Monday, November 5, 2012

Criticized For Prioritizing Now-Cancelled Marathon Sports Event Bloomberg (Still Looking Forward To Barclays) Side-Steps Informational Hurricane Updates

Bloomberg at virtually secret Saturday evening press conference where a question about his bad judgement about prioritizing sports events over hurricane recovery inevitably came up 
When you are mayor of New York bad news can make for a good personal news cycles, except when you blow it.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg was getting a straight set of predictable kudos for his theoretically no-nonsense handling of the superstorm Sandy disaster.  That was until the conversation started shifting to the fact that, despite the advice of all his top aides, Bloomberg was indulging himself in some nonsense: Bullheadedly deciding he would proceed with the city’s annual marathon despite the schizophrenic drain on city resources and commitments it would entail.  Bowing to the weight of public opinion the marathon was eventually cancelled Friday evening, hours after the mayor had again staunchly supported proceeding with it.

Upon examination, it looks like that when the news turned bad for Bloomberg, Bloomberg decided that he would hide out, manipulating the news cycle by deep-sixing the very same regular set of hurricane aftermath update press conferences through which he had been garnering his kudos during the long week of disaster news.

And there is more that could have motivated Bloomberg to play with the news cycle: Despite the week’s challenging hurricane disaster and recovery events, Bloomberg was looking forward to the inaugural basketball game of the Nets at the “Barclays” Center. When the marathon was cancelled, the “Barclays” game was scheduled for Saturday night, just twelve hours before the morning of the marathon.  Because of hurricane relief efforts and mass transit disruptions the previously scheduled Wednesday and Thursday night Nets games at the “Barclays” arena were cancelled, but before they were cancelled Bloomberg  embarrassed himself by saying, in the thick of early hurricane recovery efforts on Tuesday, that he not only hoped the Wednesday Nets game would proceed but that he would take a personal break from hurricane recovery to attend it.

Given the equivalencies that were in play, any traction the marathon cancellation story got was likely to lead to questions about, and pressure on the administration to postpone or cancel, this third Saturday night basketball game as well.  The mantra explaining cancellation of the marathon being repeated on all the networks was that at this juncture a sports event could not take precedence over the recovery efforts.  The basketball game at the 18,000-seat “Barclays” arena, though a smaller event than the marathon, was, because of recovery challenges in the storm’s aftermath, going to require a specially superintended support effort by Bloomberg administration.

Because of Bloomberg’s commitment, the marathon was on all week until the sudden, about-face cancellation on Friday at about 5:30 PM.  The Bloomberg administration was holding regular updating midday press conferences about hurricane recovery measures and the last mention of the plans to proceed with the marathon was when Bloomberg was questioned about it at the press conference on Friday afternoon at about 1:33 PM.  The exchange went like this:
Female reporter: Surely you've heard and read some of the comments from people on Staten Island who feel that it's insensitive to hold the marathon and wonder how it can be said that no resources are being diverted it to it. How many city employees are working to support the marathon?
Bloomberg: Well, for example the police department right now has to be at most of the intersections where there is no lights. Lights are gonna be back on tonight.  Mass transit solves a lot of other problems where the police provide those traffic control resources.  It does use some resources, but it doesn't use resources that can really make a difference in recovery and that sort of thing. It's a different group of people.  It's a relatively small amount of the sanitation department's resources.  And we have to have a city going forward.

I don't think there's any question but we have. . . There are New Yorkers who have lost loved ones and nothing's gonna ever replace that.  People who have lost their homes: we have to make sure that we do everything we can to help them recover.  We have to work around the clock for people to get through this thing and I assure you we' re doing that.  And, if I thought it took any resources away from that, we would not do this.  But we have plenty of police officers that work in areas that aren't affected. We don't take all of them and move them into areas that are affected. There will be no diversion of resources. There will be no redistribution of our efforts, no diminution of our efforts.

We have a 24/7 operation going which I am confident we're going to do.  We have to do everything we can to help people and when power returns over the next day and then, mass transit, more people are able to go to homes, that's going to make a big difference.

