HolidayBuyer's Guide jumps gun on Rehnquist fate

Amid speculation about a possible vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, The Washington Post apparently jumped the gun. A screenshot from the newspaper's Bloglines newsfeeds service captured by blogger Jason Kottke shows headlines and lead paragraphs of four stories about William Rehnquist, including one titled "Chief Justice Rehnquist Retires/Dies." The items are no longer on the Bloglines site, and spokesman Eric Easter said the problem was due to "a publishing glitch."

"Clearly it was part of a package that is being prepared, like all newsrooms do," he said. "It was just a potential headline, just in case. It got out on the feed unfortunately."

A vacancy created by Rehnquist will have huge political impact as Democrats try to fight attempts by President Bush and Republican Congressional leaders to seed the courts with justices opposed to abortion rights and other progressive causes. News media in recent days have been speculating on the future of the chief justice of the country's highest court. Rehnquist, who is 80 and ailing from thyroid cancer, has given no indication of his intentions. Some reports speculate that conservative Rehnquist will stay on if moderate 75-year-old Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retires in order to maintain the right-leaning balance on the court.

This isn't the first or biggest gaffe from a news organization botching an attempt to anticipate news. A premature obituary of Bob Hope was posted on the Web site of the Associated Press in 1998 after someone reportedly pushed the wrong button. The same thing happened again to Hope on CNN's Web site in 2003 when a password protection lapse led to the posting of prewritten obits for a group of famous people, including Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela and Dick Cheney.

Premature posting is a byproduct of publishing in a digital world where news organizations competing to be first with the story are a fingertip away from ridicule if misinformation inadvertently hits screens of millions of readers. Unlike President Truman chuckling over the 1948 Chicago Tribune headline "Dewey Defeats Truman," the matter is more serious for Rehnquist, and in this case, the world.

CNET East Coast News Editor Margaret Kane contributed to this blog.