By Paul Goldman
Here at 200-proof, we don’t judge right or wrong, we just call the action on the field. For the journalistic profession, specifically among those in the so-called fourth estate or fourth branch of government covering politics, the biggest action in years has been their collective response to long-time AP reporter Bob Lewis’ firing over a wildly erroneous story about Terry McAuliffe written by him.
Shortly thereafter, the AP retracted the story, as it turns out that McAuliffe had not “lied” nor “misled” anybody. Presumably, Mr. Lewis concluded a reference in the documents to someone only identified as “T.M.” meant Terry McAuliffe. Turns out it was not McAuliffe – whoops! The AP’s initial response was to suspend Bob Lewis for his mistake. After further review, the AP fired Lewis, along with two editors involved in the story-editing process. In response, there have been employee grievances filed, and this being America, folks have likely “lawyered up” on all sides. We can presume there is more – perhaps a lot more – to come, although how much of the action will be made public remains to be seen. But even if you convened a new Warren Commission to report back by the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, it might not be possible to determine precisely why a savvy veteran reporter made such an error, why the mistake got past at least two different editors, and why the AP decided to impose the “death penalty” on all three of their employees.
Mr. Lewis recently talked to the Washington Post about the matter, calling himself “stunned and hurt” at being fired, despite what he characterized as 28 years of “unblemished” service to the AP. The Post story said Mr. Lewis “declined further comment pending a grievance complaint by the News Media Guild.” The Post story appears to reflect the general feeling in the VA press corps about the matter — that the punishment in this case was “disproportionate” to the mistake, and certainly that a great reporter (and great guy) like Bob Lewis didn’t deserve it.
In addition, neither the Post story nor the collective sense of the Virginia media found any good reason why the AP “management” might feel totally justified in firing Lewis.
At 200-proof, we don’t judge those types of matters. But we do say the following, for the reasons to be detailed: the seemingly reflexive defense of Lewis suggests to us there is a lot more going on in the collective mind of the media than this particular event. We believe that the Lewis firing hit a festering sore spot among the media, and that it gave reporters a chance to let out their long-building frustrations.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lewis has not provided his colleagues nor the public with an explanation for his actions, instead simply saying he made a mistake and leaving it at that. Lewis’ media colleagues seem willing to overlook this glaring omission – which they would never do for a non-journalist – because they see Lewis as the victim of the new “management” in the news business. They refuse to acknowledge even as a remote possibility that the AP may have had good reason(s) to fire Mr. Lewis. Nor have they explored what Mr. Lewis’ motivations might have been in going with this story (e.g., getting credit for a major scoop that could change the outcome of the Virginia governor’s race). In our view, the failure of the Virginia press corps to even acknowledge the possibility that they have been “played” is striking, and got me to thinking about what could really be going on here.
WHAT WAS LEWIS’ MOTIVATION AND WHY THIS IS THE NUT IN THE COCONUT?
In the Post story, University of Oregon associate professor Scott Maier asserts that “firing a reporter over an unintentional mistake is ‘extremely rare,’ and that “if everyone who made a mistake was fired for it, we’d have empty newsrooms.” This is clearly the general consensus on the matter among the Virginia press corps, and among others who jumped to Mr. Lewis’ defense.
For instance, an unnamed journalist in the Post story said the Lewis matter is due to a “rookie mistake,” referring specifically to rushing the story to print BEFORE giving the McAuliffe campaign time to respond. Except for one thing: this isn’t a rookie mistake. It isn’t an unintentional mistake, either. In reality, it appears that Mr. Lewis acted in reckless disregard of the truth. This doesn’t make him a bad person, nor does it make him a bad reporter necessarily. In this case, though, for some reason his motivation for the “scoop” trumped his professional judgment.
Why did this happen? His colleagues in the media refuse to “go there,” because to them, “there but for the grace of god go…them.” In their way of looking at the situation, Mr. Lewis is a victim of the new “management” culture in the news business which, as the Post goes to pains to suggest, has stretched the AP “supply line” from reporter to final editor very thin, for reasons of profit perhaps. I say “perhaps” because the story doesn’t say, and I’m not going to assume.
BUT THE REACTION OF THE MEDIA IS CLEAR that it is NOT a matter of bad judgment. Indeed, the Post article didn’t press Lewis at all on his motivation. Instead, they let him say he made an unintentional mistake, and for that, he is now stunned at being fired. Except this is not what happened if you believe the facts told so far by Mr. Lewis and others.
