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Cook reports: "ABC News president Ben Sherwood is a notorious social climber and horrible self-help writer whose detractors call him 'the Draco Malfoy of broadcast news.' When he took over the news division last year, some at the network worried that he was more of a 'Hollywood Guy' than a 'News Guy.' How Hollywood? Last month he told his staff in a morning conference call to stop reporting news of a potential terror plot timed to the 9/11 anniversary in such a 'measured way' and to 'turn this into a thriller.'"

Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News, told reporters to treat an alleged terror plot like a Hollywood movie script. (photo: Rick Rowell/ABC)
Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News, told reporters to treat an alleged terror plot like a Hollywood movie script. (photo: Rick Rowell/ABC)



How ABC Spun a Terror Alert Into a 'Thriller'

By John Cook, Gawker

13 October 11

 

BC News president Ben Sherwood is a notorious social climber and horrible self-help writer whose detractors call him "the Draco Malfoy of broadcast news." When he took over the news division last year, some at the network worried that he was more of a "Hollywood Guy" than a "News Guy." How Hollywood? Last month he told his staff in a morning conference call to stop reporting news of a potential terror plot timed to the 9/11 anniversary in such a "measured way" and to "turn this into a thriller."

A few days before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, government sources raised the alarm that according to a single, uncorroborated source, at least three Al Qaeda operatives had been dispatched to the U.S. to strike Washington, D.C., or New York City on or around the anniversary. How did the ABC News folks initially treat this information? Like a "news story." They reported it, on the news.

Sherwood is smarter than that. "News stories" are boring! People don't want "news." They want drama! Action! Thrills! Which is why, according to a transcript of Sherwood's morning conference call with ABC News staffers on the eve of the anniversary weekend that a tipster sent us, he told them to sex it up a little. After investigative producer Rich Esposito, Justice Department correspondent Pierre Thomas, and investigative correspondent (and America's wrongest reporter) Brian Ross briefed the call-which hundreds of ABC News staffers participate in each day-on the latest plot update, Sherwood told his news staff to treat the story like a Hollywood movie script, as opposed to a boring old real story involving actual people and things.

From a production point of view, I would take everything that Rich and Pierre Thomas just told us and what Brian is developing and turn this into a thriller. That is, a real thriller that is unfolding against a ticking clock, which is September 11th. So, it is literally, the construct is, if you were writing the script of this, it is a thriller.

That "construct" is far better than the "construct" that ABC News had been using, which was to report the plot details in a "measured way." And they don't call ABC the Most Measured Name in News, do they? While Sherwood would never be so sensational as to hype a story too much, he told his staff to hype this one just enough:

We know September 11th is Sunday, we know that the clock is ticking and now it is a race against time to figure out who those 12 guys who traveled in are, or three, narrowing it down, what were they doing in the country? Is it a situation? I mean, the way everybody is describing it on air and the way in which we are presenting, there is a very um, measured way, which we have to do, but I would ask that how we produce this for tonight, without hyping it, without going too far, but let's come up with a version of it that gives a real feeling inside.

Lo and behold, here's how Diane Sawyer breathlessly recounted the story on World News Tonight on Friday, September 9:

We are a nation coming together tonight to remember 9/11 ten years ago, and to stand sentry on the new threat that has been leveled against the United States. As the clock runs down to the anniversary on Sunday, police, bomb-sniffing dogs, and national guard are all out in force in New York and Washington, D.C. Intelligence officials are poring over the names on flights from abroad, and ABC News has learned new details on this terror threat.

Can you hear that clock ticking? Brian Ross' report that night featured 24-style time-stamp graphics as he counted down the story: "Thursday night, as the President arrived to address Congress, the FBI and the CIA were in high gear." To his credit, Ross also included this quote from former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, though he didn't let it get in the way of the thrills: "So far, we haven't been able to find any evidence in the real world that this report is true."

