New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sat down for an interview with BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith on stage at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn.
They talked about de Blasio's relationship with the press — and its parallels with President Trump's approach to dealing with the media — recent subway breakdowns, and his very particular gym routine at the Park Slope YMCA.
Read the full transcript below, and subscribe to listen.
Ben Smith: We’re going to be talking about Mayor de Blasio’s kind of seamless lovefest with the media, but I actually as a member of the media wanted to start with an apology which is that I realize, I think the last time I interviewed you you came by BuzzFeed in the summer of '13 when you were on your way to election and we asked you like 17 questions in a row about Anthony Weiner. So sorry about that. It was that week that it seemed like he would win.
Bill de Blasio: It didn't play out the way you assumed then.
There have been bigger surprises since. I actually wanted to start by asking you about your media diet. You have a lot of opinions about media — how do you consume media? What do you what do you read in the morning, how do you read it?
DE BLASIO: I read a lot of different things, so I think like a lot of mayors around the country I get clips sent to me from my staff on anything pertinent to the work we're doing, and then a lot of what's happening in the nation and the world so I'm just reading that from the time I wake up all through the morning all through the day.
Are these like stapled print-outs?
DE BLASIO: No it's just to my Blackberry.
DE BLASIO: Yes sir.
DE BLASIO: Proud of it. I'm like, I'm out and proud, I have a Blackberry, OK?
DE BLASIO: I have a flip phone too and it's ... to all of you who have iPhones and can't hear anything on them, I'm very proud of my flip phone. So it's, it's everything — all forms of local media, broadcast, print, obviously TV, radio everything — and then depending on what's going on at any given moment, Washington Post thrown in and other things from around the country. And then I tend to, as part of my well-known morning routine, I tend to watch MSNBC and CNN.
This is on the treadmill?
DE BLASIO: This is on the exercise bike, yes.
The exercise bike, in Park Slope.
DE BLASIO: In Park Slope, at the Park Slope Y.
Do they have like, especially great bikes there?
DE BLASIO: They have pretty good bikes. I'm pretty happy about my Y bike experience.
Is that really the reason in the end that you go there?
DE BLASIO: I go there cause it's my neighborhood.
You talked to Brian Lehrer this morning, you've been talking actually a lot about your gym routine, but actually I think in the context of your critique of the media which I think you said this morning that the smallest matters become what people want to talk about, that these are small, thrown-off symbolic things. I mean isn't politics basically about symbolism in a lot of ways? I mean isn't your job to, in part, lead through projecting what you want people to see?
DE BLASIO: Huge topic, let me start on it.
I was planning the gym stuff for the end, but you just kind of went there.
DE BLASIO: Yeah. Sorry I did that to you. On the question of what I actually think not only should we focus on but what do most people want focus on, I want to reference the election that just happened. As unhappy as a lot of us are what happened on November 8th, I really earned people to constantly think about November 7th and everything before it because that's actually where we saw what's happening in our country playing out and it actually showed us in my opinion the shape of things to come, and I say that not for philosophical reasons, but to answer your question.
You saw incredible emotion on issues raised, particularly on the Democratic side, around people having wages that were too low, and having working hours that were too long, and their families weren't getting ahead, and college that was too high and you go down a list of things — these were really meaty substantive things and they dominated the discussion. There was no lack of emotion, no lack of symbolic power in talking about the things that really affected people's lives — and I hate to say it and I've said it before, on the flip side Donald Trump keyed in to the extreme emotional frustration that people felt in many parts of the country because of their economic situation, and if you look particularly at the 2-minute ad did the night before the election, which was painfully effective in my view, it was very emotional but it was all about people's economic realities.
