The Media Today

The media today: ABC hands Trump a press-bashing weapon

December 4, 2017

For journalists covering the administration, few stories have higher stakes than the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. So when ABC News’s Brian Ross was forced to correct his report that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was prepared to testify that Trump, as a candidate, directed him to contact the Russians, it was a very big deal.

Ross offered a “clarification” on Friday evening’s World News Tonight, saying that it was as president-elect, rather than as a candidate, that Trump had given Flynn the instruction. But by that point, the damage had been done. On Saturday, ABC suspended Ross for four weeks without pay, saying in a statement, “It is vital we get the story right and retain the trust we have built with our audience—these are our core principles. We fell far short of that yesterday.”

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Ross accepted the punishment, writing, “My job is to hold people accountable and that’s why I agree with being held accountable myself.” But ABC has not yet fully explained how his single-sourced report made it to air without being properly vetted.

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The president quickly waded into the fray, tweeting, “Congratulations to @ABC News for suspending Brian Ross for his horrendously inaccurate and dishonest report on the Russia, Russia, Russia Witch Hunt. More Networks and ‘papers’ should do the same with their Fake News!” Trump also suggested that those who lost money when the stock market plunged after Ross’s initial report (it later recovered most of its losses) should sue ABC.

Ross’s error hands a press-bashing administration a cudgel that will no doubt be used again and again to discredit serious reporting. Remember the mileage that Trump, Sean Spicer, and Sarah Sanders got from Zeke Miller’s incorrect report that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the Oval Office? Expect more of those sorts of deflections every time a question is raised about the Russia investigation.

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Below, more on the fallout from ABC’s costly error.

  • Frustration in the newsroom: CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that Ross’s report caused embarrassment in the ABC newsroom. “It makes me cringe,” one staffer told him. “This is not what any [network] needs when people are so quick to say ‘fake news’ to you. It makes me sick to my stomach.”
  • Taking ABC to task: The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple doesn’t pull any punches in criticizing ABC for “what may endure as the most cowardly ‘clarification’ in modern journalism.
  • Flashback: In 2012, Dylan Byers (then at Politico), reported on Ross’s controversial record. The occasion at the time was Ross’s erroneous report that Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes may have had ties to the Tea Party. (h/t Michael Calderone)


Other notable stories

  • Billy Bush takes to the op-ed pages of The New York Times with a simple message about Trump’s comments on Access Hollywood: “He said it.” Bush is on something of an image-rehabilitation tour, with an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show coming tonight.
  • From CJR’s Alexandria Neason: Last month, CJR set out to better understand the sexual harassment policies in place at newsrooms around the country. We designed two surveys, one for journalists, and one for newsroom human resources professionals and other senior management. We got responses from hundreds of staff and freelance journalists, “but in three weeks, we heard back from not a single one of the 149 newsrooms we contacted to participate.
  • The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan checks in from Opelika, Alabama, where a small-town paper is walking a fine line in taking a cautious stance against Roy Moore. New this morning: Trump explicitly endorsed Moore over Twitter.
  • For New York magazine, Suki Kim reports on allegations of sexual harassment against public radio icon John Hockenberry.
  • Mornings on CBS and NBC will look different this week. Brian Stelter notes that both networks will have all-female teams anchoring their morning news shows.
Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.