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Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

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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 7, 2008

"The Whole Anthrax Case Would Make For a Good Journalism Class." Brian Ross Responds.

This week Dan Gillmor and I posted our questions for ABC News about its reporting in October, 2001 linking anthrax attacks in the US to Iraq. Brian Ross, the reporter on the case, has now responded. But I wouldn't say he brought clarity to the matter.

For the background see Three Vital Questions for ABC News About its Anthrax Reporting in 2001 (PressThink, Aug. 4, 2008.)

Q. Could you tell us what happened?

A. Three confidential sources told us it was arson. Just before deadline, the fire department called. “It was not arson,” a spokesman said. So I reported: “Arson! Three sources said so.” Later, a colleague of mine went on the air to report what the fire department said: that it was not arson. I immediately went back to my sources and asked them: guys, what’s going on here? A couple days later, a fourth source said it was arson. So I reported that: four sources now say arson, though the fire department says no. Then a few days after that I again reported what the fire department said: that it was not arson, even though our sources had said it was arson. By this time, my sources had changed their mind: not arson, they all said. So I think our audience was kept well informed throughout.

Q. I see… Well, did you ever correct your first report, stating that it was arson?

A. I just told you: six days after I reported that it was arson I reported that the fire department said it was not arson. That’s a correction.

Q. But the fire department had said it was not arson even before your original report, so why did you—

A. Because on first inspection my sources said it was arson, okay? They later came to a different conclusion. That’s not my fault. You’re only as good as your sources.

Q. Did you ever report that your three—sorry, four—sources had changed their minds, and that they were wrong the first time?

A. Now why would I do that? These were confidential sources. I had the fire department on the record telling me that it was not arson. That’s a lot better, don’t you think?

Q. Well, don’t you think your original report might have created some fears in the community that an arsonist was at large?

A. It’s absurd to charge the fire department with trying to create fear in the community. They were the ones who said it wasn’t arson. I don’t get where that comes from.

Q. So you’re satisfied that everything was on the up-and-up?

A. You know, this whole incident would make a great case study in journalism school.

That, in effect, is what Brian Ross of ABC News told Steven Krakauer of TV Newser yesterday in response to the three questions that Dan Gillmor and I had for him and his bosses. Here, see for yourself: Ross Responds to “Vital Questions” About Anthrax Report. I defy anyone to make better sense of what Ross says in this interview than I just did in my fictional Q and A.

Be sure to compare what Ross says with Glenn Greenwald’s account of what ABC News reported here and here. And tell me if you think I have done him an injustice. I don’t think I have.


  • Ross says just before air on Oct. 26, the White House called and said that no bentonite was found in the anthrax mailed to different targets in the U.S. But he went with his story anyway, placing a very large bet on his sources and noting White House denials.
  • Ross says those sources thought they were right based on first inspection until they thought they were wrong based on further inspection. “You’re only as good as your sources,” he told Krakauer.
  • Ross obviously thinks that reporting on the sixth day of the story the White House’s statements available on the first day of the story constitutes adequate notice that his sources had changed their minds and that his original story was wrong.
  • Ross doesn’t bother to explain how the White House could have learned there was no bentonite in the anthrax except from the very sort of “well placed” scientists he was relying on to say there was bentonite. This complication doesn’t trouble him.
  • Ross says, “My sources were good, we just got information that became outdated before they could update.” Outdated before they could update? That sounds like he’s claiming his sources didn’t know of the White House denials that came in just before air time on Oct. 26. But as Greenwald notes ABC continued to report that bentonite had been found, a telltale sign of Iraqi involvement, on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29.
  • Indeed on Oct. 29, Ross expanded his claims to “former UN weapons inspectors say the anthrax found in a letter to Senator Daschle is nearly identical to samples they recovered in Iraq in 1994.” So what could “outdated before they could update” possibly mean?
  • Ross says he never reported that his unnamed sources changed their minds because he had the White House on record saying his reports were wrong. “”From my point of view it gave national credibility to have on the record attribution and not some anonymous scientists.” Even though “some anonymous scientists” were fine for reporting on the Iraqi connection, when it came time to correct that report their anonymity worked against them.
  • In response to Greenwald’s argument that ABC’s faulty reporting added urgency and emotion to the gathering case for war (see also the Boston Globe) Ross says: the White House denied there was bentonite from day one, so how could anyone make that charge?
  • In reviewing his performance, Ross says, “The whole anthrax case is one of the things that would make for a good journalism class.”

Let’s go back to my three questions and see what we have learned:

1. Were you lied to or misled by your sources?

Ross: No, they were good, truthtelling people. “We just got information that became outdated before they could update.”

2. 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?

Ross: “Our sources were current and former government scientists who were all involved in analyzing the substance in the letter.” (But apparently different scientists than the ones the White House relied on to say, on the record, “no bentonite.” Two teams working independently of one another, perhaps? Or conflict within the White House itself?)

3. 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?

Ross: Nothing. But this would make a great case study for a journalism school.


* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Glenn Greenwald interviewed me for Salon radio about this episode with ABC News. Our 15 minute Q & A is preceeded by an interview with Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Associate Editor of the quarterly journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. Here’s the transcript. A highlight:

The watchdog press died under Bush. We may have a watchdog press again some day, it could be reborn. But it died. And really the only way we’re going to know that full story is through some kind of, almost like a media truth and reconciliation commission, which I have no hope for. But without that kind of effort like that, we’re simply not going to know.

WNYC’s On the Media did a segment on the reporting of the anthrax case. You can listen to it here.

Dan Gillmor writes:

A news organization on a mission to keep its audience fully informed would have run a separate report saying that its fabulous sources from the original, sensational reports were now saying they’d gotten it wrong. This news organization preferred, for whatever reasons, to keep such highly relevant information from its audience.

If these events occurred the way Ross says they did — and if ABC has done sufficient homework to ensure that they were not part of a scheme to manipulate the network — then ABC would be justified in not revealing the the sources’ names now. That assumes a great deal. I hope some other journalists who work for other news organizations are probing those questions now, because it’s obvious to me that ABC will not.

Dan Kennedy: “I think Ross largely met the challenge about his anthrax reporting posed earlier this week by Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor, even if he didn’t answer their three questions point by point.”

John McQuaid agrees: He says Ross “for the most part substantively addressed” the questions, and it seems ABC wasn’t duped by war mongerers spouting phony science.

But the reason this was important - and not just a technical question of journalistic ethics - is that today such a scenario is no longer unthinkable, or even unlikely. After Watergate, big media viewed itself as an effective check on government. Post-Iraq, that’s no longer the case. The media has still not really come to terms with how much has changed - neither the breakdown its own authority and credibility in the Internet age, nor the extent of the Bush administration’s reality-molding project and its own role in that. So when ABC makes a mistake like this, it’s necessary to ask: what agendas are in play here, for the government and the network?

Assuming Ross has told us everything, it looks like the agendas in this case were mainly the old-fashioned kind. Scientists and investigators thinking they just might have a smoking gun and wanting to tell the world. White House officials exercising caution, not wanting to indiscriminately hype a shaky, premature conclusion(!). ABC betting it might have the scoop of the century, even if the White House said no. And so on.

What I still don’t get, John, is which scientists conducting tests were telling the White House it wasn’t bentonite and couldn’t be Iraq, while at the same time other scientists conducting tests were saying it was bentonite and might have been Iraq. The White House wasn’t being “cautious;” they were ruling it out! Cautious would have been: “Maybe, maybe not. Let’s wait for more tests.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 7, 2008 12:54 AM   Print


You are much too kind to Ross. He claimed to have a WH source contradicting Fleischer on Oct. 29.

Posted by: William Ockham at August 7, 2008 7:57 AM | Permalink

Where are you getting that? He continued saying that his sources contradicted the White House, but a White House source that contradicted the White House?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 7, 2008 9:00 AM | Permalink

When Ross came up with that bit about teaching a journalism class out of this, I couldn't help thinking that the better reaction would be to make this the first example in that study on "How Journalism Failed Us" that you've been calling for, Jay.

Greenwald's work last week clearly described a reporting situation that demanded a great deal of measured skepticism. It's always easier to spot those situations in hindsight, but at the very least ABC ignored multiple red flags.

Expecting ABC to become transparent about that failure now, however, foolishly misreads what ABC is. It's a for-profit corporation. That's it. That's all.

Posted by: Daniel [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 7, 2008 10:00 AM | Permalink

The determined refusal to think seems to be Brian Ross's definition of journalistic ethics. This is brain-dead zombie nonsense.

Why can't you understand that a journalist's resolute refusal to either understand or take responsibility for his actions is the height of responsibility, Jay!? What is your problem?

The kicker is that he seemingly imagines his zombie journalism is a shining example for us all.

How to Kill a Zombie. "Zombies have one vulnerabilty: the brain. If you destroy the brain, you defeat the zombie. Simply removing limbs or knocking it out will not rekill it."

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 7, 2008 12:57 PM | Permalink

Troubling Anthrax Additive Found; Atta Met Iraqi

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."

Fleischer added that no test or analysis has concluded that bentonite is present in the Daschle anthrax, and "no other finding contradicts or calls into question" that conclusion.

Reading from what he said was a sentence from the report prepared by scientists at Fort Detrick, he told ABCNEWS, "It is interesting to note there is no evidence of aluminum in the sample." Aluminum, Fleischer said, would also be present if bentonite was.

Posted by: Tim at August 7, 2008 1:20 PM | Permalink

Thanks for staying with this story, Jay - I really wish I had taken one of your classes when I was at NYU!

On a side note, I have yet to see anyone point out that the Bush Administration seems perfectly capable of directing Brian Ross' sources to tell him one thing while the White House put out a different story for the purpose of plausible deniability. I wish I could convince myself that that is a crackpot conspiracy theory...

Posted by: Michele Rosen at August 7, 2008 1:27 PM | Permalink

The crackpot conspiracy theories that have formed the basis of much of the viral spread from Greenwald's analysis will be used to turn the question of credibility from Ross to the blogosphere, and rightfully so.

