How the press serviced Client #9

Gawker, that oh so hip, oh so cutting edge website that tells you about the oh so hip, oh so cutting edge happenings, mainly in New York, did some thorough research by slogging  through over 1300 pages of e mails regarding the exposure of Client # 9 - aka New York's former Governor Elliot Spitzer (D) - to the pricey brothel he supported.

Although there are still more e mails to read, what Gawker's reporters have discovered so far is "surprising." And it wasn't Spitzer's extra marital, extra government romps that surprised Gawker. What really "upended" their world was the discovery that the watchdog New York Times, which broke the story on Spitzer, was really Spitzer's lapdog, ceding control of the story to Spitzer's spinners.

Now remember, this was a about the New York Times whose motto is "All The News That's Fit To Print," and this certainly was a prime newsy story; their reporters were the top of the heap. And yet...

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.

And Gawker gives numerous examples of how both sides came together to report the unfolding scandal. In one instance Times' reporter Danny Hakim asked Spitzer's communications secretary Christine Anderson

for her permission before contacting sources, and let her tell them how to characterize its reporting in the paper.

Another time he e mailed Anderson

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.

Hakim, seemingly confused, seemingly forgetting he was a New York Times neutral reporter, not Spitzer's press flack dutifully followed Anderson's suggestion and changed his original report that Spitzer "had been ensnared in a prostitution ring" to "the matter" and "his involvement." Spitzer and his stricken wife couldn't have said it better themselves.

And on and on this strange collaboration went, continuing into Spitzer's successor David Paterson (D), whose own messy private life Hakim delicately reported under Anderson's guidance.

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.

In fairness, this post wasn't meant as a critique of the New York Times; much reporting is done this way. And many of the comments to the Gawker story defend the New York Times' reporters while emphasizing another aspect; the Times broke the story, the Times checked its facts which entailed speaking to Anderson, by going along they got a lot of information and access, there was other communication besides these 1300 pages of e mails.

But in light of the charges that most of the media is totally bonded to the current president and is thus unable to be objective while the very few who are somewhat skeptical such as Fox are maligned, a little behind the scenes revelation of the actual back and forth producing the final product is revealing. And helpful for both the producers themselves to see their shortcomings and for the final consumers to place the product in context.

hat tip: Lawhawk