Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the Banks- Messages From Bonnie & Clyde, “They’ve Got Too Much Money”: Ownership of the Public Forum by the Wealthy?

(Top dogs belonging to Mayor Bloomberg- above. And, beneath the dogs, anti-monopoly Occupy Wall Street protesters.)

WHAT was he thinking? . . .

Hold one minute. . . . For those of you wanting to keep a few steps ahead connecting the dots as they read this, we are heading somewhere important: The skewing of wealth in this country, complained about in the placards hoisted by the Occupy Wall Street crowd is also very much a threat to the ability of the rest of us to meaningfully exercise our rights to free speech.

Now, we'll start here . .
.

For the Mayor Life Is Ruff

WHAT
was he thinking? The very same morning that the New York police were going to be brought in to remove the Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zucotti Park we open the New York Times and there is an article about Mayor Bloomberg’s (and his live-in girlfriend. Diana Taylor’s) dogs, “Bonnie and Clyde.” (See: The Mayor Stands Firm Against the Lobbying of Puppy-Dog Eyes, by Matt Flegenheimer, October 13, 2011.) Bonnie and Clyde?- We’ll get to that in a moment.

Why do I say what was “he” thinking? When I say “he” I mean the mayor and my question as to what Bloomberg was thinking is because at first blush, the story about the Mayor and his girlfriend’s canine Bonnie and Clyde has the hallmarks of a placed, likely intentionally-timed story. If nothing else, the mayor ought to have known the story was imminent in that we know his spokesman Stu Loeser was contacted. Mr. Loeser contributed an innocuous quote for the story via e-mail.

The story includes intimate details about the dogs’ life in the mayor’s home, that the mayor tolerates the dogs “in his kitchen” and “at his campaign functions” and that he makes it a sour point to correct people mistaken about his ownership of the dogs by saying that they are “Diana’s dogs” although she gave them to him four years ago. It explains how, inside the mayor’s town house, the dogs have been “chewing hand towels, a bench in the breakfast nook and the hood of Ms. Taylor’s jacket.”

When I spoke to Matt Flegenheimer, the Times reporter who wrote the story, he was unwilling to provide quotes for the record in response to my questions about how and when the story got generated or how cooperative the mayor’s staff had been in its production. That will have to remain a matter of speculation and detective work.

An earlier Times story in the dog days of August, 2008 mentioned the pups. Some of the article is discernibly from other sources like the 2010 Bloomberg quote about how late Ms. Taylor walks the dogs and conceivably the new Times article was prompted by a mention of the dogs’ purchase in a September 30th interview Diana Taylor gave to a reporter that appeared in the Observer.

It is impossible to say how much of the inside-the-mayor's-residence tell-all was provided by Robert Haussmann, the dogs’ former trainer who is quoted spilling the beans on some of the dogs’ naughtier escapades and on whose web site a Taylor/Bloomberg testimonial appears together with a picture of Bonnie and Clyde (also at beginning of this post). Was Haussman ratting out the woof-woofs without a go-ahead from his illustrious clients? From another picture on line (see below) it is possible to observe that the leashed Labradors traveled to attend the Gracie Mansion wedding of a Bloomberg aide over which the mayor specially officiated in July in recognition of the day marriage equality become law in New York just as Mr. Flegenheimer mentioned in his story, but without knowing what you were looking for that might be hard to ferret out.

As to how long the story was in the works, the reporting specifies that observation of some playfulness of the dogs occurred on “a recent weekday morning.” The caption for a picture accompanying the story specifies that it was taken “this month” which would translate to October or within the previous two weeks, given that the story having appeared on the 13th. The picture of Ms. Taylor, full frontal with both dogs, taken by “Michael Appleton for The New York Times,” though it is not as flattering as the many Nikola Tamindzic photos taken of Taylor for the interview she recently granted the Observer, does not look like a paparazzi ambush (see below).

Getting the Dog Ball Rolling?

So did Bloomberg directly (or perhaps indirectly through the dogs’ former trainer) get the ball rolling on publication of this example of that famous journalism genre of the humanizing `man-owns-dog-story'? The article actually comments: “Mr. Bloomberg stands apart as one of the few public figures who have declined the opportunity, quite literally given to him, to use the animals to burnish his Everyman credentials.”

Whether Bloomberg did or not is perhaps beside the point. What is important is that all it takes is the unveiling of just a few domestic details concerning the illustrious Bloomberg household and, VoilĂ ! You have a full-blown New York Times story that is respectfully favorable to the mayor. Meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street people are spending nights sleeping in the cold fighting to get the press to pay attention for some really important issues Bloomberg and friends would prefer that you not be hearing about- More on this shortly.

Poor Recollection of a Rich Reference?

Bonnie and Clyde? Why did Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Taylor decide to name their dogs “Bonnie and Clyde”? A pair of bank robbers? Was the notion that these were cutesy, mildly provocative names with the safe and quaint retro-nostalgia of a bygone era? Clearly the most obvious reference, probably the one intended, was not to the real Bonnie and Clyde but to the Bonnie and Clyde of the Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway, 1967 Arthur Penn movie. That film broke through establishment-imposed norms to depict nobodies (film critic Roger Ebert) who famously became virtual folk heroes with Clyde (according to a Times summary) “painted in the press as a Depression-era Robin Hood” for their bank robbing style. Roger Ebert commented: “They seemed to consider themselves public servants, bringing a little sparkle to the poverty and despair of the Dust Bowl during the early Depression years.”

