Bill de Blasio’s Bad Press Strategy

Mayor de Blasio marches during the Columbus Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.

Mayor de Blasio marches during the Columbus Day Parade on Fifth Avenue. Madina Toure/Observer

After Mayor Bill de Blasio refused last week to take questions from a New York Post reporter and lashed out at the entire press corps, experts say he has taken an unprecedented tack with journalists—though some said they sympathized with his frustration toward unfriendly editorial boards.

At a press conference this past Thursday, de Blasio snapped at reporters who asked run-of-the-mill questions about a subpoena issued by the state’s ethics panel to one of his defunct political nonprofits and the lack of details about the fatal child abuse case of six-year-old Zymere Perkins. His behavior, and his ever-dwindling number of weekly off-topic question-and-answer sessions, seemed at odds with his campaign vow to usher in an era of transparency and openness with the public and the City Hall press corps. But especially disturbing was the mayor’s response to New York Post bureau chief Yoav Gonen’s multiple attempts to ask a question. The mayor ignored Gonen’s queries, then said he would only call on “real media outlets” and not a “right-wing rag.”

And after being told at the Columbus Day Parade Monday the mayor would not be holding a press gaggle, reporters were stunned when he conducted interviews with NY1 and NBC while they were forced to listen behind the barricade—and could barely hear de Blasio’s words.

“Gonen was only asking a question about pensions—rather a milk toast question—at a press conference,” said George Arzt, press secretary to the late Mayor Ed Koch. “So instead of making it an ideological feud with a quote ‘right wing rag,’ he made it into a war with the press and I don’t think he wants to be there. He just made trouble for himself.”

Koch, Arzt recalled, would not grant interviews to Wayne Barrett or the late Jack Newfield of the Village Voice, but took questions from them and other reporters in the Blue Room at City Hall. He added that former Mayor Rudy Guiliani was “feisty with the press” at times but never railed against one media outlet, and that Michael Bloomberg was also often brusque but learned to appreciate the press. 

Mayor John Lindsay was sensitive to the word “bankruptcy” due to the financial crisis the city was facing at the time but he had two “very good” press secretaries.

After de Blasio’s outburst on Thursday, Arzt said editors from various papers whom he declined to name called him and asked, “what is wrong with him?”

Among an assortment of factors that may have caused him to crack is the perception he isn’t receiving fair coverage. Arzt says reporters could access Koch three times a day and that as press secretary, he made himself available to reporters and ensured Koch was prepared to answer any outstanding questions.

“I think his relationship with the media has been a very tense one and his running through press secretaries has not helped,” Arzt continued. “There’s not a person at City Hall who you can go to to say, ‘Look you can’t do this just sitting down.'”

In an interview with the New York Times, de Blasio said the Post is consistently unfair and accused them of fabricating information.

What sparked his anger was a Post story about the administration hiring 264 special assistants that referred to Victor Calise, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, the highest-paid special assistant, as a “crony.” He admitted his behavior toward Gonen was “spontaneous” and said he would take questions from Post reporters in the future.

“And then when the reporter made an issue of it, I thought it was time to make perfectly clear to him that he should own up to the propaganda strategy that he was part of,” de Blasio told the Times. “The idea that he or any other reporter can consider themselves an objective reporter when obviously they’re under orders to promote the company line, it’s laughable.”

Indeed, Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, said that for years he himself has refused to speak to Post reporters because of the way that his comments were “taken out of context and distorted.” He said the Post probably initiated the hostility, noting the publication’s unfavorable treatment of him during the primary—making it “impossible to shake hands, kiss and make up.”

“I think what’s unique with this mayor is that the press that he has trouble with was hostile to him before he was elected,” Sherrill said. 

Still, he said refusing to answer Gonen’s question was “the wrong time and wrong place to say it and the wrong way to say it”—he suggested a “peace offensive”: sitting down with the editorial board or inviting Rupert Murdoch to lunch.  But the professor said if the hostility continues, “severely limiting their access is not unreasonable.”  

“Maybe you sit down in some controlled and civil place to have a frank and cordial conversation with the people who are setting policy there,” Sherrill continued. “As a general rule, it’s better to argue with the owner and the managers than it is to argue with the workers.”

Former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton—who told Charlie Rose in August he enjoys the “give and take” with reporters—told the Observer he was not aware of the incident but it’s common behavior. 

