ABC said the confidant later clarified that Mr. Trump’s request to Mr. Flynn during the campaign had been to find ways to repair relations with Russia. The directive to contact Russian officials on topics that included working together against the Islamic State came after the election, the network said.
“It is vital we get the story right and retain the trust we have built with our audience — these are our core principles,” the ABC statement said. “We fell far short of that yesterday.”
Kathleen Culver, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the mistake would give fresh ammunition to Mr. Trump and other conservatives who have attacked the credibility of news organizations, especially those that have reported negatively on the administration.
“This error plays right into the hands of people who callously try to say that news media all just lie,” Ms. Culver said in an interview on Saturday night. “This is the kind of thing you can see being brought up again and again and again at appearances by the president, where he will take one situation in which something was wrong, and blow that out into a condemnation that all news media are fake.”
Hours after ABC’s statement, Mr. Trump used Twitter to praise the network for suspending Mr. Ross, calling his report “horrendously inaccurate and dishonest.” The president ended his tweet by referring to “Fake News.”
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter that the error was the latest in a series of high-profile mistakes by Mr. Ross.
“I explicitly told ABC News not to go with the anthrax story because it was wrong,” Mr. Fleischer wrote, in reference to a 2001 report in which he said Mr. Ross inaccurately linked Iraq and its dictator Saddam Hussein to an anthrax attack on the United States. “Brian Ross went with it anyway.”
While Ms. Culver said the network’s decision to suspend Mr. Ross was an appropriate first step, she said the mistake should also prompt a wider assessment by ABC of his record, as well as a more general evaluation across the media industry of the push for speed, which likely contributed to the error.
“We are at a time when public trust in news media is so low that we have to work constantly to try to rebuild that trust,” she said. “And every time practices go awry like this, we do damage to that trust. And rightly so. People are correct in being suspicious of reports that seem too big to be true.”