Key to the film's vision of misguided criminals verging on the status of near heroes embraced by the public is the idea, similar to themes afoot in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, of Depression-era banks as villains, the idea that banks were holding too much of the wealth.

The scene of the film that probably makes this clearest is the scene with Clyde, Bonnie and a family outside that family’s bank-foreclosed farm. “Property of Midlothian Citizens Bank -- Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted,” says the sign in the shot establishing the scene. As they listen with commiseration Clyde and Bonnie are told by the farmer, “Used to be my place. Not any more. Bank took it. . . . Yessir, moved us off. Now it belongs to them.” The family’s nearby car is piled high, “Grape of Wrath” style with their belongings. Clyde, the farmer and his old black farmhand thereupon take turns, and pleasure, in firing well-aimed shots into the windows of the house, destroying the bank’s property. This all sets up the scene’s concluding line, an exchange of introductions, Clyde saying, punctuated by the satisfied affirmation of a smile and a nod,“Miss Bonnie Parker. And I'm Clyde Barrow. . . . We rob banks.”

During the Depression the severe slowing of the economy together with a period of deflation exacerbated by a contraction of the money supply spurred in part by gold-standard promoting capitalists shifted a lot of wealth and property ownership to the banks: It became more expensive to pay off your debt or mortgage than it was when you had taken that debt on, but the travails of the time were due mostly to old-style conventional banking. Nothing compared to what the Occupy Wall Street people are have to complain about.

Did Michael Bloomberg and Diana Taylor name their dogs Bonnie and Clyde because they think like the Occupy Wall Street crowd or is this a scoffing reference to how they obviously don’t? Conversely, would it be a stretch to think they were attracted to thinking of themselves as modern day robbers with a freedom to pillage financially? It ought to be remembered that when they named their dogs Bloomberg was not only the mayor of New York but also, far and away, it’s wealthiest citizen with a slew of conflicts of interest concerning his role as mayor and the fashion in which his wealth was rapidly escalating.

Courting An Iconic Bloodbath?

But WHAT was Bloomberg thinking when he thought that the Bonnie and Clyde mayor-has-dogs story was going to run the same Friday morning his police troops were going to move in to evict the Occupy Wall Street crowd? The protesters’ nonviolence notwithstanding it could have been a bloody scene. Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” film ends with an iconic bloodbath. Would people have been making comparisons that morning? Where would the public’s sympathies have been?

Strong and Growing Support for the Protesters a Problem for Bloomberg

Bloomberg is in a tough position. The situation is clearly getting away from him as a Wall Street supporter. As the Wall Street occupancy continues, more and more people are paying attention and the reaction the protesters are getting is overwhelmingly favorable in New York, the city in which Bloomberg is mayor. A Quinnipiac poll released Monday (released just three days after Bloomberg’s contemplated Friday eviction) says that New York voters support the occupancy by the Wall Street protestors three to one, agreeing with their views by a 67 – 23 percent margin and saying 87 – 10 percent that it is “okay that they are protesting.” Further:
Agreeing with the protesters views are Democrats 81 – 11 percent and independent voters 58 – 30 percent, while Republicans disagree 58 – 35 percent, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University poll finds. Even Republicans, however, agree 73 – 23 percent with the protesters right to be there.

New York City voters say 72 – 24 percent, including 52 – 41 percent among Republicans, that if the protesters obey the law, they can stay as long as they wish.
(See, Poll: Two-thirds of New Yorkers support Occupy Wall Street protests, by Staff Report, Herald-Tribune, Monday, October 17, 2011.)

Bloomberg's National Ambitions

With all this support from New York voters how is it that Bloomberg, an `elected’ official, wants to dispossess the protesters? Bloomberg probably doesn’t think that permitting the demonstrations aligns with his national political ambitions, which at this point could likely involve a hoped-for Republican vice-presidential (or presidential?) nomination. Or, if he plans to put himself forward as an independent party candidate, an example of a 'laudably' nonpartisan businessman (say backed by the “No-Labels party” the emergence of which was mysteriously funded) it will not help him if an anti-Wall Street movement keeps gaining traction.

(For some of the protesters feelings regarding Bloomberg are mutual, see below.)

Who's Your Daddy?

Bloomberg probably also thinks of Wall Street as his constituency rather than the OWS-supporting voters by reason of the money relationships. This sort of thing was commented upon by Paul Krugman in his last column when he spotted the same interesting quote that intrigued me in a Times story about what Wall Street bankers are not willing to say publicly for attribution but are willing to say to a reporter without attribution. Complaining about the lack of support against the protesters from New York’s senators Charles E. Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, one money manager said: “They need to understand who their constituency is.” Krugman fills in the obvious blank:
But he wasn’t really talking about voters, of course. He was talking about the one thing Wall Street still has plenty of thanks to those bailouts, despite its total loss of credibility: money.
(See: [Wall Street] Losing Their Immunity, by Paul Krugman, October 16, 2011.- In flipping this kind of thing around to look at it from the Tea Party activist side, it is interesting how the monied-up Republican establishment seems perpetually fixated on its insistence that the Republican presidential nominee must, in fact, will be Mitt Romney despite the time-to-time fluctuations in the polls favoring other candidates above Romney. The time-to-time aspects of those fluctuations also bear examination.)

