On New Voice Columnist Harry Siegel’s Admirably Exhaustive, Totally Pointless Bloomberg Cover Story

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07/25/2011 4:08 PM |

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Harry Siegel, formerly the reflexively cynical editor of the New York Press, is the Village Voice‘s new political columnist, replacing the experienced reporter Tom Robbins, who departed alongside longtime investigative reporter Wayne Barrett earlier this year, when Barrett got too expensive for the paper. He’s blogging, and his regular 900-word City Hall column will debut next week, he tweeted; but in last Wednesday’s issue, still on newsstands, he debuted with a cover story: 4,200 words on “Citizen Bloomberg,” an exhaustive three-term rundown of the Mayor’s arrogance, ambition, and governance-by-the-wealthy.

Um. Why?

Not only is there no real hook for this story—it’s not tied to any news, it’s just a consideration of our mayor as he settles in for a slogging third term and retirement—there’s no real news in it, either.

Siegel’s only real scoop is that everybody refused to talk to him on the record: his piece opens with several grafs about Bloomberg’s misleading trumpeting of “transparency,” and then he reveals that several “New Yorkers who have received city, campaign, or Bloomberg bucks in one form or another and who expect to do business again in the future agreed to speak anonymously with the Voice about the mayor’s personality, the intersection of his political and private interests, and the goals he aims to achieve.”

Forget “again in the future” for a minute and focus on how vague that list of sources is: “New Yorkers who have received city, campaign or Bloomberg bucks in one form or another” could be anyone; and for that matter, all they talked to Siegel about, apparently, was their impressions of his personality? If you’re speaking suggestively about how hard it was to get quotes from people, what you get should be pretty juicy; the article features a half-dozen direct quotes of anonymous rich people being catty about Bloomberg’s personality, and speculation about the psychology behind his policies (“Mike Bloomberg thinks everyone’s dream is to come to the city with an MBA and find an inefficiency to exploit and become a billionaire, or at least get a good job with one, argued three unrelated sources who have worked with the mayor, all of whom asked not to be quoted directly on the mayor’s view of himself”).

So aside from the background Siegel makes too much of wringing from his sources, the piece relies heavily on previously available, often widely reported data and political news: turnout in the last three mayoral elections and the money Bloomberg spent on his campaigns; “testimony in a lawsuit unsealed in 2007″; public opionion polls from earlier this year; population data from earlier this decade; a 2002 conflict-of-interest agreement; condensations of several years of real estate and education policy; and multiple citations of Bloomberg’s “1997 business memoir, Bloomberg on Bloomberg“.

So what Siegel is offering, then, with his this recap of the past decade in NYC politics, is his proposal for a Bloomberg narrative. It’s a good one, and the fact that Bloomberg’s legacy is essentially “building a safe and beckoning environment for elites and their Ivy-educated service class to live and work in, unmolested by an untidy big city” can’t be said too often; judging from the comments online, all of this is news or at least newsworthy to a lot of people, which is I suppose the point.

And from a marketing perspective, it always helps to give your new product a splashy cover (the cover the week before was the Voice‘s new Four Knots concert). Announcing Siegel’s hiring in June, Voice editor Tony Ortega told The Cutline that Siegel “submitted a long list of story ideas about New York City’s power brokers that I am drooling to publish”—a slightly ominous talking-up in that Ortega appears to suggest that the virtues of reporting are best represented in pageview-generating reflexive slam jobs on the powerful, and not, say, demonstrating how the city actually works, which is what Barrett and Robbins’s muck-raking, number-crunching pieces did so well.

Chatting with the Observer about his new gig, Siegel was thoughtful about the potential of a weekly column; he said was hoping to bring “institutional knowledge” to bear on new stories (he’s been an observer of city and state politics for a long time), as well as “Excited to have a chance to hold and develop thoughts and stories, and to give them context.”

His context in “Citizen Bloomberg” is a good one, so here’s hoping the more focused scope of a weekly column gives him a chance to dig into more specific issues—to write bottom-up rather than top-down, and develop a network of helpful, knowledgeable sources.