Truth and Consequences: Bloomberg and the Press

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Think of New York City’s government as a large house, with the press lined up outside the front door. During the administration of Rudolph Giuliani, that door was usually locked; if ever it was left ajar, it would quickly be slammed shut again. With media mogul Michael Bloomberg in charge, the door has been opened and the press invited in—free to enter only certain rooms, obstructed from entering others and often strongly encouraged to take the guided tour.

Over the past eight years, Bloomberg’s City Hall has put an unprecedented amount of public information online. Most agencies have become more accessible to the press, even if getting city officials on the phone can be difficult.

But some parts of the Bloomberg administration—some of the rooms in the house—are as or more impenetrable as they were under Giuliani. And according to watchdogs, researchers and reporters, gaining access to some agencies’ documents through the Freedom of Information Law has been unjustifiably difficult.

What has linked both the transparency and the barriers under Bloomberg is an intense attention by his staff to delivering a coordinated message about the mayor—a message that, over the past year, has been amplified by the mayor’s wealth.

“I’m a big believer in the idea that transparency in government makes for good government,” Bloomberg said in a weekly radio addresses in April. “Transparency allows the public to see exactly how their elected leaders are performing, and to hold them accountable for results.”

Indeed, free access to information about government—not just data but answers about what the city is doing and why—is critical to the role of both citizens and journalists as watchdogs of government. It’s important, as Bloomberg himself suggested in his 1997 autobiography, that reporters “don’t have to be afraid of calling it as they see it.”

Whether publicized or hidden, information about city government belongs to the people. After all, they own the house.

Disclosure dot-com

Whether it’s the Human Resources Administration (HRA) offering report cards on how welfare offices are performing, the NYPD posting crime statistics for each precinct, or the Department of Education’s provision of test scores broken down by borough, school, grade and race, much of the Bloomberg record is there for the web-savvy to find. There are Citywide Performance Reports that offer a color-coded look at how each agency is doing on a range of measures. There’s the My Neighborhood Statistics page that allows residents to learn about health, infrastructure and other indicators for their part of the city, and NYC GIS which offers searchable maps displaying city facilities and projects. Every city vendor is listed in one database, and every lobbyist in another. Detailed information about each property in the city is in the Department of Buildings’ Building Information System. The 311 Online website has a wide array of information about city services (although ultimately, online users are often instructed to call 311). A new stimulus tracker offers information on where federal funding is going.

DoITT, or the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which oversees the city’s websites and the 311 system, says the city’s sites get about 1.8 million unique viewers each month.

“Bloomberg’s a data guy,” says one former Bloomberg administration press officer. “He wants more information about things online. They kept pushing us to put more information out there”—so much that the press officer sometimes worried that reporters would print jargon-laced information obtained from the web without understanding what it meant.

Bloomberg recently unveiled a “Big Apps” competition that will award a top prize of $5,000 to the developer who submits “the most useful, inventive, appealing, effective, and commercially viable applications for delivering information from the City of New York’s Data Mine to interested users.”

Veterans of the Giuliani years see no comparison between the mayor and his predecessor. “The difference between the two administrations? They’re different worlds,” says one former city press officer who worked under both mayors. (Like the other former press officers interviewed for this piece, he is still working as a government spokesman and didn’t want to jeopardize his job by citing his name.)

Wayne Barrett, the longtime investigative reporter at the Village Voice, recalls a Giuliani press secretary, Sunny Mindel, refusing even to give him a press release. “Absolutely everything could be beyond public accountability. They’d deny you the most basic information and then defy you to sue,” he says of the past mayor. “You weren’t getting any answers. Now, at least you’re getting answers.”

City Hall spokesman Jason Post says, “The mayor believes in data availability and being judged by it—having the people and the press keep us accountable.” Post points to the regular status reports on the mayor’s PlaNYC and anti-poverty initiatives as examples of Bloomberg’s openness to evaluation.

During Bloomberg’s mayoralty, the City Hall press staff has grown slightly in number—adding three positions since 2002 to a total of 20—and doubled in budget, to $1.7 million. During Mayor Ed Koch’s time, the staff was around 10, but that was a different era—before the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet.

Look who’s talking

While much data is online and press officers can be quick to answer questions, it is difficult even for reporters at major newspapers to get agency officials on the phone. “I rarely get policy makers, almost always flacks,” says New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer, using the slang for “spokespersons.”

Voice reporter Tom Robbins (who, like Barrett, is a former colleague of this reporter) says that while reporting this summer on a controversy about the city’s television station, “City Hall refused to let me interview the commissioner at DoITT or anyone else involved with the agency.” DoITT spokesman Nick Sbordone said the agency did its best to comply with Robbins’ FOIL and answer his questions.

