Friday, January 23, 2009

Were Caroline Kennedy 's Marriage, Taxes Or Nanny An Issue Or Not? NYT Still Won't Say.

Normally, the newspaper of record -- that would be the NYT -- makes certain its stories comprehensively answer all relevant questions. Or, if it can't, it will at least include the unanswered questions in its reporting.

But in the curious case of Caroline Kennedy, you'd have to read multiple news outlets to piece together the saga of the last 48 hours, and in the end you'd be hard-pressed to summarize what's true and what isn't. Reading the NYT will only confuse and confound a reader looking for answers.

That's an unfortunate but oddly fitting end to the NYT's biased and mediocre coverage of the Kennedy candidacy over the last several weeks, as it veered from fawning to venomous -- and then back to fawning -- in its jaundiced assessments of her qualifications for the Hillary Clinton senate seat.

This morning's story, which adds Albany reporter Danny Hakim to the mix, feebly attempts a tick-tock to explain the changing positions of the Kennedy and Paterson camps over the last 24 hours. In the wake of Kennedy's withdrawal from consideration from the job, political operatives on both sides clearly strategized to save face: Kennedy by linking her decision to the illness of her uncle, and Paterson by suggesting that other issues (the all-purpose "nanny problem") may have surfaced to derail her candidacy.

Either way, we're led into a messy back-and-forth that only further confuses readers who keep wondering whether there's more to it than that -- including the rumor of "marriage issues" that made it onto the Times's website in the form of an Associated Press story that moved at 11:43 last night, under the headline, "Kennedy Withdrawal Creates A Political Mystery," with no byline:

Caroline Kennedy's mysteriously abrupt decision to abandon her Senate bid gave rise to an ugly swirl of accusations Thursday and feverish speculation over whether she jumped or was pushed.

The 51-year-old daughter of President John F. Kennedy was widely considered a front-runner for the Senate seat until she sent a midnight e-mail to reporters and Gov. David Paterson saying she was withdrawing for what she described only as personal reasons.

Even though many Democrats had thought Paterson was going to appoint Kennedy any day now, a person close to the governor said Thursday that Paterson had no intention of picking her because he believed she handled herself poorly in introducing herself as a candidate.

The person also said there were concerns about possible tax problems for Kennedy, a potential ''nanny problem'' involving a housekeeper, and media rumors that her marriage was on the rocks.[Emphasis added.] The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he wasn't authorized to speak for the governor, would not elaborate.

That marked the first acknowledgment on the Times website of an issue that had swirled through the press yesterday after being raised in the New York Post -- including the paper's publishing of a longstanding and unsubstantiated rumor of a romantic relationship between Kennedy and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

A New York Post story posted at 3:02 a.m. on Thursday first raised the issue, and of course attributed it to gossip columns:

In a stunning revelation, a source close to Gov. David Paterson insisted this afternoon that the governor "had no intention" of picking Caroline Kennedy for New York's vacant senate seat - because she was "mired" in an issue over taxes, her nanny and possibly her marriage.

Kennedy was "mired in some potentially embarrassing personal issues," the source said, citing tax liabilities and worker compensation liabilities connected to the employment of a nanny.

The source also said the state of her marriage may have presented a problem as well.

"She has a tax problem that came up in the vetting and a potential nanny issue," the source said. "And reporters are starting to look at her marriage more closely," the source continued, refusing to provide any specifics.

Gossip columns have reported for more than a year that Kennedy's marriage to Ed Schlossberg is essentially over, and the gossip site has reported rumors that she's been linked to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr..

Kennedy denied any issue over her marriage in an interview with The Post last month. Aides to Kennedy and a Times spokesperson couldn't immediately be reached.

But here's the truth: that speculation, which led to the Post story and even the AP wire article on the Times website, stems mostly from a single, unreliable source: Gawker.

Yes, Gawker -- alone in the American news media, and with no evidence or reporting to back its assertion -- has freely speculated for months that Kennedy and Sulzberger might be having an affair. It's known that the two are friends -- but that's it.

The lack of actual information didn't stop Gawker's Alex Pareene from raising the question on December 21, when he complained that the City Room blog censored a question raised about the relationship in a comment, and then posted:

Will the Times report on the public gossip that CKS is having an extramarital affair with the publisher of the Times? It's very relevant that someone who wants one of the highest political offices in the state is in a romantic relationship with the publisher of the most influential newspaper in the state. Since Paterson had to answer questions about his marriage, it doesn't seem out of bounds to ask CKS about hers.

