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Anatomy Of A Rumor: Gov. David Paterson

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"Ghastly Governor" was the top headline on March 2 at Huffington Post. The article, from the page one lead of New York Times, describes the role of New York State Gov. David Paterson in an assault case involving his top aide. The New York Post cover (March 1) headline was, "Last Call For Gov." Paterson undoubtedly will resign before the end of the year. Ironic, since his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer also resigned due to a scandal. Here is a recap of the Paterson scandal and the role of rumors.

On Saturday (Feb. 20), David Paterson announced that he will run for reelection as governor of New York. He denounced the "smear campaign" and stated, "Innuendo and ridicule and false rumors can have a long and lasting effect." How right he was!

For over a month, rumors swirled that The New York Times was preparing a report about sexual carousing and other recent misdeeds by Paterson.

A rumor, according to psychologists and sociologists, is unverified information, usually untrue, that is widely disseminated. The invidious rumor about Paterson was so widespread that Clark Hoyt, public editor of The Times, devoted a column to it on Sunday, Feb. 14. Hoyt asked, "Does a newspaper have an obligation to address other people's scuttlebutt about its reporting?"

Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times, told Hoyt that The Times "generally does not talk about what it is working on" because news is a competitive business and also repeating rumors increases knowledge of their existence and perhaps adds to their credibility.

The rumors about Paterson's sexcapades, drug use and other misbehavior had been reported in New York's tabloid newspapers, on Gawker and other blogs. The New York Post reported that state police caught Gov. Paterson in a utility closet with a woman other than his wife. In an Associated Press interview (Feb. 9), Paterson strongly denied such an incident and even the existence of such a closet in the executive mansion.

The first report of the "bombshell" (as it was dubbed by other newspapers) Times article appeared on Feb. 5. The front page of the New York Post screamed. "I Did Not Have Sex With That Woman." The Daily News headline was, "Captain Chaos." Media buzz about a Paterson bombshell appeared in the Huffington Post, Gawker, The New York Observer and elsewhere. The beleaguered governor repeated his denials on the Don Imus and John Gambling radio programs. On Feb. 11, he told Larry King on CNN that it was a "Kafkaesque scenario."

On Feb. 17, The Times had a long article (page one, above the fold, with a four-column photo) about David W. Johnson, who is "perhaps the man closest to the state's chief executive." The article stated that the $132,000/year 37-year old Johnson was twice arrested on drug charges when he was a teenager and has been involved recently in disputes with women that led to calls to the police.

The Times mentioned "another aide, a former state trooper" but omitted any details. As John Cook of Gawker noted (Feb. 17), that person is Clementine (Clemmie) Harris, a tall man (though not as tall as Johnson, who is 6'7") who is a registered voter in Pennsylvania, where he is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Two days later, The Times frontpaged an article by three reporters who had conducted many interviews of Paterson and his staff. The article, which criticized the governor's aloof style, continued on a full page, but it was not a bombshell. It noted that Gabrielle Turner, a former girlfriend of Paterson, recently was appointed deputy director of the state's Washington office, resulting in several resignations of staffers. According to Paterson, the bashing depicts him in "a racialized, hypersexualized and more or less dissolute context...it appears that all I'm doing is drinking, chasing women, doing drugs."

Paterson responded to the article as "a nasty and seemingly coordinated effort to attack the governor based on nothing but rumor and innuendo."

Following Paterson's reelection announcement, The Times relentlessly pursued him. A page one above-the-fold article (by four reporters) investigated the woman in the Bronx who had been abused by David Johnson. It seems that she had a brief phone conversation with Paterson (at his instigation) and then did not turn up for a court hearing at which she had requested protection from Johnson.

The lead article in The Times on Feb. 26 revealed the resignation of the governor's top criminal justice advisor. An accompanying article reported that Patterson had asked Atty. Gen. Andrew M. Cuomo to investigate the allegations. A gift from heaven for Cuomo, who thus far has not announced his plan to run for the governor's position.

The next day, Feb. 27, the page one bombshell dropped. Paterson announced that he will not run for reelection. Breaths of relief came from the White House, Democrats, and newspaper readers who had been oversaturated with the Paterson imbroglio.

David Paterson has been a media target since he became governor in 2008 when Eliot Spitzer resigned, after being involved in a prostitution investigation. (Ironically, his call girl, Ashley Dupre, now is a columnist at the New York Post) At a news conference after taking office, Paterson attempted to get out anything soiled, notably that he had tried cocaine and marijuana when he was a young man and had been unfaithful to his wife in 1999 when they were separated.

The media have criticized Paterson's poor performance but no one anticipated a scandal. Way back in 2000, when Paterson was a state senator, Johnson was his driver. The New York Observer (Feb. 16) printed a copy of a police accident report involving a state vehicle and a NYC bus. The passengers were Paterson and a state employee, Lila Kirtron, who was Paterson's mistress.

Why were the recent rumors about Paterson so widespread? Speculation was that Andrew Cuomo had engineered or encouraged them, but Cuomo strongly denied any involvement.

The media like to report on rumors. The word seems more acceptable than gossip but rumor and gossip are not synonymous. During the last two years, I have been working on a book about gossip. I have learned from the social scientists that gossip usually starts as a fact and then may be embellished, while rumors always are speculative. "Buy on rumor, sell on news" is a longtime aphorism among investors.

One of the most significant rumors ever circulated was about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002. Like most rumors, it was believable, but it was not true. UFOlogists are adamant in their claims but UFO reports, like alien sightings, are rumors and have not been verified by authoritative sources.

A rumor often takes on a life of its own, can persist and be harmful. Much of the appeal of both rumor and gossip arises from wishful thinking and the intrigue of secrecy. Many people still argue about unproven conspiracies, such as that John F. Kennedy was killed as part of a plot.

In dealing with rumors and gossip, public relations consultants advise their clients to tell the truth quickly and fully. David Paterson tried to do that but repetition of the denials was fodder for the tabloids and gossip blogs. All of us, including the media, have become distrustful of many politicians, such as Mark Sanford and John Edwards.

Of course, The Times was not alone in its pursuit of Paterson, though its coverage was much greater than the two New York tabloids. The New York Post had more articles than the Democratic-oriented Daily News. The Post dubbed it abusegate, with references to "raunchy rumors."

The tabloids are creative in their headlines such as the Post's "I'll leave office early only "in a box" (Feb. 9) and "David's Full Glass of Whine" (Feb. 21). Post covers included "Time To Go, Dave" (Feb. 26) and "See Ya!" (Feb. 27). The Daily News cover on Feb. 27 was "Just Get Out, Dave."

This story is not over. Patterson has not announced the date when he will leave office. When Cuomo completes his investigation, criminal actions may ensue. But, for now, blame is not on the rumor mill.

Richard Weiner, a public relation consultant, is writing a book about gossip. His 23 books include "Webster's New World Dictionary of Media and Communications."

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