Saturday, December 21, 2013

Thank You Mike Bloomberg

There is no better place in the world to celebrate the holiday season than New York City.  The stores along Madison and Fifth Avenues are stuffed with shoppers, perhaps lured in by the beautifully decorated windows or early sales.  From Brooklyn to Queens, or from Staten Island to The Bronx, New York City is a colorful, diverse, vibrant and energetic metropolis.

But New Yorkers face an uncertain future.  With the New Year comes a new mayor, the first new mayor in more than a decade.  And this new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has many promises to keep and many supporters to take care of.  New York City is a huge, complex, and impatient metropolis filled with larger than life personalities, big egos, powerful interest groups with competing agendas, and the pulsating beat of an unrelenting 27/7 news cycle.  

After a dozen years in office, polls show that New Yorkers are tired of their current mayor, Michael Bloomberg.  A majority of those who voted in this year's mayoral election want a more progressive agenda, and someone who will focus on closing the huge income disparity between the city's rich and poor.  They want universal pre-K and expanded after school programs, and an end to abusive police tactics.  And many want the freedom to drink big sugary sodas and smoke--initiatives that have earned Bloomberg the nickname Nanny Mike.  

But the fact is that New York has been an extremely well-run city for more than a decade due to Bloomberg's considerable management skills.  And, while there is room for criticism, Bloomberg has done an enormous amount of good for the city while taking home only $1 in salary each year. 

For instance, according to current projections, New York City will have a $2.4 billion budget surplus for fiscal 2014, and a $1.9 billion budget surplus for fiscal 2015.  However, these projections will be affected by upcoming labor negotiations. 

The city population has increased by 300,000 since 2001, and New York now has 3 million immigrants living in its boroughs.  More than 54 million tourists came to the city in 2013, that's up 54% since 2001.  And it is no wonder, as the city's crime rate is down 35% in that same period, while murders have declined significantly as well.  New York is a safe place to visit and live.

Since Bloomberg first took office there has been a 23% decline in infant mortality, and the average life expectancy of a New Yorker is up 3 years, to 80.9.  That may be partially due to the mayor's crackdown on smoking in restaurants and other public areas.  For instance, there has been a 50% decline in teen smoking since 2002, and today only 14% of the city population smokes. 

New York is now a healthier city.  Bloomberg has put in 450 miles of bike lanes, and he has partnered with CitiBank to make bikes easily available throughout the city.  In fact, there will be about 5.5 million CitiBike trips in 2013.  The mayor has also expanded city parkland by 2% since he took office, and 800,000 have been planted in the past five years.  

The mayor won control of the city's public schools early in his mayoralty.  While there are still complex issues with the city's education system, including the expansion of charter schools, New York's four-year graduation rate is nearly 65%, up from about 50% in 2001.  Meanwhile, the city's welfare roles have been reduced by nearly a quarter since Bloomberg first took office.  

The mayor has encouraged investment, corporate development and new businesses.  Being a successful entrepreneur himself, he has created an atmosphere that has attracted many start-ups and new enterprises.  New York is a great place for the next generation.  

New York is a far better place today than it was when Michael Bloomberg first took office.  Some of the changes he has made have drawn, well, the Bronx cheer from many citizens.  Earlier this week, I asked the mayor what he thought of the criticism he has received.  He was accepting, "Change is hard, and people don't like it." 

Come January 1, New Yorkers will face a big change when the 6'5" de Blasio takes over from the 5'7" Bloomberg.  De Blasio will move quickly to raise taxes on the rich to pay for his education initiatives.  Unions will demand a quick resolution from him on pending contract and pension issues that will be costly.  His new police commissioner will take over and bring new community based tactics to keep the streets safe.  And these new challenges are just the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg leaves behind a stronger city and a powerful legacy.   

Friday, December 13, 2013

White House Press Access

Limited press access to the President and White House events is an important issue that goes right to the heart of America's democratic principles.  President Barack Obama's White House is not the first administration to try to limit press access, but they have been more restrictive than most of their predecessors.

Last month, the White House Correspondents' Association and dozens of news organizations sent White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a letter protesting the limited access.  "Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties," the WHCA wrote.  "As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government."

Instead, the White House has routinely given Pete Souza, the official White House photographer, sole access to the President, then distributed his pictures on the Internet and social media.  In its letter, the WHCA said, "You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases."  The White House is bypassing the press corps to give the public an unfiltered view of newsworthy events, often deemed "private," provided by one of its own paid employees.

Frustration boiled up at Thursday's White House press briefing as reporters demanded more access.  Carney, a former reporter, seemed to struggle with his answers, explaining that the problem was the Internet.  “In the past when White House photos were developed and handed out here, news organizations could decide whether their readers would ever see those photos. Now, the White House posts some pictures on the Internet identified as official White House photographs."  

But Carney's explanation misses the point.  This is not a distribution problem; rather, this is an access problem.  And President Obama campaigned on the principles of transparency and openness.   It is critical for journalists to cover and report newsworthy events in order to provide the public with an independent account.  Previous presidents frequently allowed a small pool of reporters and photographers to cover a portion their meetings and events. That practice should be the rule today, not the exception.  

The White House press is right to complain about its limited access to this President.  The practices that are used today by the White House press office will become a precedent for the presidents who follow.   This is such an important issue that news organizations should avoid using White House photos of events that they are barred from covering. 

NBC News' Chuck Todd observed Friday, “Look we’re at fault here because we put (the White House photos) up.” He said, “We basically give out these visual press releases and that’s what they are. And we don’t fight this enough.”  David Gregory, a former White House correspondent and now anchor of NBC's Meet the Press, complained that President George W. Bush often restricted photo-ops only to photojournalists.  This is because he feared being asked questions by reporters in these brief encounters.  But these photo-ops are often the only time a reporter can ask a president an important and newsworthy question.  

According to political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar, of Towson University, President Obama has had significantly fewer brief question-and-answer sessions in the White House than the last two presidents.  This is a disturbing trend.  Other presidents have realized that, like them or not, it is important to have a good relationship with the White House press corps.  

There was no better example than that set by President Ronald Reagan, who spoke of the ongoing friction with the White House press.  He once said,  "Every President will try to use the press to his best advantage and to avoid those situations that aren't to his advantage.  To do so results in a diminution of his leadership powers.  The press is not a weak sister that needs bracing.  It has more freedom, more influence, than ever in history.  The press can take care of itself quite nicely.  And a president should be able to take care of himself as well."  

In May 2010, President Obama signed legislation that promotes free press around the world, and discourages government control.   Mr. Obama, actions speak louder than words.