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TCA 2012: ABC’s Tea Party Screw-Up Overshadows a Ratings Win

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ABC News president Ben Sherwood addresses the TCA press tour.

When ABC News scheduled a panel to open the Disney/ABC session of the Television Critics Association press tour, it was probably expecting to take a victory bow. It’s been a good several months in particular for the Good Morning America team. Last week, for the first time in 17 years, the show beat Today in both total viewers and viewers 25-54. Most of the victorious GMA team joined ABC News president Ben Sherwood by satellite.

But last Friday, after the Aurora, Colo., Dark Knight shooting, GMA committed a journalistic foul that left little time for self-back-patting Thursday morning. In their live coverage that morning, investigative correspondent Brian Ross suggested that the shooter, James Holmes, may have been a member of the Aurora Tea Party; it turned out that the Tea Party member was a different, innocent, James Holmes.

At the panel, Sherwood and Stephanopoulos apologized, repeatedly and effusively. “I’m sorry about the mistake,” said Stephanopoulos. “I know that Brian is sorry about the mistake. I think it was a mistake made in good faith.” Sherwood, as head of the news division, said he took ultimate responsibility: “We know that that moment did not live up to the high standards of ABC News… We put something on the air that we did not know to be true, and the part that we knew to be true was not germane to the story.”

As to how the mistake happened and how ABC would avoid it in the future, there were fewer clear answers. Speaking to reporters after the presentation, Sherwood said that he had a “stern” talk with Ross after the fiasco, but that Ross had not been suspended or punished in any way. The network was evaluating its procedures, he said, but had not made any changes yet. Nor did Sherwood have a chain-of custody explanation as for how the information got on air: who, besides Ross, knew what he was going to report when Stephanopolous tossed to him? As Sherwood acknowledged, after all, the mistake was blatant–finding the same name on a Tea Party roster is not confirming that that was the shooter–so anyone who knew what Ross was going to air with could and should have simply said, “Let’s hold this and check it out.”

And the larger question: would Ross’ Tea Party report have been relevant if it were true? Sherwood first resisted answering this “hypothetical”–though that was the entire basis of the report’s going on air. But then he elaborated: “Our mission is to tell the audience everything we can that is relevant about a person who has just committed a terrible crime that is unimaginable to all of us. And so, if in the course of our sweeping everything we can about this person, part of it turns out that he is a member of a particular club, a member of a particular organization, he has a particular hobby–if we judge that it is journalistically relevant to a rich profile that will help our viewers understand who is this, why did he do this, then we would report those facts.”

In other words–if I may interpret–yes, it would be relevant if true, as it would be if the shooter were an Occupy protester or a Libertarian or a member of any political party, and as part of a whole sweep of information that tries to get at who this guy is.

Fair enough–but it’s also explosive enough that you don’t go to air with it on the possibility that it might be true, which Ross essentially said in his own report. (I don’t know if ABC would have gone to air with news that Holmes was a Democrat or a non-Tea Party Republican, but it’s also not fair to convict them on a hypothetical.) And the upshot is, it’s not clear whether ABC will actually change anything to avoid this happening in the future. There was a lot of apology in ABC’s response, rightfully so, but not, on the surface, a lot of soul-searching about what makes mistakes like this happen.

Ironically, the ABC News panel was followed by Katie Couric, speaking about her new daytime talk show. One reporter asked Couric about the drop in public trust in the media, and she cited incidents from the Breitbart selective editing of remarks by Shirley Sherrod to CNN and Fox News misreporting of the Supreme Court healthcare decision. A big problem, she said, is “the constant fervor to be first.”

Maybe ABC could have Katie Couric drop by and talk to its news department.