Big new media players owned the Meg Whitman housekeeper scandal that exploded on the West Coast yesterday, “rocking” and “shaking” (in our current political parlance) Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign just one day after a fiery debate with Democratic rival Jerry Brown.
It began in the morning with the now usual pre-scandal buzz as rumor of a major Gloria Allred announcement fanned out across the Twitterverse; it caught fire when TMZ.com streamed Allred’s 11 a.m. press conference live. A teary Latina nanny. A heartless white CEO. A concerned-looking familiar lawyer.
By 11.15 a.m. Pacific Time, we knew all about Nicky Diaz (Mexican-born Nicandra Diaz Santillan), her nine years of service for Whitman, her illegal status, and her allegedly unceremonious firing last year, after the allegedly heartless Whitman allegedly decided she’d be a political liability.
By 11.40 a.m., TMZ had uploaded a copy of a document suggesting Diaz had lied about her status to Whitman. Soon the debate hinged on whether Whitman had seen letters from the government sent to her house about discrepancies between Diaz’s name and the social security number she had supplied Whitman. Allred claims she has evidence she did.
Exhibit A. Exhibit B. It was up to readers to make sense of it all.
A day later, California’s slower dead-tree media is doing the work for us, parsing through the back-and-forth that followed yesterday’s media circus and proving the value of a bit of old media reporting— you know, contextualization, analysis, all that good stuff. It was particularly good to see in a state whose political media has been so decimated by cutbacks and downturns.
Still, some did better than others.
The Los Angeles Times’s report today was not particularly deep—there’s no real attempt to mediate the murky facts being sprayed from either side, though there hasn’t been a lot of time to try—but it does diligently survey the racial, historical, and political implications of the accusation. From Michael J. Mishak and Phil Willon’s cover story:
The controversy poses potential threats to Whitman’s campaign. A similar incident severely damaged Michael Huffington’s effort to be elected U.S. senator from California in 1994. Whitman has made a point in her campaign that employers should be held responsible if they hire illegal workers.
…Pitting Whitman against a Latina who says she was badly treated could undermine the candidate’s extensive outreach efforts to Latino voters, a segment of the electorate critical to winning.
The issue also could hurt Whitman among conservative Republicans, some of whom have criticized her for being insufficiently tough on immigration.
Whitman tried to court conservatives in her party’s spring primary by pledging to be “tough as nails” on illegal immigration but is now erecting billboards in Latino neighborhoods emphasizing her opposition to measures such as Arizona’s controversial new law.
One disappointment in the piece is a lack of skepticism about the allegation, particularly given the way in which it was ladled out. It was, after all, true or not true, a well orchestrated, designed-for-the-media P.R. moment from Allred, someone who is an expert in that particular field.
And yet, while the Times acknowledges the stagecraft of the announcement with a passing reference to Allred’s “trademark red blazer,” there is no mention of the AP’s reporting that Allred is a longtime Democratic supporter who has contributed to a previous Brown campaign. These are salient facts. And in a story that at this stage can only really be a contest of allegations, each side should get a fair shake.
The Sacramento Bee is a tad more skeptical, throwing in a quote from Whitman’s team about Allred’s partisan ties, noting also that during “California’s 2003 recall election, Allred represented a woman who claimed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger groped her. The case was later dropped.”
And amid his roundup of the she said/she said, David Siders’s report also provides some astute observations about the potential political fallout for Whitman following Diaz’s accusations:
Her story, regardless of its veracity, is politically difficult for Whitman, who began courting the Latino vote as soon as she won the June primary.
It knocked the candidate off message for at least a day, and marked the first time since early in her primary contest – when she faced questions about her poor voting record – that the former eBay CEO has been so squarely on the defensive.
“This is really the first time since then that she hasn’t been able to control the message in the campaign,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. “I think she’d rather not talk about immigration, and she certainly doesn’t want to talk about this.”
But for my money, the best report comes from the political team at the San Francisco Chronicle. Carla Marinucci, John Wildermuth, and Joe Garofoli treat the affair with just the right West Coast tone:
Startling accusations Wednesday that GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman had an illegal immigrant as her housekeeper for nine years have all the elements of a classic late-campaign “October surprise” - a sobbing victim, a media-savvy attorney, charges of hypocrisy and dirty tricks.
… It starred Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, a Democratic donor who is a controversial veteran of many highly publicized cases, surrounded by a battery of cameras in her office.
Snark aside, the Chronicle did do some admirable old media reporting—and let us know about it in the story. Even though they did not get any info out of them, the paper’s reporters went to the authorities to ask about the letter Whitman was supposed to have received.
Sarah Kim-Lee of the San Francisco regional office of the Social Security Administration would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the letter, saying such correspondence would be confidential.
And the paper’s team provided some nice context in a roundup of similar scandals and their outcomes:
Bernard Kerik: Withdrew his nomination as homeland security secretary in 2004 after it was revealed that his nanny was in the country illegally. He was later sent to prison because of false statements he made during the investigation.
Timothy Geithner: After being nominated as President Obama’s Treasury secretary in 2009, questions were raised about his family’s former housekeeper, whose immigration papers expired while she was working for Geithner. He was ultimately confirmed.
None of the papers exactly nailed it—readers are still left up in the air about the truth of Diaz’s allegations. In time we will know more. But in a short amount of time, the papers did what TMZ and Twitter and other blogs that simply posted competing statements or went on partisan rants yesterday did not: they told a story with a beginning, a middle, and, with an ending still on the way, some history, precedent, context, and fallout.
Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.