WHAT WE KNOW, WHAT IT TELLS US ABOUT JOURNALISM’S INNER TURMOIL
Mr. Lewis’ story claimed that the charges against Mr. McAuliffe were based on “documents” connected to a fraud case. We don’t know the depth of Lewis’ knowledge as regards such documents. We do know that a few hours earlier, a local Rhode Island newspaper ran an online story about the case, revealing, apparently for the first time, that Terry McAuliffe invested in this illegal scheme, as did a lot of other prominent people in the Providence area. It is unclear whether Mr. Lewis had previously been following the case. The Washington Post story suggests no one in the Virginia press had been focused in any way on the court case in Rhode Island until then.
The AP story doesn’t reference any confirming source, or any other source at all for that matter. The Post cites several unnamed journalists and “some at AP” saying the “McAuliffe story was pushed to news organizations by the campaign of McAuliffe’s rival Ken Cuccinelli.” The Post says it “received a tip about it” from Cuccinelli’s campaign” but “passed on the story after checking it.”
What does that mean exactly? There are three possible McAuliffe stories here. First, Terry McAuliffe, Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia and leading big in the polls, was one of many passive investors in what turns out to be an illegal scheme ripping off terminally ill individuals. What (if anything) did McAuliffe know about the investment and when did he know it? That’s a story. Two, certain documents refer to a “T.M.” as being a bad actor, not merely a duped, passive investor. Could that “T.M” have been Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe? Even if the answer remained unclear for a day or longer, that too was a potential story, depending on how the McAuliffe campaign responded to the question. And three: IF this “T.M.” person had turned out to be Terry McAuliffe, that would have been a potentially big story, capable of seriously wounding the campaign of the front runner for Governor of Virginia.
The Post strongly implies that the Cuccinelli campaign tried hard to convince reporters to bite on story #3, the most politically damaging to their Democratic rival. Such attempts to “spin” the press are, sadly, much of what is considered today’s political campaigning. All sides do it. The chief “spinner” for the Cuccinelli campaign is likely chief strategist Chris LaCivita, although the Post doesn’t indicate who gave it the “tip” or precisely the nature of the “tip.” Did the apparent Cuccinelli tipster actively push the “T.M. is Terry” line, or did they merely make sure reporters knew about the now public court documents, “pushing” a spin hinting at a lot of stuff but not actually making a declarative connection? These are critical points and they are mention for a reason.
Mr. Lewis, understandably, is providing his side of the story, the parts that he wants out there. The question is, what further comment has Lewis declined? Has he, for instance, refused to answer any questions asked by the Post or others? It’s not just Lewis, of course: if you read press accounts of this matter, the AP is seen as not being forthcoming for failing to reveal more information as to the reasons behind “management’s” decision to fire Lewis. Yet Lewis is also revealing only what he wants to reveal. Wouldn’t that also qualify as not being forthcoming?
This is telling here at 200 proof. Why? Very simple: As a lawyer, as someone who writes op-ed columns for blog sites and the “mainstream media,” I understand that the issue of motivation as regards political matters is often key to understanding the action on the field. Meaning: The key issue in this whole Lewis matter gets down to WHY he decided to run with his story about Terry McAuliffe WHEN HE HAD SUFFICIENT REASON TO KNOW HE DIDN’T HAVE THE PROOF. This was no “rookie mistake” because Bob Lewis is far from being a rookie – nor are his editors. No other newspaper in Virginia, no other national news organization covering the Virginia Governor’s race, came to the same conclusion as Mr. Lewis with – as best we have been told – the same basic information. NO ONE. Why is that?
TO REPEAT: The key issue here is not the firing of Mr. Lewis. That is DERIVATIVE. The Virginia media, and the “experts” quoted in the Post story, are practicing their own “spin” by making this the journalistic straw man. There is no way to know whether the AP acted fairly or unfairly WITHOUT FIRST KNOWING why Mr. Lewis ran with the story, and why he (possibly) lobbied his editors to run the story. Why did Lewis not, for example, wait until the McAuliffe campaign formally responded to the AP request for comment? In terms of getting the story “right,” waiting for a response is basic journalism; this is why the professor called it a “rookie mistake.” Had Lewis waited a little while longer, he would have been made aware of his mistake, or had a bigger story if the campaign had either confirmed or claimed an inability to say whether “T.M.” referred to Mr. McAuliffe. At which point the AP could have run an air-tight story. In terms of informing the reader, why not wait? This is not to say you have to wait forever. But why not wait until the next morning at least?
