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NPR's Call On The Very Close Iowa Democratic Caucuses

Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, smile during a break of the Democratic presidential debate on Jan. 17, 2016. Mic Smith/AP hide caption

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Mic Smith/AP

Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, smile during a break of the Democratic presidential debate on Jan. 17, 2016.

Mic Smith/AP

NPR listeners and readers woke up Tuesday morning to headlines declaring Hillary Clinton the winner of the previous night's Democratic caucuses. "Hillary Clinton has defeated Bernie Sanders by the slimmest of margins," the 7 a.m. ET newscast reported. Online, one headline read: "Iowa Caucuses: Cruz Wins GOP Race; Clinton Defeats Sanders."

By comparison, at the same time, most other major news organizations were calling the contest a virtual tie or dead even. The Associated Press, from which many news organizations take their cues, did not declare a winner in the contest until 1:06 p.m. Tuesday.

Many of NPR's actual stories, unlike the headlines, added more nuance, and one Morning Edition report noted Sanders had not conceded the race, including a clip of him declaring it a "virtual tie."

Still, many Sanders supporters wrote my office to express their unhappiness over the topline reporting. "I was disappointed that NPR's news portrayed Hillary as the winner beating Sanders," wrote one listener, noting, "Iowa Democrats have not called that race."

The writer was correct. The Iowa Democratic Party put out a statement around 3:30 a.m. ET showing Clinton with 699.57 state delegate equivalents, to Sanders' 695.49, with 2.28 outstanding — or not enough for Sanders to catch up. But the statement, which NPR used to back up its reporting, pointedly did not say that Clinton had won. (The party later posted final results.)

Around 1 p.m. Tuesday, NPR walked back the report on its election page to say that Clinton "appears to have won" and noted that the race had not been officially called. Minutes later, the Associated Press called the election for Clinton and the page was updated again to read: "Hillary Clinton has won the Democratic caucuses in Iowa by the slimmest of margins over rival Bernie Sanders."

I asked the newsroom for an explanation of why it reported the results the way it did.

Lead political editor Domenico Montanaro emailed:

"The state party released results at 3:30 in the morning or thereabouts. Those results showed that Hillary Clinton had accrued more delegates than Bernie Sanders by a whisker. There was still some vote out, the party said, but not enough to give Sanders the win — even if he won all of the remaining vote. Because of the way the process works in the Democratic Iowa caucuses, there is no mechanism for a recount. You can't recount people who voted with their feet and not on paper. So, at that point, I advised editors here that Clinton had won, 'according to results released by the Iowa Democratic Party.' We stressed it was a very, very narrow win and the closest race in history."

Senior Washington Editor Beth Donovan added, "Our Political Editor Domenico Montanaro and Deputy Political Editor Arnie Seipel were reporting through the night and into the morning, and they are extremely well versed on state party rules. When they heard from the Iowa Democratic Party, they understood what it meant and advised the network accordingly. They were transparent about their information and analysis. We are grateful for their expertise." Montanaro reported more on the complexities of the Iowa process on Tuesday's All Things Considered.

My take: I don't see any pro-Clinton conspiracy here, as many of those who wrote me alleged. But I do think more caution was called for. NPR overreached early on, as it effectively admitted by the early afternoon changes on its election page.

That said, I wouldn't want this to overshadow what I thought was, overall, a very strong Iowa caucuses night for NPR. The Elections page unveiled Monday night worked smoothly, with continually updating results pages that were a welcome alternative to constantly having to hit "refresh" on a Web browser as in the past, or watch a cable news crawl. The three-hour live election report, carried on many local stations and anchored by Ari Shapiro and Audie Cornish, had lively interviews, including Shapiro's parry with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, and a deft balance of speeches and updates from reporters inside the caucus halls and campaign headquarters. I look forward to more such coverage.