Compare that, if you will, with Brian Williams' report on the same night for the NBC Nightly News, which managed to get into the lead that the threat was unconfirmed. The differences are subtle, but NBC's report focused more on the fact that these were mere reports and treated them with more distance. Less thrilling.

The battle over whether the "thriller" types or the "news" types would win in TV news ended a decade ago, and you know who won. Still, it's interesting to see how the sausage gets made. An ABC News insider confirmed to us the accuracy of the transcription. ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said in a statement that Sherwood was speaking metaphorically:

Ben's meaning was clear: It was a real-life thriller, a real race against time. He was asking the division to describe the urgency of what was really happening behind the scenes. Significantly, he made it clear to do that "without hyping it, without going too far," which were his exact words. So if you watched our reports from that time, you would see that our coverage was true, compelling, and gave our audience a sense of what was unfolding in real time.

It wasn't quite as compelling as this follow-up report from Brian Ross, on his online-only show, in which he asked Clarke, "What happened to that terror threat?" The answer, of course, was that nothing happened. "If it had been your call," Ross asked, "would you have ordered that kind of wind-up of security?"

"No."

Thrilling.

Here's the full transcript that was provided to us:

Ben Sherwood: From a production point of view, I would take everything that Rich and Pierre just told us and what Brian is developing and turn this into a thriller. That is, a real thriller that is unfolding against a ticking clock, which is September 11th. So, it is literally, the construct is, if you were writing the script of this, it is a thriller.

We know September 11th is Sunday, we know that the clock is ticking and now it is a race against time to figure out who those 12 guys who traveled in are, or three, narrowing it down, what were they doing in the country? Is it a situation? I mean, the way everybody is describing it on air and the way in which we are presenting, there is a very um, measured way, which we have to do, but I would ask that how we produce this for tonight, without hyping it, without going too far, but let's come up with a version of it that gives a real feeling inside.

Pierre, I know you can develop this with your sources-you too, Rich-what is the feeling in the room right now. Is the feeling in the room truly, there's a clock, really mindful of the time, they're hustling, they've got everybody working double duty, triple duty. They brought everybody in from their shifts and vacations. It's like our Hurricane Irene. Everybody comes in for the weekend. I want to know - no one's taking the weekend off - what is the feeling? What is it like in the room?

Pierre Thomas: That's exactly what you described.

Ben Sherwood: So when we're on the air tonight, and Pierre, when you come on and when Brian comes on and when everybody comes on, I want to feel that in every single syllable of what you're saying and what you've put on television. I want to feel that urgency of what these folks are against. And same with Nightline. And the same with every time we touch this between now - because anybody who is waking up this morning with this threat is saying, "Wait a second, that's Sunday," and we're coming on the air Sunday with our whole team, and it's all part of the same piece, it's why, you know, that's the thoughtful and without creating a level of, uh - but if it is in fact what we are reporting - they are all hands on deck.
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+12 # DaveM 2011-10-13 22:08
I continue to be astonished at the number of "potential terror plots" that hit the headlines and never materialize. Even those that do lead to arrests are generally not what they originally seem. The current "plot by Iran to kill the Saudi Ambassador" has turned out to be an FBI sting, which triggered arrests after two professional criminals contacted a paid informant who provided them with a scripted account of what he wanted them to do. The informant had no ties to any political entity (apart from wherever his bank is) and the "terrorists" never had any explosives or were remotely close to carrying out their alleged plans.
 
 
+19 # Erdajean 2011-10-14 08:17
Just more of the Neverland of No-Reality we were led into, in 1980, when a dim-witted actor and his handlers took over the While House, and the News of the Day began its descent into "That's Entertainment!" Right along with when History became too boring for our kids so we quit subjecting them to it. And the fix was in, for where our citizenry stands today -- in front of Fox News, et al -- clueless.
 
 
0 # jon 2011-10-14 20:25
THAT says it all !!
 
