Competitive Collegiality: The Press Corps Environment

The Dark Sides of the Pack

February 7, 2010. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. The Capitol editor of the Associated Press (AP), Mike Gormley, contacts Governor Paterson’s communications director, Peter Kauffmann, at noon. In a disclosed e-mail correspondence (Hendler 2010b),1 he offers him “the only fair shot you’re likely to get” to comment on sex scandal allegations against the Governor (Hendler 2010a). Initiated by the New York Post (Johnson 2010), rumors had circulated at the State Capitol for over a week that a State Trooper, making his routine rounds at the Governor’s mansion, walked in on Governor Paterson having sex with a woman who was not his wife. On Friday February 5, 2010, John Koblin of The New York Observer fed these rumors on Twitter, linking them to an alleged investigation by the Times that is about to drop a “bombshell” on Paterson (koblin 2010). This was flanked by Liz Benjamin, then of the New York Daily News, who cooked up the sex scandal rumor again, linking them to the alleged “bombshell story” that “a major newspaper” is working on. She insinuated that this one would be “far worse” than the extramarital affairs Paterson acknowledged right after he took office after Eliot Spitzer resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal (Benjamin 2010). All this boiled down to a collective anticipation among the press that Paterson might resign soon which would repeat itself in the following months in 2010.

Paterson’s communications director denies rumors and responds to Gormley’s e-mail inquiry that “the press is chasing a phantom fear of being

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Revers, Contemporary Journalism in the US and Germany, Cultural Sociology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51537-7_5

scooped by a [New York] Times story that will have no major revelations” (Hendler 2010a). Reporters have described this competition for scoops to me as a constant anxiety-laden scenario of coming to work one day and having an editor yell at them for not having a story a competitor has.

Just as the New Orleans Saints score their first points in the Super Bowl through a field goal, reducing Indianapolis’ lead to 10-3, Gormley writes Kauffman that he does not want to print rumors, yet he finds it hard “to ignore the shitstorm of the last few days” (ibid.). Kauffmann again tries to argue Gormley out of the story, saying that there was no connection between a probable Times story and those juicy rumors. Gormley tells him that the AP will run the story in 7 minutes and that he needs his comment. Just as he pushes “send,” The Who move from “Teenage Wasteland” into “Who are You”—in the early 2000s better known as the title song of CSI—during the Halftime Show, with the Colts leading 10-6. There is little resemblance, however, between the scientific sterility of a crime scene investigation and the nerve-racking situation Gormley finds himself in at that point. The AP ultimately runs a story, shortly after the second half of the game begins and, measured by the turn-around time of the news, long before the Saints beat the Colts 31-17. The story opens with the claim that Governor Paterson met with leading figures of the Democratic party to discuss his future “as questions swirl around the state capitol about a variety of unproven accusations involving the Democratic governor’s personal conduct” (Gormley 2010b).

Despite the use of qualifiers—“unsubstantiated claims” and “whisper campaign”—the AP as a model of fairness and ethical rigor in journalism elevates those rumors to the national stage, legitimizing them as publishable for others in the process, and setting the agenda for New York political news.

On the following day, Gormley interviews the Governor—now forced to respond—who rebuts all accusations, denoting the initial New York Post column as “fabricated” (Gormley 2010a). The ensuing e-mail correspondence between Gormley and Kauffmann indicates resentments by the latter. He blames the AP for being prompted by a “flurry of blog items ... to run a story about the phantom story” (Hendler 2010a). Gormley explains himself to Kauffmann, telling him he was pressured by his editors to run the story. On the following day, he writes that this quasi-apology was a draft of an e-mail he should have never sent to Kauffmann or anybody for that matter. In a revised version of that e-mail, he leaves out the part that reveals internal tensions at the AP the previous night. The “draft,” sent on February 11, portrays a journalist subjected to tremendous pressure that compromised not only his professional integrity but also his livelihood. It deserves to be quoted in some detail here as it points to problems that do not only apply to the Albany press:

