Mar. 17, 2008: We All Lose When Politicians And Media Get Cozy


Isn’t it strange that disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer got away with his trysts as long as he did? Spitzer, a mean-spirited bully, resigned following revelations he had been saying one thing and doing another. As New York’s attorney general, he stayed busy impugning the reputations of and ruining the careers of many on Wall Street as well as anyone else who dared cross him. Now, it turns out that Spitzer had been playing house with high-class hookers at the same time.

No one in the national media ever suspected “Mr. Clean” of having dirty hands? C’mon. The sad truth is that the media were his accomplices. Fawning media played Spitzer’s highly publicized Wall Street floggings on the front page. He was their white knight in shining armor looking out for the little guy. When charges were thrown out of court, as many were, that news was buried on the back page. It was only after a government investigation nabbed Spitzer that the media got around to toppling their hero from his pedestal. Among his admirers was Time magazine, which had named him “Crusader of the Year.”

The Wall Street Journal was one of the few that never bought into Spitzer’s shtick. After the governor’s resignation, columnist Kimberley Strassel opined that journalism’s most important function should be keeping tabs on public officials. Spitzer, Strassel said, played the media “like a Stradivarius,” leaking information to reporters, giving them scoops. It worked like a charm. Currying favor with Spitzer became more important to reporters than seeking the truth. To question Eliot Spitzer was to incur his wrath and see your competitors get the advantage.

I saw this kind of tainted journalism firsthand during my Olympic tenure. Arizona senator and current Republican presidential nominee John McCain had been burned by the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles. Their organizing committee asked for and had received strong financial support from the government and then gave their executives large bonuses at the end of the Games. McCain was livid. He thought excess monies should have been returned to the U.S. Treasury. Since the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games were next at bat, he decided to take his frustrations out on us. His ploy? Misinformation. McCain began telling the media we were using military personnel to wash the athletes’ uniforms, and cook and clean for them — all at taxpayer expense. The tale was preposterous and totally without merit.

Yet a compliant press dutifully accepted his claims as fact. ABC sent a reporter to Atlanta to check out the story. He realized that McCain’s charges were baseless and left. His bosses sent him back to do a story anyway because John McCain was — like Eliot Spitzer — a great source of information. This was a favor to the senator, and damn the facts.

This game of footsie occurred over and over with the media. In fairness, most reporters, like the guy at ABC, were a little shame-faced at having to ask because they knew the charges were fallacious. They were simply giving some ink and airtime to a powerful politician who could help them. We collectively knew nothing was going to come of McCain’s accusations. The media and politicians scratch each other’s back daily. Forget all that stuff we learned in journalism school about honesty and integrity.

I lost my last trace of naiveté when legendary New York Times columnist William Safire asked me about McCain’s charges. Finally, I thought a chance to get the truth told. Safire was a hero of mine and I knew he would see through McCain’s ploy. I could have spent my time better talking to a pineapple. His column was a hatchet job on the Olympics and a paean about McCain.

Imagine my glee when The New York Times published recently their “expose” on McCain’s alleged dalliance with a female lobbyist, which seems to have been a bunch of crock fueled by an unhappy former staffer. It was like watching two mud-wrestlers go at it. They both deserved to lose.

As the Spitzer and McCain episodes show, information is currency, and the national media and politicians trade it out of sight of the public, doing a favor for a favor. It happens every day. So the next time you are perusing one of the inside-the-Beltway newspapers or watching network news, ask yourself: Am I getting the real story, or is somebody doing somebody else a favor? It is a fair question.