I don't think the average New Yorker or the average American cares about my gym routine or any other elected official's gym routine. I think there's a group of insiders who do, and sorta junkies of political news who do, but I actually think that's not the audience the media should be concerned with if they want to be relevant. If media wants to stay relevant in a much more dynamic media environment, in a much more competitive and ever-changing media environment, you actually speak to people's lives, so the fascinating thing is I do town Hall meetings. I was in Queens last night — hundreds of people, 3 hours, and then I was on Brian Lehrer this morning where anyone can call with anything and it's almost always the same: People want to talk about — it's so clear — they want to talk about the quality of their kids schools and what their kids need, they want to talk about jobs and how they make ends meet, they want talk about the fact that can't afford the rent, or just the cost of living is too high, and you go down this list of very emotional, very real concerns, and then a lot of stuff about like folks want bike lanes or maybe people disagree with bike lanes but they care about the things that are right in their neighborhood, right in their lives. And bluntly, a lot of the media in this town spends a disproportionate time on all sorts of other things that are not the things affecting people's lives and it should not surprise a lot of people in media that instead of the sort of clickbait dynamic which I think has become the dominant thought, that's actually the clickbait oriented sort of "live for today write a story that gets a lot of clicks" actually cuts against a
smart long-term strategy of showing your readers and viewers something that affects their lives and that speaks to their lives and that's what last year was about too, campaigns that speak to people's lives, media that speaks to people's lives, are what ultimately will win the day.
It sounds like you're saying that there's a sort of language of emotion and symbolism that Donald Trump did speak, if not of substance, right? But that you would like to, in some sense, opt out of that?
DE BLASIO: No, I was actually pulling the other way and saying I think you can, and I certainly disagree with almost every single thing that Donald Trump has ever said or done -- there's my asterisk disclaimer — you can still say that and note that very sadly, from my point of view, he understood in a very cynical way people's economic distress and spoke to it disingenuously. He said "drain the swamp" and everything and then of course named a cabinet of millionaires and billionaires for example. Yeah, it was cynical, but it was emotionally pertinent and substantively pertinent to the issues affecting people's lives. There's no reason you can't be substantive and emotionally compelling. I look at the 2013 campaign, I'm very proud of this fact, when I said we had to end the unconstitutional use of stop-and-frisk, a lot of people in this city, hundreds of thousands of people felt that very humanly, very personally, and wanted a change in policing. When I talked about Pre-K for all the children, hundreds of thousands of people felt that personally and emotionally. It was not cheap symbolism. It was substance. But you can present substance in a way that still keys into people's hearts. And I think what's happening in the current media dynamic is, the thing that fascinates a lot of the mainstream media is not the substance, is not the big picture thing that's affecting tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people. It's the spectacular or the scandalous or the flavor of the moment, and I just don't think that's going to work for the long-term. I think that's the old way, I don't think it's going to work in the long term.
You have been a politician in this town for a long time, and an effective one. You were a great source to reporters as public advocate, you took advantage, I think, of lot of the dynamics that you're now in some ways deploring, and came up in this world. I guess in a way, I feel like I'm surprised you're surprised.
DE BLASIO: Oh I'm not surprised. Who said I was surprised? I'm not surprised. I'm saying the disconnect is very, very striking to me because now I'm living the whole equation? Now you're right, when I was public advocate, I raised a lot of criticisms of the Bloomberg administration. I would argue they were overwhelmingly substantive. Sometimes there were personal elements to it, but overwhelmingly substantive. But what I'm saying to you is not that it is a surprise, I'm saying it is becoming irrelevant to focus — I'll give you the example from this last couple of weeks. For so many column inches in so many minutes of airtime to be about who's marching In the Puerto Rican parade, and almost no attention on the plight of three and a half million people in Puerto Rico who are suffering right now from a health crisis, an economic crisis, a Zika crisis. It makes no sense, and it doesn't make sense even in cynical marketing terms or whatever phrase you want to use. There's 700,000 people of Puerto Rican descent in this city who care very very deeply about what happens in their homeland. They have gotten very little information about that from the mainstream media here in this town, they've gotten this obsessive focus on a parade, on the cast characters in a parade. I said the other day: "A parade is not a real thing. It's a symbolic event that happens for a few hours! A healthcare crisis is a real thing." And so it's backwards, it's not surprising, Ben, it's arcane. The tabloid style of journalism of yesterday does not make sense anymore and it will not last. That's what I feel.
It's hard to argue with the substance of healthcare being more important than who marches in the parade. I think as a journalist and I think, I suspect, my former colleagues in the city hall press corps feel, you are a powerful government official. And maybe you shouldn't be the assignment editor. Like maybe you and Donald Trump shouldn't be the ones telling journalist what to report and not report.
