A reporter at the Independent Journal Review resigned on Thursday and another apologized after the publication of a story that suggested there was a potential connection between former President Barack Obama’s Hawaii vacation and a state judge’s ruling blocking President Donald Trump’s second travel ban.
A source told Business Insider that congressional reporter Joe Perticone decided to quit for a number of reasons, but the story “seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Earlier on Thursday, Kyle Becker, the website’s viral editor, had published the article with the headline “Ex-President Obama Made ‘Surprise Visit’ to Hawaii, Just Days Before Judge Issued Travel Ban Ruling.” In it, he wrote that Obama visited Hawaii “just days ahead” of a judge’s decision to halt Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from six countries from traveling to the US.
The story also said that the former president stayed at a “private undisclosed location” and that the judge who ruled in the case and Obama attended Harvard at the same time.
“This is not to allege the former president met with Judge Derrick Watson, but merely to point out the timing and the opportunity was there ahead of a controversial court ruling,” Becker wrote.
Observers quickly responded by saying there was no evidence to support the story, which resembled a piece posted on the far-right conspiracy site InfoWars on Thursday.
IJR later retracted the story, saying in an editor’s note that it “does not meet our editorial standards or represent IJR’s vision or values.”
In an internal email obtained by Business Insider, Becker apologized to his colleagues, saying it was “unwarranted to fuel baseless speculation” and he “should have shown restraint by not publishing the story in the first place.”
“I take responsibility for showing a lack of judgment with the execution of a story this morning of already dubious pedigree that I would have done better just avoiding,” Becker wrote.
“I let the company down at a time when there’s a lot of national attention on us,” Becker said, “and it is not lost on me that the spillover of the story onto us as a company was harmful and unnecessary.”
Thursday’s story came at a time of heightened scrutiny of the five-year-old digital publication, which has taken fire for its close relationship with the Trump administration.
The conservative-leaning IJR broke the news that Neil Gorsuch would be Trump’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, and got tipped off about a dinner Trump attended at his hotel that other reporters were barred from.
IJR’s Erin McPike was granted the only seat for journalists on the plane with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his first major international trip. That broke with precedent as a group of reporters traditionally travel with the secretary and their outlets usually pay their way.
The State Department said the decision to allow only one reporter onboard was based on space constraints and an attempt for the department to save money, but also “part of an effort to include a broader representation of U.S. media.”
Perticone joins other recent high-profile departures from IJR, which was launched by two former Republican staffers and focuses on political news for conservative millennials.
“Joe’s a fantastic reporter with great instincts for covering the Hill,” IJR founder Alex Skatell said in a statement. “He’ll be an asset wherever he goes.”
Politico reported on Wednesday that several of the high-profile departures from IJR were concerned by the increasingly right-wing bent, adding that several of the reporters hailed from more traditional news outlets.