Over the local evening news came a stunning report: Terry McAuliffe the Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia, where I vote and make my home, had been accused in federal documents of lying to investigators checking the facts behind a Rhode Island death benefits scheme. Confirmation bias being what it is, I had no trouble giving the report full credence ( I long ago concluded that McAuliffe is sleazy and will lie whenever there is a perceived up-side for him, though I never thought he was stupid), and informed my dog, Rugby, for whom I am organizing a write-in campaign, that his chances of being Governor were looking up. Then, less than two hours later, I was preparing to write about this latest development in the most ethics-free governor’s race in the country, and checked online for more details. I discovered only this:
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Associated Press has withdrawn its story about documents in a federal fraud case alleging that Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe lied to a federal official investigating a death benefits scheme. The indictment did not identify McAuliffe as the “T.M.” who allegedly lied to investigators.
Wait…how could this happen? How could the Associated Press, the nation’s premiere news agency, essentially accuse a candidate for high office in a highly contested election of a felony less than a month before votes are cast, just in time for the story to be the lead story all over the state in question, and then withdraw it shortly thereafter? Don’t tell me about “mistakes”: the AP and the profession of journalism have standards and procedures of long-standing that, if followed diligently, ensure that this never happens. Facts must be checked and confirmed by reliable sources. Supposition must not be stated as truth. Here is the AP’s distillation of its ethical framework:
“…Our efforts have been rewarded with trust: More people in more places get their news from the AP than from any other source. In the 21st century, that news is transmitted in more ways than ever before – in print, on the air and on the Web, with words, images, graphics, sounds and video. But always and in all media, we insist on the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior when we gather and deliver the news.
“That means we abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions.
“It means we will not knowingly introduce false information into material intended for publication or broadcast; nor will we alter photo or image content. Quotations must be accurate, and precise. It means we always strive to identify all the sources of our information, shielding them with anonymity only when they insist upon it and when they provide vital information – not opinion or speculation; when there is no other way to obtain that information; and when we know the source is knowledgeable and reliable. It means we don’t plagiarize.
“It means we avoid behavior or activities that create a conflict of interest and compromise our ability to report the news fairly and accurately, uninfluenced by any person or action. It means we don’t misidentify or misrepresent ourselves to get a story. When we seek an interview, we identify ourselves as AP journalists. It means we don’t pay newsmakers for interviews, to take their photographs or to film or record them.
“It means we must be fair. Whenever we portray someone in a negative light, we must make a real effort to obtain a response from that person. When mistakes are made, they must be corrected – fully, quickly and ungrudgingly. And ultimately, it means it is the responsibility of every one of us to ensure that these standards are upheld. Any time a question is raised about any aspect of our work, it should be taken seriously.”
Well then, here’s a question that I’d like taken seriously: how then, if the AP actually pays attention to these principles, does it end up releasing a false story in the middle of a political campaign at a time in which any dolt could see that it would do the most damage, when that story is really so half-baked and badly-investigated that it has to be pulled back almost immediately? Here’s another: why should anyone trust a news service capable of such an irresponsible botch?
Eric Wemple of the Washington Post looked into what the AP did, and it’s even worse than I would have guessed. McAuliffe’s name surfaced as one of the investors in an alleged scam spearheaded by a Rhode Island estate planner. The grand jury indictment accuses attorney and accountant Joseph Caramadre of stealing the identities of terminally ill people to set up fake annuities, in an elaborate scheme entailing wire fraud and mail fraud on top of the identity theft. Associated Press reporter Bob Lewis was intrigued by Count 66, witness tampering, which mentioned a witness designated as “T.M.”
“T M”–wait…that MUST be Democratic candidate for Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, right? Not Tom Mix, Terrance McNally, Tina Majorino, the ghost of Thurman Munson, or someone with those initials nobody ever heard of, but the “T.M.” most in the news…otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story! Here is the sole justification for the accusation from the AP, in the indictment:
On or about April 19, 2010, a United States Postal Inspector (the “Postal Inspector”) investigating this case telephoned T.M. and asked if he would speak with him in connection with an ongoing investigation of JOSEPH CARAMADRE. T.M. agreed to meet with the Postal Inspector. Prior to T.M.’s meeting the Postal Inspector, T.M. called CARAMADRE and informed him that the Postal Inspector wished to speak with him about CARAMADRE. During this conversation, CARAMADRE falsely told T.M. that the money CARAMADRE had previously paid him was for work T.M. had performed in CARAMADRE’s house.
On or about April 20, 2010, the Postal Inspector met with T.M. and asked him if a $2,000 check he received from CARAMADRE was a payment for referring a terminally-ill individual to CARAMADRE. T.M. intentionally lied to the Postal Inspector, telling him that the check was not a payment for referring a terminally ill patient to CARAMADRE, but rather was payment for construction work that T.M. had performed in CARAMADRE’s house.
The information T.M. provided the Postal Inspector, at the behest of defendant JOSEPH CARAMADRE, was false in that the aforementioned check was not in payment for any work that T.M. had completed at CARAMADRE’s house. Rather, the $2,000 check was a payment CARAMADRE made to T.M. for referring a terminally ill individual to CARAMADRE.
As Wemple points out, this is mighty thin gruel upon which to base a story that risks making Ken Cuccinelli Governor of Virginia. “No matter how you interpret the alleged lie that passed among “T.M.,” Caramadre and the postal inspector, one thing is clear: This “T.M.” fellow either performed some construction work — with his own bare hands, it appears — or perhaps was engaged in a profession in which he would perform construction work,” Wemple writes. “Does that sound like McAuliffe? He’s been called a “fixer” before, but not this kind. Another red flag arises from the specifics of what “T.M.” told the postal inspector. Would Terry McAuliffe, a Washington creature with access to massive amounts of legal help, expose himself in such a scenario by participating in an unlikely lie about a new bathroom floor, or something along those lines?”
Uh, no, it really doesn’t. It also appears that the AP gave the McAuliffe campaign an inadequate amount of time to respond to the story with something along the lines of “This is completely fabricated and irresponsible reporting by the AP, and the facts will confirm Mr. McAuliffe’s innocence, probably in about 90 minutes.” The AP’s incompetence also, ironically, allows the aggrieved campaign to duck the less flashy but legitimate issue of why McAuliffe was investing with a crook like this at all.
Did the United States ever have ethical, competent, trustworthy news media, or was it all an illusion? Whatever the answer to that question is, we do not have such news media today, and boy, would it ever come in handy….