Media Circus: It's Giuliani's Times!

A double standard colors the New York Times coverage of black and white mayoral candidates.

Published October 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Extremely serious questions and accusations surround a current candidate for mayor of New York City. His campaign accepted illegal contributions. He is said to be a Jew-baiter. More troubling still, he fraternizes with representatives of a large local gang that routinely brutalizes innocent citizens on his behalf. He has gone to great lengths to cover for his cronies and has even paid out sizable sums in hush money. Well-publicized details of his private life suggest he is a philanderer. This is a charge that, while tolerable to some, rankles others so much they no longer feel comfortable voting for him.

A New York Times reader might well think this an apt description of the Rev. Al Sharpton, the outspoken black minister, who, in last month's Democratic primary, gave candidate Ruth Messinger a run for her money. But no. It's Rudy Giuliani, the Republican almost certain to be reelected mayor of New York, who has compiled a record of criminal associations and unprofessionalism that could easily elude all but the most careful Times readers.

Here are the facts:

  • Last week Giuliani said that Messinger's failure to attend Columbus Day Mass showed she wasn't fit to govern Italian-Americans and Catholics. His accusation is classic Jew-baiting: Giuliani implies that Messinger's Jewish identity is politically relevant and implicitly proposes that New Yorkers reject her for this reason.

  • Giuliani has been fined $220,000 for accepting approximately $300,000 in illegal campaign contributions; he is currently under investigation for other campaign violations. His supporters have openly admitted sending money they know to be in excess of the legal limits; Giuliani, a former prosecutor, has never criticized them for doing so.

  • Giuliani has proudly reigned over a police force that has been accused of wrongly attacking and injuring New Yorkers 20,000 times since he took office. His own city manager has conceded that the enormous payments -- $66.7 million to aggrieved New Yorkers since 1995 -- in exchange for dropping charges, are an "admission of some wrongdoing." (In nine out of 10 of these cases, officers were not penalized, and the settlements were not noted in their personnel records.) Cases in which the city settled without disciplining the involved officers include that of a van driver so badly beaten he is now a quadriplegic, the near-blinding of a transvestite and cases in which officers called women "spics" and "Chinese bitch."

All of this information is available in the New York Times. (To be fair, it should also be pointed out that columnist Bob Herbert has relentlessly criticized Giuliani's police policies on the op-ed page.) The reporters who cover the mayoral race, however, seem not to have seen the many articles in which these matters are spelled out. The Times hasn't run articles that pose questions like, "What kind of administration tolerates police officers who routinely choke children to death and shoot citizens in the back?" Giuliani first joined the Republican Party a month after Ronald Reagan's 1980 election; shortly thereafter he was named a U.S. Attorney. Just before his mayoral run, he renounced his anti-choice politics. Yet the Times does not characterize him as an opportunist.

Consider also the article on Sharpton's endorsement of Democratic candidate Messinger: "By the end of his speech, Mr. Sharpton was in full lather, and had turned to the subject of himself. He brought his audience -- cheering and swaying and chanting 'Yes!' 'Yes!' 'Yes!' -- to its feet as he broke into a bit of autobiographical song, which he apparently improvised." Full lather? A politician turning to the subject of himself? It's hard to be shocked by that. White politicians -- at least successful ones -- talk no less about themselves and are equally self-promoting, but that receives no comment. One wonders whether Adam Nagourney, who covers the Metro politics beat, is pursuing a job as foreign correspondent and therefore thinks it well-advised to demonstrate skills of ethnography in describing these strange black folk who support Sharpton. Would he describe the Mass Messinger missed as an event at which a man in a dress stood in front of a statue of a naked body dripping with blood as the audience spoke in unison in a manner that was apparently scripted and well-rehearsed?

Indeed, virtually all of Nagourney's coverage of Sharpton leaves the impression that Nagourney is writing about an exotic cult leader, rather than someone who captured one-third of the Democratic vote in New York. The day after the primary election, when it seemed that Messinger would be facing Sharpton in a run-off, Nagourney didn't even bother asking the Sharpton campaign for a comment on the result, but simply reported on his "beaming in the spotlight" and saying, "This is our day. This is our time. I can fly! I can fly! I can fly!"

Nagourney covered Messinger's primary event in detail, mentioning that it was held in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt, but didn't bother to contact Sharpton's campaign. So Times readers had no reason to associate Sharpton's celebration with the posh Rihga Royal hotel and its upscale, winning image. Without reference to the recognizable props routinely described in coverage of white leaders, Sharpton and his supporters are figuratively and literally outside the boundaries of New York politics.

Sharpton is no saint. Certainly he has some questionable events in his past, dating back to his defense of Tawana Brawley. That the Times mentions this, as well as Sharpton's lack of managerial experience, is not itself a problem. But the coverage dramatizes a double standard under which much attention is paid to black politician's gaffes and troubles, while equally disturbing deeds in the records of white political leaders are glossed over. When Giuliani wins in November, the headlines won't read, "Giuliani Overcomes Past of Cheating, Lying and Racism in Landslide Victory." This is Giuliani's Times.

By Jackie Stevens

Jackie Stevens is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the New School University. Her book "Reproducing the State" will be published by Princeton University Press in 1999.

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Rudy Giuliani