Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eliot Spitzer in The New York Times

Progressives argue that deliberative processes are essential to a just society. However, accurate information sources are necessary to deliberation. If news media fail to provide accurate information, then deliberative processes need to be curtailed. If one draws an analogy to business, news sources ought to be fiduciaries to the public, i.e., to serve the public trust, if the progressive goal of deliberation is achievable. If news sources see themselves as sellers of news, then they can ethically puff up and distort stories. But in that case good deliberation and decision making is impeded and the progressive model will fail.

The New York Times is widely regarded as the nation's chief news source and is the most likely candidate of all news sources to play the role of fiduciary to the public. The advent of the Times as a putative objective source of information was part of the development of Progressivism and twentieth century liberalism. But its handling of Eliot Spitzer's candidacy and gubernatorial administration took a marketing as opposed to a fiduciary tone. Rather than attempt to uncover facts and report accurately about Eliot Spitzer, from the beginning the Times saw its role as Spitzer's marketer and defender. While partisan news is fine, it does not lend itself to deliberative processes, because deliberation depends on sound information and trust rather than deception and distrust. The Times followed the 19th century journalistic advocacy model with respect to Spitzer. Assuming the Times's failure is generalizable, and there is no reason to think it is not, deliberative progressivism is an impossible chimera because information sources necessary to competent public deliberation are missing. Intelligent deliberation cannot be based on the liberal media's outright deception.

The Times had about ten years to observe Eliot Spitzer, who first campaigned for Attorney General in 1998 and then for Governor in 2006. Yet, the Times failed to highlight fundamental character flaws that are now evident to all and would have been evident to any objective observer. The matter is not of sexual vice but of Spitzer's bad judgment, willingness to lie, self-indulgence and lack of common sense. Spitzer publicly stated that he would avoid accepting campaign contributions over $10,000, and when he did accept such contributions the Times did all it could to minimize the story. Observers, including myself, had long suspected character problems. By late last year it was evident that Spitzer's inability to overcome political resistance to reform in Albany meant that he had been elected on false premises. But the Times did not reconsider its rigid support for Spitzer. Rather, it preferred to continue to lie. Public deliberation is impossible with such information sources.

In this blog I will review some of the Times's pre-election coverage of Spitzer and its unwillingness to raise ethical questions about contributions to Spitzer's campaign. In subsequent blogs I will review its biased handling of Spitzer's time in office.

The Times's Election Coverage

On October 22, 2006 the Times formally endorsed Eliot Spitzer. According to Nicholas Confessore the Times's editorial board had said that:

"Mr. Spitzer 'has been fearless and dogged in his pursuit of justice. We are eager to see what happens when he applies those attributes to Albany's immobile Legislature, which has a long, sad history in wearing would-be reformers down, waiting them out.'"

In the ensuing 16 months, during which Governor Spitzer did little or nothing to reform Albany and instead was involved in repeated fights with other politicians, the Times failed to flash any caution lights. It had to have been aware that time was of the essence for Spitzer to overcome resistance to reform, but it did not monitor or question Spitzer's timeliness.

During the campaign, the Times ran several articles discussing Republicans' support for then-candidate Spitzer. In an article entitled "A Secret Divide on Republican Turf", Manny Fernandez wrote about support for Spitzer in Broome County, New York:

"Mr. Spitzer appeals to Republicans for a number of reasons. As the state's top law enforcement officer, he made a name for himself as a tough prosecutor in a series of high-profile cases. But two factors drawing Republicans to Mr. Spitzer have less to do with the candidate himself than with the way the race for governor has played out."

In the ensuing months, when Governor Spitzer failed to engage not only with Republicans but also with his fellow Democrats, the Times never again mentioned the Republicans of Broome County and whether they had been misled.

