The stakes are too high to tolerate errors such as Brian Ross’ whopper about Flynn

Brian Ross at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Photo (cc) by Disney/ABC Television Group.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The tribalism that infects our public debate ensures that the monumental error committed last week by ABC News’ Brian Ross will have little effect among those already inclined to reject anything reported by the mainstream media. After all, members of the Trumpist 35 percent would have dismissed Ross even if Ross had been correct in reporting that President Trump ordered Michael Flynn to contact the Russians.

But for those of us who care about the reputation of the reality-based press (to borrow a phrase from Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan), Ross’ mistake at a key moment in the Russia probe could prove enormously damaging. As Jeff Greenfield, one of journalism’s éminences grises, said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” over the weekend, “This is exactly what Trump and his allies want to say: ‘No matter what you hear on mainstream media, it’s fake. They’re doing it to hurt us.’ And this is like handing a sword to the people who want all media to be looked at in that regard.” Moreover, as Greenfield noted, the damage was done by a reporter with exceptionally dubious track record, a theme I’ll return to below.

But first: Last Friday, after former national security adviser Michael Flynn pled guilty of lying to the FBI, Ross, a longtime investigative reporter, took to the airwaves to share some explosive news. Multiple news organizations had already revealed that Flynn would likely testify that President Trump himself had asked Flynn to reach out to Russian officials during the transition — problematic given that President Obama had not yet left office, but hardly catastrophic. Ross, though, went one giant step farther. Citing one anonymous source, Ross said Flynn would testify that Trump had “directed him to make contact with the Russians” during the campaign, “which contradicts all that Donald Trump has said at this point.”

This, needless to say, was very close to the smoking gun that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking for. And it was wrong. Within hours, ABC News issued a “clarification,” explaining that Trump’s directive to Flynn did not come until after Election Day. Critics howled at ABC’s defensiveness, which led the network to relabel its statement more honestly as a “correction.” Soon came additional news: Ross would be suspended for four weeks without pay, and would no longer report on the White House.

Voices on the right were gleeful. “The advertised rage among executives at ABC is hard to take seriously,” wrote George Neumayr at the conservative American Spectator. “Ross, after all, has long been paid by them to slap together politically useful smears. They are just upset that he got caught on this one.” The president himself took to Twitter, as is his wont, and suggested that investors sue ABC for the damages they had incurred when the stock market plunged after Ross’ report. CNN media reporters Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter got a copy of a molten memo from ABC News president James Goldston in which he said:

I don’t think ever in my career have I felt more rage and disappointment and frustration that I felt through this weekend and through the last half of Friday. I don’t even know how many times we’ve talked about this, how many times we have talked about the need to get it right. That how we have to be right and not first. About how in this particular moment, with the stakes as high as these stakes are right now, we cannot afford to get it wrong.

What was inexplicable about all this was ABC News’ terrible judgment in letting Ross go live with breaking news at such a moment. This is, after all, a journalist whom Gawker once called “America’s Wrongest Reporter,” and for good reason. Jeff Greenfield put it this way: “I’m going to be very blunt about this. I’m sorry. This is not Brian Ross’ first mistake in reporting breaking news inaccurately.”

In The Washington Post, Paul Farhi detailed some of Ross’ whoppers over the years, from misidentifying the mass shooter in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012 as a tea-party activist to erroneously claiming that the anthrax mailings that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were somehow tied to Saddam Hussein. Though Farhi acknowledged that Ross has broken some big stories and won numerous awards, he also wrote: “All journalists make mistakes, but Ross’ blunders have often been spectacular — and unusually plentiful for someone of his prominent status in broadcasting.”

It is precisely because of Ross’ mixed record that few media observers have come to his defense. On Twitter, author and educator Dan Gillmor raised the possibility that ABC News should reveal the identity of his anonymous source if that source deliberately lied to Ross. It’s not an outlandish idea. Last week, The Washington Post outed an anonymous source, Jaime Phillips, after determining that she was lying to them about being an underage victim of Albama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and that she was actually an undercover operative for the right-wing activist group Project Veritas. But no one forced Ross to air a major news development on the basis of one anonymous source.

After CNN abruptly fired three journalists last June over a botched report about Anthony Scaramucci’s ties to Russia, Politico media columnist Jack Shafer wrote that the punishment seemed too harsh. (This was before Scaramucci’s brief star turn as Trump’s communications chief.) Shafer wrote:

In hindsight, it’s easy to say CNN shouldn’t have gone with such a flimsy, improperly vetted story. Unfortunately, journalism isn’t a hindsight business. Journalism happens in real time, against a deadline clock, and in a competitive atmosphere. Only ombudsmen, press critics and libel attorneys get to second-guess what they do.

Shafer has not weighed in on the Ross matter. But surely the fact that Ross was suspended rather than fired and has multiple past transgressions on his résumé make this very different from the CNN firings, the reasons for which were never fully explained, as this New York Times post-mortem makes clear.

Then again, it seems reasonable, if not likely, that Ross will leave ABC News rather than return after his suspension is over. In their report for CNN.com, Darcy and Stelter quote several anonymous colleagues of Ross who said that his return at this point would be untenable. “No one wants to work with him,” said one.

Ross’ retirement would be the best for everyone involved. At a moment when news organizations such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and others are breaking important news about the Trump White House seemingly every day, it is vital to preserve credibility with those members of the public who actually do trust the media.

As James Goldston said, the stakes right now are incredibly high. And as Jack Shafer said, maybe they’re too high if they don’t allow for the errors that are inevitably committed. But that’s the moment in which we find ourselves.

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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.

ABC’s non-correction correction

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald writes that ABC News now claims that it corrected its story on the Iraq-anthrax connection way back on Nov. 1, 2001.

But as Greenwald notes, all ABC’s Brian Ross did on that date was say that the White House disputed the network’s reports that some of the anthrax could be traced to Iraq. That’s not new: ABC had included the White House’s denials in every one of its stories. Nor, according to Greenwald’s research, did ABC ever retract its stories or say that they were wrong.

Not good enough. ABC still needs to make a full accounting as to what went wrong.

More: Ross’ statements to TVNewser bring us closer. It may be that ABC’s big mistake was not making it clear at the time that it was retracting its stories. If that’s what it was doing.

And by the way: I should make it clear that I’m feeding on Jay Rosen’s posts on Twitter.

Anthrax, Iraq and ABC News

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.