DE BLASIO: Oh a hundred and ten percent except for one problem: I shouldn't be the assignment at all and you should hold my feet to the fire and by the way there's been times I've said it, I'm frustrated by the state of our media but I will also happily credit when the media brings out something that needed attention. I will say as a disclaimer, I'm very disappointed in the New York Times that they have greatly reduced their focus on New York City news.
Do you feel like they've abdicated responsibility there?
DE BLASIO: I do, and I think they really have to understand that that's hurt the civic discourse in New York City, but that being said, a great example of when I think media not allowing the elected officials to be the assignment editor is a great thing — the early stories, when we came into office and sort of end of Bloomberg, beginning of my time. On Rikers Island and on the problems Rikers Island by a couple of New York Times reporters, really helped focus attention, including inside the government, where bluntly a lot of us didn't have a lot of history on Rikers Island corrections issues, and it was a very good thing. That still happens sometimes. But what happens too much of the time is rather than saying "hey let's go at the big meaty things that really affects lives and get under the skin of it and challenge all types of power centers" By the way, corporate media often doesn't challenge corporate power structures, and this is another thing I find more than contradictory. If you're going to challenge elected officials, God bless you, go challenge the corporations that are dictating the rules of so much of our lives at the same time. Go challenge Wall Street, go challenge the real powers that be. And it doesn't happen enough.
Are you talking specifically about Mort Zuckerman and Rupert
DE BLASIO: Of course. Rupert Murdoch is a right-wing media baron who is consistently trying to undermine progressive governments and progressive movements all over the world. It is a purely ideological enterprise driven by vast amounts of money to keep a bad status quo in place, and in fact to make it worse. Anyone thinks that's objective journalism is kidding themselves. The Daily News, I will give them credit for more balance, is still corporate media
owned by a major real estate baron.
Do you think the British, just to take off side note on Murdoch, the British government is considering turning over, allowing him increase his of a major cable operator, considering the kinds of things you just mentioned, think they think they should permit him to?
DE BLASIO: No, of course not. There's already a dangerous level of concentration of media ownership right this moment. It has to be reversed. Look, thank God that because of social media, there are countervailing voices and more and more people. This is the big, big story and I give you credit and everyone at BuzzFeed and a lot of other places that are creating alternatives. Here's what I find all the time, I can't tell you how many people this city have abandoned the mainstream media in various ways and are getting their information on a lot of different places, or at least not taking the mainstream media's word for it and counterbalancing, checking information, with a lot of other sources as well. We actually need to undermine the mega-concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few. That few invariably will be right wing, corporate people who want to create an even more unequal society. So the answer is to diffuse and open up the media, make it more small-D democratic, give people more and more options and more and more competition and choice, but no, of course Rupert Murdoch has spent his life trying to undermine the democratic process, we can't let him do it.
So what you just said, both brought theory of media and specifically the notion of media concentration issue at another time in American history seems like a really interesting argument. Today it seems like, wow, that sounds a lot like what Donald Trump says. And I wonder if you, in both in terms of you know, "we gotta weaken these powerful centralized corporate media," whether it's NBC or the New York Times. He has a different view of who they ought to be, these newcomers. I think I do understand the critique and I know that its long-running in pre dates this election, has it kind of given you any pause to hear your words in Donald Trump's mouth?
DE BLASIO: No. I'll tell you why. I appreciate the question, it's an honest question, it is more than reductionist with all due respect. You just gave away a little bit in your question. What I'm saying I felt 20 and 30 years ago, and a lot of people in this city and this country's felt 20 and 30 years ago, that it's not surprising. Look, media is based on the inequities of the capitalist system. Let's be clear: wealthy people own the media. That's not a good starting place. It's not a good starting place. What works better: Public radio, public television, progressive outlets that are free and independent, there are some examples of outlets owned by individuals that have been given extraordinary freedom to explore tough issues including the contradictions of the corporate world, but by and large the problem with the whole construct is it's based on selling something and it's based on ownership by wealthy individuals. That doesn't make sense anymore in today's world. We've actually, thank God, we've reached a point of transparency and openness where that contradiction comes to the fore. So no, Ben, I felt this a long, long time ago.
