Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits
July 5, 2017: Eric Phillips, press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio, talks with Max & Murphy about his job, the mayor's relationship with the press, and more.
Eric Phillips has been the lead conduit between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city's press corps for more than a year. His job is 24/7, he explains, as he joins us for the latest episode of the Max & Murphy podcast. In the discussion -- which you can hear through the embedded audio below or download wherever you get your podcasts (iTunes, etc) -- Phillips gives insights into how he does his job, the mayor's views of city media, and much more.
"[W]e’re trying to tell the story of city government. I think we tell it accurately and without bias," Phillips said of his press office. He explained that for his job there are two key rules: "Rule number one: be accurate. Rule number two: I’m representing him, it’s my job to attempt to capture his voice and capture his reasoning on something, and to make that argument or deliver that information to the public, clearly."
Phillips explained what his job is like on a daily basis, the people he works with and oversees, his approach to briefing the mayor on key issues and in preparation for press conferences, and more.
What's the narrative of the de Blasio administration as it currently stands, we asked Phillips. "Right now, I think it’s that a progressive, a guy who I don’t think anybody would doubt is significantly on the left of the political spectrum, has been able to more than effectively steward a city’s finances, infrastructure, public safety apparatus, in a very effective way," he said. "I think a lot of people thought he was coming into office as an ideologue who couldn’t manage, and the city would be awash in crime, chaos, and financial dysfunction in a matter of moments, and the absolute opposite has happened."
Of the city press corps that covers the mayor, Phillips said, "they're the most aggressive, most professional, most sophisticated, toughest to deal with...And that’s a great thing. I think there’s a tendency again, to sort of, when times are good, like they largely are right now, there’s a tendency to fill that void with the trivial and with the sort of small minded stuff that may get people to turn pages or click on stories and retweet tweets, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for most New Yorkers."
Getting further into the details of the mayor and the press corps, Phillips said of de Blasio's weekly appearances on WNYC radio and NY1 television, "I think we also, to be totally frank, find Errol [Louis] and Brian [Lehrer]’s line of inquiries generally a little more weighty and a little more substantive than some of the exchanges with Room 9. Not always, but a more often than not."
And, asked about the de Blasio administration's apparent frustration with The New York Times specifically, Phillips said, in part, "I think the big problem with the Times' coverage in 2017 is that the Metro page has largely been gutted and I think in its place, or maybe perhaps with that gutting, has been the fall off of substantive trend municipal government reporting and activity in the city. It’s been replaced by sort of trivial, oftentimes day-to-day sort of microscopic, either tick tock, or sort of day-in-the-life-of, or sort of really minute progressions in some sort of narrative that is like typically a tabloid stream of coverage that the Times will adopt, whether it’s the gym that the Times is obsessed with, or whether it was the helicopter use a while back that the Times thought was like the scandal of the 21st century. It’s gotten smaller and a little sillier." He then discussed whether that was a concern for his boss, Mayor de Blasio.
Listen to the full conversation (and see the interview transcript below) for more on the excerpts above and several other topics:
Below is a rush transcript of the interview with Eric Phillips, it may contain typos. The questions are at times paraphrased, though Phillips’ answers are transcribed word for word. (Also, to read other comments from Phillips on the city's political press corps and more, find a recent interview he did with Politico New York's Azi Paybarah here -- we tried not to repeat any questions from that.)
Ben Max (BM): You’re the press secretary, what does that mean and how do you approach that job?
Eric Phillips (EP): Sure. I think the principal job of the press secretary, of the press office in city hall, is to get information both to members of the media but also to the public broadly. We obviously do that in a variety of ways. Some of them use the mayor in his day to day activity. Some of them are much more routine interactions with the press corps and with the public. We manage a team in city hall of ten deputy press secretaries who then all, in conjunction with others, manage agency press staff and things like that to coordinate both the incoming and outgoing communications of city hall but also of the dozens of agencies and staff that we have throughout the city bureaucracy. So that’s kind of the job in a nutshell. Most importantly, it’s to have sort of an open dialogue with members of the New York City press corps.
BM: Principal job is helping provide information, but you’re also trying to manipulate press coverage, right?
