The Unspun

When nobody was saying anything bad about Michael Bloomberg – when hardly anyone was saying anything at all about Michael Bloomberg – I was saying he was an I-am-the-world male-chauvinist CEO. This did not hurt the future mayor. A lone voice is just an odd voice.

As it turns out – at least in contrast to his immediate predecessor – the mayor has become something of a uniquely modest, or at least unexpectedly diffident, public servant. His disregard of the camera (he often steps behind people when the camera is on) has been so counterintuitive for a political figure of any ambition that it’s helped him gain the perceptual (if not moral) high ground. So it seems like I was wrong in my estimation of him; or, possibly, CEO narcissism just pales beside that of politicians. At any rate, for the past year, he’s been a likable, even endearing, mayor (when was there last an endearing politician?). And recently, at a cocktail party, coming face-to-face with him, I broke into a spontaneous apology. Still, by way of a New Year’s prediction, I think the mayor’s image is about to undergo a big revision. The press, in one voice, is about to turn on him. Remarkably deferential treatment is, I predict, going to become mocking and caustic – the New York Post is already showing its teeth (you can trace the tonal change to the moment he proposed, without circumlocution, a property-tax increase). He’s the $600-bike mayor. It could get ugly. But this column is not about the mayor’s possible problems with the press but about bad press in general. It’s about why some people (many no-goodniks among them) get good press and other people (including many decent sorts) get bad press, and why some people who have gotten good press suddenly wake up to terrible press. And it’s about whether there is any logic or justice here. Or recourse. Does bad press invariably kill you? (Are you either Teflon or a ruined pan?) Is it sudden death? And if so, does that make not getting bad press (along with, of course, getting good press) the singular public challenge and measure of success?

The press needs to be handled. If you’re not taking care of me, stroking me, anticipating my whims – you must be doing something wrong. If you can’t fool me, then you’re the fool.

This is surely a subject on Trent Lott’s mind. Harvey Weinstein, the New York movie impresario whom The New Yorker just cut up into small pieces, is probably thinking about this, too. (Businessmen everywhere are preoccupied with the issue.) Al Gore has obviously been obsessing on his media disability, while George Pataki has figured out how to fool the media with great finesse. Of course, the president himself, by all the evidence, thinks of little else. And who doubts that Kim Jong Il isn’t closely monitoring his coverage – playing a media strategy as much as a nuclear one. It’s a new standard, I think, that we’re holding people to, beyond good image and bad image: It’s the media-management standard. Being successful at what you do means successfully controlling the media. Failing to control the media is the worst kind of failure – it’s the ultimate loss of control. Bad press doesn’t happen to real men. It strikes me, too, that there are fewer and fewer ways to reverse the stigma of bad press (a Checkers speech is no longer possible). As damaging as any ill-advised thing you might have done is the joke you suddenly become – you’re a spectacle. In fact, bad press becomes, as much as anything, the very subject of the increasing tsunami of bad press directed against you. Trent Lott, for instance, has been politically ruined for views he was widely known to hold – and to have held for his entire career. Virtually the same comments he made on the occasion of Strom Thurmond’s retirement he’s made before – and those were videotaped, too. What’s more, the comments themselves were patently insincere – the blah blah and idle puffery that you say when you’re called upon to praise a 100-year-old retiree. If Thurmond himself was not censured for his views, why go after Lott for his silly testimonial? Lott’s remarks became big news not because they were news (as in new) but because Lott lacked some basic media craftiness (it shouldn’t have been hard to turn the problem back on Thurmond, of all people) and had some profoundly bad media luck. Hence, the president dumped him – not for his unreconstructed views but for his hapless media fortunes. Harvey Weinstein has nothing whatsoever in common with Trent Lott except that he too, after years of carefree, gross behavior, has now been called to task. Weinstein – his deep-frying by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker was preceded by David Carr’s scaling of the fish in this magazine – was shown to be the socially and professionally unacceptable lug everybody in the media business has long known him to be. While nobody – except perhaps Trent Lott – deserves a gutting more than Harvey Weinstein, I feel compelled to point out that Harvey is the victim of somebody else’s better management of the press. Beginning about two years ago – after Harvey had engaged in one too many power plays and Oscar dust-ups with his West Coast competitors (this is all nicely laid out in the Auletta piece) – the Hollywood crowd (an A-list cabal of studio honchos and their PR people) began to shop for someone to write a Harvey-takedown piece. The Hollywood people began to ask the media people (me among them) the uncomfortable question: Why does Harvey get such good press? And then to outline the various deceits and manipulations and intimidations that caused him to get good press – which now have become the main charges against him: He’s a PR abuser (even a PR sociopath). If image is the real value and it can be shown that you have manipulated it (like Enron and its revenues – making the press, in a sense, as guilty as the accountants) … well, wow. Al Gore, unlike Trent Lott or Harvey Weinstein, isn’t suffering from a reversal of fortune. His press has always been bad. His withdrawal from the presidential race was an acknowledgment of this. He dropped out, he pretty much said, because he didn’t see a way to get good press. He was stumped. He seems to have tried everything – books, beards, kisses, comedy – and still couldn’t turn it around. His efforts, in fact, became part of his bad press: evidence that he was trying to change his image. That he was a schemer, a manipulator – and a feckless one at that. The truth, I think, is that he is an innocent. That he really never had any idea of how to manipulate, intimidate, suck up to, and, in general, manage the media. When he ran for president, he assembled a remarkable collection of unsavvy, unskilled, non-detail-oriented people to run his media operation. They were earnest and disorganized (many times I tried to explain to them the value of returning phone calls). When one of these Gore media experts turned up to run Andrew Cuomo’s media operation during his race for governor, I thought, Oh, no. I will tell you: The press needs to be handled. If you’re not taking care of me, stroking me, anticipating my whims – and gently threatening me, too – you must be doing something wrong. If you’re not doing everything to get me to write positively about you, then you’re a screwup. If you can’t fool me, then you’re the fool. Which brings us to the most spectacularly managed media presidency in the age of media presidencies. (George Bush may have received more consistently favorable notice than any president ever.)

