ABC’s Brian Ross Owes President Obama, RFK Jr. & America an Apology

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Brian Ross of ABC News has been caught red-handed. He ran a story yesterday claiming that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. called President Obama an "indentured servant of the coal industry." RFK did no such thing.

What actually happened, as a transcript of Ross’s questioning shows, is that Ross was trying to get RFK to attack President Obama directly for his support of "clean coal."

But in the resulting story, Ross appears to have fallen into his own trap, putting words into RFK’s mouth that he never said. What is even more egregious and offers further proof of ABC’s questionable intent is the illustration that accompanied Ross’s story online. It’s a manufactured composite image, showing RFK and Obama in the same frame, separated by a belching smokestack.

RFK is an outspoken opponent of the coal industry. He doesn’t mince his words. Here’s what he said to an anti-coal protest in Washington, D.C., last month that succeeded in stopping the use of coal at the Capitol power plant:

Massey Coal and Peabody Coal and Arch Coal: These are criminal organizations (cheers) and the only way they can get away with what they are getting away with is by corrupting our pubic officials and subverting American democracy. They’re not just destroying the environment, they are doing that as well.

Watch it:

That is RFK’s message in a nutshell. The transcript reveals Ross wanted to see if he could make RFK paint the president with the same brush and succeeded only in learning about the boomerang effect. Ross is the one who actually ended up calling the president an "indentured servant of the coal industry," though he tried to pin it on RFK.

Ross was roundly criticized for his race-baiting story in numerous places yesterday. Josh Nelson was first with a piece on Huffington: ABC News Intentionally Misleading Viewers with RFK-Obama Clean Coal Story. Unfortunately, at the same time, Huffington Post’s Green page had already linked to the ABC story.

Brad Johnson at the Wonk Room thus gathered both culprits in his headline: On Earth Day Eve, ABC and Huffington Post Call Obama an "Indentured Servant" to the Coal Industry.

The Wall Street Journal’s blog, Environmental Capital, picked up on the story this morning:

Environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy apparently called the president an “indentured servant” to the coal industry for his support of projects such as FutureGen, an experimental clean-coal project. Except he didn’t—the ABC News story cobbled together previous Kennedy comments about the coal industry and applied them to the president.

The Wonk Room updated its story today to report that ABC, in a silent response to the uproar, added a link to a transcript of the interview with RFK. Ross asked 11 questions. In eight of them, he asks RFK to talk specifically about President Obama or the White House.

Read the questions without the answers and it looks like Ross was not interested in having an exchange or a conversation, but pursuing a predetermined storyline. 

Planet Gore, the anti-global warming blog over at the National Review, picked up on the ABC story yesterday. But today, even Planet Gore’s editor issued a correction and an apology:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The ABC News headline that prompted this post was a misleading conflation of Robert F. Kennedy quotes.

Kennedy called politicians who support coal "indentured servants of the coal industry" on September 10, 2005; July 7, 2007; December 12, 2008; and January 30, 2009.

Kennedy called Obama "a very sensible [politician]" and a "great [man]," who nonetheless "[feels] the need to parrot the talking points of this industry that is so destructive to our country."

We regret the repetition of ABC’s error.

Time for Brian Ross and ABC to do the same and issue its own full-throated apology. 

The latest gambit – to run a story called "RFK Jr. Says He Did Not Call Obama ‘indentured Servant’ to Coal" – is not good enough. It actually compounds the problem by repeating the lie in the headline. Surely if Planet Gore can apologize for ABC’s error, ABC can apologize, too, for allowing sensational marketing to triumph over accurate journalism.

It is a blot upon our democracy for a major television network to so shamefully befoul public discourse at the very time when Congress is taking up discussion of climate and energy legislation, which will have to include consensus on the regulation of continued mining and burning of coal.

(Other coverage at Eschaton, CBS Political Hotsheet, Media Matters, AOL Political Machine, and American Thinker.)