Two former Bloomberg administration spokespeople defended this practice of shielding decision-makers from the press. One said that deciding whether to allow such an interview depended on the issue at hand. “What can your commissioner add to it? Is it a story that puts us in a good light, that the commissioner can add something to? Or does it paint us in a bad light, where we don’t want the commissioner involved? That’s just sort of the business,” the press officer said. “It also kind of depends on the commissioner. Do they put their foot in their mouth? Do they say too much?”

Another noted that agencies get hundreds of calls a week, many asking for interviews with officials whose 9-to-5 job is running the agency, not talking to the press. “I was not only protecting my principal, but protecting their time,” this former spokesman recalled. It wasn’t just the Times and Daily News that wanted interviews, it was community newspaper reporters and student journalists. And even a short interview requires an official to spend time preparing. “It’s never five minutes,” he says.

A current press officer, Jessica Scapperotti at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, concurs. “It would be difficult if [assistant commissioner] Dr. Jane Zucker were getting 15 calls a day.”

But the lack of a back-and-forth can make it hard for a reporter to get firm, detailed answers from people who understand the policies best. It adds yet another filter between the reader and the truth. This is true not just when reporters seek to speak with top officials, but also when they want information from the lower-level employees who often are most familiar with the work the city does.

City Limits contacted 12 city agencies to ask for their policies on allowing workers to respond to press questions. Most answered that employees were supposed to get permission before talking to the press.

“Parks employees may speak to press after first clearing it with the Office of Public Affairs,” says Phil Abramson of the Parks Department. “This policy has been consistent over the past few administrations.” Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Michael Saucier says of the DEP’s workforce: “They do their job and I do mine, which is to talk to the press.” The NYPD’s Patrol Guide instructs officers to contact One Police Plaza before answering any press questions. Obviously, at Parks and other agencies that require pre-approval, press requests are sometimes denied.

Agencies with field staff that address public meetings—like the Department of City Planning—say those employees were usually cleared to answer press questions.

“Our de facto policy is that we never force DOE employees to talk to the press nor prevent them from doing so,” says Department of Education press chief David Cantor. Indeed, two teachers contacted by City Limits said they had never been cautioned not to speak to the press.

But despite the official policy of openness, some say DOE staff are unwilling to talk: Chiara Colleti, spokeswoman for the Council of School Administrators—the city’s principals union—says, “Principals seem far less willing to talk to members of the media than they did in the past,” and a former DOE spokesperson concurs, saying many principals declined opportunities to speak when asked. Neither was sure why.

The mayor has been clear, however, that there are at least some education officials he does not want talking to the press. When he appointed his first Panel for Education Policy to run city schools in 2002, the mayor said: ‘I do not expect to see their names – ever – in the press answering a question either on the record or off the record. … [If it happened], I would not tolerate it for 30 seconds. … They don’t have to speak, and they don’t have to serve. That’s what serving ‘at the pleasure’ means.’

Administrations always try to speak with one voice. And there is a legitimate concern about employees revealing private information about clients, or speaking about policy issues beyond their purview. The city agencies contacted for this piece denied issuing memos or advisories warning employees not to talk to the press, and three city unions contacted for this piece did not cite any such warnings.

The mayor himself is less enthusiastic about talking to the press than some of his predecessors have been. “Koch loved to be in the midst of controversy and loved to talk to the press. I remember one senior reporter said to me, ‘We’ll pay you to have just one press conference a day,’” because we were having three or four,” says George Arzt, a former Koch press secretary. “You would never get that from Bloomberg, who looks a little uncomfortable around reporters.”

Ellis Henican, a longtime Newsday reporter and columnist, says that under Koch’s successor, Mayor David Dinkins, “their hearts were in the right place, but they were so disorganized that nobody knew anything.” Henican says Bloomberg has been fairly open. He adds: “The high point of paranoia was clearly the Giuliani years. If I was at a crime scene, the pizza delivery guy would have better access than the press did.”

The paper trail

Frequently, reporters seek not interviews but documents, often through Freedom of Information Law requests. Some Bloomberg agencies have tried to make the sometimes time-consuming FOIL process less onerous for reporters. For instance, Rachaele Raynoff, the current spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning, says her agency “lifted requirements for reporters to FOIL for information about [zoning] applications that either have been filed with us for review or have been reviewed by the City Planning Commission.” Raynoff added: “When reporters request info from the public file, they get it as soon as we can physically arrange for it to be available.”