EP: I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re trying to tell the story of city government. I think we tell it accurately and without bias. I think typically, folks would assume that government would manipulate information. I don’t think it’s true.
BM: I didn’t say manipulate information, I said manipulate press coverage.
EP: I think we’re trying to tell a story about how city government works. Certainly, we believe it works pretty well, so I think the story inherently, from our version of the truth, is gonna be a good one. But there’s times when it’s not, and I think we’re candid when city government screws up. So I wouldn’t say in a city like New York, or in a city hall like this one, that it’s all roses all the time, for sure.
Jarrett Murphy (JM): Narrative of mayor’s three years, highs, lows, ups, downs. If you had to sum up BDB era so far, what do you think the story of the de Blasio era so far has been?
EP: Right now, I think it’s that a progressive, a guy who I don’t think anybody would doubt is significantly on the left of the political spectrum, has been able to more than effectively steward a city’s finances, infrastructure, public safety apparatus, in a very effective way. I think a lot of people thought he was coming into office as an ideologue who couldn’t manage, and the city would be awash in crime, chaos, and financial dysfunction in a matter of moments, and the absolute opposite has happened. And I think that’s kind of the big shocker to, sort of, the cynics or the critics probably. It’s not a shocker to people who know him, and to people who are involved in the operation, of course. But, listen, the city has more jobs than any time in its history, more affordable housing is being built than any time in its history. The crime rate is lower than ever. Graduation rates in high school are the highest ever. You take those four things right there, and you’re summing up a city that’s in really, really, really good shape.
BM: Speaking of good news, positive narrative, the mayor has expressed a bit of frustration about the balance of coverage, and coverage of mayor, press coverage. He often makes sometimes sarcastic comments when giving speeches (you won’t see that in the paper, because it’s good news). Where do you stand on that? Where do you see coverage of mayor, is there not enough good news being written about?
EP: Sure, I think two things. One, I’ve never met a public figure, private sector or public sector, who felt like their press coverage was fair. I think that’s an inherently human sort of thing, to be successful and to then be upset when the judges don’t share in your observation of that success, whether you’re mayor, whether you’re CEO, or whether you’re anybody else frankly. Two, I think because of the successes that I talked about, crime, housing, the economy and all these things, education, I think that there is a natural tendency for reporters to focus on some trivial things that wouldn’t normally be news if those other main pillars of government weren’t going so well. If crime was up, if the economy was in the tank, if schools were going in the wrong direction and affordable housing wasn’t being built, I think you’d see a lot less coverage of where the mayor works out. I think you’d see a lot less coverage of the mayor’s, at times, hostile attitude towards some of the reporting and some of the, sort of press questioning. So, I think it sorta goes hand in hand, and I think it’s a natural tension. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the mayor is not always in love with some of the question and answer sessions with the New York City press corps, but I don’t know that any mayor ever has been, dating back at least a couple of decades. And I don’t know, most specifically, or more importantly, I don’t know that any mayor in the future will be. And I think that’s ok, I don’t see that as the end of the world. I don’t think New Yorkers actually care. I think the press should be tough, and the mayor also is right to be protective of the progress that he’s made and also, you know, I think, listen, I think the mayor, if he didn’t have an opinion of the New York City press corps, that would make him like the only New Yorker in the city who doesn’t have an opinion of the New York City press corps.
JM: What does a day in the life of the press secretary look like? What does it involve?
EP: It doesn’t really have an endpoint. Doesn’t really have a starting point. Doesn’t really have days of the work. It’s sort of time is a flat circle concept of municipal governance. It involves digesting a ton of news, and at the same time, managing teams that are dealing with a ton of incoming from reporters on breaking news, on long term stories, on investigative stories, on features, slice of life type of stories. And then, sort of folded into that, managing the mayor’s needs and concerns and challenges for that day, whether he’s doing events that require some preparation from our team, whether it’s incorporating some of his thoughts and feedback into how we’re responding to inquiries, or whether it’s raising things for him that we think he needs to address at his level. It’s sort of a soup of constant crises and hurry up and wait situations.
JM: We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention crisis of today, slaying of police officer. In something like that, unplanned and tragic, how does press office react, and interact with agencies like NYPD?
