By Margaret Sullivan
The chorus of criticism over the media’s coronation of Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee Monday night was ferocious in some corners and measured in others. But at its core the issue was: How dare they?
Glenn Greenwald, never one to pull punches, described it on the Intercept as elitist and undemocratic. Michael Tracey, a columnist for Vice, tweeted: “The nomination was declared clinched based on unverifiable info that reporters obtained from operatives whose identities were concealed.”
And Bill Mitchell of Poynter.org, the journalism-education center, had warned earlier: “Clinton’s current overwhelming support among superdelegates … should not be used to support declarations like Clinton clinching, crossing the threshold or any other lingo suggesting it’s all over.”
But there it was Monday night, even earlier than expected – the Associated Press reporting that Clinton had the numbers of delegates and superdelegates to be considered the presumptive nominee. Cable and network news was all over it. And on Tuesday morning, the New York Times echoed the findings in a big front-page headline, as did The Washington Post: “Clinton reaches magic number for historic nomination.”
The papers of record had spoken.
In California, with the state’s primary election yet to be waged at that point, some editors took a different tack, keeping the AP’s determination out of big headlines, although reporting it within a main election story. In his newsletter, Los Angeles Times editor in chief Davan Maharaj explained: “If there’s one thing this campaign season has taught us, it isn’t over until it’s over.”
Did news organizations – particularly the AP – jump the gun irresponsibly?
I talked by phone with the AP’s executive editor, Kathleen Carroll. She told me that the decision was not an agonizing one. She emphasized that the AP has been tracking delegates and superdelegates successfully and in the same way for many years. And, she said, they are all known by name to AP reporters and editors. (A published explanation of how the AP does its tracking notes that no superdelegate – they are party operatives and elected officials – has flipped from Clinton to Sanders since the count began last year.)
“The number got to the number and we were gonna report it, just as we did with Trump,” Carroll said. “When you have news, you report it.”
That was the reasoning, too, at The Post, Managing Editor Cameron Barr told me. The only discussion was over how big to play the story; it ended up as a headline across the full front page on Tuesday.
At the Times, the large print headline attributed the information to the AP, in what looked like a cautionary note – and a highly unusual one. “I hadn’t seen that before,” Carroll told me.
Maharaj noted in his newsletter that Sanders’s campaign criticized all of this as a “rush to judgment” because of the potential for superdelegates’ flipping. The Sanders people have complained bitterly (and in some cases justifiably) about mainstream media coverage throughout the campaign: that it has failed to take the candidate seriously or understand his appeal. Now, they said, the media’s pronouncement would tamp down the vote in California, where Sanders hoped a big turnout would keep his bid alive.
I get the criticism, just as I do criticism over the use of exit polls. And I don’t like the lack of transparency about the names of the superdelegates, but I’m still casting my vote with the AP here. Historically, the news service has been rigorous and downright conservative in making such calls.
Would it be better if a populous state like California voted earlier? No doubt. But that’s not within the media’s control.
“Imagine if we got to the number and decided to suppress the news,” Carroll said. All hell would break loose, she said – and rightly so.
The nomination system may indeed be rigged and full of flaws, and the outcome may well be affected by this news in a way that affects the campaigns, perhaps unfairly. It ought to be reformed. But suppressing or playing down solidly reported news is wrong.
“Tell it when you know it” is a news-gathering principle for a good reason.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Margaret Sullivan