Andrew Lack, the chairman of NBC News, was dining with Matt Lauer on the Upper East Side on Monday night when his phone rang, mid-halibut.
It quickly became clear that the fish would have to wait.
The Associated Press had just declared Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, a decision based not on any primary victory — none were held on Monday — but on the news agency’s own canvassing of superdelegates, the party insiders who can support any candidate they choose.
It was an unusual, somewhat arcane way to crown the nation’s first female presidential nominee from a major party, in part because the 571 superdelegates who told The A.P. they were committed to Mrs. Clinton are free to change their minds until the convention next month.
But The A.P.’s call created a trigger effect in newsrooms around the country, which have long viewed the agency as an arbiter of election results.
Pollsters at major television networks scrambled to confirm The A.P.’s math, with one official at CBS News hopping on a bicycle to quickly return to his office. CNN producers yanked an on-air promo teasing Tuesday’s races as Mrs. Clinton’s critical moment. NBC News, the first TV network to match the call, had its director of elections make a rare on-air appearance on MSNBC.
Editors at major papers tore up their front pages, adding banner headlines for later editions, even as they debated exactly how to describe a historic milestone predicated on another news outlet’s delegate tally, rather than the results of Tuesday’s primary races in California and five other states.
“The moment of history,” said Cameron Barr, a managing editor of The Washington Post, “snuck up on us a little bit earlier than we thought it would.”
By Tuesday, questions lingered about the abrupt nature of what had happened. Some rival journalists wondered why The A.P.’s 86-word bulletin was posted at 8:21 p.m. on the East Coast, when competitors would have difficulty matching its reporting. Others asked about the odd — and for some readers, puzzling — nature of a political victory announced on a day when no ballots had been cast.
There were political consequences, too. Mrs. Clinton played down The A.P.’s call, eager for supporters to stay motivated, as her aides grumbled about the news media stepping on her big moment. Her opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, rejected The A.P.’s delegate count outright, accusing the news agency of intentionally hurting his chances.
“They started hounding superdelegates,” Mr. Sanders told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview on Tuesday. “The night before the largest primary, biggest primary in the whole process.”
He added, “I was really disappointed in what The A.P. did.”
Officials at The A.P. offered a simpler explanation: There was news, and they reported it.
“We’re not calculating about when something happens,” Kathleen Carroll, The A.P.’s executive editor, said. “News is news. You put it out when you have it.”
The A.P. employs a crew of reporters to track delegates, distributing its tally to dozens of news organizations. On Monday, its chief delegate reporter, Stephen Ohlemacher, said that after days of nonstop calls to superdelegates, he had received enough commitments to support Mrs. Clinton for her to clinch the nomination.
“Can you imagine if we had gotten to that, and sat on it?” Ms. Carroll said. “That would be nutty.”
Ms. Carroll said there was only a brief discussion before editors decided to post the news on the wires — “We don’t need a conference call to decide when news happens” — and that it was the same routine The A.P. had followed in declaring Donald J. Trump the presumptive Republican nominee last month.
Mr. Barr, of The Washington Post, said he did not hesitate about reporting The A.P.’s call, only about how big to play the news on the front page. After consulting with The Post’s editor, Martin Baron, the paper swapped in a fresh photo of Mrs. Clinton, taken at an event in California after The A.P.’s announcement, and added a banner headline that she had reached the “magic number” for a “historic nomination.”
Similar conversations were occurring at The New York Times, where a late-night discussion took place among editors over the best way to attribute the news about Mrs. Clinton. In the end, The Times included a prominent reference to The A.P. in a headline atop its online home page and in a six-column, front-page headline, a rarity for the paper.
As Mrs. Clinton’s team planned a formal victory event on Tuesday, some supporters of Mr. Sanders described The A.P.’s move as evidence of establishment forces working against their candidate.
“Shame on you, @AP,” the actress Shailene Woodley, a Sanders supporter, wrote on Twitter, in a post that was retweeted roughly 800 times. “u are feeding false narratives to suppress the American people.”
Several reporters who cover Mrs. Clinton for major outlets, including BuzzFeed News and The Times, said Tuesday that they received angry and threatening messages from Sanders supporters after writing about The A.P.’s call.
Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said he could understand the frustration of Mr. Sanders’s fans. But he said that The A.P. “wins stars and kudos on this.”
“It’s good, solid enterprising reporting,” said Mr. Sesno, who now teaches about the media at George Washington University. “The A.P. did its job. They should be talking to superdelegates on a regular basis.”
“We live in an age of instant reporting,” Mr. Sesno said. “If it had been Saturday night at 11:59 p.m., you report what you got.”
News: THE NEW YORK TIMES
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