09/22/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2013

Why the New York Press Misread the Primary

Christine Quinn had the perfect trifecta in New York politics. All three of the city's dailies endorsed her. She had more money than any of her rivals, as well as the good will of the sitting mayor, Michael Bloomberg. As a woman and a lesbian she could claim that her election would be a historic event. Prominent feminists backed her candidacy, as did the city's development elite. Her contributions from realtors were three times greater than that of her closest rival, Bill de Blasio. In short, the city's money-and-media establishment stood solidly behind Quinn. But when the ballots were counted in last Tuesday's Democratic primary, she lost every significant voting bloc.

Misogyny and homophobia are being blamed by many feminists for Quinn's defeat. Some gay activists maintain that self-deception or internalized oppression are the reasons why she didn't carry women or even gays. Let's agree that sexism is alive awake and kicking in the city that never sleeps. Still, it's clear that this election marks a shift in New York politics, one that transcends the old identity politics. A new majority is emerging. Call it the Occupy Bloc, a broad cross-section of voters who deeply resent the vast economic inequality that blights urban life.

Bill de Blasio was able to embody this ideology. He didn't have to distort himself in order to appear progressive, as Quinn did, running from her record as City Council speaker, where she hesitated on signature progressive issues like paid sick leave and minimum wage. He didn't have to squirm about the closing of a hospital and its conversion into luxury condos, as happened in Quinn's home district. De Blasio played a role in saving a local hospital, getting arrested in the process. This consistency was a big reason why he won. The facts are plain to see for anyone who examines the vote by precincts. Quinn did best in the city's most affluent areas. Whatever her real sentiments, she let herself become the candidate of the 1 percent, and that would have doomed her even if she'd been a straight man.

The New York press was predictably tardy about noticing this trend. It failed to detect the scope of class resentment among Democratic voters. Under Bloomberg, neighborhood after neighborhood has become a hip playground for the rich. Many working and middle class people feel shut out of their city. Yet the dailies missed this story until it smacked them in the face. As de Blasio's numbers rose, the press began to notice him, but the underlying issue of class was not addressed. He was accused of taking contributions from slumlords (the News) and chided for being a Boston Red Sox fan (the Times). But his ideas were briskly dismissed. "Tired," a News editorial called his tale-of-two-cities theme. "Divisive," snarked the Post. At his victory rally, a Times reporter noted "the well-worn liberal script" of his speech. We're supposed to have an ideologically diverse press, but in this case all the papers agreed.

Casting about for reasons to explain Quinn's loss, the press seized on her ties to the mayor. She performed badly "largely because of her close ties to him," the Times's Jim Dwyer declared. But De Blasio won even among those who approve of Bloomberg. Dwyer also blamed the string of anti-Quinn ads placed by an animal-rights group early in the campaign. This barrage "may have shaped her image," he opined. Yet she also received a barrage of positive coverage, including countless stories that attempted to define her through a sentimental personal narrative. Her memoir on overcoming bulimia was excerpted in Vogue, her same-sex wedding was featured in the Times, her fabled temper was chewed over in sidebar after sidebar--as if all this mattered to voters beyond the condo belt. After it became clear that her star was fading, the Times insisted that she had "come to life" in a televised debate. Even the Murdoch-owned Post, which never met a liberal it liked, grudgingly endorsed her. By blithely choosing Quinn, though she never broke 30 percent in the polls, the dailies revealed their hermeticism.

When it comes to elections, few people outside the elites pay heed to editorials. Most New Yorkers form their opinions based on local TV coverage and the Internet, and these media are far less dependent on advertising from developers than the print press is. Within the sealed bubble of editorial boards, newspaper owners, and the industries that support them, Quinn was the obvious choice. But the system that governs us is called democracy, and if newspapers fail so conspicuously to read the public pulse, what does that say about their ability to capture the spirit of their time? This is a question every publisher should be asking.

As for those who are convinced that sexism and homophobia won the day, there is a lesson to be learned from this election. A woman or a gay man can win in New York, but only by assembling a coalition of progressives. That includes the many precincts of the Occupy bloc.