The NBBL Files: Weinshall and Steisel Manufactured Anti-Bike Coverage

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.”

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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”

Marica Kramer and Chuck Schumer
Photo: ##

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).”

  • car free nation

    OK. These guys are very skillful at playing the press. Why can’t the good guys do the same thing?

  • CUNY trustee

    Was Louise Hainline on official CUNY business when she was on her way to DC and conducting her back-and-forth with Marcia Kramer?  Was she planning to zip around DC to a TV studio and back to her hotel?  If so, what expenses from her trip were billed back to taxpayers?

    CUNY really ought to find out.

  • Anonymous

    I’m more hooked on this than I was on Lost.  Big-ups Streetsblog!

    Question is: do any of these media organizations give a damn about the lack of ethics demonstrated by their “journalists” or editors?  Probably not.  The least they could do is disclose their biases and conflicts of interest to preserve whatever last shred of credibility they may have.  Much like the cops, each ethical lapse ultimately makes journalists’ jobs as trusted truth-tellers much harder in the big picture.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    The most humorous moment came in that report CBS2’s Marcia Kramer filed in January where in her stand up she talked about how PPW was constantly backed up and emergency vehicles couldn’t get thru while behind her in the 15 second stand up shows a free-flowing PPW for four or five blocks with barely a car in sight!

  • Larry Littlefield

    “OK. These guys are very skillful at playing the press. Why can’t the good guys do the same thing?”

    Parking placards for reporters.  An MSM clientele increasingly limited to a generation that in the main wanted to drive everywhere, with a minority usng transit, aside from those bicycle pioneers now getting somewhere in conjunction with those coming after.

    Conflict sells.

    It’s cheaper to have other people do your research for you than to hire more journalists.


    The question is, will they be able to repeat the trick this winter.

  • At this point, NBBL might have more honorary members than actual members.

  • Eric McClure

    @5ba9018b0e9dc8d85d1f53d09d18548a:disqus , sorry. Our insistence on telling the truth and working to make streets safer for everybody unfortunately doesn’t play very well in the tabloid and local TV media.

  • PPWer

    Another example of Louise Hainline sucking up to people far beyond her social or political circle.  Compare Iris Weinshall’s short, terse emails with Hailine’s heaps of praise for Norman, Marty, Marcia, and other players at every available opportunity.  She loves that this is now her social circle.  She’s clearly out of her league and just grateful for the opportunity to play with the big kids.  Let’s hope Iris sends her back to the obscurity from whence she came.  Chuck, time to go up to her apartment and ask her to Cut. It. Out.

    Plus, $1,000 for a camera?  Sheesh.  Hope they got it pro bono.  There are plenty of iPhone apps for $.99 that would do the same thing as whatever overpriced SkyMall camera she bought with whatever donations little old ladies sent to 9 PPW.

    Larry, NBBL’s entire strategy from the get go has been rinse, lather, repeat.  I’m sure we’ll see some ridiculous claims this winter after the first big blizzard, but hopefully there will be fewer sympathetic “objective” journalists willing to do their bidding from here on out.

  • Anonymous

    I too am totally disgusted at the lack of integrity our local papers have shown regarding bike lane coverage. Get some spine, People! Just because a formerly powerful so & so asks you to lie and destroy your good name in the process doesn’t mean you have to listen. The most disappointing revelation is that NY Times letters are “for sale.” The guest op-ed’s have clearly always been this way, but I (naively?) thought the letters were merit based. When the Grey Lady croaks the words of a toad, there really is nobody to trust but Streetsblog.

  • Anonymous

    These NBBL people better not ever show their face at a public meeting again

  • Media Critic

    Well, it’s good to have some solid proof that Marcia Kramer knows that she is an advocacy journalist. I just wish she and her colleagues would stop pretending to be objective.

    Just be honest about where you’re coming from Marcia. Drop the fake authoritative news reporter voice. Get rid of the TV make-up. Be honest about who you are and what your ideas are for making NYC a better city. You know, like Streetsblog. It’s the future of journalism.

  • Political Player

    Well, Norman certainly earned his consulting fees. The man knows how to work the old-school press.

    Thank goodness, the dead-tree and local TV news business models are nearly dead. Let’s shoot that horse and put it out of its misery.

  • Anonymous

    I was just as astonished as Vacca at the Dec. 2010 Council hearing that neither Janette nor her staff in attendance could provide even a rough estimate of the number of NYC bike riders on a typical day. And while Vacca’s conduct that day was hardly free of showboating, I didn’t feel his raised eyebrow on that point was objectionable.

  • Please make a PPW bike lane vs NBBL musical, or just a chart showing all the connects, it’s equally fascinating as it is hilarious. I can hardly believe all this actually happened and emails were sent with things like  “We’re making you an honorary member of NBBL (in secret — I know you have to preserve your status as an objective reporter).” Secret honorary member who needs to preserve a public image? you’d think this were some high profile military espionage…

  • J

    This article is interesting considering the change in tone I’ve seen recently in media coverage of bicycle issues. Apart from the ridiculous Manhattan Bridge articles, where cyclist alone are “oblivious to all man-made law”, the tone of new bike lane coverage and bike share coverage has been more reasonable. The bike lane articles are generally more balanced, discussing legitimate concerns such as parking loss and delivery issues, with far less name calling and Armageddon predicting. I also don’t think Marcia Kramer has made a bicycle story since claiming that sharrows (yes, sharrows) would somehow invite terrorism.
    While some of this is certainly due to a dramatic drop in bicycle lane construction (only 9 miles this year, versus an average of 60 miles/year the previous 4 years), there has still been a lot of bike news this year, as planning ramps up for construction next year. I’m not sure. Maybe, NBBL has run out of favors. Maybe the writers and editors have simply witnessed over and over that the bike lanes are not causing the chaos that was predicted.
    Indeed, the main danger in predicting a disaster is that if that disaster fails to materialize, your credibility is shot. In the case of PPW, despite days of footage, a mountain of legal paperwork, news reports, rallies, there is no disaster to be found. If there was a disaster, it would be everywhere, like a bomb going off. It’s like newspapers were waiting for the explosion, camera in hand to be the first to show those crazy “neighborhood activists” how wrong they were… but the bomb never went off. They kept waiting but nothing. Slowly, everyone realized that there was no bomb. The people that told them about the bomb were wrong. Sheepishly, they all went home and got on with their lives.

  • Anonymous

    @deca4040bd14919b1f1b6b1f3611a4fd:disqus: I’ve actually batted this idea around with some Broadway friends of mine….  “Honorary Member” is a great song title, no?

  • Joe R.

    What about all the people who received tickets during the bike crackdown earlier this year?  Without all the negative press coverage, the crackdown likely never would have happened.  I wonder how many people received a ticket and gave up riding permanently after that?  If these people don’t like bicycles that’s their business, but they have no right get their friends in the press to basically manufacture a crisis.

  • JJ

    Um, Kramer was hilarious.  In one clip, she suggested bike markings (not even a lane) on 2nd Ave in front of the Israeli Consulate could invite terrorism from bike bound terrorists.  Really?  More pathetic fearmongering from an anti-bike journalist. 

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  • Larry Littlefield

    Well, so much for my comment that no one is being held accountable for this.

  • Melissa

    This is GOLD! Keep up the work, StreetBlog!


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