Who radicalized the Associated Press?

AP head

The Associated Press has morphed into a Berkeley-style left-wing rag. The key difference is that the Associated Press plays to a global audience of millions.

Take, for example, how the AP broke the news this week of the Supreme Court’s ruling against Colorado’s attempt to keep former President Donald Trump off the ballot. The court ruled unanimously, 9-0, that Colorado had no legal authority to bar a candidate from running for federal office. A majority of the justices added that this would in fact require an act of Congress.

Yet here is how the Associated Press reported the breaking news, which was then picked up and repeated verbatim by many of the largest and most powerful publications around the globe: “Supreme Court restores Trump to the ballot, rejecting state attempts to hold him accountable for attack on Capitol in 2021.”

From the Washington Post to Le Monde, the narrative emerged: The Supreme Court had blocked a state from saving democracy. The framing is not just disingenuous. It’s outright dishonest.

It would be one thing if that were just one hacky news blurb. But there is so much more.

In 2023, for example, the Associated Press suggested Florida’s Republican governor bore responsibility for a racially motivated shooting in the state, claiming baselessly that his opposition to hyper-racialist curricula had contributed to an overall climate of murderous hatred.

Later, the AP went to bat for President Biden. It asserted that the Republican leading the investigation into Hunter Biden’s global influence-peddling scheme “has his own shell company and complicated friends.” This was an attempt to draw an absurd equivalence between Biden’s globe-spanning multi-million-dollar operation, involving Ukrainian business interests and Chinese nationals, and six acres of land partly owned by House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) through an LLC.

And let’s not forget the time Republicans objected to the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, arguing she’s too beholden to partisan zealots. In the Associated Press’s telling, the GOP was opposing her nomination because she “brings too much empathy to the job.”

It’s not remarkable that a news organization should be so slanted in its day-to-day coverage. But the AP has much wider reach than any single newspaper or news station. Its reporting is seen by millions, appearing across hundreds of newspapers and radio and television stations.

By framing news events in such flagrantly partisan terms, the AP has been keeping the public uninformed. And sadly, things get even worse when you consider the AP’s habit of officially deploying ponderous euphemisms in place of clear and concise language, usually in order to avoid reporting out potentially uncomfortable facts. 

For example, an illegal immigrant was charged last month with the murder of 22-year-old nursing student Laken Hope Riley in Athens, Ga. But according to the AP, Riley’s alleged killer isn’t a Venezuelan who illegally entered the country in 2022 and then almost immediately started committing crimes. Rather, he’s an “Athens man.” And for the AP, Riley’s murder isn’t part of a larger story involving inept state and federal law enforcement decisions, but an incident highlighting “the fears of solo female athletes.”

That story, by the way, also referenced Mollie Tibbets, who was murdered in 2018 after she went for a run in Brooklyn, Iowa. Amazingly, there is no mention in that story of the fact that Tibbets was also stabbed to death by an illegal immigrant. 

The AP’s reluctance to use straightforward language or give honest coverage to the issues surrounding illegal immigration and crime likely stems from the newswire’s self-impeding decision in 2013 to stop talking about the very real national issue of “illegal immigrants” altogether. The reasoning at the time was that the word “illegal” should apply only to actions, not people. As it turns out, however, immigration is an action that some people perform illegally. If you make it harder for yourself to communicate clearly about national news topics by limiting your own vocabulary, the gaps will eventually be reflected in your coverage.

Also, while we’re on the topic of the AP’s tortured relationship with language, let’s not forget that it instructed its staffers in 2021 not to use the word “crisis” to describe the crisis at the U.S. border. Notably, before the wire service handed down its directive, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had reported a monthly record of 100,441 encounters with migrants (including apprehensions plus crossings of undocumented immigrants at legal ports of entry). Also, at the time of the directive, CBP was recording an average of 5,000 undocumented immigrants per day. 

Even more interestingly, two years before the AP’s “crisis” memo went out, at a time when the situation was far less dire, the newswire had published a fact-check that included the following line: “Few would argue that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding.” What had changed? Well, we had a new president, that’s what.

Worse than the clunky euphemisms and partisan framing are the falsehoods the AP publishes, and the fact that its willingness to tell a straight story seems to depend on who is the subject of the coverage. For example, in 2014, it reported that a mass grave containing the remains of nearly 800 orphans had been discovered in Ireland, near a former Catholic-owned home for children of unwed mothers. The report alleged abuse, child neglect, mismanagement and a campaign of silence. The report also claimed that the Catholic Church’s practice at the time was to deny baptism to bastard children.

The AP later had to publish a lengthy correction noting, among other things, that many of the children were baptized, that it has never been Catholic teaching to deny baptism to illegitimate children and that the 800 figure was entirely based on conjecture, not on any factual discovery. The AP didn’t even get the date of the orphanage’s opening correct.

Last October, the Associated Press published a shocking report under the headline, “Hamas says Israeli airstrike on Gaza hospital kills hundreds as Biden heads to Mideast.” Very little of it turned out to be true. The hospital itself was not hit, but its parking lot; it was not struck by an “Israeli airstrike” but by an errant Palestinian rocket; and “hundreds” were not killed — the figure is believed to have been between 50 and 100. Other than all that, solid journalism.

In all seriousness, though, what happened to the Associated Press? When did it turn into this? It didn’t happen overnight.

In 2015, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the removal of advertisements for the Amazon video series “The Man in the High Castle” from a New York City subway, sparking a significant debate around First Amendment rights. The governor’s office believed that the ads, which featured Nazi symbols, were offensive, leading to a discussion about a governor overstepping his bounds and the rights of free speech and private businesses

Oddly, the AP’s brief write-up of the incident did not mention the governor’s direct involvement until the final paragraph. This detail could have significantly altered readers’ perception of the event. Or so I thought at the time.

When I asked the AP’s then-spokesman, Paul Colford, about this decision to bury the lede, he did not answer my query. Instead, he directly emailed the editor-in-chief of the publication where I was working, complaining bitterly that I had had the nerve to notice his organization’s befuddling editorial decision.

The Associated Press’s failure to recognize that it had underreported its own story, and its official spokesman’s clumsy attempt at retaliation, were probably small signs of worse things to come.

Becket Adams is a writer in Washington and program director for the National Journalism Center.

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