Scenes from the Sausage Factory: How News Gets Done

The story is about to break about a sex scandal involving the governor – reporters from a major daily and the governor's press agents scramble behind the scenes to get the facts right before publication…

A supreme court justice visits a NY prep school – the school newspaper holds back on the story while his staff reviews a draft and "tidies up quotations" to "better reflect the meaning the justice had intended to convey."

Two very different scenarios, true, but they both raise the same question: are they symptomatic of collusion between a pliant media and the people at the center of stories they are covering?  Or are they nothing remarkable, just examples of how news get done these days?

The first story came to my attention when my Fusion PR colleague Lisa pointed out an article that ran in Gawker last week.  The article claimed to shine a light on questionable dealings between the NY Times and then-NY Governor Elliot Spitzer's handlers leading up to the breaking news of his hooker escapades.

Gawker claimed that the NY Times showed extraordinary deference to the governor's press agents.  At times, it seemed like roles were reversed – the flacks seemed almost more determined than the reporters to get the key facts right.  As the article said:

It's a bizarre world where flacks are more vigilant than reporters when it comes to trying not to mislead readers.

If nothing else, the piece provides an extraordinary window into the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of a PR crisis as it unfolded.  They got this look by obtaining emails through NY's open records law (tell me please, where is the protection of journalistic sources here?).

I am on the side of the many commenters that say Gawker overstated its case.  As the saying goes, no harm, foul – the story was accurate, got out and the rest is history.

The second story, from the NY Times today, covers Justice Kennedy's visit to the Dalton School in NY.  The school newspaper was not able to cover the event in a timely way, and instead wrote the following disclaimer, as reported in the Times:

“We are not able to cover the recent visit by a Supreme Court
justice due to numerous publication constraints,” the note said. It
promised “an explanation of the regrettable delay” in the next issue.

It turns out that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy,
widely regarded as one of the court’s most vigilant defenders of First
Amendment values, had provided the newspaper, The Daltonian, with a
lesson about journalistic independence. Justice Kennedy’s office had
insisted on approving any article about a talk he gave to an assembly
of Dalton high school students on Oct. 28.

His staff assisted with the fine tuning alluded to in the opening of my post.

While few may get too exercised about what runs in a school newspaper, his visit was very big news indeed to the Dalton school community and surrounding area.  It must have seemed strange to have the story held back.  Then again, Supreme Court justices don't get out much; they are known to be extremely circumspect and I suppose there are good reasons behind this.  It is a tremendous privilege indeed to have someone of that stature visit the school – if this comes at the expense of judicial (judicious?) fine tuning of an article, and a delay in its publication, I do not see the harm in that.

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