Why Would ABC Bother With Journalism When They Can Just Google James Holmes?

Confidence in TV news is at an all-time low.

Earth to TV news: Speed kills.

Americans’ confidence in TV news has hit an all-time low, says a new Gallup poll, and it doesn’t take a PhD to see why. In their relentless race to be first—if only by a matter of seconds—broadcast and cable networks continue to sacrifice accuracy for urgency.

In the latest example, ABC embarrassed itself Friday during live coverage of the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. Less than four weeks earlier, CNN and Fox News had screwed the pooch on the Supreme Court’s ruling on President Obama’s health-care law.

Again, TV’s need for speed drove the reporting. This time, however, it was a real life-and-death story.

Brian Ross, ABC’s chief investigative correspondent and winner of five Peabody and four DuPont Awards, went on Good Morning America to report that suspect Jim Holmes might be a member of the Colorado Tea Party.

Wow. Suddenly the tragedy took on possible political overtones. Could Holmes have been acting out his rage against liberals? Great scoop, I thought, until Ross’s next sentence.

His source for this bombshell, he told viewers, was a “Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado” page on the Colorado Tea Party site. “Now we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” he said, “but this is Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”

This bears repeating: “We don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes.” If ABC’s chief investigative correspondent weren’t certain that this was the same Jim Holmes who had just shot 70 people, why would he say it in the first place? Some blogger sitting at home in his boxers could have done the same thing.

Moreover, why would an ABC producer allow Ross to broadcast such a flimsy connection? Once said, why didn’t co-anchor George Stephanopoulos douse the flames immediately by calling into question Ross’s so-called evidence?

Jon Stewart asked similar questions last night on The Daily Show, in a segment titled “What’s it Take for a Brother to Get a Suspension Up in This Bitch?”

Ross quickly corrected his error, but he didn’t apologize. He left that detail to ABC. Nonetheless, the damage had been done. He had humiliated his employer as well as himself, not to mention the Tea Party.

I’m just spitballing here, but my hunch is that the Tea Party doesn’t want the country to think it recruits mass murderers. At least until closer to the election.

Back to that Gallup poll, it found that only 21 percent of American adults have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in TV news—down 25 percentage points from 1993, when the survey began.

As if that weren’t depressing enough, the poll was conducted before the Supreme Court debacle. Had it been afterward, results might have been in single digits.

And you wonder why journalists have serious self-esteem issues.

During my last few years at the Inquirer, we used to joke that our motto should have been: “Yesterday’s news, tomorrow.” Funny, sure, but every once in a while, it’s better to be the tortoise. What’s the point of being first if you’re wrong?

Then again, just 25 percent of Gallup respondents expressed confidence in newspapers—half of what it was at its peak, in 1979.

Fast or slow, it doesn’t seem to matter to most Americans. When it comes to the media, it appears we trust no one.