“A lot of us have known about it for a long time,” one veteran Albany reporter told The Observer on March 18, the day after it was revealed in Juan Gonzales’ Daily News column that the brand-new governor, David Paterson, had had affairs earlier in his marriage.
“It was sort of like accepted,” the reporter said.
But a little more than a week before, when The New York Times reported that then-Governor Eliot Spitzer had been implicated in a federal investigation into a prostitution ring, it was time for Albany reporters to whip out a few old notebooks and make a few phone calls to ask sources to spin some old yarn again, this time for publication.
Depending on which Albany reporters you talk to, the Paterson affair (affairs?) were axiomatic in Albany journalistic gossip as much as five years ago.
But: “Who really cared until March 10?” asked another Albany reporter interviewed by The Observer.
March 10 or no, establishing that anyone is having an affair is a difficult—and for many reporters who pride themselves on working the political beat, sleazy—journalistic operation. The question might really be, for a lieutenant governor, is it worth it to touch pitch?
“It’s one thing to have rumors; it’s totally another thing to have a video where he’s in bed,” said another daily newspaper reporter in Albany. “The only way to report it for real is to have someone go on the record and say they know it—which is still suspect—or have a picture of it in your hands or have that person admit to it.”
“It was hard to make it concrete,” said another, “and it’s known, but how do you print that?
Still, as soon as it became clear that Governor Spitzer would have to leave office, the rumors were examined again, and at least at The New York Times and the Daily News, the assignments were made.
But they were difficult assignments to carry out. There was no way to get anywhere past the rumors without addressing Paterson’s staff directly. But what level of outrageous Albany gossip would a self-respecting reporter be willing to put in front of one of the incoming governor’s aides?
Several people interviewed by The Observer said their approaches to Paterson’s staff were difficult: Have there ever been any sexual harassment allegations against Paterson? Has he ever had an inappropriate affair with a staffer? I-don’t-knows came back in spades from Paterson staffers.
“People have been making phone calls, yes, yes,” said a reporter. “‘But what’s the news angle here’ is something we had to ask. Let’s argue he had an affair with a teacher who had no connection to the capitol? No story.”
And so reporters made their phone calls and asked some rather vague questions, and mostly the fishing expeditions netted little or nothing.
It’s not that the gossip is not specific. For years now it has come with names and faces attached, and colorful histories. The kind of stuff journalists save for gossiping over drinks; a kind of shoptalk escapism. “Here’s a story that I’ll never get to write …”
The tension had been palpable in some of Lieutenant Governor Paterson’s press appearances before the inauguration.
In one of Governor Paterson’s first appearances, Jacob Gershman of The New York Sun asked, “Have you ever patronized a prostitute?” The question was so far over the line it was easy not to break a sweat.
“Only the lobbyists,” the lieutenant governor replied.
Albany reporters will often say that they have the greatest beat: If only you knew what went on in Albany! But for the most part, you don’t. Because the journalists’ shoptalk, even when it comes close to being true, is always less titillating once it’s exposed to oxygen. Especially when that oxygen has been pumped into it by the story subject himself.
“It’s a scandal that’s not really a scandal,” one Albany reporter huffed. “It’s just an embarrassment.”
“Last Monday, this was a place … with a fire on its ass; today it’s more of a stroll.”