Chief Investigator
ABC's Ross: tracking down the stories that matter.


Myrna Blyth

I admit it. I will be watching 20/20 this Friday night for the first time in months. That’s because Brian Ross — “ABC’s Chief Investigative Correspondent” — will be dishing the dirt on Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the D.C. Madam.

In fact, Ross and a team of researchers have had to dig before they dish — Palfrey reportedly handed over to ABC 46 pounds of phone records, a stack almost a foot high, with the names of thousands and thousands of clients who Palfrey claims reach into the “high echelons of power.”

Randall Tobias, the head of the Agency for International Development, has already resigned, admitting he had used the services of Palfrey’s Pamela Martin and Associates-escort service. But, according to Ross, Tobias may be only the first. On the ABC website, to promote his upcoming ”exclusive” interview, Ross, practically licking his lips, says that “many prominent people in Washington,” including “lobbyists, lawyers, the head of a conservative think tank, members of the military and others in the Bush administration,” will be outed. Funny, nary a journalists among those thousands and thousands of names!

Frankly, the women Palfrey employed sound like a better story than the men involved. According to Ross they are not “typical street walkers” but had to have at least “two years of college education.” They include “several university professors, a scientific researcher with a Ph.D., a military officer, and the legal secretary for a top D.C. lawyer.” They were between the ages of 23 and 55. (Don’t hate me if I say it, but personally I find the idea of a 55-year-old hooker almost inspiring!) And Palfrey was very strict about their dress code. She advised her “subcontractors,” as she calls them, to shop for lingerie at Victoria’s Secret but to cover up their undies with an Ann Taylor career-girl pantsuit.

I have in mind a vision of an attractive 40-year-old pant-suited Ph.D., who shaved her legs and put on her Wonderbra before the date, meeting a lonely 40-year-old lawyer for the first time in the Hay-Adams bar. Question: Did Jeane Palfrey bring them together? Or

In case you can’t wait, we get a taste of Ross’s interview with Palfrey on the ABC website. ABC has been promoting this “breaking news” for weeks. In the website excerpt, Ross, who is a world class smirker, looks as if he has almost met his match in Palfrey.

He asks her, “You were selling sex? “ (Smirk)

She replies, “Fantasy sex.” (Smirk.)

He continues, “You must have known sex was going on.” (Smirk.)

She insists, “Legal sex!” (Smirk.) “Legal!” (Smirk.) “Legal!” (Smirk.)

She also shows him the “control center” from where she ran her escort service. It consisted of a phone in the laundry room off the kitchen in her home in Sonoma County, California. She would have to move into the kitchen when the washer or dryer was on. (No cracks, please, about ABC being so eager to wash dirty laundry.)

Now an astute Washington friend of mine dismissed the story, no matter how hard ABC is trying to push it, as merely “this summer’s sex scandal,” and not very interesting at that. What is interesting, though, is the way Ross’s coverage indicates the current tone of tabloid TV news. Once upon a time ABC’s “ Chief Investigative Correspondent” was more focused on scaring viewers to death on 20/20 with warnings about such things as the lethal components in the plastic used to wrap our cheese. That was back when we were all victims, so “killer cheese” was a major 20/20 investigation.

But now we are into full-scale attack-journalism, with lots of stone-throwing, especially at the high and mighty. After all, Ross had his great success with the Mark Foley story. And nowadays, if there are any victims, they will probably be those “many prominent people,” along with those intriguing college professor escorts.

One more thing: This is the beginning of sweeps week for the networks. ABC denies that that is the real reason the Palfrey interview will air on Friday. “We go to air with stories when we’re ready to go to air with them,” spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. “In any story we do, we want to be fair and we want to be right.” And if you believe that (smirk, smirk) you’ll also believe that all Jeane Palfrey was selling was “fantasy sex” — D.C. style.

Just Can’t Get Enough? Myrna Blyth has mentioned Brian Ross’s smirk before. T. J. Walker was thrilled when G.W. Bush made it through the SOTU without smirking. Denis Boyles writes about Republicans, the Foley scandal, and how European conservatives are so much better at being insipid.