Response from ABC News re: the Saddam-anthrax reports

ABC News now claims that it did previously acknowledge error and retract its false Saddam-anthrax reports. But that claim is as false as the original reports themselves.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

In response to the post I wrote regarding the multiple October 2001 reports from ABC News falsely linking Saddam Hussein to the anthrax attacks, I received the following e-mail from ABC’s Jeffrey Schneider (emphasis added):

Glenn – Had you contacted us for comment prior to posting your story – or done a little research yourself – you would know that ABC News and Brian Ross did in fact update and clarify our original Friday, October 26, 2001 Anthrax/Bentonite report and quickly.

On Tuesday, November 1, 2001, Brian Ross had the following exchange with Peter Jennings on World News Tonight:

JENNINGS: And, Brian, what’s the latest we know about the additive called bentonite in the anthrax which made it so allegedly dangerous?

ROSS: Well, Peter, today the White House said that despite initial test results which we reported suggesting the presence of a chemical called bentonite, a trademark of the Iraqi weapons program, a further chemical analysis has ruled that out.

The White House says there are chemical additives in that anthrax including one called silica. Now, that’s not a trademark of any one country’s weapons program, but it is known to be used, Peter, by Iraq, Russia and the US in making a military-style anthrax.

You assert that sources “manipulated ABC News.” The reality is that we reported what numerous, diverse sources believed to be true on October 26, 2001. As further tests were done, the story evolved as did our reporting and just days later we made it clear to millions of viewers that our original report was indeed wrong.

Thanks.

Contrary to what Schneider tries to imply, this is, in fact, the first time ever that ABC News is acknowledging that its Iraq-anthrax report — flamboyantly trumpeted for five straight days — “was indeed wrong.” Schneider here is apparently trying to insinuate that what Ross said to Jennings at the end of that November 1 report constituted some sort of retraction, acknowledgment of error, and/or explanation — and not just a retraction, but a satisfactory one — for ABC’s completely false and highly consequential “scoop.” I find this response truly amazing on several levels.

Initially, I will note that not only was I aware of the November 1 Jennings-Ross “exchange” when I wrote my post, but I expressly noted in my post the following:

While ABC, from the beginning, noted that even the White House publicly denied the bentonite story, they have never retracted, corrected or even explained their false reports.

There was nothing new about that November 1 exchange. Exactly as I noted in the post, Ross, from the beginning, stressed that the White House denied his Iraq-bentonite report, and that is all he did in the November 1 comments as well (which came at the end of a lengthy anthrax report). Ross’ sentence — which ABC News is now trying to claim was an admission of error of their five days of previous reporting — was, in fact, nothing more than a repeat of what ABC and Ross said every day when they reported this false story:

October 26 — World News Tonight: PETER JENNINGS, anchor: “We’re going to begin this evening with what we believe is a meaningful lead in the most sensitive anthrax case so far, despite a very recent denial by the White House. . .

ROSS: “Peter, from three well-placed but separate sources tonight, ABC News has been told that initial tests on the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle have found a telltale chemical additive whose name means a lot to weapons experts. It is called bentonite.”

October 28 — This Week: ROSS: “And despite continued White House denials, now four well-placed and separate sources have told ABC News that initial tests on the anthrax by the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected trace amounts of the chemical additives “bentonite and silica.”

October 29 — Good Morning America: ROSS: “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.”

October 29 — World News Tonight: ROSS: “The White House had initially denied any bentonite was found in the anthrax.”

October 29 — Good Morning AmericaWhite House official this morning, and they are standing by their story that no test has concluded that there was bentonite in this anthrax

ROSS: It’s hard to understand.

The very idea — pushed here now by ABC — that Ross’ November 1 comment that the White House denied his report constituted some sort of retraction or acknowledgment of error for the five days of prior reporting is outright absurd. All Ross was saying there was that the White House denied there was a finding of bentonite — something they had said from the very beginning. Ross did not say — and has never said — that ABC’s breathlessly touted exclusive that bentonite was found was wrong or that they were retracting it.

It just goes without saying that Ross’s statement that the White House claims that ABC’s report was wrong is not remotely the same as an acknowledgment from ABC that it was, in fact, wrong. Nobody would have understood Ross’ remark — made virtually in passing at the end of a report — to constitute a retraction or acknowledgment of error with regard to the top story ABC touted for five straight days. And the proof of that is in the pudding.

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As I documented in the prior post, long after that November 1 comment from Ross which Schneider tries to depict as an acknowledgment of error, the ABC “bentonite” reports continued to be cited by those wanting war with Iraq — such as The Weekly Standard – to argue that Iraq was responsible for the anthrax attacks. Indeed, to this day various pro-war pundits continue to cite those ABC reports as “proof” of a connection between Saddam and the anthrax attacks. That is precisely because ABC never retracted the story or even acknowledged that it was wrong — until Schneider’s e-mail yesterday.

