Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon knew what he had to do at yesterday's presidential news conference when CBS correspondent John Roberts passed him his BlackBerry.
After reading the 11:43 a.m. news bulletin on the addictive wireless device, "I'm thinking, well, how do I not ask about this?" Sammon recalls. "This is news."
Seconds later, when President Bush recognized the man he calls "Big Stretch," Sammon was ready: "I know you haven't had a chance to learn this, but it appears that Yasser Arafat has passed away."
Bush gave a terse response to Sammon's statement: "My first reaction is God bless his soul. And my second reaction is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that's at peace with Israel."
Minutes later, however, the Associated Press moved a second bulletin: The Palestinians were denying that their ailing leader was dead.
The age of insta-news is also the age of insta-clarifications and insta-corrections. A half-dozen years ago, no reporter in the cavernous room in the Old Executive Office Building would have had access to news flashes once the president had started taking questions. But now that people can BlackBerry other people in meetings and headlines are only a few thumb-clicks away, no place is safe from breaking news, even if that news soon breaks apart.
Sammon, in abandoning his prepared question about preemptive wars, delivered the Arafat report not only to the president but also to those watching on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and CNBC.
"In retrospect, of course you second-guess yourself: 'Why did I ask that?' " Sammon says. "You're breaking news to the president, and then it turns out it may be premature. What are you going to do?"
Roberts says he first passed his BlackBerry forward to White House communications director Dan Bartlett, and then, since he had already asked his question, passed it back to Sammon's row, where the president was likely to look next. Had he asked the question, Roberts says, "I probably would have couched it a lot more. I would have said, 'There are reports, and if the reports are true. . . . ' I wouldn't be stating it as fact."
Sammon, who is grateful to Roberts for the heads-up, says he should have been more precise in attributing the information. But, he says, "you figure if the AP has it there's a reasonable likelihood it's accurate. . . . You're not thinking the AP is going to issue another bulletin taking it back five minutes later."
The AP was "pretty straightforward" in the way it reported the story, says spokesman Jack Stokes. The initial "news alert" said: "Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has died, Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker says."
Five minutes after that report, the wire service moved a story saying, "Israeli TV on Thursday cited sources as saying Yasser Arafat has died, but the Palestinian prime minister denied the report." And five minutes after that came this headline: "French Doctors Say Arafat's Alive."
The initial story about the fate of Arafat, who is being treated in a Paris hospital, "pinned it on the Luxembourg prime minister for him being dead," Stokes says. "And then the prime minister did a retraction and all of that was in the story, along with a report saying there were conflicting reports."
Should the AP hang such a globally sensitive story on a prime minister who had no first-hand knowledge? Stokes notes that the wire service had been carrying conflicting accounts of whether Arafat was in a coma and "this took it to another level. This didn't come out of a vacuum." Some networks showed a French spokesman delivering the denial as soon as the Bush event was over.
Sammon says he assumed the networks had already flashed the Arafat news before he asked his question. Told that they had not, he groans: "Great, so I broke it to the nation, too."