Associated Press Deals with Its Own Image

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Critics generally praised the Democratic convention last week, and speech by Barack Obama–with the exception of Chuck Babington from the Associated Press. Babington’s column drew the ire of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann in the late hours of cable coverage, and re-opened blogospheric displeasure with the venerable news organization’s political team headed by Ron Fournier in Washington.

This week, Politico.com got a hold of the talking points memo penned by Ellen Hale in AP’s corporate communications department. It deals with the timeline of Fournier’s departure and return to the AP, including an offer to join John McCain’s campaign, as well as explanation of state vs. national wire stories and how they’re distributed.

The text of Hale’s memo is after the jump:


As many of you know, some political groups and left-leaning blogs have aligned to organize a newspaper letter-writing campaign against AP Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier. The campaign started this weekend with an email writing push aimed at Kathleen Carroll and Mike Oreskes, but has now moved on to urge newspaper readers to write their local editors. Below you will find some talking points to help guide you as this issue plays out. Please feel free to use them in talking with editors and readers and forward to other AP staff you think might find them useful. In addition, later this week, Corporate Communications will go live with a robust new Elections page on ap.org that will provide some real estate to deal with these issues. It will highlight our Elections Team, include an archive of Ron’s political analyses as well as those of other AP journalists and also have a FAQ that expands on the talking points below. This will be in addition to the elections and vote count background we normally post on the site.

Ellen Hale
Corporate Communications

AP Elections Coverage Talking Points

For Internal use only by Bureau Chiefs, RVPs, APMC By way of background, the campaign started after Ron wrote an analysis piece about Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden for a running mate. The original headline on the piece, which was labeled an analysis, read:

Biden pick shows lack of confidence. The analysis was similar in perspective, tone and content to what other journalists for major news organizations were writing or saying. Some of the same blogs now are also picking up the drumbeat of dissatisfaction with AP that some members have been voicing with the roll-out of Member choice, encouraging readers to write letters against AP in general. In doing so they grossly misrepresent AP in many areas, including how much AP content is contributed by members. For the record, member content comprises less than two percent of AP national and international content — the slice that is found on Yahoo, Google and other portals.

This small fraction usually involved a scoop which is credited to the member paper. On the AP State Wire, which is not distributed beyond members, about 45 percent of stories come from members.

AP has what arguably are the strict ethics and news values policies in the industry. They are closely monitored and adhered to. These guidelines lay out in great detail that AP reporters and editors must avoid any political activity, whether they cover politics or not. AP journalists may not perform any kind of work for politicians and may not donate money to political organizations or campaigns, or any other organizations that take political positions. They must avoid any activity or behavior that constitutes a conflict of interest. You can refer anyone to The Associated Press Statement of New Values and Principles at http://www.ap.org/newsvalues/index.html.

In addition, it may be important to remind members that The Associated Press has a long and continuing legacy of aggressively but fairly reporting on how government and politicians serve the people who elect them, regardless of political affiliation. AP fought to win the identities of those held at Guantanamo Bay detention center, for example, and Ron Fournier’s own coverage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was extremely critical of the GOP Bush Administration.

To help you deal with questions that may arise as a result of the ongoing issues, here is some background and also what we’ve publicly said. You can use these in public responses to queries –Ron Fournier started in political reporting in Little Rock, Ark., covering Bill Clinton, who was governor at the time. He covered Clinton’s presidential campaign and moved to Washington in 1993, where he spent 13 years covering politics and the White House. He has a strong reputation among his peers for honesty and even-handedness. In 2000, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz described Fournier as one of the “most dogged shoe-leather scribes around,” but one who “avoids the spotlight himself.” Fournier was AP’s chief political writer when he left in 2006 to edit Hotsoup.com, a site that was founded by a bipartisan group of prominent political strategists. He returned to AP the following year as online political editor, charged with developing new approaches to AP’s online political and election coverage and to lead new coverage on accountability and governing. He was named acting bureau chief in May and bureau chief on Aug. 1.

–The dual rule of AP Washington Bureau Chief and political writer has long roots in AP history, as well as that of other Washington bureaus. Walter Mears, who won a Pulitzer for his 1976 presidential coverage, served in both capacities from 1977 to 1984. As bureau chief he continued to write news copy, usually analytical pieces. Likewise, other leading news organizations have often had their bureau chiefs serve in both capacities.

–The blogs and political organizations have made much of an email from Ron to Karl Rove that surfaced soon after Ron was named acting bureau chief, and which involved the death of Pat Tillman. The email exchange between Ron and Rove occurred in 2004, while Ron was a correspondent for AP — long before he was named bureau chief. Ron has widely publicly said that the tone of the email was unfortunate, but that the contact with Rove was in the pursuit of a story. Ron has written both columns and articles that are critical of Rove. Here’s what Ron said publicly about the email: “I was an AP political reporter at the time of the 2004 e-mail exchange, and was interacting with a source, a top aide to the president, in the course of following an important and compelling story. I regret the breezy nature of the correspondence.”

–Blogs also have made much of Ron’s discussions with the McCain campaign regarding a position in it. These discussions occurred before Ron returned to AP. he also was considered for employment by Politico.com, the blog. Here’s what AP said about it, and what we continue to say in response to queries: “It is not uncommon for journalists to be approached by political campaigns, elected officials and government agencies about possible job opportunities. Ron Fournier was approached by the McCain campaign and turned them down, months before he rejoined AP in March of 2007.” (Paul Colford, Corporate Communications) The McCain campaign has made it clear that Ron was not interested in the position and that they never had any idea of his political leanings.

–It also has been claimed that Ron has a conflict of interest because he is listed as a possible speaker for a speakers’ agency. When Ron left AP, in 2006 to edit a Web site, he was briefly listed with an agency as part of a speaker’s tour to publicize a book he had written. This is routine practice for anyone who has written a book. He has not been involved with any speaking agency since before he returned to AP. The listings are outdated, and were to have been taken down by the agency but were not.

[image via Simon & Schuster, Fournier’s publisher]