Is The New York Times Printing Gossip?

by Jonathan Chait | May 29, 2009

Somewhat belatedly, I've noticed that numerous commentators have decided to label Jeffrey Rosen's online article about Sonia Sotomayor from a few weeks ago as "gossip." The description has been employed by left-wing or liberalcommentators like Glenn Greenwald of Salon, Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, and Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Today it's repeated by right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer.

"Gossip" is an effective label for those who wish to denigrate Rosen's reporting or the reputation of TNR, but it's an inaccurate one. Gossip is unverified information. Gossip is something you hear all the time--say, Senator X mistreats his staff. No serious publication can pass off gossip as reporting. However, if you actually speak with the principals firsthand--you interview staffers for Senator X who report that he mistreats them--then what you have is reporting. That's what Jeff did. He spoke first-hand with several of Sotomayor's former clerks, who provided a mixed picture. Unsurprisingly, they declined to put their names on the record, but that's utterly standard for people who are speaking in unflattering terms about people they worked with or for.

Alternatively, some people define "gossip" as personal information that's unfit for publication even if verified--say, Congressman Y cheats on his wife. The question of what sort of information falls into this category has been subject to debate for many years. But nobody can seriously contend that the subject of a potential Supreme Court Justice's temperament is unfit for publication. Indeed, the New York Times today has an article on the exact same topic, also quoting anonymous lawyers making the same claims as Jeff's sources did.

Now, I think Jeff published his article much too hastily, but he was using legitimate reportorial methods to bring an important issue to public attention. You may not think the issue ought to disqualify Sotomayor--I don't, and Jeff doesn't either--but to call it "gossip" is grossly unfair.

--Jonathan Chait

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/the-new-york-times-printing-gossip