How harassment allegations shifted coverage of a mayoral campaign

June 21, 2021
Mayoral candidate Scott Stringer. Lev Radin/Sipa USA via AP Images

The mayoral campaign of Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller and longest-serving elected official in the city’s mayoral race, came close to derailing in early May, as prominent supporters abandoned him in the wake of a claim of sexual misconduct decades ago. By the time another accuser came forward earlier this month, key news organizations already had begun to scale back their coverage of the Stringer campaign.

The unraveling began on April 28, when Gothamist reported that Jean Kim, a longtime volunteer on Stringer campaigns, was planning to disclose sexual-misconduct accusations against him at a press conference later that day. At the press conference, Kim accused Stringer of making unwanted sexual advances, including groping and trying to kiss her, 20 years ago, when she was 30 years old. Stringer denied the allegations, saying that he and Kim had had a consensual relationship. 

Stringer’s campaign, which had recently scored two important endorsements from the United Federation of Teachers and the Working Families Party, began listing almost immediately. The day after the accusation, Stringer’s mayoral challengers called for him to quit. Progressive organizations, including the Working Families Party, and key political backers, including State Senator Jessica Ramos, withdrew their support. The UFT and several city-based labor unions, by contrast, stuck with Stringer.

Two weeks after Kim came forward, The New York Times, which had endorsed Stringer’s successful campaigns for Manhattan borough president and comptroller, backed Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner and, at the time, a relatively obscure rival in the mayoral race

After the initial flurry of news stories about Kim’s allegation, there was “a change in temperature across the coverage,” Alyssa Katz, deputy editor of The City, a nonprofit digital news platform, and former member of the NY Daily News editorial board, says. “You definitely saw a retreat from Stringer being covered, as if the obituary had already been written.” 

With a post-pandemic New York City facing some of its gravest challenges since the financial crisis of the 1970s, this mayoral race would seem tailored for a candidate who was long on experience, but short on charisma. In a Times column, Ginia Bellafante described the initial aura of inevitability that once surrounded Stringer’s campaign: “A lifelong public servant, a son of Washington Heights, a wonk, an advocate—fighting for housing justice and climate justice and all the justices—he seemed like a pot roast on a damp night in midwinter: satisfying, if not abundant in memorable flavor.” 

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Yet there was also much uncertainty surrounding the race beyond the challenge of standing out among a field of eight leading Democrats. Stringer’s campaign has been overshadowed for months by that of Andrew Yang, the erstwhile-underdog presidential candidate who seized the number-one spot in the early days of the campaign, and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, whose front-runner status has endured despite allegations of corruption. With little polling from the New York area’s three major pollsters,  what polls there are have had several candidates—including Stringer and the two candidates who most benefited from the scandal plaguing his campaign, Garcia and Maya Wiley, a civil-rights lawyer who served as counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio—riding a roller coaster of rankings. Indeed, weeks after Kim’s accusations, Stringer’s support actually grew, and he finished second to Adams in at least one poll. And the use of ranked-choice voting, for the first time, in New York municipal elections means that a candidate whom voters pick as their second or even third choice—and that could be Stringer, say a number of experts—could come out on top. New York City voters go to the polls on Tuesday.

Beyond the substance of Kim’s accusation, a number of factors lent momentum to Kim’s allegations and helped lead key news organizations to pull back on their coverage of Stringer’s campaign. First, Kim’s press conference short-circuited what has become the gold standard for covering sexual-assault accusations—in particular, contemporaneous corroboration of alleged misconduct,which was key to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Harvey Weinstein sexual-assault allegations, and which Kim did not provide. 

“Corroboration was totally lacking in the Jean Kim case,” Ben Smith, the Times’s media columnist, says, referencing the news media’s coverage overall. 

Dean Chang, deputy Metro editor for politics for the Times, says the paper knew about Kim’s allegations earlier and had tried, and failed, to get contemporaneous corroboration. “We only went public after she went public with her allegations,” Chang says, referring to Kim’s press conference. (Kim’s account also contained inconsistencies that were investigated by The Intercept. For example, while Kim, a lobbyist today, said she worked for Stringer as an intern, she was actually a volunteer and part of Stringer’s social circle, The Intercept reported.) 

Stringer’s second accuser, however, did provide contemporaneous corroboration. Teresa Logan, who worked at a tavern co-founded by Stringer, said he had groped her and made unwanted sexual advances. At the time, Logan told her sister, Yohanna Logan, and at least one other friend, both of whom spoke with the Times, about some of the incidents. As is often the case with sexual-misconduct cases, there were “no known witnesses,” the Times reported. 

Several veteran journalists said they were not surprised by Kim and Logan’s accusations. As Errol Louis, the host of “Inside City Hall,” a Spectrum News NY1 nightly primetime show about New York City politics, put it in an interview, describing Stringer’s circle in the 1990s, “Everybody was getting drunk, hooking up, running around.”

