Koch was hardly alone in making this happen. He would likely have failed if not for the strong leadership in support of the city shown by then Governor Hugh L. Carey. Bob Kiley and David Gunn helped turn around a dysfunctional Transit Authority and began to improve service on the subways and buses that are the metropolis’s circulatory system.
Throughout all this, our “communications strategy” was basically to try to keep our heads above water and tell what we were doing. There was no great Schlieffin Plan for the press—just daily care and feeding.
Sure, we liked some reporters more than others, but overall the relations between the administration and the press were open and cordial. Certainly they seemed that way to veteran City Hall reporters when they looked back on the Koch years during the Giuliani era. At one event held to discuss the Giuliani Administration’s maltreatment of the press, Wayne Barrett came up to me to remark on how open and fair we had been. The wheel turns.
When I recall that time, I am particularly struck by the simplicity of our tools. When I started, we were still doing press releases on typewriters (we finally managed to cadge a superannuated word processor from another city department). We wore beepers, and carried quarters to be able to use public phones when we were out and about. Press releases were hand-delivered to Room 9, and an AP teletype machine sat in a closet for us to monitor breaking news. No Web, no social media, the gatekeepers still firmly ensconced on their editorial thrones—there is a distant, almost artisanal air about it.
But, just as I think the Koch Administration largely did a good job in difficult times, I think the City Hall reporters largely held up their end. Reforms in the city’s managerial and fiscal practices were thoroughly covered, in spite of the fact that they did not always make the most gripping reading. And so, of course, were mistakes and scandals.
Our relations with the press were, fundamentally, adversarial, but they were also respectful. For the truth of the matter was, a lot of our internal meetings were governed by the unspoken question, What would this program or decision look like if we read about it in tomorrow’s Daily News? In a democracy, as it turns out, that’s a pretty good question to have hanging over your head.