At the same time that the Times boasted about Mr.Spitzer's ability to clean up Albany and win over Republican support, the New York Daily News already carried stories that questioned Spitzer's ethics. On September 5, 2006, Bill Hammond of the New York Daily News published a story entitled "High Flying Spitzer Hits Ethical Turbulence." In the story Hammond notes:

"(A)ccepting deeply discounted air travel from a gambling mogul doing lots of business with state government - as Spitzer and an aide did in May - is too cozy for comfort. The would-be Sheriff of Albany should be keeping a safe distance from favor seekers, not putting himself in a position where he owes them anything."

On September 2, 2006, the Times carried the story this way in an article entitled "Hammering at Spitzer, but With Nary a Dent to Show":

The Republican candidate, John Faso, hammered at Attorney General Spitzer for accepting flights on a private jet owned by Richard Fields, a developer who ferried Mr. Spitzer to fund-raisers across the country, and who has himself donated $200,000 through various entities he controls... Not that any of this came close to making a dent in Mr. Spitzer’s aura of invincibility. The attorney general leads Mr. Suozzi by more than 50 points in various polls.

This evidence of the shallow fraudulence of Spitzer's claim to be an ethics leader did not, for some odd reason, give the Times's editors pause. On January, 19 2007 the Times carried another story in its Metro Briefing section entitled "New York: Albany: Spitzer Returns Campaign Cash". The story does not mention the Faso accusations several months earlier and merely notes:

"Mr. Fields was reimbursed because his companies exceeded the $50,100 limit on individual donations allowed under state law, said a Spitzer spokeswoman." The Times did not raise ethical issues. Indeed, in a November 12 article about Governor Spitzer's election the Times's Leslie Eaton wrote:

"Mr. Spitzer was not sure if he would seek private donations to pay for a celebration, as Gov. George E. Pataki did for his first swearing-in, in 1995. That practice has raised ethical questions in the past, Mr. Spitzer said, 'and we’re going to handle it in a very, very different way.'" Ms. Eaton did not raise the question of Richard Fields during Mr. Spitzer's beach holiday and why, if funding the inaugural celebration was an ethical problem, why accepting large donations from a casino developer was not. The Times chose to focus on Spitzer's supposedly ethical refusal to have private sources pay for a celebration, and ignored hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donations from casino developers.

On September 17, 2006 in the Daily News , Michael Goodwin wrote with respect to Spitzer's ability to implement campaign finance reform:

"Eliot Spitzer says it over and over again: 'On Day One, everything changes.'... But Spitzer's vow is suspect in one key area because he comes to the job with dirty hands...Having trounced his primary opponent with more than 80% of the vote, and having a huge lead in fund-raising and the polls over Republican John Faso, Spitzer could take the high road before November. He could lead by example and give the tainted money back. That way, he'd be a true reformer on Day One...Among the $37 million he has collected is at least $350,000 from a handful of backers who had already reached the $50,100 limit, according to Common Cause."

On September 19, 2006 the Times's Mike McIntire notes in passing that AIG had contributed excessively to Spitzer's campaign. But on January 14, 2006 the Times's Patrick D. Healy had minimized ethical questions that had been raised about Spitzer:

"Mr. Suozzi continued that he believed Mr. Spitzer has 'been overly reliant' on donations from trial lawyers and lobbyists. He then asked to move that comment off the record as well...

"According to studies by Common Cause New York, Mr. Spitzer has raised many tens of thousands of dollars from lawyers and lobbyists, although a precise total was not available yesterday. Since 1999, Mr. Spitzer has received $94,300 from a political action committee for trial lawyers -- half of the amount that Gov. George E. Pataki received during that period, though Mr. Spitzer received a greater number of contributions from the committee...In an interview yesterday, Mr. Spitzer did not appear troubled by Mr. Suozzi's remarks, declining to comment on the expletive and reacting skeptically to the description of his fund-raising."

The Times was committed to Spitzer to a degree that would have been suicidal for a business investor. Isn't a political candidate something of a public investment? And isn't the media's role something of a public trust? If it is not, if the Times is partisan, the system of big government and public deliberation will not work.

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