Inside the David Paterson Rumor Mill
A while back, we filed a Freedom of Information Law request looking for e-mails between New York Gov. David Paterson's flacks and a bunch of reporters. The governor's office tried hard to keep them secret, but we finally got them.
And there's not much there! We don't really see what all the fuss was about. We filed the request, which sought e-mails between Paterson communications director Peter Kauffmann, press secretary Marissa Shorenstein, and a variety of reporters, back in February, at the height of the bizarre media firestorm that erupted around Paterson amid rumors of a devastating and imminent (and, in the end, nonexistent) New York Times story about his drug use and sexual libertinism. Clint Hendler, a reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review, filed a similar request not long after ours.
But the governor's office denied both requests based on the ludicrous and unprecedented claim that reporters' e-mails are exempt from New York's Freedom of Information Law because the New York Shield Law—which protects journalists from subpoenas to reveal confidential sources—bars their release. It did so at the urging of the Associated Press, which hired an attorney to try to quash our request once it learned that AP reporters' emails might be made public. We appealed the denial and lost. CJR eventually sued for their release. We filed a motion to intervene in that suit, and the governor's office caved, handing over 3,000 or so pages on the Friday before Thanksgiving (after a delay caused by the suggestion that the e-mails may be caught up in criminal investigations into Paterson's behavior). We agreed with CJR not to publish them until this morning to give us a chance to read through them. (Here's their take.)
Given the extraordinary lengths to which the governor's office and the AP went to keep the e-mails secret, we had high hopes that there would be something interesting in there. But they mostly record mundane interactions between flacks and reporters, punctuated by Kauffmann's profane protestations that the rumors about what would, and wouldn't, be in a story the Times was working on were false—"if he keeps feeding reporters this bullshit, I will separate his head from his shoulders," Kauffmann wrote to New York Daily News reporter Elizabeth Benjamin about one of her sources.
Of course it turns out that while the Times was not working on a story about swinging and drugs in the governor's mansion, it was working on a series of devastating stories on Paterson aide David Johnson's penchant for hitting women, and Paterson's potentially illegal intervention to try to prevent one of those women from filing charges.
The most interesting e-mail in the bunch—and probably the one that inspired the AP to try to block our request—shows that, before the David Johnson revelations became clear, AP editors were so keen to report on the shitstorm of unsubstantiated sex-and-drug rumors that its lead Albany reporter risked his career to put the brakes on them.
The Paterson "story" was launched on February 4, 2010, by a Twitter post from then-New York Observer reporter John Koblin, who asked if anyone had heard about an "NYT bombshell" coming down the pike on Paterson. (We said it was probably that Paterson was a swinger.) And on Sunday February 7, 2010, Business Insider reported, with
no sources a single unnamed source, that the Times story was set for publication the next day, and would cause Paterson to resign in shame. Prior to the Business Insider item—which launched a flurry of frantic e-mails from reporters to Kauffmann and Shorenstein asking if it was true—the rumors had been restricted to the New York tabloids and the internet. It lacked that imprimatur of a "legitimate" outlet. On the Sunday, February 7, before the Business Insider appeared, the AP's capital editor Michael Gormley e-mailed Kauffmann looking for a preemptive pushback against the rumors, citing "something pretty specific" that the New York Post and Daily News were working on: "24 year old staffer, sex with the governor, a trooper walks in and the governor asks if she will join them."
Kauffmann shot back what he'd been telling other reporters: The sex-and-drugs story was a "phantom."
Gormley replied that he was getting "crap from above" for not retailing the rumors, but left it at that:
Seven hours later, after the Business Insider item ran, things had changed. Gormley e-mailed Kauffmann to let him know that he couldn't keep the lid on it anymore: "I won't run a rumor, but I'm finding it hard, maybe impossible, to ignore the shitstorm of the last few days."
Kaufmann urged him not to, repeating his line that Gormley was "chasing a phantom." Gormley responded that, with an on the record statement to that effect, he might be able to get his editors to back off:
Kauffmann did go on the record condemning the rumors, but Gormley's editors didn't let up, and the AP ran with a story saying Paterson's political future was in doubt over "unproven accusations about his personal conduct." The AP story blew the lid off what had been a local gossip story and transformed it into a national scandal, prompting an appearance by Paterson on CNN's Larry King to attempt to clear his name.
A few days later, Gormley e-mailed Kauffmann for a follow-up story asking if there was a particular moment of "resolve" for Paterson as the rumors flashed into a firestorm. "Probably watching the Super Bowl as what seemed like a flurry of blog items were posted claiming he was about to resign," Kauffmann bitterly replied, "prompting a legitimate news outlet (the Associated Press) to run a story about the phantom story." In response, Gormley let loose an extraordinary e-mail—which he almost immediately retracted—telling Kauffmann that his editors were bloodthirsty for a rumor story despite being told repeatedly that there was nothing there, and that he threatened to take his byline off the report.
Gormley's editors were pushing to run the story without even an on-the-record response from the governor's office. Since AP rules require that any story with anonymous sources carry a byline, Gormley was able to hold it up by threatening to take his name off the story, a move he told Kauffmann "threatened" his AP career.
A few hours later, Gormley e-mailed Kauffmann to say he'd sent the e-mail inadvertently—it was a "draft" of something he'd been working on, and that it was "stream of consciousness stuff" that was "wrong in both tone and content."
Contacted for comment, an AP spokesman said, "We don't discuss the internal give and take among staffers in pursuing stories. I will add that Mike Gormley is a hard-nosed reporter who was trying to be fair and accurate in his coverage of the governor. Ultimately, we stand by what went out on the AP wire."
The irony in Paterson's case is that while he actually did have a case to make about a media-driven shitstorm over empty rumors, it was kind of overshadowed by the real, non-sex-and-drugs malfeasance uncovered by the Times while his flacks were complaining about unscrupulous reporters. This e-mail, for instance, from Kauffmann to Koblin after the Tweet that rocked Albany would be easier to take if Kauffmann's boss hadn't been, at roughly the same time, trying to intimidate a domestic violence victim into dropping charges against one of his aides:
So was the Times ever working on a "bombshell" about sex in the governor's mansion? Yes! On January 24, 2010, before any of the rumors had come to light, the Times' Danny Hakim e-mailed Shorenstein with several questions about changes in protocol that kept state troopers out of the governor's mansion. Among them: "Have the state police caught the governor in compromising positions in the mansion with women who are not his wife? (Our understanding is that they have on more than one occasion.)"
But Shorenstein's categorical, on-the-record "no" to that last question seemed to be good enough for Hakim, who left it to the New York Post to delve into the sex story a few days later and moved on to bigger fish.