Thursday, October 29, 2009

Media Milquetoasts

Tom Robbins lays out the bill of particulars against the political quiescence of the local papers: "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."

And Robbins goes on to highlight a number of stories that, perhaps, in another more robust time, would have become fodder for tabloid competition-and a challenge to the Teflon image of the mayor. And the 911 scandal heads the list: "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."

The deserved furor, however, never occurred. But we're placing the blame less on the state of newspaper lassitude, and more on the incandescence of Mayor Mike. How else can we explain why the 911 scandal, one that exposes the expertise myth of the mayor, never caught hold? As Robbins observes: "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."

And then there are the schools: "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."

But the education media miasma is, in our view, a sole consequence of the mayor's MC Hammer, "Can't Touch This," routine. As Crain's Insider pointed out yesterday: "But in attacking the mayor on education, Thompson has gained no traction. Various advocacy groups and elected officials have likewise failed. Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, says class sizes are going up, contrary to claims in the Mayor's Management Report. She recently testified that the Department of Education is “committing fraud” by ignoring a state mandate to reduce class size, which last year grew by the largest amount in a decade. Neither the department nor Haimson can explain the discrepancies in the numbers...Teachers frequently complain about tedious drilling to inflate test scores, but their union has been silent on this topic during the campaign—which, given the contract it got from the mayor, was no surprise to insiders. The three major dailies' endorsements of the mayor ignored the context of the scores."

So the pattern is clearly established. What would normally prompt editorial outrage and an accompanying media feeding frenzy for the sins of mortals, is ignored when it pertains to the actions of Mayor Mike. And this Robbins observation underscores our point: "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."

So the fix is in-and we see it every day. In this morning's NY Post editorial on the collapsing state of the NY economy, the paper lashes out against Governor Paterson, who's only been around for a short stint, and fails to even mention Big Spender Mike. The lesson here is that the press owners finally have one of their own at the helm.

So, when misdeeds that would normally earn someone the Post's disdain, or garner a, "Knucklehead Award," from the News, are committed by the mayor they may be reported, but not with anything like the vitriol that is reserved for the lower class miscreants. In the end, the silence of the press lambs is all about the weight and influence of New York's richest and most powerful man.