Donald Trump doesn't actually mean it. Donald Trump spouts fake populism all day long and gets away with it. He is part of the problem. You decide, is he a millionaire or a billionaire? I don't care. Either way, he's part of the problem. He's part of the same class that created this reality. He's chummy with all these people. So when he rails against the media, it's to fake appeal, if it's just a cynical ploy to appeal to a right-wing base. They may honestly feel it. I don't think he feels it anymore and I think he feels a lot of the things he said in the campaign.
But the bottom line is, a lot of us felt a long time ago the media ownership trajectory was dangerous to the democratic process.
To bring it to a much more local issue: The subways. It would be unforgivable if I didn't bring that up. Actually, I should ask you first. Did you see that video of the F train?
DE BLASIO: I have not seen the video, I fully understand it having spent a lot of my life on the F train, but get how bad it was. I look forward to it.
But one of the things that I thought as somebody who grew up in New York City politics was, you spent a lot of last week being hit by the local press for where you go to the gym, then having arguments with them about it, and it seems like you probably should have spent last week beating the shit out of Governor Cuomo on front page of the tabloids. And that is a choice, right? I mean maybe you disagree with their theory of media ownership and that's reasonable but it seems like you're missing opportunities to get things done.
DE BLASIO: I think there's plenty of times where I've challenged the governor and there's lots of times when I challenge the president, and I will always do that. On this one, I believe that the day the governor took responsibility, even though it was after some fits and starts, he took responsibility for the MTA for a particular problem that's emerged in the last couple of months. I thought that was very important and I think it's fair to say "OK, good. You've taken responsibility, now you got to put together a plan." And for me it was not, you know, he just took responsibility for it, where's your plan the next day? I had a willingness to give them a little time to put together that plan. But I've also said if they don't come up with a plan soon then the rest of us have to speak up and put forward a vision of how we're going to fix the MTA.
So your exact question, why didn't I choose to that? I didn't think it was the right time to do that honestly. I could try to set a media fire every time there's some controversial issue. It's just not my way. I'm also not going to be surprised if this sort of Picayune approach to what matters and what doesn't continues, but I'm not going to be governed by it. I think it's kind of strange to obsess over a gym routine or who's marching in a parade compared to all the things actually affect everyday life. I just don't get it. I think people really are interested in the stuff that affects our lives, I really do. I would urge journalists to try it. Try writing about that stuff. You can write about in a colorful and interesting manner, but I really believe most consumers of media want that, and when they don't get it they go elsewhere.
I don't want to argue about it. Having covered the city, I think much of what city hall has always done is follow great investigations and places like, as you said, the news in the Post, while also getting beat up for things they think are silly, and I'm not sure that's always —
DE BLASIO: So wait a minute, wait a minute. So you're saying therefore it is good. Think about it for a minute.
No, I did not say therefore it is good. It just seems like you're making a choice to have this fight.
DE BLASIO: Ben, you're in a contradiction, my friend. "Because it was, therefore it must still be." I get this all the time from the purveyors of the tabloid worldview, I know you're not one of them.
This is the guy with the Blackberry who can't watch the F train video.
DE BLASIO: Wow, that was deep. I am so hurt by that. I am just devastated. I'm speechless.
I was holding that cheap shot out.
DE BLASIO: Ben. Ben. We had decades of a tabloid approach, and a rich people owning the media approach, and it did not lead to a lot of our issues being addressed, and the world is changing rapidly, and then I get people all the time that say to me "oh you're not doing things the way they were done before." Those rules are gone! It's all changing, it's a disruptive moment, people have to get real. The media approach of yesterday does not work anymore. Why don't we update it? I think you guys did. I give you credit. I think BuzzFeed did.
But there may have been rich people involved.
DE BLASIO: There may be some rich people involved, but I think you guys have shown a lot independence to your credit, and you, I think, focus on many pertinent issues. But to say that "this is how previous mayors experienced it so shouldn't you be used to it?" Yeah previous mayors experienced, that doesn't mean I think it's the right thing, it doesn't mean I don't think we should change.
So I hadn't expected to go here, but if your view is that there really ought to be a different model, and the traditional model in a lot of other countries is public media. I mean you control one of the largest budgets in the world. Are you going to, in your second term, fund public media?
DE BLASIO: I like the idea. I'd need money to do it.
I mean the city of New York has more money than anybody else.
