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ABC News chief fields questions, with careful pause, about Tucson shootings

By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:26 PM

PASADENA, CALIF.

"Do the media create - or did they have anything to do with - what happened in Tucson Saturday morning?" The Reporters Who Cover Television wanted Ben Sherwood to tell them at Winter Press Tour 2011 - his first press-tour appearance as new president of ABC News.

Sherwood, who comes from the Q&A-as-Deposition School of press-tour appearances, said, after a pause - a really long pause by press-tour standards, perhaps the longest pause in press-tour history - that "it's a really complex question that has already been grabbed ahold of by cable television."

"I think there are a bunch of different dots in this story," Sherwood hazarded. The dots are "way too early to connect." The dots, of course, are these known facts:

-- Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is being treated at a Tucson hospital after a shooting Saturday outside a supermarket that left six people dead and 14, including Giffords, wounded. A shooter opened fire on Giffords as she was greeting people at the market.

-- In the hours and days that have followed, there has been much attention paid to whether aggressive, gun-motif rhetoric by politicians and news on-air talent in some way set the stage for the tragedy.

-- On the International Space Station, Giffords's brother-in-law, astronaut Scott Kelly - while leading NASA in a moment of silence Monday - said of the shooting: "These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions, but also with our irresponsible words. . . . We're better than this. We must do better."

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, in a hotel in Pasadena, the head of ABC News otherwise would commit only to saying: "The facts are: We know this guy . . . did this in a supermarket parking lot. We don't know a lot about why he did it. . . . To leap next to media's role is a giant leap, and I think it's premature to make that leap."

At this point, about a million viewers would have flipped to whatever "CSI" edition was airing on CBS, were Sherwood being interviewed on his own network.

"How does a major national news organization report somebody's dead when they're not," one critic asked Sherwood, trying to raise a pulse in the Q&A. In the confusion as the story broke Saturday, rivals CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News Channel reported Giffords had died of her wounds - a report that appears to have originated with National Public Radio, according to the Associated Press. ABC News had the inaccurate story and banner headline on its Web site, citing other news sources, for about 10 minutes, but did not broadcast the report on-air.

Sherwood paused again, breaking his previous record, then began to talk about watching ABC News's "Good Morning America" on Sunday morning - and listening as a close friend of Giffords's family described what they went through when the inaccurate news was reported.

Sherwood said he was "proud" that ABC's broadcast got it right, and he vowed to work to make sure all of ABC News' platforms speak with "one voice united."

"It really hit me in the heart when I listened to what the family went through . . . and reminded me that we have to get it right," said Sherwood, who was named head of ABC News in December.

It is never difficult to distinguish between a room full of reporters who are not getting zippy answers to their questions during a news conference and a ray of sunshine. One frustrated reporter asked Sherwood whether he would please try to "step away from who is to blame for Tucson" and maybe comment on whether, as a "news junkie," he thought there was "too much anger in some reports or talk shows" on TV these days.

Sherwood paused again - slightly shorter than before - then answered that, "as a person who mainlines news" (he pointed to a vein in his arm), "I think it's something too soon for me to talk about in this role. Maybe someday later, I will have views from this perch at ABC News, but I don't think it's the time to go there."

On other fronts, ABC News's Sunday Beltway show needs to be tailored to become "the right show for Christiane [Amanpour] to showcase her strengths," Sherwood said of the program that's faltered in the ratings since George Stephanopoulos left to co-anchor "GMA" and Amanpour was recruited from CNN to take the gig.

"My vision for her is to be much more visible to her audience as a player for ABC News," he added.

When the interview finally ended, the reporters, who had been wilting like salted snails all during Sherwood's news conference, shuffled out to the foyer to drown themselves in hot chocolate at Disney's "Winter Wipeout" Cocoa Klatch.

Returning shows

"Modern Family," "The Middle" and "Cougar Town" are all coming back to ABC next season. Likewise "Castle," "Grey's Anatomy" and, yes, even "Private Practice," the network announced Monday at Winter Press Tour 2011.

But fans of "Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers & Sisters" - start holding your breath.

"'Desperate' is doing a great job," ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee said, and if that's not a case of damning with faint praise, we don't know what is. Even worse, he said, "We have not made a decision yet" whether to pick up "Brothers & Sisters," adding: "We'll see as we go forward."

