Lewis was the author of a flawed Oct. 9 AP report alleging that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe had lied to federal investigators.
The report was quickly retracted by the AP, and Lewis acknowledged the error was his.
Last week, the AP announced that it had suspended Lewis – and it was that news that surprised me.
Sure, it was a mistake, no question, not plagiarism, not anything smacking of malice. But as much as it was maybe just a mistake, no, actually, it wasn’t just a mistake. This one was a huge, unforgivable kind of mistake given the context, set against a backdrop of a high-stakes gubernatorial election in the final weeks before Election Day.
The story in question was a report on McAuliffe’s relationship to Joseph A. Caramadre, a Rhode Island real estate planner charged in a federal fraud case. Documents related to the case include references to a “T.M.” who apparently lied to investigators in the course of their review of the case.
The Lewis story alleged that it was McAuliffe who had lied to investigators, but it turned out that the T.M. in question was another person with the same initials.
You want to assume that it wasn’t this simple, that Lewis didn’t just assume that “T.M.” was Terry McAuliffe, because that would be a rookie mistake. (And if that mistake were made by a rookie, it would get that rookie fired summarily.) Lewis had to have something else to go on than just initials in a document.
Whatever other sourcing he had, it didn’t turn out. The T.M. who lied to investigators isn’t Terry McAuliffe, Virginia gubernatorial candidate. That we thought for an hour and 38 minutes that the two were one in the same was because of incredibly sloppy reporting by a respected political reporter.
The voice of one of my early editors from my rookie days in journalism 18 years ago plays in my head anytime I’m working on a story with any level of sensitivity. The old saw about how if your mother says she loves you, check it out.
It’s ingrained in our souls to wait for that one extra phone message that you left out there for comment or confirmation to get back to you before filing.
It’s a competitive environment that we work in, to be sure, but as much as we all want to get it first, the most important thing is that we get it right.
As good a guy as Bob Lewis is, as well-respected as he is, for good reason, he fell far short of getting it right, and in the process put a man’s reputation and good name in peril.
That’s not a suspending offense; sorry, but it’s a firing offense.