The Mayor's Press Pass
One reason for the remarkably charmed life of Mike Bloomberg's administration as he sails toward re-election has been the waning of the city's news business. This is an odd blessing for a man who made his fortune as a media mogul. But just ask Rudy Giuliani, or David Dinkins, or Ed Koch, and they'll painfully explain.
When this city enjoyed four fat daily newspapers, editors clamored for strong, tough copy to fill them. Whenever scandal hit—make that even a mini-scandal—each one scrambled after the story. Local TV news, which gets its morning bearings from the dailies, gleefully joined the hunt as well. This happy combination produced many full-strength media pile-ons and visible shivers in City Hall.
There was a keen reminder of this changed world when a man named Raymond Harding put himself back in the news this month by pleading guilty to fraud at the state's pension fund. Back in 1997, Harding, the boss of something called the Liberal Party, was the city's top lobbyist, his law firm raking in millions from clients seeking favors from Giuliani's City Hall. These were easy for Harding to arrange since he had personally invented Giuliani as a political player.
It took a while for the dailies to catch on to this scheme, but when they did, the effect was viral: They became a four-man tag team, taking turns serving up tales of greed and insider trading. Giuliani was then at the top of his game and delighted in telling off reporters. But he knew disaster when he saw it. Claiming ignorance that his mentor was making a fortune off his administration, he publicly chided his aides and ordered his pal to lay low.
These days, the papers are onion-skin thin, and exposés are catch as catch can. Newsday, which once gave rival editors panic attacks every morning, doesn't even have a city edition anymore. When Dinkins was in office, the Long Island tabloid investigated even the type of fertilizer he used on the Gracie Mansion lawn. Nowadays, to fill their meager space, editors prefer colorful yarns to investigations. Until this month, one newspaper carried an entire column about empty rooms. We have the Web, with all of its many hardworking blogs, but most of these spend their energies keeping political scorecards with all the obsession of fantasy baseball addicts: Who's on first, and what coaches are in the dugout? The business of government and its many failings goes largely unexamined.
Poor Ed Koch: He was trashed as a miserable miser in multiple front-page stories because he had some 2,000 homeless families sleeping in shelters. Mike Bloomberg has five times as many, and no one even knows about it.
It's not that there's no investigative spadework being done. What's missing is critical mass. Last week, the Daily News's Juan González delivered some excellent fodder for a full-scale media assault in City Hall's Blue Room. He reported that the mayor's billion-dollar plan to relocate the city's emergency 911 call system has become a fiasco. Not only has Bloomberg's team blown its budget and deadlines, but it has also ignored the findings of its own consultant, which found the project was mired in mismanagement. Rather than dump its lead contractor, as the consultant recommended, Bloomberg's top aides insisted that the plan go ahead as is—defects be damned.
This type of project is supposed to be smack in the mayor's sweet spot since it involves computers and communications, the business that made him the city's richest man. It should also be one of those instances where he runs rings around old-school politicians because of his keen business acumen. Instead, here he is, tripped up by the same cost overruns and bureaucrats that plague ordinary humans. Another mayor in another time might have suffered many tough questions the day after such information surfaced. Instead, only the News chased its own story.
The same thing happened this summer, when the Voice reported a scandal at the city's NYC-TV operation, where the top executive was fired and his deputy arrested ("Inside the Mayor's Studio: NYC-TV's Secrets of New York," August 4). Unlike the perennially tainted buildings department that has plagued every mayor, the problems at NYC-TV came from Bloomberg's own supporters. He had repeatedly hailed the station as an example of his innovative approach to government. But instead of minding the store, his aides had traipsed around the world, making their own private movie. This tale also failed to trip the press alarm that scrambles the media into action.
The big story late last week was the stunning court ruling on the illegal Stuyvesant Town rent hikes. But you'd never know from the coverage that Bloomberg had praised the original deal cut by landlord Tishman-Speyer (headed by one of his strongest allies). Or that his top aides had scotched a plan to keep Stuy Town affordable. Or that a hefty chunk of the financing for the deal came from Merrill Lynch, the late investment firm that was a top Bloomberg LP client and which the mayor was barred from dealing with under a Conflicts of Interest Board ruling. That story—told here in detail by Wayne Barrett just last month—also died an orphan.
Bloomberg's biggest claim to mayoral fame as he grabs for the third term that he used to insist he would never seek is his success at the business of education. This is a debate worth having. But Bloomberg consistently wins by default because the other side never fully shows up. As the legislature was considering the renewal of Bloomberg's mayoral control law this year, Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan issued six lengthy reports on the law's impact on the schools. They were detailed and thoughtful critiques on student achievement, school organization, and contracting. Asked recently how much press he received about them, Brennan paused. "I'm not sure there was any," he said.
There have been scattered stories about instances of grade inflation and test-score manipulations (again, with the News in the lead). The startlingly poor results of national student tests this month prompted even the Post, whose news pages have steadily cheered Bloomberg's education policies, to suggest that fraud was afoot somewhere. But the big picture still escapes us, along with whatever role was played by the education bureaucrats at the Tweed Courthouse.
At the mayor's annual Gracie Mansion Christmas party for the press last year, those in attendance report that Bloomberg took the stage to offer his idea of a joke. "I see that my three best friends in the media—Mort, Rupert, and Arthur—aren't here," he quipped. Then he walked out, right past the grunts who cover him all year.
Actually, the joke's on us. Even as newspaper fortunes sank in recent years, Bloomberg diligently courted media barons like Zuckerman, Murdoch, and Sulzberger, who he understood could make his life difficult if they so chose. Minus their support, as Joyce Purnick's new Bloomberg biography proves, he would have never risked his end run around term limits. But he knew he had little to fear. As Purnick's book also tells us, even his weekend disappearing act to go to his mansion in Bermuda has gone unchallenged.
"He does his radio show Friday morning," a former aide told her. "At 11:05, the latest, he's in his car. At 11:30 he is at the airport. His plane is in the air at 11:40, he's in Bermuda at 2:10. He's on the golf course by 2:30. . . . Almost every weekend, spring and fall."
There's a photo op that's been even more closely guarded than military caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base: Mayor Mike, golf bags over his shoulder, striding across the tarmac toward Air Bloomberg.
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