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  • Off-the-Record: You Are Fired

    There are lots of things that should be done in secret — but making an example of someone is not one of them.  The Associated Press got that wrong today when they reportedly fired a reporter and editor over a recent badly mangled story.

    At issue was a story we blogged about  on October 10th when AP erroneously reported that VA gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe appeared to have lied to federal investigators.

    AP based their story on some documents which said that a person with the initials “T.M.” may have lied — and they jumped to the conclusion that T.M = Terry McAuliffe.  Wrong guy. Oops.

    AP almost immediately retracted the story and veteran journalist Bob Lewis, who wrote it, tweeted that the mistake was his and he took responsibility for it.

    The error was mine and I take responsibility for it. http://t.co/2tGpw7Ye0n
    — Bob Lewis (@APBobLewis) October 10, 2013

    Apparently AP agreed.  arious news organizations today report that AP has fired Lewis and also canned Dena Potter, an editor who handled news for Virginia and West Virginia.

    The Huffington Post reports that they contacted Potter — who referred them to an AP spokesman — WHO DECLINED TO COMMENT citing their policy of not discussing personnel matters.   Hello?

    The whole point of firing someone for an enormous mistake is to restore public confidence in your institution and to send a signal to other employees that egregious errors will not be tolerated.

    Lewis is, by all accounts, a very experienced and capable journalist.  But AP does neither him nor Potter any favors by giving them the ax on background.  More importantly — they do their organization and journalism in general no favors by being anything less than completely transparent.


  • Grimm’s Hairy Tale

    The New York tabloids are all atwitter over allegations that Congressman Michael Grimm (R, NY) recently sequestered himself in a wine bar bathroom with a lady friend for “17 minutes.”

    The Owl’s Head, Bay Ridge, NY

    The story, first reported in Brooklyn Magazine, and leaped upon by the N. Y Post and the N.Y. Daily News comes complete with anonymous sources speculating that the former FBI agent turned Staten Island Congressman was not performing constituent services — but was having sexual relations with that woman — whatever her name was.

    Other unnamed patrons were reportedly unhappy — not only because the Congressman had effectively shutdown the bar’s sole restroom.

    Stories today say that Grimm issued a statement via email which said:

     “I will not dignify this absurd distortion of the facts with a response.”  

    Rep. Michael Grimm

    He went on to say that the allegations were a “Democratic-led smear campaign.”

    Our advice in situations like that is that IF you feel a need to respond — you need to respond fully. The old “I will not dignify this” ploy (as we pointed out in a post last year) usually translates to mean “it is true and embarrassing.”

    The N.Y. Post story quotes “a source close to Grimm” as saying that he merely went to the Owl’s Head head to check up on a friend who was upset and denying any inappropriate activity.  If so –we think Grimm should either ignore the story entirely — or revise and extend his remarks to offer a full denial — rather than the non-denial denial that he issued yesterday.

  • The Rush to Get It Wrong

    The perils of the modern media age were on full display in Virginia last night.

    At 9:45 p.m. the usually responsible Associate Press posted a story that said that VA Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe may have lied to federal investigators looking into a scam to steal death benefits from terminally ill people.  AP cited documents released in a federal fraud case.

    The article said that McAuliffe’s campaign “did not immediately respond to email and phone requests for comment about the allegation.”

    McAuliffe’s political opponents DID respond almost instantly — gleefully calling attention to the story.

    The problem was that the story was wrong.

    Incredibly, AP based the allegation on the fact that the documents said someone with the initials “T.M” may have lied to the feds.  While McAuliffe has had connections to Joseph Caramadre, the perpetrator of the scheme, (and who is now in prison in Rhode Island) — a close reading of the documents would show that “T.M” had to be someone else.

    But AP didn’t have time to read the material closely – they were too anxious to get it first to get it right.

    One hour and 38 minutes after the story was posted — AP withdrew it.

    Here’s the full retraction on the @TerryMcAuliffe story from the @ap #vagov pic.twitter.com/x4luIumOGg
    — Jordan Fifer (@JordanFifer) October 10, 2013

     The reporter who made the mistake tweeted that the error was his and he took responsibility for it.  No word on whether he is still employed at AP.

    The saga reinforces several of our standard teaching points, such as

    • — organizations cannot waste a minute when responding to serious allegations in the modern media environment.  
    • fact checking if not dead, is on life support — even by-the-book news organizations like AP throw caution to the wind when they think they have a big story and
    • Bad stories have legs.  (McAuliffe’s opponents who promoted the bogus AP piece — later tweeted essentially “You can’t blame us — McAuliffe is the kind of guy who MIGHT do something like that”

    But nobody for a second thought McAuliffe wasn’t capable of that AP story, which is something too.
    — Rory Cooper (@rorycooper) October 10, 2013

    “T.M -gate” also raised the question:  How hard should you push back?
    Clearly McAuliffe’s folks needed to knock the story down instantly — but once AP retracted, what should their stance be?  Some might say that by making a big deal of it they will only invite more attention to other ethical charges that are harder to disprove — and if they go after the AP reporter who screwed up they will seem mean spirited.
    Our take is that the charge was so explosive and potentially damaging that they need to make an example of it.  They should say reporters are human and make mistakes — BUT where were the editors who should have caught it?  And what was the sense of this rush to get things wrong?  They also should use the opportunity to attack their opponents for similarly not bothering to find out the facts before crying wolf.  In their case — “T.M.” stands for “Twitter Mistake.”