 
+6 # noitall 2011-10-13 22:29
I'm sure those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11th really appreciated the level of artistic license taken by ABC. They are so thoughtful and considerate in their mission to entertain America. Now, who was it, again, that was going to give America the real skinny? you know, perform their role in a TRUE DEMOCRACY?
 
 
+9 # Eman Resu 2011-10-13 22:40
These arse holys have got to be washed from not only the jobs they now hold, but any meaningful career. They deserve to be relegated to washing toilets for the rest of their lives in a prison ! Bending over in front of Bubba..
 
 
+13 # dloehr 2011-10-13 23:08
It's a powerful technique, but I think the best explanation of how it works was made over sixty years ago:

“In normal circumstances,” wrote Hitler’s henchman Albert Speer in his memoirs, “people who turn their backs on reality are soon set straight by the mockery and criticism of those around them, which makes them aware they have lost credibility. In the Third Reich there were no such correctives, especially for those who belonged to the upper stratum. On the contrary, every self-deception was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world, which no longer bore any relationship to the grim outside world. In those mirrors I could see nothing but my own face reproduced many times over.”

Our leaders and news media aren't quite that hermetically sealed, but they're working on it.
 
 
+3 # Grouchy 2011-10-13 23:18
Well guys, if it works so well for Fox, why not do a bit of it ourselves?
 
 
0 # Anarchist 23 2011-10-14 22:37
Absolutely right, HM! It is very telling that they call sherwood 'the Draco Malfoy of News" We really are up against the Death Eaters these days-for example look at the 3 upside-down five-pointed stars on the Official Republican Elephant Logo! furthermore, since in this 'muggle' world, the physics say that hydrocarbons in an open or dirty burn can't burn hot enough to melt steel, and the WTC fell at free fall speed-the obvious answer is that the Evil Magicians used Fiend Fire! Now there's a story!!!! Harry Potter was fiction but Lord Voldemort is real!
 
 
+8 # stonecutter 2011-10-14 00:17
"Sausage" is right. The kind of sausage that once you see how it's made, when it's "served" to you again, your stomach turns.

I only watch ABC for the occasional sports event, and I'm not their target demographic, but I feel pity for the fools who watch. This guy is right out of "Network"; I assume most of the drones who rise to his level are...well, drone clones. Are they all going bald? Do they all look like the alien-in-chief from the final scene in "Close Encounters"?
 
 
+9 # maddave 2011-10-14 00:50
Such a story could be funny-ridiculou s if it wasn't such a grave threat to the USA and our sane citizens' desires NOT TO get into an un-winnable war with war.

So there we were our nuclear fleet's cruise milliles & aircraft looking down Iran's throat and their (Chinese Silkworm?) anti-ship missiles' fire control radar locked onto our ships . . . all because of the antics of a washed up Texas used car salesman and the unsubstantiated words of a supposed DEA double agent who has yet to be questioned by the FBI or CIA. But that still is not the bad part.

The appalling threat is that we have an ego-driven altercation with a contentious (potential) nuclear power in the Middle East, but we have absolutely NO means of direct and immediate emergency communication between the two heads of state - like the White House's red phone with the Kremlin.

All it would take is one high ranking idiot on one side or the other (& we both have them) to say the word "Fire!" and we'd be up to our asses in still another Middle Eastern quagmire.

OBAMA: Get a phone. You and Hilliary MUST talk to these people. John Wayne is dead.
"
 
 
0 # maddave 2011-10-14 07:53
Quoting maddave:
Such a story could be funny-ridiculous if it wasn't such a grave threat to the USA and our sane citizens' desires NOT TO get into an un-winnable war with war.

Please disregard the typo (extraneous "with war") first paragraph
 
 
+1 # Glen 2011-10-14 16:08
We understand what your sentiments are, maddave, regardless of typos. Your sane comments and suggestions are not those followed by the present government. We are all understanding more and more that the desire to maintain communication is not a part of the American agenda. Control and war is.

John Wayne never had what it takes.
 
