Update: Who gains the most from Paterson fallout?

March 4, 2010

I figured after the events of the past few days, I should probably give an update about my feelings on the mess surrounding New York Gov. David Paterson.

In the past week, Paterson aide David Johnson has been accused of domestic violence and suspended without pay. The news media — which dug up and printed the tenuous story based on anonymous sources — has blown the story up so big that two of Paterson’s top cops have resigned. Paterson is under investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for a phone call between Paterson and Johnson’s accuser. On top of that, Paterson is being accused of illegally accepting free World Series tickets from the Yankees.

Speculation flying around the media now is that Paterson will resign soon — and possibly face prosecution later.

So I bet you’re thinking I want to back down on all the stuff I said about the New York Times’ story about Johnson, right? Wrong.

Look: This crazy witch hunt just keeps getting crazier. And if you don’t think the same people who planted the Times story are the very same people calling for Paterson’s resignation, you just don’t know New York politics.

At this point, we have no idea what really went down between Johnson and his accuser. We don’t know what Paterson said to her. We do know that Paterson claims that she called him — not the other way around. So far, that’s all we’ve got.

Who’s doing the investigating? Why, none other than Andrew Cuomo — the guy the state’s top Democrats really want to run against Rick Lazio for New York governor.

This charade is just too easy to see through. Paterson is not a strong candidate. Even the president asked him to step aside. When Paterson refused, the party went to work, dug up whatever it could find, and planted the story. Now the investigation starts and the pressure on Paterson really begins. Behind closed doors, he’ll get a promise — just like Eliot Spitzer was promised — that if he resigns, he’ll never be charged.

If Paterson walks away, the Dems get what they want: Andrew Cuomo on the ticket. But if he doesn’t, and frankly I hope he doesn’t, he’ll have a helluva fight ahead of him. I don’t think he’d win re-election, but I also doubt he’d end up convicted of anything.

I’m no Paterson fan. I didn’t know who he was when he got elected. Hell, I voted against him, because I was one of the few people who remembered the Spitzer-Vacco attorney general race a decade earlier. But this recent turn of events smacks of the good ol’ boys network. Paterson hasn’t been particularly popular with that set. And this shows you exactly what happens when you don’t play ball with the corrupt senators and assemblymen we keep sending to Albany.

Anyone attacking Paterson right now needs to take a step back and think about who stands to gain the most from his downfall. Is it Johnson’s accuser? Not likely. She’s anonymous, and will probably stay that way. Lazio? Nope. He’s way better off running a campaign against a weak incumbent. Cuomo? Maybe. With Paterson out of the way, there’s no primary to run. It would save a whole lot of money.

But the ones who gain the most are the ones Paterson has been challenging all along, with his attempts at ethics reform and his bulldog attitude. When he talks about changing Albany, the corrupt party heads know that he’s not smart enough to be saying it just for votes; he actually believes it can be done. Paterson has been a threat to their way of life. And they know it.

If any good can come of this debacle, I pray that it’s the opened eyes of the electorate. But with the pathetic showing from the unquestioning media, I highly doubt it.

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Times’ Paterson story was a hatchet job

February 20, 2010

On Tuesday, the New York Times skewered David W. Johnson, a top aide to New York Gov. David Paterson, in a news report that brought to light Johnson’s run-ins with the law as a teenager, questions about his qualifications to serve as a campaign advisor, and domestic violence allegations.

To be fair, it would concern me to learn that my state’s governor surrounds himself with drug dealers who beat women. But that’s not what’s in this story. What we learn instead is that Johnson had two run-ins with the law for selling drugs when he was a teenager — about 20 years ago. And the domestic violence accusations? The most serious one in the article is made by an ex-girlfriend who said Johnson punched her in the face in 2001. She didn’t file a complaint with the police, he denies it, and though she claims to have filed complaints with the police before, she refused to share the information with the Times.

A good newspaper editor would never have printed these things.

First, Johnson served his time for the drug sales. Not only that, but he went to college, studied criminal justice and turned his life around. He took a job as an intern in Paterson’s office (Paterson was a state senator at the time), later became Paterson’s driver, and continued to work his way through the ranks. It’s a “troubled youth makes good” story if I ever heard one. But you know what? The reporting of the drug arrests themselves is disturbing. Because Johnson was a youthful offender, he has no official criminal record. None. In the eyes of the law, he’s squeaky clean. So how does the Times know about the arrests at all? We’ll come back to that.

Domestic violence is an important issue. It warrants as much attention as we can give it. And there are few things as serious as allegations of child or spousal abuse. But the New York Times is clearly trying to demonstrate a pattern in Johnson’s behavior that is entirely unsupported by the facts. Witnesses saw him and a girlfriend yelling at each other once. A woman says he punched her, but he denies it, witnesses deny it and though she claims to have proof, she refuses to provide it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen; I’m saying as a newspaper editor, I wouldn’t print allegations without proof, and the Times did just that.

The big questions are: Why did the Times print this article? and Where did it get this information?