“I think in my time, I was known for being somewhat feisty with some of the press from time to time, so again, not being aware of the specific experience you’re talking about,” Bratton said following his speech at the New York Law School Friday morning. “Public officials, from time to time, we can get feisty and sounds like that’s what may have occurred.”

Eric Phillips, de Blasio’s newest press secretary, has already earned a reputation for combativeness since appointed him to the position in June. He is known for being snarky toward critics of the administration on Twitter and in his statements.

Phillips told the Observer in an interview that the mayor asked him only to figure out the best way to get the public information and that he goes from there. Asked where he thinks the mayor’s relationship with the press corps is at this point, he said, “Depends on who you ask, I guess.”

“I love reporters,” Phillips said. “I respect what they do. My job is to get them as much information as I can and to occasionally challenge information when it’s not correct. I take both portions of my job seriously.”

Phillips said relationships with both the press corps and individual outlets fluctuate and that de Blasio has taken questions from the Post throughout his entire mayoralty. He also said the mayor has the right to challenge reporters questions and “version of a fact.” 

“He obviously acted, he obviously reacted very seriously to what he felt was undeserved disparaging of a career public servant,” Phillips continued, dismissing the idea of trying to break bread with the Post, which has taken to depicting the mayor as a baby on its front pages. “Sharing a panini with Rupert Murdoch isn’t going to change the Post on Bill de Blasio. We’re molding a media strategy consistent with how real people actually consume and interact with media.”

He also said the media landscape of 2016 is different from previous years and that communication goes deeper than just holding a press conference. The mayor, he says, utilizes social media, digital media and focuses on community and ethnic media.

“This week, he did Haitian radio on Saturday,” Phillips said. “So the suggestion that the only times he talks to reporters much less the public is at these once-a-week press conferences just doesn’t hold any truth.”

Phillips’ aggressive approach is a marked departure from the usually diplomatic style of Karen Hinton, who served as de Blasio’s press secretary from May 2015 until her resignation in June of this year.

Hinton declined to comment for this story. But she told NY1 last week that while she understands the mayor’s frustration over the Post’s unflattering coverage of him, she always counseled him to stay on his message.

“I mean, every reporter can’t ask a question at every press conference, but he should have a turn and he should be allowed to ask the question and then the mayor should be allowed to answer the way he wants to answer it,” Hinton said. “Certainly he needs to attempt to try to get at the very issue that Yoav is raising.”

One of the hallmarks of Hinton’s tenure as de Blasio’s mouthpiece was an “information flow problem”—not only between the administration and the public, but within the mayor’s office itself. Hinton often lacked the direct channel to the mayor typical for press secretaries, information from him instead filtering first through senior adviser Phil Walzak.

Once, last year, Hinton lashed out at Gov. Andrew Cuomo amid the Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak in the Bronx—and Walzak made the highly unusual move of publicly contradicting and correcting her.

Phillips told the Observer her enjoys “unfettered access” to de Blasio. And Arzt predicted the new press secretary will be the go-to person, calling him knowledgeable and saying he’ll will work out the kinks in his relationships

Not everybody had such a favorable perspective on Phillips. Entrepreneur and former campaign manager for Mayor Michael Bloomberg Bradley Tusk called him a “bouncer” whose job is “to protect de Blasio from the press.”

Tusk, who founded the group NYC Deserves Better to recruit a candidate to challenge de Blasio, thinks the mayor’s behavior is a sign his mayoralty is not functioning, calling universal prekindergarten his only accomplishment. He contrasted the increasingly cloistered and unavailable de Blasio with his old boss and the mayors who preceded him.

“They had access, they had a relationship they knew how to talk to each other and this guy just literally won’t interact with them,” Tusk said. “You only do that when you have a lot to hide.”

Phillips dismissed critics like Tusk as “gadflies” and “couch pundits,” pointing to overall decreases in crime, growing graduation rates and low unemployment under the present administration.

As always, further complicating matters is the mayor’s ongoing feud with Cuomo. Arzt said the two should have been working toward a détente, criticizing the decision to hold separate press briefings in the aftermath of the explosion in Chelsea. (They did tour the site together briefly a day later, and a spokeswoman for the governor’s office insisted the two administrations had worked “hand-in-glove.”)

“I don’t think it helps to have separation during what could have been a catastrophe,” Arzt said. “I think you have to just have a united front when you’re up against something that could be extraordinarily troublesome for your constituency.”

Bill de Blasio’s Bad Press Strategy