That’s a very good question, and one that — so far — ABC News hasn’t answered. Brian Ross went to air within hours of the Aurora shooting to tell George Stephanopoulos and the Good Morning America audience on Friday morning that Ross had found something “significant” about the suspect.
Stephanopoulos: I’m going to go to Brian Ross. You’ve been investigating the background of Jim Holmes here. You found something that might be significant.
Ross: There’s a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Colorado 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. But it’s Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.
Stephanopoulos: Okay, we’ll keep looking at that. Brian Ross, thanks very much.
Apparently, Ross had performed an overwhelming amount of research into this report, which consisted of … looking on Tea Party sites for “James Holmes” or a derivative. Never mind that the phone book lists more than 30 such entries for the Aurora and Denver areas — Ross had found a connection between gun violence and the Tea Party! Pulitzers awaited! There was only one inconvenient fact standing in the way of Ross’ immortalization into the Hall of
Shame Fame, which was that the Tea Party activist was not the man who killed and wounded dozens of people in the theater. The Holmes listed on the Tea Party site was in fact a middle-aged former law-enforcement officer.
Jon Stewart wonders aloud what someone has to do to get fired at ABC:
Well, Jon, I hate to tell you this, but this kind of reporting — while appalling — is nothing new. Gabriel Malor put together a list of famous conclusion jumps from the media about supposed Tea Party involvement in gun violence that later turned out to be just as solid as Ross’ reporting:
* September 2009: The discovery of hanged census-taker Bill Sparkman in rural Kentucky fueled media speculation that he’d been killed by anti-government Tea Partiers. In fact, he’d killed himself and staged his corpse to look like a homicide so his family could collect on life insurance.
* February 2010: Joe Stack flew his small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas. The media immediately suggested that the anti-tax rhetoric of the Tea Party led to the attack. In fact, Stack’s suicide note quoted the Communist Manifesto.
* That same month, a professor at the University of Alabama, Amy Bishop, shot and killed three colleagues at a faculty meeting. The gun-loving Tea Party came under immediate suspicion. But Bishop was a lifelong Democrat and Obama donor.
* March 2010: John Patrick Bedell shot two Pentagon security officers at close range. The media went wild with speculation that a right-wing extremist had reached the end of his rope. Bedell turned out to be a registered Democrat and 9/11 Truther.
* May 2010: New York authorities disarmed a massive car bomb in Times Square. Mayor Bloomberg immediately speculated that the bomber was someone upset about the president’s new health-care law. The media trumpeted the idea that crazed conservatives had (again, they implied) turned to violence. In fact, the perp was Faisal Shahzad, an Islamic extremist.
There’s more, including the case of Jared Loughner and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson and the media’s rush to blame … Sarah Palin. Until Gabriel started floating this list yesterday, I’d forgotten about some of these. Keep the link and the list handy, because Ross’ rush to smear the Tea Party won’t be the last entry on it.
That brings us back to our original question. Just what does a reporter have to do to get fired from ABC News? So far, it doesn’t look like spreading false and malicious rumors on air in order to tie an innocent and legitimate political movement to a massacre meets the criteria.
Update: Deacon Greg Kandra notes that Ross’ report wasn’t the only facepalm moment for the media in this incident. It’s a good reminder that speculation in the absence of fact usually embarrasses the person speculating in short order.
Update II: Mickey Kaus wonders whether ABC might be protecting itself from acknowledging malfeasance by keeping Ross on board, just in case they get sued. I’m not sure, but wouldn’t ABC have a better case to argue absence of malice if they fired Ross rather than kept him?