Sorkin's nightmare: Tabloid news a hit

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Above: Pop star Nicki Minaj appears on a recent episode of ABC’s ‘Nightline,’ which has been moved to a later hour to accomodate Jimmy Kimmel’s new 11:35 p.m. timeslot.

ABC News releases seem to come in two varieties lately: Crowing about ratings gains — especially in their competitive position relative to NBC — and apologizing for, or backpedaling from, something they got wrong.

A decade ago, Disney officials were red-faced when ABC’s failed bid for David Letterman came as a jolt to Ted Koppel and the staff of “Nightline,” which would have been displaced had Letterman said yes. On Tuesday, the announcement that Jimmy Kimmel will move into the 11:35 p.m. slot — bouncing the reconstituted “Nightline” to a later hour — seems unlikely to trigger much righteous indignation from the media elite.

Strategically speaking, ABC’s maneuver makes oodles of sense. Letterman and Jay Leno, the reigning kings of the hour, aren’t getting any younger. Kimmel can thus plant his flag and watch the merry mix-ups that occur, inevitably, whenever a network begins to grapple with the thorny matter of latenight succession.

Still, the symbolic impediment to the decision — what moving “Nightline” says about the overall commitment to ABC News — has also become mostly moot. Whatever independence and clout the news division wielded in Roone Arledge’s heyday, ABC News is another cog in the corporate machinery, and lately, an increasingly persnickety one.

Any network can make mistakes, but ABC has experienced a galling run of them the past few months, none worse than Brian Ross, a veteran correspondent who certainly should have known better, identifying a local Tea Party official as the possible gunman in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting. Turns out there was more than one “Jim Holmes,” a fact Ross clearly should have checked before casually throwing it out on air.

This week, ABC News’ website reported director Tony Scott, who committed suicide, had inoperable brain cancer. The network has since backtracked, after TMZ reported Scott’s widow denied the story.

Whatever the truth, there’s a perception ABC is developing a habit of placing being first ahead of accuracy. Moreover, these incidents follow last year’s revelations that ABC paid more than $200,000 to Casey Anthony prior to her high-profile trial to license photos, an unsavory practice used to skirt accusations of buying access and interviews. (The network subsequently amended its guidelines.)

Perhaps more troubling, as ABC News experiences qualitative glitches, the bottom-line news has been mostly rosy — particularly in the morning, where “Good Morning America” is challenging “Today’s” longtime dominance of the daypart.

ABC News prez Ben Sherwood has certainly said all the right things about the news division and its priorities. Still, he was recruited to be a forward-thinker and team player, and has appeared pretty willing to serve the network’s larger objectives.

So when “Nightline” landed a coveted chunk of primetime real estate, instead of the serious reporting that once defined the program, those hours carried the subtitle “Beyond Belief,” focusing on psychic abilities, out-of-body experiences and miracles. Like “What Would You Do?” — a staged morality play produced by the news division — it was the kind of entertainment-oriented fare, frankly, that wouldn’t look out of place on Investigation Discovery or Syfy.

Like a lot of news organizations, ABC also appears to be experiencing a bit of senior-level brain drain. Chris Bury, a 30-year veteran and “Nightline” correspondent in the show’s heyday, recently left. Tuesday brought word that longtime producer Jon Banner would depart to take a communications position at PepsiCo.

Obviously, there’s an ebb and flow to such personnel changes, but the loss of such institutional knowledge and familiarity with network traditions often comes at an unspoken price.

Not that ABC is suffering in terms of commercial success, which might make the network the somewhat disheartening real-life answer to Aaron Sorkin’s principle plea in “The Newsroom” — namely, try behaving like a serious news organization, and viewers will follow. At ABC, rather, the occasional misstep or unabashed dive into tabloid or infotainment tomfoolery has generally been rewarded, not penalized.

In a memo intended to reassure staffers released Tuesday, Sherwood noted ABC management “remains fully supportive of our strategy to win the present and future of news and information.”

Based on ratings, ABC can legitimately argue its strategy is working. But for journalists, it’s harder to make the case that’s good news.

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