Reporters Face Bad Commute, Bad Numbers and Bad Fashion

As day two of New York City transit strike dawned, newspapers were busily “flooding the zone.” But with every “flood” of coverage comes, of course, both high and low moments.

As day two of New York City transit strike dawned, the New York Times was not alone in “flooding the zone.”

The city’s tabloids, too, are providing an abundance of strike coverage. The New York Post, for example, today offers 15 strike-related articles, including one about how a “cabby belted an Upper East Side woman in the face last night after she argued that she was overcharged on an eight-block ride, police said.” And you can tell that local television news is serious about its strike coverage from the specially produced “strike” graphics that hover screen-right throughout the newscasts (including WNYW-TV Fox 5’s particularly insistent and descriptive “ILLEGAL STRIKE” graphic.)

And so, thanks in part to the area’s news media, most New Yorkers are by now aware that they cannot hop the subway or bus to work — or, as the Times’s Dan Barry puts it (for TimesSelect readers only), “we were denied [the subway’s] mechanical, maternal sway that normally rouses us for the day.”

With every “flood” of coverage comes, of course, both high and low moments.

Let’s start with a positive — by way of a negative.

As the Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” Carl Bialik, points out today, many news outlets have reported with little or no context Mayor Bloomberg’s estimate of how much the strike could cost New York City — upwards of $400 million per day. (Journalists transcribing a politician’s claim without question? Frankly, we’re shocked.) “Mr. Bloomberg’s $400 million-a-day projection was reported by Agence France Presse, the Associated Press, CNN, and the New York Times. And the higher estimates of $440 million to $660 million were also widely reported, in Newsday, the New York Times, and the New York Sun,” Bialik journo-scolds before proceeding to explain just how shaky that figure actually is (with help from assorted experts). Kudos to Bialik for reporting this out (and, of course, shame on those media outlets that did not).

And while there are still reporters today referencing without question or context Bloomberg’s $400 million estimate — at the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post, for example — there are also a few who are trying to do better. Writes the Times’ Richard Perez-Pena after reporting the $400 million estimate today: “Whether or not such assessments are accurate, a drive past storefronts with their security gates locked at midday or a stroll through eerily quiet shops the week before Christmas left no doubt that the strike was inflicting widespread economic pain.” Moreover, he reports, “There was some dispute among experts over the city’s estimate of economic losses,” with the former chief economist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey calling the city’s figures “about right” and a senior economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York warning that “official estimates might be exaggerated.”

Although Newsday dutifully reports the $400 million estimate today (“Yesterday alone cost the city $400 million, according to city Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr.) reporter Randi F. Marshall is not entirely credulous: “But while those numbers seem huge, they’re not destructive to a city economy that produces more than $2 billion a day in output, according to Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody’s, who, at Newsday’s request, analyzed the strike’s potential impact.”

Under the headline “Some Discount Mik’es Doom & Gllom,” the Daily News today fact-checks another Bloomberg claim — that “sales at the big New York City department stores were off 30 percent or 40 percent on Friday, just from the uncertainty of people not knowing whether they could get to work.” But, the News reports, officials with Federated (owner of three of those “big New York City department stores”) “said their sales are never broken out by stores or divisions and that the company’s December sales won’t be officially tallied until next month.”

Moving on: It’s no secret that reporters doing the requisite man-on-the-spot take on a news event typically search for the most colorful and outrageous quotes to represent the “mood on the street.” In the first days of Strike 2005, New Yorkers did not disappoint. The award for finding the most hysterical (and we don’t mean funny) New Yorker-on-the-street utterance goes to the Associated Press’s David Caruso, who quotes one Maria Negron pronouncing the strike “a form of terrorism.” The Daily News, too, found a New Yorker willing to make a similar comparison — one William Welles, who “called the strike ‘citywide blackmail terrorism’,” a turn of phrase which the News deemed headline-worthy.

Depending on which paper you read, you learn today that the strike spawned a wave of city-wide camaraderie — or not. While the Times’ Alan Feuer found in a “usually standoffish city” “an instant fellowship” among strangers sharing rides into Manhattan, the Daily News’ Helen Kennedy reports that in fact “there was little of the camaraderie and spirit that was so evident after the Sept. 11 terror attacks or the blackout of 2003.” (Kennedy later contradicts herself, writing that “of course, there was a lot of good cheer around as well … as New Yorkers’ natural enjoyment of the new and different came to the fore.”)

This was not the only source of confusion in the coverage. There are also conflicting reports today on this most critical of questions: Did or did not New Yorkers wear sneakers as they hoofed it to work? According to the Times’ Feuer, “sneakers were a mainstay of the commute.” Adds the Christian Science Monitor’s Alexandra Marks today: “They came by foot — most in sneakers; by cab — often quadrupled up; by bike — bundled against the cold; and by train — with standing room only into Manhattan. On the first day of the first major transit strike in 25 years, most New Yorkers made it to work.”

And so what to make of the Washington Post’s Michelle Garcia and Christopher Lee, who today report that “millions of erstwhile straphangers waged their daily commute on foot, in-line skates, bicycles and motor scooters — but rarely in anything as unfashionable as sneakers”?

Never fear, tomorrow is Thursday, and the Times’ Thursday Styles section will no doubt provide the definitive report on strike-inspired sartorial staples.

But wait! It seems as though Newsday and the Daily News beat the Times to it. In a story headlined, “Strike a Pose! Did Style Survive the Cold?” readers are warned by “style experts” that “this is no time to slack” — because the world is watching New York and, says one expert, “you could wind up on TV.”

What about those sneakers? Reports Newsday’s Ann Givens: “Everyone’s favorite fashion faux pas — bulky white sneakers with business suits — started during the last transit strike in 1980, when thousands of business women grew weary of walking miles to work in their pumps.”

In other words: sneakers are so Strike 1980.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.