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E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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August 4, 2008

Three Vital Questions for ABC News About its Anthrax Reporting in 2001

"On Saturday morning, Dan Gillmor and I had the same thought when we read Glenn Greenwald's post: ABC News has to respond. But to what, exactly? We tried to put it into three questions: tough but fair as people there would probably say on other occasions."

No need for a big preamble. Dan Gillmor and I are posting these questions simultaneously. (Here’s his case for them.) We think ABC News should answer them. They arise from two columns by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who has been tracking this story for some time.

  • Vital unresolved anthrax questions and ABC News, in which he shows that ABC News was probably duped by someone on a story of huge importance, putting Iraqi fingerprints on anthrax attacks that actually came from the U.S at a time when the case for war with Iraq was beginning to get traction. (, Aug. 1)

If you want to understand our questions, go read Greenwald now.

Back? Greenwald raises many different kinds of questions. Some are aimed at a possible Congressional investigation, others at journalists willing to investigate further from here. On Saturday morning, Dan Gillmor and I had the same thought when we read Greenwald’s post: “ABC News has to respond.”

But to what, exactly? We tried to put it into three questions: tough but fair as people there would probably say on other occasions. And we’re simply asking others who want to know the answers to post the questions in some form at your own site. I would describe them as “interlocking” and aimed at the same unknowns.

Three Vital Questions for ABC News About its Anthrax Reporting in 2001

1. Sources who are granted confidentiality give up their rights when they lie or mislead the reporter. Were you lied to or misled by your sources when you reported several times in 2001 that anthrax found in domestic attacks came from Iraq or showed signs of Iraqi involvement?

2. It now appears that the attacks were of domestic origin and the anthrax came from within U.S. government facilities. This leads us to ask you: who were the “four well-placed and separate sources” who falsely told ABC News that tests conducted at Fort Detrick showed bentonite in the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, causing ABC News to connect the attacks to Iraq in multiple reports over a five day period in October, 2001?

3. A substantially false story that helps make the case for war by raising fears about enemies abroad attacking the United States is released into public debate because of faulty reporting by ABC News. How that happened and who was responsible is itself a major story of public interest. What is ABC News doing to re-report these events, to figure out what went wrong and to correct the record for the American people who were misled?

There are many other questions to ask in what is still a very murky story. But Dan and I think these three go to the heart of what ABC ought to tell us. If you do post the questions, let me know by email or in the comments, and I will add the link to this post.

My reasoning?

Though I am a frequent critic of the practice, I am not against the use of confidential sources. I am quite aware of how important it is in national security reporting to promise some sources confidentiality. And I am sympathetic to the pleas of journalists who have made contracts: “we have to keep our word or sources won’t trust us.” True.

But the only way that system can work is when sources know: if you lie, or mislead the reporter into a false report… you will be exposed. People who believe strongly in the need for confidential sources should be strongly in favor of their exposure in clear cases of abuse, because that is the only way a practice like this has a prayer of retaining its legitimacy. What’s a “clear case” of abuse? Well, we have to argue about it, and try to be clear. There’s no other way. Each case is different. Each has particulars that count.

In the confidential sources system that we have, professionals keeping counsel with themselves bargain away the citizen’s right to know. Sitting outside that transaction, we’re supposed to trust them— in the dark, as it were. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we are unable to judge how good a bargain they struck for us because the names of their sources remain cloaked.

Which is why we can never trust them if they can’t take action when they get played. This looks like a case where ABC News got played. Looks like, I said. We can’t know until the good people there answer some questions. These three would be a good start.

Also see my colleague Dan Gillmor, ABC Has Major Questions to Answer in Anthrax Story. “The network’s hyperventilating broadcasts of leaked, false allegations purportedly tying the anthrax to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime was bad enough. What the organization is doing now is journalistically unforgivable…”

UPDATE, Aug. 6. Our campaign worked, sort of. Brian Ross responds.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

See my follow-up post. “The Whole Anthrax Case Would Make For a Good Journalism Class.” Brian Ross Responds (Aug. 7). And Dan Gillmor’s follow up here.

