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.
“It may be a distinction without a difference,” said Mr. Pitney, the Huffington Post writer, in an interview. “If Obama and Hillary both believed the position was hers if she wanted it, which was reported by us and CNN and ABC, but she wasn’t made a formal offer, whatever that means, that may in fact be true.”
He added: “I think the gist of those scenarios is pretty similar.”
But doesn’t saying “President-elect Barack Obama offered Sen. Hillary Clinton the position of Secretary of State during their meeting Thursday in Chicago” pretend to offer a little more than the “gist of the scenario”?
“I think it’s clear that both [Obama and Clinton] camps consider this the current deliberation and that they’re very serious,” he said. “Even the outlets that said that no formal offer was made, they said Obama is serious about it and this wasn’t a symbolic gesture. Obama is seriously considering offering her this spot. There’s not a ton of information out there. The only people in the meeting were Obama and Clinton, and people are trying to make do with what they have.”
Sure! But … what if Mr. Pitney is making do with something that happens to be the truth, and everyone else is making do with … something else? Could everyone be as sure as Mr. Stevenson that they knew more than anyone else?
The entire news cycle was now on overdrive with Hillary-mania. Once the Sunday morning shows were done talking about GM and the auto industry, it was on to Hillary!
Why is Mr. Obama seriously considering his former rival? Will Bill Clinton get in the way? What about Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama’s foreign policy differences—the decision to go into Iraq and the talking directly with Iran, for starters? What about Mrs. Clinton’s own foreign policy embarrassments on the trail? (Remember her and Sinbad dodging sniper fire in Bosnia? The peace she brought to Northern Ireland?) And whether Mr. Obama was considering Mrs. Clinton to keep his enemy close and out of the Senate, where she can potentially cause havoc? (Secretary of state doesn’t seem like the sort of place you would stash a nuisance—“Obama should remember the rule that you never hire anybody you can’t fire, especially as secretary of state,” John Bolton told The New York Times.)
And then the whole Hillary’s Choice story line! What does it mean that Hillary would want this job (if she does)? Is she just so power-hungry that she’s eager to get her hands on a high-profile job like secretary of state, even if it means working for Mr. Obama?
Of course by this time, all we knew was that President-elect Obama probably—probably!—was considering Ms. Clinton for the job. Had anyone denied it? Not really! We were told to “respect Mr. Obama’s process.” O.K.! But what are we supposed to think is true? The Huffington Post story? It could be right! Or not. Anyway, if it’s the gist that counts …
“There are a couple things,” said Mr. Stevenson at The Times. “One is that you’re coming off this incredibly amazing story of the campaign, and then you hit the transition where there is a bit of a news vacuum. [Mr. Obama] has been relatively quiet and out of sight and yet you have this media apparatus waiting to scoop anything up and then consider it big news. In any transition, every rumor and every report and every little nugget about a deputy commerce secretary and deputy assistant to the president suddenly takes on an outsized importance. And here you throw into this story line something that is, again, amazing and a little hard to believe in terms of drama and personalities and egos, and it’s like gasoline on a fire.
“So you get everyone getting to run to that side of that boat,” he continued. “You’ve got reporting that probably overshot reality somewhat. And while that thing has always kind of happened, now you have the combination of the nature of the news cycle now and the ubiquity of blogs and the ability and apparent desire of campaigns to feed news nuggets to keep shaping the news cycles and the competitive nature of journalists, and it all combines in this case to create an extraordinary moment. It’s not terribly surprising to me you would have some reporting that probably was a bit beyond what the facts would support.”
The Times and NBC News—our traditional media outlets, the ones that count for less now that we’ve got Mayhill Fowlers in the world—have been the primary outlets to show restraint and produce incremental breaks, however small, that haven’t been disputed throughout this story line.
By Monday, The Times and NBC kicked the ball forward a bit, again. Ms. Cooper and Peter Baker reported, as did Andrea Mitchell on the Today show that morning, that the Obama team was looking into vetting Bill Clinton’s financial and international associations.
Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic—one of the leading political reporters during the campaign, who also showed restraint in his coverage over the past week—went back and gave us a little ticktock from the Obama-Hillary meeting. He wrote that Mr. Obama called Mrs. Clinton on Wednesday and asked that they meet. “According to Democratic sources, Clinton disclosed the information to only three people and swore them to secrecy. Clinton’s team went to extreme lengths to keep the trip a secret. When Clinton arrived at LaGuardia airport in New York for the Delta flight, she was the last person to board the plane. In Chicago, she was the first person to disembark.”
Small news breaks, some clarification. Reporting, and reporting on the reporting.
And by time Monday night rolled around, it looked like the break everyone had finally been waiting for arrived.
The Guardian—The Guardian!—reported, “Hillary Clinton plans to accept the job of secretary of state offered by Barack Obama, who is reaching out to former rivals to build a broad coalition administration, the Guardian has learned.”
The sourcing was curious—“has learned”—but still: news!!! The break we’ve been waiting for.
Within minutes … no one followed up on it. Within hours, Matthew Drudge, accustomed to assigning most of the American media via a giant assignment memo above the flag of his home page, began to demote it. And by morning, even a virulent reader of political news blogs or an obsessed watcher of daytime cable news could be forgiven for never having known the story had finally, kind of, broken.
Ewen MacAskill, the Washington bureau chief for The Guardian, said in an interview that he stood by his story. His source said he could use the information as long as he didn’t source it. So he went with that.
But perhaps curiously, he argued that it wasn’t a news break anyway.
“I didn’t think it was such a big deal,” he said. “The big story was that she was under consideration in the first place. That was the story I would have liked to have broken. That was completely unexpected. I just wrote a wrinkle in the story. Andrea Mitchell is the one that deserves the praise.
“The basic scoops are the ones that come out of the blue,” he continued. “They surprise people. They make them stop. And Andrea Mitchell’s had done that. [The Guardian story] is just a development on another story. It’s just on the back of another one.”
But didn’t his story come out of the blue since—forget Hillary even accepting the job—we’re not even clear that Mr. Obama offered one in the first place? Wasn’t this the real break that was far ahead of everyone?
By the time this article reaches many of its print readers, the story will either have been retroactively falsified or … truthified? In the meantime, veteran political reporters—never mind the hapless consumer well outside the Media Elite—are left wondering what major news sources to believe, and when.
“I feel like an idiot for not believing it was an offer on Friday,” said Ben Smith in an interview, referring to the Huffington Post report. “And by Sunday it was a fait accompli. By this point, the fact that they let it hang out there this long means it would be a catastrophe to pull it. In a weird way, we have a confirmation by the way the story unspooled.”
Or do we? At about 15 minutes before 4 p.m. on Nov. 18, Mr. Smith’s colleague Glenn Thrush, the Washington veteran lately of Newsday, seemed to have some people who were willing to break the tie among his competitors.
“Hillary Rodham Clinton isn’t certain she would accept the Secretary of State post even if Barack Obama offers it to her, several people close to the former first lady say,” Mr. Thrush wrote.
“Clinton is conflicted and the deal far from done, despite screaming headlines in outlets including the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper claiming the offer was made and accepted,” he wrote.
“We’ve gotten rid of all the other idiots” besides her husband, Bill Clinton, and one or two very close advisers, a source joked to Mr. Thrush.
So, what have we learned this week, kids? Hillary Clinton will be the next secretary of state, unless she’s not.
That, we think, is pretty much airtight. Run with that.