By flushing into the open such sentiments about who owns the politicians Occupy Wall Street is doing one hell of job. That Occupy Wall Street has provided the occasion for Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist to, so far, write three columns very supportive of the movement also means it has accomplished a lot (the two other Krugman columns are linked to in the beginning of this earlier coverage. And there is a quick reference in this one as well.)

Don't Sleep on Your Free Speech Rights: Know Your Real Estate Law About Privatized Public Space

In a strange twist the city has found itself legally impeded in removing protesters from Zucotti Park because the park is oxymoronically a “privately owned public space.” See the Times article on this: Privately Owned Park, Open to the Public, May Make Its Own Rules, by Lisa W. Fodero, October 13, 2011. That article explaining how Zucotti Park is required to stay open to the public 24 hours a day in exchange for permitted variances received respecting the shape (not size, per se) of the tower the owner built immediately to the north states, inaccurately, that, “By contrast, the city’s parks all have curfews: the latest is 1 a.m.; a number close much earlier.”

Not all city parks close at 1:00 AM or earlier. Although there are some contrary indications on the web, if you call the Parks Department as I did you will discover that Central Park doesn’t close at night although certain sections like the zoo and playgrounds do. If Central Park did close at 1:00 AM then Mr. Bloomberg’s quote in Mr. Flegenheimer’s article that Ms. Taylor walks Bonnie and Clyde in Central Park at 1:00 AM would mean she was breaking the rules.

Maybe the park by the mayor’s residence is open 24 hours a day, but nighttime closings of Union Square and Washington Square have been a factor in preventing Occupy Wall Street from setting up new occupancy outposts.

On the one hand there is a delicious and exquisite complexity to the tangled laws respecting private ownership of Zuccotti Park (particularly to an attorney versed in government and NY real estate such as myself) that ironically has made it legally more difficult for the Bloomberg administration to remove the protesters from this quasi-public space than from the city’s actual public parks such as Union and Washington Squares. But on the other hand the obscuring veil attributable to the complexity that stems from the increasing use of private-public partnership arrangements to `privately' provide public space and public benefit is dangerous, perhaps even grotesquely so.

Just try to explain to the average citizen the technicalities of the ways in which these arrangements modify their rights to free speech and their eyes will be sure to glaze over. That could be exactly the way the lawyered-up Bloomberg elite may want things. And already Bloomberg’s real estate pals at the Real Estate Board of New York are looking to make retroactive changes to the laws so that the protesters may be evicted.

With the Growth of What Is Privately Owned Comes the Shrinking of the Public Realm

There is a serious problem when what were typically public spaces are replaced with privately owned spaces because there is no law against private citizens depriving other private citizens of their right to free speech. By contrast, under the Bill of Rights the government is prohibited from depriving the public of free speech. That is why problems arise and the high courts have had to visit constitutional questions of free speech when public town centers around the country are replaced by privately owned shopping malls. There is, of course, an argument that the so-called “privately owned public spaces” are really public or quasi-public spaces when government actions confer significant benefits (including at public expense or its equivalent) like zoning or variance negotiations to create them. Therefore constitutional free speech protections should perhaps apply. But with privatization public rights get more complicated.

It is perhaps no small irony that the private space (bordered by Liberty Street), now the subject of these vexing free speech riddles, although always privately owned, was once named “Liberty Plaza Park.” Upon completion of a post-9/11 renovation it was, renamed “Zucotti Park” in 2006 in honor of John Zucotti, a public servant as Deputy Mayor in Mayor Beame’s administration but at the time of the renaming one of the city’s most powerful zoning lawyers with the law firm of Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP.

Magadevelopment Miniature

How large does this problem of private ownership of the public realm loom in New York City? Consider what is happening to traditional Brooklyn with the 50+ concentrated acres (above) supposed to be owned by Forest City Ratner in the key central, dense areas atop the main public subway lines (see below). Those fifty acres include the 30 contiguous acres of the proposed Atlantic Yards where, at significant financial loss to the public, the Ratner/Prokhorov (“Barclays”) basketball arena is now being built. This 50+ acre mega-monopoly was brought about with government subsidies and the intervention of eminent domain abuse to concentrate this land ownership in the politically connected Ratner organization. In a significant government-assisted privatization of public space it incorporates streets, avenues and sidewalks previously belonging to the public, together with park, plaza and "public square" space that would otherwise likely have been publicly owned as well.

To understand in foreboding miniature what this mega-monopoly’s privatization of public space might portend for free speech it is worth remembering back to the public protest of the arena’s groundbreaking ceremonies (not attended by local politicians except for Borough President Marty Markowitz). The police hemmed in the demonstrating crowds with orange netting and reflexively told us to return “to the sidewalks.” In other words the sidewalks were our permitted space to publicly demonstrate and express our opposition to the shameless boondoggle. The problem was that there were no longer any sidewalks to return to. They had been privatized by Ratner. My chant, as the police hemmed us in and told us to return to the sidewalk was, “Give us back our sidewalks!”

