First to report Rendell named Obama’s vice presidential running mate: how an entire newsroom tricked me

AP Photo by Carolyn Kaster. Edited by Christopher Wink
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. AP Photo by Carolyn Kaster. Edited by Christopher Wink

This is the story of how more than 20 statehouse reporters fooled me into believing I had a hot-breaking story – for the second time in a month. Last week I posted that a personal essay of mine was accepted by the Columbia Journalism Review and appeared on the CJR Web site. My essay touched on a story that I think is worth telling more deeply.

Enjoy.

This past summer I was honored to serve a prestigious post-graduate internship with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, the country’s oldest state government reporting society. For three months I covered Pennsylvania state government in the Harrisburg Capitol, home of the largest full-time state legislature in the country, representing the nation’s sixth most populous state. On a rotating basis, I worked for six media outlets, including Pennsylvania’s three largest dailies. I worked with serious, accomplished journalists, a handful of them ranked among the state’s most influential.

Yeah, and they screwed with me a lot.

One

Before Christmas, the PLCA held its historic, annual Holiday Party – once home to the infamous liquor divvy. Being a good sport, a loudmouth and having a bit of a personality, I suppose, I caught an invite. It was a chance at free food, drinks, good music, a night out (albeit a two-hour drive or train ride) and to see a group of journalists whom I genuinely like and wholeheartedly respect.

It was also a chance for them to bring up the time that for an entire day this summer, they convinced me Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was going to be named then-Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama’s vice presidential running mate. For at least three hours I completely believed I had the most meaningful political story in the world and not another soul on the media planet knew it.

If it seems cruel to do to a passionate, aspiring political journalist, that’s because it is.

Two

This blog’s focus is the trials of this young, multimedia freelance journalist in Philadelphia, so I can give advice to other media professionals, be they young, interested in multimedia, freelancing, Philadelphia, urban reporting generally or a combination thereof. I assure you, this is as good advice as I have ever given in my one year blogging on ChristopherWink.com.

Understand this: reporters, or at least the good ones, are dicks. It is part of a journalist’s occupational mythology, and these personalities dictate just what type of reporter you are.

Let me set the stage. During the second week of last August, I started pitching and covering state government for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a big metro daily, with all the sex and might that means to a young journalist. I got some great clips. As far as I know, only one of them was entirely fictitious.

See, the three-person Inquirer Harrisburg bureau tricked me into believing their editor wanted me to write a profile on John Micek, part of the Allentown Morning Call‘s Capitol bureau and one of the better journalist-bloggers in the state. Of course that doesn’t make sense. I maintain that I even said that when it was assigned to me.

But I did the assignment and, for a time, even believed it was destined to be posted on Commonwealth Confidential, the Inqy’s statehouse blog, even though I thought it was silly. My appraisal of most newspapers having no concept of new media made me fall for that one.

I thought it was a way for smart, fun, proud journalists to say the respected me, or at least thought I was alright for an idiot 20-something intern. I thought it was passing a real newsprint tradition, though it may seem faded today, to another generation (read, that is cool). I thought I got my tiny initiation, and it was done.

I thought wrong, of course.

Three

Newspaper reporters like to drink. They have to; it’s also part of that occupational mythology, one that has transcended to journalists as a whole, but it began with the newspaperman. So, of course, PLCA members, who subscribe to the purest tradition of newsprint, imbibe from time to time, sometimes even together.

Toward the end of August, Kari Andren, one of the other four interns was ending her internship, as would the rest of us a week later at the month’s end. It called for a night out. It so happens that my girlfriend was coming in that night, got there earlier than expected and the PLCA folks got started and ended later than expected.

I was still plugging away on some work with the Patriot-News at 7 p.m. when she made it to Harrisburg. It looked like I wouldn’t be going out. I hightailed it out of the newsroom and, after picking up the first two, ignored a succession of at least 25 cell phone calls from a variety of high-powered newspaper journalists – like teenager girls cellularly assaulting a girlfriend who couldn’t make it to the school dance.

After 12 a.m., I got a couple more calls, and, since my girlfriend and I were done with dinner and catching up after not seeing each other for a couple weeks, I picked one up. A handful of the hardest PLCA folks were still bumming around their favorite Harrisburg haunt on Second Street and wanted to meet my girlfriend. She and I stopped by, had a few beers, heard some jokes and left before 2 a.m. I never realized it was in my absence that my fate was sealed.

Four

A few weeks later I was getting ready for more than month backpacking Europe, travel blogging and podcasting at WeDontSpeaktheLanguage.com.

I got an e-mail from Jan Murphy, an esteemed member of the Capitol bureau of the Patriot-News, which has been Pennsylvania’s Paper of the Year for three consecutive years, according to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. “Thought you would want to know even the people who weren’t in on it,” she wrote, “were in on it.” She forwarded an e-mail from the Pennsylvania spokesman for the Obama campaign.

