Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Where the Media Isn't Woke
Enter New York TV
A friend of mine recently flagged a tweet from an anchor and reporter at ABC 7, one of four major broadcast news stations in New York City. The anchor, Michelle Charlesworth, quote-tweeted a story from the New York Times about the bulk of shoplifting arrests involving just a few hundred people. “WHAT?! Get them out of circulation!! You have got to be kidding me.” Charlesworth wrote.
Charlesworth’s declaration came two days after another broadcast news anchor, Rosanna Scotto of Fox 5, was interviewing Mayor Eric Adams. Scotto, speaking to Adams, said the proliferation of rats, which has become a challenge in New York and an obsession for Adams, was a problem, but “living in New York City day to day is a [bigger] problem.” Scotto also apparently called for cyclists to require licenses, a talking point of those generally opposed to left-leaning transportation advocacy.
News anchors are, technically at least, not opinion writers or pundits. They are, to the best of their ability, supposed to describe and report on stories that happen. Some will naturally sprinkle in commentary. But given the nature of reporting itself—choices must be made, perspectives must be emphasized—a certain bias will trickle through. This is true of written or print news, too. The framing of a story can tell you much about the reporter or editor who produced it.
Both Scotto and Charlesworth, in their pronouncements, betray a moderate or even conservative bent to their politics. What is interesting to me is not that this is new—the politics of broadcast television, in New York at least, hasn’t changed all that much in the twenty-first century—but how dramatically it differs from how younger reporters writing for print or online publications view the news. Journalism itself is a precarious field, and those under the age of 40 who have attached themselves to it are usually college-educated. They tend to come from middle-class or affluent families, the kind now voting Democrat, and these families can offer a safety net for a young and ambitious person trying to make it in a tough field. On social issues, these reporters are very liberal, and many of them are sympathetic to reforming the criminal justice system or defunding the police. They are more likely, in the overused contemporary parlance, to be “woke.” They are the sort who grew very outspoken during the George Floyd-inspired racial reckoning of 2020.
The broadcast side comes from a different generation entirely, and their politics bend most rightward on criminal justice reform because this is where ideological divisions are going to be most obvious in a city like New York, where most people identify as Democrats. The conservatism of the broadcast set isn’t of the pro-Trump variety and it won’t manifest itself in the style of social conservatism espoused by people like Ron DeSantis, who just signed a six-week abortion ban.
Rather, it’s the conservatism that has been most pronounced since 2019, when Democrats in the state legislature partially abolished cash bail, raised the age of criminal responsibility, and reformed the discovery process. These changes have been blamed for a crime spike that began in 2020 and dominated the discourse in 2022, when Republican Lee Zeldin nearly defeated Kathy Hochul in the New York governor’s race. The evidence directly linking the rise in certain kinds of crime and bail reform remains suspect—murders and shootings have since declined, and the overall crime increase has been national in scope—but it offers a compelling narrative that is hard to immediately refute. Suspected criminals that would have gone straight to jail are now released, pending trial. Some, in theory, may fear committing crimes less if a trip to Rikers Island is not the immediate punishment.
Hochul and legislative Democrats are currently negotiating a new budget that is probably going to have, baked into it, further changes to the 2019 laws. Hochul has already weakened the reforms and added bail eligible offenses, showing little interest in defending the bills signed by her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, in a very different political environment. Hochul wants judges to have more discretion in taking into a account a defendant’s “dangerousness” when deciding whether they are bail eligible. Progressives staunchly oppose this.
Hochul and Adams, a former police captain who is an even fiercer critic of bail reform, have crucial allies in their crusade: the local broadcast media. Channels 2 (CBS), 4 (NBC), 7 (ABC), and 11 (WPIX, owned by Nexstar) are not as influential as they once were, because fewer people watch conventional television than they did a decade ago. Cord-cutting will only weaken their power further. In the interim, however, they are still a vital news source for middle-aged and elderly viewers who, on the balance, are more likely to watch a nightly broadcast than read the Times. Local broadcasts concern themselves with a range of issues, some vital and some of the human interest variety, but what they care often about—sometimes, to the exclusion of everything else—is crime. If it bleeds, it leads is the old axiom for tabloid news, and it applies perfectly to local television. If there’s a shooting, a stabbing, or a murder, you are likely to hear about it on any of those four stations, often in a similar manner.
It’s not wrong to report on crime. Crime matters to almost everyone, particularly the working-class and poor who bear the brunt of shootings and shopliftings. The question becomes how much crime should be emphasized in a broadcast, especially when New York, per capita, is a rather safe city. What happens when aggressive reporting on an issue—reporting that comes at the expense of other concerns—creates a misleading image of what a city actually is? To watch broadcast television in New York on a nightly basis is to be convinced that the city has descended into a gyre of terrifying chaos and constant, random violence.
That isn’t, statistically or anecdotally, true.
