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Just over a week ago, the Associated Press ran an exclusive story headlined “BREAKING: A senior U.S. intelligence official says Russian missiles crossed into NATO member Poland, killing two people.” The story was about a missile that exploded in rural Poland, killing two people. I posted on that story in Russian Cruise Missile Explodes in Poland and Kills Two; Polish Government Calls Crisis Meeting.
As it turned out, the missile was Russian, in the sense that it was a Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile fired from a Ukrainian-operated launch unit during a massive missile blitz of cities throughout Ukraine.
The story was retracted, and Monday, the Associated Press fired one of the reporters on the byline, Jim LaPorta. LaPorta is a former Marine who joined the AP in 2020. He covers military and national security subjects. This was AP’s statement:
“The rigorous editorial standards and practices of the Associated Press are critical to AP’s mission as independent news organization. To ensure our reporting is accurate, fair and fact-based, we abide by and enforce these standards, including around the use of anonymous sources. When our standards are violated, we must take the steps necessary to protect the integrity of the news report. We do not make these decisions lightly, nor are they based on isolated incidents.”
The other reporter sharing a byline with LaPorta was John Leicester (who is still working at the AP).
Two significant things came out of the incident. First, it was apparent that virtually no one paying attention to Putin’s War in Ukraine had any idea of what is required to invoke the mutual defense provisions, called Article 5, of the North Atlantic Treaty. [SPOILER ALERT: there is no universe in which an erroneous, or even correct, AP report could prod NATO into action. This did NOT nearly start World War III.] The second was that to call AP’s processes chaotic would be an act of charity.
This is how it played out according to screen captures of AP’s internal Slack conversation.
Lisa Leff is an editor on the European desk. The Ron Nixon they refer to is Vice President for News, investigative, enterprise and grants and partnerships. He recently led AP’s global investigations team. So the single, unnamed source for the story is known to Nixon.
Monika Scislowska and Vanessa Gera are AP journalists based in Warsaw. Zeina Karam (@zakram) is a deputy European news editor. Tom Berman is a senior US-based editor.
“I can’t imagine a US intelligence official would be wrong on this” is going to enter the same pantheon as “hold my beer.”
Daria Litvinova is an AP journalist based in Europe; from her bylines, I’m assuming Warsaw.
And then we come to the penultimate act.
What we can see here is a cascade of errors.
The proximate cause is that the story relied on a single source. The source was a senior US intelligence official who had been used before not only by the AP but by a senior executive in the AP. This gave the information credibility that it didn’t merit. AP’s policy says it “routinely seeks and requires more than one source when sourcing is anonymous.” There is a proviso that allows single sources when the “material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.” This looks like a case of a reliable source who got out over his skis.
At some point, saying the source was “vetted” by a senior AP executive was interpreted as the story information being vetted.
There is no evidence that anyone questioned the factual basis of the story or that approval was granted at any higher level than the deputy editor on Slack.
Nine minutes elapsed from LaPorta filing the story to it being on the wire. I don’t know what the correct answer is but for a story of this magnitude; it seems as though a bit more introspection was required.
The obvious question we’re left with is why LaPorta was fired. There were two reporters on the byline. His editor accepted the source’s veracity, didn’t demand a confirming source, and launched the breaking news alert. Did he, as the AP spokeswoman implied, have a history of walking the razor’s edge?
The Associated Press said the incident was part of a pattern of behavior. In a statement, spokesperson Lauren Easton said that the publication is continuing to review the incident. But she implied that the decision to fire LaPorta was not based just on last week’s story, though she did not clarify what those incidents were.
“When our standards are violated, we must take the steps necessary to protect the integrity of the news report. We do not make these decisions lightly, nor are they based on isolated incidents,” she said.
Or was he just the most expendable person involved in the fiasco?
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