W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘ABC News’

ABC needs to explain how, why Brian Ross so badly erred

In Debunking, Media myths, Television on July 24, 2012 at 11:59 am

Brian Ross’ stunning error last week linking the suspected Batman-movie shooter to the conservative Tea Party movement has been roundly and appropriately condemned — from Mother Jones to Rush Limbaugh, from the comedian Jon Stewart to the NewsBusters blog.

What’s missing, though, is a thorough, candid, and transparent accounting of what led Ross to proclaim on air that someone sharing the suspected shooter’s name, James Holmes, belonged to the Colorado Tea Party.

Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, declared in a brief segment Friday morning, hours after the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado:

“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.

“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross said, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”

Ross and the network apologized later Friday morning for the error. In a statement posted online, ABC said:

“An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”

It was a vague and empty apology that said nothing specifically to the misidentified Jim Holmes — and offered little insight into circumstances that gave rise to a towering error.

Still unexplained is what prompted Ross — whose online biography says he’s one of America’s “most honored and respected journalists” — to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted.”

So there ought to be a very public explanation for breaching such a fundamental protocol of professional journalism. Ross, and ABC News, ought to clarify, in detail, the circumstances that produced such a staggering lapse.

In a telephone conversation with me this morning, a spokesman for ABC News, Jeffrey W. Schneider, resisted engaging in a detailed discussion about Ross’ error.

“It was a mistake,” Schneider said. “We made it plainly clear it was a mistake. I think there’s been all kinds of speculation about how and why. It was simply an error. We made a human error.”

But why is such a broad acknowledgement of error not enough?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

By not explaining the back story to the error, Ross and ABC News have left themselves open to suspicions that political bias immediately and instinctively drove them to suspect a Tea Party connection to the shootings that left 12 people dead.

Rightly or wrongly, that conclusion has been reached often in the days since the shooting.

For example, John Kass of the Chicago Tribune  wrote in a column Sunday: “How long does it take for a major American television news network to politicize mass murder and blame conservatives for the blood of innocents?

“Not long.”

What’s more, by not specifying the circumstances that led to the stunning lapse, Ross and ABC News have effectively deprived serious-minded journalists and media audiences of an opportunity to understand the derivation of error and misjudgment of the kind that can blight the coverage of major breaking stories.

There is more than thumbsucking interest in understanding, at a granular level, why and how the news media get it so badly wrong.

Error-plagued coverage happens often enough: Consider, as another recent example, the wrongheaded early reports by CNN and FoxNews about the Supreme Court’s frankly baffling ruling on the constitutionality of ObamaCare.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, news reporting in the first hours of a dramatic event often is in error, owing in part to the swirl of rumor and confusion that typically accompanies a major breaking story.

And as Kass wrote, “when you add political bias to the rush of breaking news, as seems to have happened here, things get stinky.”

And worse.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Slow to learn: Lesson for journos in Brian Ross’ egregious error on ABC

In Debunking, Media myths, Television on July 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Brian Ross’ appalling error linking the Tea Party movement to the suspected Batman-movie shooter in Colorado demonstrates anew how slow journalists can be in grasping an elementary lesson of disaster coverage: Resist temptation to report more than you can immediately verify.

In the hours just after a disaster, journalists tend to be especially prone to error and imprecision, as Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, amply demonstrated in declaring today on Good Morning America:

“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.

“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross added, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colo.”

The suspect arrested in the shootings early today at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, is named James Holmes. But he is not the “Jim Holmes” to whom Ross referred, and the suspected killer has no known connections to the grassroots Tea Party movement, which advocates restraints in government spending.

It soon was clear that Ross’ speculative remarks associating the killer with the Tea Party were in error. ABC News offered an apology — an apology that raised important unanswered questions:

“An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”

But how did that happen? How did Ross — a veteran television reporter whose ABC biography unabashedly declares him “one of the most honored and respected journalists in the country” — come to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted”?

ABC’s apology didn’t say.

It may have been that Ross was excessively eager to be first in reporting a linkage to a conservative political movement. He may have been unable to restrain his ideological inclinations. He may have been misled by a producer.

Whatever the reason, his error on a television program that attracts 4.5 million viewers was inexcusable — and eminently preventable.

In the swirling uncertainty that invariably marks the hours after a disaster, journalists are well-served to show deliberation and restraint, to be mindful that error and distortion often blight the first reports of dramatic events.

I discuss this phenomenon in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting that “it is a near-certainty that erroneous reports will circulate in a disaster’s immediate aftermath.”

I also point out in Getting It Wrong:

“By recognizing that implausible rumors and exaggerated casualty tolls almost always are among the first effects of major disasters, journalists may spare themselves considerable embarrassment and their audiences great confusion.”

Getting It Wrong revisits the badly flawed news reporting of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans in 2005 — which offers enduring if unlearned lessons for journalists about the near-certainty of error in disaster coverage.

