ABC News chief admits Aurora coverage gaffe

Ben Sherwood notes 'mistake'; Katie Couric talks up syndie yakker

ABC News prexy Ben Sherwood was on the defensive Thursday in his Television Critics Assn. press tour sesh as scribes hammered him with questions about the on-air gaffes during its coverage of the shootings in Aurora, Colo., last Friday.

Katie Couric was also on hand at TCA to talk up her new Disney-distribbed syndie yakker. But journos first grilled Sherwood about missteps as ABC and other news orgs scrambled to cover the movie theater massacre that left 12 dead and more than 50 wounded.

“It was a mistake,” said Sherwood of ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross speculating on air that accused gunman James Holmes was a member of a local Tea Party group based on a Google search of his name. Ross was criticized for the misstep when it became clear that the Tea Party member was another person with the same name.

“We recognized it immediately, we owned it immediately, we corrected it immediately,” Sherwood told the scribes at the Beverly Hilton. “We know that particular moment did not live up to the standards and practices of ABC News. I take responsibility for it. The buck stops with me and the news division knows how displeased I am with that.”

Sherwood also reminded the crowd: “This was a breaking news situation. People are going to make mistakes in a breaking news situation.”

Members of the TCA audience continued to press Sherwood on the issue however, leading to Sherwood to list the notable national and international stories that ABC News correspondents had recently covered. “Every single day we have to earn the trust of the American people,” noted Sherwood.

Sherwood eventually steered the discussion back to “Good Morning America” and its competitive race with NBC’s “Today.” Anchor Robin Roberts spoke of her impending medical leave for treatment of a rare blood and bone marrow disease. Roberts expects to begin her leave around the August or early September.

Roberts said she wasn’t worried about the show finding a fill-in host in her absence. “We have…Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric…they have all agreed to join in,” she said. Senior exec producer Tom Cibrowski mentioned that the women of “The View” and “Live” host Kelly Ripa have also offered to step in while Roberts is out.

Sherwood also discussed “GMA’s” recent victory over “Today” in ratings, ironically drawing an analogy to an event the net’s competitor will be exclusively covering. “If you think about it as the Olympics…when you think about the last 852 weeks as races…The ‘Today’ Show won the race.” Now, over the last several weeks, Sherwood said while motioning to the satellite feed with the “GMA” cast, “The team I’m presenting to you won the gold medal.”

During her sesh, Couric also weighed in on the subject of trust — or lack thereof — between viewers and mainstream news media journos.

“I think there has been a lot of distrust in major institutions in this country,” Couric said. “I think the advent of niche programming for a particular political point of view has contributed to the distrust in half of the population in one form, and half the population in another form.”

Couric also believes the Internet has created a “learning curve” in journalism. “Sometimes info is covered and the desire to get things first is placed before the desire to get things right. I think we saw that with the (coverage of) the Supreme Court ruling on health care,” in which CNN and Fox News initially mischaracterized the impact of the high court’s decision. “There is a constant fervor to be first,” she said.

Yet, Couric finds the silver lining: “From my own experience, there are a lot of hardworking journalists out there trying to cover stories as best as they can.”

Couric also commented on Ann Curry’s polarizing departure from “Today.” “I think Ann has done an incredible job reporting,” said Couric. “My heart was breaking for her that morning when she was close to tears. You don’t like to see somebody disappointed and I think when you have that happen on a public stage, it’s very hard to be that person and it’s very hard to watch.” Couric, though, was “very happy to see Ann reporting from Aurora and working on the ‘Dateline’ special.”

Couric said she sees her talkshow as an opportunity to “re-familiarize” audiences with who she was during her time on “Today,” which Couric dubbed “some of the happiest years of my professional life.” Couric wants her audience to see her as “being natural, spontaneous, interactive and a more casual, less formal journalist.” “I think that when I was doing (on the CBS) evening news I didn’t have an opportunity to show those sides of myself,” Couric stated.

“Katie” will be the closest Couric has worked with a live studio audience since her time working with the crowd on the “Today” plaza. She anticipates her daytime skein to be a primarily one-topic show.

“It could be something as buried as taking care of aging parents…or it could be dating in your 40s and 50s, something I can relate to,” she said. Couric also anticipates a segment she dubs “YOLO,” or “You Only Live Once.” “It’ll be a modern twist on a bucket list” that will give Couric and viewers the opportunity to do something they’ve always wanted to do.

Couric noted that though she anticipates a predominantly female audience for her yakker, she hopes “everyone will be my target demo.”