By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

ABC and anthrax: Case (almost) closed?

I want to expand a bit on what I wrote yesterday about ABC News reporter Brian Ross’ interview with TVNewser. 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.

To back up a bit: ABC News reported in October 2001 that three, and then four, anonymous sources were claiming the anthrax sent to then-Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle’s office contained a substance — bentonite — that marked it as being of Iraqi origin. In several of ABC’s stories, it was noted that the White House had denied there was any such connection. Nevertheless, some critics, most notably Glenn Greenwald of Salon, have suggested that this may have been a diversionary tactic, as the notion that Saddam Hussein was trying to poison us was certainly in the administration’s interests in building a case for war.

Then, on Nov. 1, Ross appeared on the air with another anthrax report. This time he said something more specific (quoted from TVNewser and verified on LexisNexis):

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.

As Greenwald noted yesterday, there was little reason at the time to think this was anything other than yet another White House denial, and that ABC was sticking by its story. (I’ve read the full transcript of the Nov. 1 report, and I agree.) But Ross’ comments to TVNewser make it reasonably clear that the network was, in fact, retracting its story. Not only was the White House denying the anthrax contained bentonite, he says now, but so were his anonymous sources, whom he has described as current and former government scientists. From TVNewser:

Ross says he was told it was not bentonite not just by the White House, but by the same sources from the original report. But by not telling viewers, some have questioned whether Ross’ sources were simply lying to ABC News to begin building a case against Iraq.

“It wasn’t meant to read that way,” said Ross. “From my point of view it gave national credibility to have on the record attribution and not some anonymous scientists.”

And yet, as Greenwald and others have pointed out, Ross’ stories reporting there was an Iraq-anthrax connection relied entirely on “some anonymous sources.” Somehow we were supposed to know that ABC had shifted from We’re sticking by our story despite White House denials to We’re retracting our story because of White House denials. ABC should have made it clear at the time that its anonymous sources had changed their minds, and that the network was retracting its story.

Although I have no reason to doubt Ross, I still think ABC News needs to grapple with this in a more transparent, systemic way. If Ross’ account is correct, then his anonymous sources were acting in good faith and there’s no need to expose their identities. But we deserve to know how ABC came to retract a significant scoop without anyone quite realizing the retraction had taken place.

Rosen is not mollified in the least; Gillmor takes a more measured view, though he, too, is unsatisfied.

What we’re all keeping an eye on now is the unfolding story about Bruce Ivins, the Army scientist who committed suicide last week just as it seemed that the authorities were closing in. The FBI’s case against Ivins as the sole anthrax attacker seems pretty persuasive, even though there are some obvious holes in it. We’ll have to see how well it holds up.

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  1. Jon Garfunkel

    re: “Somehow we were supposed to know that ABC had shifted from We’re sticking by our story despite White House denials to We’re retracting our story because of White House denials.“Bingo.You don’t need Twitter to say something succinctly. 🙂 That’s the essence of it.I’m trying to remember back seven years ago– it may have been a lull in our collective cynicism about what a “White House denial” really is. Sometimes a denial is, after all, just a denial.

  2. O_Rion

    McCain is on tape blaming the anthrax deaths on Iraq as well, appearing on the Letterman show. When Dave asked him about it the Senator offered no sources.

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