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ABC News: Brian Ross Investigates: Conduct Unbecoming

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The roots of ABC News’ award-winning reports on Rep. Mark Foley’s inappropriate messages to congressional pages of high school age go back more than a decade, to the 1996 political conventions, when the network’s chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross and its investigative unit took on the assignment of examining the big-money contributors to the two political parties.
The contributors weren’t breaking laws, Mr. Ross noted, and some questioned whether there was even a story there. But by raising the questions about the cozy connections between money and politics, the team, which includes senior investigative producer Rhonda Schwartz, began to lay the groundwork for story after story. “We were looking at the intersection of money and power and the arrogance of power,” Mr. Ross said.
The Peabody Award for “Conduct Unbecoming,” the yearlong series of ABC reports being honored this year, also won a USC Annenberg Walter Cronkite Award, a National Headliner Award and an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award. The Peabody judges noted “Conduct Unbecoming,” which culminated in the Foley reports, “triggered new revelations, speeded Foley’s resignation and may have affected the outcome of the November elections.”
The team began to hear late last summer about the inappropriate e-mails a congressman was sending to a page, Mr. Ross recalled. “Once I finally got to it, I thought they were highly inappropriate.”
Still, as distasteful as the material was, it didn’t seem big enough for the nightly newscast (and indeed, as it later turned out, a number of other news organizations had received the e-mails and decided they didn’t warrant reporting on). Instead, Mr. Ross’s team posted the story on their ABC News investigative Web site, The Blotter, launched in April 2006.
That posting triggered an almost immediate flood of additional material from other sources, including instant messages supposedly sent by Rep. Foley. Some of that material, Mr. Ross said, was “really lurid and disgusting. It was hard to imagine it was a congressman that would do that.” The team, he said, “was faced with the problems of trying to authenticate what this was.”
While producer Maddie Sauer called Rep. Foley’s office, Mr. Ross said he figured that “we’d be spending four or five days” matching up e-mail accounts and other identifying material to make the authentications. Instead, he said, the congressman’s office called back at 1:30 p.m. to tell the ABC team Rep. Foley was going to resign and ABC News could have the exclusive, provided it didn’t use any of the embarrassing materials. When ABC refused to make the deal, the lawmaker’s office gave the story to the Associated Press at 2:40 p.m., “and by 2:50 p.m. we had the first article for our Web site,” Mr. Ross recalled. Follow-up reports aired on “World News” and “Nightline” as well.
On the one hand, the story fell into ABC’s lap, Mr. Ross said; the first tip on the e-mails arrived unbidden. But, he said, “You make your breaks, and in this case it really was Rhonda Schwartz and I really hitting hard at following stories about Washington and corruption.”
In recent years, Mr. Ross and his team led the way in reporting on how now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Congressman Tom DeLay worked to stifle labor law reforms at garment sweat shops in an overseas U.S. territory. Last year, the team investigated top CIA official Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, in reports that were later cited as a factor in the resignation of CIA Director Porter Goss.
They are the kinds of stories that beat reporters often can’t or don’t get to, because of time constraints and the focus on the news of the day, Mr. Ross said. Moreover, his team doesn’t always use the standard of whether the law was broken in evaluating newsworthiness; instead, he said, they look at whether “this conduct is appropriate for an elected official or person in power.”
And unlike at some news organizations, he said, his team doesn’t have to cover the same people on a day-to-day basis: “We don’t have to go to their cocktail parties or dinners and we don’t depend on them to feed us stories.”
The Foley reports were a turning point for The Blotter, which, as the only place to get the story, had more than 10 million readers the weekend following the congressman’s resignation, Mr. Ross said.
Mr. Ross has become a big fan of the Internet, which he calls “a very important tool for investigative journalism. It creates huge opportunities,” whether in generating leads for stories or in fleshing out reports as readers add detail. In the past, he said, someone with a tip would have to call the ABC switchboard and then might or might not get through to a reporter or producer. Now, he said, tipsters “can just bang it out online.”

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