The Fourth Estate Bites Back

cameras1 The Fourth Estate Bites BackAt a press conference earlier this month in the Blue Room at City Hall, Michael Howard Saul of The Wall Street Journal asked the mayor why he was docking city workers for not coming in to the office during a 19-inch blizzard a few days before, especially since he ordered all non-essential city employees to stay home earlier in the day.

“I don’t how you were brought up; I was always brought up that you had an obligation to work,” Mr. Bloomberg snapped, before adding testily, “Maybe it’s different in your world.”

“For the record, Mr. Mayor, Journal reporters worked during every snowstorm this winter,” Mr. Saul responded on the paper’s blog later. “But nobody ever told us to stay home.”

That the city’s political press corps is now answering a mayor who has thrown verbal brickbats their way (he called an Observer reporter a “disgrace”; embarrassed a disabled reporter who was unable to reach a tape recorder which had gone off during a press conference) for close to 10 years with some brickbats of their own is something of a new development. For two terms the Bloomberg administration enjoyed, even seasoned reporters acknowledge, a relatively easy go of it in the press, and an even easier time among the editorial boards.

No longer. 

“There has been a demarcation,” said one reporter. “There is a certain sense that Mike Bloomberg’s string has run out.”

The clearest evidence of this, political observers say, is the negative coverage the mayor has received from two columnists perceived as newsroom weather vanes: Clyde Haberman of The New York Times and Bob McManus of the New York Post. Over the past several years, Mr. Haberman has written various upbeat stories, including “Bloomberg Travels to the Old World In Search of New Ideas” and “Scenes from the Blue Room: A More Flexible Tone is Heard,” but took a much sharper tone after Bloomberg extended term limits in 2008, and last month the columnist openly wondered whether or not the whiz kids at City Hall were capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Mr. McManus meanwhile wrote recently that the mayor was guilty “of a spectacular failure of field leadership.”And the editorial pages of both papers, which cheered the mayor when he overturned term limits two years ago, have likewise begun to sing a new tune.

“Nobody likes Mike these days,” wrote the Post, and The Times called the mayor’s recent initiative to ban smoking in parks “a civic disaster.”

The sharpened tone has been seen in the news pages as well. A few years ago, if the mayor was out of town during a snowstorm, the press would have pestered him about it, and then, after some stonewalling, moved on.

“Editors sent the signal that they would not back you in a fight with City Hall,” said one local political hack. “It became less about getting them and more about getting handouts, and Bloomberg was really effective at getting the press corps to play who likes me best. I think now reporters feel betrayed by their papers.”

Now, two months after the mayor was AWOL as snowstorm clouds were approaching the city, the press continues to hammer him on his whereabouts, and have shown no sign of letting up.

Reporters and editors say they first noticed a change after the mayor pushed through his bid to overturn term limits in 2008. The mayor has been assiduously cultivating the city’s press barons for years, and they ultimately were the ones who were cheerleaders for the move on their back pages.

“Every reporter was freaked out by the term-limit thing, and they got much more critical after that,” said one political reporter.

The overturning of term limits had another effect: It allowed the so-called “Third Term Curse” to kick in, which now seems not so much like a pox but more like reporters tired of seeing the same face.

“The same thing happened with Cuomo and Pataki’s third term,” says one reporter. “It’s just like, ‘Get the fuck out of here already.’

“While he has shut out most of the New York press corps, and calls The Economist his favorite publication, he’s granted sit-downs recently to reporters from GQ and Esquire, and has been rewarded with glowing profiles as a result.

“In those, he gets to talk about all the things that interest him,” said Adam Lisberg, the bureau chief for the Daily News. “Immigration reform. Gun control. Rebuilding infrastructure. It creates the senses that the things in his job, like fixing homelessness, don’t excite him anymore. But you know, New York doesn’t exactly take care of itself.”

Indeed, as Mr. Bloomberg’s handling of the snowstorm has revealed. As the mayor took his lumps, the press grew emboldened. 

“I don’t think many reporters will admit it, but coverage has a funny way of following the polls,” says one reporter no longer on the Bloomberg beat. “We prop up those on the way up and we kill those on the way down.”

Last week, news broke out on one of the city’s political blogs-a journalistic medium Mr. Bloomberg has confessed he doesn’t quite get-about offhand comments he made regarding “people that are inebriated hanging out the window waving” at the St. Patrick’s Day parade during an event honoring the annual tradition.

At a press conference that same day touting a new initiative on the part of the administration to get celebrities like Big Boi, Jose Reyes and Magic Johnson to record robo-calls that would go to the homes of truant students, the mayor was asked about his remarks from the night before.

“It’s in good fun,” he said. “I certainly didn’t mean anything that anybody should take offense to.”

The next day, the front of The Times’ New York section was the headline “Irish Eyes Are Not Smiling Over Bloomberg Remark.” The Daily News led with “Bloomy’s Blarney” and the Post said “Irish Stew.” Those robo-calls were relegated to the back page, if they were covered at all.

dfreedlander@observer.com