Diane Sawyer Going Loopy on Election Night Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg Regarding the Problems at ABC News

Nov 8, 2012

The headlines about Diane Sawyer continue to explode over the Internet. A few hours ago the Philadelphia Inquirer posted its story: “Diane Sawyer Goes Election-Night Loopy.”

This follows such headlines as “TV viewers wonder: Was ABC News’ Diane Sawyer drunk during Election Night live coverage?” from the New York Daily News, and “Diane Sawyer’s loopy election night behavior sparks speculation,” from the Los Angeles Times’ Show Tracker blog.

Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore took notice as well, and wrote a piece about Sawyer’s odd on-air behavior on Tuesday night, Nov. 6, 2012, so the story was picked up by hundreds of news outlets both in the U.S. and internationally.

Furthermore, the tweetosphere went wild spreading the news of Sawyer’s odd behavior. Sample: “Diane Sawyer is declaring the winner to be … chardonnay!”

Here’s how reporter Meredith Blake of the L.A. Times’ Show Tracker blog described Sawyer’s behavior: “Throughout the evening’s broadcast, the anchor frequently slurred her speech, stumbling multiple times over President Obama’s name and, at one point, calling him ‘President Barack.’ She also seemed distracted and easily excited, asking off-topic questions about the Obama campaign’s use of exclamation points while leaning heavily on her desk as if for support.”

Here’s one of the many videos that are up on YouTube showing Sawyer on Election Night:One would think that ABC News would want to immediately tell everyone what was up with Sawyer that night. Yet, as Moore wrote in his AP story, “ABC had no comment.”

Sawyer, who seemed back to normal on Wednesday night’s broadcast of “World News Tonight,” did not mention anything about her erratic on-air behavior the night before. Her one tweet that seemed to reference her behavior said: “Read your tweets the good, bad, and the funny. See you on ABCWorldNews.”

Also found on YouTube is this video from about 15 years ago (and posted on YouTube in 2010), showing Sawyer preparing to go on-air on ABC’s “Primetime Live.” In the video, you’ll see her sipping some red wine and taking some prescription pills just before the broadcast starts:

Dunno about you, but if I moderated one of our TVWeek events and behaved like Sawyer did on Tuesday night, my bosses here at Crain would haul my ass into their offices faster than ice cream melting in a microwave (to borrow a Dan Ratherism). Not only would I have to explain what was going on to them, I certainly would feel compelled to apologize to everyone who attended the event for my behavior, and give them a detailed explanation as to why I behaved like I did.

But that’s not apparently what happens if you are ABC News and Diane Sawyer.

Unfortunately, it’s part of a pattern that seems to be emerging at ABC News under the direction of ABC News President Ben Sherwood. That pattern is primarily a lack of transparency.

On Aug. 20, 2012, ABC News posted a news story that was widely picked up by news organzations worldwide. The headline of that story was “‘Top Gun’ Director Tony Scott Had Inoperable Brain Cancer.” (I’d link to it, but ABC News took it down.)

The information about Scott having “inoperable brain cancer,” according to that ABC News story — which carried no byline — was a “source” close to Scott.

Later, ABC News replaced that story with a second story saying that its first story “was in doubt.”

That second story quotes the assistant Los Angeles coroner saying that Scott’s family told the coroner’s office that they were not aware that Scott had brain cancer.

At the time an ABC News spokesperson released this statement to TVWeek: “ABC News continues to report the most recent facts on ABCNews.com, including our previous reporting and the conflicting statement from the coroner. ABC News is attempting to reach Scott’s family to confirm the assistant chief coroner’s statement. After speaking with the family or a representative of the family we will update our reporting accordingly. If it comes to light at that time that incorrect information was reported, ABC News will issue a full retraction and apology.”

We waited. And waited. Finally two months and two days later, the L.A. County Coroner’s Office released a report on Scott’s death. That same day ABC News posted this: “Please Note: ABC News previously reported that director Tony Scott had inoperable brain cancer and cited it as a possible reason for his suicide. The Los Angeles County coroner’s report on Mr. Scott’s death listed no evidence of brain cancer. ABC News has retracted that Aug. 20 story and extends a formal apology to Mr. Scott’s family and friends.”

I then spoke to someone at ABC News, on background, to see what had transpired over the two months since ABC News had originally said Scott had inoperable brain cancer.

