ABC News Chief Tells His Reporters to Turn a Terror Threat Story Into a 'Thriller'S

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."

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.

[Images via Getty]