Political Power, Speech and Physical Places

The simple equation is this: Privatization eliminates the opportunity for speech; without space to publicly assemble the possibility of public speech retreats.

Michael Kimmelman, the new architecture critic of The New York Times, addressed this in an article appearing the Times new “SundayReview” section: In Protest, the Power of Place, October 19, 2011. Writing about Zucotti Park and Occupy Wall Street while referencing such places as Tahrir Square, Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall, and the meadow in Central Park where protests were held against the Vietnam War, Mr. Kimmelman astutely reminds us that “we tend to underestimate the political power of physical places” and that the power of various media aside, “nothing replaces people taking to the streets.”

If that's so, and I agree that it is, what does it mean when more and more swaths of the city are being privatized: Rater's 50+ acres, Columbia's new 17 contiguous acres being taken from the community in West Harlem (giving Columbia 35 acres of privately-owned monoculture altogether), the 26 private acres that will belong to the Related Companies at Hudson Yards (in addition to other Related holdings elsewhere), the 75 acres taken over the Willets Point development to be owned by one developer.

Park Ownership Taylored to Bloomberg's Taste?

These government-assisted aggregations of the city’s property are all the more troubling when one considers how, with the continuing concentration of wealth in this country, such aggregations are controlled by a smaller and smaller sliver of the population. Emblematic of this is the fact that Diana Taylor, the mayor’s live-in companion and girlfriend, is on the board of the private owner of Zucotti Park. This information, pointed out by the Occupy Wall Street protestors was in a Times article about the pending “clean-up” eviction of the protestors (and how the protestors preemptively initiated their own clean-up):
Some protesters have pointed out that the mayor’s longtime girlfriend, Diana L. Taylor, is on the board of directors of Brookfield.
(See: October 13, 2011, Facing Eviction, Protesters Begin Park Cleanup, by Anemona Hartocollis.)

Incredibly, the very next day, the Times reported (apparently quoting a carefully crafted statement from mayoral aides) that Bloomberg staff had been prevented from lobbying Brookfield, and the Times did so without any mention anywhere in that article of how Ms. Taylor was on Brookfield’s board (as if the mayor wanting to get a message through to Brookfield would have to go through his staff!):
The mayor’s staff, under strict orders from Mr. Bloomberg, did not lobby the owner of the park, Brookfield Office Properties, about whether to push ahead, leaving the decision up to the company’s management, according to several people involved in the discussions.
This was in an a story about how the clean-up/eviction of the protesters had been called off due in large part to support expressed for the protesters and their rights by local politicians, see: Calls Flood In, City Backs Off and Protesters Stay, by Michael Barbaro and Kate Taylor, October 14, 2011.

Would the mayor more likely send his message to Brookfield through Ms. Taylor rather than risk sending such a politically charged message through his staff? That question has now been directly addressed by the Times. The mayor says, `nope.’ Matt Flegenheimer, the Times reporter who wrote the Bonnie and Clyde dog story, has written about Occupy Wall Street twice. One story was about how there is a flood of tourists going to visit Occupy Wall Street who are confused when they go to Wall Street itself without realizing that they, instead need to go to nearby Zucotti Park. His more recent story (one version of it with a shared byline) covers a news conference where the issue of teamwork with Ms. Taylor was raised:
At the news conference in Queens, the mayor was asked if he had spoken about the protests with his girlfriend, Diana L. Taylor, who is on the board of directors of Brookfield Office Properties, which owns Zuccotti Park.

“I can tell you that pillow talk in our house is not about Brookfield or Occupy Wall Street," he said.
(See: Bloomberg Says ‘Tent City’ Goes Beyond Free Speech, by Matt Flegenheimer and John Eligon, October 17, 2011 and see also October 17, 2011, Bloomberg Says He Seeks Balance Between Right to Protest and ‘Right to Be Silent’, by Matt Flegenheimer.)

Imagine you are a protestor looking to get attention and the mayor with his control over city parks won’t let you stay in Union Square, Washington Square or the other city parks, the mayor’s girlfriend has helped kick you out of Zucotti Park, you don’t want to wander over to Forest City Ratner’s 50+ acres because the mayor is handing them all their subsidies (and the other subsidized developers are unfriendly as well?) so you strategize to go instead to the 550-Acre Hudson River Park run by a state-sponsored public authority? Sorry, the mayor’s girlfriend Diana Taylor is Chair of that authority’s board and Michael Bloomberg is on that board too. But don’t worry, their pillow talk never extends to how they want to see the parks used.

Mayor Changes Stance: Doesn't Now Think the Protesters Have These Constitutional Rights

The Matt Flegenheimer article above containing the mayor's assurance that there is no park pillow talk also represents a shift about in Bloomberg's public statements about whether he concedes that the protesters have these rights to express themselves. Bloomberg has gone through all sorts of contortions to find new ways to malign the protesters and emphasize that he (thinking with business acumen clarity?) of course disagrees with them. Nevertheless, as of few days ago the Times was still reporting that Bloomberg was “repeatedly defending the right of people to demonstrate” quoting Bloomberg that “The bottom line is, people want to express themselves, and as long as they obey the laws, we’ll allow them to” and on an earlier occasion, “We have to make sure that while you have a right to say what you want to say, people who want to say something very different have a right to say that, as well. That’s what’s great about this country.”

