Commentary: The newspaper war that will shape the 2025 mayoral election

The New York Times and New York Post are the last two newspapers in the city with the power to move votes. Their coverage of Eric Adams could make all the difference.

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This column was originally published in Political Currents, Ross Barkan’s Substack newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

In 2025, Mayor Eric Adams will probably be campaigning for a second term. No mayor in modern history has passed on the opportunity to run again. Victory is not assured, but it remains likely: incumbent mayors usually do not lose. In parts of their first terms, Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio each looked vulnerable, with sagging approval ratings and a restive number of voters casting about for change. But when the elections came around, neither was terribly threatened. Bloomberg, then a Republican, heavily outspent his Democratic opponent and breezed to re-election. De Blasio had to worry about a primary, successfully pressuring one top challenger to drop out before swatting away nominal opposition. His Republican rival, Nicole Malliotakis, couldn’t marshal much beyond a replacement-level performance, and he was easily re-elected with more than 60% of the citywide vote.

Adams, similarly, could be safe. His mayoralty has featured far fewer policy accomplishments than either Bloomberg or de Blasio’s and controversies keep piling up; still, you need to beat someone with someone. The strongest potential challengers don’t seem interested in running. Progressive Democrats, after failing mightily in 2021, haven’t coalesced around a viable contender. There is both a Left and a technocratic case to be made against Adams and a large number of Democrats who would, if given the choice, vote for someone else. But the clock ticks.

Should Eric Adams stay or go? In New York, there are two newspapers answering that question very directly and very differently. They are the New York Times and the New York Post, the last two newspapers in the city that matter in the sense that what they publish will, over time, move votes. New York still has four dailies, but the Daily News, once the robust Post rival, has been diminished by budget cuts and the Wall Street Journal is a business broadsheet that excised its local section. The ecosystem of alternative and local newspapers, once led by the Village Voice, has shriveled substantially. Newer, online-only nonprofits like the City have admirably filled gaps, but it’s hard to recreate a world where the Daily News had entire Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx bureaus stuffed with journalists and New York Newsday employed some of the best reporters and columnists in America. I would argue, given the rise of the nonprofits and various digital ventures, the media scene is not as grim as it was a decade ago, but it will never be what it was in the twentieth century.

The Post is outwardly conservative while the Times is ostensibly nonpartisan but left-liberal in its editorial positions and many of the reporters that it employs. The Post, broadly, is more influential with working class people, but it’s better understood today as a digital behemoth that sets the agenda for local broadcast television, which is still regularly watched by many voters over 50. Broadcast TV, on questions of crime and policing, has a decidedly conservative bent. This has been good for Adams, especially when he faces criticism from progressives, but it has also hurt him in his mission to prove he has made progress on lowering crime. Murders and shootings have declined but many New Yorkers say they feel unsafe. Local TV, along with the Post, perpetually covers and amplifies almost every instance of violent crime. Adams is partially the victim of a doom loop he helped create.

The Times, now the de facto national newspaper, does not cover New York like it once did. There is no longer a standalone metro section in the print edition. Weekday columnists who write on city politics have retired and not been replaced. Granular coverage is no more; if you want to find out about machinations in the City Council or a small-scale controversy in the public schools, the Post or maybe the News is your only real bet. The Times, however, can put significant investigatory muscle into any story editors choose – they’ve led the way in reporting on the crisis in the city jails, the scandal-plagued contractor overseeing the migrant influx, and profound waste at the MTA – and their editorial board, in an era of shrinking local coverage, carries great weight. It is no exaggeration to say Kathryn Garcia almost became mayor because the Times decided to endorse her. Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn liberals take the newspaper very seriously. Younger leftists carry an online subscription. The Times makes money from its national and global coverage, not the city of its namesake. But its power here cannot be underestimated.

The Times and the Post have starkly different views of Adams. As the more professional and ultimately ethical of the two news organizations, the Times does not do overt advocacy or character assassination. That is left to Rupert Murdoch’s Post. The newspapers are bound to be in a war come 2025 – not against each other, necessarily, but a war for the version of reality that will be presented to voters.

I have made my views on Adams plain enough. De Blasio and Bloomberg had real failures, but each man cared far more about governing than the current mayor. There is no new significant program or initiative to come out of the Adams administration and the most talented bureaucrats are leaving government. Adams’ first police commissioner has already resigned, along with his housing czar and social services commissioner. His first chief of staff now runs a lobbying and consulting firm that is cashing in on his ties to government. His first Buildings commissioner has been indicted. Several allies have been indicted, unrelatedly, in a straw donor scheme tied to his 2021 campaign for mayor. Other donations appear suspect. Rikers Island, the notorious jails complex, will probably fall under federal receivership soon. Migrants have been surging into New York since last year, a steep challenge for any mayor. But Adams, with his penchant for fudging numbers and misstating facts, has been plainly not up to this challenge. If you’re a progressive, there’s plenty to loathe about a landlord-loving, left-bashing mayor. A centrist technocrat, though, can’t take heart in much either. The liberals who grew to resent de Blasio and pine for the Bloomberg years have little to celebrate today. Bloomberg’s Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, was a renowned transit expert who brought bike lanes to New York and pedestrianized Times Square. Her successor in the Adams administration, Ydanis Rodriguez, is a former city councilman who has left the agency in turmoil and failed to follow through on basic policy goals.

