The Biggest Scandals To Hit ABC

The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) was traditionally the younger, riskier sibling of America's big three networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC), starting back in the pioneering radio days of the early 20th century. As the smallest of the networks, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ABC "distinguished itself by hiring popular singer Bing Crosby to perform on a weekly variety series," which also gave them a head-start on further recording innovations. When the world switched to TV, ABC continued to set itself apart with quirky offerings like cartoon caveman sitcom ("The Flintstones") during prime time.

Of course, this kind of risk-taking leads to mistakes, as well. ABC has had its fair share of foul-ups and controversies. Some of America's most recognized celebrities, most loved characters, and most trusted newscasters have come from ABC programs. And some of them have created no small amount of scandal for the network. 

ABC News reading the names of dead soldiers for an hour

In April of 2004, America was three years into the Afghanistan War and one year into the war in Iraq. Especially in light of the year's coming presidential election, both conflicts weighed on voters minds, and in their last broadcast of the month, ABC News' "Nightline" devoted the entire hour to reading the names and showing the pictures of all 721 United States service members killed in Iraq since the war began. As CBS reported, "Nightline" star anchor Ted Koppel closed the broadcast by saying their "goal tonight was to elevate the fallen above the politics and the daily journalism ... and neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement," which did not prevent criticism. 

The conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group prevented the broadcast from airing on its local affiliates, prompting a stern rebuke from Republican Sen. John McCain. Although or perhaps because, according to Seattle Pi, the program was actually far more successful than ABC's producers had feared, Fox News announced they would air their own "list of what we've accomplished in Iraq through the blood, sweat and, yes, lives of our military." In fact it was so successful, ABC repeated it a month later, with Koppel reading out the casualties from Afghanistan. And then a year later again, Koppel recited the names of more than 900 killed in Iraq since the last broadcast.

ABC executive is forced out after allegations of racist comments

The majority of Barbara Fedida's entire career was with ABC news. Fedida got her start in 1989 with the venerable Peter Jennings and, according to her ABC employee biography, for her last nine years at ABC, was senior vice president for talent, editorial strategy and business affairs of the News division. She is credited in helping The View earn the moniker "the most important political TV show in America" from the New York Times Magazine and was instrumental in increasing the diversity of that show, as well as the ABC news team, including for the network's flagship programs like Good Morning America, 20/20, and World News Tonight. Which makes the circumstances of Fedida's dramatic departure from ABC all the more scandalous.

Stories emerged in mid-2020, reported Variety, that "ABC News had placed Fedida on administrative leave while an external law firm probed claims" that she had used "unacceptable racially insensitive comments" and "managed in a rough manner and, on occasion, used crass and inappropriate language." After they investigated the credibility of the accusations against her, said Walt Disney Television chairman Peter Rice, "... we have determined that she can no longer serve in a leadership role and will not be returning to ABC News." ABC did away with her position entirely, now managing News business matters separately from recruitment. 

A veteran reporter is suspended after an undercover video

David Wright's suspension from ABC News was itself news. He was "one of ABC's most seasoned and versatile correspondents," said The Washington Post. He was an award-winning reporter who'd covered a half-dozen major conflicts around the globe and respected throughout the industry. His suspension came after an undercover video was released — by the non-profit Project Veritas, through self-described "guerrilla reporting," per BallotPedia — of Wright saying several controversial things. 

Conservative media and politicians, explains Fox News, harped on Wright saying that "I would consider myself a socialist," and calling "President Trump 'a d—' while simultaneously complaining that Trump is sometimes not given 'credit for what things he does do.'" ABC leadership immediately suspended Wright, saying in a statement that he "damages our reputation for fairness and impartiality or gives the appearance of compromising it harms ABC News." 

Some liberal and libertarian media outlets, however, covered Wright's suspension a bit differently. As Salon noted, "the vast majority of the comments ... involved Wright delivering a sophisticated and spot-on critique of his industry and his bosses." Wright took apart the profit motive of commercial news, "our bosses don't see an upside in doing the job we're supposed to do, which is to speak truth to power and hold people accountable." According to his LinkedIn profile, and apparently with little fanfare, Wright stopped working at ABC a year later, in March of 2021, and is "now actively looking for my next adventure."