Mayor Will Give the Public the `Right to Remain Silent'

In the Flegenheimer pillow talk denial article Bloomberg was now saying instead, “The Constitution doesn’t protect tents . . . . It protects speech and assembly.” And Bloomberg was also beginning to test out a new theory reminiscent of President Richard Nixon’s 1969 plea for support from what he dubbed a “silent majority”: Specifically, Bloomberg posits that he might have to evict the protestors because others might have a different point of view (“We can’t have a place where only one point of view is allowed”*) and he might give priority to those interested in their “right to be silent.”

(* "One point of view"?: How does this square with the criticism that the protesters don't have a single coordinated message?)

The mayor's latest caustically dismissive gripe about the protestors (being quoted on WNYC 10/20-21), takes aim at their lack of corporateness: “I don't think there’s anybody to negotiate with and if there is we haven't been able to find them.” While that makes Bloomberg out to be somewhat the victim it is not 100% necessarily so. It also overlooks the beauty of how the protesters have been meticulously respectful of the pluralism of the many voices joining together in this protest. (e.g. The popular “Occupy Wall Street Journal” paper being circulated by the protesters is we are told “just one voice among many at Occupy Wall Street.”)

Anyone wonder whether Bloomberg has made contact with the person in charge of the group wanting to express their “right to be silent”?

What is significant about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which obviously stresses the physical taking of space as its most central symbol, is that this physical occupancy is breaking through to deliver a message that wasn’t getting through by other means. More about that coming up.

A Tradition: Control of Communication to Control Politics

(Historian Daniel Walker Howe on WJTN's Jim Roselle program just before his lecture- available- at the Chautauqua Institution where he spoke about the history below.)

In politics there is unfortunately an age-old tradition for those in political power try to seize the channels of communication to squelch the messages they don’t like. In his 2007 book, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe recounts how one significant threat the South saw in Lincoln’s 1860 election was Lincoln’s reversal of a policy established by President Andrew Jackson in 1835 that had for years blocked the U.S. Postal Service’s delivery of abolitionist tracts opposing slavery. The Postal Service could not legally refuse to deliver mail to addresses but Jackson directed local Southern postmasters that they could under their own authority (technically not his) implement a system where abolitionist mail would be held in post offices undelivered. Instead, a notice would be sent to the addressees (abolitionists were targeting moderates in order to swing their opinions) saying that the office presumed that they would not want these mailings but that if the addressees did they could notify the Post Office to that effect. As a further intimidation, if such moderates did ask for delivery of their mail their names might be publicly posted.

Two Books About Aggregating Control of Communication

I have recently been writing about a two truly excellent books, “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” by Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu and “Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership” by Kenyon College and Harvard University Professor Lewis Hyde. (See: Friday, September 30, 2011, Could the Atlantic Yards Monopoly Be Even Less Regulated Than It Is? Why A Mega-Monopoly Continuation Isn’t Workable, Tuesday, September 20, 2011, A Parable: Some Words Concerning the Future of Communication, Wednesday, September 7, 2011, The New York Times Takes an Editorial Position on the Subject of Encouraging Competition and It’s Inconsistent With Its Position on Atlantic Yards.) Each is about aspects of aggregating power over communication.

Those two authors each express significant worries about the control of speech by reason if privatization and monopolizing ownership of the channels of communication available to us. Each also observes that when government is involved in abetting the formation monopolies the channels of communication get commandeered to control political speech and select those who will be in power. Professor Wu’s focus is more on the private ownership of the technological means and distribution of communication. Professor Hyde’s focus is primarily on how communication and thinking is being impeded by virtue of the privatization of our cultural commons and reference points occurring through an incredible extension of copyright rules.

Enter a Political Hayes

Professor Wu begins his chronicles of the patterned cycle of the rise of information and communication empires trending toward monopolies with the advent of the telegraph. His earliest cautionary tales about such private control of communication channels therefore concerns the way Western Union used its exclusive monopoly control over the telegraph to influence and likely determine the outcome of the Hayes/Tilden 1876 presidential election, a disputed election very much like the Bush/Gore election of 2000. Like Gore Tilden won the popular vote (by 247,448) in the general election. (Gore won by 543,895 and had the U.S. Supreme Court not interfered with the state court-ordered recount of all the Florida ballots would have won the electoral college vote as well.)

Wu points out relationships and reasons the Western Union people wanted Hayes, the Republican, to attain office, including that “much of what were eventually Western Union’s lines were built by the Union Army.” Western Union carried (Hayes-favorable) Associated Press stories to the exclusion of others, “working with the Republican Party and avowedly Republican papers . .” doing “what they could to throw the election to Hayes.” More important, according to Wu, Managing New York Times editor John Reid, an ardent* Republican, worked with Western Union telegrams to manipulate available information about who had actually likely won the election so as to swing the electoral votes of Southern states to Hayes. Among other things, this complicated bit of history is widely viewed as having been what ended Reconstruction in the South.

