Thursday, March 13, 2008

Reporters reveal source in the Spitzer story: MySpace

With the official resignation of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer now out of the way, it appears that the establishment media can get back to reporting on what by all accounts clearly matters most in this scandal: the sex.

Though most national and New York media outlets did lead with the actual resignation speech, delivered in Manhattan around midday, Wednesday, the fact that the embattled governor was now to be the less embattled ex-governor made Spitzer’s troubles, and how we all were made aware of them, essentially, old news.

So, what’s new—or more to the point, what’s news? Why it’s the identity of the 22-year-old woman known as “Kristen” in the affidavit that details her liaison with Client 9 (Spitzer) at a DC hotel just last month. The local NBC affiliate newscast gave her identity substantially more time than Spitzer’s speech. ABC’s “investigative reporter” Brian Ross gobbled up the first segment of Nightline with breathless accounts of the woman’s “history” and “career.” The Los Angeles Times and New York Times each feature the story prominently on the front page of their online editions. The NY Times even runs a picture—right under one of Spitzer and his wife.

It was apparently the New York Times—the first paper to reveal the governor’s involvement with the prostitution ring—that “broke” the story of “Kristen’s” real identity, and I suppose they deserve some sort of credit because they actually went to the trouble of calling this woman and conducting at least a cursory interview. But the NY Times, and the three other outlets that I mention, mostly base their reports on that up-to-the-minute, of the moment, always factual, and thoroughly unimpeachable source known as MySpace.

Yes, you read that right.

Thanks to her MySpace page, we all now “know” that “Kristen” left a “broken home” at 17, has been “homeless,” has done “drugs,” but is now “all about [her] music.” It is possible that this is true (and the NYT did speak with the woman, her lawyer, and her mother), but there is absolutely nothing in any of the reports that would lead one to believe that a page on MySpace doesn’t actually have to be completely factual. (“The page is candid, reciting the disturbing details of a hard life,” reports the LA Times, who did not speak with “Kristen,” herself.)

The television reports are the worst—simply reciting the text from the webpage, with only oblique references to its provenance, or equally oblique camera angles of highlighted text on a computer screen—but even the papers rely overwhelmingly on MySpace without a hint of irony or suspicion. Eleven of the 23 paragraphs in the NYT article mention, quote, or attribute information to the MySpace page.

And then there are remarkable revelations such as this (from the NY Times):

Music is her first love, and on the MySpace page, Ms. [Kristen] mentions Patsy Cline, Frank Sinatra, Christina Aguilera and Lauryn Hill among a long list of influences, including her brother, Kyle. (She also lists Whitney Houston, Madonna, Mary J. Blige and Amy Winehouse as her top MySpace friends.)

Well, she did fuck a governor, so I suppose it is possible that Madonna and Mary J. Blige are her friends. I’ll admit, to again give them credit, that the NYT did at least call them “MySpace friends.” WNBC, by contrast, went to the trouble of finding a less famous area man also listed as one of “Kristen’s” MySpace friends to ask him what he thought of all the recent news.

To no one’s surprise—except maybe the team at WNBC—the guy didn’t know
Kristen and had never met her.

The LA Times had a similarly hot lead:

Nick Hanson of South Huntington was surprised to find out that someone on his MySpace friends list was involved in the Spitzer saga.

"I really never met her or talked to her," he said. "I just added her as a friend," after she sent him an invitation. "It seemed like she was very interested in music."

I hope you are laughing half as hard as I did.

Oh, and, “Kristen’s” music? Well, I will let some other netizen write that post.

The TV and newspaper reports all ran numerous pictures of “Kristen,” also taken directly from her MySpace page. Only the New York Times takes the time to explain the path from “Kristen’s” birth name, to her legal name, to the name on her MySpace page (all three are different—and none of them contain “Kristen”); WNBC gave her birth name, the other two just used the MySpace name as if it were her legal name.

I’m not sure that any of this naming names is a good thing, by the way. I have scrupulously avoided using any names other than her “hooker name” (though I understand that I link to the articles) because I don’t think she is really the story here (she might be a story, but well, not one that is going to keep me coming back for more). And, even though she seems a willing participant in her “outing,” I’m not entirely sure that this is the kind of PR she wanted (nor do I really feel like being part of it, even if she did).

