AP Fires Reporter For Reporting

James LaPorta is being scapegoated for poor editorial process.

I saw this story yesterday morning:
WaPo (“Associated Press reporter fired over erroneous story on Russian attack“):

The Associated Press on Monday fired a national security reporter who had provided erroneous information about a missile strike in Poland last week that resulted in a widely circulated but inaccurate news alert and story suggesting Russia was responsible for the incident.

James LaPorta, 35, was terminated after a brief investigation, people at the news organization confirmed to The Washington Post.

The Nov. 15 explosion in Przewodow, a Polish village near the border with Ukraine, killed two people and triggered global anxieties. Hours later, the Associated Press issued a news alert stating that an unnamed “senior U.S. intelligence official says Russian missiles crossed into NATO member Poland, killing two people.”

That information was apparently incorrect. Officials in Poland and the European Union later said they believed a single missile fired by Ukrainian forces had gone off course and landed over the border in Poland.

But the initial AP alert, sent to thousands of news outlets around the world, suggested a dire new escalation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Poland is a NATO member, and a Russian attack on its territory might have invoked a western military response under the treaty organization’s mutual self-defense provisions. Other news organizations quickly passed along the news.

A day later, AP replaced its story citing the unnamed U.S. official with a correction note. It said that its anonymous source was wrong and that “subsequent reporting showed that the missiles were Russian-made and most likely fired by Ukraine in defense against a Russian attack.”

I didn’t comment because I had little information beyond the report except that, apparently, the AP wasn’t the only one who ran with the initial report, since NATO called emergency meetings over the matter. Beyond that, since I follow defense policy rather closely, I’ve followed LaPorta’s reporting for years and believe him to be good at his job.

The story continues:

LaPorta declined to comment. A former U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan, he joined AP in April 2020 after several years as a freelance reporter. He covered military affairs and national security issues for the news service.

Officials at the Associated Press declined to identify LaPorta as the source of the alert. In a statement, AP spokesperson Lauren Easton said, “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.”

Internal AP communications viewed by The Post show some confusion and misunderstanding during the preparations of the erroneous report.

LaPorta shared the U.S. official’s tip in an electronic message around 1:30 p.m. Eastern time. An editor immediately asked if AP should issue an alert on his tip, “or would we need confirmation from another source and/or Poland?”

After further discussion, a second editor said she “would vote” for publishing an alert, adding, “I can’t imagine a U.S. intelligence official would be wrong on this.”

But a person at the Associated Press familiar with the larger conversations surrounding the story that day said LaPorta also told his editors that a senior manager had already vetted the source of LaPorta’s tip — leaving the impression that the story’s sourcing had been approved. While that editor had signed off on previous stories using LaPorta’s source, that editor had not weighed in on the missile story.

Easton said the organization did not anticipate any discipline for the editors involved.

If LaPorta misled his editors, then firing him was the only recourse. But a report out this morning belies that notion.

Semafor‘s Max Tani (“AP fired a reporter after a dangerous blunder. Slack messages reveal a chaotic process.”):

A 10-minute miscommunication on Slack between journalists at the Associated Press resulted in an erroneous report last week that appeared momentarily to bring tensions between NATO and Russia to their highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[…]

LaPorta’s firing was first reported by the Daily Beast, and confirmed by the Washington Post. Both stories quoted AP sources and put the blame squarely on the reporter. The Beast reported that LaPorta left “the impression that the story’s sourcing had been approved.”

But the slack messages on which the incident played out tell a different story, of honest mistakes, internal confusion, and a lack of a clear process that led to a disaster for one of the few news organizations whose Twitter presence is an authoritative account of world affairs.

On Tuesday afternoon at 1:32 PM ET, LaPorta wrote in an internal Slack channel that he’d been told by a senior US intelligence source that Russian missiles crossed into Moldova and Poland. LaPorta described the source as an “official (vetted by Ron Nixon),” referring to the publication’s VP of news and investigations.

But while Nixon had approved the use of that specific anonymous source in the past, people involved said, Nixon was not aware of that tip or that story. LaPorta did not exactly claim that Nixon had approved the source in this case, but his words were interpreted by the editors to mean that he did.

Lisa Leff, an editor on the European desk, immediately asked if the wire service could send an AP alert, or if they would need confirmation from another source.

“That call is above my pay grade,” LaPorta replied.

When Leff asked if LaPorta could put together a story, he told the Slack channel that he was not around.

“I’m actually at a doctor’s appointment. What I passed along is all I know at the moment,” he said.

Deputy European news editor Zeina Karam ultimately decided to publish, believing that Nixon had vetted the source, and the alert was sent out at 1:41 PM ET, less than ten minutes after LaPorta’s initial message.

But the story was false. The initial tip may have been a true accounting of what senior officials thought in the minutes after the explosion in Poland. But it was wrong, as is often true amid the fog of war and wartime journalism. NATO officials later determined that the missiles were likely fired by Ukrainian air defense. The Associated Press took the story down, and issued a correction saying that “subsequent reporting showed that the missiles were Russian-made and most likely fired by Ukraine in defense against a Russian attack.”

LaPorta was suspended on Thursday morning, according to a source familiar with the situation, and fired on Monday after a review by the wire service.

In a statement to Semafor, he said that he would “love to comment but I’ve been ordered by AP not to comment.”

I’m at a loss as to why LaPorta feels obliged to follow “orders” from a former employer but perhaps there is a severance or the like hanging in the balance.

Regardless, reading both Tani’s account and the screen captures of the Slack conversations in question, it doesn’t look to me like LaPorta did anything wrong. He passed along a short scoop to his editors:

“From a senior American intelligence official (vetted by Ron Nixon) yes, Russian missiles crossed into Poland. At least two people are dead from initial reports. Also, missiles entered Moldova [sic]—no casualties at this time.”