(* “Rabid,” says Hayes Biographer Ari Hoogenboom in “The Disputed Election” a chapter in his “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President”)

Exiling Subversive Views

Professor Wu’s book provides some marvelously subtle and intricate analysis of how control and ownership influences the nature of the content of communication that ultimately gets through to the public and informs our culture. In one section of the book he talks about how Hollywood’s Production Code, the moralistic Hays Code from 1930, was able to come into effect (without government assistance) because of the monopolistic structure of the film industry and he theorizes convincingly that the “New Hollywood era,” with films that were “edgy and defiant affairs” and challenging to values of society like “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Bonnie and Clyde” might not have come along had industry’s ownership structure remained unchanged.

Wu points out that while the code was in effect, “There was no place for the expression of remotely subversive views or anything that questioned the status quo.”

Talking about the Hays code Wu states that it “goes to a central contention of this book: it is industrial structure that determines the limits of free speech.” He also says:
If making yourself heard cannot be practically accomplished in an actual public square but rather depends upon some medium, and upon that medium is built an industry restricting access to it, there is no market for free speech.
Wu also talks about copyright, for instance the way that control over copyright (because of the ownership options involved) has helped generate the culture we see today where so many films are based on comic book characters.

Copyright, Ownership and Public Forums

Professor Hyde focuses more on copyright issues but is similarly concerned in that regard with the need to maintain open forums for the public to communicate and exchange ideas. Hyde suggests that forums and opportunity for communication ought to remain inalienably public, considering them to be by tradition the equivalent of “public natural resources” and the “common property of all the people.” He says:
A similar trusteeship [by the government on behalf of its citizenry] exists in regard to public meeting places. As described in a 1939 Supreme Court decision, “traditional public forums” such a sidewalks, streets, and parks “have immemorially been held in trust for use of the public, and time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions”
Like Professor Wu he notes the importance of freedom of expression on the Internet and makes the point the Internet is able to function successfully as it does because the “network protocols, the set of communication rules that made the web possible” were released to and made part of the public domain rather than restricted by copyright.

"Predominancy" of Sects

In parable fashion Hyde tells the story of George Whitefield, a Methodist minster who arrived in Philadelphia to preach Protestantism in 1739. Initially, local clergy shared their pulpits with him but then turned against him. Thereupon, Benjamin Franklin (who is very much a character in Hyde’s book helping him to make innumerable interesting points about intellectual freedom and the necessity for ideas to be shared) got together with a group of friends to fund and build a large lecture hall. Although he did not usually agree with Whitefield, Franklin enjoyed his oratory and “was somewhat moved despite himself.” He further objected to the way Whitefield had been denied a public forum. In appointing trustees to manage the hall Franklin says that care was taken “to avoid giving a Predominancy to any sect.”

Hyde uses his description of the establishment of the public hall to make the point that (emphasis added):
For democracy to flourish after the America Revolution meant discarding both the tools by which oppositional voices were silenced and the consequent aristocratic norm of pretended consensus.
He contrasts this with the time before the revolution when newspapers were printed only “by authority” of the government and dissenters could be jailed, exiled or executed.

We certainly don’t execute our dissenters these days but if the elements of speech are privatized through ownership, particularly concentrated ownership, as both Wu and Hyde argue is often happening in so many ways then money and speech become interchangeable, but in one direction only. When money is speech, then to have a 1% sliver controlling most of the nation’s wealth (as objected to by Occupy Wall Street) means that dissent does suffer exile. In America with money equating with speech more and more (and many of the wealthy would have it be even more so) we have given Predominancy to that sect the creed of which is plutocracy.

Restoring A Healthy Recognizable Capitalism

It is important to observe that neither Wu nor Hyde are arguing against capitalism. What they are alerting us to is the problem of an out-of-balance monopolistic concentration of rights with respect to speech that is facilitated by government alliances, when instead the government should be limiting such monopolies so as to achieve a more recognizably Adam Smith kind of capitalism. Each makes convincing arguments as to why limits on such concentrations of rights is the healthier, more workable way to organize capitalism, society, public discourse and the exchange of ideas.

Objection to the teaming up of government and monopoly should be common ground for both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street activists although I suspect that the proportion of Occupy Wall Street protesters astute enough to realize this may be greater. Also, neither Wu nor Hyde take on the subject of the general skewing of wealth in the country but they do each criticize the concentrated piling on of additional rights for those who are already ahead in the game.

The Tug of Wealth on Messages and Communication

How does the skewed wealth of the nation affect the drift, content, and overall perspective of public discourse and debate in this country? Technically don’t we have, after all, protected free speech? Technically, we do but when lucre is speech the exercise of that constitutional right must compete for meaningfulness with the cacophony of the speech-on-steroids that is influenced or paid for by money in ways almost too numerous to catalog.

I have already written about how, when Atlantic Yards, New York City’s biggest boondoggle and political scam was launched, the New York Times, which would like to think of itself as earning a reputation for protecting the public and insisting on good government, fell down on that job. For all intents and purposes it colluded in the mega-development’s promotion while having entered into a business partnership with the developer to build its new headquarters. (See: Sunday, June 26, 2011, “Page One: Inside the New York Times” Reviewed; Plus The “New York Times Effect” on New York’s Biggest Real Estate Development Swindle.) That’s the influence of money.