But, to return to the heavy use of MySpace—I hope I am not the only one who is troubled by this. First, simply, because I fail to see how merely regurgitating large parts of someone’s self-generated profile from a social website is really news (I already am sure it isn’t “reporting”); second, and perhaps even more troubling, is that none of the stories give me much confidence that the reporters actually understand what MySpace is, or why it isn’t really a fantastic frame on which to hang the bulk of a news piece.

What it is, of course, is easy. I will resist the obvious joke, here, but some slightly different metaphors regarding pimps, prostitutes, and junkies might be of use.

I will, however, leave that to your imagination, because I actually want to finish on a high note—for journalism, that is—or a low note, if you think about the world we now live in.

As I mentioned in an update at the bottom of yesterday’s post, journalists (and I mean that sincerely) Jim Sleeper (of Talking Points Memo) and Wayne Barrett (of the Village Voice) discussed the Eliot Mess on WNYC with host Brian Lehrer, Albany specialist Andrea Bernstein, and NPR’s Adam Davidson. It was one of the more sober and serious discussions of the scandal itself, and, more important to me, the politics of the investigation, and the leak that revealed it.

Jim Sleeper posted something similar to his on-air comments later on TPM Café:

Eliot Spitzer’s resignation is a tragedy in the strictest classical sense: The legal substance of his offenses pales before his stupidity, hypocrisy, and, yes, immorality in committing them. . . .

But while Spitzer brought this on himself, that doesn’t let his Republican inquisitors entirely off the hook.

Their professional narrative is that the case simply fell into their laps and that they handled it with all due restraint: A routine bank review turned up “suspicious activity;” a routine follow-up by the IRS and then the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network showed that a public official was involved, thereby bumping the matter to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney, who obtained a wiretap of conversations which, of course, they had to listen to and parse. All they did after that was inform Spitzer, as the law also requires them to do.

And then they stepped back and watched him implode.

Not quite. Prosecutors were indeed required to tell Spitzer about the wiretap, but in no way were they required or indeed permitted to tell anyone else. Spitzer outed himself only after one or more of the dozen assistant U.S. Attorneys and scores of IRS, FBI, and other agents and managers in Washington and New York involved in this case committed the crime of leaking it to the New York Times.

Again, I am far from suggesting that that excuses him. I am asking a question or two about what else was going on, parallel to his own self-destruction.

Was the Justice Department as innocent and surprised by its findings as the official narrative insists? Will we now have the Justice Department moving heaven and earth to turn up its leakers? The legacy of George Bush’s disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and of too many Republican U.S. Attorneys casts a long shadow here.

Wayne Barrett perhaps went a step further. There is no written transcript of the show, but Barrett makes no bones about saying that the investigation “raises all kinds of questions,” and “smacks of a case that had a single target.”

Barrett notes that the Feds just renewed their warrant for the wiretap on February 21st, and brought down that wire only two weeks later. “Why would you rush the investigation?” asks Barrett, who says that he has never seen anything quite like this. “Very strange. . . . Contrary to ordinary practice.”

Barrett believes that the Republican prosecutor got the guy the Feds wanted, and took down the wire before they rolled up anymore “fat cats.” Citing the statistic that the Bush DoJ has gone after Democrats six times more often than Republicans, Barrett doubts that prosecutors would have “done the same thing” if they had caught a Republican.

Like Sleeper, I know that this doesn’t explain or excuse Spitzer’s hypocrisy, but like Sleeper and Barrett, I am pretty sure there is more to this story than the official, un-partisan narrative.

To come to this conclusion (or, if not quite a conclusion, an awareness), all I did was ask a few simple questions and apply a sense of historical context. Sleeper and Barrett clearly did the same. I have not surveyed the pages of every one of “Kristen’s” friends, but I am guessing that they don’t include that much context or history about the US Attorney scandal, warrantless surveillance, or the partisan machinations of the Bush Administration. I have digested the stories from four news outlets built on the MySpace “source,” and it seems that asking questions about, well, about much of anything, really, is more than we can ask of those “investigative journalists.”

Thank god we at least have the sex to keep us interested.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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