omidyar

Before getting into the “inside media baseball” aspect of this story, let’s get one thing out of the way first: The real newsworthy item here is that the US National Counterterrorism Center’s list of known or suspected terrorists doubled between March 2010 and the end of 2013 from about 550,000 people to 1.1 million people.

According to the Intercept, 680,000 of these people are on a Terrorist Screening Database that is shared with “local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments.” And out of those, 40 percent have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.”

It’s a huge story and a major scoop for the Intercept, the subsidiary of Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media organization which, with respect, has seen its share of growing pains. Or at least it would have been a major scoop had the Associated Press not published the story a few minutes earlier. Was the Intercept simply too slow on the uptake? Did they get bested fair and square by a rival publication?

Not exactly. According to a report by the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) had “spoiled the scoop,” tipping off the AP that the Intercept was preparing a story.

Why would the government care? Grim explains:

To spoil a scoop, the subject of a story, when asked for comment, tips off a different, typically friendlier outlet in the hopes of diminishing the attention the first outlet would have received. Tuesday’s AP story was much friendlier to the government’s position, explaining the surge of individuals added to the watch list as an ongoing response to a foiled terror plot.

A source told Grim that the Intercept promptly hopped on a conference call with the NCTC after the stories hit, during which an official reportedly said the agency did not expect the AP reporter, Eileen Sullivan, to publish her story first. “That was our bad,” the official added, which is perhaps the greatest mea culpa from a government official in US history.

While the AP’s story is undoubtedly friendlier than the Intercept’s (which I imagine owes more to the AP’s style and audience than any insidious government gladhanding), the NCTC claims it did not act in order to ensure that a rosier version of the watchlist expansion hit the Internet first. According to a Huffington Post source, an official told the Intercept’s editor John Cook, “After seeing you had the docs, and the fact we had been working with Eileen, we did feel compelled to give her a heads up.”

In any case, the Intercept appeared to be farther along on its story — the initial AP piece that went up was only three paragraphs long, and when updated later it cited the Intercept’s story for additional information (Cited yes, but not linked — which, considering the circumstances of the two stories, is rather insulting, no?)

In any case, if you read one of the two stories, which you should, check out the Intercept one. It’s longer and more detailed, plus includes some fantastic graphics.

As for the AP, its hasty publication of three paragraphs in order to come in just ahead of the Intercept is the equivalent of posting “First!” as the initial comment in a story. Luckily, this is the Internet where people get their news from thousands of sources, not one of two local newspapers, or one of five local television stations. Being first doesn’t matter anymore. What will be remembered is who did it better.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas]