New York Times: The Anatomy of the Spitzer Takedown


By Kyle Austin

It has been a fascinating week of scandal.  Watching and reading (yes reading) the Spitzer story as it has played out, has been borderline addictive.  Especially for those of us that are fascinated by the workings of the media.  The fact that I noted “reading” is important here.  Although it did break online, it was the “Old Gray Lady” that broke this story and then separated itself from the rest of the media covering it like Secretariat at the 73’ Belmont.  They were the first to break another aspect of the story today by naming the prostitute who met with Spitzer in the now infamous Washington D.C. Hotel. 

This is a huge win for the Times, especially after the McCain story fall out, and an even bigger win for the metro desk.  A section that is crucial for the paper as it tries to remain relevant in New Yorkers’ eyes.  The anatomy of this takedown by the New York Times metro desk is almost a better story then the scandal for those of us that follow the media and the New York Observer has done an outstanding job of portraying just how the Times broke this story.  Yes HBO’s The Wire is finally over but who needs fictional journalistic drama when you have real life drama like this.  

Here’s how it unfolded based upon the Observer’s reporting and the New York Times story today entitled “4 Arrests, Then 6 Days to a Resignation.” Most of it is taken directly from these stories by John Koblin of the New York Observer and Michael Powell and Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times.  We pieced together their content into a timeline.  

Thursday, March 6 at 11:00 am:  A press release is e-mailed to reporters at the New York Times and all other outlets on Thursday morning, shortly after 11 o’clock reading: “Manhattan U.S. Attorney Charges Organizers and Managers of International Prostitution Ring.”  It seems fairly dry and doesn’t mention any well known clients at first glance.

Thursday, March 6 in the afternoon:  The Times’ William Rashbaum, a federal courts, terrorism and criminal justice reporter based in Brooklyn is tipped off that three lawyers from the corruption unit, including the boss of that division and an F.B.I. agent from one of the bureau’s public corruption squads, is working on the prostitution ring case. Within hours, Rashbaum is working with Metro Desk editor Joe Sexton and other Metro reporters and become convinced that a signifigant public figure is involved as a client of the prostitution ring.

Friday, March 7 at 9:00 am:  Rashbaum, a reporter of the old school whose outgoing message refers telephone callers to a pager number, is holding a complaint detailing the arrest of four people associated with a prostitution ring; information in the documents told the story of a john in Room 871 at a hotel somewhere in Washington.  He knew from the tip that Client 9, as the court documents called him, was a “New York official,” one source familiar with the investigation said. But which one? And what Washington hotel has a Room 871? 

Friday, March 7 in the afternoon:  Rashbaum and the investigative team that also included Sexton, Carolyn Ryan, metro political editor; Kevin Flynn, metro investigative editor; Matthew Purdy, investigative editor and Danny Hakim, Albany Bureau Chief have talked with numerous sources and are now sure that Client #9 is Governor Elliot Spitzer. 

Friday, March 7 through Saturday March 8:  Managing editor Jill Abramson stayed at the office late Friday and much of the weekend, and Mr. Sexton and Carolyn Ryan barely seemed to leave.

From the New York Observer: 

“We were very much here,” said Ms. Abramson. “Very late. I talked to Joe all the time—all weekend.” On Sunday, Mr. Sexton, who only rarely makes appearances in the office over the weekend, was quietly shuffling small groups into the “crying rooms,” little conference rooms where reporters and editors go for privacy.” 

Saturday, March 8: The New York Times sends a reporter to the governor’s apartment building, just south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, to see if Mr. Spitzer is meeting with senior staff members.  That day, he took a long run in Central Park and, with his wife, walked his dogs. Sometime that day, a person familiar with the case says, the government informed Mr. Spitzer or his advisers that he had been identified as a client of a prostitution ring. Other aides to the governor say they are not sure that he was notified.



Sunday, March 9, around Noon: The Times sends an e-mail message to the governor’s communication’s director, Christine Anderson, requesting the governor’s travel records for the week of Feb. 11, 2008, specifically Feb. 11 through Feb. 15. The message also requested the names of all the hotels he stayed at, where he traveled, flight records and any available records of receipts billed to the state.Ms. Anderson peppered The Times with questions and alerted the governor’s staff that a story was apparently breaking. Ms. Anderson assumed that an article was being prepared related to a continuing investigation into efforts by Mr. Spitzer’s aides to discredit Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader (RT Take: Communications director was completely in the dark, wonder if security detail was?).   Sunday, March 9 around 6 pm: Late that night the governor told his wife, Mr. Baum and his friend, Lloyd Constantine, an almost incomprehensible tale: He was a clinet of a high-priced prostitution ring; he had been caught on a federal wiretap; the Times had requested records for the date of an alleged tryst with a prostitute in Washington.  

Sunday, March 9 around 7pm: No Spitzer story appeared on the Sunday “sked”—the lineup of stories sent out to the Metro staff to let them know what was in the hopper for Monday papers. 


From the Observer: 

“There was an extreme effort” to keep it quiet, said one person involved with the story.  

Monday, March 10 at 11:00 am: Mr. Sexton knew for sure that he was sitting on top of the biggest break in his tenure as editor of the section, but he’d left the third-floor newsroom to conduct a previously scheduled annual State of Metro meeting up in the executive offices, in a 15th-floor room with views across the Hudson, with his team, acting for all as if nothing were happening.  Two sources who were present said Mr. Sexton seemed a little nervous and distracted. But he was on point. From the Observer:  “Someone asked, if you break everything from the Web, don’t you take away something from the newspaper?” one staffer in attendance said. “Joe defended breaking news on the Web—he argued for its importance. In some ways, [the Spitzer article] was a perfect illustration of that point.” (RT Take: Very interesting look into breaking the story online.  Joe Sexton makes the right decision in understanding the need to break the news on the medium that will make them the source of the story instantaneously.  If they had gotten beat to the story at that point it would’ve been a colossal error.) 

Monday, March 10 at 12:15 pm: The meeting lasted more than an hour, and it was shortly before 12:30 that Metro reporters who weren’t in the loop took note that something was happening. Mr. Sexton, Ms. Ryan, Mr. Flynn and Metro editor Jim Dao were making up for lost nail-chewing, pacing gravely in a third-floor hallway and “huddling up.” 

Monday, March 10 at 1:00 pm: Meanwhile, assigning editors were already dispatching reporters and stringers to stake out Mr. Spitzer’s apartment, where the paper had sent a stringer, a photographer and a video unit—all before the story ran on the Web, and without any of them being told why they were there, according to a person who was present.  Monday, March 10 at 1:55 pm: At a little before 2 p.m. Ms. Ryan, an immigrant from The Times’ sister paper The Boston Globe who took over the Metro section’s political coverage last April, was looking at a final draft of a piece filed by Danny Hakim. The story—headlined “Spitzer Linked to Prostitution Ring”—was sourced to an administration official. Ms. Ryan, satisfied with the story, shouted over a row of desks in the third-floor newsroom to Ms. Abramson, “Can we go with it?” Ms. Abramson, standing about 20 feet away, took a breath, nodded and shouted back, “O.K., hit it.” Monday, March 10 at 2:00 pm: The story hit on the New York Times Website around 2:00 p.m. ET, before Governor Spitzer was supposed to speak.  The ensuing traffic to the Website knocked it down sporadically throughout the afternoon and knocked the Governor out of office by Thursday.



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