Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Media of Judgment

Over two and a half years ago, the media told the stunning story of the downfall of Eliot Spitzer, then the Governor of the State of New York. Indeed, media, it could easily be argued, was instrumental in the outcome of the story itself.

In 2006, Spitzer, a Democrat and then State Attorney General, was elected Governor in a landslide victory that brought together Democratic and Republican voters alike. Prior to the election, media was used by the Spitzer campaign to craft his image as a uniting force for the state, regardless of political persuasion, and as a force for inclusion – Spitzer himself is Jewish and his running mate (and future Governor of New York) David Patterson is African American and also legally blind. Spitzer’s inauguration was a grand and well-orchestrated event that was again told as an even grander story by the media, featuring Spitzer’s beautiful and accomplished wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, a respected human rights lawyer, and their three teenaged daughters.

In the months that followed, there were the expected quarrels between Spitzer and the New York State Legislature, however the media continued to tout Spitzer’s image as a rising political star with the potential to become the nation’s first Jewish president. Indeed, one of the last – and most poignant – images from Spitzer’s governorship was of Spitzer and his wife walking through the White House on the way to a reception, looking as if they could easily occupy the White House themselves.

However, early 2008 saw a change the media’s portrayal of Spitzer. On one shocking day in late winter, the media began to present a different story, that of Spitzer as a man who patronized a high-priced prostitution ring on numerous occasions even when, as Attorney General, he was actively prosecuting other prostitution rings. Initially, there was uncertainty as to whether Spitzer would resign his office. In the space of a week, however, the media’s reports grew increasingly salacious, featuring details of Spitzer’s alleged trysts, as well as the allegation that he paid for the transportation of a favored prostitute from New York to Washington, D.C. while he was there for business. Ultimately, this allegation proved the most damning for Spitzer since, if established, it would have constituted a violation of the U.S. Mann Act, and thus would have shifted the potential venue for criminal charges from state courts to federal courts. After this allegation surfaced, Spitzer called a press conference in which he announced his resignation from office. Throughout the series of press conferences that led to Spitzer’s resignation the indelible image that the media captured was that a of Silda Wall Spitzer, looking thin, pained, and thoroughly tormented, standing next to her husband.

Following Spitzer’s resignation, the form of media attention shifted slowly from television to largely print, however the attention itself did not recede for quite some time. Spitzer himself was quite honest to the media in terms of the state of his family – which has remained intact – and entered life as a private citizen. Recently, however, Spitzer – who was a voracious critic of Wall Street during his tenure as Attorney General – slowly stepped into the public eye again. The first stage of his reemergence was a column which he writes for an internet site in which he primarily addresses issues related to the economy and his Wall Street insights. The second, and far more public, stage of his reemergence occurred when CNN announced that Spitzer would team with noted conservative journalist Kathleen Parker to create a new talk show airing during CNN’s prime time schedule. This program, Parker Spitzer, began to air this week.

There are many notable topics to come from Parker Spitzer, and doubtless they will be the subject of future blog postings. What I would like to focus on in this posting is the role of the media as a force for both condemnation and rehabilitation in a way that forms its own quasi-legal cycle.

Despite its veneration of Spitzer during the 2006 election cycle, the media turned on him quickly at the hint of a scandal. He no longer fit the image crafted for him; he had broken the rules which both he and the media had created for himself, or at least for his image. Instead, he became vulnerable and criminal, although interestingly the criminality in the media cycle tended to focus more on the impurity of his actions – and on the titillating details of them – than on the legal criminality of his actions at the state and federal level. The swiftness of Spitzer’s political downfall was attributable in large part to the media, which, certainly within New York State, was perpetually focused on Spitzer and continued to publish stories about his alleged conduct in an increasingly condemnatory way. Indeed, not only did the media scrutiny of Spitzer indict him before the public, it also indicted his preferred prostitute, who became analogous to a co-conspirator.

While the US Attorney decided not to prosecute Spitzer and no state legal proceedings were brought, Spitzer was still prosecuted in the media for months after his resignation. Eventually the media focus shifted away from Spitzer and it seemed that he would be relegated to the life of a private citizen, largely forgotten in the way that those convicted of notable crimes frequently become forgotten after they disappear into the confines of prison.

However, much as a conviction is not the end of the relationship between the person convicted and the justice system, this is not the end of the story of the relationship between Eliot Spitzer and the media. Initially, Spitzer’s reengagement with the media came in the form of an internet column. This was an important step, but it was not that visible. The latest step is, however, very public, and involves Spitzer working with the very same media that condemned him in order to rehabilitate himself and also to continue bringing attention to issues which were important to him as Attorney General and Governor. The media, in this instance, can be seen as granting an appeal, since there is no guarantee that Parker Spitzer will be a successful television program, or that the program will change the public’s perception of Spitzer. What Parker Spitzer will do is give Spitzer the opportunity to make his case directly to the public and use the same media that condemned him as a way to rehabilitate himself.

Information on Parker Spitzer is available at

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