Late on the night of July 5, New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney was glued to a laptop computer at his dining-room table, clicking repeatedly on the Web site of The Washington Post . For weeks, Mr. Nagourney and his campaign-beat rivals had been scratching and scratching at the impenetrable surface of John Kerry’s organization, trying to identify Mr. Kerry’s choice of running mate. But all anyone had learned was that the announcement was likely coming the next morning.
So Mr. Nagourney wrote what he had, under the headline “Kerry Aides Make Plans for No. 2, Whoever It Is.” And before turning in, Mr. Nagourney said Tuesday, he tried to make sure The Post hadn’t somehow discovered the name at the last minute.
For a brief, shocking moment on Tuesday, it looked as if Mr. Nagourney had been worried about the wrong Post . The Washington Post , like The Times , had demurred on solving the mystery, with “Kerry Nearing Pick for Ticket.” But the New York Post , of all papers, had the answer: from deep inside Camp Kerry. “KERRY’S CHOICE: Dem picks Gephardt as VP candidate.”
The tabloid had made journalistic history. Just how much history it had made, however, wasn’t clear till Mr. Kerry’s actual announcement-which named Senator John Edwards, not Representative Dick Gephardt, as his understudy.
The Post has jumped to wrong conclusions before, with last fall’s “Looks like the Curse of the Bambino boomeranged this year” editorial. But not since the Shea Stadium scoreboard said “CONGRATULATIONS RED SOX, 1986 WORLD CHAMPIONS” had anyone misplayed a hunch in such giant letters.
By lunchtime, the Post had issued a terse and near-tautological statement, explaining that “editor in chief Col Allan said he made the decision after the Post received information it believed to be correct.” That ruled out the possibility that the Post had printed information it believed to be incorrect, but it left things wide open otherwise.
“We unreservedly apologize to our readers for the mistake,” the statement quoted Mr. Allan as saying.
Inside the Post , Mr. Allan spread the same word in a morning editorial meeting: The bad story was his decision, and he was sorry for it.
Mr. Allan’s move to take the blame appears to have been more than a gesture of buck-stops-here leadership. Political editor Gregg Birnbaum was away on vacation Monday, according to a source familiar with the Post ‘s operations. The first edition of the paper had carried a piece about the Vice Presidential search written by reporter Vincent Morris. The names of Mr. Morris and Washington bureau chief Deborah Orin, who had written previously about Mr. Kerry’s potential running mates, were absent from the story-as was any other byline or reporting credit.
The circumstances and the anonymity of the piece imply that it was edited-and possibly reported-from the upper reaches of the masthead. Mr. Birnbaum declined to comment on the story. Calls to the Post ‘s Washington, D.C., bureau, where Ms. Orin is based, went unanswered on Tuesday, and messages left on the voice-mail system were not returned.
According to a newsroom source, the spurious Gephardt news had arrived at the Post around 9 p.m., while the first edition was rolling off the presses with an arson story on page 1. Around 10 p.m., Post spokespersons said, the paper remade the front page for the second and third editions, bumping the fatal blaze for the big political story. The new front carried a file photo of Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Kerry standing eerily close together, next to word of Mr. Kerry’s “stunning choice.”
Inside, on page 4, the Post had even composed a snappy tab-language subhead-”Mo. rep to get Dem veep nod”-and assembled an array of Gephardt-related color photos. Only the final paragraph, which began in mid-sentence, showed obvious ill effects of haste.
Well, that lone typo and the fact that the whole story was dead wrong.
Mr. Allan, through a spokesperson, declined to elaborate on why he’d decided to run with the faulty exclusive. The story itself offered few clues. The only attribution was to “sources close to the Kerry campaign”-and those anonymous sources were only cited to confirm what every other paper had also reported, which was that Mr. Kerry had met with Mr. Edwards, Mr. Gephardt and Iowa governor Tom Vilsack.
The passage, with sourcing, had been carried over from Mr. Morris’ first-edition story. Mr. Gephardt’s move from that short list to the shortest list was new material, and had to be taken on faith. In the lead, the Post simply said that the Post “has learned” of Mr. Kerry’s purported decision.
As George W. Bush demonstrated-on the subject of Iraqi uranium-shopping excursions-just because somebody “has learned” something doesn’t make it so. Newsroom speculation about the source of Mr. Allan’s faulty intelligence came in conspiracy-minded layers: Had Mr. Kerry’s campaign fed disinformation straight to the Post , as payback for one too many wisecracks about his real-estate holdings? Or had the bum tip been routed through the White House, with the Kerry camp taking advantage of a Bush-Cheney mole?