EP: Sure. We, for the most part, those sort of serious crises moments require a certain amount of protocol and a certain amount of sort of advanced drilling to make sure we get them right, especially when they inevitably occur at 2 o’clock in the morning, and people aren’t necessarily in their battle stations, like they would be in the middle of the day. We interact very closely with the NYPD. They’re typically the ones to reach out to us in the moments after such an instant. And then we start communicating internally with our team at city hall and with the mayor to see whether this is something that requires his presence somewhere, requires his words, or whether it’s something that doesn’t and whether we can handle it or some other administration official handles it. And then once we have those sort of basic personnel, posture issues sort of established, and we sort of figure out what and who’s gonna be speaking about the issue, whether it’s NYPD or whether it’s FDNY or whether it’s OEM in certain situations.
BM: What’s that look like? Is that 3, 4, 5 people on conference call? Email? What’s that look like?
EP: I would say it’s anywhere from 4 to 5 to maybe a dozen people on an email chain. Originally, with phone calls happening to parallel to that process, my theory always is any email chain bigger than about a dozen isn’t a real email chain with actual work product getting made, so we try to limit it to a pretty core group of people making decisions and discussing alternatives and options. But certainly phone calls are happening at the same time, and certainly the most efficient work gets done once we’re at a scene of some sort, whether it’s you know, a catastrophic fire or whether it’s in the hospital with the NYPD themselves.
BM: To zoom out a little bit, is it that, you know we’re talking to you here about your work, in press office you have people assigned 24/7 on call in case something happens. It’s a holiday weekend, stuff like that. Or are you a 24/7 person unless you blocked yourself out on vacation?
EP: I’m largely a 24/7 person and several other people on the team get tasked in an on call sort of scenario. Last night, for instance, a woman on the team responded, you know, at 1:30 in the morning to the hospital. That’s kind of how it works. It depends on the scenario, it depends on the gravity of it all, it depends on the timing and what people are sort of up to in their lives at that particular moment, who gets dispatched to handle these situations. But, regardless of who's sort of on the ground at that moment, they’re in communication with the mothership, so to speak, back at city hall or wherever it may be.
JM: Tell us about typical day, getting back to that, and your media diet. Obviously you read City Limits first and possibly Gotham Gazette second. Maybe not naming names, but how do you approach it when there’s so much to absorb?
EP: There’s no great system. I’m sort of a creature of systems and protocol, because I think that’s the only way you can attempt to even do this job. But, you know, planning is sort of a central, but plans are inconsequential, it’s that paradigm. I read stuff, starting, I would say, 5 a.m., 5:30 in the morning, in sort of a daze sometimes. I try to frontload the bad stories for when I’m in that daze. But, it sort of goes from there. I don’t -- it’s not like the sort of old days, where you pick up a stack of six papers and start going through them one by one. I sort of read clips electronically, mostly. I don’t look at the art, so to speak, on stories until a little later in the morning, 8 or 9 o’clock usually, unless it’s something I’m really concerned about. You know, my basic adage is “Save the Post for last,” because it’s the most fun and it’ll set me off on the best posture when I roll into City Hall.
BM: The Washington Post
EP: Yeah, no, of course the Washington Post. But there’s no rhyme or reason, necessarily. Some stuff, breaking news, we get sort of instant alerts. You know, we’ve got some news gathering services at times now. There’s like social media gathering services that, you know, will tell us about it instantly, like, that happened last night with the officer almost before the NYPD does. So we’re seeing a lot of sort of social media public reporting on stuff before we even see sort of conventional news reporting, which is a whole new step in the digital age, in the sort of self reporting age, which is kind of interesting.
BM: Obviously like, a lot of people in media world know that there’s internal email blasts with clips, relating to city government and all that.
