Last December, ABC News President David Westin threw a champagne cocktail party at the division’s executive offices, to celebrate the work of his star investigative reporter, Brian Ross.
Mr. Westin had good reason to toast Mr. Ross. Over the past few years, the network’s chief investigative correspondent has produced widely praised reports on topics ranging from secret C.I.A. prisons, campaign-finance reform, and Congressman Mark Foley’s lewd instant messaging. In the process, he has established himself as one of the preeminent enterprise journalists in TV news.
But in interviews with NYTV, several of Mr. Ross’ former competitors painted a picture of a reporter who, while capable of breaking big stories, also has a tendency to overplay smaller ones.
Jim Stewart, who recently retired as CBS News’ longtime Washington-based correspondent, expressed reservations about some of Mr. Ross’ work, in particular questioning the accuracy of some of Mr. Ross’ stories on the ABC investigative team’s Web site, The Blotter.
“Were they wrong some of the time? Yes,” said Mr. Stewart “I’d rather be right than be first.” (Mr. Stewart did not identify specific stories by Mr. Ross that failed to hold up.)
Mr. Ross has racked up myriad investigative awards during his career, including a George Polk Award for his 2005 work on the C.I.A. prisons and a shared 2007 Emmy for the Foley story. And in an interview Tuesday, he defended his record to NYTV. Mr. Ross noted that everything that appeared on The Blotter or on air was carefully vetted ahead of time by a team of ABC lawyers and standards czars. “Because of them, I sleep well at night,” he said. “Nothing is ever put out until they are satisfied with it.”
Mr. Stewart, for his part, added that he held Mr. Ross in high regard as a competitor, and said that over the years, Mr. Ross had beaten him on numerous stories. He attributed the problem in part to cable news and the rise of the Internet, which he said had ratcheted up pressure on investigative reporters to pull the trigger faster. “Brian pulls the trigger faster than most,” he said.
A former ABC News staffer, who is not currently a competitor of Mr. Ross’, told NYTV that there was pressure from ABC News execs to create page hits for The Blotter. “The pressure for Blotter reporting is intense,” said the former staffer, “to the point that Brian or his senior producer will sometimes keep information off the D.L.—internal e-mail distribution lists—so that it can be reported first on the Blotter.” Doing so, the source suggested, allowed Mr. Ross to plant his flag on certain stories before internal competitors could raise questions.
Mr. Ross acknowledged to NYTV that he was wary of putting his team’s investigative stories on internal ABC distribution lists—some of which go out to hundreds of people. But he said it wasn’t because of territoriality, but rather because of the sensitive nature of investigative reporting.
“When you put it on there, you’re essentially publishing it,” he said. “I really do stress that the investigative unit should not be putting out material in drips and drabs. When we have it, we have it. I’m different that way. … There are people who will write on there things like, ‘So and so has told me this, but it’s off the record.’ I can’t write that and have it go to 300 people.”
Still, a former producer at a competing show described Mr. Ross to NYTV as a good investigative reporter whose “exclusives” occasionally seemed to fall flat—often by the end of the segment.
“We were extremely careful whenever we saw a Brian Ross piece,” said the former producer. “He does some great work. But there were a lot of times that the pieces yelled one thing and seemed to suggest a crisis, and then he would dial it back almost entirely at the end of the piece by saying something like, ‘It’s important to know that the F.B.I. doesn’t take this threat seriously. And there’s no reason for concern.’” The former producer pointed to stories by Mr. Ross on the anthrax attacks and on Dennis Hastert’s role in the Jack Abramoff scandal, both of which received prominent play by ABC, but subsequently failed to ignite.
Similar concerns were aired in Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz’s book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War, published in October. A number of passages described Mr. Ross’ competitors trying to follow up on his scoops, failing to do so, and accusing him of overreaching. In one example, Mr. Kurtz described a report by Mr. Ross, which appeared during the 2006 N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, that suicide bombers might be planning an imminent attack on a U.S. sports arena. At the end of the segment, Mr. Ross noted that federal officials “do not believe any imminent threat exists.” Afterward, Mr. Kurtz wrote, a team of CBS reporters were asked to follow up on the tip, and found nothing worth reporting. Ditto at NBC, where NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams, in Mr. Kurtz’s words, “saw it as a classic scare ’em piece of the kind that Brian Ross was doing too often.”
Speaking to NYTV, Mr. Ross defended himself on this charge too. “Maybe if Brian Williams knew all that I knew, and I was able to explain it to him like I’m able to explain it to Charlie Gibson, maybe he’d make a different decision,” he said.
“[Mr. Williams] didn’t think that the Foley story was worth leading with when we broke that,” Mr. Ross continued. “Everyone has different judgments. I don’t think we all have to be the same.
“I’ve seen investigative units come and go at various operations, and the ones that don’t work are the ones that spend two years and a million dollars on some project that falls apart, that doesn’t work,” Mr. Ross added. “And the ones that get it wrong, that doesn’t work. We’re trying to be productive—and productive in an area, online, that’s important for the future of our company.”
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