The "public gossip" Gawker referred to, of course, was its own. Lately Gawker has been attributing that gossip to the National Enquirer, but it in fact first surfaced in a post by Nick Denton last June 4, under the headline "rumormonger," that printed the rumor of a relationship while being careful to mention that there was no actual evidence of it. (Denton had already posted a blind item about the possible affairin May, implying but not naming Kennedy or Sulzberger.)

And it should be underscored here that while the National Enquirer did report that Kennedy's marriage to Edwin Schlossberg might be "over," the tabloid made no mention of an affair, or of Sulzberger. Gawker has been on its own in pushing this scenario.

Nytpicker asked the Times about the Kennedy-Sulzberger relationship in December -- specifically, we wanted to know why the Times hadn't reported the public friendship between the two in its Kennedy coverage. Catherine Mathis, the paper's chief spokesperson, replied that "in this case, the editors do not believe there to be a rationale to include a mention." She didn't offer a reason.

What then followed -- as has been chronicled steadily on Nytpicker -- was a serious of harsh, damaging pieces on Kennedy's candidacy, riddled with errors and seeming bias that suggested an effort by the Times editorial side to distance itself from a perception of helping a friend of the publisher. As time went on, the friendship between the publisher and the candidate seemed increasingly at odds with the Times's curiously harsh news coverage.

That suddenly shifted in January. In the last two weeks, the paper published two long, flattering profiles of Kennedy that read as though she'd already gotten the job, and quoted friends and supporters repeating endless glowing anecdotes. One -- a 2,541-word page-one takeout, "In A Most Private Kennedy, A Lure Of Public Duty," published on January 19 -- was written by NYT star reporter Deborah Sontag, who had no previous involvement with the paper's Kennedy coverage.

Now that Kennedy has pulled out, the NYT has turned the story back over to Nicholas Confessore, whose piece this morning (with Danny Hakin) ricochets all over the map with conflicting theories and spinning by both sides. It's a hopelessly confusing takeout that tells the reader nothing of what actually happened over the last 48 hours to derail the Kennedy candidacy. The NYT has yet to even own up to the fact that it was its own website that first floated the notion that she'd withdrawn because of her uncle's health -- an issue that seems to have floated away.

So many questions remain, and have yet to be even raised by the Times, let alone answered. It's time for the paper to stop handing out anonymity to politicians who are clearly misrepresenting the truth to serve one side's interests, and prepare a definitive account of what has happened -- based on reporting, not on political spin. Among the questions that need to be answered:

Why did the NYT first falsely report that Caroline withdrew because of her uncle's health? We need to know the source of that, and get comment from Kennedy's side as to whether that played a role or not.

Was Kennedy going to get the job, or not? Right now Confessore and Hakim are hedging too much on this point, quoting anonymous sources contradicting each other. When that happens, it means someone is lying. They need to find out who's lying, and expose them. Anonymity is not designed to allow sources to lie to journalists with impunity. Kennedy insists she withdrew for "personal" reasons. Paterson's people pin it on nanny and tax issues. We need more information, and more disclosure about the Paterson sources and their motives.

What are the "nanny" issues being raised? We need information and facts, not vague phrases and assertions. If, as the NYT reported this morning, that the Paterson camp reached out to the media yesterday "to disparage [Kennedy's] qualifications," specifically alleging tax issues and a nanny problem, should that person be allowed to hide behind the cloak of anonymity? That seems unfair to Kennedy. She's being forced to deny, on the record, anonymous assertions against her.

We need detailed answers and full source disclosure, and as soon as possible. The Times needs to stop printing the anonymous assertions of politicians pushing their own ends, and start addressing the multiple questions still unanswered about the Kennedy candidacy and the Paterson handling of these events. The time for speculation is over.

"Our journalism has never been more glorious."
--Jill Abramson, managing editor, New York Times, January 7, 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You don't seem to be aware of the fact that AP and Reuters stories flow onto the Times Web site automatically, and so the presence of any wire story on does not in any way mean that anyone at The Times made a decision to publish that story. That un-bylined AP story you refer to is one of hundreds you can find somewhere on the site every day.