I was told that ABC News had continually tried to contact the Scott family or its representative (no name was given) and ABC News was told that the family either had no comment or would not talk to them.

I was not able to find out who at ABC News talked to the source who said Scott had inoperable brain cancer, or who the source was. Had the source gotten the information wrong, and if so, how? I could not find out.

I was told that ABC News management had investigated what happened and had found the reporting in this instance not up to par.

Later, an ABC spokesperson told me, on the record, “Our number one responsibility is to be accurate. This reporting fell well short of our standards.”

That’s all the spokesperson would say. I was told during my investigation that ABC News waited so long to make its retraction and apology because it was waiting for some confirmation that Scott had no brain cancer, and ABC News didn’t get that confirmation until the coroner’s report came out.

What I still don’t understand is why, when ABC News realized that its reporting on this didn’t meet its standards, it didn’t retract the story right then?

I don’t understand why ABC News won’t tell us who the reporter was who got this wrong.

I don’t understand why ABC News won’t tell us how the reporter got it wrong.

I don’t understand why ABC News didn’t make sure the information the reporter had gotten — that Scott had inoperable brain cancer — was bullet-proof correct before they went public with it.

When I asked what procedures ABC News was putting in place to make sure this wouldn’t happen again, I was told no new procedures were needed, since what happened is that the reporting fell short of standards ABC News already has in place.

But earlier ABC News had published some information about the alleged shooter in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater case that turned out to be incorrect because that reporting also didn’t meet ABC News standards.

Asked about both the Aurora and Tony Scott errors recently by The Hollywood Reporter, ABC News President Sherwood answered, “We made some mistakes, we corrected them immediately, we studied them closely and learned from them, and we are committed, as always, to getting it right. When you open up the pages of a major newspaper or a magazine, you inevitably see the correction box where every day, every week, every month, journalists doing their best manage to make mistakes.”

I find that answer fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. ABC News has not been anywhere near as transparent as it needs to be.

As I’ve outlined above, ABC News needs to give detailed explanations about these errors and transgressions. That Sherwood, Sawyer herself and other top management at ABC and Disney apparently are not embarrassed enough by Sawyer’s on-air behavior on election night to think the public deserves some explanation for it is bizarre and unacceptable at the least.

At the worst, the lack of transparency about the Sawyer incident and these other lapses will eventually undermine ABC News of credibility with its viewers, which will likely mean fewer of them will turn to ABC News programming. That would eventually affect the bottom line, and that would likely, finally, draw some serious attention to this lack of transparency at ABC News.

ABC News should act now and not wait that long.#

5 Comments

  1. Regardless — Diane Sawyer is among the best – she is also well-loved and well-respected. We all have our off nights, as witnessed in the 1st debate — shouldn’t render the person permanently tainted!

  2. Mr. Ross’s points are well made.
    Reuven Frank and Sanford Socolow would, I suggest, have handled theses matters differently, if, in fact they would have occurred under their watch, which, I will add, would have been doubtful.
    The old professorial question arises with this: “What is news?”
    News persons are, by their very role, not to make news, but, rather to report it.
    Ms. Sawyer has a long and definative career, but that does not exclude her, or, anyone else, from scrutiny.
    I was not privy to her reported actions on election night. However, addressing the actions as described would lead me to wonder why she wasn’t pulled from the chair descreetly and chauffered home.
    Good management calls for on the spot immediate action for the good of the individual, as well as the entity they front in such a circumstance as this.
    Credibility in this profession is tissue paper thin. Celebrity should never check right actions.
    It will be interesting to see what ABC News does, and the timing thereof.
    Every passing second is chewing away at the legacy of an organization that brought us Howard K. Smith, Peter Jennings and Charles Gibson.
    Peter Bright

  3. seriously, at the risk of sounding unstuffy,geeze even the newscasters are addicts!

  4. i didn’t watch Sawyer election night and hadn’t seen this video.
    She was definitely drunk or on medication. Amazing, that ABC didn’t feel the need to explain it.
    It was fun, though, watching Sawyer’s colleagues, especially David Muir, react to her. He has to suppress a laugh. George Stephanopoulos didn’t know what to do.

  5. I gave up on ABC News long ago. If you are looking for unsensationalized/unbiased reporting of the news you need to turn to BBC or AJE (yes, that Al Jazeera – English). At each, news comes first and ratings come second.

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