DE BLASIO: No, I appreciate the point. I think it's a very fair point. Do governments have to get involved in the equation more than we are now? Perfectly fair question, I have to think about that question. But I would argue that the more and more alternatives that organically developing, that don't need me to fund them, they're happening, that more and more people are turning to, should just set in motion a recognition that the same old approach is slowly losing relevance. Why not try updating the approach? Now it's because it's a corporate model that will not allow for change? OK. Then people should just go elsewhere. But I don't believe for a moment we have to stay stuck in it, and the proof is in how many people are getting their information elsewhere. We should come up with some way to survey the room but I strongly believe that lots and lots of people are getting most of their information from non-traditional outlets.
It seems to me that you guys have had a strategy of certainly using social media, but the scope of that is fairly modest, you have like 85,000 followers. You're not reaching everybody in the city that way. And actually the thing where you hit more people and maybe in a less critical form is local broadcast television. Which doesn't I think fit quite the model you're talking about. It just seems like the kind of old George Bush thing of "we'll talk straight to local TV, we'll go around the filter of a more critical print press."
DE BLASIO: I actually have been surprised that a lot of the local broadcast world, and I'd say TV and radio both, have been really interested in covering the more substance of stuff. It's not necessarily the assumption I came up with when I was coming up. And remember, I think we all assumed a set of papers that were going to be the counterbalance to the tabloids, and that balance has been thrown off as the Times and the Journal have walked away more from local coverage, the tabloid dynamic becomes stronger. The Post in particular becomes the leading edge. Again I have a huge philosophical problem with that. I've been quite blunt about that many places.
You called them a "propaganda rag."
DE BLASIO: And I believe they are. But I do find in the broadcast world, it's more straightforward and ultimately more substantive. Actually the broadcast world, strangely enough, compared to a lot of the assumptions I grew up with, talks about issues about everyday life more than scandal du jour.
As a reporter, I'm not sure I disagree with your critique, but I think I kind of bridle at the notion that the most powerful official in the city gets to decide who's legitimate, who's not —
DE BLASIO: I'm not suggesting to decide. Wait a minute, you’re really —
You’re expressing a point of view. But that viewpoint is expressed in who you choose to give access to, who you talk to. I mean this is a great week, you gave three open press conferences, but in the old days, the mayor wandered into the press room every day.
DE BLASIO: And wasn’t that a glorious time.
It was a glorious time. I was not there, but I was told that.
DE BLASIO: I think that when we talk to any outlet and we’re getting news out to people and issues out to people, it’s worthy. To me, it’s natural to say “where do we think we're going to have serious issues covered? If we're trying to get something out, it'll be critiqued, of course it's going to be critiqued, it's the New York City — eight and a half million of super opinionated people, right? Every town hall meeting is just wonderfully, humorously, intensely, opinionated right?
I think it’s what you call a normal New York City conversation, as Chris Christie said. It’s typically about coverups, Russian prostitutes.
DE BLASIO: The critique is built in, so if you want to get news out, you want to get information out, are you going to go someplace that going to warp it? No, you’re going to go someplace you think is going to put it out on fair terms and then all the critique in the questions will begin.
I have a couple questions at came out of what we talked about before I should have asked. We talked about Governor Cuomo — would you consider supporting a progressive challenge to him
DE BLASIO: It's this year, so I'll give you my answer. It’s this year and we're focused on the mayoral campaign.
That’s how the old school politicians used to dodge questions, in the discredited old days.
DE BLASIO: Sometimes they were right.
Speaking of symbolic, I think it’s interesting because I both sympathize with what you say about symbolism but also think its power is all so much on display right now. Melania Trump is moving out of New York this week.
Did you share their excitement about that?
DE BLASIO: This is an area where I honestly have, my own personal values at play as someone in executive office with polar opposite views from Donald Trump. I still believe family deserves respect. I believe they had a right to live wherever they wanted to live, and wherever they felt made the most sense to them. So her leaving reduces the security burden on the NYPD. That is a true statement, that is good. But I have never felt it was cool to say to someone, even if I intensely disagree, that they can't live where they want to live.
Do you feel sorry for her, that she's leaving New York to move into that very strange White House?
