The Accidental Takedown: How the Times Undid David Paterson

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Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The drumroll leading up to David Paterson's announcement today that he won't run for reelection has been building for nearly a month now, after rumors first ripped across Albany that the New York Times was preparing an exposé that would take down the accidental governor. When a blockbuster story that did essentially halt his political career hit earlier this week, more than one media watcher viewed it as strategic timing by the Times. The piece, about Paterson's phone conversation with a woman pursuing abuse charges against one of his aides, was actually the third critical piece to be published since the rumors began — after one about the aide himself, David Johnson, and a general piece about Paterson's laziness and incompetence. "[The Times] handled this like a media assassin," wrote Gawker's Alex Pareene. "It wasn't one bombshell story, it was the drip-drip-drip of three separate, increasingly damning stories." In fact, there wasn't a strategy from the beginning. Whatever the story behind the original rumors was originally intended to be, it couldn't have been the one that ended up taking down Paterson, as the following timeline shows.

February 5: Rumors that have been bouncing around Albany for a couple of weeks about a supposedly explosive story being prepared by the Times finally get aired by the Daily News' Liz Benjamin and Observer writer John Koblin on his Twitter feed. (It was also reportedly mentioned by Post columnist Fred Dicker on his Albany radio show.)
February 7: This is the day that, according to David Paterson's office, he spoke on the phone with an ex-girlfriend of his aide and close confidant David Johnson. The woman was due in court the next day to pursue an order of protection against Johnson, whom she accused of abusing her on Halloween of 2009. "She told the police that Mr. Johnson, who is 6-foot-7, had choked her, stripped her of much of her clothing, smashed her against a mirrored dresser and taken two telephones from her to prevent her from calling for help," the Times reported later. According to the woman's lawyer, the conversation she had with Paterson that day was about a minute long, and didn't address the court case. "If you need me," Paterson is reported to have said. "I'm here for you." The woman's lawyer would not say whether the call influenced her feelings about pursuing the order of protection.
February 8: The woman (who has been named publicly, but we will leave that out here) does not turn up in court, and the case for the order of protection is dismissed.
February 9: The New York Times meets with Paterson and asks him about the October altercation between Johnson and his ex-girlfriend. According to the Post, the paper has been talking to the woman for a while.
February 9: Rumors about the theoretical Times story reach a fever pitch. Unrelated, underreported, and unsourced rumors about Paterson's personal life appear in print and online.
February 9: After Paterson publicly addresses the rumors of a devastating story, the Times does, too, pointing out that Paterson said the paper had not asked about the most salacious rumors, and huffily noting that "obviously we are not responsible for what other news organizations are reporting."
February 10: Paterson implies to Don Imus that Andrew Cuomo is behind the rumors.
February 16: The Times publishes its first piece to widespread media disappointment. It centers upon David Johnson, and references his past "altercations" with women, including the Halloween incident with his unnamed ex-girlfriend. The story reports that the ex felt pressured by state troopers not to pursue an order of protection — citing court documents — but also reports that she would "not comment further" to the paper regarding the incident. "Obviously, it was a breakup," the paper quotes Paterson as saying about the incident. "They know a number of people in common, and it just sounded like breakups you hear about all the time."
February 19: The Times runs a second story that is regarded as an "exposé," which consists of a roundup of anecdotes about general laziness, cronyism, strange use of campaign funds, and incompetence.
February 22: The press notes that no Democratic officials are in attendance as Paterson starts having campaign events. Despite the fact that the two Times pieces so far have not administered the coup de grâce, Paterson appears to have the stink of death on him.
February 24: The most damaging, and ultimately career-ending, Times story hits. The fact that Paterson spoke to his aide's ex-girlfriend the day before she failed to show up in court pursuing an order of protection against the aide is perceived by many as an improper use of influence. Fellow Democratic politicians begin to call for him to drop out of the race for reelection, and one aide quits.
February 26: Paterson drops out of the race officially.

The rumors about an "explosive" Times piece started weeks before Paterson actually made his damning phone call. While lead reporter Danny Hakim politely declined to comment on the issue, we hear from inside the Times that there was no strategy to the timing or content of the three separate investigative stories. And the timeline bears that out. Whether or not the paper was talking with David Johnson's ex-girlfriend for weeks or months, it's clear from the story on February 16 that neither she nor her lawyers were ready to release word about the phone call with Paterson. If the Times knew about it, likely enough they didn't have the reporting in place to run with it until the 24th.

In the end, the perception that Paterson's quixotic governorship was destined to fail was not started by this whole series of events. And in all likelihood, if this hadn't felled him, something else would have.

Update: Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt has published the paper's version of events on his blog. According to Hoyt, "the first thing to be said is that The Times did not know that the bombshell story, in its full detail, even existed when the rumors were running wild."