Two weeks ago, the AP published a news story alleging serious misconduct by a Virginia gubernatorial candidate. The story was wrong; the AP pulled it after less than two hours. The AP has now fired three journalists as a result. This is insane.
What happened, briefly: veteran AP reporter Bob Lewis wrote a story saying that Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate and consummate DC slickball Terry McAuliffe had lied to federal investigators who were looking into a fraud case. According to Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, Lewis assumed that the initials "T.M." in some court documents referred to McAuliffe, when they really didn't. Farhi also says that the story was one that McAuliffe's opponent's campaign was shopping all over the place, in an attempt to smear McAuliffe.
Now, this is a serious mistake, particularly at an outlet like the AP, where a premium is placed on accuracy. No reporter wants to accuse a prominent politician of wrongdoing only to find out the story is false. However! Virtually all reporters (particularly those at outlets like the AP, where a premium is also placed on speed) have made major mistakes at some point in their careers. The fact that the AP bit on a smear story placed by a rival campaign is only embarrassing because the story turned out to be untrue. Political reporters of all stripes run stories passed to them by political rivals every day. This is standard operating procedure in political reporting. A story is a story is a story. Just because a political rival dug up the story does not make it scandalous to run the story, assuming the story's facts are in order.
So, Bob Lewis made a mistake. He was certainly embarrassed by this. As were his editors who approved the story and let it run. But... this?
After several days of deliberations, it 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.
A career journalist and two editors, fired for a story that was on the wire for less than two hours, and which had no actual negative lasting impact on the campaign in question. Bob Lewis has been a reporter for 28 years. 28 years! He made a mistake! The mistake was caught and rectified! The system worked! The thing that allows the AP to maintain its credibility is not that it never makes mistakes, nor that it fires everyone associated with mistakes, but that when it does make mistakes, it corrects the mistakes as quickly and completely as possible. That was done here. The bizarre after-the-fact job massacre only makes the AP's management appear to be either terrified of Terry McAuliffe, or panicked into insanity, or both. If the AP's policy is to fire the reporter and editor in question every time a story with a factual error is published, the AP will soon be staffed solely by empty computers. (Okay, how about only firing reporters and editors associated with major errors that render an entire story wrong? It will still lead to an empty newsroom. It will just take longer. We've heard from people who believe the firings here were absolutely justified due to the fundamental nature of the journalistic error, which they say is far worse than normal errors. And the error in question surely was bad. I still don't think firing is called for, given the range of disciplinary measures that the AP could have taken. The error seems to have been one of neglect, not malice.)
Then again, maybe the AP figures that's their future anyhow.