A Menace Meets the Press

The big story in the Northeast last week was the scandal engulfing New Jersey's governor, Chris Christie. But something nearly as newsworthy happened across the Hudson River. Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Latina progressive with close ties to Bill de Blasio, the newly elected mayor of New York, was elected speaker of the City Council by her colleagues. This is the second most powerful political job in town, and with Mark-Viverito in place the city has its most left-leaning government since the days of Fiorello LaGuardia.

De Blasio is the agent of this change. He won 73 percent of the vote last November, and his clout was felt in the election of his ally. It wasn't easy. Mark-Viverito had to fend off a rump movement behind a candidate favored by the city's business elite and -- in a complete coincidence -- by the local press. All three dailies piled on her, much as they had on de Blasio during his campaign, with the same combination of left-baiting and high moral dudgeon. She was tarred as a rich radical, and subject to all sorts of negative stories. Some were laughable -- her tax returns showed that she was stingy in charitable giving. Others raised real concerns about her integrity. The Daily News discovered that she had failed to report rental income from the brownstone she owns in East Harlem, and that she had bought the building under a subsidy reserved for people of modest means, even though her father was a wealthy physician. But since she hadn't yet inherited money from him when she made the purchase, the subsidy was legal. "Unbecoming," sniffed the News -- but hardly scandalous by the standards of New York politics.

The New York Times joined in with an aggressive piece about her endorsement of a zoning variance that angered some neighborhood activists. The variance was used to build a residence for elderly Medicaid recipients, hardly a sellout. But the paper used the dispute to spotlight Mark Viverito's "polarizing style." (Note to readers: An avowed leftist is always polarizing.) And that wasn't the only objection. A Times editorial complained that she is distressingly close to the mayor, meaning that she can't be counted on to block his agenda. Never mind the buddy movie that was Mike Bloomberg's relationship with the previous Council speaker, Christine Quinn. The Times was content with that arrangement, but now that progressives are in command a separation of powers is essential.

At least the Times was subtle. The News, which has no such pretensions, blazoned a story in which Mark-Viverito stood accused of casting a voodoo curse on a former opponent. Meanwhile, at Rupert Murdoch's Post, columnist Andrea Peyser summed up the panic of its readers: "She's in. We're toast." (Hopefully gluten-free.)

But the most interesting thing about this coverage is what it didn't include. There was only scant discussion of the central question in reporting a political event -- cui bono? Who stands to gain by the outcome? Only after Mark-Viverito's victory was a fact did the dailies reveal that developers were among the likely losers, since the Council oversees land use. Bear in mind that two of the city's three papers are owned by individuals or families with real-estate interests. You had to read the local business press to discover that the landlord lobby supported Mark-Viverito's opponent, or that realtors, who had made major contributions to various Council races, were probably not going to collect on their investment. For that matter, New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, had a stake in seeing that the mayor would be stymied by a less progressive Council. Now he must contend with a real rival in De Blasio, who is equipped to pressure him from the left. Whether De Blasio will do so remains to be seen, just as it is far from clear that the mayor will stop the relentless advance of luxury development. But now he holds the reins of city government.

Mark-Viverito's victory is the latest sign of a dramatic shift in New York politics. Progressivism is part of it, as is the rising influence of local unions, but at its heart the new order marks a change in racial power. The segment of the city that stands to lose by this shift speaks in codes, and so does the press that represents it. Even real issues, like fear of crime under less brutal policing, are inflected by race, as are concerns that are more transparently phobic: paranoia about De Blasio's radical sympathies, ceaseless carping about his faux pas (such as the current flap about him eating pizza with a knife and fork), the stance of high principle that hides self-interest. In a just media world, editors would be vigilant about the bias that can shape these themes. But journalists aren't known for self-examination, certainly not at the tabloids. While speaking for the elites, they link their interests to the uneasiness of the white working class. Even a liberal bastion like the Times is not immune to this subtext -- after all, the affluent, too, have racial fears. They're not really worried about forking over a few hundred dollars in higher taxes. They dread the great, dark, unwashed masses.

