Witness the two species in their shared natural habitat.
On the one side, the New York City reporters: hacks tasked with finding big stories and deflating political rhetoric.
On the other side, defending the lumbering carnivorous politicians: the flacks who guide the conversation or bat away bothersome queries.
Where do they meet, beyond source drinks and news conferences? On the wide savanna of Twitter, where their mortal combat has been getting more and more explosive.
Twitter is the medium of choice for many reporters, where the best of the class can keep readers/followers abreast of current happenings — and also add some snark to keep their/our souls alive. It’s not possible to definitively bag the big prey 24 hours a day, so sometimes you just have to settle for the cutting remark and small victories (I have been known to tweet about the strange pronunciations Mayor Bill de Blasio has for certain words).
But vacuums like company. Unwilling to cede the ground to journalists, spokesmen and spokeswomen meet the journalists where they are. Sometimes, that’s just to tweet support for the boss. Or it can be playing serious Twitter defense, demonstrating that press-politico tensions aren’t confined to D.C., or the GOP.
Here in NYC, for example, de Blasio’s spokesman Eric Phillips seems to revel in the clash with the press, perhaps an example of his pledge to be more “responsive” in getting the mayor’s message out, as he promised upon taking the job last year.
It can get ugly.
This week, for example, Max Rivlin-Nadler, who writes for the crusading Village Voice, expressed some displeasure about the mayor’s lack of an immediately definitive response to a question about what information the NYPD shares with the federal government willingly. It’s a subject Rivlin-Nadler has written on before, and it’s important in determining how much “sanctuary” NYC provides for undocumented immigrants.
Phillips called him an “activist” and struck back: “you want him to off-the-cuff list offenses and sequencing of shared multi-agency data? You’re nuts.”
Later, he tweeted about another NYC reporter who jumped into the conversation: “i don’t know who you are, tbh.”
Sniping between the two grassland-dwelling species isn’t exactly new, and is in fact a staple of NYC political coverage. De Blasio himself, like mayors before him, has slammed certain outlets. He even tells the press when and where it can ask off-topic questions.
But those battles tend to be fought at news conferences, viewable to the public mostly on the mayoral YouTube channel, not exactly primetime. Now, you can see it all play out in 140 characters, if you’re so inclined. And the whole world, egg-icons included, can jump in.
“The tensions aren’t any higher than they’ve ever been,” Phillips said in an email on Thursday. He cited Twitter as bringing the fight into public view.
It’s a fight that seems at least partially related to the Twitter presidency of Donald Trump, who held a news conference Thursday where he did his usual berating of the media. His attacks, falsehoods and use of social media have driven some reporters to snark harder but also push for more accountability. That is the case not just with Trump himself, but with other elected officials far from D.C.
In his email, Phillips again portrayed the Voice reporter as an “activist” as opposed to a “straight news reporter,” which he saw as problematic: “in a time when the credibility of reporters is under grave threat, it should be even more important to divide the line between personal opinion and fact reporting.”
Phillips is right that “fact reporting” is crucial — equal opportunity digging as opposed to trodding a party line. That might convince readers the press isn’t in the tank. But advocacy journalists like those at the Voice dig into whoever’s in power, and in this case it’s Trump and, more locally, de Blasio.
De Blasio is purporting to be the bulwark against Trump’s ill effects and it’s reasonable to probe the depths of that commitment and its possibilities. The implicit question that led to the catfight is a good example — whose data is the city sharing with immigration officials and should the city be doing something to stop collecting it in the first place? Plenty of people would like answers to those questions. If Twitter fights shed light for news consumers on the battle to get those answers, then let the safari continue.