The reporting about Katrina’s destructive assault, I write, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

I note:

“They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center [in New Orleans].

“They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.”

In the end, none of those reports was verified or substantiated.

Other examples of erroneous news reports about unfolding disasters are not difficult to find.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “initial and worst-case estimates of disaster casualties almost always are exaggerated. This happened in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, offering a ready point of reference for reporters covering Katrina’s aftermath. The initial estimates of 10,000 deaths in New York were considerably overstated.”

Early reports about the attacks of September 11, 2001, also were distorted by error — by accounts, for example, of a car bombing at State Department, of military aircraft downing a hijacked plane near Camp David.

All too often, the news media are disinclined to revisit their disaster-coverage lapses and account for the errors. Such was the case in Katrina’s aftermath, when news organizations offered at best feeble and one-off explanations for their flawed and exaggerated reporting.

Ross and ABC News owe their viewers nothing less than a thorough and candid accounting for their error today.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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ABC unaccountably excludes Bill Clinton from lineup of pols who led ‘double lives’

In Debunking, Media myths, Scandal on January 21, 2012 at 10:39 am

ABC News offered yesterday a risible lineup of two-timing politicians that omitted Bill Clinton, the philandering 42nd president, but included Thomas Jefferson, about whom the evidence of sexual dalliance is thin at best.

ABC’s roster of “the top eight politicians who led double lives” was posted online and promised “a look at some … tawdry affairs and public scandals” — and how the politicians implicated “weathered the storm.”

In addition to Jefferson, ABC included Grover Cleveland, the U.S. president in the 1880s and 1890s who fathered a child out of wedlock, and Eliot Spitzer, who as governor of New York consorted with a high-priced call girl.

The ABC roster also included an obscure and mostly forgotten former politician, Vito Fossella, a five-term New York congressman who in 2008 acknowledged fathering a child in an extramarital affair.

Given that the likes of Fossella made the list, it’s inexplicable that Clinton was omitted.

Clinton’s tawdry sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, began in mid-November 1995 and continued intermittently until March 1997.

Disclosures of the Clinton-Lewinsky dalliance, and falsehoods he told under oath about the affair, nearly destroyed Clinton’s presidency.

He was impeached in December 1998 on two counts — lying under oath and obstructing justice to cover up the affair — but acquitted by the U.S. Senate in February 1999 and served out the 23 months remaining in his term.

Separately, a federal judge found Clinton in contempt of court for having lied under oath about the Lewinsky affair. Clinton was barred from practicing law for five years and ordered to pay nearly $90,000 to the lawyers of Paula Jones, who had accused him of sexual harassment while he was governor of Arkansas.

Clinton was the second U.S. president impeached in office. The other was Andrew Johnson, in 1868.

ABC’s including Jefferson in its “double lives” roster was little short of baffling: Indeed, its writeup about Jefferson’s purported sexual liaison with a slave-mistress named Sally Hemings offered no small amount of exculpatory evidence.

In fact, the writeup referred to “the myth of Jefferson’s double life” and noted:

“To this day, Jefferson’s paternity of any of her children has not been established with any absolute certainty.”

ABC also pointed out that a recent and detailed study about the purported Jefferson-Hemings affair which “did not show much support for the accusations” of a sexual liaison.

That study, a 400-page work titled The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, was compiled by a commission of Jefferson scholars charged with puncturing the myriad misunderstandings about the third president and a slave whom he rarely mentioned in his letters.

Among the misunderstandings was the DNA testing released in 1998 — about the time Clinton was facing impeachment charges — confirmed that Jefferson fathered children by Hemings.

“While the tests were professionally done by distinguished experts,” the scholars commission pointed out, “they were never designed to prove, and in fact could not have proven, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children.

“The tests merely establish a strong probability that Sally Hemings’ youngest son, Eston, was fathered by one of the more than two dozen Jefferson men in Virginia at the time ….”

One of the more than two dozen Jefferson men.

Yet, news media reports at the time characterized the DNA tests as offering “compelling evidence” of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.

The scholars commission — a panel of 13 experts organized by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society — said that circumstantial evidence points more powerfully to Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph (or his sons), in the paternity question.

Randolph Jefferson, the book says, was known to have socialized with the slaves at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, VA.

Randolph Jefferson was a dozen years younger than the president, and the available record offers no evidence that Thomas Jefferson “enjoyed socializing at night with Monticello slaves,” the book points out.

Eston Hemings’ was conceived around August 1807, when Thomas Jefferson was 64 and in declining health — factors that further diminish the likelihood of his paternity.

Also making ABC’s roster of politicians who led “double lives” were Mark Sanford, a former governor of South Carolina; John Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina; Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former governor of California, and Anthony Wiener, a former congressman from New York City.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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