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.