Ex-Times-Picayune investigative reporter (and Pulitzer winner) John McQuaid says, “It’s imperative for ABC to tell us what happened here.” He also says: “Big media and the government are already in a kind credibility death spiral. This doesn’t help.”

At Media Nation, Dan Kennedy joins our campaign: “ABC News has some explaining to do.”

Larisa Alexandrovna, an investigative reporter with a blog, agrees: “ABC needs to come clean.”

A journalist has what is called a “good faith” agreement with their anonymous source. It is basically an understanding that the journalist will protect the source at all costs, including going to jail if need be and in exchange, the source will not intentionally mislead, lie, or in any way abuse the relationship. If the journalists violates this agreement, they will likely never work as a reporter again. If a source violates this agreement, the contractual understanding is discharged. In addition, if the public trust is violated so extremely or the public is in any way affected by the source’s manipulation or dishonesty, then it is not only important for the journalists to unmask their sources, it is necessary.

Particularly intriguing is her explanation for why “four well-placed and separate sources” is so unlikely. If they’re really separate they would not be wrong in the same way.

Kim E. Pearson at Poynter’s E-Media blog: “Most blog memes are quizzes, games, or questions that people pass around from site to site for the sake of novelty or entertainment. The creation of a blog meme in an effort to hold a news organization accountable for its reporting is an intriguing strategy that seems to have caught on with bloggers.”

After reading this, I conclude that any reporter who publishes a story on this case based on confidential sources is taking a giant risk with his or her credibility and could end up being embarrassed mightily.

Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum:

In practice, most journalists refuse to identify their sources under any circumstances at all, even when it’s clear that those sources deliberately lied to them. But should that be the standard? Or is the profession — and the rest of us — better off if sources know that they run the risk of being unmasked if their mendacity is egregious enough to become newsworthy in its own right? I’d say the latter.

At a guess, Brian Ross is re-reporting this story as we speak. I’d be shocked if he were doing anything else — and I’d say that part of that re-reporting ought to include a full explanation of exactly who was peddling the bentonite lie in the first place, and why they were doing it.

Drum on outing confidential sources back in 2004.

Scott Rosenberg: when sources lie or mislead, “the public good probably demands that you expose them.”

Peter S. Canellos, The Boston Globe’s Washington bureau chief: “The significance of the anthrax attacks in shaping US policy in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has largely been forgotten.”

Shocker! Columbia Journalism Review isn’t sure. At this point, nothing but questions. Liz Cox Barrett writes:

In ABC News’s case, what point does it serve to out these people? Would it be instructive/cautionary to future lying sources, as Drum suggests? Is it just vengeance? What might be gained and lost if journalists in general adopted a you lie to me, I out you sort of ground rule? Would we get fewer leaks but leaks of higher quality? Missed stories? What if ABC News’s sources didn’t knowingly lie? If ABC News outs its sources in the face of public outrage (or, at least blogospheric outrage), what precedent does that set?

Translation: “Our constituency doesn’t like ruckus this at all. Not one bit.” CJR is promising to look into the matter some more this week, which is good….

… And they did! Justin Peters writes: “The questions are good ones, and ought to be answered by ABC News. But the debate over ABC News’s practices shouldn’t end there.” He goes on to ask others, like: “What steps, beyond a simple retraction, will ABC News take to insure that an egregious mistake like this does not happen again? Will anybody involved in the production of the story be held accountable for its flaws?” I’m impressed, CJR.

Hmmm. Found this from March. Fox News says it got hold of an email:

In an e-mail obtained by FOX News, scientists at Fort Detrick openly discussed how the anthrax powder they were asked to analyze after the attacks was nearly identical to that made by one of their colleagues.