Arrogant, unaccountable, anonymously sourced "investigative journalism" has "failed us" and destroyed media credibility for decades. It has also become a weapon in the partisan culture-wars.

If criticism of Ross and ABC moves from journalistic standards and credibility to "blood is on your hands" criticism, Ross wins and bloggers lose.

Posted by: Tim at August 7, 2008 2:18 PM | Permalink

Tim -- thanks for the link to the full posting by Ross et al from October 29th, 2001.

Read the entire article and it is journalism of breathtakingly poor quality. Its prose style is almost impenetrable and its threshold criterion for newsworthiness is laughably low.

For example: "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..." One would imagine that "backing off" would consist of contradicting Fleischer's denial. Yet this is what "backing off" means to Ross et al: "'at this point' there does not appear to be bentonite"--which is actually not backing off at all. It is a sort of confirmation, albeit a hedged one.

Then there is the section on the reported (since contradicted) April 2001 meeting between Iraqi consular official al-Ani and hijacker Mohammed Atta. Ross et al post the following: "The meeting, along with Iraq's stockpiles of biological weapons, have led some to question whether Atta -- and [Saddam] Hussein -- were not somehow behind the anthrax attacks in the United States. 'There are reports that one of the things that may have happened at that meeting was that [Atta] was given by the Iraqi some sample of anthrax,' former U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler told ABCNEWS. 'We do not know if that is true. I believe it is something that should be investigated.'"

What sort of journalism is this for crying out loud? Who are these "some" that ask these questions? What is the meaning of "somehow" in the "not somehow behind"? Which are the "reports" that Butler refers to? And check out the qualifiers and disclaimers in Butler's quote: passive unidentified reports...the sample that "may have" been given...a truth that is not investigation that is not under way...a belief that it should start.

The decision to rate Butler's pusillanimous soundbite as newsworthy enough to be included in a published story "would make for a good journalism class," to coin a phrase.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 7, 2008 3:48 PM | Permalink

Andrew, spot on.

Check out this set up by Roberts to Rumsfeld the day before on This Week:

ROBERTS: Now, there is a perception, certainly, here in Washington that part of the reason that this war is not widened to go--you talked about going after terrorism all over the world--to go into Iraq, and you heard Brian Ross's report that the confirmation that Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official, and this suspicion about anthrax and Iraq, and that this administration doesn't want to say the word "Iraq" for fear of having to go in, and that then the Arab world could fall apart.

Posted by: Tim at August 7, 2008 8:26 PM | Permalink

Rosen: "... scientists conducting tests were saying it was bentonite and must have been Iraq."

Must have been Iraq? Where are you getting that from?

ABC News Articles About Anthrax

Additive Made Spores Deadlier (WaPo, 25 October 2001)

The presence of the high-grade additive was confirmed for the first time yesterday by a government source familiar with the ongoing studies, which are being conducted by scientists at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick. Four other experts in anthrax weapons said they had no doubt that such an additive was present based on the high dispersal rate from the letter to Daschle (D-S.D.).

"The evidence is patent on its face," said Alan Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories' Center for National Security and Arms Control. "The amount of energy needed to disperse the spores [by merely opening an envelope] was trivial, which is virtually diagnostic of achieving the appropriate coating."

David Franz, formerly of USAMRIID and now at the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, said, "In order for a formulation to do what the one in Daschle's office appears to have done – be easily airborne – it would require special treatment."

Posted by: Tim at August 8, 2008 8:11 AM | Permalink

Anthrax concern grows in D.C.

Tim Trevan, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, told ABC News that as a result of the discovery of bentonite in the anthrax, "Iraq becomes the prime suspect for anthrax used in these letters."
Google News Timeline for "Iraq+anthrax+bentonite"

Google News Timeline for "Iraq+anthrax"

Posted by: Tim at August 8, 2008 8:21 AM | Permalink

A NATION CHALLENGED: THE BACTERIA; Officials, Expanding Search, Warn Against Drawing Conclusions on Anthrax Source
Published: October 26, 2001

One expert familiar with the investigation of the Senate anthrax said that a microscopic examination of the spores showed that they were surrounded by a tiny brown ring. This, he said, would be consistent with the use of bentonite.

Posted by: Tim at August 8, 2008 9:53 AM | Permalink

Tim: "must" was too strong, so I changed it to "might."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 8, 2008 1:09 PM | Permalink

When Brian Ross and crack investigative reporters at ABC feature stories about professional misconduct, lapses and ethical missteps by doctors, lawyers, civil servants, teachers, social service workers, or heaven forbid even plumbers, housing contractors and auto-assembly workers, there are calls for those investigated to have their licenses revoked or workers suspended or fired. But when it comes to investigative reporters examining their own codes of conduct and ethical lapses, they'll sweep it under the rug, pretend nothing happened, refuse to do follow-ups, then exposed with their pants around their ankles will summarily laugh it off as if it's no big deal. Journalists routinely expect to be treated as professionals, but when you hold their feet to the same fires expected of legitimately qualified professionals, they expect to be treated with kid gloves. What's worse, these journalists not only get away with malpractice time and again, they routinely get promoted for it. It's a double-standard and a disturbing lack of accountability.

