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Associated Press tells staff it made mistakes in firing of Emily Wilder

The news service is facing criticism and internal dissent for terminating a junior staffer based on her social media activity

The Associated Press is grappling with a wave of backlash over the firing of a news associate last week. (Jenny Kane/AP)

Senior managers at the Associated Press admitted fault on Wednesday in the firing last week of a 22-year-old junior staffer, Emily Wilder, who was being targeted by right-wing commentators over her political activism in college.

Wilder was fired last Wednesday for violating the news organization’s social media policy. Company managers felt that her tweets showed a bias toward the Palestinian people in their conflict with the Israeli government and Israeli settlers — though Wilder says her editors never told her which of her tweets were problematic.

Since then, the AP — a huge international news organization whose internal dramas rarely go public — has been dealing with dissent from employees who feel it abandoned Wilder in the face of an online mob. On Monday, more than 100 AP staffers signed an open letter expressing frustration with how the company handled the termination and demanding “more clarity” about why Wilder was fired.The Associated Press has not apologized or acknowledged mistakes in its public statements, beyond saying in response to the open letter that the company “looks forward to continuing the conversation with staff about AP’s social media policy.”

But managers took a much more apologetic tack in a town hall with employees on Wednesday, an audio recording of which was shared with The Washington Post.

Several executives expressed regret at how the company handled the situation in the meeting, though managing editor Brian Carovillano called them “mistakes of process, and not of outcome.” He said it was still “the right decision” to fire Wilder.

Perspective: Emily Wilder’s firing is a story of bad faith, not bad tweets. Newsrooms must do better.

Julie Pace, the AP’s Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor, told employees that the company failed to anticipate the ramifications of terminating an entry-level news associate who had only worked there for a few weeks.

“We failed to initially see this as more than an HR issue,” Pace said. “We thought this was the type of internal, personnel issue that AP is used to dealing with. What we failed to see is how this impacted our staff broadly in so many ways. … We saw it primarily as an issue of social media standards. We failed to see that it is much deeper than that.”

The company said on Monday that it is launching a review of its social media guidelines, which currently dictate that “AP employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum and must not take part in organized action in support of causes or movements.”

The events that led to Wilder’s termination began last week with tweets from the Stanford College Republicans about her pro-Palestinian political activities and comments while she was a student there. Conservative-leaning publications quickly picked up the story, amplifying it to a much larger audience, and by Wednesday Wilder was told that she had been fired. She told The Post last week that the “AP folded to the ridiculous demands and cheap bullying of organizations and individuals.”

The open letter signed by many of Wilder’s former colleagues said they were concerned about also falling victim to online smear campaigns. “The lack of communication … about Wilder’s firing and the circumstances surrounding it gives us no confidence that any one of us couldn’t be next, sacrificed without explanation,” they wrote.

The AP managers spoke to those concerns on Wednesday. “We want to acknowledge that we made missteps in handling this crisis,” deputy managing editor Amanda Barrett said. “Please know that the AP will protect you. We’ll have your back when you face threats online.”

Pace said the company erred by focusing narrowly on social media guidelines in the debate that followed her firing.

“We failed to see that our efforts to move the conversation beyond Emily’s firing and quickly focus on discussions of AP’s social media policies would be seen as cruel and dismissive of what the staff was experiencing, and what you had experienced in the past,” she said. “We didn’t see the connection between the attacks that Emily suffered online and the experiences that many of you have had. We didn’t anticipate that our own handling of the situation would be seen as an indication that we don’t have our staff’s back.”

Sally Buzbee, the outgoing executive editor of the AP, has said that she was not involved in the Wilder situation because she had already relinquished her day-to-day responsibilities and accepted a new job — as executive editor of The Washington Post, where she starts Tuesday.

After employees demanded more clarity on the reasons for the firing during the town hall, Carovillano told them that Wilder had received ample guidance about social media rules when first hired, including a special hour-long tutorial with her manager, due to previous, pre-hiring tweets of hers that had been deemed by the company to be “borderline” appropriate.

“We’re sorry that Emily was targeted by online groups that dredged up her past, and we really do wish her the best,” he said. “There was nothing easy about the decision to let her go.”

While Carovillano said the decision to fire Wilder had been unanimous, he acknowledged, “We do need to be honest with ourselves and we need to admit that we’ve made some mistakes in the past week.”

Pace said the company also erred in the sphere of public opinion. “We didn’t step in fast enough or forcefully enough to defend our values, our integrity, and our principles,” she said.