Michael Bloomberg is the latest media phenomenon.
Such phenomena – O.J., or Monica, or Condit – are about a fundamental alteration of reality created by the media’s radical interference.
The prior reality (which we will fast forget) is that, little more than a week ago, there was no reason to think that Michael Bloomberg would ever be more than Ron Lauder, Lew Lehrman, or even Abe Hirschfeld, other peripatetic rich men who have sought high office in New York (reflecting his relatively greater investment, you might have allowed that he’d get to be a local version of Ross Perot or Steve Forbes).
“Every sign,” wrote Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker just before the polls started to turn in Bloomberg’s favor, “points to his being a pantalone-like figure who is parted from a great deal of money and humiliated in the bargain.” (In August, I offered the opinion that “there is no turn of events at all, no leap of logic whatsoever, that could make Mike Bloomberg New York’s next mayor.”)
Instead, the media, turning reality upside down, made him mayor. Although in this case, radical noninterference was, arguably, the way it interfered. The media – the news media, if not advertising media – was an absent presence in this campaign. Or even, in some sense, was Pilate-like, washing its hands of the matter. Perhaps never has a winning candidate for mayor of New York had so little scrutiny.
This vacuum allowed Michael Bloomberg to turn himself into a media phenomenon, and to do it almost entirely on his own terms and to his own specifications.
It is, of course, all about the September 11 effect.
That event helped create three key Bloomberg media advantages.
The first was media distraction.
City politics, and especially a mayor’s race, is always something of a two-bit tale; it’s more often than not an outer-borough story (one more Giuliani attribute is that he made mayoring an enterprise of high drama). It’s a story that’s easy to skip if there’s an excuse not to cover it; none of the Democrats, and certainly not Michael Bloomberg – the vanity or novelty candidate – made it more compelling. Then, with the World Trade Center attack, followed by the anthrax scare, followed by the World Series, there was every excuse to skip it – and why waste column inches on a man who wasn’t going to win anyway? Quite literally, there wasn’t room to write about who might be mayor. The Times’ special postSeptember 11 section, “A Nation Challenged,” replaced Sports, which now shared the news hole with Metro.
There was an instructive moment the day before the polls started to surge for Bloomberg. He was confronted at a news conference about charges made in The Village Voice involving a rape allegation by one of his employees against another, and he made a serious hash of his response. He looked caught in the headlights. It was the moment reporters wait for. And almost every reporter said this was it, he’d self-destructed. Except no one wrote it. Or the story only peeked out from around everything else. If you self-destruct but no one knows you’ve self-destructed, are you destroyed? Apparently not.
Still, such media distraction, in conventional terms, should have been an advantage for Green: Bloomberg, the challenger, would not be able to take attention from Green, the favorite.
But the second September 11 advantage for Bloomberg was a sudden economic lurch into what was possibly the worst advertising climate in the history of modern media. A political truism is that even if you have unlimited funds, there’s a natural ceiling to this advantage. Most space is taken. The good avails have always been reserved far in advance. The World Series would, ordinarily, have been closed out a long time ago. But suddenly there was a glut of space. There were canceled contracts everywhere. There was unlimited time for unlimited Bloomberg dollars to buy.
The third advantage for Bloomberg was the resurrection of Rudy Giuliani as one of the most powerful symbolic and media-ready figures in the nation.
It’s by no means certain that Giuliani wanted to vest the weight and value of his new stature in Michael Bloomberg; he certainly held out endorsing Bloomberg for as long as possible, finally giving it on a non-news Saturday. Indeed, it is reasonable to wonder if the mayor – no doubt accustomed to the equivocal nature and relative short life of political endorsements – did not find himself as the unwitting trumpet, as surprised as anyone by the wall-to-wall lay-down of his imprimatur.
The effect of these September 11 advantages was that Bloomberg, with vast media time (he will certainly have been, by an order of magnitude, the largest advertiser in the city during the election period) and little countervailing coverage from the press, became the dominant media force in the city. What’s more, he not only controlled the media, but he had secured the unlimited services of its biggest star – Rudy Giuliani.
Politicians and operatives make a distinction between paid media and free media: Paid costs money, but you control its message; free is free, but equivocal in its message. A utopian political condition, which the Bloomberg campaign may have come the closest of any campaign ever to realizing, is for there to be unlimited funds and not much free media.