EP: We largely do them one by one. So each email is own sort of clip. A lot of times, you know, I think this is one thing that’s changed, I suspect, over the last couple of decades. You know, we’ve been at, hopefully, we’ve been sort of involved in a story before it lands to a degree that at least gives us some confidence as to what is gonna be written. So, of course there are times when I open up a story or click on a story that I’ve been involved in, that I’m very much eagerly anticipating what the language will be. But a lot of times, I sort of know what the language will be. For the most part, nothing will catch me by surprise. So reading the clips, or reading the papers, often is like reading for stories that we’re not that involved in, that are other things happening in the city at that particular moment, that we should know about or that may affect something we’re doing that particular day, but aren’t stories that we were intimately -- there’s a lot of stories that frankly, if I feel like I was really close to during the reporting process, I scan completely over, because I feel like the reporter’s a fair reporter and I pretty much know what they have written.
JM: Tell us about events outside of city. Press reacts to stuff in the city, but when there’s a terrorist attack or something the president does. What do you feel the threshold is for something the mayor needs to be out about? How do you approach when something outside the five boroughs might be worth a comment?
EP: Our general construct is that, if it affects New York City, which inarguably, or arguably, almost everything does in some sort of way, we like to have some sort of impression on the story for its value in New York City. You know, when Donald Trump, when the president does his travel ban, Muslim ban, or things like that that have a more national, potentially even global sort of reach, the connection to New York City is not particularly acute. Even though we have a couple of airports, it’s not particularly acute. But the values that he’s talking about when he does something like that are really important for us to respond to for the sake of a whole variety of communities living in New York City who deserve protection and support and deserve their mayor to speak out on their behalf. So, we sort of try to balance how it would affect New York City and then sort of the broader narrative is the second sort of plank of that. If there’s a -- if Donald Trump is talking about something that really doesn’t have anything to do with New York City but very much affects narrative that is important to civilization, frankly, is not too much hyperbole to use in these times, then the mayor likes to get involved in that because he thinks it’s important to the progressive movement, to American democracy at times, depending on what the president is talking about at that particular moment. But when you’re working in a global city like New York, almost anything internationally and certainly nationally has some tie in to what we’re trying to do in a city of 8.5 million people. So, it’s a pretty open field when it comes to what to get involved in and what not to.
JM: Does the mayor trust you, does he take your advice? What did you have to do to earn his trust?
EP: I hope that he does. I hope that he does, I can’t answer for him necessarily.
JM: Does he take your advice?
EP: He does. He’s a guy who very much surrounds himself with people who he listens to. I’ve been around a lot of managers and a lot of leaders who surround themselves with people who constantly appease them, or say yes to them, or even challenge them in every sort of respect. I don’t think he’s one of those, on one of those poles. I think he’s somebody who surrounds himself with people who he trusts to help him do his job in a pretty effective way actually, as a manager. And I think you earn your trust sort of doing the job, right? It’s not a job that has any minor leagues, necessarily, or any training period, or any probationary period. I think my first day on the job was the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. That was my first morning, I think it was a Sunday. And there wasn’t any ‘okay, we’ll pause this international, or national at least, incident for Eric to catch up to speed on how the mayor will respond to something like this.’ You just start doing it. And you have a lot of colleagues, like I have a lot of colleagues at City Hall around me who are just extraordinarily talented and help people get up to speed with something like that. And slowly by slowly, I think you earn -- you know, a job like mine requires a very close partnership with the mayor. And, you earn each other’s respect and trust, and I think it only gets better from there. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t really work.
BM: How does it seem like he judges your performance? What’s at top of that? How well you brief him before press conferences? Right timing in cutting off press conferences? Way he sees you shaping media narratives in press? What do you see at top of how he judges your job performance, or has he explained it to you?
EP: I think, he’s never quite explained the algorithm that goes into it specifically, or in detail, but I think it’s a little of all of the above. You know, there’s an adage on political campaigns where you do 100 things and a couple of them work, but you’re not really sure what couple of them were. And there’s an element of my job that’s very similar. You know, I think as a communicator publicly, it’s really important to be -- to be able to do that, it’s really important to be a good communicator internally with staff and with the mayor, and I think, probably he prizes that more than most leaders and managers I’ve worked with, in a very good way and a smart way. So I think briefing him and making sure he’s prepared on issues is a really important part of my job, and then speaking clearly to the public and to press in a way that in many situations channels his thoughts on something. The worst situation that I could be in is if I said something that was inaccurate. The second worst situation I could be in, if I said something that’s accurate, but doesn’t particularly reflect his values or thoughts on a scenario. So, rule number 1, be accurate. Rule number 2, I’m representing him, it’s my job to attempt to capture his voice and capture his reasoning on something, and to make that argument or deliver that information to the public, clearly.
