Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly A. Strassel thinks the press serviced Eliot Spitzer.

Media criticism.
March 13 2008 2:40 PM

Did the Press Service Spitzer?

That's what Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly A. Strassel would have you believe.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Desperate newspaper columnists can always grind out a quick piece by purchasing a large burlap bag and stuffing "The Press" and several pounds of broken glass inside it. Drag to a steep, long staircase, give it a shove, and the column almost writes itself.

The Wall Street Journal's Kimberly A. Strassel adopts this technique in her March 12 op-ed "Spitzer's Media Enablers," in which she accuses the "adoring" and "compliant" press of acting "as an adjunct of Spitzer power, rather than a skeptic of it."

Like most press critics who hunt with a blunderbuss, Strassel is low on specifics. The pro-Spitzer coverage she deigns to name hardly gives him a free ride. Strassel knocks Time magazine's Dec. 30, 2002, feature for calling Eliot Spitzer "Crusader of the Year." But the piece, written by Adi Ignatius, doesn't fawn over him. He's portrayed as impetuous and overreaching, and too pushy for his own good in various sections. Ignatius writes that Spitzer's pursuit of Merrill Lynch was viewed by some as"too harsh, meddling in an area in which he had no expertise or clear jurisdiction."

Strassel smacks the Atlanticfor calling Spitzer the "Democratic Party's future," but the October 2004 profile isn't a puffer, and Strassel's quotation misleads. Here's what reporter Sridhar Pappu actually wrote in the magazine:

Make no mistake: Spitzer is the Democratic Party's future. Or, at the very least, a significant part of it. ... But, along with Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm, and the soon-to-be Illinois senator Barack Obama, Spitzer represents the cutting-edge model of the post-Clinton Democrat, drawn from a generation of politicians whose formative experience wasn't the civil-rights movement, who are tough on crime, and whose foreign policy isn't shaped by Vietnam.

Strassel also makes a big deal about Pappu calling Spitzer a "rock star," but taken in context the reference is anything but slobbering. Spitzer has just given a speech—practically a "sermon," in Pappu's view—to an auditorium of 3,000 people. So when he writes, "Spitzer gets a standing ovation. He is a rock star now, and as such he is met after the speech by a group of people wanting a piece of him," he's describing something real, not necessarily stroking a politician.

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Fortune—that well-known left-wing journal of opinion—gets Strasselled for calling Spitzer "The Enforcer." But click and read the actual Sept. 16, 2002, article by Mark Gimein for yourself, and get back to me if you think the magazine licks Eliot's feet.

Strassel also finds skullduggery in Spitzer biographer Brooke A. Masters' comparison of "the attorney general to no less than Teddy Roosevelt." For crying out loud! Lots of pieces about Spitzer compare him to Teddy if for no other reason than Spitzer encourages the comparison—he worships the old pol, keeping a conspicuous picture of him in his office for reporters to see! Other non-nefarious reasons a reporter might compare Eliot to Teddy: Both battled Wall Street. Both became governor of New York. Both bullied their opponents.

The remainder of Strassel's press critique neglects to name the favorite reporters to whom he "doled out scoops" and "who repaid him with allegiance." The publications that "buried inside" the news that would embarrass the prosecutor also go unnamed. She claims that news organizations (unnamed, in the interest of consistency, I suppose) "that dared to criticize him" found themselves "cut off." But this allegation cuts against Strassel's thesis, of course, by noting that some reporters refused to give Spitzer the tongue bathings he seems to have demanded. Excellent avenue for exploration in a piece of press criticism, don't you think? Similarly, I don't recall the press lining up to protect Spitzer in the wake of his state trooper scandal.

None of this is to say that Spitzer was my kind of attorney general or that the press distinguished itself in its coverage of him. He wasn't and it didn't. Bias for Spitzer, where it existed, probably grew out of reporters' preference for action over inaction. Many reporters become blocked when assigned to write about something that isn't happening. That's why they love writing stories and columns about the horrors of "gridlock" and "do-nothing" politicians.

To make the case that the press serviced Spitzer, Strassel needs to do more than shake her bloody burlap bag as evidence.

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Sometimes  Spitzer followed the press. The Time piece Strassel complains about reports that a 2001 Spitzer investigation of Merrill Lynch began with an article in the Wall Street Journal. Send egregious examples of Spitzer bias to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: Here's a hand-built RSS feed that will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Strassel in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.