“Then he said he had to look at a lot of samples that the FBI had prepared … to duplicate the letter material,” the e-mail reads. “Then the bombshell. He said that the best duplication of the material was the stuff made by [name redacted]. He said that it was almost exactly the same … his knees got shaky and he sputtered, ‘But I told the General we didn’t make spore powder!’”

It’s the [name redacted] part that intrigues me. If it was redacted by Fox, as opposed to whoever gave it to Fox, that would mean Fox knows… something.

The New Republic’s Dayo Olopade: “Pressure on ABC to out their sources should be swift and sustained.”

Freelance journalist Wendy Hoke posts our questions at her blog and says that ABC’s anthrax coverage throws a curious light on attempts to pass a Federal shield law.

The New Republic’s John Judis: “I join those who believe that some kind of congressional investigation is in order. There are too many echoes of Niger and uranium.”

Except for this part, which doesn’t echo with Niger at all: “Reports that the anthrax letters sent to the offices of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle contained the additive bentonite - known to be used by Iraq - were dismissed by the White House.” The Guardian, Oct. 31, 2001.

Marcy Wheeler: “Who First Spread the Iraqi Anthrax Claim?” Important. And see her timeline of the case.

Lawbeat blog from the Syracuse University J-school: “Yet another illustration of the dangers of relying on anonymous sources and the rush to judgment when only part of the story comes out via shadowy channels.”

Trying to remember where this all fits? Iraq and the Media: A Critical Timeline.

Journalist Charles Feldman posts our questions: “It is vital that ABC News tells the American public how it came by its anthrax stories to see just who it was who manipulated the network and for what purpose.” Oh and thanks, Paul Jones.

On Saturday I submitted through two different portals my recommendation that ABC News reply to the questions Greenwald raised. Through one of them I got back this, “Thank you for your input. We will get back to you if we decide to investigate your lead. Brian Ross & The Investigative Team.”

Nothing yet.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 4, 2008 12:11 AM   Print


Sadly, I fear these excellent questions won't be answered.

I was in "shock and awe" when I read the Salon piece in question.

More and more I feel like the last 8 year (my entire legal adult life ie: since I was 18) have been stolen from me.

Posted by: Digidave at August 4, 2008 1:19 AM | Permalink

Where's the ethical law that says journalists can't be whistleblowers? If government officials manipulate journalists with lies, deceit and deliberate disinformation, then they forfeit their right to anonymity and it should be the journalists' responsibility to inform the public by blowing the whistle. Brian Ross is not standing on firm ground here. He needs to blow the whistle, and help stop potential criminals from kicking sand in our eyes.

Posted by: Bob Richardson at August 4, 2008 9:48 AM | Permalink

Media Nation joins the effort to hold ABC News to account for its anthrax reporting. Let's keep the pressure building.

Posted by: Dan Kennedy at August 4, 2008 11:29 AM | Permalink

Whoever was responsible, it is clear that the FBI now thinks the source of the anthrax was internal, not international. For me this raises a simple question about laboratories specializing in biological warfare research:

How many many people have died of anthrax in this country in the last fifty years as a result of natural exposure, and how many have died as a result of contamination from biowar labs?

What is the greater danger?

Since humans run the labs, are we not neglecting an important threat in ignoring the frailty of human nature?

Posted by: jack butler at August 4, 2008 12:28 PM | Permalink

I seriously doubt that ABC will ever out their sources. In their response to Greenwald, they made two interesting (and perhaps, revealing) claims. First, they pointed to this statement by Ross on Nov 1, 2001 as a retraction:

JENNINGS: And, Brian, what's the latest we know about the additive called bentonite in the anthrax which made it so allegedly dangerous?

ROSS: Well, Peter, today the White House said that despite initial test results which we reported suggesting the presence of a chemical called bentonite, a trademark of the Iraqi weapons program, a further chemical analysis has ruled that out.

Compare that to this story from Oct. 29, 2001 that is still on the web (with no correction or retraction):

A second test of the anthrax-laced letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle points to the presence of a troubling chemical additive, sources tell ABCNEWS.

