Brian Ross’ stunning error last week linking the suspected Batman-movie shooter to the conservative Tea Party movement has been roundly and appropriately condemned — from Mother Jones to Rush Limbaugh, from the comedian Jon Stewart to the NewsBusters blog.
What’s missing, though, is a thorough, candid, and transparent accounting of what led Ross to proclaim on air that someone sharing the suspected shooter’s name, James Holmes, belonged to the Colorado Tea Party.
Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, declared in a brief segment Friday morning, hours after the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado:
“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.
“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross said, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”
Ross and the network apologized later Friday morning for the error. In a statement posted online, ABC said:
“An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”
It was a vague and empty apology that said nothing specifically to the misidentified Jim Holmes — and offered little insight into circumstances that gave rise to a towering error.
Still unexplained is what prompted Ross — whose online biography says he’s one of America’s “most honored and respected journalists” — to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted.”
So there ought to be a very public explanation for breaching such a fundamental protocol of professional journalism. Ross, and ABC News, ought to clarify, in detail, the circumstances that produced such a staggering lapse.
In a telephone conversation with me this morning, a spokesman for ABC News, Jeffrey W. Schneider, resisted engaging in a detailed discussion about Ross’ error.
“It was a mistake,” Schneider said. “We made it plainly clear it was a mistake. I think there’s been all kinds of speculation about how and why. It was simply an error. We made a human error.”
But why is such a broad acknowledgement of error not enough?
A number of reasons offer themselves.
By not explaining the back story to the error, Ross and ABC News have left themselves open to suspicions that political bias immediately and instinctively drove them to suspect a Tea Party connection to the shootings that left 12 people dead.
Rightly or wrongly, that conclusion has been reached often in the days since the shooting.
For example, John Kass of the Chicago Tribune wrote in a column Sunday: “How long does it take for a major American television news network to politicize mass murder and blame conservatives for the blood of innocents?
What’s more, by not specifying the circumstances that led to the stunning lapse, Ross and ABC News have effectively deprived serious-minded journalists and media audiences of an opportunity to understand the derivation of error and misjudgment of the kind that can blight the coverage of major breaking stories.
Error-plagued coverage happens often enough: Consider, as another recent example, the wrongheaded early reports by CNN and FoxNews about the Supreme Court’s frankly baffling ruling on the constitutionality of ObamaCare.
As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, news reporting in the first hours of a dramatic event often is in error, owing in part to the swirl of rumor and confusion that typically accompanies a major breaking story.
And as Kass wrote, “when you add political bias to the rush of breaking news, as seems to have happened here, things get stinky.”
Recent or related:
- Slow to learn: Lessons for journos in Brian Ross’ egregious error on ABC
- Thoughts on why journalists can get it badly wrong
- CounterPunch embraces bogus Lynch narrative
- Media history with Olbermann: Wrong and wrong
- Juan Williams’ new book repeats Spanish-American War myth
- Fact-checking Keller on NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Lynch case
- Just what we need: Barbra Streisand, media critic
- That’s rich: Woodward bemoans celebrity journalism
- Katrina and the myth of superlative reporting
- On the high plateau of media distrust
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism