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Boy, ABC News Really Messed Up Its Coverage Of The Colorado Shootings

Friday morning, all of the broadcast and cable news networks were wall-to-wall with coverage of the shootings in Aurora Colorado. As is usually the case with breaking news reports, there was incomplete information, far too much speculations, and hours of talking heads trying to say profound things about a matter that was only a few hours old. Of all the networks, though, ABC News had the worst day of all and its investigative news team, headed by Brian Ross, didn’t come out of the entire day looking all that pretty, or competent for that matter.

First, soon after the Aurora police revealed the name of the man they had in custody, there was Ross himself on the air with a report claiming to link James Holmes the shooter with a man named Jim Holmes who happened to be listed on the website of a Colorado Tea Party group. That was later revealed to be untrue, and ABC News was later forced to issue an apology:

Editor’s Note: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.

Properly vetted? It strikes me that there was no vetting of the information at all. There’s really only two ways that Ross could have stumbled across this, either he went directly to a Tea Party site and looked to see if he could find a James Holmes listed. Or he did a Google search of something along the lines of  ” “James Holmes” and “Aurora, CO” ” and looked to see what would come up. Neither one is really responsible journalism, and if it was the first one, if he just decided to go to a Tea Party site and look for Holmes’s name even though there was no evidence that anyone affiliated with the Tea Party was involved in this, then it wasn’t just irresponsible it was potentially malicious.

But the ABC News crack “journalism” team wasn’t done there. Shortly after Ross’s odd report, another ABC News reporter claimed to have spoken to Holmes’s mother in San Diego and said that she basically acknowledged that her son was guilty:

A California woman who identified herself as the mother of James Holmes, the 24-year-old man federal authorities said is the suspect in a mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, told ABC News her son was likely the alleged culprit, saying, “You have the right person.”

The woman, contacted at her home in San Diego, spoke briefly with ABC News and immediately expressed concern her son may be involved in the shooting death of at least 12 people overnight.

“You have the right person,” she said, apparently speaking on gut instinct. “I need to call the police… I need to fly out to Colorado.”

Sounds pretty damning doesn’t it? The guys own mother supposedly knew it was him before even knowing the full details of the case. The way the comment was presented, it also led to the conclusion by some that Holmes had a history of mental problems that the family was aware of, which led to yet another round of speculation by the talking heads about Holmes’s mental state. There’s only one problem. Through an attorney, Holmes’s mother said yesterday said that ABC News essentially mis-represented the conversation that occurred early Friday morning:

Arlene Holmes, the mother of Colorado theater shooting suspect James Holmes, has suggested that ABC News mischaracterized her when it reported that her initial statement to the reporter, “you have the right person,” was a reference to her son.

“This statement is to clarify a statement made by ABC media. I was awakened by a call from a reporter by ABC on July 20 about 5:45 in the morning. I did not know anything about a shooting in Aurora at that time,” Holmes said in a statement this afternoon, read to the national press by attorney Lisa Damiani. “He asked if I was Arlene Holmes and if my son was James Holmes who lives in Aurora, Colorado. I answered yes, you have the right person. I was referring to myself.”

ABC News responded to the statement late yesterday:

[ABC News producer Matthew] Mosk said today that he awoke Arlene Holmes and informed her that a man, he believed was her son had been arrested in Aurora and asked to confirm their relationship.

“You have to tell me what happened… You have to tell me what happened,” the woman on the phone said, according to Mosk. Mosk said he told her that ABC News had learned the 24-year-old had been identified by police as the lone suspect in the mass killing in Aurora, Colorado and that the details of the events were still taking shape.

“You have the right person,” was her response, he said. “I need to call the police. I need to fly to Colorado.”

If you judge this based solely on the statement Mrs. Holmes released through the family attorney, it’s hard to see an innocent explanation for what ABC did here. In that case the “you have the right person” comment is directed solely at the effort by the ABC producer to verify her identity as the mother of a man currently being held by police in Colorado related to an incident that she had only just heard about from that ABC representative. There’s no way you could interpret those words as an acknowledgement of her son’s guilt on her part, or as a hint that she was not surprised that her son would commit such an act. ABC essentially took what she said and, according to her, twisted it to mean something that it couldn’t possibly mean. That would be even more egregious journalistic malpractice than even the hackery that Brian Ross had engaged in earlier that morning.

