Kimberley Strassel in the 3/12 WSJ uses the unfolding Spitzer scandal to provide important insights into how most news organizations work. Anyone who's followed the frame-up attempt by now disbarred former Durham DA Mike Nifong will see many similarities between Spitzer and Nifong on the one hand, and journalists who were all too eager to enable them.
I make some comments below the star line concerning press coverage and enablement of Nifong.
The fall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer holds many lessons, and the press will surely be examining them in coming months. But don't expect the press corps to delve into the biggest lesson of all -- its own role as his enabler.Yes, but most of the press has no shame and one of the things journalists do best is excuse themselves.
Journalists have spent the past two days asking how a man of Mr. Spitzer's stature would allow himself to get involved in a prostitution ring.
The answer, in my mind, is clear. The former New York attorney general never believed normal rules applied to him, and his view was validated time and again by an adoring press. "You play hard, you play rough, and hopefully you don't get caught," said Mr. Spitzer two years ago.
He never did get caught, because most reporters were his accomplices.
Journalism has many functions, but perhaps the most important is keeping tabs on public officials. That duty is even more vital concerning government positions that are subject to few other checks and balances.
Chief among those is the prosecutor, who can use his awesome state power to punish, even destroy, private citizens.
Yet from the start, the press corps acted as an adjunct of Spitzer power, rather than a skeptic of it. …
Time magazine bestowed upon Mr. Spitzer the title "Crusader of the Year," and likened him to Moses. Fortune dubbed him the "Enforcer."
A fawning article in the Atlantic Monthly in 2004 explained he was "a rock star," and "the Democratic Party's future." In an uncritical 2006 biography, then Washington Post reporter Brooke Masters compared the attorney general to no less than Teddy Roosevelt.
What the media never acknowledged is that somewhere along the line (say, his first day in public office) Mr. Spitzer became the big guy, the titan. He had the power to trample lives and bend the rules, while also burnishing his own political fortune. He was the one who deserved as much, if not more, scrutiny as onetime New York Stock Exchange chief Dick Grasso or former American International Group CEO Maurice "Hank" Greenberg.
What makes this more embarrassing for any self-respecting journalist is that Mr. Spitzer knew all this, and played the media like a Stradivarius. He knew what sort of storyline they'd be sympathetic to, and spun it.
He knew, too, that as financial journalism has become more competitive, breaking news can make a career. He doled out scoops to favored reporters, who repaid him with allegiance.
News organizations that dared to criticize him were cut off. After a time, few criticized anymore.
Instead, reporters felt obligated to run with whatever he handed them. Consider the report in the wake of a 2005 op-ed in this newspaper by John Whitehead.
A respected Wall Street figure, Mr. Whitehead dared to criticize Mr. Spitzer for his unscrupulously zealous pursuit of Mr. Greenberg. Mr. Spitzer later threatened Mr. Whitehead, telling him in a phone call that "You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done."
Some months later, after more Spitzer excesses, Mr. Whitehead had the temerity to write another op-ed describing what Mr. Spitzer had said.
Within a few days, the press was reporting (unsourced, of course) that Mr. Whitehead had defended Mr. Greenberg a few weeks after a Greenberg charity had given $25 million to the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation -- a group Mr. Whitehead chaired.
So Mr. Whitehead's on-the-record views were met with an unsourced smear implying bad faith. The press ran with it anyway.
In 2005, Mr. Spitzer went on national television to suggest that Mr. Greenberg had engaged in criminal activity. It was front-page news. About six months later, on the eve of a Thanksgiving weekend, Mr. Spitzer quietly disclosed that he lacked the evidence to press criminal charges. That news was buried inside the papers.
What makes this history all the more unfortunate is that the warning signs about Mr. Spitzer were many and manifest. In the final days of Mr. Spitzer's run for attorney general in 1998, the news broke that he'd twisted campaign-finance laws so that his father could fund his unsuccessful 1994 run. Mr. Spitzer won anyway, and the story was largely forgotten.
New York Stock Exchange caretaker CEO John Reed suggested Mr. Spitzer hadn't told the truth when he said that it was Mr. Reed who wanted him to investigate Mr. Grasso's pay. The press never investigated.
Mr. Spitzer's main offense as a prosecutor is that he violated the basic rules of fairness and due process: Innocent until proven guilty; the right to your day in court. …
On the substance, his court record speaks for itself. Most of Mr. Spitzer's high-profile charges have gone up in smoke. A New York state judge threw out his case against tax firm H&R Block. He lost his prosecution against Bank of America broker Ted Sihpol (whom Mr. Spitzer threatened to arrest in front of his child and pregnant wife). Mr. Spitzer was stopped by a federal judge from prying confidential information out of mortgage companies. Another New York judge blocked the heart of his suit against Mr. Grasso. Mr. Greenberg continues to fight his civil charges.
The press was foursquare behind Mr. Spitzer in all these cases, and in a better world they'd share some of his humiliation. …
Instead, remarkably, they continue to defend him. Ms. Masters, his biographer, was on CNN the day Mr. Spitzer's prostitution news broke, reassuring viewers that the governor really was a "lovely" guy.Strassel’s entire column is here.
Other news reporters were reporting what a "tragedy" it was that such a leading light in the Democratic Party could come to such an ignoble end.
There's little that's tragic about Mr. Spitzer, unless you consider his victims (which would appear to include his own family). The press would do well to meditate on that, and consider how many violations they winked at and validated over the years. Politicians don't exist to be idolized by the press, at least not by any press corps doing its job.
“Enabling” is an accurate but very understating descriptor of the roles most MSM have played in furthering Spitzer’s career and Nifong’s criminal acts and his two successful election campaigns. “Complicit” is a better descriptor.
In the case of Nifong, there were no press demands he explain why his office sought a court order requiring certain members of the lacrosse team to submit to DNA testing when police knew those members weren’t at the party where Nifong insisted a gang-rape took place.
Nor did the press demand Nifong explain who actually made the decision to seek the court order which most attorneys say was an unconstitutional order.
It’s still not clear today whether Durham Police decided on their own to seek the order or whether they prepared a request for the order in response to a directive from Nifong’s office.
That question should have been asked in March 2006. If Nifong didn’t answer it, reporters should have kept asking and news organizations should have editorially demanded he answer it.
But rather than do that, most news organizations, dominated by liberal Democrats, went along with Nifong’s and others’ rogue conduct, while spinning the PC meta-narrative of race, class and gender.
The Raleigh News & Observer, which led the media charge, withheld news it had of the players’ cooperation with police and instead promulgated Nifong’s lie the players weren’t cooperating with police.
When that later became known, there was no media demand that Nifong hold a press conference and explain why he’d lied about the players’ lack of cooperation. And there was no media condemnation of the N&O for what it did.
Both major Durham area dailies – the N&O and the Durham Herald Sun - went for many months praising Nifong even when it was obvious to any fair-minded, intelligent person he was engaging in a frame-up attempt.
What did the two papers’ editors do?
They mostly castigated Nifong’s victims for underage drinking and hiring strippers and cheered on his enablers. They also looked the other way at police misconduct, something they’re still doing.
Nifong never could have gotten indictments if the local and national media had done a half-way decent and honest job of reporting and commenting on what was a wildly improbable series of conflicting lies told by accuser Crystal Mangum and Mike Nifong.
Americans need to keep our eyes on our news organizations. Many of them can be as dangerous to a free and just society as rogue prosecutors Spitzer and Nifong.
Hat tip: Tarheel Hawkeye