On the night of Tuesday, Feb. 16, a story came out that negated the news cycle about said story that had preceded its release, but by that point no one cared. News of the story had first come into wide circulation a week and a half prior. It was a bombshell about New York Governor David Paterson, the rumors went. Was it a sex scandal? A corruption investigation? Maybe it was gambling, maybe the illegal selling of state contracts. Maybe both! No one knew except The New York Times, which was working on the story, but they wouldn’t tell.
The first media mentions talked of rampant rumors in the state capital, the existence of which were blogged and tweeted with no detail whatsoever. The existence of a forthcoming “bombshell story” was reblogged and retweeted and linked with added details most of which were made up entirely, it seems. Mainstream news organizations got into the rumor frenzy. The Associated Press even wrote an article. The rumors got so bad Paterson was forced to hold a press conference to deny that he would resign. This for a story that hadn’t even come out yet.
By this time, the story had become more about the reporting of itself – reporting being a loose term. Paterson complained about the refusal of The New York Times to just come out with a story already, or at least deny false rumors. He argued that discussion of the story-in-waiting that relied on false information was damaging his reputation, something The New York Times was enabling through their silence, and when the actual story came out it would not undo the damage of the run-up to the story.
The New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt basically said it wasn’t his fault, and blamed new media (the internet) for the rumors. He began his article with a quoted tweet that supposedly started it all – although really, NYT reporting started it – and claimed revealing the information in the upcoming Paterson article would undermine competition. Gawker, one of the new media sites called out by Hoyt, pointed out that all the hype was only helping The New York Times; keeping quiet fueled anticipation for the article.
Gawker also defended its own role: It had done some actual reporting of its own, getting a denial of some of the rumors.
Other coverage of the not-yet-released story included a round-up of all the coverage of the story by the New York Observer’s John Koblin, author of the instigating tweet in Hoyt’s article. Rumored dates for the anticipated New York Times article kept being pushed back until eventually people just got tired of the story. The David Paterson scandal ran its course before the story was even released.
Google trends show searches for “David Paterson” peaking a full week before the story came out. The story, like the story about the story, ended up not even being about David Paterson. It was a strange combination of profile and complaint against a Paterson aide, who had apparently made some enemies in his current position. That, plus old drug-related charges and newer but thinly backed up domestic abuse accusations against the aide made up the story. The theories of giving out state contracts to pay off gambling debts were much more interesting, really.
Reputation matters more than the facts. The story took off because of the NYT reputation, as a national newspaper, of breaking scandals. (Gawker, only a website, had less credibility even though their contribution actually involved calling up the governor’s office and not withholding the results for weeks.)
The real impact of the article that ended up about Paterson’s aide is not in the article, but the impact of rumors of the article on Paterson’s reputation. After all, there were more headlines about Paterson scandals than about Paterson’s aide, and quantity always beats quality.