Under the bylines of Alan Rappeport and Steve Eder, the New York Times today published an article looking at the long docket of traffic citations accumulated by 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and his wife, Jeanette, since 1997. A combined 17 citations, noted the newspaper — four for the senator and 13 for his wife.
The piece was instantly controversial, and only in part because folks are questioning the news value of a candidate’s occasional brushes with traffic authorities over the past 18 years:
— David Neal (@DavidJNeal) June 5, 2015
The Washington Free Beacon chimes in with a post wondering whether the New York Times received its information from American Bridge, which calls itself a “progressive research and communications organization committed to holding Republicans accountable for their words and actions and helping you ascertain when Republican candidates are pretending to be something they’re not.” Opposition researchers, that is.
Brent Scher of the Free Beacon cited Miami-Dade County online records showing that American Bridge had pulled the records. “Neither of the reporters, Alan Rappeport and Steve Eder, appeared on the docket records for any of the traffic citations for Rubio and his wife,” reported Scher. “An additional researcher credited in the New York Times, Kitty Bennett, also does not appear on any of the court records.” The piece’s headline reads, “Democratic Oppo Firm’s Fingerprints on NYT Rubio Hit.”
The New York Times denies playing a passive role. “We came across this on our own,” says New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Carolyn Ryan in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog. “Steve Eder and Kitty Bennett noticed it on Tuesday while looking into something else – it is almost all on line.” There was a plan to keep the piece waiting until next week, notes Ryan, but Rappeport found out that the story had other suitors, so the paper expedited it. “We hired a document retrieval service in Florida and got copies of the paper records ourselves. They came back yesterday.”
So there, Washington Free Beacon!
No matter how the New York Times heard about the Rubio driving story, it’s clear from the Free Beacon piece that the candidate’s citations have been a matter of curiosity for a couple of weeks among organizations looking to slow him down. Which is all fine and healthy: The Erik Wemple Blog doesn’t care one whit whether the New York Times got the story from American Bridge, American Aqueduct or American Culvert. All that matters is whether the piece is newsworthy.
Here, the newspaper clears that bar, like an exhausted hurdler. As Twitter has noted in many clever ways, four traffic citations in 18 years don’t add up to much, though the fact that Rubio’s driver’s license was “facing suspension” in 2011 is noteworthy. Asked about thresholds for this strain of accountability reporting, Ryan responded via e-mail: “The vote for president is the most personal vote that Americans cast,” argued Ryan. “Voters want to know about these candidates – not just as policy-makers, but as people. It is not at all unusual or unexpected for us to scrutinize candidates’ backgrounds and their lives through public records. It is very standard scrubbing.”
The striking aspect of the Rubio story was its bundling. Though the piece reported 17 combined citations by the couple, the candidate has racked up only four of them. So the weight of the Times’s accountability journalism falls on Rubio’s wife. “Regarding potential presidential spouses, they are not the main focus, but we write about them, as do other outlets,” writes Ryan. “Columba Bush and Bill Clinton have already attracted a fair amount of attention, obviously, and I am sure other spouses will draw more coverage going forward.”
A great deal of that coverage will doubtless come from the New York Times, which has been hot on the trail of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton and others. The Rubio’s-wife-can’t-drive piece, after all, may force the paper to undertake an ungodly amount of candidate scrutiny: If reporters are going to bust out one candidate for drawing traffic citations once every 54 months, then they’ll have to hold other candidates to a comparable level of propriety. Hey, is Huckabee a leadfoot?