Even if you assume that Mrs. Holmes was mis-remembering the phone call’s details and that Mosk’s version of events is closer to the truth, though, ABC still doesn’t come out looking very good. The only significant difference between the two re-tellings of the phone call is Mosk’s contention that he shared some of the details of what had happened in Aurora with Mrs. Holmes and told her that her son had been identified as the suspect. At that point, Mosk says, she said “you have the right person.” However, it’s absolutely not clear whether she was referring to the previous question as to whether the man arrested in Colorado is her son or saying that Holmes, her son, was indeed guilty, something she really couldn’t possibly know since she wasn’t in Colorado and doesn’t appear to have spoken to her son any time recently. At that point, the producer should have asked her to clarify what she meant, but instead of doing that he let the call end and ran with the assumption that Mrs. Holmes had just said she believed her son was guilty. While Mosk’s version of events does make ABC’s conduct seem slightly less egregious, it’s not by much and taking an ambiguous quote and using it to jump to conclusions doesn’t strike me as very good journalism.

It happened to ABC this time around, but I’d argue that this isn’t a problem at ABC News so much as it is a problem with the “Breaking News” culture that infects broadcast, cable, and online news today. As several reporters and anchors have admitted over the years, there is tremendous pressure to get the news first, even when that means you might not necessarily get it right. Indeed, after a major news story like this you’ll often see one network or the other running commercial spots touting the fact that they were “first” with the big news. We saw this just last month with the coverage of the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Affordable Care Act cases when both CNN and Fox got the initial report of what the Court decided wrong because their reporters had read only part of the opinion before rushing to get on the air so they could claim to be “first.” In that case, the rush made no sense because the Supreme Court’s decision really didn’t qualify as a “Breaking News” event. Here, we had real breaking news and, under the pressure to get information, some information, indeed any information out there, ABC News completely dropped the ball.

Politico reports that ABC News is “taking steps” to ensure that things like this don’t happen again. That’s a good idea, but as long as they allow themselves to be governed by the irrational pressures of the “Breaking News” meme, the possibility for error will always be there.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. stonetools says:

    Agree with you 100 per cent here. You nailed it.
    Its just sad that it even has to be said.
    In one line-
    The point is not to outrace Twitter-it is to get it right

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. John Burgess says:

    This isn’t all that new a phenomenon. Back in the mid-80s, I was the Public Affairs Officer for the US Embassy in Bahrain. This was the time of the “Tanker War”, when Iran was attacking tankers in the wake of the US reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers.

    The US Navy set up a rotating pool of reporters (primarily American) that operated out of Bahrain, but neglected to assign PIOs to support them, so the support fell into my lap.l I raised sufficient hell with the Richard Armitage, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy and he made sure the Navy sent them out, also on a rotating basis.

    I had many instances in which reporters were chasing stories that were either breaking or simply rumors. I particularly recall one that involved the rumored shooting down of a US Navy helicopter somewhere over the Gulf, either by Iran or Iraq.

    Starting at a little after midnight, I started getting calls that continued until 10:00AM the following morning seeking confirmation.

    The reporters were doing the jobs as best they could, that is, they were seeking to verify the story, but it was one wild story after the other. Often, they would have names of supposed media passengers who were down/dead when I’d just gotten off the phone with that reporter.

    At the time, it was only CNN that had the 24/7 burden, but all the media, both print and broadcast, were desperately trying to figure out what happened.

    The saving grace was that none of them (excepting CNN) actually had to file their stories. Luckily, the CNN correspondent was really dim and didn’t hear of the story until hours after it had been killed. So, no damage, but a lot of ruckus.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    A lack of talent and smarts + a political agenda + a thirst for more viewers + a shrinking audience = “reporting” so bad it actually numbs the mind.

    Thing is, the mass media will get far worse as time marches on. And if Obama loses his reelection bid then Katy bar the door because in that event we’ll witness a media meltdown of epic proportions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 12

  4. C. Clavin says:

    “…If you judge this based solely on the statement Mrs. Holmes released through the family attorney, it’s hard to see an innocent explanation for what ABC did here…”

    Except there is an attorney involved…so you cannot in any way trust Mrs. Holmes’ statement. He said, she said…through her attorney.

