Originally Published in Columbia Journalism Review (February 4, 2013)
Ed Koch: under the adulation
A press secretary looks back at Hizzoner and the media
By Evan Cornog
The death of former New York mayor Edward I. Koch last week at age 88 brought forth a flood of reminiscences (including my own) about him. Many recollections stressed Ed as a personality—the wisecracking New Yorker (by which many implied New York Jew)—and portrayed his persona as mayor and his persona as the TV judge on The People’s Court as cut from the same cloth.
This line of argument is perfectly reasonable, but tells us more about how the press functioned during his time in office than it does about his mayoralty. I served in his press office from 1980 to 1983, and became intimately familiar with this depiction of Ed. We all realized that Ed’s outsized personality could be a great political asset. After all, Fiorello LaGuardia, whom Ed greatly admired, showed how useful it was to reach his audience as directly and as powerfully as he could. I don’t recall Ed ever reading the comics from the papers over the radio, but he certainly strived to connect, through the media, with the individual citizens. “How’m I doin’” was just one manifestation of that effort.
Representatives of the national and international media would drop by for a few days, gather the requisite quotes and clips, and present their audiences with the standard portrait—the mayor as canny vaudevillian, raising the spirits of a crumbling city that was widely seen as in a terminal tailspin.
Of course, this sort of coverage drove some reporters crazy. Chief among the detractors were Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett at The Village Voice, who anatomized every link between the city government and the real-estate interests, and chronicled the various accommodations Koch the onetime Village Independent Democrats reformer made with the party bosses in the boroughs.
But the people who were really driven crazy by the adulation of Koch were the regular City Hall reporters, the denizens of Room 9 who covered every aspect of city government, fought with their desks for stories they believed in, and really tried to cover the complexity of the city’s travails as it fought to recover from decades of fiscal mismanagement.
And the reality was, we in the Koch administration wanted to help them with those stories, because we felt that our administration was doing a good job. The city was falling apart because for decades politicians from the mayor on down had been more interested in building shiny new schools and libraries and parks than in maintaining the things that had already been built. The perception was that people were only willing to pay New York City’s high taxes for those sort of projects.
The first public event I went to after I joined the press office was a groundbreaking for a sewer renovation in the Bronx. Let me tell you, getting anyone to come on that junket was a challenge. I think The Associated Press sent someone (mostly to be there in case the mayor was assaulted by a lunatic), and perhaps a couple of others attended, but I don’t think a single story was filed. Still, Koch was sending the message that the city had to take care if its fundamental infrastructure, and that it had to pay money to do so. Reporters from Paris or Tokyo or Los Angeles were seldom interested in that sort of detail but, over time, the message began to get across.
Some reporters (and some press secretaries) rolled their eyes in boredom as city officials discussed changing garbage collection from three-man trucks to two-man trucks, over strenuous union objections, or adopting the one-man catch-basin cleaner (don’t ask). Truly, the eyes glaze over at some of this. But that was what was needed. The move to two-man trucks resulted in huge savings, and over the time I was there, in the early 1980s, the city came back to fiscal responsibility and began to right itself.
Koch was hardly alone in making this happen. He would likely have failed if not for the strong leadership in support of the city shown by then Governor Hugh L. Carey. Bob Kiley and David Gunn helped turn around a dysfunctional Transit Authority and began to improve service on the subways and buses that are the metropolis’s circulatory system.
Throughout all this, our “communications strategy” was basically to try to keep our heads above water and tell what we were doing. There was no great Schlieffin Plan for the press—just daily care and feeding.
Sure, we liked some reporters more than others, but overall the relations between the administration and the press were open and cordial. Certainly they seemed that way to veteran City Hall reporters when they looked back on the Koch years during the Giuliani era. At one event held to discuss the Giuliani Administration’s maltreatment of the press, Wayne Barrett came up to me to remark on how open and fair we had been. The wheel turns.
When I recall that time, I am particularly struck by the simplicity of our tools. When I started, we were still doing press releases on typewriters (we finally managed to cadge a superannuated word processor from another city department). We wore beepers, and carried quarters to be able to use public phones when we were out and about. Press releases were hand-delivered to Room 9, and an AP teletype machine sat in a closet for us to monitor breaking news. No Web, no social media, the gatekeepers still firmly ensconced on their editorial thrones—there is a distant, almost artisanal air about it.
But, just as I think the Koch Administration largely did a good job in difficult times, I think the City Hall reporters largely held up their end. Reforms in the city’s managerial and fiscal practices were thoroughly covered, in spite of the fact that they did not always make the most gripping reading. And so, of course, were mistakes and scandals.
Our relations with the press were, fundamentally, adversarial, but they were also respectful. For the truth of the matter was, a lot of our internal meetings were governed by the unspoken question, What would this program or decision look like if we read about it in tomorrow’s Daily News? In a democracy, as it turns out, that’s a pretty good question to have hanging over your head.
Evan Cornog , former associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the former publisher of CJR, is dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University.