Sunday, March 16, 2008

Lessons from the Spitzer Case, Especially for Journalists

The surveillance regimen that opened the door to Eliot Spitzer's downfall, and federal officials' release of salacious details in an affidavit delivered to the news media early in the case, are reminders of the distance traveled in American government and journalism since the Clinton impeachment and the aftermath of 9/11. Together, they pose interesting questions for Spitzer, the government, and the press.

The astonishing question for Spitzer, a man who presumably knows the law even if he has trouble obeying it, is that he chose such a risky way of booking and paying for a prostitute, even though surveillance of financial transactions has tightened since 9/11. Spitzer's actions were so bound to leave a trail. Indeed, his actions were so incriminating that people have been asking whether he somehow wanted to get caught.

I'll leave speculation about Spitzer's desire to be apprehended to psychologists. But just as he should have anticipated getting caught, he should have foreseen his humiliation. The initial details--such as client number nine's aversion to using condoms--were astonishing and steamy. But the affidavit, as former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer pointed out in a good Times op-ed, is part of a growing trend in prosecutorial strategy. For me, the released information carried echoes of the Starr Report released during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. In both cases, the prurient details were humiliating, beyond the bounds of legal necessity, and almost certainly included to put the defendant on the defensive in an ugly situation.

The key political difference between the situations of Clinton and Spitzer is that the president still commanded significant loyalty in the Democratic Party and the voters at large. Spitzer, whose term as governor before the scandal amounted to one waste of political capital after another, had very few friends to stand with him when the bad news erupted.

Spitzer's speedy acknowledgment of his wrongdoing validated the evidence against him. But there are elements of this case that trouble me, especially when it comes to reporters.

Prosecutors don't always get things right. It is easy to imagine how, on another day, in another case case, they might release lurid and damaging details about a suspect who turns out to be innocent. Reporters making news out of such information need to think hard about what to report and when they are being used. The next target might not be as deserving as Eliot Spitzer.

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