Commentary: From Skeptic to Cynic

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The Subway Security Threat Announcement came just 1 hour before the mayoral debate at the Apollo Theater Thursday night. Was there a connection? WNYC’s Brian Lehrer tries to connect the dots.

LEHRER: First the full disclosure: WNYC was a media sponsor of the mayoral debate and I was one of the questioners. But that means I can let you in on a little backstage gossip: As soon as we heard there would be a news conference to reveal a subway security threat, many of the journalists there – ranging from skeptical which is good, to cynical, which is not - - immediately wondered if the announcement was timed to upstage the debate. After all, the Bush administration has been accused of using security alerts as a political distraction. So we had a precedent for our suspicion. We also had the confusing language of the mayor’s announcement – that the threat was specific but uncorroborated. And we had a motive: This was the worst week of media coverage for the mayor’s campaign, because of his decision not to attend the Harlem debate. And what he really wanted to avoid was sound bites like this, from candidate Freddy Ferrer’s first debate answer, leading the local news.

FERRER: who would turn down a chance to headline at the Apollo?

LEHRER: And the Mayor certainly didn’t want his empty podium on the front page of the tabloids.

But would the mayor go that far? Would he play on our worst fears to avoid one weekend of embarrassing news coverage?

We decided to change the second question of the debate to give Ferrer a chance to make the accusation. He declined.

FERRER: I’m sure there’s a good reason if this announcement was made.

LEHRER: Personally, I was among the less suspicious people in the press corps on this one. Michael Bloomberg can certainly play political hardball, but it does not seem to me consistent with his nature to toy with the public’s emotions at that level. And the backlash from skipping the debate was not that bad.

In fact, the more troubling connections to me are the ones that have NOT been made. Why did the city announce the threat only to have the federal Homeland Security Department question its credibility? Didn’t they coordinate? Why did Homeland Security not send someone to the mayor’s news conference, though the FBI did? Is communication still that bad at the federal level, even after the 9/11 Commission report? And how much is sketchy battlefield intelligence from Iraq now driving our decisions about taking our babies out in strollers in Brooklyn? Earlier Thursday, the president had announced ten terrorist plots thwarted as a result of Iraq interrogations. Are they all as uncorroborated as this, which the mayor said came from an Iraqi detainee but which Washington then pooh-poohed?

Whether or not the announcement WAS timed to avoid tough questions in Harlem, it may result in tougher ones at City Hall.