In fact, McAuliffe had done no such thing. Lewis had mistakenly assumed that the initials “T.M.” on court documents referred to McAuliffe when they actually referred to another individual. McAuliffe’s campaign said he was a passive investor with the estate planner and has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Faced with the mistake, AP moved swiftly to rectify the error. It sent out a “mandatory kill” notification 98 minutes after distributing Lewis’s item on its state wire Oct. 9. It then sent out a longer story under Lewis’s byline that recounted events accurately.
Then it turned inward.
After several days of deliberations, AP fired Lewis on Monday, followed by his immediate editor in Richmond, Dena Potter. On Tuesday, regional editor Norm Gomlak confirmed that he, too, had been fired over the story. Gomlak, who is based in Atlanta, was the primary editor of Lewis’s story because Potter was tied up with an unrelated story Oct. 9.
Lewis, 57, makes no excuses about the mistake. But, he said Tuesday, he feels “stunned and hurt” by his firing after 28 years of “unblemished” service to the AP. “I still can’t really wrap my head around it,” he said by phone from Richmond. “The only blessing out of this has been the expressions of support” from friends, colleagues and many of the officials he has covered over his career, including Virginia’s two senators and former governors, Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Mark R. Warner (D), and the state’s current governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R).
He declined further comment pending a grievance complaint by the News Media Guild, which represents AP employees.
Gomlak said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed” by the AP’s response and was “saddened” by the treatment of his colleagues, whom he praised. Potter did not return a call for comment.
Reporters have been sometimes fired for willful misconduct, such as repeated instances of plagiarism or fabrication. Reporters who’ve suffered that fate, such as the New York Times’ Jayson Blair and The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke, were guilty of gross journalistic malpractice.
But firing a reporter over an unintentional mistake is “extremely rare,” said Scott Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who has studied reporting errors. “If everyone who made a mistake was fired for it, we’d have empty newsrooms,” he said.
Indeed, no journalist was fired for perpetrating some of the myths recounted in “Getting It Wrong,” a survey of misreported stories such as widespread reports of murder and mayhem following Hurricane Katrina and Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch’s supposed heroics at the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, said author W. Joseph Campbell, a journalism professor at American University and a former AP reporter.