An Unhappy Halloween's Tricky "Treats": Money Purveys Its Chosen Messages

The arena that is now being built at Atlantic Yards is being publicly subsidized at great cost, resulting in a substantial loss to the public of hundreds of millions of dollars. The arena has been accurately described by Tom Ziller (at SBNation.com) as “simply Vaseline for a real estate project [and- I add- accompanying land grab] in Brooklyn that will make his company billions more than an NBA team could ever be worth.” Nevertheless the public is being told to like it.

On the first Halloween weekend (October 2010) after its publicly-protested groundbreaking Brooklyn residents found two promotional packages for the Ratner/Prokhorov arena landing on their doorsteps: One was a “CNG” (“Community Newspaper Group”) “Brooklyn Tomorrow” magazine with a “Barclays Bounce” cover; the other was the New York Times Sunday Magazine with the Russian Oligarch and basketball team owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, on the cover conspicuously palming two basketballs in his enormous hands.

Oligarchy's Velvet Glove Holding the Press

The first was clearly in the spirit and tradition of a paid advertorial although the Community Newspaper Group’s editor denied that this was its character. The second was ostensibly critical coverage (8,298 words) as ought to be expected of the Times regarding issues of serious interest to New Yorkers. The story, however, about the Russian oligarch, “the second-richest man in Russia,” was unabashedly adulatory, suggesting that “for Nets fans” Proklhorov and his Kalashnikov “seemed too good to be true” and working in references to “how hot his secretary is.” It involved the reporter trailing along with Prokhorov to the V.I.P. area of a trendy disco with the reporter sounding as if he was doing one of Garrison Keilor’s Raymond Chandler parodies while describing the women from “several Russian modeling agencies” who were there because `Proky’s' social secretary had called ahead “to stock the pond”:
two dozen high-cheekboned knockouts in lethal heels and dresses that were more like plot summaries. The blue and gray plastic V.I.P. bracelets on their wrists made them look like a flock of banded herons.
The article, may have focused of on the way these women were proverbially stripped down to their assets, but it touched only lightly and with delicacy on the questions of “asset stripping” and how Prokhorov built up his wealth, “asset stripping” described in this article as the way “valuable parts of a company are transferred to a new institution (in this case, Rosbank) and sheltered from creditors.”

This is not to say that reading the story you would necessarily come away devoid of insights. Reading between the lines you might find yourself suspecting there was something funny about the taxes Prokhorov pays and that he maintains an “official residence” in Siberia different from his actual large home in Moscow as some sort of dodge:
Although Prokhorov’s official residence is a village in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia, where he pays upward of $500 million a year in taxes, he lives in Skolkovo, 45 minutes north of Moscow, in a sprawling 21,500-square-foot house he finished building six years ago.
More important to the theme of this Noticing New York essay is a subtext in the Times article about Prokhorov’s ability to control the press. Twice the article has Prohorov demonstrating to reporter Chip Brown how the reporter would himself get bested if he attempted to put a gun to Prokhorov’s back. That's the way the article begins. The second time it is coupled with the reporter’s quip about how only part of the afternoon he spent with Prokhorov in his mansion was devoted “to disabling journalists.” Tying all this together are associated references to Prokhorov's attaining supremacy “in a very soft manner” (he could have broken the reporter’s leg “in a very soft manner”) and the last book-ending line of the article which concludes with the word “softly” as a reference, not only to a spoken of victory, but the opening use of the word respecting Prokhorov's power over the visiting reporter.

The article also refers to how Prokhorov manages his PR, or his “legends.”

At another point in the article there is an exchange at a promotional party between Prokhorov and Masha Gessen, the deputy editor of “Snob, a lavish magazine for Russian cosmopolites that is one of a group of media properties in which he is investing $150 million.” He tells her, “I don’t read.” She parries, “Then I guess we can write whatever we want!” And at one point the article does associate Prokhorov with changes constituting: “a creepy usurpation of dissent — a replacement of the control of the old Soviet state with the control of a for-profit corporation.”

The overall point here is that even if Russia is was ranked as the 8th most dangerous country in the world for journalists (it is now ranked 9th just after Mexico) and the most dangerous in Europe by the Committee to Protect Journalists, even though the Times decries how journalists are with impunity murdered and maimed to control coverage, Prokhorov understands the value of “soft” control of the press and knows how to use it. Soft control, that’s the influence of money.

The article contains a now infamous picture of Prokhorov, Bloomberg and Jay-Z dining at Gracie Mansion. That's the influence of money.

Press Ownership Structure: One Giant Advertorial

As noted above, the editor of the Community Newspaper Group, (CNG) denied that the “Barclays Bounce” “Brooklyn Tomorrow” magazine was an advertorial. But that denial is probably rather academic. “Community Newspaper Group” is something of euphemistic misnomer. It’s a large group of local newspapers, formerly feisty, now acquired by Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch doesn’t need to be paid to publish blandishment-style exaltations of the exploits of the supremely affluent. Murdoch courts power and the brokering of it which is why his agglomeration of press outlets (written about here), including the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and Fox outlets, is so distressing. What’s more, Forest City Ratner is the Community Newspaper Group’s landlord. That’s the influence of money.

