Why Eric Turkewitz Still Matters

With regard to the issue of giving credit for discovering the “Sotomeyor & Associates” issue, Eric Turkewitz comments:

Something might be in the public domain, but it if is buried in a box of other documents, someone still has to go find it.

Whether this qualifies as that proverbial box of documents is, of course, another question. I have to assume that, given the high profile nature of the filing, this would have been found by others eventually.

Except that no one said a word for three weeks afterward.

Absolutely. Eric Turkewitz spotted this issue in Judge Sotomeyor’s answers to the Senate questionnaire before anyone else. The first appearance in the major media was in the Washington Times three weeks later. And they mentioned Turkewitz’s blog.

Eric Turkewitz scooped everybody.

So why not give him credit? Why did the New York Times article on the issue not mention that Turkewitz got there first? I speculated about this in my previous post, but I wasn’t really satisfied with what I wrote. Now that I’ve had more time to think it over, I think I can explain why the New York Times‘s behavior doesn’t seem outrageous to me.

(My understanding of how journalists handle this is cursory at best. I’d love to hear from a real expert on sourcing issues.)

I think the key insight is that newspaper stories don’t cite sources to give credit, they cite sources to give readers a way to judge the accuracy and importance of a statement of fact or opinion in a news story. Giving credit has nothing to do with it.

If a newspaper reports that the mayor of a big city is using his control of federal stimulus funds to reward political supporters, it helps to know whether this information comes from “a source within City Hall”, “a former staff member”, “a press conference by an opposing candidate”,  or “an official involved in the Justice Department investigation.” It matters where the information comes from.

In Turkewitz’s original blog post, one of the key facts is that Judge Sotomeyor said she had a brief solo practice with “Sotomayor & Associates.” Turkewitz was the first to report on this important fact, but he is not the primary source of this fact. Sotomeyor’s Senate questionnaire is the primary source of the fact, and that’s what any reporter would cite in a story about this issue.

So why did the Washington Times mention Turkewitz’s blog in their editorial? Here’s the relevant section:

As reported by New York Personal Injury Law Blogger Eric Turkewitz, who first discovered this detail: “in New York, the conduct would fall under DR 2-102″ of the New York Lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility, “which bars misleading advertising on a letterhead. If in fact Sotomayor had no associates at her firm, it would appear she overstepped the bounds of self-promotion by making her firm seem bigger than it was.”

As you can see, the Washington Times mentions Eric Turkewitz because they are using him as the source for two points they are raising: First, that the conduct falls under section DR 2-102 of the New York Lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility, and second, that Sotomeyor overstepped the bounds of the rule.

(They also mention that he was the first to discover this detail. In part, I think this is to explain why they consider his opinion important.)

In the New York Times story, reporter Serge F. Kovaleski cites Sotomeyor’s questionnaire for mentioning “Sotomeyor & Associates” (as did the Washington Times story) but he gets his legal opinions from New York University Law School Professor Stephen Gillers instead of Eric Turkewitz.

(Kovaleski can’t just make assertions on his own because that would be setting himself up as an authority, and reporters are never supposed to do that. They have to cite sources. They’re never supposed to write from their own knowledge. This is one reason I prefer blogging. I think I know stuff.)

Basically, Eric Turkewitz has no essential contribution to the story of Sonia Sotomeyor’s solo practice. He doesn’t have any information about Sotomeyor that isn’t available more directly from other souces. All he brings to the story is his opinion, and if a reporter doesn’t want to use Turkewitz’s opinion, he doesn’t need to mention Turkewitz.

We haven’t seen the last of Eric Turkewitz in the media, however. He’ll be popping up in stories all over the country as Sotomeyor’s confirmation hearings commence. There’s a good chance his name will even come up in the hearings themselves.

I know I just said that Turkewitz has “no essential contribution to the story of Sonia Sotomeyor’s solo practice,” but that’s not the only Sotomeyor story reporters will be doing this summer. They’ll also be doing the story of Sonia Sotomeyor’s confirmation process. And on that, Eric Turkewitz is much more than a source for the story, he’s part of the story.

(This is another reason the Washington Times mentioned him. Their editorial was partially about the confirmation process.)

This issue will probably come up during the hearings (Turkewitz has already taken a call from a Senate staffer), and when it does—or even when it’s anticipated to come up—reporters will write stories about it. This time, their stories won’t be about Sotomeyer & Associates, they’ll be about the controversy over Sotomeyer & Associates, and Eric Turkewitz is a part of the controversy. After all, he started it.

Humble blogger Eric Turkewitz is now part of the history of Judge Sotomeyor’s confirmation process. We’ll probably hear more criticism of Sotomeyor about this issue from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Republican politicians, and Fox News, but any honest account of the history of the controversy has to mention that Eric Turkewitz got there first. He’ll probably even be mentioned in books about Sotomeyor’s life.

Expect to see the phrase “first raised by New York Lawyer Eric Turkewitz” a lot.

3 responses to “Why Eric Turkewitz Still Matters”

  1. shg

    And if I wanted a legal opinion on ethics, I would most assuredly go to the Turk before Gillers. Any day.

  2. Carolyn Elefant

    I am a huge Eric Turkewitz fan – thank you for giving him the recognition he deserves. I too was disappointed that the NYT did not give credit where it was due.

    BTW, Eric is too humble. It wasn’t just that he uncovered an interesting fact, but actually, in typical Turkewitz-fashion, he took the time to research and analyze the issue -which elevated his post from one merely passing on gossip to real investigation and analysis.

  3. Eric T

    We’ll probably hear more criticism of Sotomeyor about this issue from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Republican politicians, and Fox News…

    Or not. ‘Twas a small issue to start and it stayed that way (as it should).

    I thought it would be interstesting to see a SCOTUS nominee wrestle with the kinds of details that thousands of small practitioners deal with, starting with things like their “official” names, letterhead, registrations, conflict checks and more.

    Many of the answers will never appear, because the questions were never asked. While the answers may not have mattered in the long run, at least there was likely to have been some substance if they had been asked. Unlike the non-answers that were given while Senators tried to impress their constituents.

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