National journalists believe you should trust them

An interview with ABC News executive Jeffrey Schneider on ABC's claims about Iran's nuclear program reveals how journalists perceive themselves.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(Updated belowUpdate IIUpdate IIIUpdate IV)

I had what I consider to be an illuminating discussion this morning with Jeffrey Schneider, Senior Vice President of ABC News, concerning the story published (and broadcast) by ABC’s Brian Ross and Christopher Isham on Monday. That story claimed that “Iran has more than tripled its ability to produce enriched uranium in the last three months” and therefore “Iran could have enough material for a nuclear bomb by 2009.”

A reader had contacted Schneider, who told the reader that the post I wrote criticizing the story was “outrageous.” I thereafter emailed Schneider to request an interview about the story, and we spoke this morning for 20 minutes or so.

My principal criticism of the ABC story was that it was exclusively predicated on what ABC vaguely described only as “sources familiar with the dramatic upgrade.” It did not include a single other piece of information about the identity of the “sources” who were making such dramatic, consequential, and potentially war-inflaming claims — not even whether they were government or private sources, American or Iranian (or some other nationality), or whether they have any history that evinces a desire for regime change in or war against Iran. For that reason, the story seemed worthless, given that it was impossible for the reader to assess the credibility of the assertions.

First, the following is a summary of the discussion (and I told Schneider to feel free to correct anything written in this post and I will post whatever he writes):

Schneider began by explaining that decisions about the use of anonymous sources in a story such as this one are “approved at very high levels” at ABC News. The sources for this specific story are, he claimed, ones with whom ABC has a “long relationship” and are ones they “find credible.” He said that both ABC News itself and these specific reporters have proven “over a very long period of time” that they are reliable and credible journalists. He emphasized on several occasions that after I wrote my post on Tuesday, it was announced that Ross had been awarded a Peabody for a story he worked on last year. He said he found that “ironic” and specifically requested that I include Ross’s new prize in whatever I wrote.

When I kept pressing the actual question at the core of my criticism — why did ABC not provide any information about its sources? — Schneider kept asserting, with no rationale at all, that to do so would compromise their identity. The question I pressed as much as possible was how it could be that providing at least some background information to assess whether these sources are worth listening to could “compromise” their identities. On that topic, he would only say that the decision was made “at very high levels.” When pressed further, he did claim that ABC’s sources for this story are “numerous and diverse.” Unlike the New York Times and The Washington Post, ABC News, according to Schneider, has no publicly available written polices governing its use of anonymous sources.

In response to my central point — that a story of this magnitude and potential impact should not be passed on without at least some information enabling an assessment of the credibility of the sources (or, at the very least, should include an explanation as to why such information was being concealed) — Schneider’s response was that there is a way for the reader to assess the credibility of the story. Namely, because ABC News and the reporters in question have “proven over a long period of time” that they are “very reliable” (Brian Ross won a Peabody Award), the fact that they have assessed this story as credible is, by itself, sufficient to render it newsworthy.

In essence, then, the story which ABC News published is not that “Iran has more than tripled its ability to produce enriched uranium in the last three months.” Instead, the story is most accurately described as one which conveys the fact that some unknown individuals whom Ross, Isham and others at ABC News trust asserted that this was this case.

Since ABC refuses to disclose any information to allow the reader/viewer to make such assessments for themselves, what determines whether one views this story as meaningful or of any worth at all is the answer to one question: do you have sufficient faith in the judgment and integrity of ABC News to rely blindly on its assessments, made in secret, about who is and is not credible when it comes to claims that could contribute to spawning a new war against Iran?

Many Americans lack that trust — not because of anything ABC News specifically did or did not do (like most news outlets, they do have journalists who have done good investigative work, including Ross). Instead, it is because, throughout the Bush presidency (and even before), the national American media as a whole has been extraordinarily gullible, if not outright complicit, in disseminating all sorts of patent falsehoods under the guise of unidentified agenda-driven sources. As but one example, a 2005 Harris poll found that most Americans distrust their media, and the distrust is far more pervasive than exists in Europe: “A 62 to 22 percent (almost 3-to-1) majority of Americans did not trust ‘the press’; Europeans were split 47 to 46 percent.”

And at least one key reason for that distrust is both clear and compelling. Many Americans who more or less did trust the judgment of the country’s most respectable media outlets were severely betrayed, when they supported an invasion of a sovereign country based exclusively on patently false claims that were uncritically though aggressively disseminated by the American press. For that reason, distrust of the media has been substantially heightened, and that is so particularly when it comes to stories — like the ABC News one here — that bolster the Bush administration’s warnings of a “grave threat” posed by whatever country happens to be The New Nazi Enemy of the Month.

