New York City Mayor Eric Adams doesn’t want to be defined by the press. Last week, he debuted the first episode of his new radio show, having already launched a newsletter, a podcast, a flurry of weekly briefings and review videos, community town halls, and a glowing achievements webpage – all in an attempt to circumvent the mainstream New York City media to speak with New Yorkers.
"Far too often what we talk about and what we do is filtered,” Adams said, opening his inaugural WBLS radio show July 23. “No matter where I go, people say, ‘Eric, we want to hear directly from you on what's happening.’ That’s the purpose of this show.”
It’s a sentiment he’s expressed repeatedly, and at times with a little more bite. Condemning the media earlier this year for too often distorting what he says, Adams – who’d just launched his “Hear From Eric” newsletter – said the new tool would give him a path to communicate and relay accurate information about resources and services to New Yorkers.
“It is imperative that I need to start speaking directly to New Yorkers. You can report a distorted version of what I say,” Adams said when asked about the newsletter Jan. 23. “I want to speak directly to the people of this city and hear directly from the person they elected.”
Adams’ frustration with the New York City press corps is no secret. He has repeatedly lashed out at the press for unfair coverage, lamenting what he sees as a tendency to ignore his successes while twisting his words. He’s said he’s observed a “coordinated effort” among the press to attack him and his record. Several times, he’s blamed critical coverage on the lack of diversity within newsrooms.
“I’m a Black man that’s the mayor. But my story is being interpreted by people that don’t look like me,” he said at a press conference early in his tenure. “Diversify your newsroom, so I can look out and see people that look like me and say we’re going to write stories based on the prisms that we have.” He’s reiterated those frustrations in the months since, announcing a scholarship fund on July 21 aimed at expanding journalism opportunities for New York City students of color. With the exception of Daily News columnist Leonard Greene who penned an op-ed crediting Adams for taking action, the new initiative received very little press coverage.
The concept of a mayoral administration trying different methods to speak directly with New Yorkers isn’t unique to Adams. To varying degrees, mayor after mayor has unfurled communication strategies hoping to reinforce support, broadcast wins and relay information. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani often sparred with callers during his weekly WABC radio program. Michael Bloomberg went on air in a weekly show with morning radio personality John Gambling. Bill de Blasio dutifully submitted to what often devolved into a stream of tough questions each week on Brian Lehrer’s Ask The Mayor show.
“If you make the press corps chase you, you have a better opportunity of relaying what the mayor believes or other mayors believe, is a much more clear version of what you want to say. That’s smart,” Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkopf said.
But Adams is somewhat distinct in regards to the volume of strategies he’s deployed only a year and a half into his tenure. Some of that can be attributed to the era – social media and evolving technology have changed the game when it comes to access and image-crafting – but personality is also likely an influential element. The Adams administration has shown a spirit of innovation when it comes to communication, having said they want to be “the most accessible” administration in history.
“That means reaching New Yorkers where they are,” Brad Weekes, deputy communications director for Adams, said in a statement. “Whether it’s through our two series of town halls, our podcast, our email program, our radio show, our public safety briefings, and more, we’re going to make sure that it’s easy for New Yorkers to hear about what’s going on in our city, and to let us know how we’re doing, too.”
Double standards and criticism
While New York City mayors’ displeasure with press coverage is a recurring theme that’s spanned administrations, Adams has at times attributed critical coverage to racial bias.
Basil Smikle Jr., director of a Hunter College public policy program and former executive director of the state Democratic Party, pointed out that there are some double standards in how Black leaders and non-Black leaders are covered by the media both locally and nationally, and that’s probably contributed in part to why Adams feels especially compelled to relay his own messages.
“That was true certainly back when David Dinkins became mayor. It was perhaps more obvious at that point, but I still think there are vestiges of that old language and thinking and storytelling that linger to this day,” Smikle said, referring to the city’s first Black mayor, who is now agreed to have faced considerable bias in his single term, most infamously when Giuliani led a racist NYPD riot against him in 1992. “I believe that the mayor is particularly sensitive to that, given what happened to Dinkins and having been around a lot of people who were in those circles at the time.”
It is true that the New York City press corps is disproportionately white, especially when contrasted with the city’s sweeping diversity. Still, the press has been tough on every mayor. De Blasio is well known for having a hostile relationship with the media, ranting against the press in emails and briefly attempting to hold press conferences where he only answered on-topic questions. (Adams has started limiting off-topic questions more often as well.) A frustrated Bloomberg once called a reporter a “disgrace” and threatened to stop holding press conferences.
In an interview with reporter Emily Ngo that aired on NY1 July 13, Adams clarified he doesn’t believe he’s been covered inaccurately because he’s Black.
“I never said that, that inaccurate coverage is because I’m Black,” Adams said, when Ngo pointed out that the press was also hard on his predecessors. “But we cannot say to ourselves that -isms don’t still exist … I don’t stop being the role of mayor because -isms exist, but I’m going to point out if I think something is inaccurate or unfair.”
Discussing the mayor’s relationship with the media on the FAQ NYC podcast in January, Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, said that two things can be true at once when it comes to Adams’ frustrations.