MORE INVESTIGATIVE NEWS: • Atta Met Iraqi Official in Prague

Four well-placed and separate sources told ABCNEWS that initial tests detected bentonite, though the White House initially said the chemical was not found.

The first battery of tests, conducted at Ft. Detrick, Md., and elsewhere, discovered the anthrax spores were treated with the substance ...

I left the Atta headline in there because it is telling that it was also linked to the bentonite claim in the WSJ.

Later in the same ABC article, ABC has an anonymous WH source:

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had denied that bentonite was found on the letters, but another senior White House official backed off Fleischer's comments, saying "at this point" there does not appear to be bentonite.

The official said the Ft. Detrick findings represented an "opinionated analysis," that three other labs are conducting tests, and that one of those labs had contradicted the bentonite finding. But, the official added, "tests continue."

If you read the article carefully, it doesn't actually say that the 'second test' in the lede confirmed the presence of bentonite, but it does say that a WH source confirmed that Ft. Detrick found bentonite.

Now, look at how ABC characterized the situation when they responded to Greenwald in 2007:

You assert that sources "manipulated ABC News." The reality is that we reported what numerous, diverse sources believed to be true on October 26, 2001. As further tests were done, the story evolved as did our reporting and just days later we made it clear to millions of viewers that our original report was indeed wrong.

I think that one likely scenario is that ABC's sources, including their WH source, jumped from 'there is silica in the anthrax' to 'there is silica in bentonite' to 'tests show bentonite in the anthrax' because they wanted to pin the blame on Iraq. When it became obvious that there was no aluminum, and hence, no bentonite, they backpedaled by saying further testing showed. That's the MO of Cheney's operation. Maybe better questions for ABC would be:

How many of your sources were from the OVP?

Did you ever ask your other sources where they got their information?

Posted by: William Ockham at August 4, 2008 1:20 PM | Permalink

Recommend reading the at-largely blog written by Larisa Alexandrovna. She's writing about the antrhax event from a NYC local point of view and from an investigative journalist point of view in compelling posts here, here and here.

Posted by: Annie at August 4, 2008 2:47 PM | Permalink

I seem to recall that the UK recently had a similar story involving polonium.

Posted by: eddie at August 5, 2008 12:16 AM | Permalink

Eddie - Here's a to my review of a documentary about polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Please note quotes from journalist David Southwell in the review.

The anthrax case appears to be a classic false flag conspiracy.

Posted by: Ferdy at August 5, 2008 11:32 AM | Permalink

That is, here is the link:

Posted by: Ferdy at August 5, 2008 11:34 AM | Permalink

For the record, I returned to Tyndall Report's archive to see how our weekly report covered the TV networks' anthrax coverage in the last week of October 2001 (unfortunately the archive is not yet added to my Website -- I can e-mail a copy to those who want one). Anyway, it appeared that ABC's Ross was greeted by immediate skepticism at the time. It may be that these calls for accountability are overblown on the grounds of no-harm, no-foul.

From Tyndall Weekly 27oct01:

UNDER A MICROSCOPE The anthrax investigation is stymied, NBC’s Williams told us: “The FBI laboratory has yet to start analyzing the letters for fingerprints, DNA and type of ink. Technicians have to work out how to decontaminate them without harming evidence.” Microbiologists told ABC’s Brian Ross they had identified the spore-separating additive as Bentonite, “a trademark of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program.” The White House told ABC’s Terry Moran “flat out, it is not Bentonite” and CIA sources told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that the anthrax “probably did not come from Iraq.” She added that the State Department hiked its reward for Osama bin Laden to $25m, “but right now letters to the Bounty Program cannot be opened—they were sent to the mail center and may be contaminated with anthrax.”

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 5, 2008 12:15 PM | Permalink

You know when I read Greenwald's blog yesterday my thought was "I wish ABC News would respond but I bet they don't."

