AP Firings Leave Many In News Media Scratching Their Heads

A brief Associated Press story that wrongly claimed Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe had been accused in court documents of lying to a federal investigator has resulted in the firings of several AP journalists.

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The Associated Press has fired a veteran political reporter along with two editors. That's after they filed a bulletin wrongly claiming that Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe had been accused in court papers of lying under oath.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, many journalists wonder why that mistake - a serious one but one that was corrected within two hours, led to such severe consequences.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Democrat Terry McAuliffe's momentum this fall stalled, if briefly, on Oct. 9. On that day, a tip led reporter Bob Lewis to comb through court documents from a Rhode Island case. McAuliffe had invested in a fund led by a man who caught the attention of federal authorities. And someone identified only as TM was alleged in the papers to have lied to the feds. Bob Lewis connected that TM to Terry McAuliffe in that 112-word item sent out as a taste of the larger story to come.

The item whipped around Twitter in an instant, upending conventional wisdom about the governor's race. And the AP was dead wrong; TM was someone else entirely.

BOB LEWIS: You know, had a lot of fun, good career, clean career for 28 years with AP.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Bob Lewis. He says he takes full responsibility for the mistake, and did so on Twitter that night. AP editors Norm Gomlak and Dena Potter were also fired earlier this week. But Lewis says the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

LEWIS: I knew that there had to be some accounting for the mistake, but the death penalty for it?

FOLKENFLIK: The AP isn't talking beyond its correction. The Newspaper Guild is filing an appeal on behalf of Lewis and Gomlak. Potter is not represented by the union.

The AP prides itself on its dependability and speed. And deep cutbacks at regional newspapers have forced them to rely on the wire service's reporters more than ever, says Julie Mason. Mason is a veteran political reporter for major newspapers, and is now a host for Sirius XM's POTUS Channel.

JULIE MASON: AP always has to have their story out first. There's a lot of pressure, much more pressure than at a newspaper. And I think over the decades, it's actually gotten worse; just the Internet has hyped everything up.

FOLKENFLIK: Mason joined a chorus of political reporters, and politicians from both parties, attesting to the quality of Lewis's work.

MASON: It's just terrible for someone's career to be ruined over something like this. And especially someone like Bob Lewis, who is so well-respected. I mean, you saw the outpouring. When politicians you've covered speak well of you, you know that you've done a good job - not because you were kind to them, but because you earned their respect.

FOLKENFLIK: Mason noted that the AP sent out a corrective item in less than two hours - before the larger article went out, and before it got into print. But no one is defending the mistake itself. And what few details are known, are troubling. The story carrying such explosive allegations, just before an election, came together in only a few hours. And the AP did not wait long to hear back from McAuliffe for comment. His aides denied the report less than half an hour after it was posted for the public to see.

But news is currently being conducted at the speed of light. And Craig Silverman, of the Poynter Institute - a journalism center in St. Petersburg, Fla. - says it's a mistake for our times. Silverman writes a blog, called Regret the Error, about reporting mistakes. And he says he's surprised by the severity of the response by the AP.

CRAIG SILVERMAN: And in this case, there seems to be no example that we know of, of anyone doing anything, you know, knowingly and willfully malicious to get this false report out there.

FOLKENFLIK: Silverman argues the AP is remaining silent at precisely the time it needs to explain how it made this mistake. For their part, Virginia's top elected officials from both parties are to hold a reception in honor of Lewis and Potter next month.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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