Quantity Time is Quality Time: De Blasio and the Press Ought to See More of Each Other

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Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

A well-designed placard never lies: The mansion tax is what Mayor de Blasio wanted to talk about yesterday.

Some things will always be. The sun will rise and set. We will each be born and die. And mayors will get testy about the questions they get.

Ed Koch at one press conference so disliked a question from Wayne Barrett that he bellowed something along the lines of, “I know what you’re trying to do, and I think it’s the pits!” Rudy G. would berate members of the public who were ever so slightly critical of him at his town halls. Mayor Bloomberg in 2008 had a hissy fit over a Newsday reporter’s question because hizzoner misunderstood what is connoted by the word “maintain.” Watch the video. It’s priceless.

Bill de Blasio continued this proud tradition on Thursday when he walked out of his own press conference because he only wanted questions about his proposed mansion tax and the press only wanted to ask him about other topics. (Accused by City Council Watch of editing the video of a mayoral press conference earlier in the week to excise an awkward response by the boss, City Hall’s press office duly posted the far awkwarder video of Thursday’s press-conference-that-wasn’t, and even the transcript.)

The tensions between de Blasio and the press corps are well documented, in particular our disagreement over “on topic” versus “off topic” questions. De Blasio didn’t invent that problem. Politicians have always wanted to control the message. At his infamous 1962 “last press conference,” Richard Nixon plaintively asked that news agencies provide “one lonely reporter on the campaign who will report what the candidate says now and then.” Reporters, of course, are trained not to let politicians control the message. There’s the potential for excess in either direction. If the press never talked about what leaders did or said, that’d be as much of a disservice to the public as only talking about what’s on the official agenda.

The solution is simple: Politicians should answer more questions so everybody can get what they need.

Sometimes City Hall offers that kind of access but this week it didn’t. There were no public events on Monday. On Tuesday the mayor held an on-and-off topic Q&A and an on-topic-only Q&A, and also taped an interview on NY1; he also conducted two events with no press questions. There were no public events Wednesday. Of the four events on Thursday’s schedule, one was closed to the press, two featured no Q&A at all, and one was the ill-fated mansion-tax-questions-only presser. Today the mayor does his regular weekly appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and attends two wakes that are, appropriately, closed to the press.

That means over the entire week, the mayor held only one availability where the press could ask him whatever they want. The NY1 interviews are wide-ranging but permit only one (great) journalist to question the mayor, and the Brian Lehrer Show allows Lehrer (a very skilled interviewer) and callers to ask the mayor questions, but not other reporters.

Fact is, a lot goes on in a week in New York City. City Hall itself released news about seven topics (ferries, housing, surveillance, jails, MWBEs, technology and bill signings) not covered by any of the on-topic press conferences. The unofficial agenda was just as crowded. A racist drove up from Baltimore to kill a man. Congress considered blowing a hole in public hospitals’ budget with an Obamacare repeal. A court ruled against the mayor in a FOIL case. And this kind of felt like a slow week.

Any questions?

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