But the Bloomberg record on FOIL is mixed. Despite promises of openness, the administration was slow to allow access to Giuliani’s mayoral papers. City Hall also engaged in a lengthy legal battle with the Times over access to the fire department’s radio transmissions from September 11, 2001 and 911 emergency calls, as well as oral histories given by firefighters who’d survived the attack. When state courts ultimately ordered much of the material released, it pointed to serious flaws in the coordination of the response to the World Trade Center disaster.

The disputes over data have continued into this campaign year. “I put in a FOIL to DoITT in May for records there about the TV department and was instantly told the waiting period would be six months—right after the election,” says Robbins. “How did they know it would be six months? Because they had so many outstanding FOIL requests already.”

Another reporter, who asked not to be named, said of City Hall, “Right now I’m fighting them for a very simple three-month-old request, but I don’t expect them to hand it over until after the election, because it could look bad politically.”

In other cases, the Daily News waited 16 months to get deputy mayor Kevin Sheekey’s time sheets. City Limits has received prompt FOIL responses from HPD, the Office of Medical Examiner, the School Construction Authority and other agencies. Requests filed in 2007 with the Department of Education and NYPD are still pending, however – challenging, if not outright contravening, the time limits set forth in the law.

“There are some city agencies that I believe are quite responsive and others that seem not to care,” says Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government. “The NYPD is terribly unresponsive, and in my opinion creates excuses to avoid not only disclosing, but even looking for, the records to determine if they are available to be released.” Freeman praised the city for putting so much information on the web, where users don’t need to go through the hassle of a FOIL request. But he adds: “My personal feeling is that in the case of the police department, the treatment of requests under FOIL have deteriorated.”

Another point of friction between the NYPD and the city’s press corps was Commissioner Ray Kelly’s threat earlier this year to kick reporters out of “the shack,” the offices at One Police Plaza for those who cover the cops. Kelly backed down after the press resisted. The NYPD and the press have also wrestled over the issuance of press credentials. Last year, three bloggers filed a federal lawsuit against the city after the NYPD denied them press identification cards. The department relented and issued the cards in January, but the lawsuit continued over the question of whether the NYPD’s process for issuing press credentials was legally sound. Settlement talks are underway in the case.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne did not respond to a request for comment.

“We take our obligations under FOIL seriously and always err on the side of disclosure,” says Post in a statement. “We do occasionally receive complaints, but we explain that we receive many requests that have to be processed by a small and specialized staff. We also explain that certain requests are unwieldy and burden our public records staff, causing delays in processing newer requests.”

Beyond the fourth estate

Reporters aren’t the only people who rely on information provided by the administration to do their jobs. So do the official and unofficial watchdogs over city services and spending. Independent Budget Office chief of staff Doug Turetsky says the flow of data has been better under Bloomberg.

“Overall, it’s generally been more collegial than under the prior administration. We certainly didn’t have to go to court under the Bloomberg administration,” something that did happen under Giuliani, said Turetsky (a former City Limits editor). “But that’s not to say that every agency you call up, it’s: ‘Here it is’ or ‘You’ll get it in 20 minutes.'”

When Bloomberg became mayor he streamlined and improved the Mayor’s Management Report or MMR, the annual compendium of statistics about the city’s performance—a valuable resource for reporters and watchdogs. But beginning in 2008, the city drastically reduced the amount of information reported in the MMR—reducing 2,500 indicators down to 1,200. The administration said the numbers it eliminated weren’t very useful. But they included the number of shooting victims, details on how quickly the fire department responded to different types of emergencies in different boroughs, and data on the actions the Human Resources Administration took in adult protective cases.

“Certainly there was a lot that was stuffed in, in the past, that didn’t offer a whole lot of light and wasn’t all that useful for analysts. But some of what was cut out was clearly information that was useful and important to the public and to us,” Turetsky says.

The same tension in the MMR between disclosure and clarity is being argued now between City Councilmembers who want the administration to post more raw data on the web, and the administration, which argues that information should be posted in a less raw, more “user friendly” way.

While IBO hasn’t had to battle the administration in court to get data, others have chosen to spend time and money to enforce FOIL’s provisions. The New York Civil Liberties Union has waged Freedom of Information fights over the NYPD’s “Ring of Steel” security system, student truancy, school safety agent complaints, numbers of special education students admitted to psych wards, and military recruitment in the schools.

“We had high expectations for the Bloomberg administration because of all his kinder, gentler rhetoric,” says NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. “He talked the civil liberties talk, so we just assumed he would ‘get it’ about open government. Quite frankly, his administration’s obsession with secrecy has been quite a disappointment.”