JM: That raises a good point about accuracy issues. We’re reporters who call you, but then in a way you become reporter, going to agency and saying “why did you blow up that dam?” Huge bureaucracies not talking to press day to day, how is it to go to those agencies and get information out of them? How do you know you’re getting accurate stuff?
EP: That’s a good and comprehensive question, because it goes at the sort of core of a lot of what the press office does in City Hall. Reporters and the public see the sort of end product of that sequence, but before that happens, there’s a whole lot of cross checking, of challenging, of flat out, at times, calling BS on agency or city hall work product and content. A lot of times, we’re the last sort of line of defense before something goes out. And we’re the ones that have to say, guys, this doesn’t make sense. How could our answer be this, when all these other facts suggest that it should be something else. Sometimes there’s good explanations for it, sometimes we’ve actually exposed something in the bureaucracy that is amiss on the policy level. That happens a lot, frankly. So, we care a ton about what city hall puts out is accurate. We also go to great lengths and spend a lot of time making sure that the agencies are communicating quickly, clearly, and with accuracy to reporters. And it’s a little more difficult to control that, there’s a couple hundred, maybe a hundred press staff that we’re overseeing at any particular moment. We’re dealing with hundreds of stories a day, literally. So sometimes that doesn’t go as well as it should. But, I think the point is, as the sort of last node in the sequence of public information, we knock down a lot of stuff and challenge a lot of stuff and make sure what’s going out is quality controlled to the best of our ability at least. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
BM: What makes difference? Are people are agencies just not as experienced in terms of what mayor’s press office wants press and public to know and see? What makes difference there? Are you filtering out too much? Are there agency people who are really sort of wonky and they give you lots of info that they think is important to share, and you chop too much of it out b/c you’re worried about providing too much info?
EP: I think it’s a couple of things. 1, agencies have a very important but also very narrow view of the entire playing field. So while they may know their subject matter very well, they are often I think blinded by knowledge, as sort of, for lack of a better sort of construct. We try to help agencies communicate in a language that the public uses, and communicate with a set of facts that the public will find important and helpful in living their everyday life. Sometimes, the depth of what agencies want to provide is maybe not even strategically particularly smart, but also just not smart from a human consumption standpoint. And city hall sort of is looked upon as the regulator of that, to ensure that information that’s going out is actually useful and not too bureaucratic, not too, I don’t know that wonky is the right word, because we try to be as substantive as possible, but certainly not too municipal.
BM: Do you work foremost for the mayor or the public?
EP: For the public. Public pays my salary, my job is to get the public information, usually using members of the media, sometimes doing direct to public communications, whether they’re from the mayor or somebody else in the administration. But my first job is the public. The public hired the mayor, the mayor hired me.
BM: Do you ever have moments where you’re feeling conflicted about -- a tension b/w what the public should know and what mayor wants public to know?
EP: I don’t feel a conflict. If I felt a conflict, I wouldn’t do the job. If I felt a conflict between what the mayor wants to say and what the public deserves to know, it wouldn’t be the right atmosphere for me to work in that situation. And I think my colleagues feel the same way. And I think that the mayor would say the same thing. The mayor wouldn’t want to put any of us in a position to be doing things that were outside of the public interest. Again, I’m not being holier than thou about this process. We have a story to tell about city government that we think is a good story. We’re certainly going to tell it in terms and in words and in imagery that we think is positive because we think the actual story is positive. But at the same time, I would never be in a job where I felt like I wasn’t serving my principal boss, which is no doubt, New York City.
JM: There’s been fair amount of turnover in press office, don’t know how it compares to other mayors? Why is that, and what effect has that had on mayor’s messaging? Feel folks who have stepped into different roles have had different approach?