Posted by: Billy Bob Tweed at August 8, 2008 5:47 PM | Permalink

The most probable explanation for the contradictory assertions of Ross' sources and the White House is the "two teams" hypothesis -- two different sets of tests were run, Ross' sources at first believed the ones saying there was bentonite, and the White House believed the ones saying there wasn't. Afterward a third set of tests came in negative, and convinced everybody; Ross' sources therefore told Ross they'd got it wrong the first time. Other explanations imputing villianous actions to the White House are possible, but honest error is more likely than malice.

The only person involved who is, beyond doubt, dishonest and untrustworthy is Brian Ross himself; for it is proven, out of his own mouth, that he concealed his sources' retractions from the public. That is the scandal here.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at August 8, 2008 8:43 PM | Permalink


In my own view, the watchdog press died under Bush. We may have a watchdog press again some day, it could be reborn. But it died.
What a silly thing to say to Glenn Greenwald on Salon radio.

First of all, watchdog journalism died under Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal/impeachment. It had been waning for 20 years, but that was the low point.

The biggest gap between the people and the press is over the way news media play their watchdog role. Almost all journalists are sure that media scrutiny of politicians is worth the effort because it prevents wrongdoing. But the percentage of Americans thinking that press criticism impedes political leaders from doing their jobs has increased from 17 percent in 1985 to as much as 31 percent in 1999, when the public was especially angry over the media's handling of the Lewinsky scandal. In the center's most recent survey, 25 percent subscribe to that view, while the number saying they value the press's watchdog role has fallen to 60 percent from 67 percent in 1985. Many Americans see an ill-- mannered watchdog that barks too often - one that is driven by its own interests rather than by a desire to protect the public interest.

Posted by: Tim at August 8, 2008 9:29 PM | Permalink

Conflicting Views of Watchdog Roles (2005)

By contrast, public support for the news media's role as a political watchdog has endured and even increased a bit. Six-in-ten Americans say that by criticizing political leaders, news organizations keep political leaders from doing things that should not be done; just 28% feel such criticism keeps political leaders from doing their jobs. Two years ago, 54% endorsed the press's role as a political watchdog.
Internet News Audience Highly Critical of News Organizations (2007)
Views of Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007
One factor behind this may be the public's broad and continuing support for the news media's role as political watchdog. Currently, 58% say that by criticizing political leaders, news organizations keep political leaders from doing things that should not be done, while just 27% say such scrutiny keeps political leaders from doing their jobs.
The share of Democrats who believe that press criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing wrong has increased since Bush's first term, and is now as high as it was in the 1980s. Meanwhile, less than half of Republicans see press criticism serving a valuable role. Currently, just 44% of Republicans believe press criticism of leaders does more good than harm – far lower than the share of Republicans holding this view under the Reagan (65%) and Bush Sr. (63%) presidencies.

Posted by: Tim at August 8, 2008 9:42 PM | Permalink

Lastly, watchdog journalism ebbs and flows based on complex social and cultural factors (pdf) with it being the exception in America more than the rule.

Posted by: Tim at August 8, 2008 9:45 PM | Permalink

Jay, my sense is that the conflicting accounts coming out of Ft. Detrick and the White House would not be unexpected in this type of situation. Ross said ABC was talking to scientists either doing the actual testing or with direct knowledge of it, who thought they might have a giant smoking gun. But there were multiple layers of bureaucracy/political appointees between those guys and the White House. The WH was likely getting info from supervisors much higher up the chain who would have been far more cautious, not wanting to tell the White House something that could turn out to be wrong the next day. Middle managers filter information. Or, they might have told the White House bentonite was a possibility, but it was too early to tell. Or they might not even have known about the bentonite claim - maybe the scientists decided to put it out there immediately rather than be told not to say anything about it. There are a lot of possible scenarios.

Posted by: John McQuaid at August 8, 2008 10:04 PM | Permalink

Tim: I didn't say the watchdog press started dying during the reign of Bush. But that is when it finally went belly up. I don't see how poll findings settle the matter one way or the other. Of course watchdog journalism is the exception more than the rule; who said it wasn't? Investigative journalism gets under 5 percent of the resources in newsrooms, yet carries 75 percent of the glory-to-us banners.

John: I'm still struck by how definitive the White House was able to be, and how pathetic was the attempt by ABC News to create some division between White House sources.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 9, 2008 11:44 AM | Permalink

Jay: We disagree, then. Watchdog journalism has not gone belly up. It has not ceased at the local or national level.

There have been a number of "watchdog journalism" reports during the Bush administration. Ask the opponents of Bush what issues they want to base impeachment on and where did they learn about these issues to prove my point.

Ask the congress critters under investigation or indictment about the belly up watchdog press.

Heck, ask the Mayor of Detroit.

It's a silly "those were the good ole days" myth.

I don't offer polls as definitive. Please add your own assessment using other metrics over time (decades) to prove your point. I'd enjoy your links.

