BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Thursday should have been a victory lap for ABC News at Summer TV Press Tour 2012, as Nielsen issued stats that showed “Good Morning America” finished No. 1 among all viewers and in the key news demographic for the first time in 17 years.
Instead, ABC News got derailed when talk turned to the division’s controversial coverage of last week’s Colorado movie theater killings.
ABC News chief Ben Sherwood got asked about correspondent Brian Ross’s early, inaccurate speculation last Friday morning — just hours after the Aurora shooting during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” — that the shooting 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 germane to the story we were covering,” ABC News chief Ben Sherwood said to TV critics. When the incident occurred, Ross — talking to “Good Morning America” anchor George Stephanopoulos — speculated: “There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, 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 Jim Holmes he was mentioning to “express his regret.”
The incident, Sherwood said, did not live up to the standards and practices of ABC News. “I take responsibility for it,” Sherwood said. “The buck stops with me.”
Sherwood said the network is taking steps to make sure something like that does not happen again, but he did not elaborate.
On the other hand, Sherwood stood up for ABC News’s reporting on a phone conversation that one of its producers had with the shooting suspect’s mother very early Friday.
The producer, Matt Mosk, has been accused by the suspect’s mother, Arlene Holmes of San Diego, 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 waked Arlene Holmes about 5 a.m. Pacific time.
Mosk said he told her that ABC News had learned that 24-year-old Jim Holmes had been identified by police as the lone suspect in the mass killings in Aurora, and that the details of the events were still taking shape.
Her response, Mosk said, was: “You have the right person. 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 that Mosk asked her whether 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.
In the most recent week for which Nielsen ratings are available — the week of July 16 — “CBS This Morning” averaged about 2.3 million viewers, and 877,000 viewers in the 25-to-54-year-old age bracket, a.k.a. the currency of news programming.
That’s about half as many viewers as ABC’s “Good Morning America” scored the same week. It’s also short of the ratings that “The Early Show” had been averaging during the 2011-12 TV season, until it got shuttered in January to make way for “CBS This Morning.”
So CBS News has figured out what the problem is.
The problem is: Erica Hill.
CBS News announced Thursday that it will swap out co-host Hill for White House correspondent Norah O’Donnell on the show headlined by Charlie Rose and Gayle King.
O’Donnell — who has been CBS News’ s chief White House correspondent since June 2011 — will leave the White House beat to assume her new role but will continue as the principal substitute anchor for “Face the Nation.” She also will continue to report for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms.
O’Donnell will join Rose and Gayle King in the fall.
And what of Hill, who has been Rose and King’s co-host since the show’s launch? She’s in a state of “in discussions” about a “new role,” CBS News said Thursday morning.
Because of her contract to anchor the CBS evening newscast, Katie Couric was not able to launch a daytime talk show until a year after Oprah Winfrey stepped down as the Queen of Daytime TV.
Couric says she's grateful for those 12 months.
“To be honest, I’m happy to have a year grace period, and with Oprah exiting the stage, I think it’s okay for me to give some time for the landscape to settle before I jump into the fray,” Couric told TV critics.
“The timing worked really well for me.”
Couric’s “Katie” talk show premieres Sept. 10.
Speaking of her CBS News days, Couric said that she indeed invited Sarah Palin to join her on her new syndicated show. Couric famously interviewed Palin for CBS News when Palin was the GOP’s VPOTUS candidate and raised questions about Palin’s command of national and international issues of the time.
So far, Couric said, “No response.”
To read previous columns by Lisa de Moraes and the latest from the Summer TV Press Tour, go to washingtonpost.com/tvblog.