behind the news

The AP was right to fire Bob Lewis

He needed to wait for a response from his piece's target, and he didn't
October 28, 2013

Many journalists are outraged the AP would fire its longtime Virginia capitol reporter over one serious mistake that was retracted in 98 minutes. There’s even a petition demanding that the AP reinstate him and two other editors who were also fired.

As much as I truly hate to write this, and as much as I empathize as a fellow journalist, the AP was right to fire capitol statehouse reporter Bob Lewis and the supervisor who edited the story.

In his 112-word story, Lewis accused Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe of lying to a federal investigator about a death benefits scam in Rhode Island, then didn’t give the candidate enough time to respond. Lewis wrongly believed the initials TM in court documents referred to McAuliffe. They did not.

As soon as the AP realized the mistake, they sent out a “mandatory kill” notice. The AP has sent “mandatory kills,” about once a week this past year, but none has been considered as egregious as this story on a major figure with a serious error, according to an AP source.

The AP, with budget woes and criticized for recent gaffes, clearly fired Lewis to send a message to its staff and to the public that the company takes its credibility very seriously. It’s unfortunate that Lewis had to pay so dearly.

Lewis, 57, has worked for the AP for 28 years with, in his words, “an unblemished career.” The AP also fired Lewis’ immediate editor, Dena Potter, and regional editor Norm Gomlak, who actually edited the story.

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AP spokesman Paul Colford won’t comment on the personnel issue, but did tell “The initial alert moved on AP’s Virginia state wire at 9:45 pm,” said Colford. “The story was withdrawn one hour and 38 minutes later. That was an hour and 38 minutes too long.”

Journalists make mistakes everyday. They especially make mistakes during fast-breaking news events when information is flying about in a dizzying array. Usually the reporter didn’t triple check a dubious fact or was just moving too fast under pressure. But that doesn’t make the errors okay.

Lewis’ mistake is especially serious, because it was made in the heat of a highly contentious political campaign. Reports say the campaign of McAuliffe’s Republican challenger, Ken Cuccinelli, fed the tip to Lewis.

Nothing wrong with that. It happens all the time that one side feeds information to reporters hoping to bring down their rival. But there’s a saying in journalism that wasn’t adhered to here: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Yes, AP reporters have made plenty of mistakes. Yes, they made a serious mistake in a report on the Boston Marathon. But that happened in the frenzy of breaking news (which doesn’t make it right, just more understandable.) There was no urgency in this story.

Deciding to report a potentially damaging story on the eve of an election requires a lot of thought and consideration since the media has the power to affect the outcome.

John S. Carroll was editor of the Los Angeles Times in 2003 when the paper published a story damaging to Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger five days before the gubernatorial recall election. The article detailed the stories of women who claimed Schwarzenegger had sexually mistreated and humiliated them.

The Times didn’t publish the story lightly. Schwarzenegger was the frontrunner. The editors were accused of sitting on the story waiting to drop a bomb. They were accused of going after Schwarzenegger because he was a Republican. But Carroll had no agenda. He went to press when the stories were ready and thoroughly checked out. He wrote in an editor’s note:

Are the stories significant? Some think they starkly illuminate the character of a man who has been elected to the highest office in California. Some don’t. Our role is to serve citizens of varying views by examining the behavior and the policies of political leaders and publishing our findings.

And when we publish, we do it in a timely fashion. Better, I say, to be surprised by your newspaper in October than to learn in November that your newspaper has betrayed you by withholding the truth.

The Times did not make a mistake. In fact, after the story came out, Schwarzenegger admitted that he had “behaved badly” in the past.

But Lewis made a huge mistake. It’s Journalism 101 that if you are making a serious accusation, you give the target a chance to respond. Lewis had a hot story and he rushed it into print without getting a comment from McAuliffe. And it was an accusatory story about McAuliffe–a Bill and Hillary Clinton ally–that ran a month out in a politically charged race. That isn’t fair to McAuliffe, especially when the story isn’t nailed down like the Schwarzenegger story was.

Lewis tried to get a response from McAuliffe but apparently couldn’t. “McAuliffe’s campaign did not immediately respond to email and phone requests for comment about the allegation,” he wrote.

That’s not good enough. He should have waited until he got a comment. His editors should have insisted. Now we know if Lewis had waited, he would have written a different story.

Lewis’ story popped across my iPhone on an AP feed and I instantly thought, “Wow, this is good for Cuccinelli.”

How many others saw Lewis’ story but missed the quickly-issued correction? Imagine what Cuccinelli can do with the incorrect version?

That makes adhering to the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code even more critical. The first tenet is seek the truth and report it. The second, which too many ignore, is to minimize harm. And there’s no doubt that Lewis and his editors did harm–even if temporarily–to McAuliffe.

Journalists live in a very different world than when I started my career 30 years ago. It’s always been critical to be fair, and get all (not just both) sides. But it’s even more crucial in this Digital Revolution to strive for fairness. Once it’s online, regardless of a mandatory kill notice, information never truly dies.

Alicia Shepard is former NPR ombudsman and is training Afghan journalists on corruption reporting for Internews, an NGO that helps to develop local media around the world