ABC News sees victory lap for Good Morning America hobbled by pointed questions on Brian Ross' mistake
LOS ANGELES -- They tried so hard to set the stage for a victory lap.
Facing journalists here at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour, ABC News president Ben Sherwood kicked off an early morning presentation touting the division's success competing against NBC's powerhouse Today show, essentially attracting the same amount of viewers aged 25 to 54 last week -- a feat he compared to winning an Olympic gold medal after 15 years of competition.
But what most of the journalists gathered here wanted to talk about, was the costly mistake in which reporter Brian Ross last week implied Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes may have been a member of the conservative tea party movement, because a man with the same name was in the membership list of a website. It was quickly determined that the man on the website was a different person with the same, admittedly common name.
While the entire Good Morning America anchor team and top producers looked on during a satellite hookup from New York, journalists asked whether Ross' mistake made it tougher for the public to believe the news division in other controversies, including an assertion by Holmes' mother that her responses during an interview with a producer were mischaracterized and allegations that reports on Holmes acting erratically in jail aren't true.
Clearly expecting the question, Sherwood noted that Ross called the Jim Holmes who was a tea party member and apologized to him, while promising ABC News would tighten its procedures to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
But during close questioning by reporters after the press conference, he eventually admitted the mistake was mostly made by Ross, a longtime investigative reporter whose big scoops have been marred by some high profile missteps. And although Sherwood gave Ross "a very serious and stern conversation" after the mistake, the reporter has not been suspended or officially reprimanded.
"We put something on the air that we did not know to be true," said Sherwood, who later noted he was on a plane when the mistake was made, but the news division kept the error from airing outside the East Coast broadcast and corrected it immediately. "And the part of it that we knew to be true, was not germane to the story that we were doing."
Still, when reporters asked if the fact of Holmes political affiliation was even worth reporting, ABC News spokesman Jeff Schneider called the query" a crazy hypothetical," denouncing a Denver Post column suggesting they stumbled on the errant connection by conducting Internet searches on the shooter's name and "tea party" to see if he was connected to the hardcore conservative group.
This concept is important to some people who already maintain a liberally-biased media is trying to discredit conservative groups with unfair reporting. And the real answer is probably too complicated for a press conference; it's tough to know if his membership in any organization is worth reporting until you know all about that connection, including why he's a member and what he's done in the group.
Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts said she would likely take medical leave in late August or early September to begin treatment for cancer; a crisis which has sparked an outpouring of affection from fans. But news that stars volunteering to fill in include everyone from Katie Couric and Barbara Walters to Diane Sawyer, Kelly Ripa and rest of The View's co-hosts, also proves how quickly an expression of solidarity and concern can start to look like a programming move.
"I'm not goin' anywhere; I'm stayin right here," Roberts joked to applause from her co-anchors. "It's so fascinating/scary how you prepare for something like this."
Minutes later, onetime NBC and CBS star Katie Couric faced the press, touting the Sept. 10 debut of her new daytime talk show, Katie. Executive produced by her former boss at the Today show Jeff Zucker -- Couric insisted the former head of NBC Entertainment would be so involved, he'd be sitting in the control room -- the program features a theme song by Sheryl Crow and a host who has vaulted from top jobs at two rival networks.
"I think I'm a little scared, which is good," said Couric, noting test shows for the program, tagged as "smart with heart" in promos, starts in August. "If I weren't, I would worry...I want to do the best job I can do and really be who I am and not be too affected by other hosts and other programs and how they're doing it."
Couric also expressed sympathy for two ousted morning show anchors she knows: Today's Ann Curry and CBS This Morning's Erica Hill, who the network announced today would be replaced by former NBC correspondent Norah O'Donnell in the fall.
"I have to refamiliarize the audience with the kind of person I was on the Today show a little bit," she said. "
She also admitted inviting as show guests President Barack Obama, GOP candidate Mitt Romney and tea party favorite Sarah Palin -- whose infamous stumbles during an interview with her was credited with seriously damaging Palin's candidacy for Vice President in 2008.
But has Palin responded?
"Not yet," Couric said with a laugh.