Sorry I never got to this guys.  Let me know if I can mess with this kid in some other way.  Always into the hijinks.

He was responding late to an e-mail from Murphy, which gave him the details of their plan and ended with this:

Chris also is FOR REAL covering the Howard Dean visit today, so he may be circling around to you for that. That is a legitimate story, not to be confused with the fake one we have concocted for him to check out.

Five

Dean was in Harrisburg to stump for Obama, who was still riding a wave of excitement about his nomination. As the conventions neared there was a growing buzz about whom Obama and his Republican challenger John McCain would choose as their vice presidential running mates.

I raced back from the Dean event, held at a Harrisburg high school. I filed a Web brief, beating everyone short of those bastards at the AP, whom I only beat once, on a story that was then picked up by CNN, and started putting calls out to spokesmen for Obama, Dean, McCain, the Democrats, Republicans and others – hoping to get a few returned to make a story.

A woman with cropped black hair was speaking in hushed tones to Murphy, nothing unusual in a newsroom shared by friendly, but competing reporters.

“Did you hear that?” Murphy asked me.

The woman she was speaking to, Murphy told me, was a former Patriot reporter who now worked for the administration. Rendell, the woman whispered to me smilingly, is going to be named Obama’s running mate.

“Well that seems stupid,” I said, though I immediately thought how beneficial that could be for Pennsylvania, Philadelphia – where Rendell formerly served as mayor – and all U.S. cities, considering Obama and Rendell both cut their political teeth in big urban hubs.

Murphy told me she was too busy to handle this and thought I deserved a big story like this.

“You can handle this,” she asked me. “Can’t you?”

Six

As I wrote in my CJR story:

What I felt then was a rush I never felt so strongly, not on different continents or jumping out of airplanes. I was in possession of the single-most meaningful political story in the world and not another soul on the media planet knew it.?? I caught the state’s Democratic party executive director on her cell phone. “Next Monday could be a very exciting day for Pennsylvania,” was all she would say on record. I actually got goose bumps. After some persistence, a Rendell spokesman seemed to all but confirm the rumor. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened,” he relented. A spokesman for Obama in Pennsylvania refused comment, but let on that an announcement was coming next week. A state Republican spokesman told me he heard the Rendell rumor too and wanted me to confirm it.

Throughout my call-making, researching and scribbling a handful of reporters came to the Patriot cubicle: John Baer, the esteemed columnist of the Philadelphia Daily News and Brad Bumsted of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

They asked just what Tom Barnes of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked when he came next: “Anything big going on?”

It was a question I heard ask in the newsroom before. It’s a question tied integrally to the history of the PLCA, which housed its competing correspondents from varied media sources in the same historic newsroom, cubicle next to cubicle. No one wants to be too badly beaten on a story. If you are, well, your editor might start asking questions.

So, out of respect, each reporter lets his competition run with what he’s running as long as everyone is kept in the game. So, when you’re particularly busy and something might slip through you ask, the journalism ethical considerations are daunting.

Murphy told Barnes no.

“I’m about to go home for the weeked. I have to meet my wife,” Barnes said. “So I can’t miss anything. Sure nothing is going on?”

“Nothing is going on,” Murphy said. “Right Chris?”

“…Nothing, Tom,” I said.

Seven

I was finishing up my Rendell story and waiting on a callback to finish my Dean story when Murphy’s phone rang. She held the receiver and told me her editor said he didn’t have room in tomorrow’s paper for my story.

“So wait for Sunday and run it big,” I said, giddy enough that how nonsensical the thought of this story holding another day didn’t occur to me.

“Or run it online big,” I said, new journalism pumping through my veins, picturing blog post and Tweets and CNN references to my story. My head was about to explode – when it did.

“He wants to talk to you” Murphy said, handing me the phone, as the cubicle filled with about every reporter in the newsroom.

“How’d it go?” asked the voice on the phone. It was John Micek, correspondent for the Morning Call.

The entire Pennsylvania political world was in on a prank to fool me for almost an entire Friday – a slow news day I suppose – planned the night at the bar when I didn’t show up.

Spokesmen, state representatives, other reporters, interns, seemingly everyone was in on it. I couldn’t do anything but laugh. Laugh and tack my completed story on Rendell’s vice presidential candidacy to the PLCA information board.

Now that’s a work day.

Read the entirely false story I completed here. Read my Columbia Journalism Review story. This was even better then when we had a cherry-spiting contest in the newsroom, or when I came into work wearing a mohawk.

Can anyone top that? This means they liked me, right, not that an entire newsroom was out to get me, right? Because that’s what they told me. I’m sure it wasn’t a vendetta.

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