 
+2 # jon 2011-10-14 20:29
"John Wayne is dead."

The most dangerous thing John Wayne and Ronald Reagan did during WWII was to take a couple of Hollywood starlets on a Marlin fishing vacation in Cabo San Lucas.
 
 
0 # Anarchist 23 2011-10-14 22:40
Alas-due to the present story of the 'plan' to blow up the Saudi Ambassador by 'Iran' with the next level going for the UN fan dance and note the fact that Isreal now has thanks to us, bunker busters-let's just say I wish I were reading all this in a novel rather than a newspaper. Or maybe we are in a novel-reality has been shredding for quite some time now....
 
 
-9 # J.G. 2011-10-14 06:05
I think it is ironic that John Cook is using the very same sensationalized -style language and hyped approach in this article for which he is criticizing ABC News . He has stripped all credibility from his report.
 
 
+10 # Glen 2011-10-14 06:09
As many of us have said repeatedly: it is all a stage show, and that includes the federal government production. Hillary Clinton did a fine job of supporting the accusations against Iran in the same manner. And gee, it came at just the right time to take some focus off Wall Street protests. As usual.

Ben Sherwood is just one of many who have followed the example set by Rupert Murdoch and so many others.
 
 
+9 # Martintfre 2011-10-14 07:01
One of the oldest tricks in the book for corrupt tyrants with failing systems is to go to war as a distraction and to get every one cheering them again...

So what time do we attack Iran?
 
 
+7 # 4yourinformation 2011-10-14 08:29
How disgusting. It's these kinds of irresponsible decisions that could lead to armchair, national-securi ty hawk wannabe CTU heroes that wannabe Jack Bauer, that want to torture real people for information. This, in turn, gives the real Jack Bauer wannabes in the real security services the impetus to receive MORE license to torture. In my eyes, that makes Mr. Sherwood complicit in the torture of human beings.
 
 
+5 # MEBrowning 2011-10-14 10:30
Do the powers that be in the mainstream media even care that viewers no longer trust what they report? Thank God for Reader Supported News.
 
 
+1 # reiverpacific 2011-10-14 17:58
So what's new?
How many "Suits" have become national icons (and very wealthy) by the same tactics? I'm sure y'all have lists you could publish.
As long as there is little or no content and the commercial sponsors approve, the Hell with substance.
As I keep stating, if Amy Goodman becomes as famous as Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer ----- (how many of y'r neighbors have even hear of Amy, or Chomsky or Howard Zinn, or, or----?).
 
 
0 # stonecutter 2011-10-17 12:18
We can only hope that the amazing, inspiring OWS global protests spread like a benevolent virus to Occupy 30 Rock, Occupy Black Rock, Occupy Time-Warner, Occupy Viacom, and so on. The corporatocratic (how's that for an adjective) media is as much, if not more to blame for sins of omission--not seriously covering unfolding protests and uprisings around the country, and the world--and sifting what they do sparsely and reluctantly cover through a thinly veiled filter of condemnation and fear-mongering. "Look at these 'mobs' of 'America-hating ' kids out there..they're heading for your town next!"

Lawrence O'Donnell took some heat this past week for calling out Herman Cain on his program, as if Cain deserves automatic deference; frankly, he deserves intense scrutiny, and contempt for selling his moronic "999" plan with a straight face, a gimmick sourced from the old "SimCity" video game--repeat, VIDEO GAME!!!--by a right-wing guerilla econ "adviser"; it belongs in the pantheon of Palinesque policy-drivel-c ompiled-for-idi ots that these "real American" GOP clowns have been shoveling.

I recommend we allow Perry and Texas to secede (except Austin), so he and Dallas Pastor Jeffress can live in the homogeneous Christian Baptist nation they fervently advocate. Good riddance, and good luck on building that wraparound border wall.
 
 
0 # fredboy 2011-10-17 15:58
How do these clowns rise to leadership positions?
 

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