They don’t teach this in journalism school. But yesterday, I discovered the perfect lede (yes, that’s how journalists spell the leading paragraphs of our work). It was in a press release emanating from that font of wisdom, the New York State Senate. Beleagured by scandal and satire, the august body finally got something right.
State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who is running for attorney general if the incumbent Andrew Cuomo runs for governor, issued the release that managed to get his name into the eighth word of the lede, jumbling it incomprehensibly but managing to highlight Schneiderman even before it mentioned the target of the nine-member select committee Schneiderman chaired, Hiram Monserrate. Here is the lede that may well become a classic, analyzed wherever students pay $40,000-a-year to study the craft of grabbing a reader by the throat:
“The Special Committee of Inquiry, chaired by Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, to investigate the conduct for which Senator Hiram Monserrate was convicted by the State Supreme Court of Queens County, has completed its investigation and will release its final report and recommendations tomorrow.”
Monserrate, you may have discovered, is about to be run out of town. Albany, a magnet for felonies, has found a misdemeanor it can’t tolerate. So the senate’s nine-member select committee of inquiry issued its 58-page report calling for his expulsion (or other lesser penalties) for having abused his girlfriend, relying largely on the video that shows him, as the committee put it, “deliberately” choosing “to grab her forcefully and pull her out of” his apartment building. A Queens judge acquitted Monserrate of felony charges of slashing her with a glass before he yanked her out of the building, and that’s what sparked the senate probe. Schneiderman is a tower of integrity in the senate, who brings strong credentials to this task, but his better judgment should have told him to take a pass on this one, and let a senator without a conceivable ulterior motive take charge.
Whether Monserrate should be expelled by the senate for this is a tough legal call. In fact, the Schneiderman report waits until the end to deal with the unquestionably murky issue of whether the senate has the constitutional authority to throw a member out (a felon automatically loses his seat). The sensitivity and complexity of this issue is precisely the reason why someone running to be the highest legal officer of the state should have let another senator chair the probe.
There is little doubt that the committee, like most New Yorkers, believes that Monserrate did far worse than the misdemeanor he was convicted of, but legal processes, whether at trial or in the senate chambers, require fact, and can’t impose the most severe sanctions on the basis of even the most grounded suspicions. That’s why the ambitions of the investigator can’t also arouse grounded suspicions.
The Schneiderman press release exposes just how aggressively Schneiderman is using the issue to put himself at center stage. While he told the Albany Times Union yesterday that “political circumstances didn’t factor” into the findings, he was referring to the political consequences on the slim Democratic majority in the senate. There hasn’t been a story about this probe in weeks that hasn’t revolved around Schneiderman, especially the ones that also featured blind quotes from unnamed sources “familiar” with the confidential work of the committee.
It’s not just pr guys for senators who are having a hard time writing a lede on this story. How about the Times? It had to refer to Monserrate in its first words yesterday as someone “convicted of assault in a dispute that left his companion with a gash on her face.” It couldn’t actually put in the lede what Monserrate was convicted of, which the Times later noted was “dragging his companion down the hallway of his apartment building.” What kind of a lede on a story about possible expulsion would that make? The state senate today moved to expel a member convicted of dragging his girlfriend down the hallway? Of course, the Times lede is accurate, the dragging did occur as part of a dispute that left her with a gash on her face, but when you consider that he was acquitted of causing that gash, it’s hard to see it as a fair lede.
The National Organization for Women is so confused that its president issued a statement yesterday saying that Monserrate was convicted of assault “for slashing his woman friend.” As wrong as they are on the facts, they did get the important part right as far as Albany is concerned. They thanked Eric Schneiderman very high up.
Research Assistance From: Scott Greenberg, Simon McCormack & T.J. Raphael