Politico Rushes to Crack the Story And Ends Up With Egg on Its Face

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

One hour and 4 minutes before John Edwards began a news conference yesterday on the recurrence of his wife's cancer, a two-month-old Web site blared what looked like a major exclusive: "Edwards to Suspend Campaign."

In the this-just-in, get-it-out-now atmosphere of today's wired world, the posting by Politico.com was quickly picked up by television. It was also flat wrong.

Reporter Ben Smith attributed his report that the former senator was suspending his presidential campaign -- "and may drop out completely" -- to an "Edwards friend." Smith later apologized on his blog.

"It's his error, but also ours as editors, because we knew the information he had and what his source was," said John Harris, editor in chief of the Politico, a Capitol Hill newspaper and Web site. "I believe it's a serious error. . . . In this case, he simply wrote more than he knew."

The Politico had company. Reuters also moved a story saying that Edwards would suspend or end his campaign, according to a "Democratic Party source."

The Politico story, picked up by the Drudge Report, hit the airwaves with varying degrees of qualification.

"We will know more just moments from now when we hear it from the source, but reports have been circulating all morning long that Senator Edwards is, indeed, about to end or suspend his campaign for president," NBC anchor Brian Williams said.

On CNN, anchor Heidi Collins said: "According to Politico.com, we're hearing that John Edwards will suspend his campaign completely and may drop out completely." Moments later, after that report had been repeated, political reporter Candy Crowley said that the story "has been driven" by Politico.com, a Web site "that has really started to make a name for itself" and has "crackerjack reporters."

But, Crowley cautioned, Edwards campaign officials were telling her "that's not true."

On Fox News, political reporter Carl Cameron said: "It has been reported that Edwards is going to announce he is suspending his campaign, presumably because of his wife' s health. Campaign aides say that is not the case. It is a bit of a mystery."

The erroneous news spread across the Web. MSNBC.com put up a "Breaking News" headline: "Sources: Edwards to suspend presidential run due to wife's ill-health."

Newsday reported on its Web site: "Early Thursday, a person close to Edwards told Newsday that the former North Carolina senator was choosing between suspending his campaign or abandoning his effort altogether. But his campaign later denied the story and Edwards told reporters he hadn't 'seriously' considered quitting."

Smith, a former New York Daily News reporter, said he got in touch with the Edwards friend after sending him "a chatty, half-hearted e-mail" shortly after 10 a.m. Smith wrote that the source "spoke with authority and detail" about Elizabeth Edwards's cancer and her husband's decision to suspend his campaign.

At 11:08, Smith, who was in New York, e-mailed his editor that he had the story. The editor asked how "solid" it was, and Smith said that the information was from a good source. The blog posting went up at 11:16.

At 11:28, Edwards spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield e-mailed Smith -- under the heading "Just so you know" -- that "anything you are getting from someone claiming to know right now is not true. Anyone claiming to know something right now is making it up. There is no information from this campaign until John and Elizabeth speak at noon." Smith updated his item but did not change the "Edwards to Suspend Campaign" headline.

The candidate and his wife emerged for their news conference at 12:20 and announced their decision to continue the campaign.

Given the story's importance, Smith wrote, "I should have waited for a second source, or hedged the item much more fully. Or simply waited for the news conference like everybody else."

Asked why it was important to get a one-hour jump on news that Edwards and his wife were about to report anyway, Harris, a former Washington Post editor and reporter, said that blogs, unlike news stories, "share information in real time," based on what the writer has pieced together. But, he said, a blog "should not be different than a news story in its accuracy or fairness."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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