Red Scare on the Campaign Trail

A specter is haunting New York. It is the specter of a Sandinista in City Hall.

Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor, currently enjoys a 40-point lead over Republican Joe Lhota. You'd think his program would be endlessly analyzed by the press. Yet he has spent the better part of a week contending with gnat-swatting stories about his youth. The bite that had the greatest sting was a report in the New York Times that de Blasio once looked kindly on the Sandinista revolution.

The Times has never done a systematic examination of de Blasio's ideas. Instead it has focused on the peripheral aspects of his philosophy. During the primary campaign, the paper of record fearlessly exposed de Blasio's fondness for the Boston Red Sox (anathema to New York Yankee fans). And recently it revealed his affection for an even greater Satan. In 1988, the Times reported, de Blasio visited Nicaragua, liked what he saw there, and worked in a program run by Jesuits. Back then, it seems, he referred to himself as a "democratic socialist."

The Times story was a full and fair account of de Blasio's activist youth. But the paper of record wouldn't let it go. In the next few days, its metro reporters filed follow-up after follow-up, chasing down the candidate for a comment and relishing his opponents' vehement reactions. One of them, Adolfo Carrión Jr, was incensed by the discovery that de Blasio and his wife had honeymooned in Havana. To Carrión, this meant that he shared the philosophy of Fidel Castro. Republican Lhota was no less blunt. He declared that "de Blasio's class-warfare strategy... is directly out of the Marxist playbook." De Blasio is "on the defensive," a Times reporter wrote. Only a pollster would disagree.

In a campaign marked by baroque sex scandals and issues that seem petty to most New Yorkers -- i.e. the fate of kittens stranded on the subway tracks -- this latest revelation probably will not raise many eyebrows. After all, the mayor of New York does not have a foreign policy (unless it involves tax subsidies for condos sold to Russian oligarchs). But for the press, which has been hostile to de Blasio throughout his campaign, Sandinogate is a major news event.

To its credit, The Daily News sniffed at this story and moved on. Its star columnist Mike Lupica has been far more concerned about de Blasio's critique of stop-and-frisk policing, a major issue in the mayoral race. But its rival tabloid, the Post, has been wallowing in red-baiting like a hog in mud. One columnist resorted to classic '50s rhetoric, labeling de Blasio "a former fellow traveler." "Obama to Meet Sandinista-Loving De Blasio," one Post headline screamed, while another snarked that, by simply being in the country, de Blasio had "Ignored Nicaraguan anti-Semitism." Then there was the paper's big scoop. Twelve years ago, de Blasio, along with other members of the City Council, attended a reception for Robert Mugabe. "What is it about Bill de Blasio that attracts him to leaders of some of the world's most loathsome regimes?" a Post editorial asked. Wait -- a Commie Mugabe supporter? How can that be? Never mind.

No one expects subtlety from the Post. The essence of that paper's corruption can be seen in its major beef with de Blasio. The Post has fumed at his opposition to housing charter schools in public-school space. There have been several enraged editorials, none of them mentioning that the Post's owner, Rupert Murdoch, has a business stake in privatizing education. But, then, a newspaper owner's financial interests are rarely if ever noted in its editorials, even when that information is highly relevant. In this respect, the Times is no different from the Post.

Still, the Times has checks and balances that Murdoch-owned media clearly lack. Its most progressive city reporter, Michael Powell, filed a piece not long after the Sandinista exposé pointing out that the ranks of democratic socialists include Golda Meir and François Mitterand, and that these leftists are often staunch anti-Communists. Powell might have added that New York's greatest mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, ran as a fusion candidate on the Republican and Socialist lines. But that was back before McCarthy made flag-draped fealty to capitalism a duty in American politics.

On election day we will see if red-baiting still has the power to scare an urban electorate. It doesn't seem likely, but the real stuff of New York campaigns has yet to assert itself. Stay tuned for various October surprises: a march across the Brooklyn Bridge by charter-school supporters; new attempts to nibble away at de Blasio's populist creds; and the arrival of Rudy Guiliani, Lochinvar of the Archie Bunker belt and stalwart supporter of Joe Lhota.

