ABC apologizes for poor job TV: Network issues mea culpa for its 'horrendous' coverage of events in Washington and Iraq, say news directors at affiliate stations.

December 19, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

ABC News has done such a "horrendous" job of covering major events in Washington and Baghdad this week that the network apologized to its affiliates, according to a message sent to news directors at stations affiliated with ABC.

Chuck Samuels, news director at WOKR-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., contacted his colleagues at other ABC stations in the northeast late Thursday after talking with network news officials in his capacity as a member of the ABC Affiliate News Advisory Board.

"I've been asked to pass along ABC's 'apology' for their horrendous performance the past 24 hours," Samuels said in an e-mail that he confirmed yesterday.

ABC's coverage, which was characterized as "lethargic and unfocused" by WMAR general manager Steve Gigliotti, reached its low point about 2 p.m Thursday when all the other network and cable news operations offered live coverage from Iraq except ABC. WMAR, Baltimore's ABC affiliate, opted to carry CNN's coverage instead of ABC's at that point and continued to use the cable channel yesterday.

In his message, Samuels said: "During a conference call with the Advisory Board today [Thursday], ABC News Vice President of Hard News Coverage Bob Murphy said the past 24 hours have been a nightmare both technically and editorially. He said the network will be more aggressive from this point forward. The network realizes that many of us are losing confidence in them and they will work hard to regain our confidence."

After informing his colleagues of ABC's plans for coverage of the impeachment vote, Samuels then went on to say, "That's the end of the 'official' statement. Obviously, the network's performance the past 24 hours has been embarrassing in my view. I can't recall ABC ever looking this bad. I do give them credit for recognizing how bad they have been but is it too little too late?

"Have you opted for CNN coverage of the events in Iraq instead of ABC?"

Eileen Murphy, director of media relations for ABC News, yesterday confirmed that a conference call involving Samuels, Murphy and other news directors and ABC executives took place Thursday but declined to discuss specifics, except to say she felt Samuels' description of the network's performance and message to affiliates during the conference call were "not accurate."

In confirming his e-mail yesterday, Samuels said, "I stand by everything in it."

He said such characterizations as "horrendous" to describe ABC's coverage were his and not ABC's.

ABC's Murphy yesterday characterized the network's performance by saying, "There were a couple of bumps in our coverage, but we feel we have the best team covering the story and that we're doing a very good job."

Murphy acknowledged that one of those bumps came Thursday, when all the other news operations on broadcast and cable offered live coverage from Iraq except ABC News.

When ABC News did join the hunt about five minutes late, Sam Donaldson was anchoring instead of Peter Jennings. CBS and NBC, meanwhile, had Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw anchoring their coverage, respectively.

Murphy said Jennings was not at the anchor desk because "he was out covering the story in Washington at the Pentagon." Jennings was at the anchor desk yesterday, which resulted in a better ABC performance.

WMAR's Gigliotti said WMAR's ratings Thursday were higher than normal in the afternoon and early evening, during newscasts that featured CNN's coverage along with that of ABC and WMAR's local team.

Candy Altman, news director at Boston's WCVB-TV and chairman of ABC's Affiliate News Advisory Board, said she felt the network was being "very responsive" to affiliate concerns about coverage.

"Without discussing specifics, I think there were some issues [with coverage on Wednesday and Thursday], but I think they're now doing a terrific job," she said yesterday.

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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