When Brian Ross left ABC News in July, the 69-year-old investigative correspondent signaled that he wasn’t done. “It’s time to say good-bye after 24 years at ABC News, an organization that has meant so much to us. While Rhonda Schwartz and I are signing off from ABC News, we are hardly leaving investigative journalism. There is much more to do,” wrote Ross on Twitter.
He wasn’t kidding.
Next month, Ross and Schwartz, his longtime investigative partner, will join the Law & Crime Network, a network of 30 employees that covers trials and crime 24/7. Ross’s title will be chief investigative reporter, and he will host a weekly program, “Brian Ross Investigates.” Schwartz will be the network’s executive investigative producer. The move is an outgrowth of professional affinities: Dan Abrams, a one-man niche-media industry, worked with Ross and Schwartz for years at ABC News, where Abrams serves as chief legal analyst. Abrams is also founder of Mediaite — the site that memorializes every last hiccup on cable news — and the Law & Crime Network.
“Brian and Rhonda were the star investigative team of ABC News,” Abrams tells the Erik Wemple Blog.
That is correct, or was correct. In his many decades at ABC News — and before that, at NBC News — Ross nailed the Abscam story, a consequential Walmart investigation, a exposé on the Peace Corps, a piece on working conditions on Bangladesh, former congressman Mark Foley’s congressional page scandal and many others. Around the 2000s, Ross and Schwartz — who began working together in 1991 — were perhaps the greatest investigative team on television. An inventory compiled by the Law & Crime Network credits them with seven duPonts, six Peabodys, six Polks, the 2014 Harvard Goldsmith Prize and 17 Emmys.
But things were also starting to tumble. There was an errant report in 2001 about Iraq and anthrax; a mistaken report in 2003 relating to the Iraq War; a high-profile screw-up in the coverage of the 2012 Aurora, Colo., shooting; and then a real doozy: Last December, Ross made one of the defining media errors of the Trump era when he reported that Michael Flynn, the short-lived national security adviser, was prepared to testify that Trump urged him to contact Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign. Oops — after much pushback, Ross and ABC News corrected the report to say that the pressure to reach out to Russia came during the presidential transition, a detail that moved the report from scandalous ho-hum.
From there, things tumbled for Ross. ABC News suspended him for four weeks without pay. Upon his return, he ended up not at the hopping ABC News newsroom but at ABC’s Lincoln Square Productions. “We leave with enormous gratitude for all those who supported us and helped build the industry’s most robust and honored investigative unit,” said Ross and Schwartz in a joint note to colleagues.
Looking back, Ross tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “I think it just reinforced for me the importance of: If something’s wrong, you correct it as soon as you know it’s wrong,” he says, noting that the consequences of the mistake were “substantial” — including a tanking stock market. Speaking of the provenance of the mistake, Ross said, “In this case, it was an extremely trusted source, a source known to everyone … and he got it wrong and therefore I got it wrong.”
Asked what went wrong as he has racked up miscues, Ross respondss, “The thing is, I have taken the position that the mistakes are mine.” Does he need to rehabilitate his reputation? “After the December broadcast, I need to prove to everyone that I’m the same reporter who won all those awards and had the impact. I plan to,” he says, also noting, “I wish I were perfect.”
When asked about Ross’s trouble spots in the past, Abrams responds, “I think that when you go up against the kinds of people and the kinds of entities and corporations that Brian and Rhonda have gone up against throughout their career — you are playing in a very tough playground and it is not surprising that you’re going to have some post-story skirmishes. But I think that based on number of awards they’ve received and accolades they’ve gotten throughout our business, they have succeeded in a very tough world. And not just that they have succeeded: They have risen above the rest.”
Certainly not in the estimation of Trump supporters, who blasted Ross on social media following his Flynn fiasco. “I’m confident that many Trump supporters — and there are many who are critical of Brian — are willing to look at the totality of his career and judge him that way instead of a single live hit based on what he was assured was a good source,” says Abrams. From where is he getting such confidence? On the same topic — winning trust from Trump followers — Ross says, “I think that the stories we’re going to work on will afflict all. We’ll be equal-opportunity in terms of people who we will investigate,” he notes, pointing to stories in his past about the Clinton Foundation and on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright during the first Obama presidential campaign.
Ross is working under a two-year contract, and isn’t providing his services free of charge just to get back in the game. “This is a job,” says Abrams.
The job entails a weekly show that’ll feature interviews with law enforcement types about pressing issues. It’s unclear whether it’ll be a half-hour or an hour long. Though Ross won’t be presenting the results of investigations each week, longer-form material will be part of the mix. When Ross comes up with a scoop, the work will be vetted by editor-in-chief Rachel Stockman, a staff lawyer and, in case the material is particularly sensitive, Abrams himself. It’s a slighter vetting system than at a big network, and the pressure on accuracy has never been greater. “Our job is not to be stenographers but to be reporters and not just take the word of anyone. If nothing else, Trump has proven the need to be that way,” says Ross.
In between his hits on “Good Morning America” and other business matters, Abrams is hustling to build an audience for Ross, Schwartz and his Law & Crime anchors. It’s now an over-the-top product buoyed by some recently announced overseas distribution deals, and Abrams is promising other “pretty major deals” in the coming weeks.
Read more from Erik Wemple: