ABC News’ behavior surrounding one of its biggest “scoops” is already an object lesson of what’s wrong with American journalism. The news organization has proved unwilling — so far, at any rate — to come clean about how it was manipulated in the 2001 (and later) investigation into the anthrax attacks in the US following September 11.
The network’s hyperventilating broadcasts of leaked, false allegations purportedly tying the anthrax to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime — see Glenn Greenwald’s meticulous examination of the coverage — was bad enough. What the organization is doing now is journalistically unforgivable.
Pressthink’s Jay Rosen and I, among many others who care about the journalism craft, believe ABC has some big, vital questions to answer. Here are three:
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
Salon’s Greenwald has a batch of other questions in his follow-up piece today. They are all important.
But Jay and I believe the above three go to the heart of what ABC did, or didn’t do, in its journalism during those frightening days after the 9/11 attacks.
We hope that lots of people will respectfully ask these questions, too. (If you do a posting, please send either Jay or me a note — here’s my email — or post a link in the comments on our respective blogs.)
Unnamed sources are bad enough, but sometimes they’re necessary. My opinion about unnamed sources who use journalists to spread lies is simple. I would blow the whistle, period. This kind of behavior is beyond the pale. So is ABC’s behavior, in not telling us what happened.
Would blowing the whistle on lying sources lead to fewer sources? It might. Sometimes people don’t know they’re lying, when higher-ups tell them to do the leaking with misinformation fed to the sources in the first place. But the over-reliance on unnamed sources stains the journalistic craft in any case, and situations like this one encourage the public to believe absolutely nothing that relies on such sources (not a bad policy, actually, but dangerous in the cases where the sources are telling reporters about truly terrible behavior).
Even before the latest twists in the anthrax case, ABC News was deeply tarnished by its terrible journalism in 2001 and its protection of liars who may well be criminals. Every day that passes takes ABC further into the kind of scandal territory that, at some point, it cannot overcome.
Others who have weighed in on this issue (some before this posting and others it was published) include:
Kevin Drumm of the Washington Monthly, who wrote (and with more hope I’ve managed to summon up, given how long ABC has been aware of the problems with its story):
At a guess, Brian Ross is re-reporting this story as we speak. I’d be shocked if he were doing anything else — and I’d say that part of that re-reporting ought to include a full explanation of exactly who was peddling the bentonite lie in the first place, and why they were doing it.
At the New Republic, John Judis called for a congressional investigation. This will inevitably turn into a circus, given Congreess’ inability to do much but blather, but perhaps it would help at the margins.
Dan Kennedy, longtime media critic, agrees that “ABC has some explaining to do.” He makes the useful point that if ABC’s sources acted in good faith, however implausible that may sound (and I think the chances of good faith there are vanishingly small), then they should not be outed.