Posted yesterday and moved up with comments from the AP.
Countless readers of the country's preeminent news service, the Associated Press, don't know that a controversial abortion bill failed in Texas last night—because the AP reported, and newspaper editors reprinted, an erroneous story claiming that the bill passed.
As people followed obsessively yesterday, superstar Democratic Texas state senator Wendy Davis filibustered the bill for nearly 12 hours, and, when Republicans effectively blocked her through procedural challenges, the senate reportedly passed the bill, banning abortion after 20 weeks and effectively shuttering most of the state's abortion clinics. Here's the AP's headline and article as it appeared last night:
Texas Republicans have passed new abortion restrictions expected to close almost every abortion clinic in the nation's second most populous state. The Republican-controlled House voted for the bill while hundreds of protesters screamed from the gallery. Reporters and Democrats saw the voting begin after midnight, but Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said it began just before.
That's the story readers saw last night. But hundreds of thousands of us watching a live feed saw something different: We saw the bill fail. We heard the raucous crowd in the gallery drown out floor activity. When the senate did vote, it was after midnight, after the legislative session's cutoff. (As I reported last night, the Texas legislature's website time record was changed. First it showed a vote after midnight, and then, presto, it showed the vote occurred before midnight.)
Regardless, the news was that the bill passed. Maybe there was a dispute about the vote, but the Associated Press—which calls elections all the time as a national standard—called the shot. That was the headline that blasted across the AP wire and into newspapers, and this is the (wrong) story printed in today's Seattle Times:
I don't know, but I assume other newpapers must have printed the same bogus news. And just like there was no record of changing the legislative clock, there was no record of changing the AP story online, which now features the opposite headline and lede:
Hundreds of jeering protesters helped stop Texas lawmakers from passing one of the toughest abortion measures in the country, shouting down Senate Republicans and forcing them to miss a midnight deadline to pass the bill.
Even though this is the same article—same link and everything—there's no note that it's changed. No correction. No "Remember how the premise of this article was one thing and now it's the dead opposite? We were wrong." I know that reporters can make mistakes; I know that the environment was chaotic in the capitol building. But it's hard to imagine something that warrants a correction more than getting a huge national story completely backwards. And it goes to show that the AP should have never run the story in the first place.
UPDATE at 9:45 PM: At 6:19 p.m., while I was at the DOMA rally, Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford e-mailed to say that I didn't contact the AP for comment for this post—which is true—and he asked me to link to this article. The article provides a chronological account of last night's events, which, Colford says, "will throw additional light on the confusion that reigned in the chamber and is overlooked in your account." The story does provide a few more details, including details that make it clear the Associated Press knew there were significant unanswered questions about the legality of the abortion bill's vote when they published and distributed their article. "A reporter for The AP videoed his computer screen while refreshing the page, capturing the date changing from Wednesday to Tuesday," according to the article Colford sent. The timing discrpancy was noted in the original AP article—as was the fact the Democratic senators objected to the vote's legality.
In other words, the AP's new story confirms the AP was aware that this bill's passage was possibly illegal and the timing was fishy. But even so, they ran a headline and article that plainly proclaimed it passed.
So I replied to Colford, asking the AP for comment:
Hi, Paul. Thanks for reaching out. I'll link to your post, but do you want to comment specifically in response to the concern that the AP ran an erroneous story and then changed the story in a fundamental way without explanation or comment? Thanks!
I'll update this post if/when I hear back.
UPDATE THURSDAY: Colford replies:
The story changed because it was an ongoing story, like so many others in the news day, and it was being updated as the story unfolded. Some AP stories are updated and distributed anew on the wire many times, sometimes dozens of times, as new information becomes available.
In this case, the news at 12:30 a.m. wasn't what it was at 4 a.m. That doesn't make the earlier story "erroneous."
It's unfortunate that The Seattle Times had to go to press, given its deadline, with an account that was subsequently changed by still-unfolding developments in Texas, but this happens with breaking news.
With all respect to Colford and the AP, I don't buy this argument. They had every indication that this bill's passage was an unresolved question. If the AP had to run anything—and breaking news means you sometimes have to run something—they should have run a piece that said the bill's passage was currently in dispute. Or maybe that the GOP claims to have passed the bill. But saying the bill "passed" was not accurate—it was, in fact, flat wrong.
And lamenting that it's "unfortunate" how the Seattle Times printed this article is bizarre. As a news service, the AP has a primary function to dispatch stories on its news wire that then get republished—printed—by other news outlets. It's not unfortunate when that actually happens, it's predictable.