Posted by: Tim at August 9, 2008 12:19 PM | Permalink

Jay -- I too was struck by how categorical Ari Fleischer's denial was. You are assuming that his denial was based on information from microbiologists analyzing spores, thus your skepticism about dueling teams of scientists. Did Fleischer actually cite microscopic analysis as the basis for his denial? If not, there could conceivably have been another way for the White House to be certain that the spores did not contain the trademark Iraqi bentonite -- namely by knowing even as early as October 2001 that they originated from Fort Detrick. Fleischer's source contradicting Ross' microbiologists could have been from the Pentagon, relying on nonmicroscopic forms of intelligence. You remember that NBC's Andrea Mitchell relied on CIA sources, not the White House, to contradict Ross' Iraq-trademark reporting at the same time as ABC's Terry Moran relied on Fleischer. Surely the CIA would have based their contradiction on intelligence rather than microbiology. It would be telling to discover how early the FBI zeroed in on Detrick scientists -- first Hatfiill then Ivins -- as their suspects.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 9, 2008 12:49 PM | Permalink

Laboratory Network for Biological Terrorism; to understand the information sources available to Ross and the White House.

On Oct. 4, 2001, CDC confirmed the first case of the 2001 anthrax attacks in a 63-year-old Palm Beach County, FL, man who was exposed to B. anthracis at his workplace.... Between October and December of 2001, LRN laboratories successfully and accurately tested more than 125,000 samples, which amounted to more than 1 million separate bio-analytical tests.

Posted by: Tim at August 9, 2008 2:05 PM | Permalink

Tim: Yes, investigative journalism still gets done, though I think you'll find lots of it is published outside the MSM these days. What's dead now is the myth of The Media as a public institution entrusted with the special right and duty of exposing corruption among the powerful. That's what the poll figures prove; they couldn't show that journalism has changed, but they do show that belief in journalism has been broken.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at August 9, 2008 6:25 PM | Permalink

re: watchdog media truth and reconciliation commission

October 2, 2001: We can't say they didn't warn us

Finger-pointing is discomfiting in the light of the unique malevolence of the atrocity at the World Trade Centre, but the print and electronic press, which has been legitimately pointing the finger at gaps in the intelligence system, has so far failed to point the finger at itself.
November 14, 2001: Cynthia Tucker, the editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, delivers the 24th Annual Ralph McGill Lecture - "The role of the press in the post-September 11 world"
News organizations gave up their historic roles as government watchdogs and conduits of critical information to give news consumers what we believed they wanted.

Posted by: Tim at August 10, 2008 6:30 PM | Permalink

Ed Lake's website ( attempts to extract the facts from the various published articles, and debunk conspiracy theories blaming al Qaeda, or the government, as the perpetrator.

According to the website and Preston's "Demon in the Freezer", there were mistakes and false assumptions made during the early testing of the anthrax in October 2001, leading to the belief that the anthrax contained additives. Testing had barely started when the scientists were summoned to report to the White House (24th). These misleading reports were combined with assumptions and speculation by experts (scientists and UN weapons inspectors) as they were leaked, without sanction, to the press (New York Times, Washington Post (25th & 26th)). The investigators held a press conference to emphasize that it was early days (25th), but by then, the press had their own speculating experts, and wanted a sensational story. The investigators attempted to quash the rumours with a formal report (31st). Throughout the week, the White House spokesman repeatedly denied that the anthrax contained bentonite.

ABC began running its bentonite story on 26th, while also running the White House denials. The White House spokesman said that ABC felt he was covering for Iraq. ABC formally retracted the bentonite story on Nov 1st. Typically, the retraction was low-key. (Press accusations are on the front page, while the apologies are buried inside.) Note that these dates match those above.

ABC has said that silica additive was mistaken for bentonite. The scientists didn't report bentonite on the 24th (the supposed additive was unknown), but believed they found silica on the 25th.

The leaks didn't fuel anti-Iraqi sentiment. In fact, the Washington Post story ruled out Iraq as the anthrax source. Anti-Iraqi sentiment was already present because of Iraq's history with anthrax. However, the leaks started the conspiracy theory of an illegal American bioweapons program.

White House hawks pushed an investigation to tie Iraq to the anthrax, but the evidence wasn't there. The anthrax was Ames strain, and could have been manufactured in any reasonably equipped small laboratory.


Lake has commented on the ABC story to say:
“But we’ve already gotten lots of information about the problem of scientists making assumptions about things they’ve never seen before and telling the media, which then turns the assumptions into presumed facts because they came from scientists.”

He cites a Times story from Oct 28th in which William Patrick mentions the 'brown substance' alluded to by ABC, saying that a Fort Detrick scientist told him. Patrick also featured in the New York Times story mentioned above. On Oct 26th, a New York Times article quotes a scientist, familiar with the investigation, reporting brown rings consistent with bentonite.

Lake attributes the brown substance to contamination from tests performed by the original HazMat unit, at Daschle’s office.

Posted by: Mike at August 11, 2008 8:02 AM | Permalink

While ABC were sensationalist and relied on experts who speculated on rumours (along with the New York Times and the Washington Post), Greenwald lied throughout his articles on the bentonite story to spread his propaganda.

