Thursday, February 25, 2010

NYT Quietly Revises Paterson Blockbuster Overnight. Is It Still A Blockbuster? Maybe Not So Much.

When the NYT's latest David Paterson blockbuster hit the web last night, reaction focused on its most explosive revelation: that the Governor himself had called a woman who had accused his close aide of domestic violence, at some point before a scheduled court hearing.

But by the time the print edition hit doorsteps this morning, a new dimension had been inserted in the story: Paterson's spokesman told the NYT that the woman had herself initiated the call.

In the context of the overall story -- an investigative coup that revealed the murky role the New York State Police may have played in pressuring the woman not to pursue legal recourse against the Paterson aide -- this may seem insignificant to some. Indeed, The NYTPicker is already on record supporting the NYT's effort to hold Paterson accountable for the domestic violence accusations against his aide, David Johnson.

But a careful reading of the 2023-word story shows that the NYT uncovered no clear evidence of any wrongdoing by the Governor. Indeed, if the woman in the case called the governor, a reader could plausibly infer an alternative scenario of events in which the woman may have sought some form of influence with the governor, rather than the other way around.

And so, readers are now left with two conflicting scenarios: the assertion by a lawyer that the governor called his client -- and an inference that he did so to exert influence over a court proceeding -- and the assertion by the governor that the client called him.

Adding to the confusion is the story's murky timeline, and its apparent dependence for sourcing on the woman's lawyer, Lawrence B. Saftler, who only selectively revealed information about the case to the team of NYT reporters.

And at least one significant element from the seventh paragraph of the last night's story -- one that cast a confusing light on Saftler's reliability as a source -- has been quietly removed overnight from the version that appeared in the print edition.

In the web account last night, Saftler would only place the Governor's call on a date somewhere between February 1 and February 8, the date of the hearing:

"The woman's lawyer said Paterson's call came sometime between Feb. 1 and Feb. 8, the scheduled court date," the story stated.

This seemed a jarring lack of specificity, given that the call supposedly took place only a few weeks ago -- and that the exact date of the call is crucial to the timeline of events.

After the NYT added the statement from Paterson's spokesman -- which said "the call actually took place the day before the scheduled hearing," of February 7 -- the NYT removed the sentence referring to Saftler's imprecise revelation about the supposed Paterson call.

The NYT's decision to remove the Satler reference after posting the story reflects one of two possibilities: either an acceptance of Paterson's version of events -- which would mean that the NYT ought to also believe his statement that the woman placed the call -- or a desire to reduce readers' questioning of Saftler as a reliable source for what took place.

The NYT story doesn't reveal any information about Saftler. But it seems worth mentioning that he is, in fact, a personal injury lawyer with no apparent experience in criminal proceedings at any time in his career.

Curiously, Saftler has made one previous appearance in the NYT -- in an August 1992 story that describes his role in a personal-injury case seeking $5 million in damages from the stepmother of Barbara Bush, the wife of then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush.

The story -- by then-political reporter Alessandra Stanley -- strongly hinted at the idea that Saftler was pursuing public attention for his case, as a means to get a large settlement from the Bushes:

"They coughed up money for Neil Bush," Mr. Saftler said referring to the President's son, who received family assistance to pay fines associated with the collapse of the Silverado Savings and Loan, of which he was a director. "Why not for my client?"

In the third paragraph of today's page-one story, the NYT clearly attributes to Satler the assertion that the governor placed the call to his aide's accuser.

"Then, just before she was due to return to court to seek a final protective order, the woman got a phone call from the governor, according to her lawyer," the NYT reports. "She failed to appear for her next hearing on Feb. 8, and as a result her case was dismissed."

The clear intimation of that paragraph -- in a story that raises "questions of influence" in the headline -- is that Paterson sought to influence the woman by calling her.

But in the story's seventh paragraph -- added to the account at some point after 11:00 p.m., after wire-service accounts, Twitter and blogs had all breathlessly reported on the Governor's call as the NYT story's most significant revelation -- the Governor directly contradicted Saftler's version of events.

"Through a spokesman," the new paragraph reported, "Mr. Paterson said the call actually took place the day before the scheduled court hearing and maintained that the woman had initiated it."

The NYT account had already hedged in making any assertions of impropriety against the governor -- noting in the third paragraph that "many details of the governor's role in this episode are unclear."

But in the same sentence, the NYT asserts vaguely that its reporting revealed "an effort to make a potential political embarrassment go away." It attributes that statement to court and police records, and interviews with "the woman's lawyer and others." No mention is made of who those "others" might be. Nor does its specify who made the "effort."

Beyond that, some aspects of Saftler's statements to the NYT appear quite murky and non-specific for an investigative story of this magnitude, making serious allegations against a sitting governor.

For example, the story acknowledges that during the one-minute phone call, "the governor never mentioned the court case" involving Saftler's client. The NYT reports that the lawyer "would not say if the call had influenced her decision not to return to court."

The confusion stemming from Saftler's statements seems quite relevant in light of the fact that Saftler also gave the NYT one of its most explosive revelations: a specific quote from the Governor that seems meant to imply a trade of influence for silence:

The woman’s lawyer, Lawrence B. Saftler, said that the conversation lasted about a minute and that the governor asked how she was doing and if there was anything he could do for her. “If you need me,” he said, according to Mr. Saftler, “I’m here for you.”

But the meaning of those words seem quite different when interpreted as a response to the call from the woman, rather than as a call placed by the governor.

In other words, if the woman called the Governor, it would appear appropriate for Paterson -- who, as the NYT loves to point out, is a strong opponent of domestic violence -- to offer his help. But if the Governor reached out to her on the eve of her court hearing, those words could be construed as having the desire to trade such help for her silence.

It should be noted that perhaps the two statements don't contradict one another completely. The Governor's statement alleged that the woman "initiated" the call, which may mean that the Governor did call her -- but that he was returning her call. This would mean that Saftler's assertion to the NYT that Paterson called her was technically correct, but a misleading recounting of what took place, making Saftler appear to be a suspect source.

What we know for certain is that today's NYT story didn't satisfactorily answer readers' questions about the actions of either the governor or the woman, in connection with what took place -- or didn't -- between them.


Barth said...

Only an Albany mindset (or someone who just wants to attack the Times) would see it this way. Who made the call is not the point? For all anyone knows she was pressured into making the call by Paterson people who were hearing the rumors and, either rightly or wrongly, sourced it to her.

The issue is what the Gov said to her, what his minions were doing, and why she failed to appear the next day, whereupon the Gov could run around to the Times editorial board and everyone else saying the Times was out to get him and had nothing.

That is the point.

Anonymous said...

this seems to address your concerns