Veteran newsman accuses Mayor Bill de Blasio of "choking off" press access to the goings on at City Hall by limiting his availability to reporters and tightly defining
what's coverable and what's not. This editorial appeared in The New York Daily News, May 16th, 2014.
I was there at the beginning of the television age at City Hall.
A few newspaper reporters objected when I tried, for the first time, to film a mayoral press conference. "We're not actors," they said.
But several of my newspaper colleagues backed me up when I objected to being excluded. Ultimately, Mayor Robert Wagner ruled that television reporters
had every right to cover his press conferences along with the written press.
Perhaps the battle we fought 60 years ago needs to be fought again today. New mayor Bill de Blasio and his aides are choking off television and newspaper
access by tightly defining what we are given access to cover, as well as our access to the mayor himself.
It's not a new phenomenon. Mayor Bloomberg would ration reporters generally to one question, with no follow-ups allowed. Rudolph Giuliani was a little more available.
But there's been a steady fall-off over the years in mayoral accessibility.
The high point of availability of a chief executive to the press was the Ed Koch era. He loved to joust with the press, at formal Blue Room press conferences,
more intimate ones in his private office and informal, on-the-run encounters at the radiator in the corridor as he was rushing in or out of City Hall.
Mayor de Blasio's printed schedule, by contrast, shows an abundance of mayoral events with the words "closed press." That means we are told where the mayor will
be but also that we're not permitted to follow him there.
On May 7, the mayor was listed as speaking at the Urban Fellows graduation ceremony. The schedule noted: "This event will be closed press."
On May 6, de Blasio went to Washington, where his schedule listed him meeting with Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand along with the New York Congressional
delegation. "Closed press."
At noon the same day, he was to speak to a meeting of the Communications Workers of America. "Closed press." That evening, de Blasio, First Lady Chirlane McCray and their
daughter, Chiara, were to speak at the National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day. That was listed as open press, but noting that "there will be no Q and A."
This problem is hardly restricted to City Hall. Gov. Cuomo and his staff restrict the press and broadcast journalists in similar ways in Albany, and he has been, if
anything, even more resistant to giving answers to reporters. He seems to be allergic to one-on-one interviews and holds few news conferences.
As for the White House, it resists any informal, unstructured contact with the President, as has every recent administration.
We live in an age of consultants and press officers, whose mission is not to open up public officials and politicians to more scrutiny. Their goal is the opposite:
to keep journalists from too much prying, too much in-your-face kind of questioning, especially on certain topics.
But journalists are eyes and ears for all of us, and we need them to push office-holders and politicians who try to limit our access to them.
Here at City Hall, we journalists have to take some responsibility for what has been a gradual limiting of our access.
New York has a proud tradition of in-your-face journalism going back to John Peter Zenger, who was jailed for writing critically about the English governor back in 1735.
Zenger was jailed, then freed after a dramatic trial that was a milestone in the struggle for freedom of the press.
In Zenger's name, we need to renew that struggle whenever mayors, governors or presidents try to limit us or deny us access.
If, as a group, including both print and broadcast reporters, we refused to abide by the de Blasio administration's restrictions for one day, I believe the
situation would change instantly.