How badly did ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross screw up?
Well, just take it from ABC News’ president, James Goldston. “If it isn’t obvious to everyone in this news division, we have taken a huge hit and we have made the job of every single person in this news division harder as a result. It’s much, much harder,” Goldston said in a meeting on Monday, as reported by CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter. “We have people in Washington who are going to bear the brunt of this today and in the days forward. Very, very, very, very unfortunate. Really, really angry about it.”
The mistake jolted the United States, with an accent on financial markets. Relying on a “confidant,” Ross reported that Michael Flynn, the fired national security adviser to President Donald Trump, was prepared to testify that Trump had directed him to contact the Russians while he was a presidential candidate. That, of course, would have been a huge revelation for the “collusion” story.
Alas, it wasn’t true. On the evening news, Ross issued a “clarification” stating that the directive had taken place during the presidential transition — not so scandalous. Then, ABC News upgraded the clarification to a correction. On Saturday, the network apologized for the mistake and announced Ross’s suspension for four weeks without pay.
“The thing that compounded our mistake is that not only did we make a mistake, if we had then corrected ourselves right away, again — we wouldn’t be in this position. It would have been a very different story,” said Goldston, who also noted that the story didn’t get vetted before it aired. “We just went on air with that information. We hadn’t approved doing that.” ABC News is doing a review of the matter, as well.
A good review will hold accountable everyone up and down the chain of command, including Goldston — who, after all, could well have intervened to hurry up the corrective effort on Friday afternoon.
What won’t help any of this is suspending Ross. Or suspending anyone, for that matter. As I have written way too many times, suspensions help media companies take the air out of social-media backlash against their mistakes, give the chief screwup artist an anguished exile from the newsroom, and otherwise postpone the reckoning and re-org that the organizations must undertake to avoid the next suspension-worthy gaffe.
There are two routes to take with a fellow like Ross, who’s made some big-time errors in the past: Fire him or get him started immediately on deepening his source base.
An extended holiday break serves the interests of no one.
Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.