THERE IS ONLY ONE REASON, it would seem: Mr. Lewis wanted to be “first past the post” with what he thought could be a blockbuster story. This is human nature, as well as the mindset of a good reporter. We aren’t naive: beating out the competition is a game of wits they play with each other, and Bob Lewis is a good, competitive reporter. Did “beating the competition” to a blockbuster story play a role, and if so, what role did it play?
WHY THE AP COULD BE ROYALLY TICKED AT LEWIS: AND HE KNOWS THEY HAVE A RIGHT TO BE.
Based on the facts that we know – and that Mr. Lewis has allowed to sit out there without at least cautioning his friends to be careful – there is no way for Lewis to have believed he had nailed down the identity of “T.M.” from the “documents” cited in his story. The documents failed to proof it, as every other news organization with access to these documents correctly concluded. So what did Mr. Lewis have that everyone else lacked? Logically, there are only three general possibilities for his decision to go with the story.
1. Lewis might have had information from an as-yet unnamed “source,” but this source made a terrible mistake. This happens, everyone is human. Mr. Lewis relied on this proven source and the rest is history. Logic suggests that the AP would NOT fire someone who got burned by a previously reliable source who lacked any apparent motive to mislead. Why punish the reporter just for doing his job?
2. Lewis had NO OTHER source at all; he simply jumped to a conclusion. But why would Bob Lewis be the only savvy reporter in Virginia, if not the country, to make such a “beyond rookie mistake” on this matter? What would be the motivation? And how would he have expected to get it past even distracted editors? There would be NO PROOF WHATSOEVER besides court documents which don’t offer any proof. It just seems far-fetched.
3. This then leaves the third option: Mr. Lewis HAD WHAT HE CONSIDERED TO BE A CONFIRMING SOURCE OF SOME KIND. If it were a document not part of the court records, then logic suggests he would have referenced the material in his story. He didn’t do that. If it had been one of those “sources” the Post and the Virginia used to confirm their stories on Governor McDonnell, those too would have logically been referenced in a similar matter. Indeed, saying you had a confirming source almost seems required in this case. But there were no such references in Lewis’ story. As to who this “source” might have been, we can’t speculate. But we know this: it wasn’t a source that Mr. Lewis felt he could reference in the AP story.
The facts then indicate the following: The motivation for going with the story is the key mystery in the matter, and the one the Virginia media has made a big effort to avoid discussing. What other fair conclusion can one draw? As the Post story concedes, even a “rookie” would know that you needed to get the McAuliffe campaign’s response BEFORE running with the story. The reasons are self-evident, NOT THE LEAST BEING PROTECTING THE INTEGRITY OF YOUR ORGANIZATION.
Remember: The AP’s job isn’t to be the group getting the best scoops, but an organization that serves to get newspapers and others who can’t afford to hire their own reporters to get these facts. When in doubt, when the interests of being right go up against the interest of being first: being right is supposed to win ALL THE TIME. Every reporter in the state knows Mr. Lewis didn’t make a rookie mistake because he isn’t a rookie. He either “jumped the shark” to beat the competition, or he had reason to believe his story was true based on a source he can’t reveal. I know Mr. Lewis. I have a hard time believing he would have suddenly lost all his integrity and run with a story without sourcing because he had a “gut feel” that “T.M.” had to be Terry McAuliffe. That is just not Bob Lewis over the years.
Thus, the media’s defense of Lewis and attacks on AP “management” are EXTREMELY telling. It all then boils down to this: however you cut it, Mr. Lewis decided to put his own interests in getting this story out ASAP over his employer’s interest in defending their most important asset, their credibility. It is well known that Mr. Lewis has not been overly impressed by the changes in the news business in recent years. He is hardly alone among journalists in that regard. They feel “management” is far worse than it was in the “golden age” of journalism, with the financial bottom line today becoming all important. Journalists are rightfully concerned at these new realities. They love their profession, but not the financial side of the business. They didn’t get into journalism to get rich.
