Props to TVNewser’s Steven Krakauer, who has an interview with Brian Ross of ABC News. Ross is the journalist who in 2001 fueled our national fears with his reporting on the anthrax killings, citing unnamed sources who falsely linked the anthrax attacks to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. In light of recent (and still somewhat murky) revelations in recent days, Jay Rosen and I asked three questions we hoped ABC would address. (Here’s my version; here’s Jay’s.)
Read the the questions, and then Ross’ response to TVNewser.
Essentially, Ross is saying that he was told by sources who believed what they were saying at the time; that the White House denied it; that ABC News reported that denial; and therefore everyone acted in good faith, including the network. The process he describes — three top scientists, and then a fourth, concluding that a material found in the anthrax is bentonite, thereby tying the attack to Iraq, before discovering, oops, that it wasn’t bentonite after all — is suspicious all by itself. But let’s assume they were making an honest mistake and were not playing him all along.
There’s another problem, a journalistic one that Ross dismisses: He did not tell his viewers that the scientist sources concluded they’d been wrong, and that they told him so.
The White House denial was enough, Ross told TVNewser, adding, “From my point of view it gave national credibility to have on the record attribution and not some anonymous scientists.”
Right, those same anonymous scientists who were the basis for his melodramatic reporting in the first place — the same sources who spurred him to report, sensationally but falsely, that the anthrax was likely coming from Iraq’s government.
Here’s how Jay paraphrases Ross’s response:
Q. Did you ever report that your three—sorry, four—sources had changed their minds, and that they were wrong the first time?
A. Now why would I do that? These were confidential sources. I had the fire department on the record telling me that it was not arson. That’s a lot better, don’t you think?
A news organization on a mission to keep its audience fully informed would have run a separate report saying that its fabulous sources from the original, sensational reports were now saying they’d gotten it wrong. This news organization preferred, for whatever reasons, to keep such highly relevant information from its audience.
If these events occurred the way Ross says they did — and if ABC has done sufficient homework to ensure that they were not part of a scheme to manipulate the network — then ABC would be justified in not revealing the the sources’ names now. That assumes a great deal. I hope some other journalists who work for other news organizations are probing those questions now, because it’s obvious to me that ABC will not.