One week after ABC's Syria video screw-up, the network still hasn't explained how it happened
Posted October 21, 2019 8:40 p.m. EDT
CNN — One week after making an egregious error on its evening and morning newscasts, ABC News still hasn't explained how it happened.
Video purporting to show "slaughter in Syria" actually came from a gun range in Kentucky. The video clip was shown on the Sunday edition of "World News Tonight" and the Monday edition of "Good Morning America" before internet sleuths figured out that it wasn't from Syria at all.
ABC said the network "regrets the error," and deleted its social media postings of the video, but then went silent.
An executive at the network, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "there will be consequences" internally, but wouldn't discuss what actions were being taken.
So CNN Business sought out sources inside the newsroom to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the error.
The sources — who said they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the matter — said the mislabeling of the video was not intentional, contrary to some speculation on social media. They said the video clip was first provided to ABC by a local journalist, known as a "fixer," who was working for the network on the ground in Syria.
"Fixers" play a variety of roles for news crews covering international stories — translation skills, local connections, travel tips, production support, and other services.
According to one of the ABC journalists who spoke with CNN Business, the "fixer" received the video from a source who repeatedly "claimed to have shot it personally."
The "fixer" sent along the video to ABC's New York City headquarters, where it was ingested and labeled in a computer system.
That's when the video needed to be vetted. And indeed it was "run through all the usual processes," one of the journalists said.
For example, staffers tried to ascertain exactly where the source shot the video. But the person said he could not reveal the exact location, citing security concerns.
Staffers also uploaded the video to a service called Storyful, which verifies user-generated content from all around the world.
The results from Storyful were inconclusive.
"That's the point when somebody should have raised their hand and said 'We don't need this video, it's not essential to telling the story, let's not take the chance,'" one of the journalists said.
That's certainly obvious in retrospect, but producers on "World News Tonight" decided to include the video in last Sunday night's segment about the fighting in northern Syria.
"Smart people made the wrong decisions," an executive said, declining to name the colleagues who erred.
It was recycled for the following day's "GMA." At that point, concerns about the video had not yet been flagged to ABC producers.
But later that morning, a video researcher noticed the similarities between ABC's video clip and a popular pyrotechnic show at the Knob Creek Gun Range in Kentucky.
"Wow!" he tweeted. "ABC News is trying to pass gun range videos as combat footage from Syria."
The Washington Examiner's T. Becket Adams looked into it and called the gun range for comment. "It seems to be our footage," a representative for the gun range said.
ABC came out midday and said, in a tweet, "we've taken down" the video because "questions were raised about its accuracy."
ABC News senior vice president of editorial quality Kerry Smith, and her No. 2 David Peterkin, the vice president of news standards, were both beside themselves about the screw-up, according to sources.
Days of discussions and meetings have ensued. But the network never acknowledged the error on "World News Tonight" or "GMA."
Internally, there were arguments for and against an on-air correction. Ultimately, executives decided against it because the reporting about Syria didn't need to be retracted — the issue was only with the mislabeled video.
But the error was shocking.
"ABC's viewers deserve an explanation; something a lot more thorough and detailed than a simple 'we regret the error,'" Adams wrote. "At a time when trust in the press is already at historic lows, the network can do at least that much."
Other media correspondents and critics have said much the same.
Internally, some staffers at ABC say even they don't know what happened and who, if anyone, has been disciplined as a result.
One theory has been that ABC was tricked by a Turkish politician, known for his online trolling, who had posted a version of the Kentucky gun range video on Twitter earlier in the month.
But sources at ABC said they didn't think the trolling politician was the cause of the screw-up.
Meanwhile, President Trump has exploited the error for his own ends. When he objected to a question from ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl at a press conference last week, he called the question deceptive, "almost as deceptive as you showing all of the bombings taking place in Syria and it turned out the bombing that you showed on television took place in Kentucky."
"I think ABC owes an apology," Trump added.
ABC staffers privately pointed out that Trump frequently spreads false information and does not apologize for it.
But that's not the standard at ABC or at other news operations. Nor should it be.
"Journalism can only get better if we all know how the mistakes occurred in the first place," Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple said on CNN's "Reliable Sources" on Sunday.
Spokespeople for ABC News have declined multiple requests for comment.