Once the accusations broke, there were likely several reasons some news organizations scaled back their coverage of Stringer, including a lack of resources among some local outlets. But a key factor was the editorial judgments that were formed when Stringer’s supporters headed for the exits. 

The New York Times had published meaty, get-to-know-the-candidates articles on all the contenders, including one on Stringer in mid-April. But, since Kim came forward, Stringer has taken a back seat to other candidates in much of the Times’s coverage. Among close to three-dozen print stories about the mayoral race reviewed since late April, the Times published eight stories directly related to the sexual-misconduct allegations. In addition, it published one stand-alone feature in early May, on Stringer’s fight to keep his campaign alive following Kim’s accusation. A week later, the Times also published a shorter article on the teacher unions’ efforts to bolster Stringer’s campaign with a multimillion-dollar ad blitz.

By contrast, the Times published four stand-alone stories, over 1,000 words in length, on Wiley, Stringer’s leading progressive opponent, since May, including a soft feature in the Style section on Wiley’s favorite wardrobe color: purple. 

In the Times’s longer round-up stories about the race, Stringer is rarely mentioned near the top—only four times since the end of April. He was mentioned near the bottom ten times, and in the middle eleven times. For example, during one of the more memorable moments of the last mayoral debate, Stringer attacked Andrew Yang’s promise to provide psychiatric beds for anyone who is mentally ill and homeless, demanding to know how much that would cost: “You can’t just say psych beds for all, you need specifics.” The Times mentioned the incident near the bottom of its 1,700-word story on the debate, and referenced Stringer by name only three times—less than any candidate but Shaun Donovan, a former Obama official, whose polling numbers have languished near the bottom of the pack for months. 

By contrast, Politico highlighted Stringer’s takedown of Yang, in a story that also featured a video clip of his exchange with Yang, as well as a lead photo of Stringer arriving at the debate. 

Chang says the Times tries to cover all eight major candidates, but concedes that some coverage decisions are linked to each candidate’s “standing in the race.” In Stringer’s case, Chang says, the allegations made by Jean Kim “influenced his standing in the race. He lost key endorsers. He lost standing in whatever scant polling was being done in the race. It was an issue he had to answer in mayoral debates. It was inevitable that our coverage would be shaded” by that. 

Similar judgments were at work at NY1. 

“No. We didn’t cover Stringer as much” after Kim’s initial allegations, says Louis. “After we chewed it over,” he says, “the consensus was that unless he can pull a rabbit out of the hat or change the narrative, Stringer’s campaign is on life support.”

On June 9, after Teresa Logan had come forward with her allegations against Stringer, Gloria Pazmino, a political reporter at NY1, encapsulated the news judgment that was being made in her newsroom when she declared that Maya Wiley was the “last one standing” among progressive candidates, even though, at the time, Stringer was still ahead of Wiley in the polls. (By then, the campaign of Dianne Morales, another progressive, was beset by accusations of a “toxic culture,” including sexual harassment.) NY1 had recently published a poll, conducted with Ipsos, which found that, while Stringer’s support had slipped, he was still leading Wiley by one percentage point. 

Louis says that he and his colleagues were watching the long-term trajectory of Stringer’s polling numbers, which had seen the candidate slip from third place, in April, to fifth place in June, as Wiley was gaining ground. While Stringer’s campaign contributions initially went up 20 percent after Kim’s allegations, Stringer’s fundraising eventually “dried up,” notes Louis, who adds, “We have a veteran candidate who was seeing a first-time candidate nipping at their heels.” 

 Several outlets have continued to cover Stringer’s campaign. Since the sexual harassment allegations, Politico has published dozens of items on each of the candidates, including a notice of Stringer’s late-May endorsement by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and a feature headlined “Stringer stays strong in NYC mayor’s race after sexual harassment allegations.” The Daily News, which has a handful of reporters covering the mayoral race, has written stories on Stringer’s ethics plan, in the wake of questions about the source of donations to Adams’s campaign,  and his promise to crack down on noise pollution

One glaring omission from coverage of the candidate has been the lack of any examination, during the past year, of how New York City’s $247 billion pension holdings, which are managed by the comptroller, have fared under Stringer’s watch. A database search found one short article, from Bloomberg, on the city’s pension system teaming up with a developer to invest in affordable apartments. Another short article, earlier this year, by the Associated Press, covered the city’s plans to more than double investments in companies focused on climate-change mitigation, including wind and solar power, to over $6 billion, even as it divests from fossil-fuel companies. An opinion piece in the Times, late last year, by climate activist Bill McKibben briefly mentioned Stringer’s plans to divest fossil fuel investments. 

Voters will have to grapple with what role the sexual-misconduct allegations should play in their decision-making when casting their ballots, and ranked-choice voting makes the race’s outcome far from predictable. As journalists cover sexual-harassment allegations against politicians—including those that go unpublished for a variety of reasons—they may need to recalibrate the judgments they make on how to cover candidates such as Stringer in their wake.

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Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY and the author, most recently, of After the Education Wars (The New Press, 2018). Before this story was reported or written, she made a $100 donation to the Stringer campaign.