When we got the call that Mayor Bloomberg wanted to do a press conference announcing New York City’s LINK initiative to provide job skills training for low-income New Yorkers—programs like Digital Career Path, run by Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (OBT) and The LAMP–we were pretty excited. Not just because the LINK initiative is good news for everyone in New York, but because the Mayor’s office wanted to have the press conference at OBT in Williamsburg. This meant bringing cameras and reporters directly to the site of a fantastic organization and attracting focus to our joint efforts in bringing skills training for disconnected youth to launch careers in the media and technology sectors.
Since we’re in the business of skepticism about media, we didn’t go into the press conference with overly high hopes for program recognition. Still, it stings when a press conference is called about creating economic opportunity, and the news coverage that comes from it focuses solely on the Mayor’s comments about Rupert Murdoch’s Twitter habits and what he has to say in response to NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s comments one day prior on NBC’s Meet the Press. I’d read before about Mayor Bloomberg being mildly combative towards journalists in press conferences, but from the example I saw on Monday, his attitude is totally warranted. Reporters asked asinine questions such as what historical figure the Mayor would want to be his successor, and asked the Mayor to respond to comments by anonymous sources. The irony was too rich when one reporter asked for his thoughts on anti-Semitic tweets sent by EMS workers, and Mayor Bloomberg responded with a rant on how people need to be more thoughtful about what they post on social media. Skills like these are exactly what OBT and The LAMP teach in the program he just discussed, but of course mayoral sound bites are no match for substantial discussion relevant to the occasion.
None of this is out of character for Mayor Bloomberg, who, for all his philanthropic efforts, is not known as a cuddly teddy bear-type. Press conferences are an opportunity for the press to ultimately ask him about whatever they want, and then they are obliged to report on whatever they think will sell papers or draw clicks. Major news outlet headlines from this presser included “Don’t be a twit: mayor”, “Did Mayor Bloomberg Warn Rupert Murdoch to ‘Stop Twittering?’”, “Bloomberg Thinks Murdoch’s Twitter Account is a Bad Idea”, “Bloomberg on ‘twittering’: Why?”, “Bloomberg Plays Social Media Guru”, “Bloomberg bringing money muscle to gun reform crusade”. The lone on-topic headline comes from the Economic Development Corporation’s blog: “New ‘LINK’ Initiative Connects Low-Income New Yorkers with Economic Opportunities.”
The experience also serves as a heavy reminder of who controls the news we receive. When Mayor Bloomberg calls a press conference, we, the public, only hear what the media report back, regardless of pertinence to our daily lives. If you want to attempt to get at the heart of why everyone gathered at OBT on Monday in the first place, you must proactively seek out the Mayor’s press release, which is itself a single-faceted rock of information. One could also watch the video on YouTube, but from my estimation it appears that at least half of it has been cut.
I’m thankful that the press can report on whatever it wants, and is free from Mayoral dictates on content. Plus, news is a business, and money must be made. But the whole experience is a sad, swift kick to the head for anyone—like me, I admit—who thought that the resulting coverage from a press conference about job training might just center around job training, and that the press might act on a responsibility to inform readers about things that matter. Eight programs were mentioned, of which Digital Career Path is just one, and all are run by hardworking non-profiteers. I’ll speak for myself in saying that I don’t need front-page articles about The LAMP to motivate me to get up in the morning, but the boost does help on some of the tougher days; we all work hard and none of us are in this for the money. It’s also disappointing when good work and ambitious students are nothing more than a crutch for sound bites having no possible impact on the lives of anyone but the men like Bloomberg, LaPierre and Murdoch who offer up those quotes. The students in our program face some pretty serious obstacles on the road to economic independence and fulfilling careers, and the more students who learn of these programs, the more we can help them to overcome these obstacles. Acknowledgment of student success and programs for positive change should never fall at the mercy of tabloid fodder.
As it turns out, though, what happens in a Mayor Bloomberg press conference stays in a Mayor Bloomberg press conference.