EP: I do! And I think that’s ok. I view some of that turnover, which I think is totally natural and the numbers are consistent with prior administrations. It’s a burnout job, frankly. You can only do it for so long before you’ve gotta figure out something else to do. From an energy standpoint and all that kind of stuff. But I sort of view -- I had two predecessors in this job who were both extremely talented professionals, and I think whoever has this job after me hopefully will view it the same way, that we’re building on each others’ processes and effectiveness and successes, and also learning from the things that didn’t work. So I don’t ever think a new press secretary brings with it a shift in focus or a shift in strategy necessarily, but they have the vision to say, well the thing that my predecessor did, this thing worked, this thing didn’t. I’m gonna take the thing that worked and then I’m gonna start my own things, and whoever comes after me in this job will undoubtedly think that some of the things I do didn’t work, and that’s great, and that’s how we succeed and keep getting better.
JM: Everyone’s always trying to improve, I’m working on my posture right now. Evaluate press in general, and evaluate your boss. What’s something press could do better generally, and what’s area where mayor’s relationship w/ press could improve? Critique it.
EP: Sure. I think that there’s a tendency -- listen, I think the New York City press corps is the most talented, hardest working press corps in the world. I don’t think anybody credibly would doubt that.
BM: Flattery will get you everywhere.
JM: You’re absolutely right.
EP: From individual reporters to outlets themselves, they’re the most aggressive, most professional, most sophisticated, toughest to deal with, which is a good thing, around. And that’s a great thing. I think there’s a tendency again, to sort of, when times are good, like they largely are right now, there’s a tendency to fill that void with the trivial and with the sort of small minded stuff that may get people to turn pages or click on stories and retweet tweets, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for most New Yorkers. It scratches an itch that some people may have, which I get that some of New York City media is inherently entertainment media, in a way, and we’re the characters unwittingly. But largely, New York City press corps does a great job, I just wish it would be at times, focused a little more on the long term stories of sort of where the New York City narrative is headed at any particular moment on a variety of like weighty, important issues to people’s lives. If we were devoting a little more attention to those arc stories, those long arc stories, on education, on housing, on crime, on infrastructure and things like that, I think the public will be better served. But again, largely I think the press corps does a terrific job.
JM: And the mayor?
EP: I was hoping you were gonna forget that one. Listen, I think anybody who has the mayor’s job, whether it was Bloomberg or whether it was Giuliani or those before him, have a tendency to view the interaction with the press corps and the criticism of the press corps and the analysis of the press corps in a very personal way. I think you guys would, I would. I think it’s a natural, sort of, human condition. If I could program him as a robot every morning at Gracie Mansion, and wind him up and send him out on his day dealing with the press, and he would be thoughtful and smart and polite and kind and funny and jovial and smooth and all of those things, of course I would, but he’s a human. He’s never gonna do that 100% of the time, I wouldn’t do that 100% of the time if I were him. But I think part of my job is to always at least try to get, part of the press secretary job in general, is to try to get the mayor in a headspace that’s at least more frequently than not gonna produce something close to that. It doesn’t always work, it wouldn’t always work if any of us were mayor either, but that’s a sort of constant challenge.
BM: We’ll keep going a little longer, I’m enjoying the conversation. To get into in the weeds topic that’s been written about a bit, mayor used to have this construct of sometimes having presser with questions, sometimes not. Sometimes on certain topic, sometimes on other topic of the day and then open it up. He abandoned that. Bad press conference where he wanted to talk about mansion tax, reporters wanted to ask about other stuff and he walked off. After that, no more. What was that conversation like, how did that decision get made where you said we’re not gonna do this anymore because we don’t want other events like that?
EP: I don’t think, I think there was a slight misconception of how that sort of unfolded. I also think there’s a misconception about how much internally we debate and recalculate the mechanics of press conferences. We just don’t do it all that much. We do it some, certainly, and very, very, very minimal portion of that process would involve the mayor himself if any part of that process would involve the mayor himself. I think we’re always looking for ways to get clear information to the public. And when there are scenarios where we believe some really important information that the public deserves to know will be clouded out by stuff that in our view is more trivial and less important for the public to know, we’re gonna set up a construct with which the public has the best opportunity to get that information. Now, I think it’s all important to remember that we do have a finite amount of time and bandwidth and airwave, if it’s not a good term, and print inches, and all of these conversations. The mayor’s job isn’t to take questions 24 hours a day, nobody would want that, it’s not a good use of his time. So we have to figure out what is the best use of his time, and what information is best delivered to the public and what they need the most during that time period. If there’s a situation with the mansion tax, I remember that press conference vividly.
