We like to think of journalism as a simple craft: snoop around, ask questions, find stuff out, and shove it out there for the public to make of it what the public will.
But we're frequently reminded that this isn't exactly how journalism works. Some information is much too precious to toss carelessly into the breeze. The best current example is the ongoing saga in which the two names that matter most belong to gubernatorial candidates Bruce Rauner and Dan Rutherford. It's an incredibly weird story, and the media's reticence has added to the weirdness.
Last Friday Rutherford, the state treasurer, held one of the strangest news conferences that Illinois has seen. He announced, in the words of the Tribune, that "he's the target of false, politically motivated misconduct allegations leveled against him by an employee" in the treasurer's office. Rutherford refused to say what the allegations were or who leveled them, but he accused Rauner of being behind them. His evidence was that the employee he would not name had a lawyer, and this lawyer, Christine Svenson, had done some legal work for Rauner, handling the leasing of his campaign's Chicago office last summer.
Rutherford said Svenson had demanded $300,000 from the treasurer's office, in which case, she said, "we will walk away and keep it under wraps."
Was this attempted extortion? Was it an attempt to settle a legitimate grievance in a way that wouldn't embarrass Rutherford? Svenson told the media that she'd been negotiating "on a good-faith basis" with the treasurer's office and that its attorneys seemed to appreciate her willingness to keep the matter private.
But what did the matter consist of? And who was the state employee Svenson represented?
I assumed we'd soon find out. But we still don't know. The allegations remain sketchy—there have been references to political work on state time and to harassment (even sexual harassment)—and the identity of the state employee accusing Rutherford remains a mystery.
But journalists know who he is and what he's accusing Rutherford of. They just don't feel they can tell us yet.
The Tuesday papers reported that Rutherford's accuser had resigned from his job. The Tribune said that it had obtained a copy of the letter of resignation. But it didn't tell us what the letter said, much less who wrote it.
The Sun-Times talked to the employee, who said Svenson would soon file a formal complaint against Rutherford. But the Sun-Times didn't name the employee. Why? The man "asked that his name not yet be used."
Newspapers don't routinely keep names out of papers simply because someone asks them nicely. The consideration shown Rutherford's mysterious accuser sends a message. It says the paper respects him. It suggests he's credible.
"We're being cautious and careful," Jim Kirk, the Sun-Times's editor in chief, told me. (Full disclosure, the Sun-Times and the Reader share an owner.) He reminded me that this mysterious accuser has yet to formally, publicly accuse anybody of anything, and that the only reason we know he exists is that Rutherford used him to attack Rauner. So no name, yet, and no specifics of his informal, private case against Rutherford beyond what his lawyer is willing to say about it.
In due time reporters will tell us what they know already. It's frustrating for a journalist to sit on information, even if it's kind of nice to be privy to the inside poop. Every profession has its sweet agony.