Why the New York Press Misread the Primary

Christine Quinn had the perfect trifecta in New York politics. All three of the city's dailies endorsed her. She had more money than any of her rivals, as well as the good will of the sitting mayor, Michael Bloomberg. As a woman and a lesbian she could claim that her election would be a historic event. Prominent feminists backed her candidacy, as did the city's development elite. Her contributions from realtors were three times greater than that of her closest rival, Bill de Blasio. In short, the city's money-and-media establishment stood solidly behind Quinn. But when the ballots were counted in last Tuesday's Democratic primary, she lost every significant voting bloc.

Misogyny and homophobia are being blamed by many feminists for Quinn's defeat. Some gay activists maintain that self-deception or internalized oppression are the reasons why she didn't carry women or even gays. Let's agree that sexism is alive awake and kicking in the city that never sleeps. Still, it's clear that this election marks a shift in New York politics, one that transcends the old identity politics. A new majority is emerging. Call it the Occupy Bloc, a broad cross-section of voters who deeply resent the vast economic inequality that blights urban life.

Bill de Blasio was able to embody this ideology. He didn't have to distort himself in order to appear progressive, as Quinn did, running from her record as City Council speaker, where she hesitated on signature progressive issues like paid sick leave and minimum wage. He didn't have to squirm about the closing of a hospital and its conversion into luxury condos, as happened in Quinn's home district. De Blasio played a role in saving a local hospital, getting arrested in the process. This consistency was a big reason why he won. The facts are plain to see for anyone who examines the vote by precincts. Quinn did best in the city's most affluent areas. Whatever her real sentiments, she let herself become the candidate of the 1 percent, and that would have doomed her even if she'd been a straight man.

The New York press was predictably tardy about noticing this trend. It failed to detect the scope of class resentment among Democratic voters. Under Bloomberg, neighborhood after neighborhood has become a hip playground for the rich. Many working and middle class people feel shut out of their city. Yet the dailies missed this story until it smacked them in the face. As de Blasio's numbers rose, the press began to notice him, but the underlying issue of class was not addressed. He was accused of taking contributions from slumlords (the News) and chided for being a Boston Red Sox fan (the Times). But his ideas were briskly dismissed. "Tired," a News editorial called his tale-of-two-cities theme. "Divisive," snarked the Post. At his victory rally, a Times reporter noted "the well-worn liberal script" of his speech. We're supposed to have an ideologically diverse press, but in this case all the papers agreed.

Casting about for reasons to explain Quinn's loss, the press seized on her ties to the mayor. She performed badly "largely because of her close ties to him," the Times's Jim Dwyer declared. But De Blasio won even among those who approve of Bloomberg. Dwyer also blamed the string of anti-Quinn ads placed by an animal-rights group early in the campaign. This barrage "may have shaped her image," he opined. Yet she also received a barrage of positive coverage, including countless stories that attempted to define her through a sentimental personal narrative. Her memoir on overcoming bulimia was excerpted in Vogue, her same-sex wedding was featured in the Times, her fabled temper was chewed over in sidebar after sidebar--as if all this mattered to voters beyond the condo belt. After it became clear that her star was fading, the Times insisted that she had "come to life" in a televised debate. Even the Murdoch-owned Post, which never met a liberal it liked, grudgingly endorsed her. By blithely choosing Quinn, though she never broke 30 percent in the polls, the dailies revealed their hermeticism.

When it comes to elections, few people outside the elites pay heed to editorials. Most New Yorkers form their opinions based on local TV coverage and the Internet, and these media are far less dependent on advertising from developers than the print press is. Within the sealed bubble of editorial boards, newspaper owners, and the industries that support them, Quinn was the obvious choice. But the system that governs us is called democracy, and if newspapers fail so conspicuously to read the public pulse, what does that say about their ability to capture the spirit of their time? This is a question every publisher should be asking.

As for those who are convinced that sexism and homophobia won the day, there is a lesson to be learned from this election. A woman or a gay man can win in New York, but only by assembling a coalition of progressives. That includes the many precincts of the Occupy bloc.