DE BLASIO: There might be a lot of reasons to answer that question that are not just about moving, but I'm going to let that one go.
Chuck Schumer actually at some point suggested the New York City withhold money, basically refuse to guard Trump unless the federal government pay up. With his absence from the city, I don't know if that's made that less pressing but it's still a pretty major security burden, right?
DE BLASIO: I have just a huge amount of respect for Chuck Schumer, I work with him all the time, I disagreed with him on that. It was respectful about that disagreement but I disagreed. We have an obligation. Obviously, we are the home of the UN. There are foreign leaders who come here who I couldn't disagree more, who I think the vast majority of New Yorkers find reprehensible, and yet we protect them. So it's not about politics, it’s not about views. The NYPD is here to protect everyone. They don't they don't ask a survey first before they protect you. So no, we’re going to protect not just Donald Trump and Mrs. Trump, we would protect all the people in the building, we protected the building itself, which is a symbol unto itself. That’s our job. The good news is, we got a fair amount of the reimbursement already, I’m hopeful it will continue. And again, I think our expenses are going to get a little easier now that she is moving.
And would you prefer the president stay out of New York?
DE BLASIO: Again, with the clear understanding that I don't tell him, and I say it really with respect because it's also a “do unto others” point. Some people say “oh don't go to your neighborhood in Brooklyn.” I'm like “no, this is my choice about how I can lead my life the right way, stay in touch with people the right way, I think the right way.” If he thought coming back to New York was important to what he needed to achieve, I would respect that. I think it's simpler if they don't come back to New York. I’ve been surprised that he hasn't. Even the one time he came through was very, very brief and he didn't go to Trump Tower. I think somewhere in Trumpland they have realized that it's a tough equation and it's probably best to avoid.
I had the misfortune yesterday of being on a panel that went head-to-head with the Comey hearing —
DE BLASIO: That was a mistake, Ben.
It was not that interesting. And people were riveted by that, and one thing that actually occurred to me in the context of this debate over this investigation, the leaks coming out of the investigation is that your campaign faced a federal investigation last year. You were cleared. The campaign was cleared.
DE BLASIO: We were all cleared.
You were all cleared. I'm told the mayor is not the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. But that process, that process of prosecutors leaking things is I think probably an educational experience, and I wonder if you, looking at what’s happening now, have any sympathy for the people inside that building, or have come to that with any added perspective?
DE BLASIO: I don’t think it’s apples-to-apples, honestly. I don’t feel any connection to the things happening now because I really knew from the beginning that everyone around me, we all tried to do things the right way and I couldn’t really understand why there was such an intensive effort. And I don’t think the leaks are productive, I don’t think what any of us are supposed to be doing in the government is that. But the situation we’re talking about now in Washington? I’ll go right to the Watergate comparison very comfortably. Who was it the other day who said it was potentially worse than Watergate?
Clapper, I think said that.
DE BLASIO: Right, Clapper said it. There’s no question in my mind. And I watched the entire Watergate summer of hearings, it was like this formative moment in my life. If anyone has a whole lot of stray hours, go watch, because it was unbelievably raw and dynamic that the dirty laundry of this evil administration was being unraveled in front of the American people in a way there was no precedent for. So I have immense respect for what the fight to uncover the Watergate scandal was all about. But this is actually worse because it is actually about the potential of people colluding with a foreign power to alter our democratic process. That’s morally, legally, everything — that’s treason. That’s a big cut above Watergate. So I don’t got a lot of sympathy for anyone who might’ve been part of that, and also, I think it’s shocking. When my administration went through an investigation, we said from day one to the final day, “we want to fully cooperate. Tell us when and where you need us,” all that kind of stuff. The president of the United States, I have not heard him once say “If there’s any possibility the Russians undermined our democratic process, we have to turn over every stone to find out because that would be fundamentally destroying of our democracy.”
Well, thanks for being so open here. Actually, this has been a very good week administration openness in the city. I was emailing all the reporters who cover you, you’ve been very open this week.
DE BLASIO: I’m happy you feel I’m open.
Look forward to seeing more of that.
DE BLASIO: I thank everyone for being here, enjoy the festival, enjoy the beauty of Brooklyn.
BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith hosts conversations on the intersection of politics, media, and technology — and all of 2017's insanity.
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