Thursday, May 03, 2007

ABC News Reining In Ross

It looks like ABC News is having second thoughts about Brian Ross' little witch hunt to out Bush administration officials and senior Pentagon officials as clients of the D.C. madam. The Examiner reports that his much-promoted 20/20 airing this Friday of D.C. bigwigs who used the escort services of a woman charged with promoting prostitution is fizzling fast. It seems ABC News executives may have some of the same concerns I raised previously about Ross' reporting. The Examiner's Yeas and Nays column writes:

Sources tell Yeas & Nays that Ross, who had anticipated a far juicier piece, is none too happy with the final results, especially after he and the network promoted this story for weeks. It’s worth remembering that Ross and his team have a big-story reputation: They are the ones who helped bring down former Rep. Mark Foley because of his sexually explicit contacts with congressional pages.

“This isn’t going to blow the lid off Washington,” says one ABC employee who asked not to be named. “If they had any big fish, we’d know it by now. There’s no way this lives up to the hype.”

Part of the reason why the “20/20” segment may end up being so tame is that there were serious discussions within ABC News over the legal and ethical questions involved in identifying men on Palfrey’s client list. Questions such as: What makes a public figure a public figure (and worthy of mention on the broadcast)? Does merely having your phone number appear in Palfrey’s phone records prove that you used her service? What if you called Palfrey’s service only for a massage (as Tobias claims) or female companionship? How can the network prove that sex actually took place? And is ABC being used by Palfrey to do her dirty work?

“I think it’s a difficult story,” says Peter Prichard, president of the Newseum and former editor of USA Today. “And it’s right on that line about whether or not you should cross it. … If you don’t have a lot of witnesses to what actually happened, it’s not entirely fair to just connect a phone number and say something happened. … I’m glad I’m not the editor deciding whether to run it.”

Jeffrey Schneider, executive vice president at ABC News, told Yeas & Nays, “We are proceeding very thoughtfully and very carefully, as we do on any work that we do. Obviously, there are sensitivities here and we are very mindful of that. If a name is going to be included in our report, it would have to rise to a certain level of newsworthiness.”

The Examiner column claims ABC News will reveal only two new names during its Friday broadcast of 20/20, which is "currently slotted for a mere seven minutes at the end of the hour long broadcast." Let me guess. Neither will be Democrats. Pity Randall Tobias. If he had simply told Ross to get lost when he called him inquiring about his use of escort services and hired a lawyer to threaten the network with legal action, ABC News likely would not have aired his name.

Ross reported earlier this week about the legal efforts of an attorney in D.C. to block ABC News from naming his unnamed client in this week's broadcast. "The lawyer for a "government witness" in the federal prosecution of Jeane Palfrey, the accused D.C. Madam, is demanding his client's name not be broadcast by ABC News," Ross wrote. "In a letter to ABC News, Steven Salky of Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington, D.C., said he has "reason to believe" that his client might be named in this Friday's "20/20" report about the alleged prostitution ring." "But Salky did not identify who his client is," Ross added. "In his letter to ABC News, Salky claimed broadcasting his client's name would violate a court order preventing 'Ms. Palfrey from engaging in acts or actions against Government witnesses,'" Ross said. Ross claimed in the report that ABC News had made extensive contact with a list of men on the D.C. Madam's supposed customer list.

The client's attorney seems to have a pretty good argument. By using Ross to out her clients, instead of directly threatening them, Palfrey is essentially accomplishing the same thing a federal court told her she could not do, which is to engage in any acts or actions against government witnesses.

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