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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

Well, It Might Be the Same Guy   

ABC’s Brian Ross’ mindless’ “Tea Party” error on the Aurora movie theater massacre story Fri., July 20, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

What was he thinking?

How could Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative correspondent, make such a ridiculous mistake?

Ross reported this morning that Jim Holmes, the suspect in the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, may be a member of the Tea Party.

Based on what? Well, not much.

On "Good Morning America" this morning, Ross reported, "There is 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 this is Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado."

Think about that: "Now we don't know if this is the same Jim Holmes." Really? That's what we've come to? If you don't know, how in the world can you think it's a good idea to "report" it on network television as the nation tries to come to terms with another mass murder. And why? Why would you do it?

In today's hyperkinetic 24/7 news culture, there are great pressures to a) be first and b) be provocative. But that's hardly an excuse to throw out an uneducated, not to say irresponsible, guess.

There's a school of thought that says in the digital era, it's OK to report incrementally, to put something up as soon as you hear it, then put up the next thing. And if one of those things is wrong, well, you just fix it. And move on. I confess I don't find that a very confidence-inducing or satisfying approach to journalism.

But this seems even worse: passing along something while freely admitting you have no idea whether it's true.

And this isn't a tweet from a citizen journalist; it's a high-profile network appearance by a very well-known TV journalist.

It comes in the wake of the epic screw-up by CNN and Fox News on the U.S. Supreme Court's health care decision.

And it's yet another blow to the reeling credibility of the news media.

It also gives fodder to those on the right who believe the "liberal media" are out to discredit conservatives at any cost. Many turned to Twitter to express their outrage, and who could blame them?

There's often ill-informed speculation after tragedies like the one in Aurora. Ross' egregious blunder is no doubt destined for the Hall of Shame, right there with the instant punditry that the homegrown Oklahoma City bombing exhibited a "Middle Eastern trait."

ABC did apologize for the snafu, saying, "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."

Apologies and corrections are fine, but this is one media disaster that just didn't have to happen.