Last Friday night showed that the news cycle is officially broken

Got any plans Friday night? Probably not, if you're a journalist in Washington.

In the capital, the end of the workweek has become a symbolic marker of a never-ending news cycle. And the start of a holiday weekend, like this Friday, is now a time to be on the alert for inconvenient leaks and after-hour official announcements.

Last Friday set a new standard for this kind of late-breakingness. While Hurricane Harvey gathered strength off the coast of Texas, a different kind of storm was developing over Washington — a deluge of news that defied all forecasts. For political journalists and their sources across the capital, Friday was a "Cat 4 hurricane with a Cat 5 newsdump." That’s how one Republican operative put it in a text message that Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs shared on Twitter.

Friday news dumps are not new in Washington. The tactic certainly pre-dates the Clinton administration. But senior aides in the Clinton White House perfected the art of the dump, offering exclusives and scheduled releases of public documents to circumvent attacks and angle for better coverage — or even less coverage.

Like the other two presidents since then, Donald Trump and his White House has already adopted similar tactics. But Friday’s multi-story pileup seemed to be something different — a convergence of planned and unplanned events that revealed how Washington and those who cover it do their jobs these days. Or try, anyway.

Since so many news people weathered the storm in real-time on social media, we can see just how fast each overlapping storylines unfolded, often in minutes. We can see what individual reporters and news organizations did to keep up, confirm details and add some perspective. And we can see how people in their audience followed the news as it happened, commenting on the journalists' sources and conclusions even as the journalists were still gathering them.

At 3:45 that afternoon, an announcement at the White House let the press know that President Trump and his family had arrived at the nearby Camp David retreat in Maryland. By then, it had already been a typically busy news day.

Less than two hours before, several top officials appeared at a White House briefing. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was there to comment about the administration's new economic sanctions on Venezuela. But the reporters also wanted to talk about other topics.

One topic was the story they woke up to early that morning — the Financial Times’ interview with Gary Cohn, the president's chief economic adviser, and a possible candidate for Federal Reserve Board chair. Cohn spoke bluntly and on-the-record to FT about his disappointment with Trump's statements after the violence in Charlottesville two weeks before. He also spoke about the pressure he'd felt "as a Jewish American" to resign from his White House post and why he had decided not to.

"Do you associate yourself with those remarks?" a reporter asked Mnuchin at the afternoon briefing. "And did you feel the same pressure that Gary Cohn said he felt, to resign?"

Mnuchin's answer ("under no circumstances was I going to resign") didn't add much to the day's news. But that and comments by other officials at the briefing gave reporters fresh quotes to update their day stories and weekenders — on Cohn, hurricane preparations, tax legislation and Afghanistan.

Then perhaps the White House reporters could call it a night and maybe even sleep in their own beds for a change. Trump's plans to stay at Camp David for the weekend meant the president was actually spending the weekend in and around Washington — something he’d done on less than half of the 31 weekends since the inauguration.

Incoming

Ninety minutes after Trump arrived at the Maryland mountain getaway, the president tweeted — one of several messages that day about the approaching hurricane.

CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller retweeted Trump's remark a few minutes later, adding in a comment that the president wanted the public to know he was actually on the job.

Knoller's 69-character news analysis was fairly innocuous, but it did not go over well with all of his followers.

But those kinds of reactions are pretty typical for most political journalists these days. And by then, Knoller probably didn’t have much time to pay attention. The night’s news cycle was picking up.

A half-hour earlier, at 4:51 p.m., The Wall Street Journal published a story with a lead filled with high-grade talk show fodder. The lead: "Special counsel Robert Mueller is examining what role, if any, former national security adviser Mike Flynn may have played in a private effort to obtain Hillary Clinton's emails from Russian hackers, according to people familiar with the matter."

The Journal reporter, Shane Harris, tweeted about his story six minutes later. Journalists at other news organizations immediately took note.

That tweet from NBC associate producer Marianna Sotomayor — the one about the "Friday 5:00 news dump" the Journal story started — seemed prescient.

Half an hour after that, her network had its own Russia scoop: "EXCLUSIVE NEWS" about subpoenas from the special counsel's investigation and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

"Mueller seeks grand jury testimony from PR execs who worked with Manafort," read the NBC headline, over a story largely attributed to "people directly familiar with the matter" and "one executive whose firm received a subpoena." Ken Dilanian of the network's investigative unit shared the story on Twitter — five minutes faster than his network did — and then headed to a camera position to talk about the story on MSNBC's 6 p.m. politics show, "The Beat with Ari Melber."

But "exclusives" rarely last in a storm. Competitors at ABC News answered their rival's story within minutes, at least on Twitter, and then with a story of their own at 6:26 p.m.

Other earlier versions, like ones The Hill and Reuters, simply cited NBC. A CBS News version appeared online later, but still gave a nod to NBC. "A source familiar with the matter confirmed the subpoenas to CBS News' Julianna Goldman. NBC News first reported the news."

While NBC was posting its Manafort story, "a senior White House official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity" was talking to reporters about the president's formal instructions to the Pentagon for banning transgender recruits. As has become customary, reporters then tweeted out the text of the full document once they got it.

But by that moment, much of the Washington press corps had its eyes on other developments. Jacobs bylined a Bloomberg News report with Arit John that underscored the timing of the administration's transgender announcement. "The White House waited until 6 p.m. on an August Friday, when the media audience is usually low, to announce the formal notification had come in the presidential memorandum," they wrote in a story posted at 6:05 p.m. and then updated an hour later. "Trump, who often turns the signing of presidential directives into media events, in this case issued the memorandum out of sight."

