Politico’s One-Source Wonder

How often have you opened a newspaper and seen these words: "My apologies to our readers for passing on bad information"? Never.

How often have we opened a newspaper and seen these words: “My apologies to our readers for passing on bad information”?

Um, never.

So, first things first: Ben Smith, of the brand new Politico Web site needs to be commended for apologizing. As we all learn as children, it’s not easy to say you’re sorry.

But his bad information was not a trivial thing. At 11 a.m. today, Smith put up a blog post declaring that John Edwards, one of the three top dogs for the Democratic nomination, was going to announce at a noon briefing that he was “suspending his campaign for President, and may drop out completely, because his wife has suffered a recurrence of the cancer that sickened her in 2004, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.”

Not only did this not happen, but the opposite did. Edwards declared, quite emphatically, “The campaign goes on. The campaign goes on strongly.”

But not before Smith’s supposed scoop was picked up everywhere and accepted as fact. CNN, citing Politico, repeated all morning that Edwards was probably going to suspend his campaign. The announcement seemed so predetermined as a result of Smith’s post that Elizabeth Edwards herself joked at the press conference that it made no difference that she had decided not to speak to the press until that morning. They had done such a bad job of ferreting out the truth anyway. “You haven’t turned out to be so reliable in the last 24 hours,” she said, a jab at Smith and Politico.

In his apology, Smith explained what the problem had been. See, he only had one source. And that source, a friend of the Edwards family, had heard about the results of the first tests Elizabeth had taken, and not the more positive, final prognosis. Smith, rather than look for confirmation, went with the information he was given, without relying on more sources. “And with less than an hour before Edwards was to announce, I unwisely wrote the item without getting a second source,” he wrote, cursor heavy with contrition.

One source? Would this have passed muster in a newspaper or serious news broadcast? We sure hope not.

The problem, as we see it, is twofold. In spite of claiming to realize the power of the Internet - that’s why, presumably, Politico was able to lure big time political reporters like Smith away from newspapers - the reporters and editors who run the site still don’t realize how far their voice carries. We imagine Smith probably thought that a blog post couldn’t possibly make it farther than his own beltway readership. He should know better, and be just as careful about announcing such news as he would be in any other medium.

But the bigger problem has to do with the Internet itself. By giving the impression that everything is immediately correctible, it lowers accountability, making it seem okay to take risks - like basing a story on one source. If a Web site like Politico wants to be taken seriously, it has to live be the same rigorous standards that most news organizations live and die by.

Apologize all day long, if you want. But it’s only by providing information that is unimpeachable the first time it’s posted that the Politico can hope to gain a name for itself as a go-to place for breaking political news.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.