A Scrutiny Draws A Quick Rise

D. PATSTom Scocca: I wish the Times did have the composure and self-assurance it pretends to have.

Choire Sicha: Ah. The whole “black man has been in jail!” thing.

Tom: It’s just like the McCain-and-lobbyist story.

Tom: I am not even using her name, because she didn’t have an affair with John McCain as far as I could tell.


Tom: But it is the same deal. The Times becomes, through its strenuous efforts not to appear irresponsible, exactly as irresponsible as it is accused of having been.

Tom: It gets mau-maued into reporting that it doesn’t have good evidence of the claims that people were criticizing it for reporting on.

Tom: John McCain’s campaign staff had concerns about the appearance of possible closeness to a lobbyist.

Tom: David Paterson has a favorite aide who has a not obviously alarming amount of documented trouble with the law.

Choire: Here’s what seems unelaborated to me.

Choire: “And several current and former administration officials said that Mr. Johnson’s dressing down of the governor’s Washington office in September contributed to the departure of several seasoned people from the office.”

Choire: 1. Several?

Choire: 2. Who!

Choire: 3. Where are they?

Tom: That clause there sounds like a minor but interesting news story about the Paterson administration.

Choire: Doesn’t it? What sort of dressing down? Also… how big IS the governor’s Washington office???

Tom: I would gladly read 850 words that answered all the questions that are not answered in that sentence.

Tom: What happened, to whom did it happen, where did it happen, why did it happen, and how did it happen?

Tom: It seems possible to me that a crisply reported account of this incident, one that answered these questions, would help a reader decide whether David Paterson is presiding over a bumbling, incompetent administration or not.

Tom: That would be, happily enough, a subject of interest to the voters.

Choire: I would be interested in such.

Choire: Because, unfortunately, I already know that the United States puts more than 1/3rd of black men in state or federal prison at some time in their lives.

Tom: But Choire–this particular black man is “6-foot-7, with a booming voice.” So you see, right there, people have something to worry about.

Choire: According to data from the late 60s to the late 70s, 51% of all non-white men can expect to be arrested for a felony in their lives. When you cross-reference that by “extremely large black men,” I assume that percentage rockets up to something like 70%?

Tom: Look at you, worrying about identifiable action by the criminal-justice system.

Tom: “She said she did not file a formal report, but said she had filed an earlier domestic violence complaint to the police about Mr. Johnson. She declined to offer evidence of that.”

Choire: I assume that is a different incident than the Halloween-costume-ripping incident??

Tom: Yeah, that’s a different one.

Choire: It is hard to keep this relatively complicated personal life clear!

Tom: It is. And the Times is too busy smudging the dots to connect them.

Tom: It’s pretty amazing when you get to the end and see the additional-reporting-by tag, which brings the total number of reporters on the story to six.

Tom: Maybe the story would have come out better with only one reporter on it.

Choire: Maybe? I wonder how Danny Hakim’s meeting with Paterson was. I can’t quite really picture it!

Tom: I can’t picture anything in this story.

Tom: It’s all shadow puppets.

Tom: The trouble here is that the Times is so annoyed and confused by having had its scruples questioned, it descends into this parody of scrupulousness.

Tom: The headline that loads above the browser bar says it all: “Paterson’s Ex-Driver, David W. Johnson, Is a Top Confidant.”

Tom: So this is just a profile?

Choire: That seems to indicate that the story is a profile of a person.

Tom: Yet the headline on the text itself is “Paterson Aide’s Quick Rise Draws Scrutiny.”

Tom: So it is a story about controversy. Or is it a profile? Perhaps the New York Times should have made up its mind before publishing it.

Tom: What’s irritating about these botched takedowns, this and the McCain thing and all the other awful campaign stories, is that the Times pretends that it doesn’t have a responsibility to decide what the stories are about. We’re just reporting objective facts!

Choire: Why these facts and not others? What about the price of granite and stuff?

Tom: Remember that story about how Biden used official funds for landscaping at his house? And the landscaper had no idea whether or not the landscaping was in preparation for official events there? Facts! Here are some facts for the reader. We report! You… decide?

Choire: Actually I don’t really remember that story, it turns out.

Tom: You may have forgotten it, because it said nothing. Like this story.

Choire: I have read this story a few times now. And in the end I came away with conflicting “icky” and “sympathetic” feelings? On the one hand, I think, “Hey, this guy is like me, he used to run into trouble all the time and now he’s got a job and working hard.” And on the other hand, I think, “What is this dude’s problems with women? Jesus Christ!”

Choire: And then I don’t know anything, so I finally decide IT IS NONE OF MY BUSINESS.

Tom: Yep.

Tom: “Draws scrutiny.” From whom? From the New York Times, seems like.

Choire: From some quitters down in D.C.?

Tom: Well, yes.

Tom: The Times suffers from a fundamental confusion about how to do scandal stories.

Tom: The Times is not a passive observer of these things. This kind of reporting is a prosecutorial activity. That doesn’t mean the paper is out to get someone. It means that the paper has, through reporting, come to a particular factual conclusion, and it needs to prove that conclusion to the reader.

Tom: It’s a very scrupulous kind of prosecutor.

Choire: That is a useful act.

Tom: The thing about a prosecutorial approach is, it assumes a vigorous defense.

Tom: Is the evidence you’re obtained solid and persuasive, or can someone contest the facts? Are there gaps in your logic that would allow someone to reject your conclusions? Is there exculpatory evidence that you’re overlooking? Would your piece survive the most skeptical and uncharitable reading it could get?

Choire: You mean, basically, someone asking over and over again: why are you writing this?

Tom: Yes. Why are you writing this, and how do you know you’re right?

Tom: That is what the editors’ job is.

Tom: But what the editing at the Times does is it fudges the indictment.

Tom: “We ain’t sayin’ nothin’, we’re just sayin’…”

Tom: They try to hide behind Teaching the Controversy.

Choire: This is complicated because it’s not a controversy that we would know unless we worked in Albany.

Choire: Which, however, IS their job!

Choire: I do want them to enlighten me on what people are actually talking about!

Tom: Here’s the controversy: a bunch of people who are losing influence in the Paterson administration, or who are otherwise hostile or self-interested, are running around saying, “Paterson talks about how bad domestic violence is, and his No. 1 confidant is a straight ghetto drug-dealing thug who beats up women all the time.”

Tom: See also: infighting McCain campaign staff.

Tom: So there is good reason to approach these rumor-stories with caution. People have agendas.

Choire: Sure! And I do think that Times reporters are pretty sensitive to disgruntlement and motivation.

Tom: But you can’t just pick up the accusations with a long pair of tongs and wave them around at the reader.

Tom: The disgruntled people are making substantive claims. Is John McCain fucking a lobbyist? Is Paterson’s right-hand man beating up women?

Choire: And is he doing this ten years ago or now?

Choire: And is that related to his “sudden rise”?

Tom: The Times thinks it’s OK to answer these substantive questions through innuendo, hearsay and discussion of appearances.

Tom: “She said she did not file a formal report, but said she had filed an earlier domestic violence complaint to the police about Mr. Johnson. She declined to offer evidence of that.”

Tom: She declined to offer evidence?

Choire: I mean, listen, I believe Anita Hill and all. But what?

Tom: Is there paper, or is there not fucking paper?

Tom: You have six reporters on this story, and you are just asking the woman to offer evidence herself? Get the fucking paper, or shut the fuck up.

Choire: I’d like to think a parenthetical was cut by the editors there about shoddy police record-expunging.

Tom: I’d like to think I’ve got a homemade ice cream sandwich right here, but I don’t.