Category 4

By 7 p.m., the latest National Hurricane Service update elevated Hurricane Harvey to a Category 4 storm.

But journalists in Washington were also monitoring a story on the other side of the planet: preliminary reports of another provocative North Korean missile test. Details on the missile test were still murky — as the NBC Nightly News noted in a tweet that cited national security producer Courtney Kube.

Officials at the State Department were telling reporters that it "was aware" of the reports. Comment from the White House did not come until much later, when press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president had been briefed "and we are monitoring the situation."

In retrospect, the delayed response may have been understandable, given two other stories that were about to break simultaneously: the pardoning of Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio and the exit of White House adviser Sebastian Gorka.

The announcement about the former Maricopa County sheriff came first — but just by six or seven minutes, based on the tweet trail. Arpaio's aggressive profiling of Phoenix-area Latinos helped him cultivate a national reputation among anti-immigration activists, and they made “Sheriff Joe” a natural ally of candidate Trump in 2016.

Arpaio was also awaiting sentencing in a criminal contempt case after he was convicted last month for defying a court order to stop employing those same tactics.

Trump foreshadowed his plans to pardon Arpaio earlier in the week, when he told supporters at a rally in Phoenix that he thought the sheriff was "going to be just fine." And on Monday, he denied that he hoped the hurricane would overshadow his pardon. "And actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally," Trump said at a Monday news conference.

But on Friday, many in the press weren’t seeing it that way. Instead, journalists were quick to note that the White House seemed much less eager to trumpet the announcement than the president had been three days earlier, given the late-night timing amid so many other news events.

Others focused on getting speedy reactions from the sheriff himself — some within minutes. And Sean Hannity's staff quickly booked Arpaio for a 10 p.m. interview on Fox News.

Meanwhile, CBS's Knoller, known for his trove of White House facts and figures, used Twitter to offer some instant-context.

At the same moment the Arpaio news was released at 8 p.m., The Federalist was publishing its scoop about Gorka's White House departure, with a story by senior editor Mollie Hemingway that quoted the White House aide’s "blunt resignation letter" at length.

Gorka was a former editor at Breitbart News whose statements on Muslims had made him an incendiary figure as soon as the administration took him on as a deputy assistant to the president. His brash TV appearances reportedly delighted Trump, but now "multiple sources familiar with the situation" were telling Hemingway that Gorka was following his patron, recently deposed chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, out the door.

The Federalist is generally more thinky than scoopy. And it is straight-up about its politics, though it aims to be less of a partisan mouthpiece than some other publications that tilt right or left. Its publisher, Ben Domenech, calls himself a libertarian, while Hemingway has described herself as "classically liberal" ("neither libertarian nor conservative").

Domenech posted a “BREAKING” tweet with a link to Hemingway’s story at 8:06 p.m. One of the journalists who RT’d his link was political reporter Jonathan Swan of Axios, a news service launched by some of Politico’s founders earlier this year. Swan also made a point of noting that the news broke on an unconventional media source.

“Why doesn't more Trump admin news break through such outlets?” a Baltimore Sun reporter replied.

“Because Jared doesn't read us,” Domenech answered.

The Federalist’s story landed right as the rest of the press corps was still typing the leads on their Arpiao stories and scripts.

"BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE," announced Brandon Wall, a news editor and curator at BuzzFeed News. And 20 minutes later, BuzzFeed had its own version of the Gorka story by Capitol Hill reporter Paul McLeod and Washington bureau chief Kate Nocera, as did much of the rest of the press. And then the updating began.

One reason for the updates: Like everyone else in town, they were trying to figure out whether Gorka resigned or was fired. On the one hand, there was the resignation letter quoted in Hemingway's story. On the other hand, a White House pool report included a confusing quote from an administration official suggesting that the aide's departure was something else, but without saying what exactly. "Sebastian Gorka did not resign," the official said, "but I can confirm he no longer works at the White House."

Puzzled tweets and contorted stories followed — including an update adding the White House official's statement to the end of Hemingway's story.

That the press did not name the White House officials who offered these semi-official details and confirmations generated some suspicious responses from readers and viewers.

But that's how news breaks late on a Friday. And by the end of the night, details were still emerging, with reports that Gorka found out his security clearance was revoked while he was on vacation and that new White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly wouldn’t let the aide present his letter to the president in person.

'My head is spinning.'

Friday's tweet stream gave some sense how exhausting all of this was for the journalists trying to track of all the different storylines. And not just the reporters, but also the otherwise unseen editors and producers who help get the news online, on the air and eventually in print.

A little after 10:30 p.m., Wall, the Buzzfeed News curator and editor, began to sound like a castaway fantasizing about the food he'd eat when he got back to civilization.

An hour and 50 mins later, he got both — and tweeted about that too.

Around the same time, Bloomberg posted a story about the night's unexpected flood of news. Headline: "White House buries Hurricane Harvey watch with Friday news dump." "In the span of three hours," wrote editor Michael B. Marois, "as Hurricane Harvey barreled toward landfall in Texas last night, the White House dropped three controversial stories — taking the classic tactic of burying news on a Friday night to new heights." The forecast for upcoming Fridays? Cloudy with a good chance of more scattered dumping.

  • Profile picture for user Mark Stencel

    Mark Stencel

    Mark Stencel is co-director of the Duke Reporters' Lab. He previously was managing editor for digital news at NPR and held senior editing and management positions at the Washington Post and Congressional Quarterly.

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