I would speculate that most national journalists — certainly the ones with whom I have interacted following media criticisms and/or observed responding to criticism of others — simply do not recognize, acknowledge, or accept the level and intensity of distrust for what they report, particularly when their behavior appears similar to the government-boosting conduct that led us into Iraq. Most of them will acknowledge that there were isolated instances of gullible or even biased and corrupt reporting during the Bush presidency (call it The Judy Miller Concession), but they believe that none of that resulted in — nor should it have resulted in — any significant change in how their profession is perceived and in the level of mistrust which Americans have for what they report.

They still think that the phrase “ABC News” means that whatever follows will be presumed credible and reliable. But that just isn’t the case any more. And that’s why stories which rely exclusively on placing virtually blind faith in the judgment of such organizations are likely to be disregarded (except by those whose pre-existing political agenda is advanced by the story).

Schneider, though somewhat combative at times, was perfectly rational and civil, but the crux of his defense was this: we are ABC News, the award-winning and respected news network of Peter Jennings, and we can therefore be trusted when we say that these sources are credible. That was the premise on which many Americans previously operated, but it isn’t any more. Personally, before I will be convinced that Iran is accelerating its nuclear capabilities beyond what even the Bush-led American intelligence community claims, I would need some proof. And ABC News’ conclusory insistence that unidentified trustworthy people said it was so is not “proof.” Not even close.

I think it’s quite problematic for a citizenry to have so little faith and such overwhelming scepticism in the statements of its most important institutions, including its government officials and media. But the Bush presidency generally and the War in Iraq specifically are towering testaments to why such deep scepticism and mistrust are warranted.

Journalists find any criticisms based on that lack of trust to be “outrageous,” because they think they’ve done nothing to deserve it. They see themselves as trustworthy and solid professionals with a record that merits great respect and faith. After all, they win Peabody Awards. Their failure to recognize just how fundamentally broken their profession has become — and how little faith so many people have in it — explains, more than anything else, why they are not really changing how they operate. It also explains why they are incapable of understanding criticisms of this sort as anything other than outrageous (or “partisan-motivated”) slander.

UPDATE I: Atrios points to the first of what I imagine will be many examples today rebutting the entitlement of trust touted by ABC News (and again, ABC is by no means unique, merely illustrative). And just to preempt the inevitable response, disgraceful incidents like the Jessica Lynch Fraud are not mere “mistakes” which “everyone makes” and therefore can just be corrected and then forgotten afterwards.

Instead, such incidents reflect a fundamental defect in how national journalists operate — fueled by excessive, really mindless, trust in people who are not trustworthy, but instead are using them. And because they see those incidents only as isolated mistakes reflective of nothing, nothing ever changes.

Schneider condescendingly contrasted the vaunted “vetting process” used by ABC News with the alleged ability of bloggers to just say whatever they want with no fact-checking mechanisms (no blogger-journalist exchange is complete without that assertion), but whatever “vetting process” they are using is manifestly insufficient. Other than national journalists themselves, who could read those Jessica Lynch excerpts, or any of the pre-Iraq-war reporting, and reach a different conclusion?

UPDATE II: Each time I emphasized to Schneider that the media’s behavior in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion compelled them to be particularly scrupulous with stories like the one they broadcast on Iran’s alleged nuclear acceleration, Schneinder would claim that ABC News was not really culpable with pre-Iraq-War reporting, and even suggested that Peter Jennings was some sort of stalwart challenger of the administration’s WMD and Iraqi threat orthodoxy.

I didn’t, and don’t, recall anything specifically that ABC News did or did not do during that period, but this interesting list of rather ignominious episodes, compiled by FAIR, strongly suggests that ABC News was — at least — just as gullible and accommodating to the Bush administration when it came to alarmist (and false) claims about Iraq.

UPDATE III: I don’t think that Brian Ross and Chris Isham won a Peabody for this ABC News report, from October 26, 2001 (confirmed via Lexis):

Despite a last-minute denial from the White House, sources tell ABCNEWS the anthrax in the tainted letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was laced with bentonite. The potent additive is known to have been used by only one country in producing biochemical weapons — Iraq.

ABCNEWS has been told by three well-placed and separate sources that initial tests on an anthrax-laced letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have detected a troubling chemical additive that authorities consider their first significant clue yet. . . .

As far as is known, only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons. . .

While it’s possible countries other than Iraq may be using the additive, it is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program.

