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ABC Has Major Questions to Answer in Anthrax Story


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.

0 Comments on “ABC Has Major Questions to Answer in Anthrax Story”

  1. #1 Delia
    on Aug 4th, 2008 at 12:43 am

    I would think quite a few trustworthy sources would decline to provide info you cannot get any other way if they saw you exposed someone else’s identity, even if well deserved. D.

  2. #2 Craig McDonald
    on Aug 4th, 2008 at 6:15 am

    … which would be the price for knowing who perpetrated, or perhaps simply took advantage of, a case of deadly domestic terrorism which originated inside our own government.

  3. #3 Dan Kennedy
    on Aug 4th, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Media Nation joins the effort to pressure ABC News to account for its anthrax reporting.
    – Dan Kennedy

  4. #4 Saddam and Anthrax Attacks - US Message Board
    on Aug 4th, 2008 at 8:33 am

    […] of things: PressThink: Three Vital Questions for ABC News About its Anthrax Reporting in 2001 Center for Citizen Media: Blog Blog Archive ABC Has Major Questions to Answer in Anthrax Story more to […]

  5. #5 Media Channel - Home
    on Aug 4th, 2008 at 9:07 am

    […] for a big preamble. Dan Gillmor and I are posting these questions simultaneously. (Here’s his case for them.) We think ABC News should answer them. They arise from two columns by Salon’s Glenn […]

  6. #6 Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard » Blog Archive » ABC should reveal anthrax-Saddam connection sources
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  7. #7 No Time To Think » Blog Archive » Does ABC News Have Blood On Its Hands? A Tragic Rush To Judgment?
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    […] journalist Jay Rosen amplified them on his own blog–as did journalist Dan Gillmor on […]

  8. #8 Delia
    on Aug 4th, 2008 at 2:27 pm


    True, but should ABC be required to forgo trustworthy confidential sources in the future in order to get to the bottom of this *one* story, even if a very important one?


    P.S. you can also look at it from the public interest POV: are we all better off getting to the bottom of *this* story (and maybe a few others in the same category) and forgoing a lot more trustworthy confidential information in the future or are we better of accepting such isolated incidents of unfortunate duping as the trade off for continuing to get useful confidential info? D.

  9. #9 Alexandra
    on Aug 4th, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Delia, you’re offering possible consequences as a reason not to do what is otherwise clearly in our best interests today. If it’s eventual consequences you’re most concerned with then perhaps you should be considering the consequences of letting such “sources” know that they can game the system with impunity.

    These questions must be answered and let the chips fall as they may.

  10. #10 Drasties - Nou breekt me de klomp.
    on Aug 5th, 2008 at 2:31 am

    […] known. Several points to note: (1) Two prominent journalism professors – Jay Rosen of NYU and Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University and a […]

  11. #11 Delia
    on Aug 5th, 2008 at 5:41 am


    re: “These questions must be answered and let the chips fall as they may.”

    I think we should step back and choose the alternative that renders us better off. There is always a possibility to game the system, whether the source is confidential or not. And I think the consequences I am offering are probable, not just possible. No sources — confidential or not — can game the system *with impunity* unless they are allowed to do that. Doesn’t mean the investigation should be stopped — there should be legal means of getting the identity of the sources if this was indeed conspiracy to deceive the public.


  12. #12 m
    on Aug 5th, 2008 at 5:48 pm


    This particular matter is not about a free press exposing governmental wrongdoing, but rather the press being used as a weapon in the perpetration of the worst class of evil that a government can do — creating lies to justify an illegal war of offense– a “Crime Against the Peace.” Journalists can have no shield when they are either acting in a criminal manner, or being used by the government in a criminal manner.

    What about the time the Oliver North leaked info to Newsweek, then North turned around and blamed the Congress for same leak The reporter involved felt used and made it public. I think he was not only right to do this, but morally obligated to do so.

    It is clear that the ABC reporters were used and abused in this case for an illegal and immoral purpose, a contravention of the Geneva conventions, a “Crime Against the Peace” (an illegal offensive war). They have an obligation to help uncover this.

    The press has become corporatized. It is an integral part of the Corporativo Estado. It panders to the unitary executive, and no longer functions as the Fourth Estate. It transcribes the propaganda of the executive branch, shaping popular opinion rather than reporting news. Transcriptionists are not reporters, and should not have the same privileges.

    If a journalist can not distinguish between a source, and someone who is trying to manufacture propaganda, then it must be left to the courts. And yes, I believe that a court can differentiate between a Daniel Ellsberg and a Judith Miller. If they can’t, then nothing else much matters anyway.

  13. #13 Delia
    on Aug 6th, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    “If a journalist can not distinguish between a source, and someone who is trying to manufacture propaganda, then it must be left to the courts.” –> this appears to have been the case, ABC honestly (and not incompetently) thought those were credible corroborating sources.


    P.S. The identity of “the sources” can be obtained through legal means without compromising ABC’s ability of using trustworthy confidential sources in the future. In the mean time, this would send the right message to those would be dishonest future “sources”: the courts will expose your identity if you use confidentiality for nefarious reasons. D.

  14. #14 Jon Garfunkel
    on Aug 6th, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    Dan Kennedy followed up on this, finding that Steve Krakauer of TVNewser got an interview with Ross. I find his explanation plausible.

    With a previous thread in mind here, I just wonder whether Ross might have viewed you, Dan, Jay, or Glenn as perhaps as too strong advocate-journalists who may have already reached conclusions. As discussed many times, that’s the chief pitfall of spurning objectivity.

  15. #15 Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » ABC News Responds on Anthrax, Sort Of
    on Aug 7th, 2008 at 2:13 am

    […] « ABC Has Major Questions to Answer in Anthrax Story […]

  16. #16 Anthrax redux « John McQuaid
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  17. #17 Should ABC News Reveal Anonymous Sources in Anthrax Probe? Bloggers Say Yes by Kim Pearson « Word to the Universe
    on Sep 12th, 2008 at 6:03 pm

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