Getting the story first, or getting it right

The Baltimore Sun

The most-watched presidential primary season in TV history ended yesterday with a wild roller-coaster ride of conflicting news reports, updates, "knockdowns" and delegate countdowns that left even veteran media executives scratching their heads.

"It was exactly one year ago that we televised our first debate, and it's been an incredible ride straight through to today," CNN political director Sam Feist said last night. "And what a last day for the primary season! We had one development after another - and more breaking news banners today on CNN than during any other day in recent memory."

Typical of the topsy-turvy times, 24/7 cable TV news channels like CNN and upstart Web sites like served as the media of record yesterday, while the Associated Press, one of the nation's most respected sources of news, was the institution needing clarification - if not correction.

The scramble began yesterday morning with the AP reporting that Sen. Hillary Clinton was going to "concede" that her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, had enough delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination.

Within minutes, Clinton's camp flatly denied the report, calling it "100 percent inaccurate" and stressing that she had no intention of conceding.

The AP story, based on two anonymous sources, never actually said that Clinton was going to quit the race yesterday. But in using the word "concede" rather than "acknowledge" to describe the way Clinton was expected to react when Obama reached the 2,118 pledged delegates needed to win the nomination, it created the false impression that she was about to drop out.

Cable TV and bloggers jumped all over it, with Clinton's campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, as the fire-breathing talking head.

"CNN was one of the first to knock down the AP story as being not exactly correct," said Feist.

MSNBC not only knocked down the AP story, but NBC political director Chuck Todd appeared on camera to explain why his cable channel and sister network held off in the first place.

Naming three senior campaign officials and Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton, Todd said he told his producers, "If you can't confirm the story with one of them, don't go with it." And MSNBC didn't.

"From that point on, there were so many breaking news banners during the day that I can't remember them all," CNN's Feist said. They included several superdelegates announcing support for Obama, while Clinton was quoted as saying she would be "open" to an offer to run as vice president.

There is no denying that such instantaneous coverage has engaged viewers and voters like never before. CNN, MSNBC and Fox all have clocked record ratings for political coverage this primary season. And traffic is through the roof at the CNN and MSNBC Web sites.

But some analysts wondered about media that have grown so comfortable with often getting it wrong - before setting it straight. Last night, each of the three cable channels counted down to the magic number of 2,118, but never once did they agree on how many delegates Obama actually had.

That AP published its report yesterday as voters were headed to the polls in two primaries lent credence to Hillary Clinton's claims that the media were not treating her fairly - and not respecting voters.

"I don't know if is worse or better, but it certainly is different from the way it used to be," said Mark Feldstein, a Peabody Award-winning network producer and professor of journalism at George Washington University. "What was once a 24-hour news cycle is now a one-minute or 30-second news cycle with everything reported instantaneously - whether that information is good or bad."

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