On Sunday, after 10 hours of reporting, a top editor decided they needed a story. He wanted a story that simply said, based on rumor he heard from a reporter who heard it from a tabloid reporter, that the governor was going to resign. ... I had a sourced story on the conversations with legislators that they wanted to run in 15 minutes because it was late in the night. I, of course, said that wasn’t enough time to give the governor’s office fair treatment. I was told it was. ... At 8 p.m., I was told by my boss that he would push the button on the anonymous source story at 8:15 p.m., with or without the governor’s office on-the-record response. ... At 8:13 p.m., without your comment on the record, I called and said I was pulling my byline on the one-sided, sourced story [an AP story which includes unattributed quotes needs to include an author byline]. Panic set in for the editors.

At this point, my position as capitol editor and my AP career was threatened (such are the cut throat times in journalism today). I’m not asking for credit for this, it’s a simple, basic duty of a journalist, one we’ve all done in our career. (Ibid.)

Gormley then goes on to defend the story that ultimately did run on the wire, paragraph by paragraph. In the withdrawal e-mail, Gormley mentions that he initially used “poetic license,” claiming he was stressed and afraid that “irreparable damage” was done to their relationship. “My e-mail account was just wrong in tone and content” (ibid.).

This episode brings together several issues that are of key importance in this book. State house press corps are intensely competitive. The anxiety of being scooped by competitors fosters homogeneity of news discourse. Editors, geographically and socially removed from the beat and more involved with economic realities of news organizations, fuel and amplify this anxiety. They usually do not possess the background knowledge about inner workings of institutions that reporters cover which is necessary to make informed assessments. The downside of reporters’ deep immersion in their beat, on the other hand, is not only rumor-mongering. The preoccupation with gathering the insider knowledge that is so essential for accountability journalism is all-consuming and often occurs at the expense of public relevancy concerns. This is why such settings are often described as bubbles or echo chambers.

This incident also shows that tabloids’ laxer sourcing standards give them agency to advance political controversy immediately to the public realm. This is how they often set the agenda, forcing their competitors to follow them (one of my informants circumscribed this dynamic as “tabloid culture”). Thus, the press corps also elucidates the microsocial dynamics of tabloidization, which is further promoted by the economic austerity of print media. A former gubernatorial spokesperson, formerly a journalist and affirmed believer in journalistic ideals, if not its practice, explains how press events are “tabloidized” by a single reporter:

When ... Fred [Dicker] is sitting in the red room, yelling at a Governor, are all the TV stations rolling on it and they’re all gonna air it tonight?

Of course they are! Of course they are! Is the AP gonna run a story on it? Yeah they are! And does it ratchet up the tension, again this ... blood in the water idea: all these other reporters are like “oh, Fred is all worked up, I’d better be worked up too!” ... I’ve been in the room on both ends of that, I’ve been in the room as a reporter and I’ve been in the room as someone who works for the Governor’s office and I’ve seen how reporters react when reporters see when Fred is hard charging. And they all privately will tell you that he is ridiculous. When they get in the room with him and he is sticking some Governor with questions, they’re asking the follow up questions. (Interview, New York spokesperson, February 28,2011)

In the episode described above, competitive anxiety and tabloidization took effect in combination with the assumption that the esteemed newspaper of record, The New York Times, was working on this story, which further lowered the inhibition threshold to put rumors on the public record.2 Blogs and Twitter, which lack the editorial control that could buffer feeding frenzies early on, lend themselves to initiating stories that assume lives of their own and intensifying feedback loops of collective agitation that shape political outcomes.3 As Buffalo News’ Tom Precious noted in the aftermath of this episode:

Prodded by ‘shocking’ and ‘stunning’ and ‘bombshell’ authoritatively written reports by several newspaper blog sites, and then picked up by liberal and conservative political and gossip blogs around the country, Albany has been overtaken by the newest form of scandal: one that hasn’t even been revealed. (Precious 2010)

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