On October 28, 2001, Ross himself went on ABC News to discuss — as Vanderbilt University’s Television Archives put it — “the significance of the discovery of bentonite in the anthrax sent to Senate majority leader Tom Daschle,” “the possible link to Iraq,” [and] “details recalled of the meeting in the Czech Republic of hijacker Mohamed Atta with an Iraqi intelligence officer.”

That ABC News report, even as early as November 2001, led various warmongers to cite that report in order to argue for war against Saddam on the ground that he was likely responsible for the anthrax attacks, and they still cite that report to this day to imply the same thing.

UPDATE IV: Amazing — I never realized this before, but I now see that Brian Ross was, far and away, the journalistic leader and the real pioneer in trying to claim a connection between Saddam and the anthrax attacks (as well as between Saddam and the 9/11 attacks).

On October 29, 2001, Ross “reported” this on Good Morning America (all via LEXIS):

Former UN weapons inspectors say the anthrax found in a letter to Senator Daschle is nearly identical to samples they recovered in Iraq in 1994. The UN inspectors shut down much, but not all, of the Iraq bioweapons program blowing up a facility, Al-Hakum, where inspectors believe Iraq was preparing to mass produce weapons-grade anthrax. . . .

And under an electron microscope, trace amounts of telltale additives are matching up, according to at least four well-placed sources, although the White House denies it.

Also on October 29, on ABC’s World News Now, this is what ABC’s viewers were told:

DEREK McGINTY, co-anchor:

ABC News has learned that the anthrax in the letter mailed to the Senate contained an additive called bentonite. It’s a substance used to make anthrax more dangerous. And the question of where that chemical came from has turned attention back to a terrorist ring leader of the September 11th attacks. ABC’s Brian Ross has the details.

BRIAN ROSS reporting:

New questions about a possible Iraqi connection, given the disclosure of a meeting in Prague earlier this year between hijacker Mohamed Atta and a senior Iraqi intelligence officer.

The same day, with George Stephanopolous, Ross said:

George. Former UN weapons inspectors have told ABC News they’ve been told the anthrax spores found in the letter to Senator Daschle are almost identical in appearance to those they recovered in Iraq in 1994 when viewed under an electron microscope.

On October 28, on ABC’s This Week, Ross said:

At the same time those [anthrax] results were coming in, officials in the Czech Republic confirmed that hijack ringleader, Mohammed Atta, had met at least once with a senior Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, raising what authorities consider some extremely provocative questions.

Once Ross was done strongly insinuating that Saddam may be behind both the 9/11 and anthrax attacks, he was followed on the program by Donald Rumsfeld, and Cokie Roberts used Ross’ highly inflammatory claims concerning Iraq to all but demand from Rumsfeld an explanation as to why we have not yet attacked Iraq:

ROBERTS: Now, there’s a perception, certainly, here in Washington, that part of the reason that–that this war is not widened, to go–you talked about going after terrorism all over the world, to go into Iraq, and you heard Brian Ross’ report, the confirmation that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official and the suspicion about anthrax in Iraq, and that this administration doesn’t want to say the word Iraq for fear of having to go in, and that then the Arab world could blow apart.

Mr. RUMSFELD: This administration is not afraid of saying the word Iraq. Iraq’s been on the terrorist list–list for–for years. There is no question that–that Iraq is a state that has committed terrorist acts and has sponsored terrorist acts.

ROBERTS: Do you think it was–the meeting with Mohammed Atta was significant in terms of September 11th?

Mr. RUMSFELD: I–we will know that only after the proper law enforcement people investigate that. Clearly, the meeting is–is not nothing, it is something notable.

ROBERTS: And the reports that the anthrax could have been tampered with by this betonite, that is Iraqi-based?

Mr. RUMSFELD: I am really not into could haves and might haves. I–I–I think that in–in a position of responsibility in a government, I’ve got an obligation to talk about what I know about and–and to not speculate about those things. And I know that serious people are looking at both of those matters seriously.

Might a rational person have ample grounds for refusing to place faith and trust in Brian Ross’s secret, non-transparent judgments, in reliance on his very, very trustworthy (he swears) completely anonymous sources? And let’s re-cap again the vaunted ABC “vetting” process that distinguishes them from those reckless, unreliable bloggers: “Former UN weapons inspectors have told ABC News they’ve been told the anthrax spores found in the letter to Senator Daschle are almost identical in appearance to those they recovered in Iraq in 1994.”

But they don’t think they did anything wrong. They actually think they were one of the leading examples of great journalistic work in the pre-Iraq-war era. And, for exactly that reason, they haven’t changed how they do anything, certainly not fundamentally.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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