The Bush people likely see their singular job as managing media. They recognize that if you can’t manage media, then you have a failing presidency. That It’s the media, stupid. Good press, or at least a quiescent press, is the absolute goal. This is achieved not by personal magnetism, as the Democrats have long presumed, or out of the existential fires of national drama and conflict, but by meticulous execution (people in the Bush administration often call this loyalty or discipline): maximum control over minimum information. The press is purely reactive: If you control its stimulus, you control it. It’s North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, though, who at this moment may be playing this game better than anyone. He’s been able to taunt the U.S. – Kim Jong Il is doing more to undermine the anti-Iraq campaign than any peace activist – while at the same time using the Bush press machine to make him look like, relatively speaking, a pussycat (somehow, his real weapons of mass destruction, if you follow the Bush analysis, are merely symbolic, while Saddam’s yet-to-exist weapons are an imminent threat). We may be able to fight two wars, as Secretary Rumsfeld inadvisably said, but we can’t, apparently, sustain two media demons (if it’s Saddam, then it can’t be Kim Jong Il). So no crisis at all, says the administration, with the president himself defending North Korea on the front page of the Times. Just a hiccup. Worthy of negotiations and a win-win settlement. Somebody is a media genius here!

But back to Michael Bloomberg.

I am really going to be sorry if he’s chewed up and spit out by the media. His cause has been, I believe, something of a noble one. He has created what is, arguably, one of the more unmediated political enterprises in memory. (Being of the media seems to have made him discount its importance: He’s not afraid of us.) What you see is what you get. He’s transparent: It’s as evident when he’s bored as when he’s having a good time. What’s more – a great relief – he has no hardball rhetoric (nor does he seem to have any consensus-building rhetoric). I have thought that this might be a small political revolution. No more message. No more package. This has bewildered the media, but, given that Michael Bloomberg is obviously not Rudy Giuliani – no withering ridicule and belligerent stonewalling of the press – most reporters have found some curious, even slightly shameful thrill in his unassumingness, even in his absences (media manipulation being customarily thought of as a 24/7 business).

Judging by his falling poll numbers, it’s the public that, more and more, seems to think he is an odd duck (while giving that calculatingly bland duck, Pataki, a pass – even now, with the state in fiscal ruin, Pataki has somehow managed to get himself portrayed as concerned steward rather than clear culprit). It’s understandable: Most of us can’t remember a time when a political figure was as unproduced as Michael Bloomberg. And the public, being nothing if not media-savvy, judges public figures by media performance and execution as much as any other accomplishment.

So if you don’t perform, don’t stick to the script (don’t have the script written for you by good scriptwriters – everybody knows you can’t call a tax increase a tax increase); I’m afraid that instead of seeming real, you’re bound to seem just weird – eccentric, pitiable, out-of-it. And soon everybody will be laughing and pointing at you.

Wolff on Bloomberg
Green Pary: Mike Bloomberg didn’t just buy himself the mayoralty, he transformed the way we think about public servants – and rich guys. Donald Trump, are you listening? (December 3, 2001)
The Adman: There was an elephant (megarich media potentate Mike Bloomberg) in the room. The news media ignored him. Now he’s the mayor. (November 19, 2001)
Full Bloom: Sexual-harassment lawsuits have torpedoed plenty of political careers. So why has the media given Mike Bloomberg a pass on the charges made against him? (November 5, 2001)
Bloomberg News: Michael Bloomberg is peddling two myths about himself: that he’s a major media mogul and a credible mayoral candidate. For $30 million, we’ll believe anything. (August 27, 2001)

The Unspun