Because its merely writings on the internet. It can be ignored. Who even remembers who wrote what about anthrax seven years ago. If this drumbeat actually manages to get ABC to respond in any way that isn't self-defensive "Mistakes were made, but not by us." I'll be amazed.

Posted by: NewsCat at August 5, 2008 4:55 PM | Permalink

Jay -- Poynter's E-Media Tidbits just posted a thoughtful look at this issue by Kim Pearson:

I have an outstanding request for comment to ABC News' VP of standards and practices on this issue. Haven't heard back yet, but will update if I do. I'm hoping that ABC News might be more inclined to respond to queries from a venue that has a high profile and strong reputation among news orgs and professional journalists. (Not that you, Dan, and the other bloggers don't, of course. But media execs tend to flock to big brand names, and ignore independent bloggers and publishers and commenters if they can, IMHO)

- Amy Gahran

Posted by: Amy Gahran at August 5, 2008 5:33 PM | Permalink

Ross tells TVNewser that the immediate contradiction of his Bentonite report by the White House via his colleague Terry Moran was enough to alert viewers that his sources were making a tentative and inconclusive judgment.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 6, 2008 4:10 PM | Permalink

Does that make sense, Andrew? I think not. Ross continued to report the claim two days later, upping the sources of the bentonite claim from three to four. According to Greenwald, Ross on Oct. 28 said:

And despite continued White House denials, four well-placed and separate sources have told ABC News that initial tests on the anthrax by the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite and silica.

Still think he's leveling with us?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 6, 2008 5:00 PM | Permalink

Jay --

I think we can slice the question differently:

Is Brian Ross leveling with us?
Did ABC News report the story responsibly?

Taken as a whole, the World News Tonight newscast on Friday October 26th did not leave any impression whatsoever that Bentonite in Iraq was indisputably found in the anthrax. Add Ross’ report with Moran’s and nobody -- at the time -- could be in any doubt that an Iraq connection was highly speculative. I think my contemporaneous reporting on the coverage in my weekly report bears this out. The October 28th paragraph you note was on a Sunday so did not air on Peter Jennings’ World News Tonight. Was it broadcast or merely posted online? The next time Ross referred to Bentonite on the Jennings newscast, on November 1st, he said this to his anchor:

“Well, Peter, today the White House said that despite initial test results, which we reported, suggesting the presence of a chemical called Bentonite, a trademark of the Iraqi weapons program, a further chemical analysis has ruled that out. The White House says there are chemical additives in that anthrax including one called silica. Now that's not a trademark of any one country's weapons program but it is known to have been used by Iraq, Russia and the United States in making a military style anthrax.”

On that basis, World News Tonight appears to have reported aggressively but not misleadingly.

As for Ross, I must say that, for my taste, I find his style of distractingly sensational, even alarmist, often relying on innuendo or suggestions from blind sources in the place of declarative statements. Some of that goes with the genre of “investigative correspondent,” a tone that likes to give the audience the impression that he is an inside player in the world of spooks and spies and intelligence. That is my general impression about Ross -- and would certainly apply in this instance.

It is noteworthy that his response to TVNewser is careful to confine itself to his reporting on October 26th -- when Moran provided cover and balance to any error he may have promulgated -- and does not extend to subsequent dates. As such it seems carefully parsed and therefore mealymouthed, perhaps even sinking to the level of a non-denial denial

As for the October 28th reporting, Ross to this day seems to stand by the claim that “initial tests” did indeed find Bentonite. It just turns out that those initial tests were wrong. Thus his follow-up report was accurate but misleading. It is that technical “accuracy” that he appears to rely on in continuing to refuse to disclose the names of his sources. He seems to have concluded that they were not lying to him at the time; they were merely mistaken.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 6, 2008 5:34 PM | Permalink

It's probable that Ross's sources are so highly placed that outing them would be to commit suicide. *wink*

Posted by: R Fiennes at August 8, 2008 4:21 PM | Permalink

From the Intro