Since late 2011, when a New York Times report sparked a federal probe of City Comptroller John Liu’s fund-raising for his mayoral campaign—an investigation that has since led to two arrests—the city’s tabloids and many political observers have largely written off Liu’s once-promising bid to become the city’s first Asian-American mayor.
But if you were to go to Flushing, Queens, Sunset Park in Brooklyn or Manhattan’s Chinatown and pick up the Chinese-language newspapers that dominate these heavily Chinese-American areas, you would read a different narrative of Liu’s chances in the upcoming election. In these neighborhoods, where a sizable portion of the city’s Asian-American population resides—an ascendant and thoroughly engaged slice of the electorate that now numbers a significant 15 percent of voters—Liu does not just remain a viable candidate; he is hailed as the “Jackie Robinson” of city politics.
His continuing status as a hero to many in the Asian-American community perhaps explains why Liu, despite the widespread dismissal of his candidacy, continues to go strong in his quest for the mayoralty.
The comparison between Robinson and Liu was made in the first segment of a recent four-part series in the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal that began on Jan. 8 in conjunction with Liu’s 46th birthday, and continued over the following days.
“[Liu] absolutely gets more coverage,” said a World Journal source who characterized the paper’s coverage of Liu as “intensive” (and who asked not to be identified so as to be able to speak candidly). “He sends out his schedule every day so we will take a look and see what event the Chinese and Asian community we cover might be interested in.”
In the Jan. 8 story World Journal reporter Luna Liu (no relation to John Liu) asked the comptroller to comment on the persistent rumors within the Asian community that the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s fund-raising is the result of his being targeted by the federal government as well as people on Wall Street who, as the rumor goes, view Liu as a foreigner with close ties to the Far East. The reporter also asked Liu to comment on another rumor that he is being persecuted by the feds because he threatens Wall Street profits.
Liu responded in the story that he tries not to think about these rumors or of the analogy to Jackie Robinson but is instead focused on doing his job as comptroller and on the upcoming mayoral primary.
The World Journal source said the paper is very focused on the federal investigation of Liu, and that any time prosecutors put out a release on the topic, the Chinese-language media is very fair in reporting the updates.
The second part of the World Journal’s series analyzed Liu’s chances of becoming mayor. The story conjectured that the comptroller’s base is not only the Asian-American community but the city’s entire new immigrant community. It also noted Liu’s strong support among African-Americans, the Dominican community and labor unions, most notably the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, which has many Asian-American members.
While the third part of the glowing series highlighted Liu’s accomplishments as comptroller and his plans to improve the city’s economy if elected mayor, the final segment was biographical, extolling Liu’s family life, including his excellence as a father, son and husband.
The World Journal source said the paper has done similar spreads on mayoral candidates Bill Thompson and John Catsimatidis, and has tried to do stories on the other candidates but has been unable to reach them for stories.
Rong Xiaoquin, a reporter for the World Journal’s rival Chinese-language daily Sing Tao, said she was surprised to see the four-part series because she didn’t see a lot of news value in it. But Rong still defended the Chinese-language dailies’ coverage of Liu and of city news overall.
“We follow the same journalistic ethics,” said Rong, who has been the Sing Tao reporter covering city politics and local government for the past seven years. “There is no big difference between us and the mainstream media.”
Rong said she has been asked on occasion if her paper advocated on behalf of the Chinese community, as opposed to covering news for the Chinese community. “That’s a weird question, to me,” Rong said. “We do fight for the Chinese community and want justice for them, but that’s because our readers are Chinese. We don’t work for John Liu. We don’t do his press releases.”
Rong maintained that the reason Liu gets more press than the other candidates in the Chinese-language media is because when he visits a local Chinese-American community organization, which he does quite often, it is newsworthy for her paper’s readers. Sing Tao has a courts reporter who is closely covering the federal investigation of Liu’s campaign as it plays out, she said, noting that the investigation has been ongoing for several years and could drag on through the election season, possibly affecting the results of the mayoral race.
When asked if they believe Liu is treated unfairly by federal authorities or the English-language press, both Rong and the World Journal source said they were trained to not have personal opinions. But both said the sentiment in the Chinese-American community is very strong that Liu is being persecuted because he is Asian-American, and that people do not want to see him elected because of his ethnicity.
“A good number of Chinese people think this way, and I have heard it repeatedly,” said the World Journal source.
Though Rong denies that the Chinese-language media show any favoritism toward Liu, she does indicate that papers like hers might be more responsive to the comptroller because he understands their concerns. For instance, Rong recalled that at a recent talk Liu gave at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, several reporters from ethnic media outlets complained to him that they were told to call 311 when trying to obtain comments from the press departments at various city agencies. According to Rong, Liu said he was aware of the problem, and that if he were mayor he would make a significant change in how he deals with ethnic media outlets.
Said Rong, “I don’t have any personal emotion in any of these [mayoral] results, but, realistically, if he’s elected we [ethnic media reporters] will all get benefits. It will make it easier to do my job.”
The Bloomberg administration did not respond to several inquiries as to whether ethnic media reporters had been told to call 311 or to questions regarding the administration’s policy in dealing with these news sources.
A Liu mayoral campaign spokesperson did not speak directly to the 311 charge, but said the comptroller does not believe City Hall understands the vast possibilities New York City has as a global capital of the world, and that it has not leveraged relationships inherent in the diverse communities for the overall benefit of the city.
“There is a huge amount of potential for New York City growth with greater exchange with other global cities in Asia and elsewhere,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Whether Liu can forge a broader coalition of voters beyond the Asian community to become the next mayor remains to be seen, but both Rong and the World Journal source say the Chinese community’s pride in their native son is growing, and this base is very fired up to help elect the city’s first Asian-American mayor.
“If you come to Chinatown, you would feel like Liu will definitely win,” Rong said. “You feel the support and passion, but if you go out of Chinatown, it might be a different story.”