The tribalism that infects our public debate ensures that the monumental error committed last week by ABC News’ Brian Ross will have little effect among those already inclined to reject anything reported by the mainstream media. After all, members of the Trumpist 35 percent would have dismissed Ross even if Ross had been correct in reporting that President Trump ordered Michael Flynn to contact the Russians.
But for those of us who care about the reputation of the reality-based press (to borrow a phrase from Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan), Ross’ mistake at a key moment in the Russia probe could prove enormously damaging. As Jeff Greenfield, one of journalism’s éminences grises, said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” over the weekend, “This is exactly what Trump and his allies want to say: ‘No matter what you hear on mainstream media, it’s fake. They’re doing it to hurt us.’ And this is like handing a sword to the people who want all media to be looked at in that regard.” Moreover, as Greenfield noted, the damage was done by a reporter with exceptionally dubious track record, a theme I’ll return to below.
But first: Last Friday, after former national security adviser Michael Flynn pled guilty of lying to the FBI, Ross, a longtime investigative reporter, took to the airwaves to share some explosive news. Multiple news organizations had already revealed that Flynn would likely testify that President Trump himself had asked Flynn to reach out to Russian officials during the transition — problematic given that President Obama had not yet left office, but hardly catastrophic. Ross, though, went one giant step farther. Citing one anonymous source, Ross said Flynn would testify that Trump had “directed him to make contact with the Russians” during the campaign, “which contradicts all that Donald Trump has said at this point.”
This, needless to say, was very close to the smoking gun that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking for. And it was wrong. Within hours, ABC News issued a “clarification,” explaining that Trump’s directive to Flynn did not come until after Election Day. Critics howled at ABC’s defensiveness, which led the network to relabel its statement more honestly as a “correction.” Soon came additional news: Ross would be suspended for four weeks without pay, and would no longer report on the White House.
Voices on the right were gleeful. “The advertised rage among executives at ABC is hard to take seriously,” wrote George Neumayr at the conservative American Spectator. “Ross, after all, has long been paid by them to slap together politically useful smears. They are just upset that he got caught on this one.” The president himself took to Twitter, as is his wont, and suggested that investors sue ABC for the damages they had incurred when the stock market plunged after Ross’ report. CNN media reporters Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter got a copy of a molten memo from ABC News president James Goldston in which he said:
I don’t think ever in my career have I felt more rage and disappointment and frustration that I felt through this weekend and through the last half of Friday. I don’t even know how many times we’ve talked about this, how many times we have talked about the need to get it right. That how we have to be right and not first. About how in this particular moment, with the stakes as high as these stakes are right now, we cannot afford to get it wrong.
What was inexplicable about all this was ABC News’ terrible judgment in letting Ross go live with breaking news at such a moment. This is, after all, a journalist whom Gawker once called “America’s Wrongest Reporter,” and for good reason. Jeff Greenfield put it this way: “I’m going to be very blunt about this. I’m sorry. This is not Brian Ross’ first mistake in reporting breaking news inaccurately.”
In The Washington Post, Paul Farhi detailed some of Ross’ whoppers over the years, from misidentifying the mass shooter in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012 as a tea-party activist to erroneously claiming that the anthrax mailings that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were somehow tied to Saddam Hussein. Though Farhi acknowledged that Ross has broken some big stories and won numerous awards, he also wrote: “All journalists make mistakes, but Ross’ blunders have often been spectacular — and unusually plentiful for someone of his prominent status in broadcasting.”
It is precisely because of Ross’ mixed record that few media observers have come to his defense. On Twitter, author and educator Dan Gillmor raised the possibility that ABC News should reveal the identity of his anonymous source if that source deliberately lied to Ross. It’s not an outlandish idea. Last week, The Washington Post outed an anonymous source, Jaime Phillips, after determining that she was lying to them about being an underage victim of Albama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and that she was actually an undercover operative for the right-wing activist group Project Veritas. But no one forced Ross to air a major news development on the basis of one anonymous source.
After CNN abruptly fired three journalists last June over a botched report about Anthony Scaramucci’s ties to Russia, Politico media columnist Jack Shafer wrote that the punishment seemed too harsh. (This was before Scaramucci’s brief star turn as Trump’s communications chief.) Shafer wrote:
In hindsight, it’s easy to say CNN shouldn’t have gone with such a flimsy, improperly vetted story. Unfortunately, journalism isn’t a hindsight business. Journalism happens in real time, against a deadline clock, and in a competitive atmosphere. Only ombudsmen, press critics and libel attorneys get to second-guess what they do.
Shafer has not weighed in on the Ross matter. But surely the fact that Ross was suspended rather than fired and has multiple past transgressions on his résumé make this very different from the CNN firings, the reasons for which were never fully explained, as this New York Times post-mortem makes clear.
Then again, it seems reasonable, if not likely, that Ross will leave ABC News rather than return after his suspension is over. In their report for CNN.com, Darcy and Stelter quote several anonymous colleagues of Ross who said that his return at this point would be untenable. “No one wants to work with him,” said one.
Ross’ retirement would be the best for everyone involved. At a moment when news organizations such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and others are breaking important news about the Trump White House seemingly every day, it is vital to preserve credibility with those members of the public who actually do trust the media.
As James Goldston said, the stakes right now are incredibly high. And as Jack Shafer said, maybe they’re too high if they don’t allow for the errors that are inevitably committed. But that’s the moment in which we find ourselves.