NYC mayoral debate shows news media ignorance and focus on the irrelevant

We saw what was wrong with political coverage in the last debate between the major contenders for the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City: the media is ignorant and creates irrelevant sideshows.

The very first question by a Wall Street Journal reporter was ridiculously irrelevant to the issues: share a recent example of each candidate or candidate’s family facing economic uncertainty.  None of the five candidates could answer the question, because all are well-off and all have been enjoying good times for at least a decade, something that the reporter should have known if he had done his homework.  Was he just stupid or did he want to make a point—that these folks are mostly rich or near rich? Or maybe he was trying to trap a candidate into making up a saccharine and unbelievable sob story?

After all the candidates—a very bright bunch if you ask me—all admitted that things were going pretty well for them lately and evoked childhood or parental struggles, the panel of reporters noted that none of the candidates answered the question.  But how could they talk about struggles if they weren’t having them? And why would they? Virtually everyone with a serious chance at a major office these days is doing well. Otherwise, others wouldn’t notice their leadership skills or give money to their campaigns. Some could be struggling with family or personal issues, some may have faced financial problems in the past, but most people running for a major office, be it governor or mayor of the nation’s largest city, are at least well-off.

The question was irrelevant and may have also revealed the reporter’s ignorance.

As part of his answer to this inessential question about financial hardship, John Liu, the only candidate who appeared to be rattled throughout the proceedings, accused the Election Board of setting up two of his aides as part of a vendetta to deny him matching contributions. Instead of ignoring this desperate plea from a desperate candidate, the reporters chose to ask the other candidates if they thought Liu was set up.  Inequitable distribution of the wealth, mass transit for the outer boroughs, the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy—these issues stayed on hold while the candidates hemmed and hawed about Liu’s irrelevant accusations.

Later in the debate, another reporter ignorantly chided the frontrunner Bill DeBlasio for saying that he would keep confidential his negotiations with the unions covering New York City workers, who have been without a contract for six years now.  Doesn’t the reporter know that it is standard practice to keep collective bargaining negotiations confidential? Confidentiality allows both sides to explore areas that could be controversial, especially if taken out of the context of a full contract. Confidentiality allows either side to make statements and then back down. It allows either side to make accusations for which they can later apologize with no loss of face on either side.

This reporter has obviously never seen any news releases about collective bargaining, most of which include a statement that the party issuing the news release won’t negotiate in public.  Now, the average person in the street hasn’t seen these news releases either, but the average person in the street is not a reporter. A reporter is supposed to know a little bit about what he or she is covering.  This reporter was trying to create a controversy around DeBlasio, but one that is irrelevant because no matter what any of the candidates may say now, every single one of them will keep the union negotiations confidential, because that’s what their lawyers will tell them to do!

The reporter should have known that. In her ignorance, she tried to create a firestorm about an irrelevancy. Again, it didn’t work, because the other candidates except Weiner all agreed they would keep negotiations confidential. The candidates focused on the more important issues of their desire to negotiate a fair contract and whether the workers would receive retroactive pay increases for the full six years.

Next day coverage of the debate boiled down analyzing how the trailing candidates ganged up on DeBlasio. To my mind, the gang-up didn’t really occur. There were short side attacks on most of the candidates, plus several of the other candidates defended DeBlasio from what they said were unfair attacks. For the media to talk about a collectively imagined gang-up rather than the real differences between the candidates sets exactly the wrong standard for election campaigning.

Ignorance and irrelevancy seem to go hand and hand when the news media frame how they will cover the issues. We often blame politicians for making purposely ignorant statements. It is hard to believe, for example, that Chris Christie really has doubts about human-caused climate disruption or that several Republican U.S. Senators really believes that Obama acts from unpatriotic motives.

But last night’s debate among five highly intelligent and mostly competent candidates showed that the news media is also to blame for the deplorable state of political discourse.

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