On April 9th 2007, Greenwald endorsed and highly recommended Lake's website and book. So, he's familiar with the story of the initial misleading tests, unsanctioned leaks and sensationalist reporting, featured prominently within.

Then, Greenwald took quotes out of context from ABC's reports to emphasize their blaming of Iraq as the anthrax source. Yet, ABC fully qualified their statements at the time. Specifically, that both the White House and the scientists had denied the presence of bentonite, that the presence of bentonite did not prove that Iraq was either the manufacturer or the sender, and that Iraq was not known to have produced an anthrax weapon in powdered form. Any claims that 'the anthrax looked like samples recovered from Iraq in 1994' are actually claims that the anthrax had been manufactured by professionals, rather than by amateurs.

Then, Greenwald claimed that ABC's bentonite story was hugely influential in convincing America that Iraq perpetrated the anthrax attacks. Yet, the article cited to support this makes it clear that the anti-Iraqi sentiment was entirely based on Iraq's history with anthrax. He claimed that ABC never retracted the story, and that it continues to influence the press to this day. However, he has greatly exaggerated this by citing articles by authors pursuing their own anti-Iraqi agendas, of which he can cite only a handful. His citations from the mainstream press don't mention the story at all. Finally, he claimed that the 2002 State of the Union address subtly blamed Iraq for the anthrax attacks. Yet, the address made no such claim.

On April 11th 2007, Greenwald reported that ABC had reminded him of their Nov 1st retraction, to which he responded that he already knew about it, and of their continuous repeating of the White House's denials. He then attempted to argue that the retraction was not a retraction by applying spurious grammatical semantics to a single sentence. In fact, ABC devoted a significant part of their report to an explicit denial by the scientists themselves.

Forget the Nov 1st report. ABC performed a de facto retraction by the very act of dropping such a sensational story, after only five days. Testifying to the effectiveness of this retraction, the story disappeared, not only from the mainstream media (assuming it ever appeared), but also from channels pursuing their own agenda against the Iraqis.

Finally, Greenwald claimed that the White House hawks invented the bentonite story, lying to ABC, to falsely blame the anthrax attacks on Iraq, to bolster the case for war. Which directly contradicts Lake's story of misleading early tests, unsanctioned leaks, and sensationalist reporting.

Greenwald's rant of August 1st 2008 is a rehash of the same material. He has yet to make any meaningful comment on ABC's reply of August 6th.

Posted by: Mike at August 11, 2008 8:09 AM | Permalink

I appreciate your efforts here. However, I have one your contention that Ross should not have gone with his sources, since the institution that they worked for denied their story? That would seem to be a difficult premise to defend, since so much of our current knowledge of adminsitration shenanigans depend on whistle-blowers who are actively impugned by the authorities that they work for. Or are you arguing, that Ross should have made an official retraction to the story once the sources denied their previous leak and fell in with the White House. It seems like you are doing a bit of both. Let me say, to be clear. I think ABC handled this in the exact same way it has handled almost every story involving national security and foreign policy in the last two decades--horribly.

Posted by: omooex at August 11, 2008 12:36 PM | Permalink

In no way do I see ABC's Nov. 1 report as a "retraction." Course correction maybe, but that is all. Retraction means you made a mistake. Ross does not believe he made any mistakes; his sources were wrong but he was right to report what they said, he believes.

Omooex: I do not contend that Ross should have accepted the White House denials uncritically, no. Rather, the situation called for more caution. And after he learned his sources were wrong, more correction.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 11, 2008 9:17 PM | Permalink

Is there a double standard for Greenwald and Ross? Will we see a retraction for this 2007 statement?

How can ABC and Ross justify continuing to conceal the identity of these sources -- some of whom, presumably, were and still are in the Bush administration -- when those sources concocted lies with the intent to manipulate Ross and the American public into believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the anthrax attacks?
That's strong stuff. No room for doubt. Then, last week:
Those issues should include exploration of the following questions, many of which might well have perfectly reasonable and benign explanations, and some of which may not ....:

# Who were the "four separate and well-placed sources" who told ABC News, falsely, that tests conducted at Fort Detrick had found the presence of bentonite in the anthrax sent to Tom Daschle, causing ABC News to aggressively link the attacks to Iraq for five straight days in October, 2001? [Salon, 4/9/2007];

# Who was responsible for the numerous leaks even before the ABC News bentonite reports linking the anthrax attacks to Iraq? [The Guardian; 10/14/2001; Wall St. Journal Editorial, 10/15/2001 ("Is Iraq unleashing biological weapons on America?"); CNN, 10/15/2001].
Mike (above) makes a good case against Greenwald.

Posted by: Tim at August 12, 2008 7:01 PM | Permalink

A “de facto” retraction? Wow. I was going to let that leap of logic go until another commenter thought that was part of a good case against Greenwald. So the mere fact that I have quit declaring the Moon to be made of Swiss cheese means that I am “de facto” retracting all of my previous statements and that one should deduce from my current silence that the Moon, in fact, is not made of Swiss cheese? At what point precisely does my continued silence on the matter become a “de facto” retraction?

