The Spitzer Files: How TV Talking Heads Get Their Cues from Flacks

In our third installment from the Spitzer Filesour collection of e-mails between Eliot Spitzer's flack and reporters at the height of his hooker scandal—we congratulate the reporters who actually try to learn things before they go on TV.

On March 10, 2008, the New York Times broke the story of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's hooker habit, and cable news went insane. One of the gratifying things we found in the 1,300 pages of e-mail correspondence between Spitzer's flacks and reporters (which we obtained under New York's public records law) was that some reporters who were booked as talking heads actually made an effort to know what they were talking about before they went on TV. Of course, it's hard to get too much information at the last minute — which is one reason no one on cable television knows what they are talking about — and often the natural impulse of reporters is to check in with a flack for guidance.

The Spitzer Files: How TV Talking Heads Get Their Cues from Flacks

The day after the Spitzer news broke, as speculation over his future was at a fever pitch, Financial Times reporter Brooke Masters, who wrote a book in 2006 about Spitzer's rise to power, was booked to appear on CNN. She sent a frantic e-mail to Spitzer's communications director Christine Anderson ten minutes before she was scheduled to go on, asking, "what tone should I take when asked if he will resign?" She signed off with, "Help."

Anderson responded that no announcement would be coming that day, but that Masters' "tone should probably be that the options aren't good." On CNN that night, in a taped segment for Anderson Cooper 360, Masters said, "Unless he can completely reinvent himself, his old method of dealing with the world and his old attraction as a politician is gone."

When we let Masters know that we were publishing the exchange, she wrote in an e-mail that "I knew I was going to be asked what Mr Spitzer would do, and I am a reporter not a pundit so I was trying to gather the facts." Which we commend her for. Still, it's worth remembering the next time you see a reporter analyzing a story on cable somewhere, that — at least for the ones who did their homework — the facts, and the tone, sometimes come unattributed and off the record from people who are paid to manage reporters.

The Spitzer Files: How TV Talking Heads Get Their Cues from Flacks

Another reporter who checked in with Anderson before going on TV was them-Time magazine deputy managing editor Adi Ignatius, who now edits the Harvard Business Review. Oddly, Ignatius — who had covered and profiled Spitzer for Time — was booked on ABC News and NBC News as a supporter of Spitzer's, to balance out the detractors offering gleeful quotes on his self-immolation.

On March 10, a few hours after the story broke, Ignatius e-mailed Spitzer's chief of staff Marlene Turner asking if he could speak to Spitzer or anyone else in his office about the governor's state of mind before going on ABC News's World News Tonight. Turner referred him to Anderson. World News didn't use any of Ignatius' tape, but the next day, NBC Nightly News invited him to speak as "someone who knows and likes Eliot," and he asked Anderson for access to Spitzer or anybody else who might know his thinking. Anderson responded that she'd be happy to talk to him.

That night, Ignatius was identified on a Nightly News segment as a Spitzer "supporter," and he told correspondent Mike Taibbi that "it's going to be very, very, very difficult for him to stay in office."

Ignatius and Masters were right to find out as much as they could before being presented to television audiences as informed analysts (or in Ignatius' case, a partisan). But it's interesting, to us at least, to see laid bare the role that flacks can play behind the scenes in managing the tone and direction of talking-head coverage during a PR disaster.