War Room: After police flood the Occupy Wall Street protest, the Bloomberg administration floods the media
10:03 am Nov. 17, 20114
Yesterday afternoon, reporters were summoned to the Blue Room at City Hall, where they gathered in a semi-circle around two deputy mayors and lobbed questions at them.
Neither of the two deputies, Howard Wolfson and Cas Holloway, had prepared remarks. They were there to answer questions, or to evade them, or to counter with questions of their own.
But their presence, and their invitation to vigorous contact with the media, illustrated a concerted decision by the Bloomberg administration to go into War Room mode, shaping the emerging narrative of what happened in and around Zuccotti Park on the night of the raid by attacking those who have attacked them for it, questioning both the substance of their criticisms and the motives of the critics.
Not coincidentally, given Wolfson's central role in conceiving and executing Bloomberg's communications strategy, the administration has handled the fallout from that police action—and the city's subsequent handling of the very much ongoing protests—in the manner of the "rapid response" unit of a high-end political campaign. Perhaps more to the point, the strategy has also been reminiscent of the mayor’s well-received approach to Hurricane Irene, during which he and his deputies fairly bludgeoned the media to death with access—and decidedly unreminiscent of the administration’s approach to the snowstorm late last year, which caused criticism to rain down on Bloomberg like snow-laden tree branches onto neatly parked cars.
“The mayor made an important decision that was very closely watched,” Wolfson told Capital Wednesday evening. “And under those circumstances, you have a responsibility to answer questions about it, which is why we did the availability very early in the morning yesterday and why we went out today and answered questions again. That was the same sort of strategy we employed during the hurricane.”
Of course, that event was considerably different from what transpired this week. The storm was an act of God which put the administration on the same side as the snow-fearing public, as long as the administration performed its duty. The clearance of Zuccotti Park was an act of the NYPD which pitted the administration against the not-insignificant portion of the public that thinks the protesters ought have been allowed to stay; the politicians who agree with (or cater to) them; and the media that was kept from covering the live action.
In either case, the administration decided to control the narrative from the outset. That began with the decision to prohibit press from watching the actual clearance of Zuccotti Park at 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and by maintaining nearly continuous contact with the media thereafter.
It was reflected in the mayor’s 8 a.m. press conference with reporters Tuesday morning, and in police commissioner Ray Kelly’s appearance on "Inside City Hall" that same night. It was evidenced in Wednesday morning's New York Times piece about the deliberations preceding the mayor's decision to clear the park, an article that benefitted from an unusual level of cooperation from Bloomberg.
To say that the administration has been accessible is not to say that it has been entirely forthright. (Take, for example, the ambiguity surrounding Zuccotti Park landlord Brookfield’s involvement in the decision to clear the site.) But the sheer volume of their output has been impressive.
“The whole idea is to get your story out so that some opposition person cannot fill the vacuum, and they’ve done that tremendously well,” said George Artz, a political consultant and mayoral press secretary under Ed Koch.
Wolfson in particular has responded forcefully to criticism of the police’s handling of reporters, a surprising number of whom were arrested that morning, and of the police’s treatment of Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who was also arrested, and mildly injured in the process. Rodriguez is the second councilman of color to be arrested in as many months.
The administration has responded not by addressing critics' particular complaints, but rather by cherry-picking some of their more outré statements, and using those statements against them.
Yesterday's question-and-answer session with the deputy mayors was scheduled shortly after Rodriguez wrapped up a press conference on the steps of City Hall, in which he detailed his treatment at the hands of the NYPD on Tuesday morning, when he tried to observe the police action at the park.
Rodriguez said that he was trying to approach the park as an observer, when a policeman "throw his body into me and start hitting my head in the street." Rodriguez was then arrested and, according to his attorneys, denied access to his lawyers for an unusually long period of time.
At the press conference, Rodriguez was joined by a large crowd of elected officials, including Comptroller John Liu and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a close ally of the mayor.
"It is odd to be exactly in the same spot a second time talking about a councilmember being arrested who did not intend, in a civil-disobedience sense, to get arrested," she said, referring to the recent arrest at the West Indian American Day Parade of Councilman Jumaane Williams.
Then the speaker launched into a litany of still unanswered questions: "Why was he arrested a number of blocks away from Zuccotti Park? Why was he charged with resisting arrest? Why was he pushed to the ground and injured? Why was he held in a van outside of 1 Police Plaza for two hours alone when the other individuals who had been arrested and were in the van were taken inside to be processed? Was he singled out because he was a councilman? These are all questions which we in the City Council deserve answers to, will get answers to."
Of the nearly 30 questions asked at the ensuing availability with Wolfson and Holloway, only two addressed the Rodriguez matter. They were quicky dispatched.
"My understanding of the facts is that the council member was arrested as one of a larger group," said Holloway. "I think about 27 people, who were arrested, they were arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Those are serious changes. And the council member was processed like everybody else."
"The mayor’s position is very clear on this, that elected officials ought to be held to the highest standard and they should be treated like everyone else," added Wolfson. "And everything that we know about the incident tells us that he was."
Wolfson also took the opportunity to lunge at some unnamed but easily identifiable 2013 “mayoral aspirants” who have criticized the mayor’s handling of the park clearance.
“I was shocked yesterday to see someone who was thinking of running for mayor compare this to Tiananmen, where hundreds of people were killed by soldiers,” said Wolfson, referring to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who yesterday told reporters: "Zuccotti Park is not Tiananmen Square."
“That is an insult to the NYPD and the professionalism that they demonstrated.”
Wolfson was shocked by other things, too.
“I was shocked by the statements put out by many of those who are going to be, or say they’re going to be running for mayor,” said Wolfson. “The central issue before this mayor at this time is whether or not tenting and tarping and encampment can continue at Zuccotti Park. And not a single statement by any of the mayoral aspirants addressed that central issue. They all ducked the central issue before this mayor and this city yesterday.”
“Frankly,” Wolfson continued, “I would suggest anyone running for mayor ought to have a position on this issue. They ought to make clear to the people of the city, if you are in favor of ending the tenting and the tarping in the interests of public safety, you ought to be willing to say that. And if you think that it’s fine, as one of the mayoral aspirants said, to, quote, to let this play out, and keep the tenting and the tarping there, you should have been willing to say that. That’s what it means to step up and run for mayor.”
Wolfson was referring to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who’s running for mayor in 2013, and who earlier this month called the mayor’s handling of the Zuccotti Park protests schizophrenic and urged him to let the Zuccotti Park situation "play out over a reasonable period of time."
There was yet more shocking stuff that Wolfson felt compelled to address.