October 21, 2013
Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe (D), left, and Ken Cuccinelli II (R). (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Ken Cuccinelli II. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Per Huffington Post, the Associated Press fired longtime Virginia politics reporter Bob Lewis following his mistake of Oct. 9, when he erroneously reported that Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D) had lied to federal investigators pursuing a fraud case against a Rhode Island accountant. According to the Huffington Post, the wire service also fired Dena Potter, an editor based in Richmond.

This is stern management. News organizations make rather significant mistakes all the time, yet the reporters take their lumps, stay on their beats and live to write another day. Not the case here. In his writeup of the firings, the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone noted that the AP fired no one in April, after it screwed up its report that a suspect was in custody for the Boston Marathon bombings.

On Twitter, reporters who’ve known and read Lewis’s excellent work over the years are making their voices heard:

 

 

 

Those reactions are understandable. Lewis has been around for decades, and usually his reporting is relied upon to establish an official record of history, not to betray it. For example, during the 2012 presidential election, the Daily Caller wrote a story attacking the mainstream media, including the AP, for having failed to fully report on a speech that then-Sen. Barack Obama had given at Hampton University in June 2007. The coverage, charged conservative critics, ignored inflammatory things that Obama said on that occasion.

The AP’s treatment, written up by Lewis, withstood the furor with ease. AP spokesman Paul Colford told the Erik Wemple Blog at the time that it was an “example of early political season coverage that the AP takes pride in. As far as I can see, the piece was referenced directly or indirectly by any number of broadcasters that day and date.”

A legacy of reliability and thoroughness was undone in a single night. As noted previously in this space, in the heat of the Virginia governor’s race, Lewis issued a report that said in part:

Documents in a federal fraud case allege that Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe lied to a federal official investigating a Rhode Island estate planner now imprisoned for receiving death benefits on annuities secured on terminally ill people without their knowledge.

That story hit the AP wire at 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 9 and was withdrawn 1 hour 38 minutes later. Lewis owned up to the mistake.

Any contention that the punishment against Lewis and an editor is excessive, however, must grapple with the facts of this mistake. They break out into a few damning categories:

1) The story made a startling allegation against a public official. Incorrectly asserting that someone lied to a federal investigator — especially when that someone is competing in a gubernatorial race — is nothing short of a high journalistic crime. As far as implications, it’s a screw-up of far greater impact than, say, misreporting that an unnamed suspect is in custody in a criminal case — an error that does nothing to harm any particular individual.

2) The story based the allegation on a strange passage in a federal indictment that mentions someone identified as “T.M.” That turned out not to be Terry McAuliffe, even though another passage in the indictment cited a “T.M.” who was indeed Terry McAuliffe. Understandable but still inexcusable: The AP went with a story based on initials and not enough, if any, sourcing.

3) The story ran before Lewis got a comment from the McAuliffe campaign.

The excruciating question faced here by managers at the AP relates to how much immunity a long record of achievement affords a reporter who commits a monstrous mistake. In this case, not enough to save Lewis’s job. That’s an tough call, but also a highly defensible one for a wire service whose entire purpose hinges on nailing high-pressure reporting, every single time.

The treatment of Lewis, however, is separate from the accounting that the AP owes the public. It did the proper thing in retracting the story as quickly as possible. But what really happened here? Why did the AP move this story without properly checking it out? What internal imperatives led to the mistake, and will they outlive these dismissals? The Erik Wemple Blog has requested a chat with AP officials about these things. No dice, says the AP.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.