Muckraking – Why Good Intentions Aren’t Good Enough

Following on the heels of my earlier post on the David Paterson affair, the New York Times breaks a new development today (from the same journalists as the original investigative report) which finds, by way of two anonymous sources, that Paterson did instruct two staff members to contact the woman accusing one of his aids of domestic violence. The article is laid out beautifully, except for this gem buried in its own paragraph midway through the article:

These accounts provide the first evidence that Mr. Paterson helped direct an effort to influence the accuser.

This is why I don’t feel compelled to recant the previous post even though Paterson’s relative guilt is now, at this point, pretty much a moot point. By floating the previous three articles – the same articles that led, directly, to Paterson’s resignation – the Times unquestionably laid the groundwork for the two sources paraphrased here to come forward. Without those articles, the sources say nothing. But if this is, quote, the “first evidence” that Mr. Paterson ever directed anyone to do anything, on what grounds are the other articles justified?

I am not saying that domestic violence is not a crime. I am not saying that Paterson is innocent. This, however, is a procedural question, and procedural questions are endemic to how institutions like the press, and like the law, are ordered; it’s the kind of thing that, not coincidentally in a show called “Law & Order,” goes wrong during the police investigation and leaves Sam Waterston glaring. No one likes to see guilty people go free; and no one likes to see crooked politicians abusing their position of power to exploit the innocent, let alone the victimized. But to build journalism on mere supposition – as the new article admits, without direct evidence – is not journalism: it’s muckraking, of the foulest, most generic kind.

Maybe the Times is feeling unloved, given all the hype – even in the Times! – surrounding the National Enquirer’s attempts to earn Pulitzer approval for their coverage of the John Edwards scandal, but whereas the Enquirer carried the day by actually implementing conventional journalistic practice, the Times here is only aping the worst habits of the tabloid press.

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