If that is the threshold under which we are now working, then any lie or misstatement of fact would be deemed acceptable (or not subject to repercussion, at least) as long as one stops making the lie or misstatement at some point in the future. Basically, we are saying that journalists have no responsibility for the accuracy of the information they are disseminating currently. Unfortunately for this point of view, people tend to make decisions and form opinions in real time based on information presently available, and have an expectation of reliability in the sources from which they are gathering the information. Furthermore, as all propagandists realize, the opinions that ultimately stick tend to come from the earliest reports. Yes, first impressions do matter, which is why retractions must be explicit to the erroneous report(s).

This issue is not about Greenwald, so the lame mischaracterizations of his arguments are irrelevant and not worth the time to refute. He was not the reason 48% of the public as of late November 2001 believed the anthrax letters were foreign-sourced, one month after the Ames strain was first identified as the anthrax in the letters. He was not the reason 70% of the public as of August 2003 believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. He is not the reason we still don’t know for sure who was responsible for the letters.

Brian Ross claimed "four well-placed and separate sources" to support his story, which by most measures would be a pretty strong assertion of its veracity. “Well-placed” implies that the sources were in the know and “separate” implies that they were independent of one another and not in collusion on the story. Ross has now identified them as “current and former government scientists who were all involved in analyzing the substance in the letter,” which is great variance with his initial description of his sources, particularly regarding the “separate” assertion. In addition, we have four apparently-veteran members of a professional community whose cornerstone is evidence-based objectivity immediately crying “bentonite” when not a single test conducted before or after their declaration suggested its presence. If no tests had produced this result, then why did these supposedly experienced scientists all "separately" reach the same faulty conclusion?


Jay, enjoyed your discussion with Greenwald the other day.

Posted by: rollotomasi at August 13, 2008 8:19 AM | Permalink

rollo: "This issue is not about Greenwald ...."

The issue is not about Ross or Greenwald, but rather journalistic standards and responsibilities. I don't think Ross met them in his week long anthrax reporting from 26 Oct - 1 Nov 2001. I don't think Greenwald meets them, either.

Are you saying Ross/ABC is responsible for the 48-40% split in the Nov. 26-27 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in late November for the foreign/domestic source? Are you saying that the Ames strain could not have been used by foreign terrorists, and Ross is responsible for anyone believing it could be?

If you believe the anonymous scientists are responsible for all that ("... immediately crying “bentonite” when not a single test conducted before or after their declaration suggested its presence.") and they were part of a conspiracy that "concocted lies with the intent to manipulate Ross and the American public into believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the anthrax attacks," is Greenwald to blame for that?

Posted by: Tim at August 13, 2008 11:39 AM | Permalink

More polling from the fall of 2001, including anthrax.

Posted by: Tim at August 13, 2008 12:10 PM | Permalink

More polling from the fall of 2001, including anthrax.

Posted by: Tim at August 13, 2008 12:12 PM | Permalink

Tim, you are trying to equate a single paragraph cherry-picked from the bowels of Glenn Greenwald’s 4/9/2007 piece to false information that formed the entire basis of a story that ABC and Brian Ross ran day-after-day to an already-spooked national audience. I challenge you to find a more inflammatory paragraph from Glenn’s whole piece, which was titled "The unresolved story of ABC News' false Saddam-anthrax reports", not "ABC sources concocted lies to fool the public", btw.

There is simply no comparison between the two stories - the much broader scope and social make-up of ABC’s audience, the siege mentality of the country at the time of ABC’s story, ABC’s much broader effect on public opinion and national policy, ABC’s focus on straight dissemination of information (news story) versus Glenn’s critique (opinion) of ABC’s dissemination, and, most importantly, the relative accuracy of the information presented. These vast differences obviously are not apparent to all.

Or maybe Tim is employing the same shoot-the-messenger rhetorical tactics that, say, global warming skeptics employ on Al Gore. Just as the skeptic sympathizers rummaged through garbage bins and/or utility company documents for Gore’s utility bills in an attempt to prove Gore is no better than the rest of us, so Tim roots through Greenwald’s long piece looking for that nugget that equates Greenwald to ABC, all in the name of “journalistic standards and responsibilities,” of course.

Tim wonders since Glenn demands that ABC issue a retraction of their news story, why shouldn’t Greenwald issue a retraction of this one paragraph of a long opinion piece. Well, had Tim bothered to go to the end of Glenn’s piece in his treasure hunt, to UPDATE II, he would have found that Glenn covered that precise issue in real time. A commenter, Science Guy, questioned how Glenn could be certain that the sources were not themselves lied to by others:

However, I think that the issue of Brian Ross' sources might be a little more complicated than you present. I think it is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the sources themselves had been lied to. In other words, the sources themselves may not have fabricated the story but were (knowingly or not) passing along a falsehood. In this case, the source of the falsehood should be identified, but that source might not be known to Ross.

Glenn’s response:

That's possible, but I don't think they would have published this story (and certainly shouldn't have) if at least one of their sources didn't have first-hand knowledge of the tests. One of the things I noted in the post from last week is that there is a report where Ross said -- "Former UN weapons inspectors have told ABC News they've been told the anthrax spores found in the letter to Senator Daschle are almost identical in appearance to those they recovered in Iraq in 1994" -- which lends support to your point.