Lee also had nice but noncommittal things to say about his network's new (but not developed by him) cop drama "Detroit 1-8-7," especially its star, Michael Imperioli. Among the things Lee said: The cop drama has become very popular in Detroit.

Terrific.

Lee - the former ABC Family chief who was named programming chief at ABC last summer when the guy with the gig left suddenly under a cloud - waxed charmingly, if not terribly newsworthily, about his vision of ABC as the network of "smart with heart." ABC, he said, is the place of shows that are "culturally defining, smart, big-tent" and "aspirational" - and yet, with room for "Wipeout" and a new spinoff, "Winter Wipeout."

But Lee declined to discuss what new shows he's developing for next season, which the TV critics, bloggers, tweeters and columnists in the room took meekly. These journalists attending the press tour have not been the same since Oprah delivered her 49-minute I Am God's Vessel speech a few days ago.

And their condition only got worse earlier Monday, when Sherwood began to do a soft-shoe during his news conference. And, right before Lee spoke, ABC had craftily stuffed the members of the press full of hot cocoa and marshmallows and had them spend time with Ballsy - star of the Big Balls segment on "Wipeout," the ABC reality show that serves as proof positive that Man is not Nature's last word.

Which explains, we think, why Lee got absolutely no questions from The Reporters Who Cover Television regarding how he planned to dig ABC out of its fourth-place finish this season among the 18-to-49-year-olds who are the currency of ABC's sales department.

(Yes, ABC has this season's No. 1 drama series in the age bracket in "Grey's Anatomy"; the No. 1 comedy series in the demographic with "Modern Family"; and the No. 1 reality series in the demo with "Dancing With the Stars" - but the rest of the schedule resembles a slab of swiss cheese.)

Instead, they listened, stupefied, to Lee prattle on merrily about how a broadcast network is like a giant dinner party, and his job is to come up with the guest list, a.k.a. the show runners, and start the sparkling conversation that will ensue. Now, nobody thinks more of Lee as a program developer than we do, but this was verging on the purely horseradish.

Lee, in fairness, did speak briefly about developing new series based on two Marvel comic-book characters, the Hulk and Jessica Jones, which he noted would be a real boon for Disney because of the theme park and other ancillary possibilities.

Lee also spoke about a new series that ABC has ordered from Shonda Rhimes of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" fame. She's also the person to thank for ABC's new "Off the Map" (a.k.a. "Doctors in Bikinis," a.k.a. "13 Hours of My Life I Will Never Get Back").

And Rhimes, who followed Lee with a news conference about "Map," told the media that her new pilot is set in Washington and that it is about a "professional fixer" and is loosely based on crisis-management consultant Judy Smith, whose credits include guiding Monica Lewinsky during her Interesting Period.

Kennedy miniseries plot?

Did the Kennedy clan kill History's John F. Kennedy miniseries?

Last week, just hours after History and Lifetime President Nancy Dubuc appeared at Winter Press Tour to promote some of her network's new projects - a Lifetime movie starring Hayden Panettiere about the Amanda Knox trial, and a Lifetime series in which Heidi Klum mugs with precocious moppets - word got out that her much-ballyhooed History miniseries had been canceled.

At the time, the network issued a statement saying: "Upon completion of the production of 'The Kennedys,' History has decided not to air the eight-part miniseries," adding that "while the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand."

But the explanation seemed a little fishy. Yes, this project has been radioactive from the get-go; the project was lambasted by Kennedy historians, including former JFK adviser Theodore Sorensen, who called the script "vindictive" and "malicious."

But presumably, network executives had signed off on the script, and surely someone from the network was looking at the dailies.

However, Caroline Kennedy, JFK's daughter, is working on editing a book of unreleased interviews with Jacqueline Kennedy; she will also write an introduction to the book, which Disney's Hyperion plans to release in September in advance of marking the 50th anniversary of JFK's administration.

Disney is one of the owners of A&E Television Networks, which owns History.

And of course, another JFK kin, former California first lady Maria Shriver, has a long relationship with NBC News.

NBC Universal is another of the co-owners of A&E Television Networks. But a network source says any suggestion that Shriver put the squeeze on them is hooey.

The two family members were involved in History Channel's surprising 11th-hour decision not to telecast the controversial miniseries in the United States, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Asked to comment, a Disney rep referred The TV Column to History's statement issued Friday. A&E Television Network and NBC Universal reps declined to comment.

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