The Case of the Missing Mayor: Journalists Falter When the Word 'Privacy' Is Invoked
Wolper, Allan, Editor & Publisher
SNOW SWEPT THROUGH NEW YORK'S NEIGHBORHOODS, stranding emergency vehicles on unplowed streets. People were trapped in their homes. Garbage piled up on sidewalks, an invitation to the city s rat population. It was Mayor Michael Bloomberg's worst political moment. He blew it. All because he wouldn't say where he was when one of the worst storms in New York history began strangling his city the day after Christmas.
Bloomberg didn't even waver after The New York Times published a story with overwhelming circumstantial evidence that he had been in Bermuda at his warm-weather retreat when the flakes started falling.
The mayor did what high-profile politicians always seem to do when they're asked to be accountable: invoke their right to privacy. Since the public is unsure about how much of a public official's life should be off limits, the news media often steps back when politicians use the "P" word at a crowded news conference.
The story of New York's missing mayor doesn't have any of the usual issues that bedevil politicians: things like race, sex, religion, and conflict of interest.
It's a tale of how the mayor stonewalled the New York media and got away with it. New York's newspapers savaged Bloomberg's snow cleanup efforts, and published editorials demanding he own up to being in Bermuda, but seemed to do very little to follow up on the Times story on his alleged escape to his Bermuda estate.
In fact, five weeks after the snow debacle, the story has gone away. Incredible, considering New York is the media capital of the world. The news operation with the obvious sources to nail the story is Bloomberg News. After all, the mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
But the Bloomberg News team that covered the Christmas weekend storm, mostly to gauge its economic impact on Wall Street, totally ignored the intense debate over the mayor's whereabouts as 20 inches of snow closed in on New York.
Ty Trippet, a Bloomberg News spokesman, explained why:
"Since Bloomberg News began 20 years ago, we have eschewed reporting about ourselves other than what is said and done, and we summarize reporting about us that may be considered actionable or otherwise newsworthy, such as poll figures, legal challenges, and referendums. This extends to our coverage of the mayor, who founded the company."
The stories Bloomberg News produced during the days after the blizzard and during a series of smaller snowstorms that followed suggest otherwise. The news service behaved as if City Hall had sent over a city editor to make certain the majority owner of its company wouldn't get into trouble during any of his snow days. Like a parent protecting his delinquent child. And every story notes the mayor's corporate connection to Bloomberg News.
As if to prove that point.
Bloomberg News focused only on the mayor's public response to the controversy over the snow removal. …