But in other reports, they definitively stated that the bentonite was found and that multiple "highly placed" sources (a term inapplicable to "former UN weapons inspectors") told them that.

So Greenwald not only addressed the certainty Tim and Science Guy noted head on, he addressed it within three hours of his original post, for those so concerned about journalistic integrity. Greenwald’s timely response to Science Guy is perfectly consistent with the later, less-certain Greenwald quotes that Tim cherry-picked for contrast. Whether or not it was any of Ross’s four “well-placed and separate” sources or someone else on whom the four sources relied (which would kind of mess up the “separate” assertion), someone somewhere pulled the benzonite information out of their backside and Brian Ross does not seem to care to get to the bottom of it.

This comment is already way too long, but Bush/Cheney were admittedly looking to pin the anthrax letters on Iraq early on. Given that and the administration’s mindset of fixing reality that Prof. Rosen has discussed at great length, what would be so surprising about a few “well-placed” scientists sympathetic to the cause finding a Troubling Anthrax Additive?


Posted by: rollotomasi at August 13, 2008 11:56 PM | Permalink

ahem ... Journalists, their lying sources, and the anthrax investigation

That is exactly what ABC News' "bentonite" sources did in the anthrax case -- "used that relationship as a cover for lying" and thus "broke the implicit contract." ABC News is not only permitted, but obligated, to reveal to the public who did that.
rollo, Greenwald's opinion pieces are always long and often contain inflammatory statements. Do you really need a list? How comprehensive would you like it to be? 10 examples? 50? 100?

I'm not "shooting-the-messenger" when it comes to Greenwald or Ross; however, that is a common accusation to deflect criticism. I'll also offer that since you know nothing about me, lay off the ad hominem speculation. Your passionate defense of Greenwald says more about you than my comments above.

In no way do I see Greenwald's update as a "retraction." Course correction maybe, but that is all. Retraction means you made a mistake. Greenwald does not believe he made any mistakes.

Posted by: Tim at August 14, 2008 5:39 PM | Permalink

Ahem, Tim … since you could not find a more inflammatory paragraph in the 4/9/07 piece as challenged, you had to search through Greenwald’s later pieces, which had nothing to do with the point I was making about cherry picking and quoting a piece out of context. Unfortunately, the nugget you selected from the later piece did not quite match up either, unless one considers covering up a lie more accusatory that concocting it. So, rather than putting you out for the 50 or 100 meaningless examples, I’ll settle for just one example from the 4/9/07 piece as originally challenged.

And make no mistake, even if the four “well-placed and separate” sources did not concoct the lie originally, at some point in the process, the four and Brian Ross became proud owners of it through their continued nondisclosure of what transpired, and Greenwald is entirely appropriate on calling them out for providing cover for the lie. Glenn has no responsibility to do the job that Brian Ross and his sources won’t.

As for ad hominem speculation, I really am not speculating about your intent to make this all about Greenwald; I’m quite sure of it. And I must commend you for succeeding to a degree, as I noted in my first comment that Greenwald is not the issue here and not worth the time to discuss.

Also, recognizing another’s rhetorical devices is not an ad hominem comment. I’m afraid it is you with the greater passion about Greenwald, as I would just as soon talk about Brian Ross, but I guess talking in terms of who is more passionate is sort of ad hominem, isn’t it? Oh, and what, precisely, does my (“passionate”) defense of Glenn say about me? And isn’t attacking Greenwald as having a long and inflammatory style kind of ad hominem, too?

Finally, expecting a retraction from a blogger, who arguably overstated things in one paragraph of a long piece and immediately updated his piece to flesh this out with a commenter, and furthermore trying to equate this with a national news network that never retracted reports erroneously implicating another country behind an unprecedented act of bioterrorism in our country, shows such breathtaking lack of perspective that one would be remiss not to question your sincerity and motives.

Posted by: rollotomasi at August 14, 2008 10:35 PM | Permalink

OK, rollo, this will be my last comment on this.

Greenwald has stated as fact -- on separate occasions, the most recent on 3 August 2008 (a year after your "Science Guy" update) -- that Ross is obligated to name his four sources because they lied. Not they were wrong. Not if they lied. They lied, according to Greenwald and he's not wrong about that, or at least has not retracted that.

If in making that point, I failed to meet some obligatory challenge you required of me, I apologize.

I do agree with you that ABC and "Brian Ross became proud owners" of the bentonite story when their sources told them they were wrong about bentonite and Ross didn't tell his audience. I agree with Jay that the 1 Nov story was not a retraction of the "sources" initial report.

Now, I'm done talking about Ross or Greenwald (or anyone else) on this thread.

Posted by: Tim at August 14, 2008 11:38 PM | Permalink

Fair enough, Tim ... You say Greenwald did not fully meet his journalistic obligations and I say he did, with flying colors. I think we're past Prof. Rosen's normal closing time on this one.

Posted by: rollotomasi at August 15, 2008 12:29 AM | Permalink

From the Intro