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Monday, August 04, 2008

ABC News and the anthrax story

In the years since 2001, I had largely forgotten what it felt like to live under the sustained fear of unimaginable terrorism hovering over our collective conscience. But it all came rushing back in the wake of suicide death of Bruce Ivins, the FBI's lead suspect in the anthrax attacks of October 2001. 

Salon's Glenn Greenwald has two compelling pieces (here and here) that call into question ABC News' role in perpetuating the Islamic extremist, Saddam Hussein, Iraqi biological weapons role in perpetuating that fear and the warmongering against Iraq that resulted. There are many serious questions to be asked of ABC News, namely who were its unnamed sources. 

Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor have posted three questions for ABC News and I'll add my voice to the chorus of those seeking accountability in the reporting process. 

Three Vital Questions for ABC News About its Anthrax Reporting in 2001

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 showed 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 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?
Greenwald's columns also illustrate other questionable actions, such as the tip Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen received about taking Cipro to ward off deadly effects of anthrax. He accepted privileged information and used it for his personal benefit. 

Interestingly, Greenwald's column also sheds a bit of insight into the federal shield law debate. Readers of CI know that I am opposed to legislating reporter's privilege because I believe the First Amendment applies to everyone. The press should not receive a special privilege. As it's written the Free Flow of Information Act does more to protect journalism as a business (in other words the large media organizations) than it does to protect individual journalists. And there are enough exclusions and exceptions to render its protection meaningless.

Good journalism, particularly investigative journalism, is hard work and any notion that the government is helping to make that job "easier" is abhorrent to me as a journalist. Greenwald writes:
Source confidentiality is premised on a model of journalism where the media is adversarial to the Government, and safeguarding the anonymity of sources is the only way to find out what the Government is doing. But these days, so frequently, the media serves as an arm of the Government -- the Government uses the establishment media to disseminate propaganda and outright lies to the public (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, Saddam's aluminum tubes) or even uses leaks to the media to commit crimes (as it did in the Plame case). When the journalists who are used to spread these lies or commit these crimes then conceal who it is who has done such things, they are complicit in the Government wrongdoing, key enablers of it.
By endorsing the sanctity of that Government-media relationship through shield laws and the like (which I've always supported in the past), it's actually -- perversely -- bestowing the Government with yet another tool to shield its misconduct from the public.
(Bold is mine.)


Valdis Krebs said...

Part of the "culture of corruption" that is so prevalent in DC... and in our own backyard in Cuyahoga County. DC is now a non-stop Watergate... like a Groundhog Day[Bill Murray movie] of hijinks... a constant game of : who is it this week?

Privilege leads our government officials, and the media that cover them, to believe that laws are not for them, they are only for the common people.

Wendy A. Hoke said...

Good point about privilege, Valdis. I came face to face with that sense of privilege in October 2005 when I interviewed Judith Miller just after she was released from prison. She talked about her sources as if they were talking to her personally, not a reporter from the New York Times.

The Libby trial was also a travesty in that it put on public display the cozy nature of Washington politic/media relationship.