In 1990, David N. Dinkins became the first black person elected as mayor of New York City. A kind and affable man who loved tennis, Dinkins inherited a city that was in decline at the time. The crime rate was soaring. Racial tensions were tearing the city apart. The Big Apple had become known as the Rotten Apple.
Dinkins, who passed away in 2020, had inherited this mess from his predecessor, Ed Koch, who was beloved despite his failed policies and his inability to govern the city. But from day one, media coverage of the one-term Dinkins was relentlessly unflattering. He was never given the honeymoon period that most new office holders are accorded.
But Dinkins plowed through the problems and worked with Washington to get tens of millions of dollars in federal grants to bolster the ranks of the police and tackled the scourge of crime. Soon enough, the crime rate began to fall, and it was clear that the city was heading in the right direction.
Still, the media coverage of Dinkins continued with the old narrative that the city was falling apart. I remember having a conversation with one of my colleagues at the New York Times, a City Hall writer whose coverage particularly irked me. As a crime reporter, I had watched not only the number of crimes declining, but also saw the police response and attitude begin to change as well.
I challenged his reporting and made my case as to why Dinkins’ handling of crime, the top issue the city was facing, was actually better than expected. I said the coverage lacked objectivity. My colleague and I agreed to disagree, and we moved on.
To me, the New York media’s take on Dinkins was replete with racism — some overt and others exhibited signs of implicit bias.
Dinkins would go on to lose his reelection bid to none other than Rudolph W. Giuliani, who then rode Dinkins’ success to new heights. The combative former prosecutor was hailed as a hero from then until he crashed-and-burned before our eyes during Donald Trump’s presidency. Many of us who covered New York at that time knew Giuliani to be a petty, vindictive and awful person. But that narrative was not part of the mainstream coverage.
Birth certificate? Residency requirement? Same bias
Last year, New York City elected Eric Adams, the second black person to hold the job. Already his coverage has veered into weirdness. During the campaign, his residency was questioned. Despite being the then-Borough President, he even had to give the media a tour of his home in Brooklyn to prove his residency. This was reminiscent of Trump forcing Barack Obama to show his birth certificate to prove that he was born in the United States.
As mayor, Adams’ appointments of close and long-time allies are seen as some sort of patronage. He chose his brother for a position. Sure, that may not have been the best look. But his predecessors hired their partners to city jobs, and the media scrutiny was superficial at best, as it should have been.
Anticipating the negative coverage coming, Adams has taken preemptive action and has hit back ferociously at the media, calling out the overwhelming whiteness of New York’s press corps in a city that is as indigo blue in its political belief.
The bias coverage is not limited to the mayor. It has widened to other black elected officials at a time when black and brown people hold many of the city’s leadership positions. I don’t often veer into media criticism because, as a journalist, I have walked in my colleagues’ shoes. I leave that to the experts. After all, we have an esprit de corps borne from the fact that being a journalist can be lonely at times. Because we can’t get close to the people we report on, we rely on each other for our support system.
Now, Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn has become a target of the media. The curious thing about the coverage of the Assembly Member and Brooklyn Democratic Party boss is that it’s a proxy war, if you agree with the adage that politics is combat. Whenever her husband, political allies and even enemies become newsworthy, her name is front and center even though there is little, if any meaningful, connection to her.
Some of you may be surprised I’m saying this considering that I, too, have criticized Bichotte-Hermelyn. I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but my writing about the Haitian American leader was specific and direct. Above all, it was constructive and Bichotte-Hermelyn has implemented some of the issues I have raised and is leading the community in the way she should have been in the first place. Of late, she has become more responsive and reachable to her constituents.
Of puppetry and absolution
Elected officials should expect to be scrutinized by the media. That’s part of what local and citywide officeholders sign up for when they decide to be community leaders because being entrusted with managing the city’s affairs is no small task.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution gave us the right to hold public officials accountable and we do. At the same time, we journalists also must use better judgment when deciding to publish stories about public officials when it’s clear that the information giver has an agenda, and they are using the media to hit back at their political opponents.
In that scenario, we’re being used as puppets. By extension, we have strayed from hard-hitting reporting that’s exposing wrongdoings. We’re playing outside of our norms and when you violate well-established norms, you’re heading into dangerous territory.
This is particularly important at a time when trust in the media has become a contradiction in terms. This is not coming from right-wing zealots. Many liberal friends have concerns about what we do sometimes.
After his defeat, Dinkins went on to become the respected leader that he should have been as a mayor. He taught a class at Columbia University, remained ever the optimist and was beloved by New Yorkers.
You see, despite the media’s contemporary reportage of the Dinkins administration, history has absolved him and exposed Giuliani for the vile person we see today.
Our communities, however, can’t afford to wait another 30 years for the mainstream media to remove the bias blinders and do its job better. The time to course-correct is now.