Yesterday, as a news day, was an even worse cascade of lies and confusion and gibberish than usual. Yet what stood out the most was a single word: “Clarification.”
It appeared at the bottom of a very short Axios post by reporter Jonathan Swan, introducing a note that read, in full: “Clarification: This article and headline have been updated to add that it’s unclear whether the resignation offer has been accepted.”
The headline, at day’s end, was “Rod Rosenstein offered to resign.” It was still extremely debatable whether or not that claim—that the deputy attorney general responsible for overseeing the investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign had offered to resign—was true. People were hotly debating it.
But either way, it was not what the item had said when it was first published. When it was published, what it said was, “Exclusive: Rod Rosenstein is resigning.” In a tweet, Swan had amplified and expanded it: “SCOOP: Rod Rosenstein has verbally resigned to John Kelly.”
The update—the point to be clarified—was that the SCOOP was false. Swan was wrong, and his wrongness broke the whole day’s news cycle. Exactly how he was wrong took a lot of sorting out. At first, competing reporters quickly broke the COUNTER-SCOOP that Rosenstein had not resigned, but had been fired. Then, once those dueling and incompatible accounts of reality had been read into the record, word came that Rosenstein had neither resigned nor been fired, yet, but was on his way to the White House, where his firing would happen later on.
The torn fabric of space-time flapped around a while longer and then subsided into the news (or anti-news) that the whole scoopy matrix of past vs. future and fired vs. resigned was inoperative, and that Rosenstein’s job status remained what it had been before Axios ever published the item at all. Everyone was shaky and horrified; nothing had happened.
Later on, the New York Times published a tick-tock of the day’s chaos. Here is what happened, by the Times’ account:
By about 9 a.m. Monday, Mr. Rosenstein was in his office on the fourth floor of the Justice Department when reporters started calling. Was it true that Mr. Rosenstein was planning to resign, they asked. Officials at the Justice Department took the inquiries as evidence that the White House wanted to speed along that outcome.
Mr. Rosenstein and Ed O’Callaghan, his top deputy, raced out of the building and headed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for what they expected to be the final word. Justice Department officials told reporters that Mr. Rosenstein expected to be fired upon arriving there.
That is, the deputy attorney general thought he was about to lose his job because reporters thought he was about to lose his job, in an escalating feedback loop. And the reason the reporters thought he would lose his job was a previous story in the New York Times, claiming (in the words of the Times describing the Times) that Rosenstein “had considered secretly taping the president and had discussed using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office”—a story furiously contested by everyone involved, to no resolution beyond that different people claimed different things about what had been said and how it had been meant.
So what happened yesterday was a crisis of government generated by the process of the New York Times trying to cover a crisis of government. And as all that indeterminacy frantically swirled around itself, Axios threw in what claimed to be a solid fact, an event: Rosenstein was out.
Naturally, it was Axios. It was—or would have been, if it were right—the kind of worthless scoop the Politics Knowing industry lives for. A whole flock of reporters was waiting around to see if Rosenstein lost his job; which one of them got the news first would not matter to the public at all. Everyone would replicate everyone else’s reporting in a matter of moments, and only the worst people would care who won.
Unless, that is, the win was not a win, and the story was not a story. What Axios passed off as an “update” was what an honest treatment would have called a “correction” or “retraction.” In a separate note, on a separate iteration of the coverage, Swan wrote:
I regret the way I wrote this morning’s version of the story. By saying Rosenstein had “verbally resigned” to Kelly rather than “offered his resignation,” I conveyed a certainty that this fluid situation didn’t deserve. It’s an important nuance, and I regret the wording.
Here “nuance” means “the entire substance of the story,” just as “clarification” meant “obfuscation.” Axios showed off its goals and priorities yesterday, and clarity was not one of them.