BM: All of us who were there do.
EP: Moment that will live in infamy. There was a moment there during that process, it was like a week long push on the mansion tax. We felt like it was an extremely important topic, and members of the press corps weren’t taking it so seriously, and obviously it led to that altercation. I don’t think there was a meaningful recalculation after that. I think we’re constantly recalculating, whether it was during the period of investigations, I think a lot of our postures changed since then. Whether it was before the investigations and there were high profile battles with Uber and some degree the police department union, our postures changed a lot since then. So I think we’re constantly in a space of evolution, and I’m sure it will change in the months ahead and in the years ahead. But I don’t think there was a recalculation specifically around that event, I think it was a natural course of how we can get information out more clearly.
BM: I mean, you know, that’s your job to frame it like that I guess.
JM: Let me ask about things people have mentioned in press, and you might disagree, is mayor seems much more comfortable during weekly appearances on Brian Lehrer and Errol Louis. Why that is, we could talk about. But I’m curious, Errol and Brian are superb journalists and great interviewers. But given that it’s regular weekly thing, are there ground rules/customs that affect that exchange, and is that part of what makes the mayor comfortable, or is it no holds barred.
EP: I think a couple of things. I think one, there are no ground rules. Errol and Brian are both, as anybody who’s watched or listened can attest, extremely tough questioners, who go to the thorniest of subjects every week right away. And that’s a good thing. I think where you notice probably some tonal shift or some comfort dynamic is they’re longer, more, informal’s not the right word, but almost more social dialogues going back and forth. I think they’re less prone to the sort of adversarial -- the mayor’s taking on one reporter, and then he’s taking on a different reporter, and then he’s taking on a different reporter, and then he’s taking on a different reporter, which I think to any human would be sort of a grating process. So I think anybody in a conversational setting and a less adversarial construct than a blue room press conference would probably be a little more comfortable and a little more freewheeling than otherwise. And I think you see it on TV and you listen to it on the radio, I think those are very good formats for him. And I think they would be for most people. It’s not a comforting feeling to face 15 of the best journalists in the country peppering you with questions that could range from the big, grave, and important to the trivial, silly, and cargo short. So, you know, I think we also, to be totally frank, find Errol and Brian’s line of inquiries generally a little more weighty and a little more substantive than some of the exchanges with Room 9. Not always, but a more often than not.
BM: When you are prepping him for a press conference or one of those appearances, can you give us insight into what that looks like? Are you looking at things on twitter, basing things on recent press conference? How do you figure out what things he’ll be asked about?
EP: A lot of it is, it’s sort of the adage of you know it when you see it. You can pick up a paper or turn on the news and have a pretty good idea at this point, I’ve had this job for a year, a lot of my colleagues have been in the press office for longer. We have a pretty good sense of something that will become an issue or what will be news or something that is gonna be news down the road, that sort of instinct is a little bit inherent and a little bit learned, and we get a little bit better at it every week, frankly. And I think reporters at the same time, it’s a little bit of a dual maturation, I think reporters at the same time become better at asking questions that might not be on their radar. So as we get better, reporters get better, and it’s a sort of circular evolution. But yeah, you could pick up the paper and sort of figure out where folks are gonna go that day, or you know what reporters are working on and what they will likely care about. I think a lot of our job is predicting, in that scenario a lot of our job is predicting what reporters are thinking at that particular day, whether it’s in their stories or sort of in their lives. We sort of know what reporters care about on a personal level, and that often, like normal humans, affects how and what they ask at the press conferences.
BM: Are there examples of that? That’s sort of interesting?
EP: I’d be disclosing pretty serious trade secrets if I let you in on that.
BM: You just have general sense of what reporters are observing?
EP: And how they feel about things. Part of our job is to stay in extremely close contact with reporters, and part of the reason we do that is to better understand where they’re coming from on stories. And their life perspectives obviously impact both their reporting and how they feel about what they’re covering, and…
JM: I thought you just liked me. This changes everything.
