July 29, 2013
Anthony Weiner
Anthony Weiner (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

There was a time when the New York Times Magazine’s massive narrative on Anthony Weiner’s post-congressional life was an object of great admiration among competing media outlets. Titled “Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin’s Post-Scandal Playbook,” the April 2013 story recounted the former congressman’s fall from Democratic prominence, his sort-of retreat into domestic life and his initial steps back into politics. The handiwork of Vogue contributing editor Jonathan Van Meter, the piece resulted from some 16 hours of transcripted tape recordings, and it showed: Long passages quoted the psychological meanderings of Weiner, to the point that the reader was altogether too familiar with him. An affliction to which certain social media users can relate.

When Politico announced that it would be launching a long-form magazine, Editor in Chief John Harris told the Erik Wemple Blog of the Van Meter piece: “That story could and should be in Politico.”

A guess: If asked today, Harris would likely cite a different aspirational exemplar for Politico magazine.

That’s because the New York Times Magazine story, along with a People magazine story from a year ago, is being blamed for enabling Weiner’s political rehabilitation, such as it is. At one point in the story, for example, Van Meter apprised readers that Weiner had commissioned work from pollster David Binder:

The focus of the poll, Binder says, was the question “Are voters willing to give him a second chance or not, regardless of what race or what contest?” And the answer? “There was this sense of ‘Yeah, he made a mistake. Let’s give him a second chance. But there are conditions on that, and there are a couple of things we’re going to want to know: What have you been doing since this incident occurred? Did you learn anything from this mistake? How did you deal with it?’ They want to know that they’ve put it behind them.”

Weiner told Van Meter that he was “eyeing” the mayor’s race.

When Weiner wasn’t prattling on about his being improved human being, he was doing chores and stuff. The upshot was an unmistakable coup for the one-time congressman, a home run of access journalism. In a Q&A about the story, Van Meter suggested that the key to reporting the story was immersion:

I tend to spend a lot of time with people to do long-form profiles, and it’s almost like a competitive sport now: journalists trying to outdo one another in terms of who can spend the most time. In this instance, I transcribed 15 or 16 hours of tapes. What was unusual about this was, normally you hang out with people and follow them around, but Anthony Weiner’s life is very circumscribed. There were no events to go to, nothing to really follow him to. We sat around and talked. That was novel. I really felt like I was his analyst. Our sessions lasted for a particular amount of time, we would bring up things with a certain repetition, start to recognize patterns. As someone who has had a standing appointment with my therapist for many years, the rhythms were familiar. Interviews normally don’t involve such thoughtfulness and searching.

We now know via hindsight that immersion was not the key to the piece. Skepticism was. Reading through the story, it’s clear that Van Meter’s piece was premised on the notion that Weiner’s self-destructive online activities had long, long since ceased. Had he pushed the politico on just when he gave up his lewd relationships with other women on the Internet, Van Meter’s recorder would have scored some precious words from Weiner. Or perhaps even a prolonged period of silence. When asked about that point, Van Meter replied via Facebook message: “Never even occurred to me to ask! I just assumed it had stopped when he got caught, lost his job and started therapy to save his marriage.”

Admirable candor right there. Naivete too: In his congressional meltdown, Weiner showed two traits — mendacity and compulsiveness — that should put any reporter on guard when it comes to accepting anything he says. It’s that dynamic that looks certain to doom his mayoral campaign. Now would be a great time for journalists to ask all disgraced politicians whether they’ve relapsed into the conduct that got them into trouble in the past, as did CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview with comeback-trail politician Eliot Spitzer.

Van Meter tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the Times may publish something looking back on this matter, a notion confirmed by New York Times Magazine Editor in Chief Hugo Lindgren. The question about when Weiner stopped sexting, says Lindgren, “should have been asked,” an oversight for which Lindgren takes his share of the blame. “The assumption that he made was the same assumption I made. It turned out to be a poor assumption.”

The story that Van Meter wrote, says Lindgren, was supposed to be about a “personal relationship.” “We weren’t looking at him as a political figure at the time,” says Lindgren. That’s a mistake: Once a politician, always a politician. Especially when you’re Anthony Weiner.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.