Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Orwellian Purnick Purge: Bloomberg Biographer Rewrites Billionaire Mayor’s Record On First Amendment Free Speech Rights

The answer is Orwellian. The question is whether I was wrong. . . Nope! Not at all. . .

I wrote about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s eviction of Occupy Wall Street’s protesters from Zucotti Park and how the New York Times, with absolutely no basis for doing so, reported in its coverage of the eviction that Bloomberg is a Champion of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. (See: Sunday, November 20, 2011, Question of Truth For The Times: The Meme of Bloomberg as Champion of the First Amendment & Free Speech, Firmly Planted Before OWS Eviction.)

In that story I wrote about how, once the New York Times had run a story to the effect that Bloomberg is a defender of free speech bolstering that notion with the headline that appeared on its front page (Demonstrators Test Mayor, a Backer of Wall St. and Free Speech, by Kate Taylor, November 3, 2011.) the meme of Bloomberg being a backer of free speech was being picked up elsewhere, including on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show where Bloomberg biographer Joyce Purnick in a discussion of the protest stated unequivocally that Bloomberg is “a firm supporter of the First Amendment”:
Within days of Kate Taylor’s front page article, the meme was even picked up and incorporated in WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show when Lehrer introduced a segment on the Mayor and the Occupiers with Joyce Purnick and Matt Taibbi guesting. Lehrer said “he’s been supportive of their free speech rights, maybe more than some other mayors” and Bloomberg biographer Purnick moments later emphatically stated that “he is a firm supporter of the First Amendment.” (See: What OWS Tells Us About Mike Bloomberg, Monday, November 07, 2011.)
I realized that was I might have been unfair to Ms. Purnick. What I wrote essentially implied that she, as Bloomberg’s biographer, was influenced in her statement that Bloomberg is “a firm supporter of the First Amendment” by reading the New York Times. I seemed to discount the possibility that Ms. Purnick was basing her statement on the greater intimacy she might have with Bloomberg’s reputation as a civil libertarian based on her own work, including the access and interviews Bloomberg gave her to write a rather complimentary biography about him.

Maybe I was even being unfair to the New York Times: In that earlier article I provided extensive research to show that the Times’ recent assertion that Bloomberg is a champion of the protesters’ free speech rights was completely at odds with the Times’ own past coverage and editorial positions on the subject. But, maybe the Times’ wasn’t relying on its own past paper-of-record coverage of Bloomberg’s record respecting free speech. Maybe it was drawing from another source. . . Maybe rather than Purnick superficially succumbing to the influence of the Times front page it was the reverse and the Times had adjusted its views of Mr. Bloomberg after reading Purnick’s 2009 biography of Bloomberg.

Alas for Ms. Purnick and the New York Times: Not so! There is nothing in Ms. Purnick’s biography of Bloomberg that supports the notion that Bloomberg is “a firm supporter of the First Amendment” free speech rights of protesters. Quite the reverse. Here is what Ms. Purnick writes about Mr. Bloomberg on page 154 of her book “Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics”:
New Yorkers, most of them still Democrats, objected to Bloomberg’s handling of the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004, when eighteen hundred people were arrested and held in a large detention center, some guilty of no more than standing on a street during a police sweep. Never a conspicuous civil libertarian, the mayor in a talk with me, brusquely dismisses the issue of treatment of demonstrators, and privacy in general, justifying himself and the Police Department, pitting his pragmatism over the principles of others: “Number one, there’s a camera watching you at all times when you’re out in the street, the civil liberties issue has long been settled,” he says.

As he sees it, those who were arrested put themselves at risk and in effect got what they deserved because the police were reacting to threats. “What are you gonna do, say one yes, one no? I am sorry, if you get caught up in a crowd where everybody’s throwing rocks and you get arrested, that’s just the real world! You have to be stupid to be in that crowd!” There have been no allegations of rock-throwing, but his point is clear. He feels he owes no one any apologies.
Maybe “never a conspicuous civil libertarian,” together with the rest of the above, is strong enough: Could it leave open the possibility that Bloomberg was an inconspicuous civil libertarian? No, because you are not going to find things elsewhere in the book that make that case. Instead, Purnick asserts Bloomberg’s stance on civil liberties is very similar to Rudolph Guiliani’s while saying that Guiliani had “no patience” for First Amendment civil liberties.

On page 78 of her book she says (emphasis supplied):
Guiliani gave New York a needed slap in the face, actually governing the ungovernable city. He went after crime, improved the quality of life, ruthlessly reduced the welfare rolls. But he had no patience for civil liberties of the First Amendment, damaged race relations with his unrelenting ferocity, was constantly attacking somebody or something and governed with a strict top-down discipline that discouraged creativity.
On Page 204 she writes of Bloomberg (emphasis supplied):
Despite his idiosyncracies, he was prudently nonconfrontational, which helped him in the inevitable comparisons with his belligerent predecessor, making it less obvious than it might have been that he shares some of Rudy Guiliani’s autocratic attitudes about he news media and civil liberties.
There is nothing else in Purnick’s book about Bloomberg as a civil libertarian unless you want to go straight to the book’s introductory summary pages where Ms. Purnick writes on page 4 (emphasis supplied):
He doggedly challenged dealers of illegal guns, kept crime rates down, and becalmed race relations despite aggressive police strategies that offended minority communities and civil libertarians.
Verdict? Bloomberg Biographer Joyce Purnick had no basis in her book to assert that Bloomberg “is a firm supporter of the First Amendment,” just as there was no basis in the Times’ previous reporting for the Times to suddenly start asserting, as it has, that Bloomberg is a “champion of the First Amendment” or a “backer” “defender” and celebrator of “free speech.” Ergo, it doesn’t appear that I was unfair to Ms. Purnick at all. It appears that she was, just as my previous article would imply, influenced, not by her own theoretically deep knowledge of Bloomberg as his biographer, but by what she had just read on the front page of the New York Times, the PR message du jour that the Bloomberg administration was putting out as it readied itself to evict the protesters.

That’s what’s Orwellian: George Orwell posited how totalitarian dystopias function by erasing facts and history, by having the public consume as information and accepted reality whatever current fictions the government wanted to on a particular day. Maybe in the future the way that it will work is that all our biographers will wake up every morning and chose to believe that whatever they previously wrote in any of our biographies is simply what they last happened read in the paper that morning.

PS: Note, I provided previous coverage of Purnick’s Bloomberg biography here- Saturday, October 3, 2009, What Purnick Has Purged: The Bloomberg Bio Mysteriously Missing Atlantic Yards.

PPS: I also checked Bloomberg’s own politically self-promotional 1997 autobiography “Bloomberg by Bloomberg”(By Bloomberg- With invaluable help from Matthew Winkler) and found no evidence in it of Bloomberg being a supporter of the First Amendment free speech protections.

And one Final PPS: The situation and Bloomberg’s retrospection on the demonstrators at the 2004 the Republican Convention are far worse than might be supposed. Read my earlier article about the Times’ misleading coverage of Bloomberg as free speech champion. Purnick correctly notes that there never were any reports of people “throwing rocks” despite Bloomberg’s reference to being arrested when you are “caught up in a crowd where everybody’s throwing rocks” Perhaps Bloomberg’s memory, rather than being of crowds actually throwing rocks, is instead his memory of actions his police department tried to make happen by sending agent provocateurs into the those crowds. It’s actually true: Read the prior National Notice article.

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