The NBBL Files: Weinshall and Steisel Manufactured Anti-Bike Coverage
3:53 PM EST on November 16, 2011
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.
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.
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."
The following day, the Daily News published an editorial twisting an exchange from the hearing between Vacca and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. The DOT chief had told Vacca that the agency measured a 63 percent increase in cycling in recent years, but didn't have a measurement of the total number of daily NYC bike riders. This is wholly unremarkable given that NYC bike traffic is measured much the same way as motor vehicle traffic -- by tallying vehicles at specific locations, which provides a basis for year-over-year comparison but not a single citywide traffic count. However, with an assist from Vacca's showboating performance at the hearing ("I would think that question is one you could answer now"), the paper's opinion writers managed to turn Sadik-Khan's reply into an indictment of DOT data collection.
Later that month, Steisel told NBBL leaders that the Daily News would "continue beating the drum" for them. And in fact the Daily News editorial page proceeded to publish much more "further opining," writing at least four other pieces that echoed NBBL talking points about bike lanes and berated the city over the Prospect Park West redesign.
- In February, the paper ran a piece demanding that Sadik-Khan "reveal where she proposes to put the next batch of cycling corridors." The paper ignored the fact that DOT already presents bike lane projects to community boards. The piece also contained several factual errors. But it was perfectly aligned with Steisel's agenda: to hamper bike projects under the guise of calling for additional planning. The next week, Steisel sent a letter to Vacca trying to win support for the idea of a "citywide planning process" that would entangle bike projects in red tape.
- In March, immediately after NBBL filed their lawsuit against the city, the Daily News ran an opinion piece lifting allegations directly from the complaint and accusing DOT of using "shaky math" to evaluate the bike lane. If the paper had bothered with the pesky matter of checking facts, they might have discovered that DOT measured the effect of the redesign the way street safety experts say it should be done, and that NBBL based its attacks on a dataset that NBBL themselves cherrypicked and manipulated.
- When Brooklyn CB 6 unanimously approved a DOT plan to add concrete pedestrian refuges to PPW this April, the Daily News made it out to be a desperate attempt to avoid "open revolt" against the bike lane. The paper failed to mention the survey released earlier the same month that found a 3-2 margin of support for the redesign among local residents.
- When the lawsuit was dismissed in August, the Daily News spun the decision as vindication for NBBL and repeated the group's major talking points one more time for good measure.
In the past year, the Daily News editorial page ran several other pieces attacking Sadik-Khan and signature NYC DOT projects for buses, bikes, and pedestrians, including multiple opinions undermining 34th Street transit improvements and an epic four-part series blaming Sadik-Khan for bike-ped conflicts arising from construction work on the Manhattan Bridge.
Steisel's other tabloid press contact was none other than New York Post real estate columnist Steve Cuozzo. Cuozzo has authored several diatribes against new pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, and Steisel apparently had his ear.
In the same December 30, 2010 email in which Steisel said the Daily News would "continue beating the drum" for NBBL, he described an exchange with Cuozzo. The message implied that Steisel fed information to Cuozzo for a column antagonizing the city for plowing bike lanes after the Christmas blizzard. In the email, Steisel says NBBL "may have unintentionally overstated the amt of snow clearing" and that Cuozzo "modified his initial submission" in response.
Marcia Kramer, "Honorary Member of NBBL"
Marcia Kramer can keep a straight face while arguing that the Second Avenue bike lane exposes the Israeli consulate to the risk of terrorist attacks. It's no secret that she's long since stopped striving for objectivity.
Even so, it's striking to see just how political CBS 2's "chief political correspondent" really is. According to communications obtained by Streetsblog, she really wants to see the city's bike lanes, plazas and pedestrian refuge islands gone and is teeing up politicians to achieve her goals.
In January, Kramer was preparing a story on the Prospect Park West bike lane, her third in one year. She reached out to NBBL president Louise Hainline for an interview and after they worked out some logistics, Hainline thanked Kramer for her continued support.
In response, Kramer revealed the motivation behind her sloppy, error-riddled reporting. "Press attention will force a public hearing especially after the snow debacle," she wrote. Advocacy journalism at its finest.
Kramer's efforts earned her some lofty accolades. "Thanks from all in NBBL for helping us fight the evil empire," wrote Hainline after Kramer's Prospect Park West piece aired. "We're making you an honorary member of NBBL (in secret -- I know you have to preserve your status as an objective reporter)."
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