LaPorta was simply passing on a tip that he’d gotten from a trusted source whose name he couldn’t share and saying that Nixon had vetted that source. I could see where someone not in the loop would presume that Nixon had somehow verified the tip but it would be a strange assumption to make. Even if Nixon had personally talked to the official, it would still be a single source.

An editor asked, “Can we alert from that or would we need confirmation from another source an/or Poland?” and LaPorta replied, “that call is above my pay grade”.

Everything that followed was a back-and-forth between editorial staff, with the exception of LaPorta, quite reasonably, musing “Wonder if this triggers Article 5” (the provision in the NATO charter that treats an attack on one NATO ally as an attack on all) and his letting editors know he was at a doctor’s appointment and unable to write up a story.

Furthermore, all the news alert AP issued said was what LaPorta passed on: that a senior American intelligence official had said something happened. That thing (Russian missiles crossing into Poland, killing people) happened. It just turns out that they were fired by Ukraine at Russian aircraft rather than by Russians.

Again:

  • He passed along a tip.
  • He said that whether an alert could be issued based on that tip was above his pay grade.
  • Those above his pay grade decided to run with the tip.

Unless LaPorta lied about having gotten the tip from the trusted senior American intelligence official, I honestly don’t see how he did anything wrong. In the slightest. Let alone something that constituted a firing offense.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    I honestly don’t see how he did anything wrong. In the slightest. Let alone something that constituted a firing offense.

    Personally, I’m not surprised they fired him. Expecting upper management to act responsibly and cop to their failure vs scapegoating an underlying? That’s not how this works, Dr.J.

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  2. just nutha says:

    Not a journalism teacher. Have a modicum of experience in assessing what people are likely to conclude when they read/hear others. The hitch here is that “La Porta described the source as an ‘official (vetted by Ron Nixon);'” the problem being that his description is materially untrue for this particular rumor. For my money, omitting that factoid from the summary may leave people incompletely informed. YMMV.

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  3. drj says:

    “senior U.S. intelligence official says Russian missiles crossed into NATO member Poland, killing two people.”

    Either this “senior U.S. intelligence official” made something up and was an unreliable source or LaPorta misrepresented what this person said.

    In either case, it shows bad judgement on LaPorta’s part. I can’t believe that any “senior U.S. intelligence official” who was in a position to know would have made such a claim. Because such a person would have been aware of all the uncertainties surrounding this matter (and which were fairly obvious at the time).

    For all we know, the “senior U.S. intelligence official”might have worked the Africa desk at State.

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  4. Raoul says:

    It seems rather obvious that there is more to this story than we know. That said when reporting about an event that may cause WW3 everyone must be extra careful.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @just nutha: This was a chat-like message on Slack but “From a senior American intelligence official (vetted by Ron Nixon)” seems clearly to indicate that the official was vetted by Nixon whereas “From a senior American intelligence official, Russian missiles crossed into Poland (vetted by Ron Nixon)” would indicate that Nixon had vetted the claim.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: Have you used English before? It’s a very complicated language that can lead to multiple mutually exclusive readings even when one is attempting to be very clear.

    For instance, the first sentence of my comment might be playful whimsy, or admonishing you for being an idiot, and pointing this out makes it no clearer. 😉

    I think the Slack message can be interpreted either way, and the editors at the AP made a mistake in reading it definitively one way in their rush to get a story first.

    (Does a background in computer science, and translating ambiguous project requirements into unambiguous code actually help at spotting these things? Maybe?)

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  7. Gustopher says:

    @Raoul: To be fair to the AP, if this was the start of WW3, and missiles were flying, they might be up against a very short deadline to publish something.

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  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Gustopher:

    (Does a background in computer science, and translating ambiguous project requirements into unambiguous code actually help at spotting these things? Maybe?)

    I think this is definitely a thing. I have a much more sensitive ear for ambiguity than most people I know, and it seems to have something to do with being a programmer/computer scientist.

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  9. Just nutha ignint crackera says:

    @James Joyner: I wonder what the point was of noting that the rumor was from a source vetted by Ron Nixon if not to give credence to it. On the other hand, once La Porte started walking back his item (“that’s above my pay grade”), I’d have put him on my “cowboys not to be taken seriously” list, and from that standpoint, Luddite’s comment about the nature of supervisor/subordinate relationships comes into play. Again, YMMV.

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  10. Andy says:

    This seems very dodgy to me based on the published info.

    Vetting a source is not the same thing as vetting information. Publishing information based on a single source, even if that source is “vetted” is – at best- risky. And when the report is going to be super high profile with international geo-strategic implications, publishing based on a single source is irresponsible.

    But publishing in this case wasn’t the reporter’s call. The only justification I can see for firing him is if he mischaracterized what the source said, which does not appear to be the case. It really does look like he’s a scapegoat.

    And from my perspective as a former cog in the intelligence system, “senior intelligence officials” in cases like this are usually some of the least informed in government until all the facts come out which only happens well after the fact. Information flows uphill, is often contradictory and the real world does not work as it does in the movies. The senior intelligence douchebag who gives tentative information to a reporter based on incomplete and uncertain information – particularly when the information could raise a DEFCON level – should be treated skeptically without confirmation.

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  11. Franklin says:

    The sentence was ambiguous about why it was providing that info (“previously vetted by Ron Nixon” would have been a significant improvement). The higher-ups should have realized the ambiguity before publishing a story that could significantly escalate a war. I mean, these people are paid to work with words and have surely dealt with these problems before, right?

    They fired the wrong person.

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