Too Early to Call? The AP Got It Right but at What Cost?

Posted by Michael Getler on

If you’ve been following the campaign for the presidential nomination closely, especially the battle between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, you know there was big news followed by a relatively smaller flap Monday evening. Both the news and the flap started at around 8:20 that night when The Associated Press reported on social media that “Hillary Clinton Clinches Democratic Presidential Nomination,” and posted this one-paragraph story on its website:

“WASHINGTON (AP) — Hillary Clinton has commitments from the number of delegates needed to become the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee for president, and will be first woman to top the ticket of a major U.S. political party. An Associated Press count of pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses and a survey of party insiders known as superdelegates shows Clinton with the overall support of the required 2,383 delegates. Now the presumptive nominee, she will formally accept her party's nomination in July at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.”

Some Background

First, it needs to be understood that The Associated Press is a cornerstone of American journalism, a highly-respected, trusted and diligent recorder and reporter of news that we all depend on. On a personal level, I have been a user, beneficiary and dedicated fan of their work through more than 50 years in journalism. So when the AP writes, people read, and pay attention.

Second, this story appeared just literally hours before the first polls would open Tuesday morning in New Jersey, followed by North and South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico and California.

So what quickly followed the brief AP story Monday evening was what John Cassidy, writing in The New Yorker, described as a “network stampede. Shortly before nine o’clock, NBC News declared Clinton the ‘presumptive nominee.’ It, too, cited a survey of superdelegates that it had carried out...By midnight, CNN, citing its own count, and ABC News, citing the A.P., had also declared Clinton the presumed nominee.” In the morning, many major newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post and citing the AP report, carried banner headlines.

A One-Day Story but Lingering Controversy

What also quickly followed posting of the first, brief AP story was an interesting—and in some places like the Sanders’ campaign—heated controversy about news and how, why and when it is reported and whether its potential impact should be considered in the decision-making of editors.

I should also say that this had relatively little to do with the nightly PBS NewsHour. The initial AP report Monday night, which did not contain the names of any of the superdelegates, came too late to even be mentioned on the Monday evening broadcast. I did get some emails from viewers who said they were angry about a much more extensive account by the wire service posted on the NewsHour website around 9 p.m. Monday and headlined, "Clinton has enough delegates to clinch nomination, AP reports." But by later that night and into Tuesday morning it was big news everywhere and had to be reported. The NewsHour online postings that night and the following day of a couple of explanatory reports by the AP actually helped understanding of the method and reasoning of the wire service.

Some Critical Voices

In the ensuing coverage of the controversy, several reports included the views of critics. Upset the most was the Sanders’ campaign, describing it as a “rush to judgment,” pointing out that superdelegates don't get to vote until the July convention in Philadelphia.  The Clinton campaign also wasn’t happy, with Politico reporting that her supporters felt the AP deflated what was meant to be the big moment Tuesday night and quoted former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley saying, “It feeds into Sanders’ supporters’ belief that the game is rigged.”

Similarly, Cassidy quoted Jeff Stein at Vox: “By using the superdelegates to declare the race over, these news outlets risk giving greater circulation to the false idea that these party elites have somehow stolen the nomination from Sanders.” Both campaigns felt it could diminish voter turnout in the six states voting on Tuesday.

The progressive media watch group FAIR, for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, in its headline said: “AP’s Premature Call for Clinton Does Disservice to Democracy.” A Washington Post media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, who came down on the side of the AP, included the early concerns of several critics in her column, including Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept who described it as elitist and undemocratic. Michael Tracey of Vice said, “The nomination was declared clinched based on unverifiable info that reporters obtained from operatives whose identities were concealed.” And Bill Mitchell of the journalism-education center said, “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.”

The AP Explains

In response to critics and others challenging AP’s decision, executive editor of The Associated Press, Kathleen Carroll, said: “AP concluded that Hillary Clinton had enough delegates to clinch the nomination after a painstaking but very straightforward exercise. We counted. By Monday evening, 571 superdelegates had told us unequivocally that they intend to vote for Clinton at the convention. Adding that number to the delegates awarded to Clinton in primary and caucus voting to date gave her the number needed to be the presumptive nominee. That is news, and reporting the news is what we do. Nothing in that discourages or prevents voters in six states from exercising their right to go to the polls today and cast their ballots.”

It is hard to argue against that explanation, especially because it comes from such a trustworthy wire service that has tracked this campaign very closely from the start. And, as CNN's Brian Stelter reported, the new AP reporting came right after the Puerto Rico primary the day before, on Sunday, which put Clinton “on the verge of having all the delegates she needed to lock up the nomination through a combination of pledged delegates and superdelegates.”

My Reaction

Yet, I have to say that as I heard and watched this initial story—not the explanation, which came later—unfold on network television Monday evening, it annoyed and even angered me a bit. I was reacting as a citizen not just a citizen-journalist.

This has been a fascinating campaign, brutal in some ways and unprecedented in others, and the extraordinary run by Sanders from out of nowhere was a big part of the drama. It was well known and had been widely reported that Clinton had the nomination all but sewed up, yet the polls showed a tight race shaping up in California. So what would it mean as the convention loomed, for example, if Sanders won that contest even if the delegate math stayed in Clinton’s favor, as it certainly would? That was a legitimate and important question.

So I was looking forward to watching the returns and the playing out of this drama and was dismayed by the AP report and burst of TV coverage that followed because it made me wonder if, somehow, it would affect the turnout for both candidates and therefore interfere with a pure expression of voter sentiment.

I also knew well, from previous experience, that reporters and editors have always had access to things like exit polls yet withhold the most crucial information until after polls had closed. That’s not the same as counting superdelegates but conceptually it is similar in terms of not reporting things early on an election day that could affect voter actions. As it turned out, the AP report probably didn’t change anything, but it could have.

As a newspaper reporter and editor for many decades, I always operated on the principle that it was always best to publish as soon as the story was nailed down and ready; not to hold things. And I think that if I were still in a newsroom, I would do what the AP did. But I was mostly just a viewer Monday night and the AP report struck me as an easy, one-day “scoop” that probably didn’t surprise anyone who had been paying attention and would be overtaken within 24 hours yet somehow, in the interim, might risk affecting, unnecessarily, contests in which millions of voters were involved.

Cassidy Again 

As The New Yorker’s Cassidy put it on Tuesday morning: “The organizations in question will doubtless reply that their job is to report the news, and that they had some news to impart. But the timing of their calls was questionable. Beyond attracting some readers and viewers on a quiet news night, what real purpose did it serve? If they had waited twenty-four hours, they could have twinned the results of today’s primaries with the near-final tally of elected delegates and the findings from their new surveys of the superdelegates. At that point, assuming things go as most people expect, the news organizations would have been in a stronger position to declare the race over. And they wouldn’t have exposed themselves to the charge that they had called the race prematurely.”

Posted on June 9, 2016 at 12:19 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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