In the press world of Richmond, things move pretty slowly. There’s nothing today that can’t be reported on tomorrow. In fact, many times I have excoriated the press corps for not jumping on a story, like Star Scientific, which was happening right under everyone’s nose — and being reported from Washington D.C.!
That brings us to Bob Lewis. Bob has been the AP reporter for the State Capitol and all things Virginia since I was a freshman pup in the House. (And probably long before that). In a superficial and highly-transient media world, Bob was an old-fashioned reporter, who actually wrote down your quotes when you talked to him. He wrote for the Associated Press and his fact-based stories were usually taken as gospel in Richmond, since he had no evident axe to grind.
A week ago, the Associated Press dumped Lewis as its reporter. His mistake? He grabbed a Federal indictment sheet and, caught in the moment of a Governor’s race, apparently decided that the “T.M.” referred to in the charging document was Governor’s candidate Terry McAuliffe. I say “apparently” because I don’t know the facts; I just know that that finding was originally reported by AP and then retracted.
The mistake was corrected within 90 minutes, but apparently that was 90 minutes too long. A couple weeks later, Lewis was fired.
It’s worth discussing why this happened — and why AP’s over-reaction is wrong.
For the past ten years, the news cycle has been largely driven by the on-line media, namely political bloggers who can post content quickly and with less fear (any fear?) of making a mistake. That has put tremendous pressure on professional reporters, who have a different level of accountability.
Again, I’m usually the first to critique the mainstream media: the stories are predictable and the paid columnists rehash the same point over and over. (Ergo, read any columnist from the Washington Post whining about the name “Redskins.”). Most writers are so happy to have a job that they’re terrified to break out of the conventional, politically correct, theme of news stories that they write about or opine upon. Reporters play to their base audience. Taking risks is extremely rare.
At the same time, there’s an awareness that the mainstream media is increasingly irrelevant. Very few political junkies wait for the morning newspaper to get information. Fewer still check mainstream media websites. And the ones that do? They’re mostly just feeding their own partisan bias.
That puts the pressure on to “break” a story, which is fresh and original. In my opinion, that’s probably what happened to Bob Lewis. But that’s conjecture. The bottom line is that he was a throw-back to an earlier era: a good reporter who covered Virginia news and took his job seriously.
I just wish that that style of reporting is not disappearing.