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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.

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