on DISH TV," Asher said. The lapse meant that tens of thousands of potential viewers were locked out.
That was the old regime, Oliver and Asher emphasized. But questions were also raised about what had happened on their own watch. Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams asked if what he had read in another Voice story was true: that recent high-level hires at NYC Media have come from a small circle of friends, all of them white. Williams said he was concerned that "people of more color," as he put it, were "being disenfranchised."
Oliver responded by saying how hard it was to recruit people to a troubled noncommercial station. She'd interviewed "dozens of people" for the top slots, she said, but wound up hiring those she already knew. Oliver met Asher when the two had worked together at Bloomberg LP, the mayor's giant media company. "Yes, it's true that I worked with Todd Asher in the private sector," she said. She also acknowledged hiring an old college friend to head production and recruiting her finance director from the mayor's office.
Then there is Oliver's choice as director of external affairs, a 30-year old man named Chris Coffey, whose mother is a friend of the mayor's and whose entire résumé consists of various Bloomberg jobs—at his media company, in his campaigns, and at City Hall. "To my understanding," Williams said, "no one else was interviewed, and he did not have a college degree, barely reached the qualifications, but earns the top amount, $116,000. Can you explain that?"
Oliver tried. "He has very specific skills and experience that we thought were best suited for this position," she said. She added that Coffey is also helping win grants for the station, an area where, she said, the agency needed assistance. Actually, the agency already has a full-time worker handling its grants—including $1.5 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that the station boasts of on its website. This employee is African-American and holds a master's degree from Johns Hopkins, the mayor's alma mater and where he long served as chairman of the board.
"I'm concerned about a pattern here that's disturbing," Williams said at the hearing. He didn't spell out what he meant, but one word for it is patronage, a by-product of which is discrimination against those outside the inner circle.
Last week, the agency was pressed about the "dozens" of interviews Oliver claimed to have conducted in her jobs search. A spokeswoman took things down a notch: "Several applicants" had been interviewed, she said. How many was that? Here, all answers ceased. The station was forthright and clear on one matter, however: It will continue to film Mayor Mike, wherever he chooses to travel.