ABC News Burned In Open Letter After Demanding Credit On Pulitzer Story

This photo released by ABC shows Diane Sawyer, left, and George Stephanopoulos during election night coverage early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, from ABC News' Times Square Studios in New York. (AP Photo/ABC, Donna Svennevik)
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An internal feud between ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity spilled into the open Wednesday with the two organizations going to war over credit for the investigative series that won a Pulitzer Prize this week.

Chris Hamby of CPI, a Washington, D.C., non-profit investigative journalism outfit, won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday for his investigation into coal miners who were denied black lung benefits. The very next day, ABC News President Ben Sherwood sent a letter to the executive director of CPI, asking that the names of two ABC News reporters be added to the award.

ABC News aired various reports on the subject in collaboration with CPI. “We believe that our reporters … should share in this high honor as they shared in the long months of reporting and producing the stories,” Sherwood wrote in the letter to CPI executive director Bill Buzenberg, which was first reported by Politico.

Buzenberg responded that “ABC is seeking to take credit for a large body of work that it did not produce,” according to Politico. Soon after, a second ABC News executive, Jeffrey Schneider, called CPI’s presentation of the facts “an outrageous lie.”

Television news organizations are not eligible to win a Pulitzer Prizes, which Politico noted, but Schneider countered to the news outlet: “If the Pulitzers rule won’t recognize our reporters work that’s one thing. But as partners, we expected CPI to make a strong case for our collaboration over the past year.”

The two news groups continued trading barbs on the matter — check out the Politico piece for full coverage, which includes the note that the two outlets had shared other awards for the series — before CPI’s Buzenberg published a scathing open letter to Sherwood. The letter is worth reading in its entirety, but in summary, Buzenberg is willing to go to great lengths to prove that Hamby and CPI are solely deserving of the Pulitzer — including exposing embarrassing facts about the ABC News reporters involved in the story.

“Emails and drafts leading up to the airdate of ABC’s ‘Nightline’ segment show that ABC depended to a remarkable degree on Chris’ access to sources, documents and data and his expertise on complex issue,” he wrote. “All of which repeatedly saved ABC from making embarrassing factual errors in broadcast segments and online stories.”

Later in the letter, Buzenberg effectively warned ABC News to leave the matter alone or be exposed.

“The Center is prepared to show in great detail how little ABC’s Brian Ross and Matt Mosk understood about even the most fundamental concepts and key facts and how they repeatedly turned to Chris to advise them or, in some instances, to do their work for them,” he wrote.

ABC News has not responded. In its last message to Buzenberg, published before the open letter, Kerry Smith, yet another ABC News executive, left it like this: “CPI’s management’s decisions in submitting an inaccurate and misleading entry without consulting us and not acknowledging our true role after winning have brought us to this point.”

“In a world of decreasing resources for in-depth investigative journalism,” Smith concluded, “that is very sad outcome.”

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