A Mismatching of Frame and Picture

I understand the allure that a certain kind of soft-authoritarian approach to governance offers, not the least because when the man on the white horse is genuinely devoted to producing beneficial outcomes in his (or her) territory, good changes with a singular vision and coherence can really unfold at a startling pace, seemingly without all the debilitating rent-seeking and nonsense of incremental deliberation.

Mayor Bloomberg has seen more than his fair share of this kind of favorable attention, even though he’s long exhibited signs of the dark undertow that pulls at even the most technocratic trains-run-on-time regime: an imperiousness about criticism, a distaste for the people he governs, a need to reshape his territory to make visible his personal will. But for the meritocratic elite of a community–a group that surely includes the editors of the New York Times those seem at worst forgiveable sins, at best laudable achievements. Until the day comes–and it always does–that le deluge arrives, often before the ruler is entirely apres.

In New York City, the deluge has been literal. And while it’s true that the Bloombergian drive to efficiency and results has produced some of its customary benefits in the clean-up (the quite amazing restoration of a seriously damaged mass transit system), away from Manhattan, it’s equally clear that not all is well. Which makes this morning’s story in the New York Times about Bloomberg and the problems of communities that have not been restored or supported such an interesting read. I can’t recall the last time I saw an article that so visibly underscored the contradictory feelings and impulses of its editorial staff about the news story being covered.

The online version of the story has already dispensed with the probably-accidental juxtaposition of a headline proclaiming that Bloomberg is seeking results rather than hugs that was accompanied by a photograph of President Obama hugging someone. (You can still see the headline in the story’s URL, though.) Quite aside from the seeming dig at Obama (and maybe Governor Christie), the old headline seemed to promise that the mayor’s focus on outcomes over symbolic leadership was producing consistently good results.

Read the story itself, and you find that it says something quite different. Oh, in a few spots, the celebratory narrative makes a few feints towards coming back in the frame, but mostly it’s a story about how Bloomberg is dodging anything that might turn into an unplanned or spontaneous encounter with the anger and desperation of people out in the boroughs, and that those challenges have “laid bare his limitations”. It’s the kind of mismatch of a framing headline and reportorial content that just begs the question of whether the editors panicked about the possibility of insulting the Princeps or whether they just didn’t read the story that their reporters filed.

Panic might be understandable, because the reluctance of such a leader to face disgruntled members of the body politic is not just a personality quirk. It’s an indicator of the reason why this kind of political regime is an ever-present danger: when there is a gap between what the man on the white horse wants to see and the world as it is, the man tends to blame the world–and shoot the messenger.

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2 Responses to A Mismatching of Frame and Picture

  1. Three Sickles Short says:

    Long-time listener, first-time caller. Is it pathetic and sad that the topic that moves me to post a reply is headlines? Probably. Anyway….

    I’ve noticed the headline/story gap frequently at the Times. Headlines change a lot there, particularly over the weekend. In my head I’ve written this little workplace drama about how the weekend headline-creating staff is politically further to the left than the management, so they’ll put some remarkably blunt headline about how some politician’s current mis-step shows his true colors as a totalitarian nutcase, and the headline lasts for about three hours until somebody higher up the food chain sees it and changes it. The story in my head is slightly exaggerated, but only slightly: the second-draft headline is always more neutral and anodyne than the first-draft one. And sometimes neither the original, in-your-face version nor the toned-down version actually matches the tone of the story. (I should have kept a list of examples. A year or two ago, there was a period of 2 or 3 months when there was a Weekend of Shifting Headlines at least every other week.)

  2. Bloomberg isn’t just trying to reshape his territory– with his soda tax, he’s literally trying to reshape his constituents.

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