The answer lies in the rest of the story, where you find Johnson’s qualifications to serve as top confidante and campaign strategist to Paterson come into question by top Democrats. Kinda makes sense now, doesn’t it? These are “top Democrats” who feel like their very status as “top Democrats” should automatically “qualify” them to be closer to Paterson. They should get his ear more often…after all, they’ve been in politics awhile, probably went to fancy colleges and never never worked as drivers

Oh, and these top Democrats bringing up all these questions? They’re unnamed. They’re other Paterson aides, clearly jealous of Johnson’s standing. And, most likely, they’ve been the Times’ most consistent backroom sources for Paterson news.

So, the Times reports the story the way the sources want it done. That makes the sources happy, and the sources will keep giving the Times more stories. And, if the story works and Paterson has to distance himself from Johnson, it leaves a big void that needs to be filled — hopefully by one of the jealous aides who fed the story to the Times in the first place. Unfortunately for the jealous aides, Paterson is standing by his man; after all, he clearly can’t count on the rest of his staff either, right?

We’ve been told to we can’t trust the intentions of bloggers. They all have angles. But this story illustrates in vivid color that even the Old Gray Lady hides its intentions, runs hatchet jobs to please sources, and has no trouble at all printing a half-baked scandal story worthy of Perez Hilton.

We deserve better.


Why the New York Times has it wrong. Again.

June 8, 2009

Yesterday, the New York Times continued its attempts to dismiss blogs by posting this story. I’ve linked to it, but basically the story used the recent news from Gizmodo and TechCrunch that Apple was in late-stage acquisition talks with Twitter to illustrate how irresponsible bloggers are.

The assertions are that neither website cared whether they were reporting the truth — they just blasted out a juicy rumor in attempt to get hits. The inference here is that the New York Times — and print journalists everywhere — are more responsible, and are more likely to sit on a story until they have all the facts.

I spent a bit of time yesterday looking at various blog posts and opinions on the piece, but I didn’t see anyone point out the two most glaring problems.

Problem no. 1: Despite protestations to the contrary, the Times and every other mainstream media outlet knows the goal is always to get the story first, to the best of your ability. News has a way of fleshing itself out with time. How many times do we see stories — even in the Times itself — that are filled with speculation and unnamed sources? When I worked as an editor, one of my rules was that we did not use anonymous sources. Ever. The Times doesn’t adhere to that policy, yet insists we can believe everything we read from its pages has been checked, double-checked and found entirely factual.

Have we forgotten Jayson Blair?

It wasn’t too long ago that Blair’s body of work was proved plagiarism. The Times couldn’t even root out the lies on his resume, let alone the whoppers he was allowed to print. Print journalism is filled with such instances: Stephen Glass, Rick Bragg, Jack Kelley, Janet Cooke…

And those are big time print “journalists.”

On top of that, let’s not forget that just a few short months ago, the Times was attacked for its reporting on Caroline Kennedy’s failed Senate bid.

So, the Times chooses to pick on two websites for reporting on a rumor (both sites made clear that they were reporting the existence of a rumor and both made attempts to prove or disprove the rumor), and flat-out states that neither site cared whether it was true. In so doing, the Times itself chooses to ignore the truth.

Problem no. 2: The Times doesn’t want you to know the little deals mainstream media makes to get the “whole story.”

The release of the Palm Pre and the news surrounding it actually falls in quite nicely with this story. News agencies across the country were given review copies of the Pre a couple of weeks in advance. Journalists were briefed about the phone and allowed to use it — on the condition that they didn’t say anything about it until release time.

Such agreements are known as “embargoes” and “non-disclosure agreements.” On a recent cnet podcast, the hosts blasted the Boy Genius Report blog for breaking the embargo and releasing a review of the Pre before the embargo date. Such practices, they argued, destroy sources’ faith in the news agency. And if sources can’t trust news agencies, those news agencies won’t get early access to the products or information.

That’s a problem.

Embargoes do not exist for the benefit of readers, but for the benefit of sources. In most cases, including the Pre, the embargo exists so the product will get the biggest bang for the buck, exactly when the manufacturer wants. In my newsrooms, embargoes didn’t exist. We wouldn’t agree to embargoes because they were untruthful. I would not allow a source to tell me when to print a story.

My first boss in journalism gave me this rule to live by: If you have a piece of information, it is never in the public good to keep it to yourself.

Only once in my career did I hold a story at the request of a source — and that was in an ongoing murder investigation, where the release of the information I had would undermine the case. Had I published a story about who the murder suspect was, there would be no confession. I understood that clearly. Holding back a product review only helps a source.

I also don’t buy the argument that consenting to an NDA gives you time to write a better review. If your goal is to write a good review, take the time after the product launch.

The Times really went out of its way to lambaste the blog world. But theirs is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Unfortunately for the Times, we’ve come far enough to recognize that journalism is a good ole boys network that proudly pats itself on the back for every accomplishment and stares down haughtily at its readership.

And all the while we’re getting our news, up to the minute, on Twitter instead.