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Media critic

Sometimes reporters who are busy working on a story tweet out little updates as they gather string, the better to build an audience for the eventual product. It’s one of those “iterative” strategies that social-media strategists recommend for appropriate situations.

Now for a breathtaking example of how it can backfire:

Early Tuesday morning, NBC News’s Leigh Ann Caldwell, who covers Capitol Hill, alleged in that tweet that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy essentially negotiated with the Trump White House over the terms of his retirement. Though tweets are short, this one carried wide implications. It threatened Kennedy’s reputation, the public’s confidence in the separation of executive and judicial powers, and Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a former Kennedy clerk, to replace Kennedy.

Twitter fixated on the claims, with a great number of commentators sussing out the implications. In an interview with CNN’s John Berman, White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah didn’t directly answer whether the White House spoke months ago with Kennedy about Kavanaugh replacing him. “I’m not going to read out private conversations that Justice Kennedy had with either the White House or the president,” Shah responded. Asked by Berman whether a deal went down, Shah said, “I’m not going to read out private conversations that may have occurred between the president and Justice Kennedy.”

Caldwell deleted the tweet, though she still reports … what, exactly? In November 2017, five names — including that of Kavanaugh — were added to President Trump’s famous master list of candidates for Supreme Court vacancies. Caldwell’s updated tweeting indicates that Kennedy provided a list of replacements, though the timing of that alleged gesture isn’t terribly clear.

In an extensive story on the process, Politico reports that the addition from last November came at the “urging of [Trump’s] many backers in the conservative legal community.” And The Post noted that the move “was seen by many as a way to make Kennedy more comfortable about retiring.”

Just how is NBC News enriching those claims? We checked with the network to discover more, and received a referral to Caldwell’s tweets — the very tweets that have prompted puzzled responses on social media. Chris Geidner, a Supreme Court reporter for BuzzFeed, noted, “Well, if they want to actually put out a reported story, I’ll read it. Until then, I’ll wait.”