But as Rudy Giuliani said to me this morning, he said,`You know right after 9/11 people said exactly the same thing: New York has to show that we are here and that we are going to recover and that we can,’ while we help people, still help companies that need the business,  still generate a tax base so that we have the resources to help people and give people something to cheer about and what's been a very dismal week for a lot of people . . . And he reminded me also there was a demand from people that we close. . . Cancel the New Year's Eve celebration because of a snowstorm.  Uhm, I think Rudy had it right: you have to keep going and doing things and you can grieve, you can cry and you can laugh all at the same time.  That's what human beings are good at.            
When news came at 5:30 PM that the marathon was being cancelled nonetheless, the news networks were saying to expect a press conference about it at City Hall shortly afterwards.  Those led to believe that this meant that Bloomberg would shortly be appearing to address the cancellation were wrong: In lieu of a personal appearance to address the issue his office simply issued a short statement of the mayor (and the New York Road Runners) in the form of a press release (November 2, 2012- according to the Times it was released at 5:21 p.m. EST):
The Marathon has been an integral part of New York City's life for 40 years and is an event tens of thousands of New Yorkers participate in and millions more watch. While holding the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, it is clear that it has become the source of controversy and division. The marathon has always brought our city together and inspired us with stories of courage and determination. We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it. We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event –– even one as meaningful as this –– to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track. The New York Road Runners will have additional information in the days ahead for participants.
Almost immediately the Times was reporting the story as being about Bloomberg’s poor judgment and stubborn pigheadness: 
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, facing criticism that he was favoring marathon runners arriving from around the world over people in devastated neighborhoods, reversed himself and canceled the New York City Marathon.

    * * * *

For days, the mayor, who is often reluctant to abandon a position of his, insisted on going ahead with the race, saying it would signal that the city was back to normal.

He changed his mind as opposition became nearly unanimous.

    * * * *

Within the mayor’s inner circle, though, there were concerns. Some advisers worried that the criticism could steal the focus from Mr. Bloomberg’s well-received performance during and after the storm, and could damage his legacy in the way that the city’s botched response to a blizzard had done in 2010.

Behind the scenes, there were also concerns about what the world would see: images of runners so close to neighborhoods that had been battered by the storm, at a time when gasoline remained in short supply and mass transit was still not fully functioning.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Deputy Mayors Howard Wolfson and Patricia E. Harris all argued for calling off the event.
(See: Hardship Strains Emotions in New York, by James Barron and Ken Belson, November 2, 2012.)

If this was the story that was going to get traction, wasn’t it inevitable that the press was going to ask about the special support the city was mustering for proceeding with that other highly-hyped sports event, the Nets “Barclays” basketball game?  Especially, since Bloomberg has already laid the overly-enthusiastic bad-judgment connection by saying, the day after the hurricane, that he wanted the Wednesday basketball game to proceed and that he personally planned to attend it?  And if the press has asked about still-pending Saturday basketball game there would have been pressure to also cancel it, together with the special support the city was mustering to make it happen.

By lying low and not allowing the marathon story to get attention and traction Bloomberg therefore also forestalled having to address controversy over the specially assisted Bruce Ratner/Mikhail Prokhorov “Barclay” arena sports event.  But to do so Bloomberg’s strategy had to, at the same time, sacrifice the regular press conferences Bloomberg had been holding to keep New Yorkers up-to-date about the disaster recovery events.

As noted, Bloomberg did not come out on Friday evening to personally update the public when he cancelled the marathon.

Some might think, like I originally thought,  that Bloomberg did not hold a press conference about hurricane recovery on Saturday.  The expected press conference did seem to vanish from the news cycle but he actually did hold one.  What assured that this press conference was not covered in the news cycle was that it wasn’t held in the morning or midday like others; he delayed holding it until late Saturday afternoon.  Ironically, what then worked synergistically to assure that it would get no coverage is that he held it at a time when all of the local stations had cancelled their evening news for football events.  (Was taking advantage of this conscious on Bloomberg's part?)  Up until this preemption by the sport of football the networks had been obsessing about the hurricane’s aftermath with a lot of special coverage.

Do you wonder whether the cancellation of the marathon came up at this very next below-the-radar and under-reported press conference?  You bet it did, but being held in the evening there would have been no time to discuss any cancellation of the “Barclays” Nets game and Bloomberg cleverly controlled the question and answers to dissuade and prevent any possible follow-up questions about that “Barclays” event.  Here is the question and answer at that press conference with respect to the marathon:
Reporter: Can you just explain what happened between early Friday when the marathon was on, and later Friday when it was canceled.  And what would you say to some of the runners saying they wish it was canceled earlier so they didn't have to come.