BM: You mentioned the Post before. I don’t want to talk about the Post, but the New York Times, I’ve noticed that your office is sort of frustrated. Obviously the Times has a huge amount of reach, and often the Times, at least editorial board and page, is sort of more friendly to the mayor than others. Not that that always bleeds into news coverage, but you’d sort of think this mayor, with things going well in the city and some of the things he’s doing in the city, his relationship with the Times would be good, but it doesn’t seem to be. And people in your office have expressed frustration. What’s going on there?
EP: First of all, I think the New York Times reporters themselves at City Hall are extraordinary. Willie Neuman is obviously a terrific, acclaimed reporter internationally and at home here. David Goodman’s a guy with a ton of New York City experience and perspective, and is a terrific writer and certainly an in-depth reporter. I think the big problem with the Times coverage in 2017 is that the Metro page has largely been gutted and I think in its place, or maybe perhaps with that gutting, has been the fall off of substantive trend municipal government reporting and activity in the city. It’s been replaced by sort of trivial, often times day to day sort of microscopic, either tick tock, or sort of day in the life of, or sort of really minute progressions in some sort of narrative that is like typically a tabloid stream of coverage that the Times will adopt, whether it’s the gym that the Times is obsessed with, or whether it was the helicopter use a while back that the Times thought was like the scandal of the 21st century. It’s gotten smaller and a little sillier.
BM: Is that a big concern for the mayor?
EP: I don’t think it’s a big concern, I think he’s upset about it. I think as a guy who’s probably read the times every day for 35 years, he expected more, and I think he expects more, and I think it’s a little, it’s sort of a little depressing to everybody. Me included. I don’t think that’s a -- I don’t think anybody that would close -- any person who is actively involved in civic society in New York City and certainly in municipal governance or politics would say that the New York Times’ coverage of those spheres is as good as it used to be. I don’t think anybody could credibly say that.
BM: Who’s doing it well? Is there a publication that you feel, and obviously don’t name either of ours…
EP: City Limits and Gotham Gazette come to mind!
BM: Is there a publication where you don’t feel is too trivial right now, and there is substantive reporting happening that you think is a model?
EP: I actually think every outlet does a little bit of it. And every outlet adds to it. I don’t think there’s an outlet that totally escapes their responsibility, and I don’t think there’s an outlet that totally captures their responsibility. You know, there are good reporters at the Post who do really good, especially day to day investigative stuff on, you know, bureaucratic waste and misuse and all that kind of stuff that’s really important reading and really fun reading sometimes too. The Daily News does extremely good investigative stories on agency work especially, and on fundraising and on things like that in politics that are really important for the public to read. You know, the Times obviously still does a tremendous amount of important reporting, especially on the issue of homelessness. You know, Nikita Stewart is a terrific reporter. And, you know, you guys. Both of your outlets do great sort of civic work on really the minutiae of what’s happening in city government that I think a lot of other places have sort of moved away from, which I think is filling a really important void in this space. And, then, of course, the TVs are an animal of their own, and have some of the best reporters in the world. You know, Marcia Kramer is a master of her craft, and serves the public like nobody else. And, I think everybody adds a piece to what needs to be there. Nobody’s doing it entirely, and nobody’s leaving it alone entirely.
BM: Last question for me. Mayor’s relationship with press corps has been pretty rocky. Up and down. You’ve expressed already what press can do to improve that. What can mayor do to improve coverage and relationship, and is that on the agenda, or have you reached a place where you think it’s steady and if reelected it’ll stay like this?
EP: I don’t think, I’ve never bought into the -- I’ve never bought wholeheartedly into the belief that there’s something wrong with the dynamic between the mayor and the press corps. The press corps is aggressive and analytical and appropriately so. The mayor is aggressive and analytical and appropriately so. The twain don’t need to meet every day, and they don’t. And it will probably be true of the next mayor, certainly it was true of the last mayors. I don’t wake up every morning saying, ‘how can we make this better. How can we fix this relationship?’ I wake up every morning trying to figure out how to be fair to reporters, get them what they need, and do the same to the public, and try to help the mayor communicate with the most complicated, comprehensive, crazy city in the world.
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette