The Spitzer scandal: There's life in old media yet

The Baltimore Sun

Shortly after the allegations surfaced about Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, CNN wrote on its Web site:

"Welcome to journalism in the Internet Age: an age when a 30-year-old former CBS gift-shop clerk like [Matt] Drudge, armed with a computer and a modem, can wield nearly as much power as a network executive producer or the editor of The New York Times."

Fast-forward to last week and arguably the biggest political sex scandal since then (though there have been plenty of lesser ones): Lo and behold, it was the editor of The New York Times wielding power, not someone armed with a computer and modem.

The fall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was prime evidence that even in the Internet age, new media don't drive every story. The Times broke the story on its Web site Monday afternoon and in subsequent evenings, which is certainly one change from a decade ago: Newspapers once held onto news so as not to pre-empt their "print" edition, but that thinking has gone the way of newsboys and hot type.

The progression from shock to embarrassment to resignation moved rapidly last week, but it wasn't driven by new technology so much as the power of the story. Unlike the scandals that tarnished Florida Rep. Mark Foley, whose creepy e-mails to a page were revealed on a news blog, or Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose extramarital affair with an aide was betrayed by the discovery of amorous text messages, Spitzer's transgressions came to light the old-fashioned way: a federal wiretap touched off by the curious movement of money.

The Spitzer scandal was a classic old-media story down to the references of "prostitution rings," almost conjuring up language from Guys and Dolls, said Michael Kinsley, a new-media thinker who was the founding editor of Slate.com and tried a short-lived experiment with "user-generated" editorials as an editor at the Los Angeles Times.

Now a columnist for Time magazine, Kinsley recalled that when the then little-known Drudge Report laid bare that Newsweek was working on the initial Lewinsky story, it validated the Internet as a news medium the way the Kennedy assassination affirmed the intimacy and might of television.

Even though the "gray lady" of old media was leading the Spitzer story, Kinsley wondered whether the new media hadn't had its own influence in quickening the news cycle.

"If this had happened 20 years ago, would he have been out so fast?" Kinsley wondered about Spitzer, whose last day in office is tomorrow. "The whole process of him trying to get ahead of it [with his news conference] was to create a firebreak with his response, but the fire kept bursting past the firebreak."

Between the revelation and resignation, Eliot Spitzer was mentioned in at least 1 percent of all blog posts, which is larger than it might sound since that was nearly twice the blog comments about the current president, the candidates for president or even Paris Hilton, according to the blog tracker Ice Rocket.

But the blogs provided little more than derision and commentary - "entering after the battle and shooting the wounded" as the old saying went about editorial writers. (Ironically, it's credited to an Oregon politician named Neil Edward Goldschmidt, whose public career was felled a few years ago by his own sex scandal involving an underage girl.)

Maybe because $1,000 hookers are particularly discreet, or because "Client 9" wasn't so recognizable at the Mayflower Hotel in the nation's capital, but damning cell phone photos or video that have become a trademark of the new media age oddly did not surface immediately.

By Wednesday evening, the Times had confirmed and published on its Web site the true name of Spitzer's call girl. It gleaned personal information about her from her own MySpace profile - certainly a new-media twist. Within hours, photos of Ashley Alexandra Dupre and a singing clip from the budding performer had gotten millions of hits.

Jack Shafer, currently the editor at large of Slate.com and a media critic, noted that the Times "contributors' box" that accompanied the initial story included nearly two dozen names. It was a reminder, he said, that even in their diminished state and facing budget cuts and staff buyouts, the print media still have the most feet on the ground to blanket a hot, breaking story. Some political Web sites offer original reporting, such as Politico and Huffington Post, but much of the material online is derivative.

"Talk is fast and cheap," offered Jodie T. Allen, a senior editor at the Pew Research Center in Washington. "Reporting is not."

Shafer surmised that the story didn't leak to an online source early because traditional media have become more disciplined and sensitive to the need to keep a huge news tip under wraps. "Fifteen years ago, a reporter at a bar mistakenly describes a story to a civilian not in the business and he has no way to publicize it or spread the information short of telling his friends," Shafer said. "Now, he does."

Among the various changes online since Clinton-Lewinsky is one more measure that a public figure has been disgraced:

At the start of last week, EliotSpitzer.com depicted a smiling, take-charge portrait of the governor and the latest self-laudatory blog post. By midweek, the site was down.

andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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