    In the end it doesn’t matter what Mrs. Holmes said, or ABC did.
    71 people had their Constitutional Rights Violated (12 permanently) because the NRA is intent on protecting the Second Amendment Rights of Looney Tunes. That’s the story here…

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 9 Thumb down 14

  5. John Peabody says:

    The words “you’ve got the right person” can sound very different, from a possible simple acknowledgement of fact (as the mom says) or as a damning, booming voice (as ABC heard it). The reporter will instinctively grasp for the dramatic version. Why? Because it helps the story. The reporter is after a great story. Ethics, truth…. those are far down the line. Thus it has always been, thus it will always be. Why do people expect so much from the media? Take it as is, turn off the choices that don’t meet your expectations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  6. Jeremy says:

    They’re trying to become the infotainment industry, and it’s failing miserably.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. Nikki says:

    @C. Clavin:

    71 people had their Constitutional Rights Violated (12 permanently) because the NRA is intent on protecting the Second Amendment Rights of Looney Tunes committed to bringing home the bacon for gun manufacturers nationwide.

    FTFY

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 7 Thumb down 13

  8. C. Clavin says:

    @ Nikki…
    Thanks!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  9. Anderson says:

    However, it’s absolutely not clear whether she was referring to the previous question as to whether the man arrested in Colorado is her son or saying that Holmes, her son, was indeed guilty

    Much more likely the former. “You have the right person” makes no sense talking to a journalist if it refers to “having” her son; ABC didn’t “have him” in custody. It sounds much more like what you say to someone on the phone trying to ID you.

    Given that even ABC’s own account makes it sound like they twisted her words, I don’t think her attorney can be blamed for having her revise her remarks. ABC just blew it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  10. @Anderson:

    This is true. ABC’s version of events only makes sense if she had said “They have the right person”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. al-Ameda says:

    Politico reports that ABC News is “taking steps” to ensure that things like this don’t happen again. That’s a good idea, but as long as they allow themselves to be governed by the irrational pressures of the “Breaking News” meme, the possibility for error will always be there.

    File under: “Obligatory Statement Soon To Be Forgotten”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. One question I have in this is whether Brian Ross is actually a journalist, or if he’s really a news reader. That is, does he personally investigate and write the stories he puts on the air, or is he just paid to read what other people put on his teleprompter?

    I’m betting the latter, and if that’s the case, it’s unfair to hold Brian Ross personally responsible for a failure elsewhere in the news operation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  13. Herb says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    “A lack of talent and smarts + a political agenda + a thirst for more viewers + a shrinking audience = “reporting” so bad it actually numbs the mind. “

    I’ll give you lack of smarts, thirst for viewers, shrinking audience…but what political agenda is being served by being so wrong here?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  14. Craigo says:

    When I read the initial story I immediately took “You have the right person” to be referring to the speaker, not the shooter. ABC didn’t put their finger on the scale nearly as heavily (or at all) as in the first instance.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  15. mattb says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    One question I have in this is whether Brian Ross is actually a journalist, or if he’s really a news reader. That is, does he personally investigate and write the stories he puts on the air, or is he just paid to read what other people put on his teleprompter?

    The problem/challenge/whatever of broadcast news is that the person presenting during this sort of crisis is largely reading with editors sifting through documents for them.

    Now, that said, Cronkite, for example, did his own last minute editing (sometimes on camera) during these events.

    The bigger problem is that there is currently little desire for the management of the news rooms to police these sorts of efforts. And part of the sad reason for that is that ever since “news” became a commodity for selling commercials, there has been less and less desire to lay out the funds to produce quality — versus sensationalist — news.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. G.A. says:

    They should fire all those propagandists!!!!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. @John Burgess:

    You’re right it isn’t new. Remember the Reagan assassination attempt in 1981 when Jim Brady was incorrectly declared dead? (That also happened on ABC News by the way). The difference is that we now live in an environment where something that is said on television quickly becomes viral and it becomes hard to correct mistakes when they are discovered

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0