An award-winning Associated Press reporter got the boot on Monday after claiming that a "senior U.S. intelligence official" had said Russia fired a missile into Poland. Before the AP offered a correction, 35-year-old James LaPorta's report — containing an erroneous suggestion with potentially catastrophic and nuclear repercussions — was widely circulated, generating panic and stoking geopolitical tensions.
The resultant explosion rocked the Polish village of Przewodów, just five miles away from the Ukrainian border. Two farm workers were killed.
NATO, Polish, and American leaders suggested shortly after the explosion that it was not a direct Russian attack.
Polish presidential adviser Jakub Kumoch told Poland's TVN24 channel days later that there "are many indications that one of the (Ukrainian) missiles used to shoot down a Russian missile missed the target. Its self-destruct system did not work, and this missile unfortunately led to a tragedy."
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba called the claim that the explosion was Ukrainian-caused a "conspiracy theory."
Fake news, real consequences
Hours after the incident, the Associated Press issued a news alert co-bylined by LaPorta and reporter John Leicester, which stated, "A senior U.S. intelligence official says Russian missiles crossed into NATO member Poland, killing two people."
A Russian attack on Poland would have been sufficient to trigger articles 4 and 5 of the NATO charter, potentially putting the U.S. into direct conflict with the nuclear power.
The Washington Post noted that the AP report had been sent to and seen by thousands of news outlets. News organizations frequently reprint reports from the AP.
CNN firmed up the narrative, reporting that Poland "confirms a Russian-made missile" was behind the explosion. CNN reportedly omitted any mention of how the Ukrainian military also uses Russian-made weapons.
Fox News and the Daily Mail similarly carried the AP reporter's suggestion, the former running a piece entitled, "Russian missiles cross into NATO member Poland, kill 2: senior US intelligence official," and the latter stating, "'Russian bombs' kill two in POLAND."
CBS Evening News tweeted "RUSSIAN MISSILE STRIKE: Two Russian missiles crossed over the Ukrainian border into Poland, a NATO country, killing two civilians."
Extra to cable news channels and print news organizations spreading the erroneous information, social media influencers began banging the drums of war on the basis of the AP report, signaling that Russia's war on Ukraine had finally spilled out into a NATO country.
For instance, Irish writer Jennifer Cassidy advanced the AP's claim to her 167,000 or more Twitter followers:
Although it is unclear whether he spoke out on the basis of the AP report, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a forceful statement, saying, "Russian missiles hit Poland, the territory of our friendly country. People died."
Were LaPorta's news alert true, then millions of people would have been promptly informed of the facts of the matter. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
After having updated the initial report several times, the AP indicated that a new assessment from three U.S. officials "contradicts information" in the original article. Shortly thereafter, the article was reportedly taken offline.
The AP issued a retraction later that day, writing: "In earlier versions of a story published November 15, 2022, The Associated Press reported erroneously, based on information from a senior American intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity, that Russian missiles had crossed into Poland and killed two people. Subsequent reporting showed that the missiles were Russian-made and most likely fired by Ukraine in defense against a Russian attack."
On Nov. 21, LaPorta, a former U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan, was fired. Co-byliner Leicester reportedly is still working at the AP.
An AP spokesman did not comment on LaPorta's firing, but told the Daily Beast that the "rigorous editorial standards and practices of The Associated Press are critical to AP’s mission as an independent news organization. To ensure our reporting is accurate, fair and fact-based, we abide by and enforce these standards, including around the use of anonymous sources."
Customarily, the AP "requires more than one source when sourcing is anonymous," with an exception when a source is an authoritative figure who "provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy."
The Washington Post reported that LaPorta had received and shared the alleged U.S. intelligence official's tip in an electronic message around 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 15.
One editor asked whether to issue an alert on the basis of LaPorta's tip or to seek "confirmation from another source and/or Poland?"
A second editor said she "would vote" for publishing an alert, noting she couldn't "imagine a U.S. intelligence official would be wrong on this."
Although this exchange may suggest wider culpability, the Post reported on the basis of an anonymous source at the AP that LaPorta allegedly told his editors that a senior manager had already vetted the source of his tip, even though that manager had not reviewed the missile story.
AP spokesman Lauren Easton indicated there will likely be no discipline for any AP editor.