The network is accused of stifling a major story

Project Veritas released another video a few years prior that was far more damaging and scandalous, as it involved one of the biggest entertainment and political scandals of the century. Ironically, it was far less controversial of a video as previous Veritas projects had been, as Forbes notes "highly deceptive" video edits that at one point commanded a $100,000 settlement for slander to one of their video subjects. This video wasn't staged or secretly recorded or edited for "context," it merely showed an ABC News anchor candidly complaining, with the cameras rolling but not airing, that her bosses had straight-up prevented her from publishing the Jeffrey Epstein story for three years. 

"We would not put [the Epstein story] on the air," said anchor Amy Robach, per Vox. "We were so afraid we wouldn't be able to interview Kate and Will ... It was unbelievable what we had. [Bill] Clinton — we had everything. I tried for three years to get it on to no avail and now it's all coming out ... And I freaking had all of it." Robach walked back her comments, saying she was "caught in a private moment of frustration" and "no one ever told me ... to stop reporting on Jeffrey Epstein." ABC's statement said that the reporting didn't meet "the standards to air, but we have never stopped investigating." Vox pointed out that doesn't explain why ABC canceled an interview with one of Epstein's victims.

A reporter was suspended for a mistake in reporting Kobe's death

According to his ABC biography, Matt Gutman joined the network in 2008. Since then he has reported from 40 different countries around the world, garnered multiple awards for his journalism, and for the last several years has been chief national correspondent for some of ABC's most important news programs, including "World News Tonight," "Good Morning America," and "Nightline." 

Gutman is based in Los Angeles and was one of the first to report on the sudden death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant in January, 2020. As the news was still breaking and details about the tragedy, a helicopter crash that ultimately cost the lives of all nine people aboard, were still trickling out, Gutman reported that Bryant and all four of his children were among the dead. Social media was already aflame with grief for the Lakers star, which quickly turned into outrage about Gutman's erroneous report. He later apologized on the air. 

Gutman apologized again on social media the next day. Then, a few days later, he apologized again, said CNN, accepting personal responsibility in a statement to the media. Unfortunately for him, ABC's leadership was not in a forgiving mood. "Reporting the facts accurately is the cornerstone of our journalism," said ABC in a statement to CNN. "As he acknowledged on Sunday, Matt Gutman's initial reporting was not accurate and failed to meet our editorial standards."

American Idol was accused of exploiting the family of a Trump staffer

"American Idol" debuted in 2002 and has become one of ABC's longest running and most popular shows, but it has still seen its share of controversy. Entertainment Tonight explains how things like voting scandals, celebrity fights, and rancorous contract negotiations frequently put "Idol" in the headlines for reasons other than the performances. A true scandal erupted in February of 2021, however, that saw the show exploiting a teenage girl because of her family drama. 

Claudia Conway is the 16 year old daughter of former Donald Trump official, Kellyanne Conway, and vocal anti-Trump lawyer, George Conway. If that marriage sounds stressful, it appears being their daughter is even worse. Especially when, as Variety described, the couple in question are constantly "making gross public theater of the disputes within their marriage." Over the last year of the Trump administration, Claudia had become quite the social media star by chronicling her family's increasing dysfunction on TikTok. Many people, as The Mercury News explains, were worried "about the whole setup and expressed concerns she's being exploited, either by ABC or her parents." 

On the other hand, according to Mercury, as Claudia explained to her 1.6 million followers on TikTok, even though "I know half the world sees me as a joke because of my parents' (expletive)." She said she's all in for "this (expletive) cool opportunity."

ABC's star anchor publicly apologized for hiding political donations

George Stephanopoulos is one of ABC's most prominent news personalities. He joined the network in 1997, coming directly from the White House, where he was President Bill Clinton's senior advisor for policy and strategy, and has earned multiple broadcasting awards. "For more than a decade his range and expertise," says Stephanopoulos' ABC News biography, "have played a pivotal role at the network." His relationship with the Clintons would become an embarrassment for Stephanopoulos and ABC in 2015 when it was revealed he had been donating $25,000 a year to the Clinton Foundation.

