New York Gov. David Paterson has found himself this week in the curious position of handling unspecified allegations of personal misconduct rumored to be contained in an upcoming article in The New York Times.
At a news conference Tuesday, Paterson denounced news outlets and political figures in Albany, N.Y., for trafficking in "false allegations, unsubstantiated rumors, and in some cases, straight-out lies."
That the article in The Times has not yet been published — and may not even involve any such allegations — has not tamped down a media frenzy that has damaged the already unpopular governor.
Political gossip is nothing new. But the Paterson news conference served as a vivid illustration of how the combination of the lightning pace of the online news cycle and the media's self-obsession has led to the transformation of ethereal rumor into something quite tangible. During the news conference, Paterson said he sat down for an extensive interview with Times reporter Danny Hakim.
"The article will be written about other subjects," Paterson said, "and not the ones that have been the source of the mass speculation and feeding frenzy and circus that we have witnessed the last couple weeks."
A Hidden Rumor
This truly is the scandal that dare not say its name — because nobody really knows what the heck it is.
"It is crazy," says Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union in Albany. "It's a media environment like I've never seen before."
On taking over from former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who left office disgraced amid a prostitution scandal, Paterson acknowledged earlier martial infidelity and cocaine use. In January, the New York Post suggestively reported Paterson had been seen lunching in New Jersey with a woman who is not his wife. But no real scandal ensued.
A subsequent item in the Post about the governor being found in a utility closet with yet another woman sparked the interest of the New York Daily News. (For the record, Paterson denied the incident occurred and even the existence of such a utility closet.) Elizabeth Benjamin wrote on the News' politics blog that the rumor mill about Paterson's personal conduct was running overtime. And, she wrote, a major publication was about to drop a "bombshell" story about Paterson.
Minutes later, John Koblin, who writes about media for the New York Observer wrote this (slightly erratically typed) posting on Twitter: "anyone hearing about NYT bombshell on Paterson? Heard big, damanging story comin."
Picked Up By The Blogs
That was enough for Gabriel Snyder, the editor of the influential online gossip and news site Gawker.
"If he's saying that he hears this, then, you know, I think that's a credible source, as far as what's being passed on the grapevine," Snyder said.
Gawker quickly posted an item saying The Times was said to be poised to publish a blockbuster story.
Yet as Koblin acknowledged in an e-mail to NPR, he was just echoing the Daily News — not doing any original reporting. No matter. The Web site operates on the assumption that rumors themselves can be noteworthy, as long as they're identified as such.
"It starts to become almost dishonest to talk about a governor of a state and not mention that the entire political class is speculating that there is some sex rumor that's going to come out that's going to cause him to resign," Snyder said.
'New York Times' Criticized
The Web exploded. On Sunday, the Web site BusinessInsider.com cited a single, anonymous source to report The Times would likely be publishing its bombshell on Monday, and that Paterson would resign soon.
Neither happened. But the tabloid New York Post and Daily News gave his aides' denials front-page treatment Tuesday. Yet Paterson especially targeted The New York Times for criticism. He said he asked Times editors, editorial writers and reporters to announce they weren't pursuing stories about any personal peccadilloes. He won no satisfaction.
"They don't seem to be interested in addressing or doing anything about it," Paterson told reporters Tuesday. "I think it's appalling."
Newspaper editors generally say they let their published stories speak for themselves. Times Metro Editor Joe Sexton did not return messages seeking comment. The newspaper's spokeswoman, Diane McNulty, said: "Obviously, we are not responsible for what other news organizations are reporting. It's not coming from The Times."
Asked what obligation the paper had to address the rumors about its story, the paper's internal critic, Public Editor Clark Hoyt, replied: "Don't you think it's strange that something that doesn't exist can cause this kind of tumult, and that suddenly it's on the paper to somehow atone/explain?"
Yet Smith of the Times Union says the story should have been published several days ago because the speculation is causing such harm.
"It seems to me that this is one of those circumstances where the news medium is itself feeding into the story, and I think The Times ought to publish," Smith said.