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'Keep up the fight,' Top AP editor once wrote Rove
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday July 14, 2008

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Update: Fournier regrets 'breezy' correspondence with Rove

In its investigation of the misleading accounts that initially surrounded Pat Tillman's death and Jessica Lynch's rescue the House Oversight Committee on Monday shed some light on the White House's press-management apparatus and the chummy relationship between Karl Rove and AP scribe Ron Fournier.

The report details the Bush administration's exploitation of Tillman's death and suppression of evidence that the former football pro who joined the Army Rangers after 9/11 was killed by friendly fire. In the day's after Tillman's death, on April 22, 2004, the committee examined e-mails from the White House's communications team, including some exchanges with reporters.

Commentators and reporters contacted the White House to offer advice. For example, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan e-mailed the White House’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, Peter Wehner, recommending that he “find out what faith Tillman practiced and have the president go by that church and light a candle or say a prayer.” Karl Rove exchanged e-mails about Pat Tillman with Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier, under the subject line “H-E-R-O.” In response to Mr. Fournier’s e-mail, Mr. Rove asked, “How does our country continue to produce men and women like this,” to which Mr. Fournier replied, “The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight.”

White House staff exchanged more than 200 e-mails concerning Tillman's death, according to the Oversight Committee report (.pdf).

Fournier appears not to have written anything about Tillman in the months after his death, according to a database search.

Now the AP's acting Washington bureau chief, Fournier said Monday: "I was an AP political reporter at the time of the 2004 e-mail exchange, and was interacting with a source, a top aide to the president, in the course of following an important and compelling story. I regret the breezy nature of the correspondence."

The committee's draft report does not indicate who initiated the e-mail exchange between Rove and Fournier, and hence who would have written the "H-E-R-O" subject line. A committee spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

The 51-page examination reveals a White House more interested in crafting a good story around Tillman and Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch, whose capture and rescue in the early days of the Iraq war was dramatized in official White House and Pentagon pronouncements.

Our nation also has an inviolate obligation to share truthful information with a soldier’s family and the American people should injury or death occur....

That standard was not met in either Corporal Tillman’s or Private Lynch’s cases.

The revelation of Fournier's casual e-mails with Rove comes the same day that Politico's Michael Calderone has outlined changes Fournier is introducing as AP's Washington bureau chief with a new model he calls "accountability journalism." He initially promoted the idea in an essay in the AP's internal newsletter.

After briefly leaving daily journalism to pursue a Web startup and teach at Harvard, Fournier returned to the Associated Press earlier this year, where he is now its acting bureau chief.

His plan is for AP reporters to call out public officials when they break promises or fail to provide for the people who elected them. Examples include a piece accusing Barack Obama of choosing "winning over his word," and a Fournier dispatch about Hurricane Katrina that excoriated the Bush administration. It began: “The Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes. The economy is booming. Anybody who leaks a CIA agent's identity will be fired. Add another piece of White House rhetoric that doesn't match the public's view of reality: Help is on the way, Gulf Coast.”

Calderone says the new approach is causing some hesitancy in AP, which traditionally has specialized in a straight forward recounting of the facts.

“I think there’s mixed feelings — there’s reluctance,” said an AP staffer. “The AP has always been a just-the-facts type of organization,” the staffer added, where even star political reporters typically play a more behind-the-scenes role than those at other papers. And it was Johnson who hired the majority of reporters in Washington, meaning they’re now following not just a new leader but a new agenda.