What should have been a victory lap for ABC News Thursday at Summer TV Press Tour 2012 — the same day Nielsen issued stats showing “Good Morning America” finished No. 1 among all viewers and in the key news demographic for the first time in 17 years — got derailed when talk turned to the division’s controversial coverage of the Colorado movie theater killings.
ABC news chief Ben Sherwood got asked about Brian Ross’s early, inaccurate, speculation, Friday morning — just hours after the Aurora shooting during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” — that the Colorado movie theater killing suspect might be a Tea Party member.
“We put something on the air that we did not know to be true and the part that we needed to be true was not germaine to the story we were covering,” ABC News chief Ben Sherwood told TV critics of the incident, in which Ross, talking to “Good Morning America” anchor George Stephanopoulos, said, “There is a Jim Holmes of Aurura, Colorado…on the Colorado 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 — but this is Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”
Ross corrected himself in an ABC News Special report that aired later that day, telling viewers it was, in fact, NOT the same Jim Holmes.
“It was a mistake; we recognized it immediately and owned it immediately…We corrected it immediately, and we apologized,” Sherwood told TV critics, adding that Ross has reached out to the other man in Aurora, to “express his regret.”
Stephanopoulos, who appeared at the press tour via satellite with the rest of the “GMA” on-air gang, also apologized for the mistake.
“This was a breaking news situation and people are going to make mistakes,” Stephanopoulos said, adding “The test of a good journalist and good news organization is how you handle and how transparent you are with the viewers” when a mistake is made. “I don’t think there was any political movitation behind the mistake,” he added.
The incident, Sherwood said, did not “live up to the standards and practices at ABC News. “I take responsibility for it,” Sherwood said. “The buck stops with me.”
Sherwood said the network was taking steps to make sure something like that did not happen again, but did not elaborate.
On the other hand, Sherwood stood up for ABC News’s reporting on a phone conversation one of its producers had with the shooting suspect’s mother very early Friday morning.
The producer, Matt Mosk, has been accused, by Arlene Holmes, of taking her comments out of context.
“You have to tell me what happened… You have to tell me what happened,” the woman on the phone said, according to Mosk, who’d woken Arlene Holmes up around 5 a.m. PST in San Diego.
Mosk said he told her that ABC News had learned 24-year-old Jim Holmes had been identified by police as the lone suspect in the mass killing in Aurora, Colo., and that the details of the events were still taking shape.
“You have the right person,” was her response, Mosk said. “I need to call the police. I need to fly to Colorado.”
This past Monday afternoon, in a statement read by her lawyer, Arlene Holmes said she did not know about the shooting in Aurora when she answered the phone call, and Mosk asked her if she was Arlene Holmes, mother of James Holmes, who lives in Aurora.
In her statement, she said her sentence “you have the right person” was a reference to herself – not her son.
“We stand by Matt’s characterization of what happened during the conversation,” Sherwood told TV critics at the press tour.
ABC News had intended the Q&A session to be a celebration of “GMA’s” recent squashing of NBC’s “Today” show’s more than 16-year weekly ratings winning streak. Hence the satellite feed with Stephanopoulos. Just before the Thursday morning Q&A at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, ABC had issued the latest Nielsen ratings for the morning infotainment shows, revealing that, for the first time in 17 years, “GMA” finished first among both viewers of all ages, and with those 25-to-54 year old viewers who are the currency of news programming.