Whose Fault Is Stringer’s Fifth?

As the current comptroller of New York City, and a guy with all the right words on his resume to become the mayor of the Big Apple, Scott Stringer should have been in the middle of the fight. Yet the best he could do was a fifth place finish. Even Yang finished ahead of him, for crying out loud.

He had great TV commercials. He had an impeccable background. He had strong progressive endorsements. Oh wait. He did, then he didn’t, because he got accused. Or as people like to say these days, “credibly accused,” which means there is no conclusive proof that the accusation was false, so it could be true. Was that what took Stringer down?

Mr. Stringer, the 61-year-old New York City comptroller, isn’t the only one trying to puzzle out what happened over a few days in April in the campaign. Mr. Stringer, a geeky fixture in Manhattan politics, had been among the leading candidates when the woman, Jean Kim, accused him of touching her without her consent in the back of taxis. Suddenly he, the media covering him, his supporters and Ms. Kim were all reckoning with big questions of truth, doubt, politics and corroboration.

If you’re keeping score, consider that Biden skirted Tara Reade’s accusations without breaking a sweat. Andy Cuomo broke a sweat, but ignored calls to resign, whereupon all those passionate politicians shrugged and looked elsewhere. Kavanaugh was confirmed, even if tainted in perpetuity. Al Franken got crushed, from which the squishy learned a lesson. And Weinstein and Cosby got convicted. Then there are the thousands whose names flashed on the screen for a moment and then disappeared, but weren’t canceled because such a thing doesn’t exist.

Finally, there are the male students named “John Doe” who were sacrificed for the cause of not requiring anyone to actually prove their accusations, whose lives were ruined, whose names are unknown, whose futures exist only in their memories. But Scott Stringer?

As much as the exposure of police brutality has been driven by cellphone video, the #MeToo movement was powered by investigative journalism, and courageous victims who chose to speak to reporters. The movement reached critical mass with articles by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times and Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker on the movie producer Harvey Weinstein, which the Pulitzer Prize committee described as “explosive” revelations of “long-suppressed allegations of coercion, brutality and victim silencing.” Those stories and other notable sets of revelations — about the financier Jeffrey Epstein, the sports doctor Larry Nassar, the singer R. Kelly, the comedian Bill Cosby — drew power from rigorous reporting that helped develop new standards for covering what had long been dismissed as “he said, she said.”

New York Times reporter Ben Smith thinks pretty darn well of his own kind.

Crucially, reporters honed the craft of corroboration, showing that an accuser had told a friend, a relative or a therapist at the time of the episode and that the accuser wasn’t simply relying on old memories. The reporters also looked for evidence that the accuser’s account was part of a pattern, ruling out a single misunderstanding.

This is where reporters adore themselves a bit too much. And remind us that their understanding of evidence, of due process, falls just a few million miles short of proof. Tell a friend a lie and it’s no longer a lie? Is that how evidence works? Look only to the accuser and if there’s any corroboration, that seals the deal?

Those technical aspects of the stories weren’t always widely understood. But the landmark investigations were, even in this divided moment, unifying. There was no serious partisan division over any of those men’s guilt because the journalistic evidence was simply so overwhelming. But not every allegation — and not every true allegation — can meet that standard. Not every victim is able to talk about it immediately; not every bad act is part of a pattern.

It’s not just the ignorance reflected in this puffing of the hard work of journalists, “those technical aspects” which are about as technical as a third grader’s explanation of quantum mechanics, but the stunning arrogance. The complete lack of humility. The pomposity of believing that if a reporter unearths a friend who will confirm a story, “the journalistic evidence was simply so overwhelming.” Has no one told Smith that most accusations sound damning, until cross examination?

So what happened to Stringer?

In the case of Mr. Stringer and Ms. Kim, observers were left simply with his claim their relationship was consensual, and hers that it wasn’t. Ms. Kim’s lawyer had circulated a news release, which didn’t mention Ms. Kim, to reporters the evening of April 27.

It was a “she said/he said,” which fell short of the journalistic rigor of finding a corroborating friend who will say, under cover of anonymity and without being placed under oath or subject to cross-examination, failed to rise to the very high “overwhelming” level of journalistic evidence. Tell that to the thousands of guys whose lives were ruined on exactly that level of proof, on nothing more than the mantra of “believe women” when it’s convenient, and “believe women” plus we found a friend who remembers she said something back when, if the friend is telling the truth.

Once the New York Times announced the accusations against Scott Stringer, he was doomed. Not because he would have won otherwise, or at least come in better than fifth, but because he wasn’t important enough to spin the story, to make up whatever excuses were needed to rehabilitate Stringer because the alternative was some orange-haired amoral narcissist. They have other progressive candidates who could carry on with the fight, and losing one for the cause wasn’t a big enough deal. So they wrenched their necks and moved on to Maya Wiley, right AOC?

But the reporters who put out the story, who rubbed the stink all over Stringer but then couldn’t be bothered to deliver the kill shot to his campaign, don’t get a pass for some putative rational claim that this was journalistic rigor and they are not to blame. The story that took Stringer out of the running was important enough to run, but Stringer wasn’t important enough to save. Like so many others against whom the only accusation is “she said/he said,” but whose names don’t make the cut at the New York Times.

9 thoughts on “Whose Fault Is Stringer’s Fifth?

  1. Guitardave

    I think we need an addition to Bryce’s Devils Dictionary…
    “gathering journalistic evidence”- The ability to look at a stinky crowd of people and know exactly which one didn’t wipe their ass, without ever checking what’s residing on ones upper lip.

  2. Dan

    “Tell a friend a lie and it’s no longer a lie? Is that how evidence works?”

    No, but “tell a friend at or about the time of the incident, and that’s admissible against a claim that the incident is a recent fabrication” is how evidence works, at least under the FRE. Corroboration, at least in some forms, is legitimate under the rules of evidence. Where they go wrong is not in treating this as evidence, but in confusing “evidence” with “conclusive proof.”

    1. SHG Post author

      I fear you’ve missed the point by a disturbing distance. Corroboration would be admissible if the defense was recent fabrication, but even then, the witness would have to testify under oath and be subject to cross examination. This is what distinguishes what lawyers do from journalists.

  3. rxc

    Corrobation seems to be the legal analogue of consensus, in science. Neither one proves anything. Unfortunately, it seems that the more people you can get to say that they support the narrative, the more likely it is that journalists will declare that it is true. Real Science doesn’t work that way, and I don’t think that the law does, either.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m reliably informed that likes/ratios is how facts are established in the District Court of Twitter.

  4. Mike V.

    “There was no serious partisan division over any of those men’s guilt because the journalistic evidence was simply so overwhelming.”

    Journalistic evidence, these days, is the grownup version of telephone and isn’t evidence, as the word is commonly understood, at all.

    1984 has become reality. Somewhere, George Orwell is weeping.

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