Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Nicholas Confessore's Anonymous Sources Actually Say Things Like "Wink-Wink, Nudge-Nudge."

So let's see if we have this straight. We're pretty sure we don't.

"Several people with direct knowledge of the conversations" have told Nicholas Confessore that an aide to Mario Cuomo, the state Attorney General, called a few people in December and asked them not to endorse Caroline Kennedy for the Hillary Clinton Senate seat.

Those sources have placed the story, "Cuomo Aide Is Said To Try To Slow Kennedy Bid," on page one of this morning's Times.

What are the political agendas of these sources? What does the phrase "direct knowledge" mean? Who were they talking to? What are the implications of the disclosure? Where is the smoking gun in any of the reporting, that supports the thesis? Why is this story on page one? These are just a few of the many questions raised -- but not addressed -- in reading Confessore's confusing (that's a polite word) piece.

All right, here's what we really think: Confessore's suspect journalism here barely meets the bar for publication, let alone a showcase spot on the front page.

This is Journalism 101, Nick -- not letting your sources hide behind vague descriptions that mean nothing. We see what you're doing, and we don't like it.

Right from the first paragraph, Confessore lays out a messy proposition: that "people with direct knowledge of the conversations" have provided him with his information. What does that phrase mean? Had he spoken to people who'd actually had one of these alleged conversation, wouldn't he have been obliged to say so? His inelegant phrasing seems designed to make us think that his sources weren't actual participants.

Here's how Confessore begins the story, with emphasis added to show the vagaries of his attributions, and the consciously confusing construction:

Even as Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo insisted he was staying out of the competition for New York’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat, a top Cuomo aide urged labor leaders and upstate officials to refrain from embracing Caroline Kennedy for the job, according to several people with direct knowledge of the conversations.

Two of the people, including a prominent upstate Democratic operative, said the Cuomo aide, Joseph Percoco, had suggested the upstate officials give Ms. Kennedy a cold reception and had questioned her credentials.

“He said, ‘Don’t you think it should be someone who understands upstate? Don’t you think it should be someone with experience? Shouldn’t it be somebody who knows New York better?’ ” said the operative, who spoke anonymously out of fear of antagonizing the attorney general. “They’ve been trying to feed people.”

The second-paragraph reference seems designed to make clear that Confessore's sources aren't direct participants in the conversations, but rather, people who have been told about them -- making them what would be considered "secondary" sources, and thus less reliable.

If Confessore's sources were, in fact, the people on the phone with Percoco, he should have said so in more precise language. But maybe that was the whole point: perhaps he was using vague language to deliberately confuse the reader and thus protect the sources, so that Percoco wouldn't be able to identify them. It wouldn't be the first time a reporter did such a thing, though the Times has rules against misleading readers with source attributions.

Confessore plays even more fast and loose with his sourcing distinctions in the story's fourth paragraph, where he describes a conversation with "a top union official," and then quotes "the official." He's making it clear that this interview, unlike the others, was with a direct participant in a conversation with the Cuomo aide. Which undercuts the value of the reporting we just read.

And as for his original sourcing -- what exactly is a "prominent upstate Democratic operative," anyway? Sounds like someone with built-in biases we should hear about, such as an allegiance to one of the many Democrats circling the soon-to-be vacant Senate seat. But of course Confessore isn't going to tell us more; remember, his sources are anonymous "out of fear of antagonizing the attorney general." (Cuomo's famous temper even gets referred to later in the piece.)

As for the meat of the story -- there isn't any.

The quote from the "operative" does reveal some minor-league effort at manipulation, by raising weaknesses of Kennedy such as experience and knowledge of upstate. But a phone call qustioning Kennedy's credentials -- even from a top Cuomo aide -- hardly seems worthy of front-page treatment.

The second quote Confessore offers to back up his thesis offers even less substantial support: “It wasn’t a specific Caroline Kennedy conversation,” the official said. “It was, ‘I can’t say he wants you to tell people he wants it, but you should, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, know that he kind of wants it,’” the official told Confessore.

Wink-wink, nudge-nudge -- what is this, a Three Stooges sketch? It sure isn't evidence of wrongdoing by anyone. This second conversation only has to do with the possibility that Cuomo actually wants the job, which isn't even the point of the piece.

And that's it: four paragraphs of documentation for a front-page story, the rest of which quotes denials from all concerned -- "This is simply untrue," said a Cuomo spokesman, specifically disputing that Percoco called anyone about the Senate seat -- and rehashes the campaign to date.

Once again, Confessore's reporting on the competition to fill the Senate seat has proven second-rate. The agenda may be different this time, but Confessore's allegiance to his network of anonymous, manipulative sources remains the same.

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