The New York Times broke the story of Eliot Spitzer's hooker habit last year, launching a PR shitstorm of epic proportions. But according to e-mail traffic we've obtained, the Times showed Spitzer's flacks extraordinary deference as the scandal unfolded.
On March 10, 2008, few people on the planet had more difficult jobs than Christine Anderson and Errol Cockfield. They were the communications director and press secretary, respectively, for New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and at roughly 1:07 p.m. on that afternoon, the Times went live with a story documenting their boss' entanglement as "Client No. 9" in a federal investigation of a high-end prostitution ring. We were curious what the inside of a PR meltdown looks like, so—following in the footsteps of The State's investigation into the media's efforts to land an exclusive interview with Mark Sanford while he was hiking the Appalachian Trail—we used New York's open records law to obtain e-mail traffic between Anderson, Cockfield, and the dozens of reporters barraging them with inquiries in the days following the Spitzer revelations.
The e-mails total 1,300 pages, and we're still reading through the stack of paper. Any other interesting finds will be going up in subsequent posts. But what we've seen so far has been surprising: You'd think that, with blood in the water, the traditional coziness that develops between official flacks and the beat reporters who have to talk to them every day would break down into some kind of last-man-standing slugfest. But in the Spitzer case, the opposite happened. The revelations upended the worlds of both reporter and flack alike, and the uncertainty, long hours, and breakneck pace of the scandal actually seemed to throw them together as they worked toward what seems, if you read the e-mail exchanges, like a common goal of getting the news out and behind them.
Which makes sense on a human level. But sometimes good reporting—especially of the government watchdog variety—requires an inhuman suspension of compassion. The infractions documented in these e-mails are misdemeanors, but—in addition to being an unvarnished peek inside the media machinery—they're indicative of the creeping social and professional alliances that inevitably develop between PR handlers and their overworked, easily manipulated charges in the press corps. And they give the lie to the myth of the vigilant watchdog press that keeps the government on its toes. Next time you hear New York Times editor Bill Keller claim that newspapers are uniquely situated to do the "hard, expensive, sometimes dangerous work [of] quality journalism," remember that his reporter broke the story of Spitzer's dalliances with prostitutes. But also remember the time his reporter e-mailed Gov. Paterson's flack to request permission to call Paterson's former mistress.
This first installment documents the shocking amount of control that Keller's Times allowed Anderson, a former Good Morning America producer and PR veteran of the Clinton White House, to exercise over his paper's coverage. After bringing Anderson's world down around her head by breaking the story, Times reporters previewed portions of their stories with her before publication, asked for her permission before contacting sources, and let her tell them how to characterize its reporting in the paper.
We'll begin at the beginning: On March 9, 2008, Anderson had not yet been informed of Spitzer's transgressions. Which makes this e-mail exchange with Times reporter Danny Hakim, who broke the story along with William K. Rashbaum, almost painfully poignant in retrospect.
Clueless, Anderson tried to sniff out what Hakim was up to, apparently to no avail (Spitzer himself broke the news to his staff early the next morning):
Hakim and Rashbaum's story went live the next day at roughly 2:08 p.m., using the Drudge Report Archives' timeline as a chronological guide. At 1:34 p.m., Hakim was still working his scoop, and e-mailed Anderson to make sure he had a detail right about how Spitzer broke the news to his staff. The subject line was, "can i do this?", and the message body appears to be the actual text Hakim planned to write—in other words, he appears to have been previewing his copy for the woman charged with managing Spitzer's image crisis, and seeking her signoff.
Anderson had a minor quibble with the facts—there was no single meeting at which Spitzer made the announcement—but she objected to the idea of repeating the phrase "ensnared in a prostitution ring," and asked Hakim to simply say Spitzer told his staff about "the matter."
The original Times story has been repeatedly updated, but the current version renders that detail thusly: "The governor informed his top aides Sunday night and this morning of his involvement."
Two days later, Spitzer announced his resignation, and the media scrum's attention turned to then-Lt. Gov. David Paterson. Paterson had his own press aides, but Anderson stayed on while Spitzer was still nominally in office and managed the coverage of the transition. On March 14, Times reporter Jeremy Peters was working on a profile of Paterson's chief of staff, Charles O'Byrne. He interviewed O'Byrne for the story, apparently working under an agreement that any quotes had to be cleared through Anderson.
Anderson replied that none of the quotes could be used, and recommended some of O'Byrne's friends for Peters to call for (presumably positive) quotes, a fairly routine practice.
Peters didn't push back. He simply asked Anderson how best to characterize O'Byrne's refusal to be quoted. "Say he declined to be interviewed?" asked Peters. Of course, O'Byrne didn't decline to be interviewed—he just declined to be quoted, a distinction that Anderson caught:
It's a bizarre world where flacks are more vigilant than reporters when it comes to trying not to mislead readers. The exchange continued, with Peters trying to gather competitive intelligence from Anderson and Anderson trying to make sure Peters spoke to the sources she wanted him to speak to.
Peters' O'Byrne profile eventually ran on March 20, including a proviso that "Mr. O'Byrne would not comment for this article" and several positive quotes from Ethan Geto and Eric Schneiderman, another source recommended by Anderson.
The PR disaster didn't end with Spitzer's resignation: Just days after Paterson ascended to the governor's office, the New York Daily News reported that both Paterson and his wife had engaged in multiple infidelities. The question of the hour on the afternoon of March 18 was the identity of the governor's office employee mentioned in the Daily News story as one of the new governor's ex-flames. Hakim knew who it was, but the Times would never stoop to delve into someone's private life so tastelessly. Unless the Daily News does it, in which case, yeah, maybe they would. So Hakim checked in with Anderson to find out if some filthy tabloid was getting ready to be first out the gate with Kirton's name, in which case he'd try to beat them.
Worried, Hakim sheepishly—"again, if others are calling her"—asks Anderson for permission to make the call.
Astonishingly, Anderson gives him the go-ahead, and provides him with her phone numbers.
Kirton's name came out a few hours later online. The Times never ended up mentioning her name, because only filthy tabloids do that.
For a sense of the differential treatment that flacks dole out to reporters, have a look at how Anderson responded to Daily News political correspondent Celeste Katz's request for confirmation about Kirton after the name came out—Anderson confirmed it off the record, but offered no contact info unbidden. Perhaps Katz should have asked for permission to call Kirton.
Newsday's Melissa Mansfield made the same request of Anderson's deputy Errol Cockfield, and got even colder treatment:
Mansfield didn't mind the brush-off, and responded with the same sort of sheepish, we-don't-do-gossip ass-covering that Hakim employed:
LOL, indeed. This is just from our first read of the batch of e-mails. There's much more to come. We contacted Hakim and Peters for their responses, but neither reporter agreed to comment for the record.
UPDATE: Diane McNulty, a New York Times spokeswoman, responded in an e-mail to Poynter's Jim Romenesko:
Any suggestion that the Times went too easy on the Spitzer administration seems a bit absurd in this context.
Our goal, always, is to get the facts right. Dealing with sources responsibly and professionally serves that goal, and that is what our reporters did in this case.