Adams believes all the media, absent maybe the Post, has treated him unfairly. This is because he is unequipped to handle coverage of his administration that is not uniformly positive. Before becoming mayor, he held the relatively powerless post of Brooklyn borough president. Few reporters followed him regularly and local news outlets tended to reproduce his press releases. Compared to de Blasio, Adams has had a rather easy time with City Hall press coverage. For large parts of 2022 and 2023, the Post has behaved as an Eric Adams propaganda organ, ignoring or downplaying rough news and pumping up the positive. Adams, with his myriad stumbles, has tested even their patience, but the Post was a newspaper wholly committed to the political and personal destruction of the prior occupant of City Hall. When crime was historically low under de Blasio, the Post pretended there were crime waves anyway, and relentlessly mocked and belittled the liberal mayor at every turn. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being extremely negative, the Post operated at a consistent 10.3 in the de Blasio era. When I worked as a reporter in City Hall, journalists tacked up their favorite de Blasio-hating Post headlines to the wall. Here’s some of the greatest hits, courtesy of the Post itself.

The Times, in my view, hasn’t treated de Blasio and Adams all that differently. De Blasio faced plenty of skeptical and withering coverage from Times reporters, even after he attempted, through his first year at least, to aggressively court them. The Times, like the Post, obsessed over de Blasio’s personal habits, like taking his mayoral SUV from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side to the Park Slope Y to work out almost every morning or flying anywhere in a helicopter. The Times editorial board, meanwhile, was never overly fond of de Blasio. They endorsed Christine Quinn for mayor in 2013 and reluctantly backed de Blasio when Republicans or long-shot Democrats faced him. If anything, had de Blasio racked up the Adams record through his first 20 months – indictments of key allies, a failure to launch anything like universal prekindergarten, the swift resignations of top commissioners and deputies – the tenor of coverage, I believe, would have been much harsher than anything Adams has had to endure. Adams is the city’s second Black mayor and cynically exploits identity politics to silence critics. 

The Times, at moments, appears wary of being perceived as too anti-Adams. Wholly sympathetic pieces are occasionally published. A large number of journalists now recognize the coverage of David Dinkins, the first Black mayor, was inordinately harsh and led directly to the rise of Rudy Giuliani. Dinkins and Adams were not much alike – Dinkins, an attorney by trade, was a methodical and cerebral politician, forever described as “courtly” – but left-leaning journalists and editorial board writers may only go so far in their condemnation of Adams.

It is hard, still, to imagine the Times endorsing Adams for re-election in 2025 if a viable candidate comes along. The Times was willing to stand with the tyrannical Andrew Cuomo over Cynthia Nixon in 2018, but Cuomo had two terms under his belt and a reputation, if unearned, for managerial competence. His father had been governor for 12 years. Adams lacks that pedigree and standing with the sort of people who read and write for the Times. As Adams falters, reporters will be tasked with documenting what is happening in front of them. Their college-educated readership, already sour on Adams, will turn harder against him.

Expect the Post, in this scenario, to close ranks aggressively, especially if Adams faces a challenger who is more liberal than him. It must be understood that the Post’s love of Adams is mostly circumstantial. When he was borough president, they were happy to report on his “shady” nonprofit and other ethical lapses. He was another Democrat then. When he ran for mayor, he campaigned as a moderate, echoing the Post’s views on crime and decrying bail reform. Unlike other moderates in the primary, he was openly hostile to progressives and socialists. He delighted in taunting them. He used Memorial Day to remind anyone listening just how much he hated the Left. “You water the tree of freedom with your blood,” he said several months ago. “We sit under the shade of that tree of freedom protected from the hot rays of socialism and communism and destruction that’s playing out across the globe.” Music to the ears of Murdoch. For a Democrat-hating tabloid, Adams is the next best thing – a Democrat willing to go to war with all of their enemies. If the Post, of late, has written about Adams in a more neutral manner, it will recalibrate if a progressive decides to take him on. Not only will the tabloid defend Adams, but it will ruthlessly attack his rival. Anyone attempting a campaign against Adams needs to be prepared for the Post’s inexhaustible wrath.

The media war, in that sense, will be asymmetrical. The Times will never revile any politician as much as the Post can learn to immediately hate any left-leaning Democrat who stands against Adams. The Post does not do studied neutrality or relative objectivity. It does not attempt to present any side but its own. When a tabloid clashes with a broadsheet, only the former knows how to play dirty – and win. With the News ailing, the Post has much of this media terrain to itself. Saving Eric Adams from the liberals may become its greatest and most furious mission yet.