The proud principal who wasn't

The Associated Press has now corrected twice its false report that John Walker's high school principal was proud of him -- but nobody's paying attention.

Published January 4, 2002 9:00AM (EST)

As soon as CNN broadcast footage of John Walker Lindh in an Afghan prison Dec. 2, the media began a frantic search for clues to understanding the 20-year-old Marin County, Calif., man who signed up to fight alongside the Taliban. The search led many to Tamiscal High School in Marin, the school Walker attended in 1997 and 1998, and its principal, Marcie Miller.

Miller made herself synonymous with Marin County relativism run amok when a Dec. 13 Associated Press story described her as proud of the school's most infamous alumnus. "Principal Marcie Miller said the highly competitive school remains proud of Lindh as well as its other students, who tend to be highly motivated, self-directed critical thinkers," reported the A.P. story, which was written by Justin Pritchard.

Soon the "proud principal" story was making international headlines, since A.P. is a wire service that feeds thousands of media outlets around the world. Some articles merely referenced the A.P. report rather than running it in its entirety, and attributed the "proud" quote directly to Miller, in quotation marks. Soon Miller and Tamiscal became exemplars of the kind of educational environment that would produce a John Walker.

"There is a whole school of pedagogy gone mad in that sentence: It doesn't matter what the little kiddies learn, only that they learn how to learn," wrote the Detroit Free Press. "Walker learned that he needed a code by which to live, and apparently finding none at Tamiscal High, put himself under the direction of the dark side of the Koran. He may pay with his life for the lives he helped take. But see, he does Marcie Miller proud."

Fox News also picked up on the item, berating Miller as a paragon of left-coast moral relativism.

The only problem was, Miller never said she or the school was proud of Walker. And on Dec. 20, A.P. ran this correction: "In an article about John Walker Lindh's suburban upbringing, the Associated Press reported erroneously on Dec. 13 that Tamiscal High School Principal Marcie Miller said the school remains proud of him as well as its other students. Miller said the school is proud of its students in general, but her only comment about [Walker] was that teachers had called him 'a gifted writer of poetry.'"

Coming just before the Christmas holiday, the correction didn't get a whole lot of notice. Attacks on Miller continued. Doug Bandow of the Washington Times wrote Dec. 29: "There's no excusing [Walker's] conduct. Supporting oppressive killers is hardly a 'youthful indiscretion.' Although apparently the principal of his old high school, Marcie Miller, doesn't get it, announcing that she, reports the Associated Press, 'remains proud of Walker as well as the school's other students.'"

Perhaps because its correction didn't put an end to the matter, on Jan. 2 A.P. took the unusual step of reporting on the controversy caused by its own story about Miller.

Written by San Francisco news editor Michael Warren, the Jan. 2 A.P. story let Miller vent about how the Dec. 13 story had damaged her reputation. The story also altered A.P.'s original correction, explaining that "an editing error" led the news service to report "erroneously" that the principal said she was proud of Walker. In fact, Walker's decision to fight with the Taliban is "opposed to everything I've devoted my life to," Miller told Warren in the Jan. 2 dispatch, and she added that she had never even met Walker.

"My brother is a Gulf War hero, I come from an extremely patriotic family, my father's a veteran and I find this appalling, that I'm being cast as a villain who's proud of anything John Walker Lindh has done since he left our school in January of 1998," the beleaguered principal told Warren.

So how did the A.P. get it wrong? Sources at the news service say it was Warren himself who introduced the error into Pritchard's Dec. 13 story. He reportedly informed A.P.'s New York management that the mistake was his, not Pritchard's, and accepted full responsibility for it. But no one could explain exactly how the false information about Miller came to be inserted in the story during editing.

The story was only the third piece Warren has written since May 2001, according to a Lexis-Nexis search, an indication that the San Francisco editor may have felt obliged to go out of his way to protect Miller's reputation and take the heat off his reporter, Pritchard, who seemed to be implicated in the initial retraction that labeled the reporting "erroneous."

A Salon search of A.P. stories in Lexis-Nexis found that the last time the Associated Press admitted to an "editing error" was in November 1984. Other A.P. reporters contacted for this story, who asked that their names not be used, say that even when an editor introduces an error into a reporter's story, it is A.P. custom to attribute the error to "erroneous reporting."

When asked about the use of the phrase "editing error," an A.P. spokesman confirmed that was an unusual step. "We usually don't use that," said Jack Stokes, media relations manager in the Associated Press' corporate office. "That's something that's talking about our internal process that we don't talk about at all. The point was there was an error. It was put in to clarify as much as you possibly can that a mistake was made."

But Stokes was reluctant to single out Warren for blame. "The [Jan. 2] story contained additional information," said Stokes. "That was a follow-up story that also mentioned what had happened with the original story to make clear that the [original] quote needed to be put into context."

When asked about his story, Warren said that he would let it speak for itself, and referred questions to A.P.'s corporate office in New York. Tamiscal High School is on holiday break until Jan. 7, and Miller did not return calls for comment.

Steve Randall, senior media analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, commended A.P. for dedicating an entire story to a past error, but said it may be tougher for other organizations to help put the genie back in the bottle. "It would be hard for me to imagine that all of the media outlets that have likely repeated this canard have corrected themselves in the wake of A.P.'s own correction," Randall said. "Especially with the Internet now, you have the ability of people to pick up an item and geometrically transmit this stuff."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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