The Associated Press story that falsely alleged that Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe had lied to federal investigators in a fraud case was pushed by the campaign of Ken Cuccinelli, McAuliffe's rival, The Washington Post reported Tuesday evening. In response, the AP fired three journalists responsible for the mistake, a move that has startled fellow journalists and rallied support behind those dismissed.

On the evening October 11th, longtime Associated Press reporter Bob Lewis identified McAuliffe as the person named as "T.M." in federal documents — a person who allegedly lied to federal investigators in a Rhode Island fraud case, in which real estate planner Joseph Caramadre allegedly used terminally ill patients to receive death benefits. Just 98 minutes later, though, AP retracted the report upon realization that T.M. did not refer to McAuliffe. Since then, the AP has quickly moved to punish those responsible, and so fired reporter Bob Lewis (right), his immediate editor Dena Potter, and the regional editor Norm Gomlak.

The Post story identifies Cuccinelli's campaign as the main tipster behind the article, and that Lewis wasn't the only reporter notified of the T.M. misinformation. "The Washington Post was among those that received a tip about it from Cuccinelli’s campaign, but The Post passed on the story after checking it," the newspaper explains. Lewis, however, apparently took the Cuccinelli campaign's tip at its word and made "a rookie mistake," as one journalist told the Post, by not also speaking with McAuliffe's team. Lewis worked for the AP for 28 years.

Despite the error, journalists and politicians familiar with Lewis' work have rallied behind the reporter. "Intentionally publishing falsehood always a firing offense; one instance of negligently doing so should not be," ProPublica President Richard Tofel tweeted. "I’m hard-pressed to see how this is the right response," The New York Times Michael Shear told Politico, and The Washington Post's Amy Gardner questioned the precedent being set: "At what point does a mistake become a non negotiable or fireable offense?" In addition, both Virginia senators and the current Gov. Bob McDonnell stated their support and admiration for Lewis.

In response, Lewis' union, the News Media Guild, passed around a petition among AP reporters to reverse the "draconian firing" and that "AP management grossly overreacted," media watchdog Jim Romenesko reports.

Despite the kerfuffle, the false report did little to damage McAuliffe, who remains ahead of Cuccinelli by a 46 to 39 percent margin, according to a poll Wednesday morning. Those are hardly changed from the 47-39 margin McAuliffe held early last month, before the incorrect story appeared.

(Photo of Bob Lewis: AP)