The news broke Monday evening and sent shockwaves across the country.
The FBI had conducted a search of Mar-a-Lago — the Florida residence of former President Donald Trump.
Who broke the news? Who had the biggest political scoop in recent memory? The New York Times? The Washington Post? CNN?
Nope. It was a guy who runs a website about Florida politics that is called, appropriately enough, Florida Politics.
Peter Schorsch — who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida and is a former political consultant who used to write a blog about St. Pete — sent out a tweet breaking the news. Trump himself later confirmed the FBI search in a statement. Then the news was everywhere.
In the aftermath, national outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News and Slate wrote stories giving Schorsch credit for the scoop. And deservedly so. There’s no question that he was the first with the news.
As a media columnist, I, too, was interested in Schorsch’s breaking news. And since Schorsch works just down the street from my office, I felt I needed to jump on the story, as well. I called Schorsch on Tuesday afternoon and he explained to me how he learned about the FBI’s search on Trump’s home. In a minute, I’ll fill you in on what he told me.
But first, an explanation.
I wrote the story about Schorsch’s scoop, and Poynter posted it online. It was up for a brief time, but we (editors and myself) then decided to take it down until we could edit and update with more context, context that this story deserved. This is that updated version.
What was missing — and what should have been included from the start — was a little more about Schorsch and his website. As The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi explained well in her updated story, “Even while the site has become a must-follow source for Florida political obsessives, some have raised questions about whether Schorsch’s approach qualifies as journalism; he has been accused of giving favorable coverage to ad buyers. (The local sheriff’s office investigated him for pay-to-play allegations but dropped the matter without filing charges.)”
It also should be noted that Schorsh used to write for something called SaintPetersBlog. There, he wrote about St. Petersburg politics and media, often taking aim and harshly critiquing journalists at the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times. Some might even call it trolling of a mean and personal nature.
Schorsch has said he does not consider himself a journalist. He told Izadi, “I’ve been very adamant about that. You can swing a sword but that doesn’t make you a samurai.”
There’s no question that Florida Politics makes an impact. Schorsch told me Tuesday that the site has 17 full-time staffers and about another dozen contributors and photographers. Last month, Schorsch said, the site attracted 2.3 million unique visitors. At a time when many Florida news outlets have dwindling resources and staff, Florida Politics has filled in some of the missing holes in the Sunshine State’s political scene.
And there’s no denying that Schorsch broke this Trump news.
On Monday, Schorsch was catching up with an old friend and occasional source whom he hadn’t spoken to in a while. They talked for 20 minutes or so about various things, including podcasting and other matters, when the old friend and source then dropped the incredible news: someone had told them that the FBI was searching Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
“I was just awestruck,” Schorsch told me. “It was just this monumental thing.”
Schorsh wanted to be polite, but at the same time was thinking that he needed to end the conversation and get work. Or as he put it, “You’ve got this long road ahead and you got to get driving.”
After hanging up, Schorsch reached out to someone he knew in — as he described it — “Trump World” to confirm the information. After dropping an expletive and asking for a minute to check things out, the source called Schorsch back and confirmed the news. The FBI had been at Mar-a-Lago. “They just left,” the source said.
Next up: how to get the information out there? Schorsch knew he needed to get this right. He has broken a few stories over the years. He said he was the first to confirm Florida’s first coronavirus case. But he also has made mistakes, like the time he reported Florida Congressman Bill Young had died when he had not.
“I’ve been up to the diving board and jumped off again,” Schorsch said. “But I’m like, ‘If I get this wrong, it’s going to be really, really, really bad.’”
Still, Schorsch was confident he had the scoop and decided to tweet it.
Before doing so, he reached out to some reporters he knew to let them know the tweet was coming. He thought it was a big story, but wasn’t totally sure. Was the FBI merely dropping off a subpoena or was it, as we later learned, cracking open a safe inside Trump’s residence? Perhaps the reporters from bigger outlets would be able to dig up exactly what was going on.
At 6:36 p.m. Eastern time — less than 10 minutes after first learning the information — Schorsch tweeted, “Scoop — The Federal Bureau of Investigation @FBI today executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, two sources confirm to @Fla_Pol ‘They just left,’ one source said. Not sure what the search warrant was about.TBH, Im not a strong enough reporter to hunt this down, but its real.”
Schorsch said he was simply being honest. He could tell you all the ins and outs of Florida politics, but if you want details about what the FBI was searching for inside a former president’s home, others were better equipped. A reporter at The New York Times or Washington Post or even a reporter plugged into the South Florida law enforcement scene was better suited to find out about an unprecedented FBI search, he thought.
“If you want to ask about campaign finance, I can do that,” Schorsch said. “To use a sports metaphor, I just wanted to roll the ball out there and let better players bring it up the court.”
What surprised Schorsch was that he had the scoop or, more accurately, that no one else had this major story.
“Yeah, the fear is you’re going to look stupid for like tweeting that you’ve (got a scoop),” said Schorsch, who said he’s always wary of starting a tweet with “SCOOP” or siren emojis.
Schorsch said that for all he knew, “Maybe someone broke it on Instagram.”
Or, Schorsch added, a local TV station or a Spanish-language outlet might have had it already. As it turned out, no one had it.
After tweeting out his big scoop, Schorsch then did what he always does in the evening: he went back to writing his “Sunburn” morning post for Florida Politics. His biggest concern at that point was trying to get “Sunburn” to an editor, who could read it over it before the editor’s favorite show — “Better Call Saul” — came on at 9 p.m.
So there you have it. That’s how Schorsch broke the story. And hopefully, this updated version gives you a bit more context.