Stephanopoulos apologized on his show, saying he "should have gone the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of a conflict." CNN described the reactions to his apology as mixed, noting that Stephanopoulos was actually covering the Clinton Foundation at the time and had that same month warned that when people donate "to the Clinton foundation, 'everybody' knows there's 'a hope that that's going to lead to something, and that's what you have to be careful of.'" They quoted a Politico author that "the donation corrodes much of the journalistic credibility Stephanopoulos has labored so carefully to accumulate."

Stephanopoulos seems to have weathered the scandal. As CNN noted, while many Republicans and conservative media predictably demanded that ABC make amends by "forbidding Stephanopoulos from anchoring any political coverage" in the 2016 election, they mounted no "orchestrated boycott against Stephanopoulos or ABC." He remains ABC chief anchor today, and his program is still relatively popular. 

ABC canceled Roseanne

"Roseanne" was an ABC sitcom chronicling the middle-class crudities of the titular heroine and her family that ran for 11 years.  One of the network's most popular shows in the '90s, it was revived in 2018 with most of the original cast, including the eponymous author, Roseanne Barr. The comedienne has always been controversial, in and out of the show. As Decider explains, the show courted controversy regularly with episodes on hot-button topics like homophobia, racism, and abortion. Barr also, says CBS News, "has a history of stirring controversy and making troubling comments," like dressing up as Adolf Hitler or supporting conspiracy theories. 

The show made a triumphant return to ABC in 2018, attracting "an unprecedented 18.2 million viewers with its first episode" and becoming the "highest rated and most watched series of the broadcast season," according The Hollywood Reporter (via NBC News). However, about a week after the new season's final episode and ABC's announcement that another new season had been planned, Barr insulted an advisor to former President Barack Obama with a tweet many saw as racist. She deleted the tweet, apologized profusely, and said she had been "ambien tweeting" and "went too far." 

Barr's apologies were of no avail however. Not only was the next season of "Roseanne" canceled, but ABC killed her character. As Vox explains, they rebooted the show as "The Connors," with the rest of the cast intact but Barr's character dead of a drug overdose. 

ABC reporter mangles story about Donald Trump and Russia

Brian Ross was a veteran ABC reporter of 24 years. Since joining ABC, according to The Washington Post, Ross had been awarded multiple Peabody Awards, a half-dozen Emmys, and over a dozen more other awards for excellence in journalism and broadcasting. A longtime colleague at ABC told the Post that Ross and his decades-long partner, Ronda Schwartz, "were the star investigative team of ABC News." The president of ABC News, in a memo printed in The New York Times, said that "their work has led repeatedly to real changes in policy in the U.S. and around the world."

Unfortunately, Ross didn't fully fact check a December 2017 piece in which he reported that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said "then-candidate Donald Trump instructed him to contact Russian officials during the campaign." A massive story that set American politics on fire but was completely baseless. ABC were aghast, and the network issued an official apology and retraction, explaining the story "fell far short" of their news standards while, as the NYT described, Trump called the story "horrendously inaccurate and dishonest." Ross had made journalistic mistakes in the past, but this one got him fired. He and his partner moved over to the Law & Crime Network, said the Post. 

ABC made repeated mistakes covering the Aurora mass shooting

Breaking stories are notoriously difficult to cover correctly, especially when the event in question is violent and chaotic, such as the July 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. According to CNN, during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," a man had left the theater, propping open an emergency exit door, and then returned "dressed head-to-toe in protective gear" and armed with multiple firearms. He detonated several smoke bombs before opening fire on hundred of movie-goers, killing 12. 

"In the first paragraph of its initial report on Friday," reported Politico, "ABC News reported that it had identified the correct [murder suspect]" because they had called his mother who had confirmed it. The mother disputed the report, saying they misunderstood when she said "you have the right person" — that it was a reference to her identity not a confirmation of her son as the murderer. The woman would be dogged by accusations of poor parenting, such that the psychiatrist appointed by the court to examine the murderer before his trial had to include it in his book on the tragedy, telling the Associated Press, "I just couldn't find anything wrong with their parenting."

