Of course, Politico’s article would have been better with more specifics. But if the core bit of news, about the allegations and the settlements, was all Politico could pin down, it was still worth reporting. Engelberg wrote to me that the non-disclosure agreements were not an “insurmountable barrier” to unearthing more details prior to publication, and that some of the information that has since come to light, like the size of the settlements, “would have been immensely helpful to readers of the first story.” Like Shafer, he pointed to The Washington Post’s coverage of the Bob Packwood scandal, which landed with a devastating, incontrovertible wallop. And he suggested that the lack of specifics may explain why many Republican voters appear to be brushing the story aside.
But the fact that further details have come out in the wake of Politico’s reporting doesn’t prove those details could have been uncovered prior to the first story’s publication. On this point, Politico’s Harris had a persuasive reply. “Do [Shafer and Engelberg] hold their views strongly enough that they would have been prepared to stop newsworthy information about a presidential candidate from going into the public domain because only some questions, and not all, were answered?” he wrote via e-mail. “The main issue in their critiques is whether the right call is to share no newsworthy information until we can answer all the questions that a curious person might have. In my experience, that is just not how reporting works—answers come out over time, by returning over and over to important questions with more reporting and more stories.”
Stretched too far, this defense of “iterative” reporting can be used to excuse errors or trafficking in rumor. But that’s not the case here. Politico reported what it knew. Though the presentation of the story could have—and should have—been fairer to Cain on a couple points, what it reported has held up. And what it reported was, on its own, newsworthy.