This is the sixth post in a series examining the tactics employed by the opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign known as “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.” Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth installments.
Former deputy mayor Norman Steisel and former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall both leaned on contacts at NYC's major dailies to amplify their message and give coverage a slant that benefited their campaign to get rid of the PPW bike lane.
One of the defining elements of the Prospect Park West bike lane saga was the inordinate amount of media attention it received. For months, this one short stretch of pavement in Brooklyn ignited coverage from just about every New York City broadsheet, tabloid, evening news broadcast, and glossy magazine. Everyone kept talking about it — even the British press.
NBBL could count on New York Post real estate columnist Steve Cuozzo and CBS 2 political correspondent Marcia Kramer to advance their agenda.
To be fair, it had all the elements of a great story, like a former transportation commissioner attacking her successor, and a United States senator meddling in a hyper-local issue in his backyard. But most of the time, that’s not what the coverage was about. The outlets that covered the bike lane the most — especially the tabloid opinion pages and CBS 2 News — had a knack for amplifying the arguments of bike lane opponents while glossing over the political maneuvering and ignoring facts that ran counter to the story NBBL wanted to tell.
Documents obtained by Streetsblog via freedom of information request reveal that leading bike lane opponents Iris Weinshall and Norman Steisel used their connections in the local press to shape coverage (months before NBBL hired a PR firm to work the media in a more conventional manner). What’s remarkable isn’t so much that they tried to spin the press, but how successful they were. Time after time, papers printed material that made NBBL happy, even when it warped what really happened or was easily disproved.
NBBL Had Friends at NYC’s Three Major Dailies
Weinshall, the former DOT commissioner and wife of Senator Chuck Schumer, and Steisel, the former deputy mayor under David Dinkins, repeatedly used their media connections to shape coverage of the bike lane dispute.
After bike lane supporters and NBBL held dueling rallies on October 21, 2010, for example, Weinshall reached out to New York Daily News transit reporter Pete Donohue. He informed her that the paper’s Brooklyn bureau had covered the rally. “Ok…. but they are pro bike….. not objective!” complained Weinshall.
After predicting that both sides would be represented in the paper’s coverage, Donohue offered to help Weinshall. “I’ll email my editor to make sure there’s a few kicks at the freewheelers in there!” he wrote. Despite the fact that the pro-bike lane rally outnumbered the opponents 5 to 1, the only participant quoted the next day opposed the bike lane. Donohue has not returned Streetsblog’s inquiry about whether he really intervened on Weinshall’s behalf or was simply humoring her.
(Update: Donohue denies doing a favor for Weinshall and says he deleted Streetsblog’s email seeking comment without opening it because the subject line (“Prospect Park West Bike Lane Coverage”) was vague and didn’t pertain to his beat. “Of course I didn’t suggest slanting an article favorable to Iris,” he said. “To suggest that I was part of some grand conspiracy against bike lanes is silly and I would have told you so.”)
Weinshall also helped bike lane opponents get a letter to the editor questioning the safety benefits of the PPW redesign published in the New York Times. On December 17, 2010, Steisel emailed NBBL leaders, worried that he hadn’t heard any response from the Times about their letter. Weinshall offered to call someone at the newspaper to promote it.
“Called my contact at New York Times… she said she would see what she could do,” Weinshall reported the following day. Two days later, the Times told Steisel that his letter had been accepted.
Steisel also marshaled connections to the city’s press corps in support of his cause. Based on the documents Streetsblog obtained, his most valuable contact was on the Daily News editorial board.
“Just spoke with mike aronson guy who wrote editorial,” wrote Steisel in an e-mail last December, right after James Vacca’s transportation committee held a bike policy hearing, instigated in part by NBBL, that put him front and center. “His asst bev calling me, probably mon, to go over materials i sent, docs that he said upon his quick perusal looked intriguingly promising for their further opining.”