AP's Clinton 'Victory' Story Breaches Journalism Ethics and Public Trust

Hillary Clinton attends a campaign rally at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on April 6, 2016. (Photo: Nathaniel F/flickr/cc)

AP's Clinton 'Victory' Story Breaches Journalism Ethics and Public Trust

The Associated Press' early crowning of Hillary Clinton as the "presumptive" Democratic presidential nominee thrust a news organization into the middle of the political process with a story that suddenly, and without enough explanation, emerged from the mysterious methods of today's journalism.

The Associated Press' early crowning of Hillary Clinton as the "presumptive" Democratic presidential nominee thrust a news organization into the middle of the political process with a story that suddenly, and without enough explanation, emerged from the mysterious methods of today's journalism.

The story was not just a scoop. It fed the hostility and cynicism of Sen. Bernie Sanders' fervent supporters. Now it will complicate Clinton's efforts to build a united campaign against Donald Trump following her big and conclusive primary victories Tuesday night. And it possibly influenced voters before the primaries in California, New Jersey and New Mexico. Why vote if you already know the score?

Clinton reached the 2,383 mark Tuesday with the help of the superdelegates. You might say that makes the AP story yesterday's news. But it's not. The story raised major questions about today's journalism and its impact on the political process.

The story, the result of many weeks of interviewing superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention, declared that Clinton "will become the first woman to top the presidential ticket of a major U.S. political party, capturing commitments Monday from the number of delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. (She) ... reached the 2,383 delegates needed to become the presumptive Democratic nominee on Monday with a decisive weekend victory in Puerto Rico and a burst of last-minute support from super delegates."

"Capturing commitments" and "burst of last-minute support" are vague phrases that don't explain exactly how the AP decided Clinton had vaulted to the nomination a day before primary votes were cast. Accepting them at face value required a leap of faith in a media organization that is well respected in the news business but just a vague name to the public at large.

It was too much of a leap for the many Americans who joined Sanders' call for a political revolution. A substantial number of the people who walked precincts and packed his rallies were newcomers to politics, many of them young; and the twists, turns, cynicism and backroom aspects of the game were new to them.

I'll get to the ethics of the AP's sending out its story a day before the crucial vote. For now, I'll just say it was what I learned when I worked at the AP: the age-old custom of getting the news out to the public before anyone else, beating the competition. "We've been chasing this story for months," Stephen Ohlemacher, the AP reporter in charge of tracking delegates, told Philip Bump of The Washington Post. "We started surveying the superdelegates late last year. We use reporters from all over the country. Mostly it would be state reporters in each state, calling the delegates in their states. Some of us in Washington had done some follow-up."

The AP scoop didn't emerge in a vacuum. It followed many months of efforts by the Democratic establishment to hand the nomination to Clinton. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, Democratic National Committee chair, was one of the driving forces to marginalize Sanders, trying to deny him a chance to meet the voters. She and her co-conspirators scheduled the presidential debates for weekends, shutting out Sanders and former Gov. Martin O'Malley, who dropped out of the race in February, from exposure. Audiences are limited for weekend political debates.

There were other differences, all of them interpreted by Sanders and his fervid supporters as establishment efforts to deny him the nomination. Each one of his many rallies, attracting phenomenal crowds, fueled this feeling. After Schultz blamed the Sanders team for failing to condemn his followers' protests at a party convention in Las Vegas, Sanders said, "The Democratic leadership used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place."

A mass movement had been born, and those in it would take every setback, every vote-counting failure by incompetent or overworked election officials as evidence of a conspiracy against Sanders. Coupled with this was an enthusiasm I had not seen in politics in many years. The phrase "the joy of politics" occurred to me as I rode back to Los Angeles in a train packed with young Sanders fans fresh from his rally at Santa Monica High School. The Sanders people also reminded me of one of their predecessors, the Occupy movement, both sharing a disdain for established politics and the mass media.

From the beginning, I wondered how AP got the story and why it was put out just before Tuesday's primary. The superdelegates are, to a great extent, party powers--governors, lawmakers and others. From the beginning, they figured to be in the bag for Clinton. It was enterprising to contact them to confirm this. But why run the story at that crucial moment? What was the news organization thinking? Did AP consider the impact on the election?

Ohlemacher's interview with the Post's Bump shed some light on it, but not enough. Nor did the sketchy and self-congratulatory statement of AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll: "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."

I wanted to know more. I had worked many elections at AP and the Los Angeles Times. I had been part of deciding when to call an election. It's always a high-pressure event with many quick decisions. On the night of the 1968 California primary, I argued with two bureau chiefs that we should declare Robert Kennedy the winner. He had already claimed victory. The argument abruptly ended when the AP's Bob Thomas called from the Ambassador Hotel, breaking the news that Kennedy had been shot, mortally wounded. I was dispatched to the hotel to help with the coverage.

Tuesday morning this week, I called AP spokesman Paul Colford. He didn't answer, so I left a voicemail message and followed it up with an email with these questions:

"Who made the phone calls to the superdelegates? Your website states that on election night, nearly 5,000 stringers phoned the raw votes to AP's four election centers. Also involved in the election night process were bureau chiefs in the states and supervisors in New York and Washington. I realize that the polling of the superdelegates is different. Are the superdelegates called by stringers, reporters in the capital bureaus and elsewhere?

"Were these just phone calls or were there in-person interviews, text messages and emails? This is an important point. The superdelegates are big shots in their own states and in their own minds. Having dealt with such people as a political writer for the AP, based in Sacramento, and for the Los Angeles Times in L.A., Washington and on the campaign trail, I believe some thought, tact, smarts and experience is needed in dealing with them. To the country, as a whole, they are just cogs in the process. To them, their vote for the nominee is one of the biggest of their lives. Were they approached by overworked reporters with many other tasks, stringers, part-timers, rookies? Did the capital bureau chiefs take part in the process? Were they guided by a set of instructions to assure consistency? What were provisions for quality control? From my work with the Los Angeles Times poll, I know these questions are important.

"Your election night system, with its many safeguards, is impressive. What are the safeguards in the superdelegate poll? Where do the reporters send the information? Who compiles it? Who made the decision to call the delegate race for Clinton? When was it made? It sounds as though, at a certain point, you got enough answers to lead to a decision? How many answers?

"These questions ... go beyond journalism and scoops. Your call, the day before the primaries in New Jersey, California and other states, probably influenced the turnout, maybe lowering it. That is why your process should be completely transparent. You became part of the electoral process. The people have a right to know how your process worked."

As of Wednesday, the AP had not replied. It is one of the many news organizations, which invoke the people's "right to know." But as is the case with most of them, this right does not apply to themselves.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Hillary Clinton reached the 2,383 mark of delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination without the help of superdelegates. Clinton has 2,203 pledged delegates and reached the 2,383 mark with the help of superdelegates.

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