As news broke of President Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea, ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross appeared live on air with a bombshell. As part of his plea agreement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Flynn was prepared to testify that President Trump directed him to contact the Russians during the campaign. It directly contradicted Trump’s denials of Russian contacts during the campaign. Not only was he aware of them, he directed them.
Speculation raged that this might be the first real evidence directly implicating the President in Russia’s election meddling. Stock prices plunged, Twitter went wild and hundreds of other media stories linked to it.
But, the story was suspiciously thin — based on just one unnamed source described as a Flynn confidant. The problem with one source is that source could be wrong.
A midday update clarified why Trump instructed Flynn to contact Russia: to discuss how they might work together to fight ISIS, which seems entirely appropriate. And then late Friday, ABC issued a correction that Trump had not had this conversation with Flynn during the campaign, it was instead a few days after the election —- a key detail that entirely changed the import of the story. The bombshell was a bust. On Saturday, ABC News announced it was suspending Ross and issued this statement:
“We deeply regret and apologize for the serious error we made yesterday. The reporting conveyed by Brian Ross during the special report had not been fully vetted through our editorial standards process. As a result of our continued reporting over the next several hours ultimately we determined the information was wrong and we corrected the mistake on air and online.
“It is vital we get the story right and retain the trust we have built with our audience — these are our core principles. We fell far short of that yesterday.”
Trump supporters jumped on the correction as vindication that Trump was right all along. It was all fake news.
On Saturday evening President Trump weighed in on Twitter:
Congratulations to @ABC News for suspending Brian Ross for his horrendously inaccurate and dishonest report on the Russia, Russia, Russia Witch Hunt. More Networks and “papers” should do the same with their Fake News!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2017
What happened here is a black eye for ABC, but it is not vindication of President Trump’s charge that news outlets systematically concoct “fake news” in order to damage him.
In any enterprise that involves human beings, there will be mistakes and errors in judgement. Journalism is not immune to the human condition.
The suggestion that a professional journalist would deliberately report a false story is absurd. For the journalist responsible, it is at best humiliating, and at worst, career-ending. Deliberately publishing fake news is professional suicide.
It’s not the news outlets that post corrections you should suspect, it’s the ones that don’t. The measure of a credible news outlet is not whether they make mistakes — they ALL will at some point — rather it’s what they do next. Real news will correct a story when they learn of an error. There will be a scramble to figure out what went wrong. ABC is in the middle of that process right now.
The press plays a critical role in a democracy and enjoys special constitutional protections as a consequence. With that comes unique responsibilities.
Anonymous sources are critical for reporting on sensitive matters those in power would prefer not be known. A ban on anonymously sourced stories would be a grave disservice to the public interest. But, when they are used, they must be subjected to far greater scrutiny, especially in the case of stories with implications as explosive as the collusion of an American President with a foreign power’s meddling in a US election.
Brian Ross’ decision to rush to air with a report based on just one anonymous source was remarkably careless. He put the desire to beat the competition on air with a scoop ahead of the competition above his responsibility to the public interest. It was reckless — not only for the damage to ABC’s credibility but to that of the news media broadly. At a time when trust in the press is at an all-time low and there is little margin for error.
The Russia story is the kind of thing that can get a reporter’s heart racing. The exhilaration of being the one to uncover a historic scandal is intoxicating. But, the truth may be far more boring. As Axios’ Jim VanDahei wrote, “the atmosphere of hysteria is dangerous.” Everyone needs to take a deep breath.
I’ve worked with Brian Ross in the past, and respect the important reporting he and his team have done over the years. Yet, as a veteran journalist he knows better. ABC’s decision to suspend him was the right one. But, it’s not enough.
Among the reasons people so distrust the media is that they understand so little of how it works. Transparency, especially at moments like these, is the best antiseptic. ABC owes the public an explanation at least as thorough as that which Ross demands of the subjects of his stories. In a Tweet, Ross seemed to agree:
My job is to hold people accountable and that's why I agree with being held accountable myself.
— Brian Ross (@BrianRoss) December 3, 2017