As someone who works in a city and a field that swirls in gossip, I confess to somewhat of a prurient interest in hearing a rumor now and then. Who's having an affair, who's about to be outed, whose career is soon to come to a crashing end. You can tell me. I don't apologize for it, I don't excuse it. I don't especially traffic in it either. But I do listen to it.
But as someone who considers himself a journalist, I don't believe such rumors should see the light of day. Not on TV, not in newspapers and not in blogs — where, sadly, rumors have taken on a life form of their own. I've heard tales about Bill Clinton and his extra curricular activities, as well as stories about Larry Craig and his outside interests, since the 1980s. I didn't care if they were true or not, but I did know about them.
Was it my role to report on them, or to even allude to them? No. The Clinton rumors became news after Bill and Hillary held their famous 60 Minutes interview in 1992, and the Craig rumors became news following his arrest in a Minneapolis men's room in 2007. That's when it was right to report on them. Not before.
Every day we in the media are fed with stories — real or imagined — about who is gay or who is having an affair or who is doing drugs. For the responsible ones among us, we don't write or say a word about it. Others, as the Internets can attest, have a different philosophy. Blogs are filled with rumors. Or even hints about rumors.
There's another way the rumor mill works. I remember getting phone calls about a prominent politician in 1988, saying that he was having an affair, and that if we — I was with ABC News at the time — didn't report it, the Wall Street Journal was planning on going with it, or NBC, or Junior Scholastic. Whatever. The game was apparent: We would be scooped by a rival if we didn't run the story.
And when even that particular ploy failed, I recall a prominent journalist writing about how different media outlets refused to deal in the rumor. A pretty pathetic way, I thought, of getting the rumor into print when no one else would bite.
It's just a rumor. And the media won't buy it. And here's the rumor.
I give you all this rigamarole as a setup to what happened to me on Sunday night.
I'm watching the Super Bowl, rooting for the Colts but appreciating the importance of a Saints win. Three feet of snow is surrounding the room with the big TV. But I'm relaxed, having a good time. And then the Blackberry vibrates the following:
New York Governor Paterson may resign tomorrow, following "bombshell" news. N.Y. Times preparing to go with major story.
Yikes, I thought. What's this all about?
I checked on line later that night. And then again in the morning. (I'm still snowed in, so there is no such thing as a newspaper delivery.)
Not a word. And thus, nothing to report about.
But that doesn't stop other journalists.
Reporter Elizabeth Benjamin wrote in her New York Daily News blog that a "major newspaper" is "about to drop a bombshell story about his personal life that will be far worse than his acknowledged extramarital affair with a former state employee." New York magazine reports that they hear the Times is "coming up with something big about the Paterson administration." The New York Post said a state trooper accidentally caught Paterson in what the Huffington Post called a "somewhat-compromising position." The Albany Times-Union wrote that the "chatter has created a surreal world at the Capitol where reporters are being quoted talking about an article that has been read by no one outside of the Times." Drug use by the governor has also been hinted at. You get the picture.
Even Rick Lazio got in on the act. The former Long Island congressman and presumed GOP frontrunner for this year's gubernatorial race is quoted in the Times-Union as saying:
The rumors about the governor are a sad reflection of Albany politics. No public official deserves to be the subject of over a week of innuendo and nasty speculation. If the New York Times is working on or has a story then they should confirm or print it. If they do not, then they have an obligation to stop this rumor mongering right now. Common decency demands it.
Get it? The rumors are despicable. It's not fair. But let's hear them.
Meanwhile, Paterson spokesperson Marissa Shorenstein told the Associated Press that rumors about the governor's personal behavior are "absolutely false" and that he will not resign. She said that the media have sunk to a new low by dealing in such rumors.
And so we find ourselves with rumors that (1) are now widely reported and (2) are officially denied by the governor.
And thus, it makes news. Whether the rumors are true or not.
Who's smiling in all of this? No doubt it's Andrew Cuomo, the state attorney general, who is widely expected — no, wait: Rumored! — to be the Democratic nominee for governor. He'd either clobber Paterson in the September primary or his huge financial advantage would chase Paterson out of the race. Either way, he's the next governor. I don't know anyone, including me, who expects the nominee to be Paterson.
Cuomo has been devilishly quiet about his plans. Just doing the job I was elected to do, he would say. Not thinking about politics, he would add.
But there's no reason for Cuomo to tip his hand. Paterson — who became governor in March 2008 when incumbent Eliot Spitzer (D) was forced to resign following his involvement in a prostitution scandal — has been treading water, barely, for more than a year. Even the White House has made it clear that President Obama wants him to step aside, under the assumption that he couldn't win the election in November.
Oh, did I mention that shortly after becoming governor — it may have been that very day — Paterson admitted that both he and his wife had had affairs at a time when their marriage was shaky.
There's nothing Cuomo has to do. Everyone — the White House, the media — is doing it for him.
And that's no rumor.