ABC News has some explaining to do. The suicide of Bruce Ivins, a government scientist who’s now being described as the principal suspect in the anthrax attacks that followed 9/11 (not that there’s a whole lot of evidence), has prompted renewed scrutiny of ABC’s sensational claim in October 2001 that the anthrax had been traced to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
At the time, ABC reporter Brian Ross said that “four separate and well-placed sources” had told the network that the anthrax sent to then-Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle contained traces of bentonite, evidence that the anthrax was of Iraqi origin. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who’s been busting ABC’s chops for years now, presents all the background of this miserable episode here, here and here.
For ABC, the best-case scenario is that its reporting was simply wrong, for whatever reason. (Greenwald notes that Ross reported the Bush administration’s denials at the time.) The worst-case scenario? Government sources deliberately used the network to make the public believe that Saddam was poisoning us with anthrax. The timeline Greenwald presents is disturbing, as it suggests the possibility that a scare campaign about anthrax was unfolding even before the first attack.
There are many questions and few answers. So today I’d like to lend my name to an effort being put together by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and Center for Citizen Media director Dan Gillmor to pressure ABC and Ross into answering three overarching questions:
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 had found the presence of 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 done 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?
A couple of caveats.
First, Greenwald tries hard to argue that ABC’s reporting contributed in some significant way in building public support for the war against Iraq. I don’t buy it. By the fall of 2002, when the White House began its final push for war, it was all about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, including nukes, and his supposed ties to Al Qaeda.
Second, there’s a possibility that ABC can give a reasonably full accounting without naming its confidential sources. Despite the evidence Greenwald has amassed, there’s a chance that ABC’s sources were acting in good faith. If that’s the case, then they shouldn’t be outed.
Still, this was a terrible moment in a series of terrible moments for the media. I doubt that a vigilant press could have stopped the war. But we’ll never know, because too many news organizations poured gasoline on the White House’s glowing embers.
I hope Ross and company at ABC News are saying nothing for the moment because they’re looking into what went wrong right now. But, as Greenwald observes, they’ve known their reporting was wrong for several years now but have done little. Let’s hope public pressure leads to a different outcome this time.