Ross is “the former investigative reporter for ABC who resigned after spreading fake news,” the Daily Caller snarked about the recent announcement that Ross and his longtime producing partner, Rhonda Schwartz—who both left ABC News in July after 24 years there—had landed together at media entrepreneur Dan Abrams’ streaming video startup, Law & Crime, which boasts financial backing from the A&E Network.
“Given their track record, it might only be a matter of time until Ross and Schwartz try to peddle some more ‘fake news’ as the real thing,” the right-wing NewsBusters site piled on—under a headline that referred to its target as “Scandal-Ridden Brian Ross.”
For Ross—who has been at it for nearly five decades, earning every conceivable broadcast journalism prize while making his share of mistakes and occasionally drawing the ire of presidents of the United States, corporate bigwigs, and even his own bosses—such brickbats constitute just another day at the office.
Predictions that his career was over turned out to be wrong. At 69, he has just started as Law & Crime’s chief investigative correspondent, with a weekly show, Brian Ross Investigates, along with regular appearances throughout the week with, among others, Abrams, who is also ABC News’ chief legal analyst and the founder of the popular Mediaite news site.
Last week, Ross shared his exclusive video of the wedding in March of convicted former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and his mysterious Italian sweetheart, Simona Mangiante.
Over dinner the previous night at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago, Papadopoulos had invited Ross and Schwartz to be their only witnesses at a quick ceremony in the basement of the Cook County Courthouse.
Afterward, they treated the prison-bound groom and his aspiring-actress bride to a champagne celebration at the Ritz-Carlton.
“I can’t stop. There’s a lot to do. So I don’t want to stop,” Ross told The Daily Beast.
He has, by most accounts, a thick skin, and takes perverse pride in pissing powerful people off. Ross, an investigative reporter for NBC News for nearly two decades before Roone Arledge and Bob Iger lured him to ABC in 1994, recalled a 1992 exposé of Wal-Mart’s use of overseas child labor on products labeled “Made in America.”
He said that as the piece was being readied for broadcast, a top Wal-Mart executive complained to Jack Welch, the chief executive of NBC’s then-parent company, General Electric, and “threatened to ‘take all GE products off the shelves of every Wal-Mart store in the country if you try to run that story.’ They ran the story. I don’t think Jack Welch likes to be threatened.”
Closer to home in 1998, Ross and Schwartz, now at Disney-owned ABC, had prepared an investigative piece for the network’s 20/20 magazine show alleging, among other serious problems, that Orlando, Florida’s Disney World wasn’t performing security checks that would have prevented the hiring of registered sex offenders and other employees with criminal records.
According to news reports at the time, then-ABC News President David Westin confronted Ross and demanded, “Are you crazy?” before killing the story.
“Michael Eisner was just furious that we even tried to do it,” Ross recalled, referring to Disney’s chairman and CEO. “Afterward Eisner came up with a rule that ABC could not do reports on the Disney Company… Dick Wald [a former NBC News executive who was head of standards for the ABC news division] took me aside and said, ‘It’s their candy store. If they don’t want to air it, you can’t make them. You don’t own it.’ And I said, ‘I’m not gonna change the story. If you don’t want to run it, that’s your decision.’”
Ross said he later became friends with Westin, while he praises Eisner’s successor, Disney Chairman and CEO Robert Iger.
“I always considered Bob Iger a champion of ABC News. He’s a good man, I think,” Ross said about the media tycoon who has been flirting with the idea of running for president. “Frankly, if the standards of Disney and Bob Iger were applied to Washington, D.C., we’d probably be in a better place in this country.”
Ross has found that practicing television journalism in the Age of Trump can leave long-lasting scars.
“Frankly, it was sort of amazing,” Ross told The Daily Beast about his time in the crosshairs last December, after ABC News President James Goldston suspended him for four weeks without pay, and barred him from covering anything Trump-related, for misreporting on live TV that retired general Mike Flynn was planning to testify that Trump, as a candidate, had ordered his then-national security adviser to contact officials of the Russian Federation. “It was quite an experience unlike any I’d ever had.”
Ross’s erroneous assertion—which he’d blurted out during an ABC News special report on Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI and his deal to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation—carried potentially grave consequences, given that it seemed to provide the first concrete evidence that the Trump campaign had colluded with Vladimir Putin’s operatives in order to win the election.
“He's prepared to testify, we are told by a confidant, against President Trump, against members of the Trump family, and others in the White House," Ross claimed on the air.
Amid the ensuing hysteria, the stock market plunged 350 points before Mueller’s team released charging documents showing that Flynn was ready to say no such thing.
Indeed, it was President-elect Trump who quite properly had asked Flynn, during the transition between administrations, to reach out to the Russian government among other foreign officials.
Making matters worse, Ross had relied on a single uncorroborated source in Flynn’s circle without subjecting the information to the normal ABC News vetting process.
“We had a trusted source who was well-known to everybody at ABC,” Ross recalled in his first detailed comments about the incident. “The source got it wrong, and as soon as we learned he got it wrong, we corrected it. I sort of thought that’s what you do if there’s something that not right. You correct it as quickly as you can.”
Actually, ABC News initially issued a less serious “clarification” instead of a correction, with Ross going on World News Tonight to clean up his mistake more than six hours after the original report. It left ABC vulnerable to widespread criticism for trying to minimize the error—not only from Trump’s supporters but also from members of the media establishment.
“That was their call, not mine, put it that way,” Ross said, adding that he and Schwartz had argued for the term “correction.”
Living every reporter’s nightmare, he had frantically tried and failed to reach his source over a period of several hours.
“He was unavailable,” Ross recalled. “He had been in the office that morning… and he actually had to go to his daughter’s piano recital or something. It was some crazy thing. And it was late in the day [when the source finally came to the phone]. And it was ‘Oh my God! You got the timing wrong? You bungled it? Oh geez!’”
Ross said he’ll never use that source again, and has mused about the possibility of identifying him, even though ABC News colleagues have told Ross that the source was promised confidentiality.
“But I never promised him confidentiality,” Ross maintained.
Ultimately ABC yielded to its critics and characterized the cleanup as a correction—which did nothing to stop a blitzkrieg of condemnation from Trump and his followers.
The president tweeted: “People who lost money when the Stock Market went down 350 points based on the False and Dishonest reporting of Brian Ross of @ ABC News (he has been suspended), should consider hiring a lawyer and suing ABC for the damages this bad reporting has caused - many millions of dollars!”
"I don't think ever in my career have I felt more rage and disappointment and frustration,” Goldston vented to the chastened news division staff, noting that ABC was “getting absolutely pilloried as a news division for reporting fake news."
"250,000 tweets. One percent positive, 99 percent negative about this news division. Two tweets from the president," Goldston told his staff, according to CNN.
“He was upset, and rightly so,” Ross said. “That’s his job. I’m accountable, and then he’s accountable.”
Ross added: “I’ve had presidents angry at me, and they’ve complained sort of privately to bosses before about my reporting, but this was a whole different world. I sort of felt like I had been put on a kind of enemies list.”
At Law & Crime, Ross is no longer prevented from covering all things Trump.
He’s experienced “nothing like this,” he said about the onslaught of abuse that comes with trying to report on the activities of this president.
“We get feedback right away, good and bad, and the bosses pay attention to it, as they should,” Ross said. “But this sense that something goes wrong, you correct it, you go on—now it’s a death sentence from the point of view of the president. His attacks on the media are going to have, and are having, a chilling effect.”