“On the one hand I do think there are certain elements of our press corps that are very young, very white and do not understand New York City. I think a lot of folks live in the same exact neighborhood in Brooklyn and it’s a lot of groupthink and can be highly problematic,” she said. “But just because the press corps can be young and homogenous and live in the same neighborhood and not fully understand race or racism, that doesn’t mean some of the critiques aren’t valid.”
Being the mayor of New York City doesn't just subject you to tough questions from the press corps, but everyday run-ins with New Yorkers who have their own share of criticism and complaints. And Adams has gotten frustrated with some of that feedback too.
At a town hall in late June, a tenant activist interrupted Adams’ response to a question about housing insecurity, accusing the mayor of being controlled by the real estate industry in light of the rent increases for stabilized units recently approved by the Rent Guidelines Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor. The woman, who was standing up in the audience, pointed at the mayor as she spoke in a raised voice. (She wasn’t using a microphone.)
“If you're going to ask a question, don't point at me and don't be disrespectful to me,” Adams said, responding to her question about why the board approved rent increases. “I'm the mayor of this city, and treat me with the respect I deserve to be treated. I'm speaking to you as an adult. Don't stand in front, like you’re treating someone that's on the plantation that you own.”
The response to that exchange has been somewhat mixed. Democratic strategist Yvette Buckner said she felt the woman’s interruption was disrespectful. “There are certain ways that people talked to de Blasio and certain ways that people talk to this mayor, and they never would have approached de Blasio or Giuliani in that manner,” she said, adding she can see why Adams often feels like he needs to take his messaging into his own hands.
Ken Frydman, CEO of Source Communications and former press secretary for Giuliani’s 1993 mayoral campaign, said Adams’ default is to “play the race card,” and tell people to respect him when facing criticism.
“I’ll say this ringingly and clearly for attribution, you have to earn respect Mr. Mayor. I tell my son that everyone has to earn respect,” Frydman said, adding “When you compare a plantation to a white constituent or you tell a woman that she has an accent, you diminish yourself, you diminish the office. It is not mayoral.”
Citing the city’s growing budget deficit, the costs of a post COVID-19 world, and heightened crime rates, Sheinkopf said he thinks much of the criticism against Adams comes from the fact that he inherited a disaster and is trying to slowly work it out.
“Eric Adams inherited a terrible set of circumstances in every way, and now de Blasio is no longer a memory. Now he’s going to be blamed for whatever was left behind that he’s got to fix,” Sheinkopf said.
A year and a half into his tenure, the first broadcast of Adams new live radio show, “Hear from the Mayor” on 107.5 WBLS, aired Sunday to a largely Black audience.
While it was only the first in what will be an ongoing series of “semi-regular” radio appearances for Adams, the handful of New Yorkers who called in lobbed softball questions his way. Its roughly 30-minute span wasn’t punctuated by any of the tough questioning that had often occurred during his predecessors’ shows.
A spokesperson for Adams said the radio show is intended to be a place for the mayor to hear from New Yorkers – the good, the bad and the ugly. The rep explained that WBLS decides which calls go through, not the mayor’s communications team, which has no idea what questions or criticism will come up before it’s aired.
Sheinkopf noted that Adams is particularly interested in speaking with the city’s ethnic press, as well as communicating with communities who’ve long felt ignored by city leaders – many of whom may have felt Adams was the first person to make them want to participate in city politics.
Camille Rivera, a progressive strategist who briefly worked for de Blasio, said there’s nothing wrong with Adams’ efforts to connect directly with New Yorkers, but at the end of the day, elected officials need to be held accountable to the public.
“It’s definitely different, but I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Rivera said. “I think it’s OK to participate in the media process and then have your own communications and process to your constituents, but I think there is a feeling that when you’re not being transparent and you are circumventing, you have something to hide.”
She said the press plays an important role in holding elected officials accountable and that direct communication like a newsletter or a podcast isn’t always the best vehicle for that.
“Instead of running away, he should do his best to embrace and be as transparent as possible,” Rivera said. “I think he might be missing an opportunity to continue to work collaboratively with the press and have his own voice instead of creating this kind of circumvent of the process,” she said.
‘Every mayor has tried’
Smikle questioned whether Adams’ efforts to communicate directly with New Yorkers will help him grow his base. While tools like his newsletter, radio show and podcast will likely be appreciated by his supporters, others – critics in particular – may want more of a “thorough analysis” on what he’s saying.
“What he’s doing and the reason that he’s doing this will resonate with his base quite significantly,” Smikle said. “What I’m not sure of is whether or not what he’s saying will get across to those same people because of the vehicles he’s choosing … it could lay the groundwork to build his support among other groups, but my guess is they will still to some extent rely on ‘traditional media’ to verify and create a counterbalance.”
Chris Coffey, CEO of Tusk Strategies and a Democratic political strategist who’d worked for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said Adams is trying to target his voters while also exploring other messaging methods to reach people who aren’t necessarily part of his base – like with his podcast. Authenticity, he said, often contributes to more effective communication while deploying these types of strategies.
“Every mayor that I’ve seen has tried to figure out ways to cut out the middle person … and I think anytime that happens, the media tends to get upset about it,” Coffey said. “Everyone wants to control their own messaging and the more people that they can reach – themselves, unfiltered – the better chance they are going to have of people actually listening to everything they say in context.”
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