In 2001 the news organization referenced “three well-placed but separate sources” in a story that later turned out to be false. Is it still obligated to protect these sources’ identities?
After the story broke last week that Bruce Ivins — a government scientist who the FBI claims was responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks — committed suicide, virtually every news organization scrambled to find out more about the man and his alleged crimes. But Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald had a different — though related — question: Who fed ABC News false information in 2001 that those anthrax attacks were possibly linked to Iraq?
On October 26, 2001, investigative correspondent Brian Ross reported on ABC News that “three well-placed but separate sources” had claimed that bentonite, a form of clay, had been found in the anthrax used in the attacks. The presence of bentonite, ABC argued, linked the anthrax to Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program. The White House fiercely denied these claims and it was later reported by multiple sources that bentonite had not, in fact, been found. After that initial ABC report, several news media outlets and pundits referenced the story when making arguments for invading Iraq. What’s perhaps most notable about Brian Ross’s reporting is the fact that the three anonymous sources were basing their information off an “urgent series of tests conducted at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and elsewhere.” Fort Detrick just happens to be where Ivins worked for many years.
In a piece published last Friday titled “Vital unresolved anthrax questions and ABC News,” Greenwald called the false claims that appeared in the ABC report “the single greatest, unresolved media scandal of this decade.” Under the cloak of anonymity, the Salon columnist argued, these sources had fed Ross completely false information, a fact that raised a number of vital and troubling questions. Most importantly, who were these sources and were they deliberately misleading Ross in an attempt to tie the attacks to Muslim extremists? And if they did in fact deliberately mislead the correspondent, wouldn’t journalistic ethics call for their names to be outed?
I spoke to Greenwald on the phone yesterday, and he said that he stumbled on the 2001 ABC story completely by accident in April 2007. He had written a piece critical of another ABC News report and its use of anonymous sources that made claims about Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities. After his post ran, Greenwald was contacted by an ABC spokesman who he later spoke to on the phone.
“So I asked how people should believe this, given that there’s no way to know where the information is coming from,” Greenwald said. “His basic answer was that Brian Ross and ABC News have reputations for being highly regarded journalistic outlets, so we put our credibility behind the story, and that should lead people to believe that this is credible.”
Curious, Greenwald began looking into Ross’s “reputation,” and it was during this research that he came across that 2001 report. And after combing extensively through archived transcripts he couldn’t find a single instance in which ABC issued a formal correction to the story. It wasn’t until after multiple Salon posts on the issue that ABC definitively admitted that the story was false (though they asserted that by quoting White House denials in the reports that viewers had been made aware of the errors).
I asked Greenwald several questions about whether he thought Ivins or someone else responsible for the attacks had been among those that were referenced by ABC.
“I don’t know the answers to any of those questions,” he replied. “My main point is that we ought to know the answers to those questions, and that’s the only way we are going to know them, through an investigation. The striking fact about all this is that the anthrax attacker — according to the government — worked at the very same place the anonymous source came from, which was Fort Detrick. Maybe it was a complete coincidence, but it seems pretty significant to me that if a person from the same place where the perpetrator worked created a false story linking the attacks to something different, it’s a very worthwhile reason for an investigation.”
He compared this hypothetical investigation to ones initiated by other news outlets when reporters had botched stories or false information was published.
“I think first of all that this is a basic principal of journalism, that if you get a story wrong, you explain what happened that led to the bad reporting,” Greenwald told me. “That’s what the New York Times did to explain how they got those Judy Miller stories wrong. When people get stories wrong, the credibility of the journalistic outlet depends upon them explaining what happened. If Brian Ross wants to say, ‘our sources acted in good faith, they just got it wrong,’ then he needs to explain the basis of that.”
After his Salon piece was published, several media and journalism professionals agreed with Greenwald’s concerns, arguing that ABC should respond in some way. New York University professor Jay Rosen, for instance, posted “three vital questions” on his blog that ABC should answer. All of them centered around how the news organization got the story wrong and what it was doing to correct the false information that was spread, including possibly outing the sources.
Justin Peters, managing web editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, has been following the story with interest and is working on an article about it. I spoke to him on the phone today, and he told me that though he didn’t suspect ABC News had been trying to deliberately perpetrate any kind of fraud, they certainly needed to address the issue.
“At the very least, ABC should be working right now on some grand mea culpa along the lines of what the Times did after the Judith Miller stories, or even going back further, to Jayson Blair,” Peter said. “Pretty much setting out not that we got this story wrong. We know that, but how we got it wrong, what systemically allowed us to get this story so wrong and to flog it to the point that it was being used to embroil America in war. I really think at the very least that’s what they owe their viewers and themselves.”
I asked the editor to respond to the arguments made that ABC should out its anonymous sources, and whether this specific instance qualifies.
“Now, there’s always a possibility that [the sources] were working in good faith, that they were just supremely stupid or misinformed and got the story wrong,” Peters said. “If that’s the case it clouds the issue. ABC better be damn sure that these people were actually lying to them, that they were specifically trying to mislead Brian Ross in the aims of furthering some sinister end before they can out them. But I generally agree with the sentiment that investigative journalism is devoted to transparency, and anonymity is a weapon for transparency. It allows people with access to sensitive information to shield themselves from any backlash. When a source uses that privilege of anonymity to push an agenda, then I think a journalist is released from an obligation to protect that source’s identity at all cost.”
He said that anonymous sourcing has become romanticized by today’s journalists, a trend that results in a tendency to protect sources even when they no longer deserve protection.
“It’s not a zero sum game, where if I gave you bad information and therefore you’re dead to me,” he explained. “I mean, there can be a source that has given you five, six, seven things that have been reliable, a trustworthy person you’ve gone to for info. But if that person gives you bad intel one time, does that negate everything else that that person gave you? Does that mean that they were acting maliciously here? The trouble is that it’s very hard to prove intent. It’s hard to show that you’re being used.”
Though my attempts to contact an ABC spokesperson were unsuccessful, Brian Ross did respond to questions posed by TV Newser. In an article published today the ABC correspondent was quoted as saying that he still thinks the sources were acting in good faith.
“Their initial conclusion, based on microscopic examination was a brown substance that initially was reported as bentonite,” Ross told TV Newser. “We went back immediately after the White House told us it was not the case. We were told after further chemical analysis it was determined it was a silica, but not bentonite Ã¢â‚¬â€ something they had never seen before but had a brownish color.”
He confirmed that Ivins was not one of the sources (“If it was Ivins, I would report that in a second,” he said) and that what the sources told him “was accurate at that point in their point of view.”
So will this response quell the growing criticism that has been launched at ABC and its handling of the false claims? That’s hard to say. After TV Newser published the quotes, Greenwald put up a quick link to the article with a promise to write more about it later.
In an email, I asked Jay Rosen — the NYU professor who developed the questions that he wanted ABC to answer — whether he had seen the article and Ross’s explanation.
“I sure did,” he responded, “and if you can paraphrase his defense you are a better writer than I am.”