The embodiment of broadcast television’s influence and its conservative tinge is Marcia Kramer, who is the chief political correspondent at CBS, Channel 2. A former City Hall bureau chief of the Daily News when that tabloid was, day-to-day, the most read newspaper in New York City, Kramer, 74, is revered by local journalists and older politicians. She has interviewed mayors, governors, and presidents, and is in every sense the “dean” of the political press corps in New York. She is not a pundit or a regular user of Twitter, and she does not directly state (publicly, at least) her political beliefs. Unlike NY1’s Errol Louis, she doesn’t write a column.
Rather, she makes it clear how she feels through her style of reportage and the types of questions she asks. Her opinion-making manifests clearly enough if you’re paying attention.
“Bail reform? Is the legislature tone deaf or what?” Kramer launched a segment with two Republicans last year. She is, as much as any of her colleagues, driven by the belief that left-leaning Democrats in New York are to blame for the rise in crime. Again, she doesn’t state this directly, but in her questions to politicians and pundits—and in her approach to how the issue is covered—she makes it plain she wants these criminal justice reforms undone.
Kramer had a particularly hostile, if celebrated, relationship with Bill de Blasio, the former mayor. De Blasio, a Democrat who self-identified as a progressive and alienated local reporters with his professorial and prickly bent, was a stark departure from Michael Bloomberg, who was held in a higher regard by the press corps. Bloomberg, a billionaire, presented himself as a technocrat above politics, and his tough-on-crime policies won support from the tabloids and broadcast TV. The tabloid-TV link used to be much stronger, but shouldn’t be underestimated now. News directors and anchors at the broadcast stations take their cues from the New York Post and Daily News, who both produce the highest volume of reportage on crime. The Post, of course, is right-wing, and remains well-funded thanks to Rupert Murdoch and a savvy embrace of digital media. The Daily News, more left-leaning but not explicitly liberal, has been hollowed out by its hedge fund owner. When it comes to influence—whether with readers or swaying local TV—the Post clearly has more of it in 2023.
Clashing with the Post, de Blasio entered office hoping to reform the NYPD and wind down the number of stop-and-frisks. He was openly ideological in a way Bloomberg claimed to never be, and it became a running joke among the press how often he used words like “progressive” and “transcendent.” And he repeatedly ran afoul of Kramer, who won plaudits from her colleagues when she caught de Blasio’s SUV speeding and blowing stop signs. A reporter recalled to me hearing Kramer tell journalists, in 2014, that “we got to make this guy wish he never ran for mayor.”
What’s notable is how much of this oppositional posture has melted away under Adams, de Blasio’s more conservative successor. Laughing and joking with Adams, whom she interviewed on the occasion of his one-year anniversary as mayor, Kramer sought to frame Adams’ many struggles as an outcome of de Blasio’s own failures. “Mr. Mayor, the other day you described the de Blasio administration as leaving the city in, I quote, total disarray. What do you mean by that?” Kramer began the interview.
Later on, Kramer appeared incensed by the idea that Rikers Island, the city’s notorious jail complex, is slated to close, under an agreement reached by de Blasio and a previous City Council. “What are you gonna do? I mean, are you gonna basically get the City Council to agree to postpone the closing of Rikers because where are you going to put these people?”
“Aren’t you telegraphing a message to the bad guys that they won’t go to jail, that they’ll be on the street because there’s no room at the inn?”
Kramer’s politics, like those of local broadcast TV, could simply be a function of a generational view. They also may spring from location and income. Kramer is, most likely, personally wealthier than the younger digital journalists who are usually renters rather than homeowners in New York City or elsewhere. These journalists, even if they come from affluent families, are not always well-heeled on an individual level.
More importantly, maybe, Kramer does not live in the five boroughs. According to the Wall Street Journal, she lives in the suburbs. Where remains unclear. She is certainly not the only broadcast journalist to reside in New Jersey, Westchester, or Long Island. The suburbs are more politically complex than they appear, but they are, on the whole, made up of people who take a particular view of New York City. Suburban residents, like Kramer, often make a choice to live there. They want backyards, quieter streets, or local schools awash in property tax revenue. And with that choice can come the feeling that, in the suburbs, there is safety that simply can’t be enjoyed in the city. The city, far down the commuter rail line or a traffic-clogged expressway, becomes otherized, its ills dramatically amplified in the imagination. It grows easier, in the suburbs, to cement your preconceived notions of modern city life. If you believe there is too much crime, you will inevitably pay more attention to the incidents of crime, the shootings and robberies. If you believe city-based Democrats have made the disastrous choice to change the state’s criminal justice laws, your reporting will reflect that view. You will sit, from your comfortable suburb, and decry reality as you see it. There should be no requirement that a reporter writing on New York City live here or particularly like it. But the best must get outside of themselves and their notions and hold to account, with equal rigor, those who have politics similar and different than themselves.