If ABC News does fire Brian Ross, he could always find a job working for Aaron Sorkin.
Ross, a veteran investigative reporter for ABC News, blew it Friday morning when he suggested that the Aurora, Colo., shooting suspect, James Holmes, might be connected with the Tea Party.
“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Colorado Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year. Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross ominously informed Good Morning America host George Stephanopoulos, who thought the news “might be significant.”
Or it might not.
Actually, it definitely isn’t significant. The fiftysomething tea-party Holmes, we soon learned, wasn’t the same guy as the twentysomething mass-slaying suspect.
Brent Bozell of the conservative watchdog outfit the Media Research Center calls Ross’s statement a “brazen attempt to smear the Tea Party.”
And other conservatives, particularly tea-party members, have every right to be angry. The list of calumnies and distortions about them is too lengthy to recount here. They’ve been cast as dangerous, racist, fascistic, and murderous.
The most famous example is the seemingly instantaneous effort — ginned up by partisans but given ample credence by the mainstream media — to turn Jared Lee Loughner, the suspect in the 2011 Tucson shootings that killed six people and wounded former representative Gabrielle Giffords, into a right-wing golem conjured by Fox News, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party.
That said, I still don’t think Bozell & Co. are quite right when they see Ross’s “reporting” as deliberate. For that, Ross would have needed to know what he was saying was untrue. I have to believe Ross didn’t want to get the story wrong.
It would be nice to know if Ross checked to see if there were any Jim Holmeses around Aurora who were connected to the Occupy Wall Street movement or any who were Muslims. Or was the Tea Party simply the first place he looked? And if so, why?
One possible answer is that even allegedly “objective” journalists follow certain narratives based on their own unspoken ideological assumptions. For instance, when a Muslim shouting “Allahu akbar!” mows down colleagues at Fort Hood or tries to blow up strangers in Times Square, the reflex is to seek proof that it was an “isolated incident” or a “lone wolf.”
But when a white non-Muslim shoots up a political rally or a movie theater, the media reflex is to prove their suspicions of sinister right-wing plots. Going with your gut can be great advice for sleuthing out stories, but awful guidance for reporting them.
Which brings us to Sorkin, the creator of HBO’s The Newsroom, perhaps the most execrable pop-culture agitprop since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. In Sorkin’s fantasy show about a news program that breaks with the media herd, smugly liberal reporters almost always have the right instincts.
Sorkin accomplishes this in part by giving himself the benefit of hindsight, by setting Newsroom in 2010. Hence, when the Times Square bomber is apprehended, the news team congratulates itself for choosing to do the “boring version of the story” in which the “system worked” and the terrorist “acted alone” — something they couldn’t possibly have known yet.
Meanwhile, the real story for Sorkin’s fantasy journalists is exposing the pernicious threat of the Tea Party (and its James Bond–villain backers, the Koch brothers) as they peacefully unseat incumbent Republicans in primaries. Holding the actual government accountable isn’t a big priority for Sorkin’s Fifth Estate because, after all, the system works when liberals run it. The job of the media is to keep a weather eye on the existential threat from the American Right.
That’s a great way to do journalism when you’re playing make-believe and cherry-picking two-year-old facts to suit your ideological agenda. It’s quite another thing when you’re a real reporter working in real time. Ross learned that lesson the hard way in what amounted to an audition for The Newsroom. We can only guess at Ross’s motive for his mistake, but if the media followed Sorkin’s advice, we can be sure we’d see a lot more like it.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.