Until quite recently, whenever the mayoral race in New York City pierced the wider news cycle, the coverage seemed to coalesce around a single candidate: Andrew Yang. In some quarters, a narrative of unstoppability developed around him; others argued that he’d essentially vaulted into pole position via his profile-raising Democratic presidential bid in 2020, when he didn’t get many primary votes but did talk to journalists left, (very) right, and center. “Yang is the first celebrity candidate who’s famous for being a celebrity candidate, a sort of political Kardashian,” The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote. James Poniewozik, TV critic at the New York Times, characterized Yang’s campaign as “an endless cycle of gaffes and self-owns”—including his definition of a bodega, and the time he said Times Square is his favorite subway station—“that have left him at or near the top of the polls,” making Yang further grist for the proposition “that in today’s politics, there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Trump comparisons inevitably followed. Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, wrote—in a piece headlined, “Help, We Can’t Stop Writing About Andrew Yang”—that even local outlets were grappling with the unedifying legacy of national Trump coverage in 2016. “There’s a residual wariness among the media about being careful not to uncritically help elevate someone who’s more celebrity than proven public servant,” Jere Hester, editor of the nonprofit New York newsroom The City, told Smith.
The media obsession with Yang is clearly reciprocal, if not symbiotic. Yang’s presidential bid made him not just a media persona, but a media critic: “I had a relatively naïve point of view where I thought journalists would simply report on what they saw,” he wrote last year in a (since apparently deleted) blog post, whereas actually reporters “reinforce particular candidates and narratives and dismiss others”; earlier this year, he told Politico’s Tina Nguyen that he “thought that there would be some media organizations that were at least somewhat excited at the prospect of there being an Asian American presidential candidate in the modern era. And that almost never occurred.” In late April, Yang told Smith that he was, by contrast, “excited” by the volume of coverage of his mayoral bid: “Generally speaking being covered is a good thing,” he said. That’s not to say, though, that Yang has been happy with the tenor of the coverage. After his Times Square comment, Yang and his wife, Evelyn, both condemned as racist a New York Daily News cartoon depicting him as a tourist. (The Daily News defended the cartoon as fair comment on the “major gaps in his knowledge of New York City politics and policy,” but did alter its portrayal of his eyes.) Then, last week, Yang and Evelyn unloaded on what they see as inadequate media coverage of Eric Adams, a rival candidate, in an interview with Hunter Walker for New York. “The contrast!” Evelyn said. “The contrast!” She stayed on the phone to Walker until 2am.
Yang’s frustration with coverage of Adams, in particular, has grown alongside a recent narrative shift: his gaffes and self-owns are no longer leaving him at the top of the polls. In mid-May, the Times editorial board—despite urging Yang last year to jump into New York politics—fired a warning shot, endorsing Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, for mayor. (Yang has said that if he wins, he’ll hire Garcia to run the city for him; the editorial board agreed with Garcia that voters should “cut out the middleman.”) The Daily News also endorsed Garcia, who rose in the polls. So, too, did Adams, to the point where he is now considered the favorite to win—a status that has come, belatedly, with wider media scrutiny, including a controversy, sparked by Politico, as to where, exactly, he lives, and whether the answer might be, gasp, New Jersey. Adams responded by comparing the residency questions to birtherism and inviting reporters to tour his townhouse in Brooklyn (where he is borough president) and look inside his fridge; he also made a splash with some weird answers to Q&As, telling Vanity Fair that the best concert he’s ever been to was the one at which Curtis Mayfield was paralyzed. Maya Wiley has enjoyed a late narrative boost, too, especially since her endorsement by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Wiley’s name has since been portmanteaued with “momentum.”)
Primary day is now finally upon us, and there’s widespread agreement that Yang, Adams, Garcia, and Wiley are the candidates to watch. That aside, though, we perhaps haven’t seen so much a narrative shift as a narrative unraveling, into various threads of uncertainty. One of these, of course, is the horse race: “I’ve been watching NYC mayoral elections for nearly thirty years,” CNN data whizz Harry Enten said yesterday, “and I have never lacked this much confidence in predicting the winner on primary eve.” The voting system is another key thread: for the first time, the primary will use a ranked-choice method. The change seems to have occasioned some candidate conniptions and a media narrative of unnecessary complication, despite similar systems being seen as very straightforward elsewhere in the world. Last week, Zack Fink, an NY1 reporter, said that voters had been “sold a bill of goods on this one.” After Yang campaigned with Garcia and told his supporters to rank her second, Adams accused them, in network interviews, of trying to disenfranchise Black voters.
There’s uncertainty around voters’ understanding of the new system, and as to how well the polls captured its effects: as Dana Rubinstein, of the Times, wrote recently, polling drove the Yang and Adams attention bubbles, and yet major pollsters opted to sit the race out this time. The uncertainty continues down the ballot—local outlets like The City have published detailed guides to city-council races, for instance, but there’s a lot there for news consumers to get their heads around, and the general, longer-term retrenchment of local journalism hasn’t helped. And then there’s the fact that we may not even know the mayoral result for several weeks: voters’ first preferences should be counted pretty quickly, but those are very unlikely to be decisive, and tens of thousands of absentee ballots still have to come in, too. “I worry about how we all deal with these information vacuums,” Smith, of the Times, tweeted yesterday. “Though maybe the current New York mood is exhausted/chill/enjoying the summer enough to handle it.”
