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

Ben Sherwood.
Ben Sherwood. (ABC)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:26 PM


"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."

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