Mayor Eric Adams’ reported policy to vet all communications to the press is unrealistic and indicative of a lack of understanding of government’s inner workings – depending on how seriously he follows through with it, according to some of the city’s top political operatives. To freedom-of-the-press advocates, it contradicts the First Amendment.
“I think he’s delusional. He’s going to be inundated. The city is very, very large. People who have not been city administrators don’t understand how big and complex it is,” Norman Adler, founder and former president of the lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns, told City & State. The sentiment was echoed by former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary Bill Neidhardt, who said “a move to review and approve every media message from every agency is a signal from an administration that doesn’t understand the full power and scope of New York City’s government, which is concerning.”
In some ways, this is par for the course for government leaders and more of an issue for the press than the general public, experts said – except when it comes to matters of public safety, which are communicated in real-time by press officers in the New York City Police and Fire Departments. There is a long history of legal precedents, including some set by New York courts, of siding with government employees who fight gag orders under freedom of speech protections.
“I don’t think very many New Yorkers stay awake at night worrying about whether the Department of Sanitation is talking to a reporter,” Adler quipped, noting that the policy could actually encourage leaks. Ironically, that’s how it was aired publicly on Monday by Politico, which obtained an audio recording of a Zoom meeting Adams hosted on Thursday with approximately 50 city officials in which he reportedly stated that all public messaging must be approved by City Hall, including issues as minute as blooming cherry blossoms.
The mayor reportedly did not mention any specific incidents that prompted the meeting, but Politico noted several recent messaging discrepancies between Adams and top officials. For example, NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism and Intelligence John Miller in March falsely claimed that the NYPD did not surveil Muslims in the wake of 9/11. Adams, in turn, not only acknowledged the surveillance, but publicly denounced it.
Adams’ adversarial relationship with the press has already been on display during his short time in office. In February, he threatened to stop taking off-topic questions in a rant over what he viewed as unfair coverage of a recent meeting with Legislative leaders in Albany. He’s also refused outright to engage with reporters on some issues. “No, no, next question,” he said Monday when asked if City Hall had an update on the possible formation of an office of LGBTQ affairs.
Like previous mayors, Adams’ press office has also been inconsistent with advising appearances on his public schedule. Adams did not notify the media that he would be stopping by the Fire Department headquarters Thursday where he tested out the department’s controversial new robotic dog. When asked why not, Press Secretary Fabien Levy told City & State “he literally just stopped by,” and it “wasn’t a formal event.” Adams’ administration has also made a habit of sending transcripts of his public appearances hours late, and sometimes not at all.
Kathryn Foxhall, vice chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information committee, likened the press controls Adams has mandated to “rotten censorship, constantly taking power away from the public and leaving us with secrecy in government and a high-risk of corrosion in programs that impact our lives,” she told City & State in an email.
She also highlighted a 2019 paper by Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, that notes dozens of cases in which government workers successfully challenged workplace gag policies. In one of the earliest such cases in 1945, the New York Court of Appeals determined an order by the New York City Fire Department commissioner requiring all employees to seek written approval before speaking to the press “was so broad in scope and so rigid in terms as to be arbitrary and unreasonable.”
In 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the New York City Human Resources Association’s and Administration of Children’s Services’ policies requiring employees to refer media inquiries to a central press office violated employees’ First Amendment rights.
Like the political operatives, June Cross, the Fred W. Friendly Professor of Media and Society at Columbia Journalism School, also pointed out the overly burdensome feat of managing the communications of the city’s 50-some agencies, in addition to the transparency issues it raises.
“The last time I checked, we're still living in the United States of America, and there's still something called the First Amendment that allows people to talk, and the mayor, who was democratically elected, does not have the authority to countermand that First Amendment, so I honestly don’t know how they stay on top of this,” Cross told City & State, adding that the policy encourages deeper source building by reporters.
Veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, however, said that the mayor would be naive not to demand control of his own messaging strategy, as many mayors, governors and presidents have done in the past.
“It's not unusual for the chief executive of a government to do that. Cuomo did it, I believe others have done it. It's a way to ensure that the principal's message gets out unfiltered, and it’s a way also to put staff firmly under control,” Sheinkopf told City & State. “Political operatives and reporters are on opposite sides of everything.”
De Blasio “had plenty of leaks,” Sheinkopf said, and former mayor “Rudy Giuliani hated the press, and didn’t want to talk to them at all, so he had leaks as well. A lot of leaks. (Former Mayor David) Dinkins was a constant leak.”
Others noted that Adams himself has sent mixed messages to the public by playing it fast and loose with his own public commentary. For example, when speaking publicly for the first time about the controversial sweeps of the city’s homeless encampments last Monday, Adams said the city was not throwing away individuals’ belongings, only to say the next day that workers were tossing “soiled” items.
“With the mayor, you never know what his thinking is,” Adler said. “You never know if it’s for real, or not for real, or if it’s just sending out, you know, a shot across the bow to all his agencies.”
Adler said that whoever advised the mayor to issue the press policy “should be fired.”
The directive itself could also be subject to multiple interpretations. It’s unclear whether City Hall will actually review every communication or if the meeting was a general warning to city officials that the mayor will not tolerate leaks.
“Like Donald Trump, take him seriously but don’t take him literally. You should take Eric Adams seriously, not literally,” Neidhardt said.
Sheinkopf predicted the messaging mandate will become more important when Adams’ policies come to fruition.
“Most of the coverage has been about him, his personality,” Sheinkopf said. “Soon it will be about him as mayor. That'll be about policy issues. And that's where message discipline will matter the most.”
With additional reporting by Jeff Coltin
With additional reporting by Jeff Coltin