Then, BOOM! Bob Lewis, the “dean” of active hands-on political reporters (Jeff Schapiro is basically a columnist now) gets FIRED for what is being pitched as an “unintentional” mistake. Suddenly, every reporter sees him or herself in the same spot: a lifetime of work of no importance to the new “management.” Professors were smart to get tenure back in the day. Journalists are teachers in their own way too, doing a public service in their minds (as well as Jefferson, Lincoln, etc.) In many ways, it is the fourth branch of government. But then BOOM! You make a mistake and you are out. Gone. Sure, you can possibly get another job. But not necessarily a good one.
As best I can tell, there isn’t any Virginia journalist who has looked at the situation from the standpoint of “management.” Which is probably why no Virginia journalist has looked into whether the possibility that Mr. Lewis may have decided to be first with a story, even if it risked the AP’s reputation.
Some have told me that his story would not have been that big even if accurate. But that is not the test. As a young guy, I remember sitting with Henry Howell, still bitter over losing the Governorship in a close race, saying his people told him a false report by ABC national news reporter Frank Reynolds had cost the famed civil rights attorney the win. ABC falsely claimed that Howell favored forced busing of children for purposes of racial balance in the schools, a huge issue in the 1970s. Howell had been leading in the polls before the Republican attack team got going. In the end, Howell lost by about 10,000 or so votes. After reviewing the situation, I told him the ABC news report would not likely have caused his defeat. He didn’t want to hear it. He was certain ABC had screwed him knowingly even though they had issued a retraction.
The point being: “Stuff happens” in politics, and no one can say with certainty how it will play out on election day. Under a different set of facts, it is possible that an AP story could be wrong, but not so wrong as to create days of doubt before the truth is clear. Who knows? Besides, it isn’t the right test anyway for this matter. The right one is the simple one: What was Mr. Lewis’ motivation for insisting that the AP go with his story as written at that time? He hasn’t said. And the Virginia press corps hasn’t asked him. Why not? Because, clearly, they don’t want to hear the answer.
That’s why this whole situation is so telling. It reveals the turmoil in the journalistic profession. It also reveals the depth of fear among journalists that their talents and skills; their lifetime of work product; whatever respect they’ve gained among their colleagues, politicians, etc; gives them NO protection, NO “good vibes” with management, should they ever make a mistake, even if completely unintentional. It doesn’t matter whether Mr. Lewis made such a mistake: that’s how they saw it initially and they don’t want to dig any deeper at this point.
To journalists, the AP folks who fired Bob Lewis are “management,” and certainly not representative of the thought process that led them to become journalists. It’s true that, compared to the old days, the media is understaffed, and this situation is likely to get worse not better in coming years. In addition, the internet has put enormous new pressure on getting the story first. And, of course, the public’s view of mainstream journalism is not as lofty as it was in prior years.
Moreover, the 2013 VA Governor’s race has been particularly challenging for the press given the negative tone that has affected voters – just look at the polls. Thus the Lewis matter can’t be properly understood, if it can be understood at all, in a vacuum divorced from current affairs, current realities. No question, Mr. Lewis is the dean of Virginia political reporters, a genuinely good guy who people respect. He has stayed at his post with the AP even though the organization is not what it once was in terms of politics in Virginia. This is admirable, this is classy. I get that. But based on the facts we know – and only Mr. Lewis can provide more at this point – his motivation for wanting to run with the story is not clear, raising troubling questions which reporters would normally require those at the center of such a storm to answer.
Getting it right- not getting it first- has to be paramount for AP. That’s not due to a new management culture, rather it is as old as the organization itself. Mr. Lewis is no rookie, quite the opposite. He knew he didn’t have it nailed down, based on the documents as claimed in the story. Right now, he is not claiming to have been convinced by a reliable, neutral sources that “T.M.” equaled Terry McAuliffe.
So I have to beg to differ with the general consensus on this one. As a lawyer, as a writer, as someone who I bet had more op-eds on Virginia politics published last year in major newspapers or national web sites than any who writes columns on politics, I state the following: Mr. Lewis owes it to his friends, to his colleagues and to the AP at this point to be candid about his motivation and why he thought he had it right. Until he does, I believe he is leaving his colleagues hanging out there along with the AP. Believe me, I know what it is like to be hung out to dry on the front page of a newspaper – more than once in my case. It cost me a lot of money and many other things, when those hanging me out there knew it was a lie.
I have forgiven them. Life is too short in that regard. But it is clear to me that the reaction in the Lewis matter shows a great turmoil in the journalism profession. For the good of the profession, it needs to be addressed. For the good of the state and country, which needs a healthy fourth estate, it needs to be addressed. That’s how I see it.