Media critic de Blasio should cop to how he steers coverage
In a recent interview with BuzzFeed's Ben Smith, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio played media critic, denouncing the tabloid focus on purported fripperies, claiming his vital work gets ignored, and suggesting that corporate media follow a corporate agenda.
Yes, the mayor’s beef is partially legitimate: His Park Slope gym routine and his posture on the Puerto Rican Day Parade are news stories that have drawn disproportionate attention. However, as critics point out, de Blasio didn't seem to mind when political rivals like his predecessor Michael Bloomberg faced similar tabloid censure.
More importantly, de Blasio's no victim. He not only pushes back on reporters' premises at press conferences, he has a robust communications team, both in his office and in his agencies. So the mayor often sets the agenda, given the relatively small number of journalists covering city policies, their space constraints and deadlines, and their limited institutional memory.
Consider how de Blasio has steered coverage of "affordable housing," which laypeople often translate as "low-income," but merely means "below-market," with tenants paying about 30 percent of their income towards rent. Sure, de Blasio has made more strides in this area than his predecessor, but he's gotten even more media mileage.
A July 2015 mayoral press release announcing "a Record-Breaking 20,325 Affordable Apartments and Homes Financed in Last Fiscal Year" led to mostly laudatory coverage. It took Gothamist's Christopher Robbins to say, "De Blasio Celebrates New Trickle Of Affordable Housing," noting that most apartments cost too much for the city's poor.
A year later, a mayoral press release announcing an "Affordable Housing Record, Highest Production Since 1989" emerged after The New York Times was fed an exclusive, producing a generally positive article.
The administration, getting a second bite at pretty much the same apple, in January 2017 issued a press release announcing "Major Progress" and noting that "Affordable housing in 2016 hits 25-year high." This, too, followed a Times exclusive, again with just a dollop of skepticism. (The two press releases marked the fiscal year and calendar year, respectively.)
And in an end-of-2016 video that closely resembled a campaign ad, Broadway stars sang de Blasio's accomplishments, with the not-so-specific line "Affordable housing, and more to come soon."
"Corporate media often doesn't challenge corporate power structures," de Blasio told BuzzFeed’s Smith. But the mayor has embraced such "powers that be" to achieve his affordable housing goals. Both City Limits and Crain's New York Business have described how nonprofit developers feel like they get short shrift from the city.
Such civic-corporate synergy was clear in a June 13 mayoral press release, sunnily headlined "Mayor de Blasio Announces Opening of Nearly 300 Affordable Apartments at Pacific Park in Brooklyn," with the subheading, "First 100 percent affordable building serves New Yorkers earning as little as $20,100, and up to moderate and middle income earners."
A casual reader might think 535 Carlton somehow serves poorer New Yorkers, ultimately incorporating some better-off households. Indeed, News12 reported, "Unlike other new developments that have a mix of market-rate and affordable apartments, 298-unit 535 Carlton is fully dedicated to low-cost housing."
Not so. The tower has just three studios renting for $548 monthly, while 36 studios cost $2,137, which approaches market-rate, depending where you look. (One market-rate studio in another Pacific Park building, 461 Dean, actually rented for less.)
“Our administration is delivering on the affordable housing this community was promised," de Blasio claimed in the press release, and The Wall Street Journal declared it among "significant down payments" on the project's affordable housing promise. Again, untrue. Only 20 percent of Pacific Park's affordable apartments overall were supposed to go to the best-off cohort. Instead, 50 percent of 535 Carlton units qualify: one-bedrooms for $2,680, two-bedrooms for $3,223, and three-bedrooms for $3,716. Such middle-income households represent a tiny fraction of the city.
Those uncomfortable facts went unmentioned at the press conference. The one 535 Carlton resident the administration trotted out for the cameras – an understandably grateful single mom who lost her job a few years ago and faced an unsteady housing situation – almost surely was unrepresentative of building residents. Still, she was featured in tweets from Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
Consider: While the building's housing lottery drew a whopping 92,743 entries for 297 units (one goes to the super), only 2,203 applicants were income-eligible for the 148 middle-income units, as I reported in April for City Limits.
However, virtually no media coverage of the Pacific Park announcement – mainly from online outlets – pushed back. Yet it's possible, if not easy, to challenge the official narrative. At the December 2014 groundbreaking for 535 Carlton, the Daily News reported that de Blasio hailed an "affordable housing'" complex in Brooklyn "with $3,500 apartments." However, the reporter who wrote that story, Jennifer Fermino, has since left for a communications job.
While last week's mayoral press release packaged enthusiastic quotes from project participants, less compromised experts deserve attention. "Those apartments aren't meeting the most serious needs of the city, at all," said Community Service Society housing policy analyst Tom Waters last year when queried by Fox 5 about the first Pacific Park building with affordable housing.
Not only can the mayor's office steer coverage, it can try to tamp it down. Remember the "agents of the city" document dump delivered last Thanksgiving – when few follow the news – in response to Freedom of Information Law requests?
As documents posted by NY1 showed, mayoral aides worked closely with outside public relations firm BerlinRosen, which also represents the builders of Pacific Park. After the Times published my online op-ed in January 2015 arguing against holding the 2016 Democratic National Convention at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, BerlinRosen's Jonathan Rosen – a close advisor to de Blasio – sprang into action.
"How many immediately surrounding local businesses can we get lte's (letters to the editor) in today?" wrote Rosen to colleagues and de Blasio advisers on the day my essay appeared. "How many do we have ready to pitch a counter story to ny1 or another outlet...?"
The mayor knows how to make the media work for him, too.
Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder writes the daily blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report and is working on a book about the project.