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ABC News President Calls Gabrielle Giffords' Death Headline a 'Mistake'

Ben Sherwood also denies reports that Christiane Amanpour’s "This Week" is moving to NYC from Washington D.C.

Ben Sherwood
Brian To/FilmMagic/Getty Images

PASADENA – As the blame-the-media narrative continues unabated, ABC News president Ben Sherwood capitulated that his organization “made a mistake” when it ran an online headline citing other news reports that Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was dead.

Speaking to reporters at the semiannual Television Critics Association press tour, Sherwood said the headline was only up for ten minutes.

“The dot-com side saw these reports and briefly put it up,” he said. “A mistake was made.”

Sherwood acknowledged that the “second-by-second competitive environment” exacerbated the confusion surrounding the shooting Saturday of Giffords at an event in a Tucson Safeway parking lot. Six people were killed, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge, and 13 others, including Giffords who was shot in the head, were wounded.

By 2 p.m. ET on Saturday, NPR reported that Giffords was dead when in fact she was still in surgery at an Arizona hospital. All three cable news networks – Fox News, CNN and MSNBC – followed the report, while CBS and NBC broke into Saturday afternoon programming with the erroneous news. ABC cited reports that she had died but added the pertinent detail that Giffords’ communications director denied that she was dead.

“I think we exercised considerable caution,” said Sherwood.

“Our mission is to get it right and accuracy is the most important thing. For a brief moment, maybe 10 minutes, part of our organization — an ABC news website — put up a banner citing other reports that the congresswoman had died. That reflects one of my challenges at ABC News, which is to bring the organization together.”

ABC News has had relative success against its broadcast news competitors; it’s comfortably ahead of CBS News in the evening and morning, but still trails perennial leader NBC News. Meanwhile an anchor change on Sunday morning program This Week is still a work in progress. In fact, since Christiane Amanpour took over at This Week, the show’s ratings are down double digits.

“I want to fix the show,” said Sherwood. Calling Amanpour an “intrepid, ferocious reporter,” he added; “We can do a lot more to showcase her strengths.”

Though they are far from cash cows, the Sunday morning programs are nevertheless prestige broadcasts that help to keep network news divisions connected to Washington power brokers. But one of the issues currently roiling This Week is Amanpour’s desire, according to sources, to move the show to New York where she lives. Nightline executive producer James Goldston took over day-to-day operations of the show last November. Goldston works out of the ABC News’ New York headquarters and some operations have already been integrated between This Week and Nightline.

Sherwood said he has not specifically talked to Amanpour about moving This Week to New York. But he stressed the importance of keeping This Week in Washington: “I think it’s a very important part of ABC News’ presence in Washington.”

-- Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg.