AP reporter’s mistake: Did the punishment fit the crime?

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the News Media Guild as the Newspaper Guild. This version has been updated.

October 23, 2013

Reporters, you may have noticed, make lots of mistakes. But an error made by an Associated Press reporter in a 112-word story this month has proved particularly damaging — especially to the reporter and his editors — and has raised questions about the appropriate response when a news organization gets its facts wrong.

Longtime AP reporter Bob Lewis was fired this week after mistakenly reporting that Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D) had lied to a federal investigator probing a Rhode Island estate planner involved in a fraudulent death-benefits scheme.

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.


Former Associated Press reporter Bob Lewis stands in front of the South Portico of the State Capitol in Richmond in this 2011 photo. (Steve Helber/AP)

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.

But Patrick L. Plaisance, an associate professor at Colorado State University who specializes in media ethics, said the AP mistake came at a sensitive time — in the middle of a heated political campaign — and involved an important individual, McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and close associate of former president Bill Clinton.

“It seems to me the firing is more representative of the sensitivity of Virginia politics than the severity of the crime itself,” said Plaisance, who covered the Virginia statehouse for the Daily Press of Newport News from 1997 to 1999. Nevertheless, he said, “I’m surprised by the severity of the punishment. It seems to be disproportionate to the crime.”

McAuliffe’s campaign said in a statement that the story was “water under the bridge.” It said it did not ask for any action to be taken against those involved.

AP spokesman Paul Colford declined to discuss the matter, saying AP doesn’t comment on personnel issues. He added that the news service had acted after “serious deliberation.”

Several journalists, including some at AP, said the McAuliffe story was pushed to news organizations by the campaign of McAuliffe’s rival, Ken Cuccinelli II (R). The Washington Post was among those that received a tip about it from Cuccinelli’s campaign, but The Post passed on the story after checking it.

One journalist close to the story said Lewis and the AP made “a rookie mistake” by not waiting for McAuliffe’s campaign to return a call seeking a response to the allegation. Indeed, Lewis’s brief report included this sentence: “McAuliffe’s campaign did not immediately respond to email and phone requests for comment about the allegation.”

Several sources also said the news service was short-handed on the night Lewis’s story was distributed. Although Potter briefly reviewed Lewis’s item, she was distracted by reports of a shooting in a West Virginia courthouse that evening and Gomlak was juggling several stories in Atlanta.

According to one AP editor, top management was particularly sensitive to Lewis’s mistake because it came after an erroneous AP report in April of an arrest of a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing.

The news service quickly determined that it would punish the two editors, the AP source said, but there was disagreement about whether Lewis himself should be sanctioned after a long career of mistake-free reporting.

AP employees are circulating a petition calling on the news service to rehire the journalists, said Martha Waggoner, president of the News Media Guild.

In the meantime, Lewis has received some powerful messages of support.

“While I think that it is good to elevate the standard in the media,” McDonnell told Richmond TV station WTVR on Tuesday, “it appears that this was a mistake as opposed to a knowing violation of journalistic standards. I’ve always had a high regard for Bob Lewis and I’m disappointed and sad for him and his family.”

Lewis may yet land on his feet. As of Tuesday, three news organizations had contacted him to discuss potential job offers.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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