The Associated Press is standing behind a recent story—labelled "trash" by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow—on the ongoing political fallout from the murder of a Kansas abortion doctor.
On Thursday, Maddow urged the AP to retract an August 4 story that examined the impact on the race for Wichita's district attorney of the 2009 murder of George Tiller by an anti-abortion vigilante. The cable host accused the wire service of appearing to endorse an outlandish claim by the president of the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue that Nola Foulston, the outgoing district attorney, bore responsibility for Tiller's murder because she had opposed earlier efforts to prosecute him for performing late-term abortions. The Operation Rescue president, Troy Newman, paid for automated calls to voters attacking one of the candidates in the race, Marc Bennett, who had been an assistant prosecutor in Foulston's office.
"We were quoting someone who was playing an active role in the outcome of an election," Paul Colford, the AP's director of media relations, told Lean Forward Friday afternoon. "We stand by the story."
The story, which appeared under the byline of reporter Roxana Hegeman and was picked up by numerous news outlets across the country, reported that Bennett's ties to Foulston might hurt him politically. It continued:
To understand why that's a liability in this race, it's important to note that Scott Roeder — the abortion opponent serving a life sentence for killing Tiller — once told The Associated Press that he believed the doctor would never be brought to justice as long as Foulston was in office.
The district attorney had refused to allow then-Attorney General Phill Kline to prosecute Tiller in her jurisdiction, resulting in a judge dismissing charges that the doctor had performed illegal late-term abortions. Tiller was later acquitted of misdemeanor charges that he failed to get a second opinion from an independent doctor before performing late-term abortions. Roeder killed the doctor weeks after the jury's verdict.
While Foulston has insisted she was simply upholding the law, many abortion opponents blame her for derailing Kline's prosecution and, ultimately, for Tiller's death.
"If Nola Foulston had done her job with George Tiller, he would still be alive today," said Troy Newman, president of Wichita-based Operation Rescue.
"He didn't get prosecuted so obviously he had to be shot?," asked Maddow in Thursday's segment. "So says Operation Rescue, and so writes down the Associated Press."
Maddow went on to label the passage an "absolutely wackadoo, uncontested more-than-insinuation that an abortion doctor was murdered in Kansas, because what? He needed killing? Because he hadn't been 'brought to justice?'" She called the story "trash" that "besmirched Tuesday's primary," before urging the AP to retract it and apologize.
Friday, in response to Colford's statement, Maddow made clear she isn't backing off her call for a retraction. In a statement of her own provided to Lean Forward, she said:
The Associated Press wasn't quoting anyone when their reporter wrote that "many abortion opponents blame [District Attorney Nola Foulston] ... ultimately, for Tiller's death." It was reckless and gross for the Associated Press to cite Operation Rescue as a source on the Tiller assassination without noting that group's links to the murderer in the case. It is even worse for the AP to have extrapolated from Operation Rescue's outrageous and inflammatory statement to the otherwise unsupported assertion that "many abortion opponents" feel the same way. As long as this piece stands, the AP is on record insinuating bluntly that a doctor was killed because he hadn't been "brought to justice" (the AP's phrase), and it therefore fell to an anti-abortion extremist with a gun to take care of that problem. I love the Associated Press, but this article is way beneath their (or any) journalistic standards, and it should be retracted.
After Tiller's murder, authorities found a Post-It note with Operation Rescue's phone number in Roeder's car, and the group's founder, Randall Terry, called Tiller a "mass-murderer," adding: "We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God." Roeder was reportedly a frequent poster to websites run by Operation Rescue, in one post describing Tiller as the "concentration camp 'Mengele' of our day," who "needs to be stopped."
How much of a liability Bennett's ties to Foulston ultimately proved to be is far from clear. Bennett won the race last Tuesday with 55 percent of the vote.