A message machine

The issue of press access is not simply a worry for journalists and researchers, but also to the public, Lieberman notes. “[Lack of] access is a real problem in an open society,” she says. Norman Siegel, the civil liberties lawyer who is negotiating with the city over press credentials, agrees: “That’s what a democracy is about. A democracy is about open government.”

Even with an administration that shares mountains of data, the press ensures that the public doesn’t have to rely on the government to evaluate itself. As Henican from Newsday points out, “No government in the world is going to put the really good stuff on the web.”

As transmitters of what they say and monitors of what they do, the media is also important to mayors themselves. For that reason, mayors often pay close attention to their relationship with the media. As Mayor Dinkins took office, his press secretary warned reporters to address him as “Mr. Dinkins” and raise their hands before asking questions. Giuliani forced out NYPD spokesman John Miller when police Commissioner Bill Bratton began getting too much credit for lowering crime (then again, he forced out Bratton, too).

Bloomberg, however, is less dependent than any of his predecessors on the press as a link to the public. One important reason for Bloomberg’s autonomy over his message is his campaign spending, which allows him unprecedented access to the eyes and ears of New Yorkers. In his three campaigns for mayor to date, Bloomberg has spent at least $243 million. His 2001 spending was not itemized, but in 2005, he spent $47 million on advertising and mailings. So far this year, Bloomberg has laid out $49 million on brochures, postage, radio ads and TV spots—and the most expensive stretch of the campaign has just begun.

In addition to this campaign outlay, the mayor’s philanthropy could help amplify his message, if the groups who receive his cash are then more likely to speak in favor of the mayor or his policies – or less willing to speak against them. Last year the mayor gave away $235 million to nonprofits and foundations. Some recipients of the mayor’s money were among those who—at the invitation of City Hall—testified in favor of the term limits extension last fall. Bloomberg has said he does not feel his cash buys acquiescence or support, saying at the October 13th mayoral debate, “I think most people who get the gifts probably don’t even know where the money comes from, for a start.”

All this communicative muscle, wielded by a media-savvy mayor, has given Bloomberg great power to project the image of his mayoralty that he desires—an effort headquartered in City Hall. Such message coordination is not an uncommon practice in government; it’s just that Bloomberg has a bigger bullhorn than most.

As he began his second term in 2006, Bloomberg appointed his first press secretary, Ed Skyler, to deputy mayor for operations and installed his 2005 campaign spokesman Stu Loeser as chief of the press office. James Anderson replaced Bill Cunningham as the mayor’s communications director after the second inauguration.

Cunningham “would leak stories and sort of control the message through different reporters,” says Arzt, the Koch press secretary. Anderson, who oversaw external affairs at Homeless Services for most of Bloomberg’s first term, plays a similar role. While Loeser runs the day-to-day press operation, Anderson works behind the scenes, coordinating City Hall’s messaging. “For awhile, Jim Anderson would send out talking points—’Here’s where the mayor’s going message-wise for the next few weeks,'” said one of the former agency press aides. “Jim was a little bit more challenging to deal with because he deals solely with editorial boards and opinion writers. The writers would just want facts. I’d give them the facts. Jim would get mad at me.”

One of the other former spokespersons insists: “It wasn’t ‘The mayor is the premier 21st Century leader,’ it was ‘The mayor is facing hard choices in a hard time and there are sacrifices that need to be made.”

One message that City Hall promotes is the mayor’s role as an innovator. This was evident recently in videotapes statements that two city commissioners gave to NY1. Homeless Services chief Robert Hess made reference to the mayor’s “innovative strategy and outside-the-box thinking” while Economic Development Corporation president Seth Pinsky praised “Mayor Bloomberg’s great innovation.”

The mayor also evidences no fear of commitment, as press releases have praised his “commitment” to a host of things: sustainability, “instilling the importance of saving and financial responsibility in our youth,” “combating crime and protecting the people of Staten Island,” overhauling construction codes, reducing homelessness and “providing the multiple communities of Throgs Neck an amazingly fine-grained zoning plan.”

“The mayor’s leadership” is also routinely applauded, whether it’s outgoing health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden declaring in May that “none of our health progress would have been possible without the mayor’s leadership” or Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden reporting in 2007 that “under the mayor’s leadership, contentiousness has given way to a spirit of cooperation at the World Trade Center site.”

In the past week, City Hall and the mayor’s campaign have sent out 47 press advisories or statements, released a new television commercial, and seen the mayor mentioned 130 times in New York’s three dailies. Eight years after the media mogul became mayor, Bloomberg is still sculpting his image. The house is under constant renovation.

– Jarrett Murphy

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