Like troubled politicians before him, New York Democratic Gov. David Paterson appeared on Larry King's CNN show Thursday night to denounce "salacious and outrageous charges" and to liken his ordeal to a "Kafka-esque situation." Paterson even had to sit there placidly when King (who has been married eight times himself) asked, "Do you have an open marriage?" But what makes Paterson's plight a modern media parable is that he is going up against The New York Times over a story that has never been printed.
Welcome to the wacky world of America's most beleaguered sitting governor not named Mark Sanford. Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, in the midst of an ugly public divorce fight, barely qualifies for a bronze medal in political ineptitude amid this spirited competition.
Paterson, an accidental governor who vaulted into office in March 2008 after Eliot Spitzer (Client No. 9) resigned in disgrace, has about as much chance of managing the Yankees as being elected to a full term in November. Mired at a 26 percent approval rating and menaced by an almost certain Democrat primary challenge from state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Paterson's political career is over aside from the official notification by the voters. But that does not excuse his weird ordeal of shadowboxing for more than a week against wildly unconfirmed rumors about what may or may not be contained in this forthcoming someday New York Times profile or exposé. In this "Through the Looking Glass" media landscape, Paterson may or may not be guilty of what the Times may or may not be accusing him of.
While the Times huffily maintains a not-our-table innocence (Joe Sexton, the paper's metro editor, was quoted in a Times blog: "We are not responsible for what other news organizations are reporting"), Paterson has fanned the flames with a self-indulgent media offensive that has included angry rebuttals to virtually every major media outlet except Animal Planet. New York's first African-American governor contends -- with a glimmer of justice -- that his personal life has been fair game since he admitted at a press conference right after taking office that he had affairs during a troubled period in his marriage. "I have been depicted in a way that has been racialized, sexualized, hyper-sexualized and dissolute," Paterson claimed in a Wednesday radio interview with Don Imus. Paterson's comments undoubtedly made everyone listening wonder what the governor was being charged with. This continuing denial-a-thon prompted the New York Post (a tabloid whose instinctive response to any scandal, however vague, is to hurl a Molotov cocktail) into running a front-page banner headline that featured a made-up Paterson quote that channeled the actual Bill Clinton: 'I DID NOT HAVE SEX WITH THAT WOMAN.'
Some of Paterson's lines have the potential to become political classics. At a Tuesday Albany press conference -- ostensibly called to discuss snow rather than snow jobs -- Paterson refuted rumors that the phantom-like Times story would prompt him to resign: "The only way I'm not going to be governor next year is at the ballot box. And the only way that I'll be leaving office before is in a box." The governor, whose vision is severely limited, said in a Wednesday radio interview with Imus, "Now I'm blind, but I'm not a dope."
As a nation, we are far from that journalistically responsible era when a newspaper (or a magazine) could mount a careful investigation of a politician and then have the luxury of presenting its charges and the supporting evidence in a single article that would rise or fall on its own merits. Now the investigation itself invariably becomes a story in blogs and tabloids. Remember that back in 1998 Matt Drudge made his reputation with this parasitic worldwide exclusive: "NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY...BLOCKBUSTER REPORT: 23-YEAR-OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT." This time around, the New York Observer
calculates that 13 different news organizations (including the Associated Press, the New York Daily News, the Albany Times Union, Politico and New York magazine) ran unsourced stories about the Paterson blockbuster rumors before the governor issued his initial denial Monday night.
New York Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf hit the right note when he said in an interview with me, "It's not fair. What is going on here is not good for my side of a reporter's notebook and it's not good for your side." In short, both the political community and the press (what a quaint word) lose when rumors become interchangeable with reality. As Sheinkopf put it, "Paterson, who's probably not a bad guy but is probably not a great governor, is being accused of everything under the sun with no evidence."
It is difficult to assess The New York Times' conduct in all this without seeing the actual story, which is proving as elusive as Godot. According to Paterson, he sat for a 90-minute interview Tuesday morning with Danny Hakim, the Albany bureau chief for the Times. Even with requisite journalistic care (including round-robin meetings with editors), it would seem that a Paterson story should have been ready to be printed by Friday morning, especially since any yet-to-be confirmed charges against the governor could always run in a later article. Instead, the Times has yet to publish. While there may be extenuating factors, we have reached the point when the Times' care at being journalistically responsible has become irresponsible.
It is telling that even Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio got into the act with a letter
to the Times disingenuously urging them -- motivated only by consideration for Paterson -- "to end your shroud of secrecy surrounding your potential story." A former Long Island congressman who unsuccessfully opposed Hillary Clinton for the Senate in 2000, Lazio runs neck-and-neck with Paterson in an early February Marist Poll
. Those numbers are probably as close as Lazio will ever come to the governorship, since he never will get this lucky against his Democratic opponent. According to the Marist Poll, Andrew Cuomo (the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo) would paste Paterson by a -- gulp! -- three-to-one margin in a Democratic primary. And Cuomo leads Lazio by a lopsided 64 percent to 27 percent in a trial heat.
Yet the ineffectual Paterson is gamely pretending to inhabit an alternative political universe where he still has a bright political future. He is planning to formally declare his candidacy for another term February 20, which he first announced in a Thursday morning email
to supporters. ("Supporters" is indeed a plural noun, but in this case not very plural.) But even a well-publicized war against The New York Times is unlikely to save a governor whose popularity has been in free fall since he first dangled Caroline Kennedy's name as the appointed successor to Hillary Clinton only to turn on JFK's daughter with angry leaks as he gave the Senate seat to the little-known Kirsten Gillibrand. As Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion put it, "Politicians have sometimes done well running against the media, but Paterson is not in that situation."
David Paterson is a politician who bristles with resentment. During his interview with Imus, Paterson went out of his way to complain, "You should [have] invited me on years ago, Don. . . . I had to become governor to be invited on." But such thin-skinned laments and such a dire long-term political prognosis should not detract from the justice of Paterson's current cause. As the embattled governor said on CNN, "I wouldn't want anyone -- no matter who they are -- to be subjected to what I've gone through in the last few weeks. . . . This isn't a political issue. It's an issue about fairness."
Sadly, this is what happens when the old-media arrogance of The New York Times -- a newspaper that will do things its own way on its own schedule -- collides with the sex-sells, rumors-are-reality sleaziness of the new media. Isn't the 21st century great?