Brian Ross didn’t pick up the phone on Monday afternoon when this blog attempted to ask him about his just-announced departure from ABC News. If he had, we’d have told him to stay away from his mentions on Twitter. They are bad.
And so on. In today’s world, there’s a media critic everywhere there’s an Internet connection — and people haven’t forgotten about Ross’s fateful error last December. The one, that is, where Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, reported that fired national security adviser Michael Flynn was ready to testify that Trump told him to contact the Russians during the campaign.
Such a revelation, if true, would have been a slap in the face to the whole no-evidence-of-collusion crowd. As it turned out, ABC News was forced to concede that no such directive took place during the presidential transition. And Ross was converted into the target of “fake news” wrath. ABC News suspended him for four weeks without pay. When his suspension concluded, he worked at ABC’s Lincoln Square Productions, whose offices are a distance from the ABC News newsroom.
On Monday came the announcement that Ross and Rhonda Schwartz, the investigative unit’s executive producer, were leaving the outlet. “We leave with enormous gratitude for all those who supported us and helped build the industry’s most robust and honored investigative unit,” said a note signed by Schwartz and Ross. “It is a point of great pride to see the soaring careers of so many of the talented and dedicated people who worked with us in producing hundreds of ground-breaking investigative reports that empowered the disenfranchised, exposed corruption and helped make our society a better place. While we are signing off from ABC News, we are hardly leaving investigative journalism. There is much more to do.”
ABC News President James Goldston passed along this note:
After more than two decades at ABC News, Brian Ross and Rhonda Schwartz have decided to leave the company.
In their long careers here, Brian, Rhonda and their team have been recognized with nearly every prestigious award in our business – an impressive tally of four George Polk awards, four Peabody awards, four duPonts, five Murrows, 17 News and Documentary Emmys and the Harvard Goldsmith Prize, in 2014, for the single best investigative report in print or broadcast.
They’ve exposed government corruption at every level, international human rights abuses and fraud, uncovered dangerous working conditions, sexual abuse cover-ups and dishonest business practices. Their work has led repeatedly to real changes in policy in the U.S. and around the world. They broke numerous stories following 9/11 about the government investigation of the attacks, from the identification of the terrorists to secret CIA prisons. Over the years they have built a team of the best investigative journalists in our industry, and they leave behind an outstanding group that will continue to break stories for many years to come.
Please join me in thanking Brian and Rhonda for their tireless work at ABC News.
No mention of a send-off cake?
It’s unclear where Ross and Schwartz will take their wares, though surely they’ll find editors who’ll hear them out. Today’s media industry, after all, is more pluralistic than it was when Ross broke onto the national scene as a correspondent for NBC News in the mid-1970s. There he began building a reputation as an investigative force, breaking the Abscam story in 1980 as well as a 1992 investigation into where Walmart’s “Made in the USA” clothing was really made. (Bangladesh.) When Ross bolted NBC News for ABC News in the mid-1990s, he did so as a legitimate star. As the memo from Goldston notes, Ross et al. racked up a number of scoops over the past two decades plus — an expose on the Peace Corps, dire working conditions in Bangladesh and several others.
One of those scoops never should have been his: In 2006, he wrote a post on The Blotter, a blog that served as his web home at ABC News, breaking the story of then-Rep. Mark Foley’s sexual pursuit of congressional pages. As it turned out, several newspapers had had the messages pointing to Foley’s misconduct. It was Ross who pulled the trigger on the story, with a brief blog post.
As Ross adapted to the faster pace of the Internet era, however, he racked up a number of errors: In 2001, Ross drew a connection between a U.S. anthrax attack and Iraq, a piece of reporting that then-White House aide Ari Fleischer later called “the most significantly wrong story I ever saw aired in my 21 years in D.C.” In the mid-2000s, Ross reported that then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert was under investigation by the FBI in connection with the Jack Abramoff case. The Justice Department issued a denial. In 2012, Ross went on air after the Aurora, Colo., mass shooting and falsely claimed a link between the alleged perpetrator and the Tea Party. There are others.
Somewhere along the line, Ross appeared to have abandoned the reportorial ethos that he articulated to the Associated Press in 1994: “Probably the key is developing and nurturing sources from one story to another, one year to another, slowly but surely,″ Ross told the wire service. ″Then you go in and you’re cynical about everyone, including your own information. It’s hard to do, but the most important part is to then to go back and test everything you have, and be tough on yourself.”
The record shows that for several years, ABC News accepted the trade-off: Sure, Ross would make some mistakes, but his exclusives were award-winning stuff. Then Trump came along and revised all the calculations. No longer could a leading network hang onto a fellow who had furnished detractors a plausible-sounding claim of “fake news.”