Henry Blodget wants to know if we’re going to blast the Associated Press for falling for a hoax press release falsely purporting to be from General Electric.
Not quite. It’s a journalist’s worst nightmare to fall for an impostor source, and this one’s embarrassing. But that’s mitigated by the fact that AP quickly and forthrightly owned up to it.
An activist group called the Yes Men set up a real-looking fake GE site at genewscenters.com (it has already been taken down), which Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal notes is just one letter off from the real GE PR site genewscenter.com. It copied the look of the real GE site almost perfectly.
Still, the AP really should have known better. The press release is implausible, to say the least, and beyond the obvious fact that the wire should have verified that GE actually sent the release, the content should have raised red flags immediately. Here’s the top of the fake release:
GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt has informed the Obama administration that the company will be gifting its entire 2010 tax refund, worth $3.2 Billion, to the US Treasury on April 18, Tax Day, and will furthermore adopt a host of new policies that secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility.
“We want the public to know that we’ve heard them, and that we know many Americans are going through tough times,” said GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. “GE will therefore give our 2010 tax refund back to the public and allow the public to decide how to spend it.”
Immelt acknowledged no wrongdoing. “All seven of our foreign tax havens are entirely legal,” Immelt noted. “But Americans have made it clear that they deplore laws that enable tax avoidance. While we owe it to our shareholders to use every legal loophole to maximize returns - we also owe something to the American people. We didn’t write the laws that let us legally avoid paying taxes. Congress did. But we benefit from those laws, and now we’d like to share those benefits. We are proud to be giving something back to America, and we are proud to set an example for all industry to follow.”
Lloyd Blankfein would take a vow of poverty and press favorite Jamie Dimon would furnish his house with Ikea before a major corporation would give away billions of dollars to taxpayers.
But while this is a boneheaded mistake, the AP handled the fallout well.
Blodget said on Twitter “The other great thing about digital media: If we had fallen for hoax GE release like AP, our readers would spot instantly and we’d correct.”
That may be true, but it doesn’t mean it’s not for the AP, too. It had retracted its story half an hour after it hit the wire and the retraction is actually a third longer than the original brief (129 words versus ninety).
“The AP did not follow its own standards in this case for verifying the authenticity of a news release,” said AP Business Editor Hal Ritter.
When you’re in the speed game, you’re going to make more mistakes—and some will be major ones like this one. That’s not to excuse them, it’s just to note that they’re going to happen sometimes.
Owning up to them quickly as the AP did here and pointing out that you failed to meet your own standards goes a long way toward preserving your credibility.