The Post ‘s analysis of the politics behind the Gephardt move suggested that the paper hadn’t been listening much outside the Republican choir stalls. Mr. Gephardt, the Post speculated, “could be an asset to Kerry in key battleground states in the Midwest.” And the campaign’s decision to pass up a Southerner like Mr. Edwards “could be a sign that Kerry is ‘writing off’ that region.”
Thus, while the Post had Mr. Kerry falling back to St. Louis, the campaign was actually marching behind Mr. Edwards into the NASCAR belt.
But the Post wasn’t solely a victim of right-wing hubris. It was also laid low by the foolishness of modern midsummer campaign coverage. The cover was not “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”-in that case, the Chicago Tribune was at least trying get a jump on a real event, the 1948 balloting, while it was going on. Mr. Allan-along with the more cautious likes of Mr. Nagourney-was trying to get a jump on a press release: Mr. Kerry was going to make an announcement about a decision that Mr. Kerry had made.
The Vice Presidential selection, Mr. Nagourney said, is “the worst kind of story in a lot of ways.” There’s only one question to be answered, and it’s a simple enough answer when you get it.
Formerly, Mr. Nagourney said, the campaign would simply have released the decision to the Associated Press one day, and the newspapers would have gotten the tip from the wires, settled in to do their own reporting, and carried their stories the next morning. But with Web publishing, everyone has the chance to break a scoop instantly. So the pressure is on everyone to come up with something.
Had the Post ‘s something been correct, Mr. Nagourney said, “I would have been hiding under four blankets with two bottles of gin.”
And the public, which just wanted to know who the Vice Presidential candidate was, wouldn’t have noticed.
“It’s this weird journalistic competitive thing,” Mr. Nagourney said. “Who remembers who gets this first? Maybe 400 people.”
The pace of the Web has likewise figured in the coverage of the summer’s other overwhelmingly important non-story, the publication of Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life . The New York Times used the power of online publishing to hurry Larry McMurtry’s positive review of Mr. Clinton’s work, scheduled for the July 4 Book Review , into the public eye early-as counterweight to Michiko Kakutani’s June 20 page 1 denunciation. And Slate used the Web to make its account of Mr. Clinton’s book disappear.
As of last week, readers looking for the synopsis of My Life that Slate had published on June 22 were directed to an editor’s note saying the online magazine had “removed the piece on the advice of counsel,” following a copyright-infringement complaint from the book’s publisher.
The piece had run in Slate ‘s “Juicy Bits” department, a recently established section dedicated to summarizing the high points of books that are in the news. Previous installments had included Cliffs Notes versions of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies .
Those summaries remain available online. At some 4,900 words, the magazine’s treatment of Mr. Clinton’s book was far longer that its treatment of previous works; then again, Mr. Clinton’s book is far longer than Mr. Woodward’s. Per page, in fact, Slate ‘s condensed version of Plan of Attack offered more material.
Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe , wrote in an e-mail that his paper “didn’t raise any objections” when Slate summarized its biography of John Kerry. “Maybe we were just pleased with the attention, something Clinton doesn’t need to worry about,” Mr. Baron wrote.
A representative of Alfred A. Knopf, Mr. Clinton’s publisher, declined to comment on why the company had objected to Slate ‘s synopsis.
“I didn’t talk to them directly,” said Slate editor Jacob Weisberg. “They talked to a lawyer of ours.” The problem, Mr. Weisberg said, was that the My Life piece relied more heavily on direct quotations than the other editions had. In the magazine’s haste to get the summary together-three different writers tackled different sections of the book-it used Mr. Clinton’s own account of the various plot points rather than paraphrasing the material.
“We were sort of in error,” Mr. Weisberg said.
Still, the clipped pieces were short-only one exceeded 100 words, and most were only a sentence or two. And Slate had reassembled the material under its own interpretive topic headings: “Clinton’s Home Life,” “Clinton on Weight,” “Clinton’s Unlikely Sources of Inspiration and Guidance” (“Page 343: Chevy Chase”).
Fair-use law is not especially kind to defendants these days. But had Slate chosen to fight in court, Knopf would have been hard-pressed to demonstrate that the “Juicy Bits” piece had dampened its sales.
Even the prospect of losing one crisp, symbolic dollar bill was more than Mr. Weisberg was prepared to face. “You don’t want to go to court with a case where you’re in the wrong,” he said, “whatever the potential damages might be.”