Bloomberg to Press: Write What You’re Told

Mayor Bloomberg's press aides laid down some ground rules yesterday when announcing some new initiatives, and most of the media played along.

You’re mayor of New York City. It’s the day before your annual “State of the City” address. You want certain aspects of your speech to be teased in the next morning’s papers, but you don’t want a bunch of outside voices raining on your parade, dissecting your speech before you’ve even hit the podium.

So, your people phone up city hall reporters, preview some of your proposals, provide anonymous quotes on portions of the speech you’d like highlighted, and insist that reporters not do any additional reporting or seek outside comment until the day of the speech.

(At least, that’s what the New York Sun seemed to be telling its readers yesterday with this eyebrow-raising bit in a story previewing Bloomberg’s speech: “The mayor’s proposals — which were embargoed until this morning and released to reporters on the condition that nobody would be called to comment on them until today…”)

And then, on the morning of your speech, you revel in seeing your version of events reprinted in papers throughout the city, featuring only quotes from unnamed people on your team (“officials said” and “aides said”) touting only bits of the speech you chose to emphasize. (See, for example, the NY Post’s headline yesterday: “$1B Tax Break For Bloomy Boomtown,” and lede, “With revenues overflowing and the economy roaring, Mayor Bloomberg today will unveil a $1 billion tax cut, marking a stunning turnaround of the city’s fortunes from the dark days of 9/11…” and, further along, “As opposed to increasing the size of government, the mayor believes that a good portion of surplus revenues should go back into the hands of the taxpayers of New York City,” said one senior mayoral aide…”)

Given, this sort of managing of the news — reporters receiving previews of political speeches from anonymous officials and then writing up what they’ve been handed — isn’t unusual in politics at any level. But it was startling to us to see the Sun try to lay out for readers in some detail the conditions under which their Bloomberg Speech Preview story was written. At least the Sun explained the rules of the game to readers, even as they played along (there was no analysis or comment from outsiders in their story.)

Other New York papers did not offer the same level of detail for their readers, indicating only that they were briefed “on the condition of anonymity” (New York Times) or “briefed…on a background basis” by “an unnamed mayoral aide (New York Post). Newsday and the Daily News simply quoted these unnamed Bloomberg officials.

Sure, a reporter can discuss who is likely to criticize or praise certain aspects of a political speech — as did the Sun: “The tax package will likely be met with opposition from those who would rather see the city increase government programs, and praise from those who have been championing tax cuts since the economy has been surging” — but, as Bloomberg’s office surely knows, that doesn’t hold the same weight for readers as a direct quote from an outside authority doing the opposing or praising. And you can’t beat a day’s worth of stories in the press highlighting the crowd-pleasing parts of a speech, free of outside analysis or criticism (wait, aren’t those called press releases)?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.