ABC's mistake was compounded by their further misidentifying the suspect entirely. "The report," said Politico, "based off a single web profile of a man with the same name, was inaccurate" and both network and the reporter apologized the same day. 

Donald Trump mocks ABC for mistaking Kentucky for Syria

In 2019, two of ABC's premiere shows had to issue retractions and apologies after airing an embarrassing mistake. According to the Courier-Journal, an October Sunday edition of "World News Tonight" showed a video that the ABC anchor described as showing "Turkey's military bombing Kurd civilians in a Syrian border town." The segment was replayed on "Good Morning America" the following morning. However the video ABC said "appears to show the fury of the Turkish attack on the border town of Tal Abyad" was quickly cast in doubt by a Gizmodo report that afternoon. It turned out that West Point, Kentucky's, Knob Creek Gun Range holds night-time public shoots twice a year and that "the explosions in the video are identical to explosions seen in a video titled, "Knob Creek night shoot 2017." 

Within a few hours, both "Good Morning America" and "World News Tonight" tweeted "CORRECTION: We've taken down video that ... appeared to be from the Syrian border immediately after questions were raised about its accuracy. BC News regrets the error." That evening Knob Creek Gun Range posted on Facebook that it was "marked safe from the Turkish invasion in Kentucky today" and thanked ABC News for the "free advertising." ABC was roundly mocked on social media, and that night President Donald Trump joined the chorus on Twitter, lambasting the network for fake news.

ABC tried to replace Nightline with David Letterman

Disney acquired ABC in 1995 for $19 billion, according to Forbes, the third largest corporate merger in history at the time and a win/win for everyone. But by 2002, a bad economy and low ratings were prompting Disney executives to make shake things up at ABC and, as the Los Angeles Times put it, "rehabilitate the struggling network." In what the Times called a series of "decisions reflecting the power shift toward entertainment" at ABC, they replaced the long-running news program "20/20" with a Disney show, inserted Hollywood-produced entertainment programs in news hour slots, and most controversially tried to lure late night comedian David Letterman from rival CBS, effectively ending the more than 20-year run of "Nightline." 

Replacing a hard news program with the "Late Show" may seem strange, but the two programs had actually been competing in overlapping time slots for 20 years, and "Nightline" frequently got higher ratings, although not in recent years. The offer was, however, probably a violation of "Nightline" star anchor, Ted Koppel's, contract as well as, according to a Gallup poll taken about it, an idea unpopular with the public. According to Variety, Letterman was so embarrassed at ABC's public courting of him that he offered to be the first guest on Koppel's new interview show, competing with his own "Late Show" time slot. "We always like to make our friends at Disney happy," Koppel said to Letterman on the show, "They wanted Letterman. Here he is."

ABC was sued for stealing an interview with a dictator

American freelance journalist Nate Thayer had been hunting for former Cambodian dictator, Pol Pot, for years. He finally tracked him down in 1997 and finagled his way into conducting what would be the last interview that the mass-murdering architect of The Killing Fields would give before his death the following year. Thayer met with ABC News star Ted Koppel about disseminating the video on ABC, for $300,000 and full credit. It aired on "Nightline" as an "ABC News Exclusive" and, as the Guardian reported, Thayer sued ABC News for stealing his work.

According to Thayer's lawsuit, ABC did the exact opposite of everything they'd agreed to — "created a frame grab, used it without giving Thayer credit, fixed ABC's logo on the photo saying 'ABC News exclusive', forwarded the frame to news services, posted it on the ABC website, gave a transcript of the video and ... basically destroyed Thayer's commercial viability with this product." And they didn't pay him.

Being nominated for a Peabody Award as an "ABC News correspondent" for the video enraged him. According to his blogpost on the matter, after ABC settled the lawsuit (and finally paid him, 15 years later), when Koppel called to congratulate Thayer on the award he replied that he was going to "refuse the award and tell the planet what unethical thieves ABC are and how you, Ted Koppel, acted as their pimp." He was then banned from the award ceremony.