The Media Today

Andrew Yang, Eric Adams, and uncertainty on primary day in New York

June 22, 2021

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.

Related: How harassment allegations shifted coverage of a mayoral campaign

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.”

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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.”

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Jon 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.