Eric Adams Wields His Weapon of Identity
It didn't take long
On Tuesday, Eric Adams, the new mayor of New York City, delivered a searing indictment of the journalists covering him. “I’m a Black man that’s the mayor, but my story is being interpreted by people who don't look like me,” Adams said at City Hall. “How many Blacks are on editorial boards? How many Blacks determine how these stories are being written?”
Adams, speaking to a gathering of reporters who had received a personal invite to be there—I was not one of them—threatened to stop taking questions from reporters unrelated to the specific announcements he was making. That afternoon, he was touting an increase in job opportunities for the summer youth employment program.
“I’m trying to figure out—do you guys already write the stories before I do something and just print out what you’ve already written?” Adams added. “I’m going to stop doing off-topics because if you already have your perception of me—and you are already going to stick to what you think I am—then why am I doing this?”
The rancor was prompted by the media coverage of Adams’ first trip to Albany as mayor. There, he tried and failed to convince Democrats in the State Assembly and Senate to reverse the partial elimination of cash bail, a reform made in 2019, and scrap a law that forbids defendants under 18 from being tried as adults. Since Adams has staked much of his mayoralty on lowering the crime rate, he is committed to the view that weakening criminal justice reforms is the way to get there. Managing crime, while central to the role of mayor, is something that is often beyond city’s control, tied to national trends that may abate as the pandemic fades from view.
“I went to the Assembly conference. People raised the issues that they had and we talked. Black mayor, Black Speaker, Black majority leader, coming together and talking to each other,” Adams complained on Tuesday. “And if you would have turned on the news this morning, you would have said, ‘It was all hell up there.’”
The rant Adams delivered was inevitable enough to have been foreseen. During his mayoral campaign, Adams invoked his identity to me in order to attack the concept of strengthening tenant protections, pointing to homeowners of color who would be impacted negatively by rent freezes on rent-stabilized apartments. (Homeowners paying off mortgages do not usually own rent-stabilized apartments.) When cornered, this has been the approach Adams has taken for much of his political career, whether to defend placard corruption at Brooklyn Borough Hall or any other potentially dubious practice. In January, Adams said “white supremacy” was the reason he needed to pay his brother, a former NYPD officer, north of $200,000 to oversee his mayoral security. (The Conflicts of Interest Board denied that salary.)
Adams is correct in that the media, in New York City and elsewhere, is not as diverse as the places it represents. There should be more Black, Latino, and Asian journalists in the field. There should be more reporters who come from working-class neighborhoods and understand those perspectives. A half century ago, a college degree wasn’t a requirement for a journalism career. Massive job losses at local and regional newspapers, combined with the rise of expensive journalism schools and unpaid internships, created a self-selecting base of reporters who could afford to stay in the field. It is inarguable, though, that the media companies of 2022 are deeply concerned about hiring more nonwhite journalists. At the same time, top publications must make a concerted effort to look beyond Ivy League pedigrees. The next step for large media organizations will be to create pathways for those not born into wealth or even a middle-class life to enter the field of journalism, which remains incredibly precarious and favors those with families who permit them to take such risks to chase their dreams.
But it’s not terribly clear Adams cares about any of this. Rather, he is making a cynical bid for the largely white New York City press corps to give him more favorable—or even propagandistic—coverage. The deep irony here is that Adams has been winning friendly media coverage since entering office. He enjoys an almost unstinting loyalty from the New York Post, which celebrates his crusade against the bail laws and his proud alliance with the city’s business elite. Local television, dedicated to crime stories as they feed an aging audience alienated from the young progressive movement, is a pro-Adams domain. The New York Times, if skeptical, just produced a gauzy feature on his eating and meditation habits. Reporters of all backgrounds have reveled in the spectacle of Adams, writing approvingly of his subway and bike rides to work. Even his trip to Albany was regarded, by most of the press, in more neutral terms, with hardly any of the schadenfreude associated with a typical de Blasio venture up north.
All of this, for Adams, is clearly not enough—and it’s only mid-February. Adams has not even been mayor for two months. By this point in Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty, he was getting savaged and taunted almost daily, especially by the Post and even the Daily News. He was mocked for trying to wheedle change out of an Andrew Cuomo-dominated Albany, ridiculed for arriving late to events, and denigrated for various oddities, like eating pizza with a fork and knife. Beyond a few national outlets, very early in his tenure, de Blasio rarely enjoyed warm news coverage.
There is one obvious lesson for Adams here: complaining about what reporters do rarely works, unless, like Donald Trump, the goal is to transform the media into a hate object. This is easier said than done in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Adams is popular, but he does not have a cult following. Even the Post, if Adams continues to make complaints, may sour on him, and make the same heel turn they did against Cuomo. Adams should remember that Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, before relentlessly excoriating Cuomo last year, was once so warm to the governor that their top Albany columnist, Fred Dicker, was a frequent repository of many Cuomo-authorized scoops.
The behavior of Adams should not be understood in isolation. As incendiary as Adams can be, he is much more symptom than cause, the logical outgrowth of an elite left-liberal culture that has sometimes cheapened and distorted the worthy fight for racial justice through an obsessive focus on shallow identity politicking. Rather than demand a boost in the material reality of working-class Black, Latino, and Asian people—it’s notable how little universal healthcare or even a viable plan for reparations is invoked these days—educated liberals have settled on a discourse that prizes symbolic gesture and performative self-actualization over structural change. In this sphere, debate is not really possible, because the combatants arrive with predetermined arguments built around fixed characteristics. Politicians sometimes exploit identity as the ultimate trump card, the way to cut off dialogue before it really begins.
Adams is what you get when such a culture is allowed to thrive for the length of the 2010s and into the 2020s. It pervades media, academia, the corporate world, and wherever else people with college degrees cynically jockey for position in hyper-competitive and largely insular environments. Adams is not of that world but he understands the rules well. Whenever cornered, he can default to his identity, no matter how baseless his claims might be. And those reared in such an environment—white liberals in particular—must defer to him and his lived experience. If they don’t, they run the danger of being called racist. Adams will not hesitate to go there.
What to do then? Journalists covering Adams shouldn’t back down. They should not allow him to shape their coverage or bully them into sanding the edges off of what they do. Journalists should not be expected to reproduce press releases coming out of City Hall. Holding power to account is what an effective press corps does. Above all else, journalists should not regard Adams’ commentary with anything approaching good faith. It’s a self-serving political strategy, canny and divisive, with only one true goal in mind: intimidate left-leaning reporters, of which there are many, into treating him even more kindly. Make them give ground out of guilt. Will it work? Only if the reporter class lets it.