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ABC Wraps Up Debat Investigation, Details “Reporting That We Couldn’t Confirm”

You’ll recall how, a few months ago, it was discovered (by Rue 89) that ABC News’ Alexis Debat may not have conducted all the interviews he claimed took place (including ones with Sen. Barack Obama and Rep. Nancy Pelosi). ABC launched an investigation and FishbowlDC has the report from ABC News President David Westin.

Although Westin says that Debat had “reporting that we couldn’t confirm,” he also said that “None of these discrepancies would rise to the level of a formal, on-air retraction because none of them was material to the substance of our report.”

Read Westin’s email after the jump…


We have now completed a second internal investigation into our former consultant, Alexis Debat. We first heard questions about Mr. Debat’s resume at the end of May. We immediately suspended our work with him pending review. After that review, we severed our relationship with him in June. We also asked Chris Isham, as head of our investigative unit at the time, to look into the substance of what Mr. Debat had reported for us. He did so and reported no discrepancies.

In September, the Internet site, Rue 89, raised new and very different questions about Mr. Debat when it reported that an interview he purportedly had done with Senator Obama for a French publication was not authentic. This prompted us to go back to do a second review of Mr. Debat’s work for us, this time under the supervision of Kerry Smith, our Senior Vice President for Editorial Quality, and her staff, together with corporate legal counsel. This review was extremely sensitive, as it required going back to confidential sources in this country and abroad. It also involved traveling to Pakistan to confirm first-hand the circumstances of Mr. Debat’s work there.

Early in our review, we learned that there were other interviews Mr. Debat had published in France that the subjects denied had been conducted. We reported this story immediately on ABC News.com.

We have now completed our review. After going through all of the stories Mr. Debat worked on for ABC News, we found no instances of false reporting. Mr. Debat was not the sole source for anything ABC News reported. Moreover, we confirmed with Mr. Debat’s confidential sources that they had given him the information as he’d claimed in contributing to our reports. We also confirmed that Mr. Debat traveled to the locations in Pakistan as he had claimed and talked with the sources he had identified.

Our review did uncover four details of Mr. Debat’s reporting that we couldn’t confirm. In one case, he mis-identified which branch of U.S. Special forces had engaged in a particular operation, although we did confirm the other facts surrounding the operation. We also found disagreements over the location for two meetings reported on by Mr. Debat, although, again, we could confirm the other facts surrounding the meetings. And, one of the people whom Mr. Debat identified as attending a meeting would neither confirm nor deny that he/she was a direct participant. None of these discrepancies would rise to the level of a formal, on-air retraction because none of them was material to the substance of our report.

There are three changes we are making in our internal practices based on what we’ve learned from this case.

Starting immediately, we will include both our News Practices team and the corporate Human Resources Department in the hiring of all consultants, reviewing in particular claims of prior employment and educational history. We will also undertake a review of current consultants where appropriate.

When we hire a consultant, we will make a determination of exactly how that person will be identified on all programs and platforms.

News Practices will be alerted each time that we include a consultant in our reporting to ensure that the consultant is being used and identified properly.

We undertake extensive efforts in all of our reporting — and particularly in our investigative reporting — to check and double-check information we are given so that no one source can compromise the truth of what we present to our audiences. Based on our review, our overall systems and procedures worked in the case of Mr. Debat. Nothing in our review, of course, condones the instances of resume enhancement or fake interviews that Mr. Debat published elsewhere.

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