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.