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Ben Sherwood can tick off plenty of accomplishments during his still young tenure as president of ABC News – Good Morning America breaking that 16-year Today streak, content deals with Yahoo! and Univision.
But his executive session, which opened ABC’s portion of the TCA summer press tour and included GMA’s Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, Josh Elliott, Lara Spencer and senior ep Tom Cibrowski (via satellite), was dominated by investigative correspondent Brian Ross’ early and erroneous on-air identification of Aurora, Colo. shooting suspect James Holmes as a member of the Colorado Tea Party. The question about Ross’ gaffe, which he quickly corrected on the air while ABC News issued a swift apology, was first directed at Stephanopoulos, who was anchoring the network’s breaking news coverage on the morning of July 20.
“I’m sorry about the mistake, I know Brian is sorry about the mistake,” said Stephanopoulos, on a remote from GMA’s Times Square studios. “I think it was a mistake that was made in good faith. This was a breaking news story and people are going to make mistakes. I think the test of a good news organization is how you handle it.”
Stephanopoulos stressed that there was no political motivation for linking Holmes – who is alleged to have killed 12 people and injured dozens more at a midnight screening of the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises – to a conservative political organization. “We all know that our work can become political fodder,” he said. “I don’t think there was any political motivation behind the mistake.”
In owning up to the mistake, Sherwood pronounced: “The buck stops with me.”
“It was a mistake,” he continued. “We rectified it immediately. We corrected it immediately. We apologized for it immediately. We know in that particular moment that [we] did not live up to the standards and practices of ABC News. Everybody realized that something had gotten on the air that shouldn’t have because it hadn’t been checked out properly. It was an obvious, clear error that we corrected immediately.”
Sherwood said that the episode has prompted a review of the news division’s protocols during fast-moving stories. And he added that he had “a very serious conversation” with Ross. “I assure you Brian feels sick about it. He understands that it was a serious mistake. Brian is an outstanding investigative journalist. We believe in him.”
During an intense post-session scrum, reporters pressed Sherwood about the Tea Party angle; seemingly trying to get him to make some sort of admission that Ross’ report was politically motivated. (The Aurora shooting has revived the debate about the nation’s gun laws and certainly gun rights are among the Tea Party’s planks.) But Sherwood stood his ground. “We — all news organizations — are interested in finding out as much as we can about [Holmes], about his affiliations, his associations,” he said, adding that a “rich profile” of a person who may be responsible for the worst mass shooting in U.S. history has “journalistic relevance.”
Sherwood also reiterated that the news division stands by its reporting concerning Holmes’ mother. Arlene Holmes is claiming that ABC News used her remark — “you have the right person” — out of context when ABC News investigative reporter Matthew Mosk woke her with a phone call early on the morning of the shootings. (Representatives for Arlene Holmes inquired whether the network had a recording of the conversation before they went public with their assertions. Mosk did not record the call.)
“It was obviously a very distressing situation for [Arlene Holmes],” said Sherwood. “Our reporter called her on the phone very early in the morning and woke her up. We stand by his description of that conversation.”
But Sherwood and the GMA team did get to talk about their ratings accomplishments before the Holmes questions started. And with NBC’s coverage of the London Games set to start Friday, Sherwood employed an Olympics analogy.
“When you think about the last 852 weeks, not that we count these things… But for 852 races the Today show won the gold medal. And about 14, 15 weeks ago the [GMA] team stood there alone to get its own gold medal,” said Sherwood. Then he asked his anchors: “So how does it feel?”
Roberts answered: “How do you spell Woo hoo hoo?!”
Roberts is likely be on medical leave for a blood disorder in late August and early September. And she said many of her ABC colleagues including Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric and Kelly Ripa have offered to fill in for her on GMA.
“Everyone is willing to come in and join us for a little bit,” said Roberts, adding that she does “go through moments of fatigue, this is one of those days where I’m a little bit more tired. But I’m not going anywhere!”
Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie
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