Media Mondays: Associated Press' Christopher Walken story proves why their Twitter policy is foolish

(Wikimedia Commons)

Correction:

Natalie Wood drowned in 1981, not 1961.

Last Wednesday, Daily Intel revealed that a leaked internal "e-mail sent from on high" at the Associated Press scolded reporters for violating the wire service's Twitter policy. "In relation to AP staff being taken into custody at the Occupy Wall Street story, we’ve had a breakdown in staff sticking to policies around social media and everyone needs to get with their folks now to tell them to knock it off," the email read. "We have had staff tweet – BEFORE THE MATERIAL WAS ON THE WIRE – that staff were arrested."

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HEAVENS, NO. It's common practice at most respected news organizations, and even most less-respected ones, to tweet news as it's breaking, but not at the AP, whose official rules state, "Don’t break news that we haven’t published, no matter the format." The e-mail, with its hysterical (in both senses of the word) capitalization and ignorance of contemporary journalistic practices, was ripe for mockery. The digerati's response was summed up by this tweet from Mandy Jenkins, social news editor at the Huffington Post:

AP staffers scolded for tweeting ahead of the wires from #OWS. http://t.co/8ma6mrHo i.e. The AP tries its damndest to be irrelevant
Nov 16 via TweetDeckFavoriteRetweetReply

“If we’re so irrelevant in social media, why do people care about what we do?” Lou Ferrara, the AP’s managing editor for sports, entertainment, lifestyles and interactive, asked the Washington Post's Erik Wemple (who also reported that the AP, which has a lucrative, symbiotic relationship with HuffPost, was more "steamed" by the above tweet than it let on). Ferrara's question is willfully oblivious. People care because the AP is one of the world's premiere newsgathering organizations and, as such, should show leadership and vision on industry best practices. That is, people care because they respect the AP and expect a lot from the organization; the collective disappointment over AP's Twitter policy is, in a way, a compliment.

Two days after that story broke, the AP proved, with an article of its own, why its Twitter policy is not just foolish, but detrimental to the AP's goal of getting the facts right. An article hit the AP wire Friday that Christopher Walken, who had been on the boat off which Natalie Wood drowned in 1981, had called in to Washington's ESPN 980 and said, '“We had a lot to drink that night. There was Sambuca. There was shouting. And then there was tragedy. And that’s all I can remember. And quite frankly, all my attorney right now would want me to say.”

As I reported (after being tipped off by WJLA reporter Skip "Daybreak" Wood), that was not Walken but rather Marc Sterne, a radio producer who does a weekly Walken impression on the station. Usually, Sterne-as-Walken only makes fantasy football predictions, but last week, given investigators' reopening of the Natalie Wood case, he took some additional liberty with his impression. Leaving aside common sense — why would Walken, his wounds reopened, call a D.C. sport-talk radio station to discuss the tragedy? — the reporter should've at least tried to confirm it with the station. That's Journalism 101, especially when you're dealing with someone who has spawned more impressions than any other living actor (with the exception, perhaps, of Al Pacino).

Instead, the AP simply ran the story, which was picked up nationwide. The version I saw carried AP entertainment writer Anthony McCartney's byline and a Los Angeles dateline, and at the bottom, "Associated Press writer Joe White in Bethesda, Md.," implying that he, a sports writer, had contributed to the story.* When I called Tom Strong, weekend editor at the AP's D.C. bureau, he was unaware that one of his reporters had been hoodwinked. He said he would look into it and call me back. As I was reporting out and writing my story, the AP withdrew its story from the wire with a note that said, "The station now says that it was a hoax involving a station employee who was impersonating Walken." Note the words "now," as if the station had previously lied, and "hoax," as if the station had set out to fool the media. The transference of blame is appalling, and unbecoming of the AP.

As I was working on the story, and before the retraction was issued, something else was happening online: People were tweeting about the AP falling for the Walken impression — before any news outlet, far as I know, had written a story about it. Imagine, then, that the reporter who fell for the Walken impression had chosen, before actually writing his story, to break AP rules by tweeting what he'd heard on ESPN 980. Instead of scooping his employer's wire, he might have saved the AP from embarrassment, as it's likely that one of his followers would've alerted him to the fact that Sterne's Walken impression is a running gag on the station.

By actively dismissing Twitter's value as a newsgathering tool, the Associated Press is instead hurting its value as a newsgathering tool for its customers, including HuffPost. On the other hand, these missteps make it a more valuable source of story ideas for TBD, so keep it up, Associated Press.

* When I called Strong again, a woman told me he was on the other line, and that she couldn't comment. AP spokeswoman Jack Stokes later refused to tell the Post which reporter had erred, though Stokes did say that the reporter who heard Sterne's impression had relayed the details to the Los Angeles bureau, suggesting the mistake was White's. But we don't know for sure. Shame on the AP for making two reporters take the fall for a bogus story, when only one of them is to blame.

After the jump: World War III breaks out over a story about Ann Taylor, Occupy DC picks a fight with the Post, and Washington Life thinks Clint Eastwood is cool to the fourth degree.

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