Story location:

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.


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