From the first moments of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, when he initially declared his midnight swearing-in off limits to the media, he has established a record of frequently conducting public business in private, with dozens of events closed to the press.
In nearly five months in office, de Blasio barred the media from 53 events and limited access to 30 more, an Associated Press analysis of de Blasio’s schedule shows. On a handful of days, his entire schedule was off limits. All told, more than 20 percent of his listed events were closed to the media.
Events in which reporters were notified of their existence but prevented from attending ranged from meetings with government figures such as the mayor of Seattle and Israel’s minister of foreign affairs to sit-downs with the NBA commissioner, Al Sharpton and a Russian anti-Putin band.
Often, the mayor’s photographer later published images from those so-called private meetings, meaning that an official image of the event is the only one that exists. It’s a tactic President Obama has also used while restricting access to events in the White House and around the world. Several news organizations, including the AP, refuse to distribute such handout images from Obama or de Blasio.
De Blasio, a populist Democrat who campaigned with promises of an open administration, said in a news conference in Brooklyn on Tuesday that he “believes deeply in transparency,” and that his administration could do better.
“We believe there is a whole swath of information that needs to be available to the public, and we need to continue to do a better job on that,” he said. “There is a lot of day-to-day government business that is appropriately disclosable that we need to be better at.”
De Blasio’s spokesman Phil Walzak noted that any limits imposed on reporters are largely due to logistics, not secrecy.
But some media watchdogs worry that the restrictions in New York reflect a larger trend of government officials limiting access to the media while getting their message out to constituents directly via online outlets, including their own websites.
“It’s easier to manage the message if you leave the media out of it,” said Hunter College professor Jamie Chandler.
“Openness breeds confidence,” added Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school. “We have long history in America of believing that when doors are closed, something pretty stinky is going on.”
De Blasio was sworn in at a midnight ceremony on Jan. 1 in front of his Brooklyn home. Initially, the media was prohibited from attending the event, which was streamed online. The administration relented after complaints from media organizations.
A little more than three weeks later, de Blasio gave a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group, an event not listed on his public schedule. One reporter who tried to get in was barred.
The mayor later acknowledged the event should have been publicized, saying: “We do owe you a clear understanding of where I am and what I’m doing.” He’s given several other speeches closed to the press, such as one last week to the business group Partnership for NYC.
De Blasio’s staff have also organized 30 events that are only open to what’s called the press pool, usually one reporter, one photographer and one camera crew who attend the proceedings and share their reports with other media outlets.
The de Blasio administration, which said the mayor has a right to private meetings, has said that the use of a press pool has been dictated by space constraints, such as a classroom or factory, where it would be impossible to accommodate more journalists.
Media access at City Hall was first significantly limited by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, according to Chandler, and then continued under Michael Bloomberg, who refused to tell the media where he was on weekends and was in Bermuda during a massive 2010 blizzard. (De Blasio does inform the media where he will be.)
In a speech this month to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll again criticized Obama’s secrecy practices but also included a poke at de Blasio, saying, “It’s clear that the most-used rubber stamp in his office is the one that says ‘closed to the press.’
“Bill de Blasio is a charming and talented man, but the people he’s meeting with are doing so because he’s the mayor of New York City, not because he’s a charming and talented man,” Carroll said in an interview. “We’re not pushing this for our end. We’re pushing for it because the press is a stand-in for the public.”