ABC: Your Source for Inaccurate Bullshit


"You have the right person." 

As soon as I read that line, the day after the Aurora shootings, I knew it was a misquote.

It was part of a scoop for ABC: they'd tracked down the shooter's mom and got her on the phone. Their report used the quote three times - once in the headline and twice in the story itself - and went out of its way to characterize its meaning: James Holmes's mom "told ABC News her son was likely the alleged culprit," "immediately expressed concern her son may be involved in the shooting death of at least 12 people overnight" and was "apparently speaking on gut instinct."

Now, this was ABC, which last year reported that Osama Bin Laden's body was identified using tissue from his half-sister's brain, a story which turned out to be, well, made up. The name on that story was Brian Ross, America's Wrongest Reporter, the same guy who got in trouble for speculating that the Aurora shooter was a member of the Tea Party on the basis of apparently zero evidence, and who - surprise! - was also bylined on the story about the shooter's mom.

So that would have been reason enough for my bullshit sense to be tingling.

But besides that, "You've got the right person" is just not what someone says when her gut instinct is telling her that her loved one has finally snapped and killed a bunch of people. She might say "Oh god, he did it," or "Oh god, I was afraid this would happen," or "Oh god, that's why he bought all those guns."

"You've got the right person" is what someone says when some reporter calls her up on the phone out of the blue and asks if she's the Arlene Holmes whose son James lives in Aurora Colorado.

I know, because I've been that reporter dozens of times. When you're making that kind of call - the cold call to a stranger whose relative may or may not have been involved in an unspeakable tragedy - you want to make sure right away that you have the right Arlene Holmes. You don't want to tell the wrong Arlene Holmes that her son may have killed a bunch of people. So you ask. You ask, "Do I have the right person?"

And so when I read that quote, in my head I saw a little drama unfold wherein some intern, having discharged the unhappy duty of making this phone call, has to tell his boss that Arlene Holmes had no comment. And the boss says "Well, did she say anything?" And the intern says, "Well..."

And of course, that's probably more or less what happened.

All this is to say that ABC seems perfectly willing to disregard little details like context and reliability if they get in the way of a good story, like the mother of a killer "instinctively" condemning him on the phone with a reporter. There are only two things people say after someone goes on a murder rampage, and "We always knew he would snap" is rarer and more entertaining than "He was always such a good boy."

ABC demonstrated that same disregard for accuracy again yesterday, when they quoted "unnamed sources" who claimed that Tony Scott had "inoperable brain cancer." (Amazingly, Brian Ross seems to have had no part in this report.)

Inoperable brain cancer - now that's a story.  As soon as ABC let this fly, every other news outlet in the world picked it up as legit. scored their own "scoop" by interviewing some poor schmuck of a neuroscientist at Harvard, who helpfully explained that Scott's alleged brain tumor probably "affected his ability to think clearly" and caused his suicide.

Today, however, it turns out he probably didn't have cancer after all.

ABC is backing off the story, but barely -  their amended story says Scott's family "was not aware Scott had cancer," as if ABC's unnamed source might still have the more accurate account. All the outlets that based their stories on ABC's are having to back off, too.

Except one: the New York Post, which enterprisingly found its own sources for the brain-cancer story, has no such excuse. How did the Post come up with three different corroberating sources for a non-factual story? Well, it's worth taking a look at the actual quotes: 

“He has been suffering from cancer and he had a relapse,” a source close to the Hollywood mogul told The Post. “He wasn’t depressed, he was a lovely guy. On Sundays everyone went to his house, there would be the guy who worked in his local restaurant sitting by the pool by Michael Caine.”

Another source said, ”He had been in the hospital earlier this summer, in the past few months, and he had been recuperating. The official story was it was a hip operation, but people suspected he underwent another cancer operation.”

A third source added, “He did have cancer, and for a while he was cancer free. He didn’t have any money problems or marriage problems.”

So once source says he had cancer in the past, and "for a while ... was cancer free," but doesn't specifically mention a relapse or a brain tumor. Another notes that he was in the hospital for a hip operation and speculates that wasn't the real cause. And only one says flat-out, "he had a relapse." But it's not clear when this relapse occurred - if the source meant that it was a recent recurrence or one from which the director recovered in the past. To me, it starts to look as if the Post had the right idea, of doing its own due diligence to confirm ABC's story - and then, when it couldn't, decided to twist the quotes out of context and run with it anyway.
The interesting thing about both false reports - the probably-nonexistent brain tumor and the out-of-context Arlene Holmes quote - is that they both offer a narrative to explain the unexplainable, the monstrous. It would be great to think that only congenital monsters blow people away in a movie theater, or that people only throw themselves off bridges - traumatizing bystanders, inspiring copycats and shattering the lives of their wives and children - for good, solid health reasons.
If only it were true, ABC. 
But it's not.



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