Bloomberg: Well I wish we didn't have a hurricane and that we could have had a great event.  So, you know. . . could have, would have, and should have isn't something that I deal with. What simply happened was it became a source of dissension and we don't need that right now and hopefully next year we'll have a great event where people can come to the city and enjoy what the city has to offer and compete and participate and the spirit of the race is to bring people together.  When that became a divisive issue I just made the decision that it should not go on. the good news is that the supplies for the marathon have been donated to communities that need them, something like 600 medical blankets delivered directly to residents of Midland Beach by volunteers who went door to door with them and some 10,000 cases of water were sent to a central distribution center in Floyd Bennett Field.  Other supplies are being sent out now so you know the situation changes shame that it had to happen but we've got to do the right thing at each time and I am looking forward to I'm sure all about those runners too, to coming back next year. 
How did Bloomberg assure that there were no follow-up questions about this or the “Barclays” event?   When he first called on the reporter asking about the marathon he told the reporter that, because he was prioritizing hurricane recovery events over other matters (like sports), he would only take such a question at the end.  It was clever: because he was prioritizing hurricane recovery efforts he would not take a question about his misplaced priorities relating to sports events.  The exchange whereby Bloomberg deferred the marathon question went like this:
Reporter: On the marathon, can you explain…

Bloomberg: Let's just stick to this for the time being then we'll come back. I'll be happy to take a question.  This is a little bit more important: We're trying to talk about people getting their lives together.
Bloomberg next deferred as being similarly off-topic a question about preparedness of the Board of Elections for the Tuesday presidential election.  When in short order there were no more questions about anything else, Bloomberg took the Board of Elections question saving the marathon question for the very last. Then, upon providing his answer to marathon question, Bloomberg quickly segued to end the press conference with a reminder about how important it was for the stricken population in the city to take appropriate measure to shelter from the cold.

I still don’t know whether Bloomberg went to the Nets game that night where the Nets introduced their new mascot, BrooklynKnight (BrooklynKnight is a Brooklynite- get it?) being promoted as a mythical defender of Brooklyn.  As late as the Saturday evening press conference was there would have been just enough time for the mayor to get to “Barclays” arena before the game started.

Do I really think that Bloomberg manipulated this news cycle? 

Normally, the mayor’s press office puts up video of the mayor’s press conferences on its web page.  One indication that Saturday’s press was intended to be low profile is that no video of it was posted.  Instead, there was only a press release transcription of the mayor’s prepared remarks (Mayor Bloomberg Updates New Yorkers on City Response to Hurricane Sandy).  The transcription was minus the question and answer exchange with the press.  As you might infer from this Noticing New York article that the question and answer period of any mayoral press conference is often the most important part of any such event, zeroing in on issues of controversy rather than the official story packaged for distribution. Video of the next mayor’s next press conference updating New Yorkers on Sunday went up without Saturday’s ever being put up. 

Another way that helped ensure that Bloomberg’s Saturday press conference was as safe and friendly as it could be was to include Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan who came out of the Bloomberg administration and who gets favorable press. (The city is estimating that it is going to have to find housing for 30,000 to 40,000 families dispossessed by the storm.)  Secretary for Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney were also at this little-reported press event.

The way I was able to find video of the event (embedded below) and verify that it had actually occurred was by going to the New York Times hurricane update blog and scrolling backward to 5:07 PM Saturday.

Yes, it is to be expected that a mayor will try to control the news messages out there about him.  Here is something scary to think about: In the course of researching Bloomberg’s storm-related press conferences one of the top hits I got in a Google search was video of his November 2, 2012 press conference on his private self-promoting site.  This site acts in 1984 style as a faux news press release site to promote the news about himself that Bloomberg likes.  That day there was a transcription of the Friday, November 2, 2012 press conference.  Since it didn’t include the questions and answers that followed, it had nothing about the marathon or Bloomberg saying then that it should not be cancelled.  In any event it is all gone now, replaced by the favorable news that Bloomberg’s site administrators are choosing to feature on that site now.

Is there a more innocent explanation for why Bloomberg personally absented himself from the news cycle from midday Friday until Saturday evening?  Did he zip off to Bermuda in that space of time for a shorter version of his regular weekend trip?  There would have been enough time for him to do so.  Maybe he did, but I suspect that bottom line is he simply didn’t want stories about his bad judgment with respect to sporting events getting traction.

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