Andrea Mitchell started it.
It was she who told viewers of NBC’s The Nightly News With Brian Williams on Thursday, Nov. 13, that Hillary Clinton “is under consideration to be secretary of state.”
Since then, nobody seems to have known what to think. But that hasn’t ground the Madame Secretary boomlet to a halt—on the contrary, it only accelerated it! Over the past few days, we’ve heard: Hillary is under consideration for the job. She’s been offered the job! She hasn’t been offered the job (which was only news because someone else had said she had).
Last night, we read that she had been offered the job, and not only that, she was going to accept it! More recently, it’s been “unclear,” but her husband is being vetted—that’s the news of the day for Nov. 18—which must surely mean that someone has been right about something these last few days. Right? STOP PRESSES, SPECIAL PRESS-TIME UPDATE: She hasn’t been offered it. But she’s considering it! She’s “torn.”
“It has unspooled in a confusing way,” said Politico reporter Ben Smith.
On Nov. 13, Ms. Mitchell came on with Brian Williams and offered a very tight, succinct report. Few details, but “two advisers to Barack Obama” confirmed that, yes, Hillary was under consideration for the secretary of state post. It was at this point we knew she made a business trip to Chicago, but we didn’t know why. (Ms Mitchell reported that an “adviser says that [it] was on personal business.”)
It was legitimate news. It’s one of those stories that breaks ground, and then all the details and ticktocks and news breaks come piling in afterward, usually after they get some kind of independent confirmation.
But what if they can’t, and the story keeps moving along without them?
The next day, reports confirmed that the two had met in Chicago and that they had even talked about the position of secretary of state.
It took real reporting. Ms. Mitchell said this wasn’t a “trial balloon” that the Obama or Clinton people wanted out there. This wasn’t a story that both camps were planting to see how it played out.
“There are several people who have said, ‘This is a campaign that hadn’t leaked for 22 months and now they’re leaking like a sieve!’” she said in an interview with Off the Record. “I want to make this clear. This is something I picked up 10 days earlier and had really worked on.”
And then late Friday afternoon, the Huffington Post—the Huffington Post!—printed a story that seemed positioned to be the biggest, cleanest break (no Mayhill Fowler questions of ethical journalism here!) of its lifetime.
“President-elect Barack Obama offered Sen. Hillary Clinton the position of Secretary of State during their meeting Thursday in Chicago, according to two senior Democratic officials,” wrote Nico Pitney, a little-known reporter to the mainstream political media but not likely a Washington outsider: Before coming to the Huffington Post, he was the deputy research director at the Center for American Progress, of which John Podesta, the head of the Obama transition team, is founder, president and chief executive. Could Mr. Pitney know something—even if his sources were ones The Times and NBC would not consider “pay dirt”—that mainstream media outlets weren’t hearing from their sources at the top?
Ms. Mitchell, in preparing a follow-up on her initial report for Friday evening’s broadcast, made a few calls to make sure her story hadn’t changed.
“[The Huffington Post story] possibly advanced it!” she said. “It said that the job had been offered. I was writing a story for Friday night. So I had to quickly circle back to my sources to make sure it had not been ‘offered.’ And they insisted it hadn’t been. I was working all day. I just had to make sure we should not update our piece. They were denying it and I didn’t change my piece.”
O.K., so did The New York Times race to get a story up confirming, or disproving, the Huffington Post report?
“The best defense against that kind of thing is having your own reporting in hand when a report like that [the Huffington Post report] comes along and you can make a news judgment without having to scramble everyone to match it or knock it down,” said Dick Stevenson, the political editor at The Times. “Obviously, we were asking that question—did he make the offer?—all day long and we were pretty comfortable with what the reality was. It didn’t give us any heartburn.”
“I’m not saying we’re always ahead of the curve. But an obvious question like that—has he offered the job—was something we were trying to make sure all day long and over the weekend, and we knew exactly the state of play to the degree you can ever know and we had a pretty clear handle how far this had gone.”
Later that night, Jackie Calmes and Helene Cooper, sourcing “associates” to both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, wrote that the two former rivals did discuss the position, but they also discussed other positions, too, and “that no job was offered.”
Well, there’s that.
Open and shut, right? The New York Times contradicted the Huffington Post. They’re on opposite sides of the fence on this one.