Where the AP Really Got it Wrong

The AP should know better than to fire a reporter for an honest mistake.

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AP veteran political and statehouse writer Bob Lewis stands in front of the South Portico of the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, May 18, 2011. Lewis will begin a weekly column on May 23, 2011 that will examine the events of the day in Virginia, the workings of Capitol Square and feature the people who make it all happen. The column will move Sunday for Monday’s newspapers.

The HBO series "The Newsroom" had a great story line in its second season about how veteran reporters can get a great tip from a very reliable source, confirm it with other sources, assign an entire team at the network to vet it – and then still get it awfully, horrifically wrong. There was malfeasance by one character in the story line, though even that player did not think he was misleading the public. But the big story they ran with was wrong, and they had a lot of explaining to do. The big question was whether the whole team which worked on the story should resign.

"The Newsroom" has its faults, still. (Seriously, Aaron Sorkin, does every female character, despite her brilliance or professional acumen, have to have some tragic social flaw that requires her to be rescued in some way by a man?) But the theme of season two was spot-on.

Television and movies like to depict reporters as either valiant, brave truth-tellers who have impeccable sources and never make a mistake, or as scheming plagiarists or liars willing to write any untruth for the sake of personal fame. "The Newsroom" showed reality much more clearly: professional reporters overwhelmingly do their best, sometimes under stressful and even dangerous conditions, to be fair, accurate and tough. And they can still make mistakes.

Such is the fate that befell Bob Lewis, a Virginia-based reporter for AP. Lewis is a highly respected journalist, working for AP for 28 years. Earlier this month, Lewis thought he had a great story: that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe had lied to investigators looking into a Rhode Island death benefits scam. McAuliffe was indeed an investor in the project (he has categorically denied knowing about any wrongdoing), but he was not the "TM" identified in the indictment as a person who lied to investigators.

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The story was retracted an hour and 38 minutes later, and Lewis took responsibility and apologized. McAuliffe's campaign called it "water under the bridge," and in a race that has gotten so over-the-top nasty, with both candidates lobbing accusations of impropriety against each other, Lewis's initial story seemed to have little impact.

The AP, however, fired Lewis, along with the editor attached to the story and another editor. And Richmond's political class is baffled. His colleagues (and impressively, his rivals) praised Lewis's career and said his dismissal was unwarranted. Political officials on both sides of the aisle – including Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell – wrote statements or tweets in Lewis' defense.

Why would the AP take such dramatic action? It was a mistake, and apparently an honest one. Lewis didn't plagiarize or make up facts – both things that are immediately fire-able offenses, no matter how insignificant the content, since they are a disturbing reflection on the professional character and standards of the writer. But dismissing someone over a mistake, one for which he has apologized and which was clearly unintentional? Why?

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The answer may be in the world of massive overreaction in which we now live, read and write. People wrote comments on the Internet, were ignored, and took to penning the most outrageous, sexist and racist remarks just to get attention. People are frustrated with mistakes in government (a botched gun-tracking effort, a tragedy in Benghazi, a disastrously-rolled out tech launch of the health care law) and the answer is: Someone should be fired! The person at the top should resign!

In cases where there has been serious incompetence or ethical transgression, there's no question that people should be relieved of their duties. Otherwise, the call for firings and resignations is just a ploy to make people (even uninjured people) feel vindicated in some way. Or the demanded dismissals help feed a narrative that the "other side" – whomever or whatever that is – is morally bankrupt. In the media, questions about whether a public official will resign over this or that "scandal" have gotten disturbingly more frequent, as though a reporter can't feed the demand for Internet updates without constantly raising the bar.

We've sadly come to expect this in politics. But the AP should know better. Firing Lewis doesn't prove that the legendarily accurate news service has high standards. It may prove that the AP is too afraid to resist the pressure to make even its own story more dramatic.

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