Thursday, September 27, 2012

Noticing New York Public Comment At Today’s MTA Board Meeting On the Subject Of MTA’s Devoting Public Assets To Advertising

Following up on three Noticing New York articles on the subject (Thursday, September  20, 2012, Embroiled In Embarrassment of Hosting Controversial Advertisement MTA Considers Banning “Issue Advertising”: What About Barclays LIBOR Scandal?, Saturday, September 22, 2012, Clarification From MTA: Despite Furnishing Assets, Subsidy And Subway Station Renaming Transportation Agency Disavows Promotion of Barclays Bank, and Wednesday, September 26, 2012, Promoting Obfuscation of What Government Does and Doesn’t Do To Give The Private Sector (Including Ratner) More Credit) I appeared at today’s MTA board meeting and gave comment about revisions reportedly under consideration by the MTA to revise its policies about how freely its public assets are used to promote or promulgate questionable or embarrassing messages the MTA might not want to be seen as implicitly endorsing.

I was the first of nine speakers this morning, eight of which spoke about the subject of advertising.  The other, in a wheelchair, spoke about accessibility of the system to the wheelchair-bound. The subject of the use of the MTA system’s assets for undesirable advertising had been brought to the fore and covered in the press because Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative won a case against the MTA wherein the MTA was recently judicially ordered to run ads from her organization that include anti-Arab slurs and tell subway riders to “Support Israel” in the Middle East conflict.  I have made the point in Noticing New York that the MTA’s very costly devotion of assets in the promotion of “Barclays” is comparably, and in several ways more, embarrassing.

The MTA is more intricately involved in the Barclays promotion and, given the record, its complicity is easier to argue and seem to have been more premeditated.

My own comments this morning focused on the MTA’s promotion of Barclays.  The general focus of most of the other speakers was on objection to the anti-Arab slur ads now in the subway.  (The ads essentially call those in conflict with Israel “savages.”)

Aside from me, the third speaker also brought up the subject of Barclays, as well as the fourth speaker who, yelling, also mentioned it.  Another speaker got into the effects on the MTA’s budget of the LIBOR rate-fixing manipulations with which the Barclays name is automatically associated.  Throughout the remarks, and in signs brandished, the 99% mantra was championed.  The woman in the wheelchair who spoke similarly had Occupy Wall Street messages stuck to the back of her chair.  If I’d had time I might have referred to the fact that the misdeeds of Barclays are considered symbolic of abuses by the 1%.

The last speaker was Pam Geller herself defending her ads which seem designed to garner publicity with provocation.  She was drowned out twice with an OWS-style “mic-check” attack.

* * * *

Here are my Noticing New York comments from this morning: 
    •    You have difficult decisions before you: when government gets enmeshed in lending out public assets for corporate advertising and corporate promotion it creates confusion about:
    •        what government really does and doesn’t do, and
    •        what government is or is not endorsing.
    •    One easy answer is to cut back on advertising.  Anyone who thinks that advertising is bringing in significant sums to support the MTA budget has lost track of their decimal points.  Should the subway hubs be named after corporations, all odds with respect to their continued respectability be damned?
    •    Your new policy will have to consider whether there will be grandfathering: Will your policy mean that MTA resources that have been devoted to ill-advised, unseemly promotions (Barclays Back being an example) be terminated?  Or will such ill-advised arrangements nevertheless be honored, treated as automatically immune from revocation because of grandfathering, or as existing contracts that you deem cannot be voided?

    •    Forewarned is forearmed.  As you are able to envision such awkwardness in the future (given your experience with Barclays), what standards will you invoke so that MTA contracts can be revoked?  In the future you would not want to have New York subway stations continue to be conspicuously named after a bank like Barclays that, for example, the MTA may need to sue for losses it has incurred through the LIBOR scandal.

    •    You may think that the answer is to distinguish between running “issue advertisements” and advertisements that are simply promotions of corporate names and products.  I suggest that this would be unfair. It would just result in an inherent bias toward support of corporatism.  It would mean, for example, that despite Barclays misdeeds that bank could still advertise, presumably implying that its name remains respectable.  The sole restriction?: Maybe you wouldn’t permit overt arguments in MTA ads that Barclays misdeeds constituted no wrong.  But the implication of respectability would remain.- meanwhile, balancing ads that argue that the faults of Barclays should be observed would be banned as issue advertisements.  Would this be fair?    

    •    Perhaps the answer is for the MTA to be theoretically neutral, accepting ads  from any and all comers provided fair value is paid to run them.  But by these standards the MTA should be in trouble for its Barclays promotions because the compensation it received when it agreed to rename subway hubs after “Barclays” was only a mere fraction of true value; at the time it was 1/100th of what the developer was believed to be getting for putting the bank’s name on the Ratner/Prokhorov arena.
Below is a final point I could not speak fast enough to squeeze into the two minutes we were allotted to speak. As it was, I was tripping over my words to get out as much as I could. With only two minutes it is a challenge to think whether to sacrifice: 1.) Comprehensiveness, 2.) coherence and cogent points, or 3.) speech that is slow enough for good effect and emphasis.
    •    These concerns are part of a much bigger problem: What kind of world is it when the government acts as if its own interests (and those of the public) are inherently subservient to burnishing the image of big private sector corporations over less flattering realities?- In that regard I refer you to the MTA’s collaboration in a Daily News promotional article for the “Barclays” Center selling to the public the absurd notion that Forest City Ratner provided construction of a new subway entrance to the public gratis and at no taxpayer expense.
When I left the meeting the MTA board had gone into executive session without yet discussing the advertising policy and from the agenda available at the meeting it is not clear that they intended to get to it today.  I will have to rely on other reporting and update this post if I hear that they said anything with respect to it after the executive session.

Much of the interesting discussion before the board went into executive session concerned upcoming changes in board meetings.  There will be fewer board meetings: It was discussed whether that would be closer to 20% or 30% fewer with ex-governor David Paterson doing the math in his head that it will be closer to the latter. It was argued that, for transparency sake, more information would be going out to the public sooner in more readily accessible form.  Most interesting though is that the MTA board process will start including special sessions where the public will be able to ask questions that will be answered there and then by MTA staffers or board members.

Here is a starter question: The MTA went to court to test its legal right not to run the anti-Arab advertisements from Pamela Geller’s organization- Why hasn’t the MTA thought about similarly testing is legal right not to keep the “Barclays” name on its subway hubs?

Here is a brief WNYC report on the hearing that is also taking comments: Protest Breaks Out at NY MTA Meeting Over Ad Policy, by Transportation Nation,  09/27/2012.

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