The Bloomberg paid-media lay-down was not just broadcast, but all collateral media: mail (on the Saturday before the election, we received, in our house, six four-color gatefold brochures and a videotape), print, telephone, street media, get-out-the-vote targeting. What’s more, he was one of the big advertisers in the high-ticket media space of the World Series – a perfect intersection of target marketing and emotion. The Yankees, Rudy Giuliani, Joe Torre, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a proud if wounded New York, united around (and, in effect, financed by) Michael Bloomberg. Sheesh.
Just a few months ago, Bloomberg was saying he was willing to spend up to $30 million on the mayor’s race. (“At some point,” he told this magazine, “you start to look obscene.”) Recently, those estimates went to $40 million to $50 million. Now there is talk of its having gone to $60 million and $70 million. And the likelihood is that, because he doesn’t have to balance the accounting of what money has come in with what money went out, we will never know how much he spent.
We do know that he achieved in this race possibly as high a level of saturation – the number of people exposed to multiple Bloomberg impressions – as has ever been achieved by an American politician. What’s more, his material was top-of-the-genre stuff – some of the best-executed, most effective political advertising ever run (versus not only sparse but inept stuff from Green).
There were four Bloomberg narratives, relentlessly told. The first was the Bloomberg story: Here was a reasonable, demonstrably successful businessman who wanted to contribute his expertise to running the city in its hour of need. The second was that his opponent, Mark Green, was a sleazy fellow who was engaged in a smear campaign against a reasonable and defenseless Bloomberg (Green was smeared with a smear charge). The third was that the Democrats had exacerbated racial fault lines and that Michael Bloomberg – whose acquaintanceship with Hispanic New Yorkers, other than in a service capacity, was, one might imagine, uniquely limited – deserved to be the true heir of Freddy Ferrer. The fourth was that Rudy Giuliani had bestowed his absolute support on Michael Bloomberg – the great man had chosen his successor.
Beginning two weeks ago, everywhere you went, people ran down this list of virtues. I don’t think I have ever heard a campaign pitch adopted with such fealty.
There was, in his Election Day story, a strange and sheepish mea culpa from the Times’ Adam Nagourney, who, in essence, said that the Times, with its other preoccupations, had paid insufficient attention to Bloomberg’s claims. Coming on Election Day, this amounted to a confession that the Times had missed the story: The paper just hadn’t noticed Bloomberg’s self-creation.
The free media missed the story, and missed challenging the story being propounded in paid-for media partly because it found it awkward to talk about the overriding issue of the paid-for-media story, which was money. (Bloomberg, it was hard not to subliminally appreciate, made his money from the media and was spending it on the media – would we have felt differently about him if he were, say, real-estate rich?)
Instead of the paid media being the issue, it was allowed to exist, or was thought to exist, in some autonomous, self-contained sphere: They’re his commercials, so let him say what he wants.
The commercials, or his ability to afford them, was, in some sense, the Bloomberg platform. They were his credentials. Precisely because he could buy this time, he was taken seriously. The Times didn’t scrutinize him because they would have had to scrutinize what, to their minds, legitimized him. Money was the record he was running on.
The Times’ Bill Keller, who’d recently lost his bid to become the paper’s editor and now had the consolation prize of an op-ed column, which he seemed to be writing in some kind of grand-release fashion, confessed to respecting the rich just because they were rich.
Bizarrely, the campaign-finance controversy came to work in Bloomberg’s favor, even to surround him with great probity. He was his own man, this theory went, because he was rich. Not beholden to anyone. Not accountable. Inoculated from the dirt of politics (John McCain came to campaign for him). We had, in other words, solved the problem of politicians being beholden to the special interests by, instead, directly electing the special interest.
So here we are, having elected a man whom we know nothing about.
We don’t know anything about his business except what he has told us about it. We do not know who his customers are, who his lenders are, nor what events and policies would hinder it or make it prosper.
We don’t know what his continuing relationship with this business will be (his business lieutenants were deeply engaged in running his campaign).
We don’t know anything about his political leanings. We really have no idea where his sympathies lie. Practically speaking, he has never been closely questioned about them.
We don’t know who his friends and cronies are. We don’t know if he works hard or if he’s been the absentee CEO of a wholly owned, well-oiled business (he had time to run for mayor).
We’ve elected a phenomenon, an invention, a fantasy. He is, at this point, whatever we believe him to be. That will begin to change rather quickly.