If Yang’s early ascent recalled lessons from coverage of Trump’s 2016 victory, the likely delay in knowing the result recalls lessons from coverage of Trump’s slow-motion 2020 defeat. As Smith notes, New York is not the country; also, this is a Democratic primary, and Trump isn’t running in it. Still, some of the same media challenges that marked the last presidential election apply here: all elections are fundamentally uncertain, this one especially so, and it’s fine to eschew prognostication and lean into that. Last week, NY1 hosted a live podcast taking questions about the race on the app Clubhouse, and one listener, after managing to unmute himself, asked a pertinent question about coverage of perhaps the greatest uncertainty of all: New York’s post-COVID trajectory. “I would love to see a question asked of the candidates which is basically, Hey, what is it we don’t know?” the listener said. “It’s okay if they don’t know, but, like, What do you need to see more clarity on?” New York is one corner of an uncertain world.
Below, more on the mayor’s race and New York media:
- Stringer out?: For CJR, Andrea Gabor assesses how coverage of Scott Stringer, once the leading progressive candidate for mayor, mostly petered out after Jean Kim, a longtime volunteer on his campaigns, accused him, at a press conference, of sexual misconduct. Stringer denies this; a second woman has since also made accusations against him. “After we chewed it over,” Errol Louis, a host on NY1, told Gabor of the first allegation, “the consensus was that unless he can pull a rabbit out of the hat or change the narrative, Stringer’s campaign is on life support.”
- “Reading up on the race”: In the run-up to primary day, CJR’s Savannah Jacobson surveyed New York City residents about their mayoral-media consumption. “Age seemed to be the best predictor of news habits: older people looked to traditional outlets––the Times, the tabloids, TV––while their younger neighbors followed the race through social media,” she writes. “The politically engaged among us rattled off a list of local news outlets; others expressed frustration with what they viewed as inadequate coverage.”
- A cutback: Last week, Matt Murray, editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, told staff that the paper is shuttering its “Greater New York” metro section. Eight reporters worked on that team; their job status was not immediately clear, though Murray said that they would have the opportunity to apply for new positions. Murray also told staff that the paper would launch a new digital section, called “Life & Work,” to be run by sixty staffers. Katie Robertson has more details for the Times.
- “Nobody wraps Pat Kiernan”: For New York, Caitlin Moscatello reports on infighting at NY1. In 2019, five female anchors at the station sued its parent company for age and gender discrimination. “The allegations in the lawsuit were damning but not shocking. TV has always been a brutal business for women,” Moscatello writes. “But the real damage was in the details. The drama around the lawsuit revealed not simply sexism at the station but a sharp-elbowed culture in which the rewards were meager and the egos outsize. The sense that only a chosen few would get to shine turned a once-collegial news channel into a den of vipers.”
Other notable stories:
- Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, spoke with Chris Hayes, a leading anchor on the network, about the media’s handling of the threat the Republican Party poses to democracy. “Within the boundaries of how the press largely views itself, it’s been fairly forward-leaning about this sense of crisis and urgency,” Hayes said. “The problem is, there’s two parties, and there’s two coalitions, and one of them is just… okay with this. And then it just sits there, in the middle of American life. In the middle of American governance. And it’s very hard to figure out how to talk about that.”
- For the Times, Katharine Q. Seelye profiles the New Bedford Light, a new nonprofit site that aims to address a deficit of in-depth local news in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Perhaps unusually, Jon Mitchell, the city’s mayor, is an enthusiastic backer of the new outlet. “I’m surprised there aren’t more mayors talking about this,” Mitchell says. “When local media is diminished, the city is diminished, and when the city is diminished, the office of mayor is diminished. So it’s in the self interest of mayors to care about this.”
- Yesterday, The Trace, a news site focused on gun violence in America, launched “Up the Block,” an “engaged journalism initiative” offering resources to people affected by gun violence in the city of Philadelphia. Currently, the project aims to help users find help in areas including victims compensation and mental-health support; in the future, it will add resources focused on safe spaces for young people and community accountability.
- For The Conversation, Eurie Dahn, an academic at the College of Saint Rose and author of the book Jim Crow Networks: African American Periodical Cultures, explores the ways in which Black journalists have historically used punctuation. “It turns out the push to capitalize ‘black’ is only the most recent way Black writers and activists have pushed back against entrenched power through ostensibly bland elements of writing,” she says.
- Michelle Lee, the top editor of Allure, is stepping down from that post to join Netflix; she’ll take on a newly created role as the streaming service’s global vice president of editorial and publishing, with oversight of social media, podcasts, and Queue, Netflix’s magazine. During her time at Allure, Lee won plaudits for running a cover that featured a model in a hijab and for banning the term “anti-aging,” among other things. Variety has more.
- Yesterday, the US, Canada, the UK, and the European Union moved jointly to slap a new round of sanctions on Belarus—a response to its government’s move, a month ago, to intercept a passenger flight over its airspace and detain Roman Protasevich, an exiled journalist who was on board. While the sanctions mostly seek to punish various officials, EU leaders are also planning to target key Belarusian industries including oil and potash.
- For CJR, Oswaldo Rivas charts three years of deteriorating press freedom in Nicaragua. “Sixty-one cases of violence against journalists were documented between December 2019 and February 2020, along with 338 cases of press freedom violations between January and November 2020,” Rivas writes. On Sunday, the authorities arrested Miguel Mora, a journalist who had registered for a possible presidential run later this year.
- Next Wednesday, more than four hundred radio stations in Canada will participate in “A Day to Listen,” by dedicating twelve hours of airtime to the elevation of Indigenous voices. The initiative, which will mark the end of Canada’s National Indigenous History Month, follows the shocking recent revelation that the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia.
- And the Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show officially debuted in Rush Limbaugh’s old time slot on Premiere Networks yesterday. (Limbaugh died earlier this year.) “While it marked the start of a new era, the duo repeatedly referenced Limbaugh,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy writes. The new show “sounded more like filler talk radio—something a station would play in between the marquee names—than anything else.”
New from CJR: Three years of deteriorating press freedom in NicaraguaJon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.