Talking in Public: Who Has Permission

The question is raised whether the Occupy Wall Street protestors should permitted to utilize the space of Zucotti Park to express themselves but we are surrounded everywhere, throughout the public realm, by purchased corporate speech for which no permission ever seems necessary. We drown in it. Once upon a time New York’s subways were covered with painted-on graffiti. I was never a fan of having to live with it though I can appreciate the exuberance and artistic nature of some of the designs. I even recognize that it was a form of speech. I was glad when it was eradicated. But now subways are again being covered by designs, this time advertising, corporate graffiti, part of the barrage of corporate speech to which we are constantly subject. This speech is permitted without question.

Just as I was not in favor of the subway graffiti of old I am not in favor of the corporate graffiti appearing on those same trains and I am not in favor of the cooperate graffiti of replacing the names of Brooklyn subway stops with the name “Barclays” (a bank) for the Ratner/Prokhorov basketball arena. In typical tilt-things-in-favor-of-the-rich fashion the public's MTA gave the naming rights to those stations to Ratner virtually for free, allowing Ratner to then privately profit by selling the right to graffitize the stations for a truer value. (See: Sunday, June 28, 2009, Naming a Problem: The MTA Gives Ratner the Right to Name Brooklyn Subway Stations “Barclays”) That's the influence of money.

(Above, subway ad for the New York Times featuring Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly promoting front man Jay-Z.)

Press Release Circuses

The barrage of all of this paid-for corporate speech to which we are continually witness should serve as a subliminal reminder to the wise and perspicacious of the pervasive behind-the-scenes flow of press releases (and resulting press release journalism) in which corporations invest. Sites like Atlantic Yards Report can repeatedly point out the resulting inanities of a fawning press. (See: Friday, October 21, 2011, Department of Diverted Attention: Daily News devotes long op-ed to question of Nets' name change.)

(Advertising seen from New York's City Hall Park featuring Jay-Z's wife Beyoncé.)

Does it serve us when the public’s attention is so distracted by press releases about circuses and sporting events? This may seem sour, but the enormous amount that is spent on such speech and the fact that so much private speech materializes precisely because is paid for might be less of a concern were it not for the skewing of the wealth in this country that is able to pay for such speech.

Politicians Who Don't Come to the Rescue

Politicians command headlines. Can they break through the din of this corporate speech? Yes, they can, but for that to be meaningful they have to be on your side and if you are not careful they can mangle the message. Do you remember the story of the Wall Street money manager at the beginning of this article who scolded senators Schumer and Gillibrand for not coming to Wall Street’s defense saying, “They need to understand who their constituency is”?

As soon as it was likely that Andrew Cuomo would be governor of the state Forest City Ratner made contributions to his campaign. That contribution was never returned despite identified conflict of interest. In New York City we have an office called the Public Advocate, the theory being that its holder advocates for. . yes, the public. Forest City Ratner also contributed to Bill de Blasio, the holder of that office and de Blasio has never advocated for anything that is likely to give New York’s plutocrats agita. The New York Attorney General is responsible for doing investigations in this state. Atlantic Yards needs to be investigated. Will Eric Schneiderman, the current holder of that office, investigate? He too has received campaign contributions from Ratner. (See:Wednesday, October 19, 2011, Catching up on Bruce Ratner's campaign contributions: to de Blasio and New York Uprising (and would past gift to Schneiderman stave off Downtown Brooklyn Partnership investigation?).

Once again, that’s the influence of money.

The Audacity of Wanting Change Rather Than "Hope"

Oh, and politicians, when they do speak up on your behalf, may, as just noted, mangle it. New York City Council President Christine Quinn, a regular Bloomberg ally, spoke up for the Occupy Wall Street crowd the other day. She suggested that the occupancy meant that there needed to a restoration of “hope.” (See: October 18, 2011, Quinn: We have to respond to loss of hope felt by protesters, by Colby Hamilton.)

A quieting restoration of “hope” is something that actual Wall Streeters might be happy with. I think that what the Occupy Wall Street crowd is instead interested in is actual an actual change in the way things work.

Dog Gone It: They Have Too Much

I think the message the Occupy Wall Street crowd is delivering about Wall Street and the Wall Street crowd is the same message that was delivered about the banks in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde”: compared to the rest of us, they have too much. . . It’s not fair.

I would go one step further: the fact that they have to much presents serious questions about the adequacy of our free speech, the ability of the rest of us to make ourselves heard.

That brings us back to where we began. Who can say whether Bloomberg just snapped his fingers and summoned up a mayor-loves-dogs story? Maybe he didn’t. But what was he thinking if he knew that this story was going to run in the Times, alongside what could have been the perhaps very bloody spectacle of an eviction of the protesters from Zucotti Park? With all the media and paid-for speech that the mayor and friends can so readily summon to the political fray there may be one lucky protection for the 99%: that Mr. Bloomberg, the mayor and second richest New Yorker, would be so tone deaf, so incredibly tone deaf that he even named his dogs after those famous bank antagonists, Bonnie and Clyde.

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