Conversely, if ABC really had — as Schneider now claims — retracted its Saddam-anthrax reports, or even admitted error, that would be a significant story. Yet, at least to my knowledge after searching, nobody has ever even noted that ABC acknowledged that its story was wrong — there is not an article or report anywhere (that I can find) suggesting that. The only references to those ABC bentonite reports subsequent to November 1, 2001 are from those who continue to cite those reports as valid. If ABC retracted its story or acknowledged error, apparently nobody noticed.

Moreover, what Ross said in that November 1 exchange with Jennings was totally misleading. This is what he said: “today the White House said that despite initial test results which we reported suggesting the presence of a chemical called bentonite, a trademark of the Iraqi weapons program, a further chemical analysis has ruled that out.” What Ross was really doing there was implying (falsely) that the White House confirmed the ABC story that “initial tests” revealed a presence of bentonite. That is the opposite of a retraction or acknowledgment of error.

Ross’ suggestion in that comment is itself totally false. The White House never confirmed any such thing, but rather, denied from the beginning that bentonite was ever found in the anthrax. What Ross was doing here was creating the false appearance that ABC was right from the beginning, because initial tests did find bentonite and the White House even confirmed as much.

In fact, the White House claimed — and never stopped claiming — that ABC was wrong from the beginning because no tests ever found bentonite. As USA Today reported on October 31 (via Lexis):

Who has it right, the White House or ABC News?

That’s the question in the wake of ABC’s exclusive report Friday that government anthrax investigators here have found a substance used by Iraq in its biological weapons program.

ABC is standing by its report, in which it quoted unidentified sources as saying that initial tests on anthrax sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle found traces of which Iraq has used to make anthrax spores more infectious.

This is a hot-button issue: If true, it would point the finger at Iraq’s Saddam Hussein being a prime suspect in the anthrax attack — a charge the White House has been careful not to make.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that the report by ABC News correspondent Brian Ross is wrong. He notes that Army Maj. Gen. John Parker, in charge of the investigation, has said that no traces of aluminum, a key ingredient of bentonite, have been found.

Says Fleischer: “If ABC’s sources are so good, perhaps they’d like to come out and identify themselves and share the information they have, just as Gen. Parker and the White House have done. It’s easier to be an anonymous source floating allegations than be an on-the-record source sharing information and taking questions.”

Says ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider: “We are confident in our reporting. We have four separate well-placed sources who told us that initial tests showed bentonite . . . in the samples. We stressed in our reports that these were initial tests, and we reported fully on the White House position.

Contrary to the impression Ross created on November 1, the White House insisted from the beginning that ABC’s report was wrong. And, from start to finish, it was wrong — as Schneider now admits (“our original report was indeed wrong“). But neither Ross nor ABC ever told its viewers that its story was wrong, and still — to this day — they have not done so. If anything, Ross insinuated (falsely) that the White House provided confirmation that the story was accurate.

This is the real point here: For five straight days, ABC — on virtually every one of its news programs, and out of the mouths of virtually every one of its media stars — breathlessly told the country that there was compelling evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the anthrax attacks (at the same time they were claiming that there were “confirmed” reports of a meeting between Mohammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence officials). They repeatedly led their viewers to believe that there was compelling, if not dispositive, evidence that Saddam Hussein and Iraq engineered the anthrax attacks on this country.

That was a major, major story with untold consequences on how Americans thought, and on how some Americans still think. And that story turned out to be completely wrong. Yet ABC never told its viewers what happened or acknowledged any wrongdoing. And now, instead of honestly acocunting for what happened and how — and who fed them these false stories — they are instead trying to deceitfully suggest that they really did slip in some sort of retraction that was obviously not understood to be a retraction and no reasonable person would have understood it as such.

Just compare that behavior to what The New York Times did in response to the widespread realization that their pre-war Iraq reporting was so plagued with errors. They published a lengthy Editor’s Note acknowledging the errors, explaining how those errors occurred, identifying what lessons they drew from those mistakes, and in essence, apologizing to their readers for misleading them. As inadequate as one can argue that Editor’s Note is, there is at least an editorial recognition that they have a journalistic responsibility when they publish false reports of that magnitude to clearly admit error and explain how it occurred.

Or compare ABC’s behavior even to what The Politico‘s Ben Smith did recently when he made a comparatively insignificant mistake of reporting that John Edwards would announce that day that he would suspend his campaign in light of his wife’s medical condition — an error which lasted a grand total of 57 minutes and harmed nobody.

Almost immediately, Smith published a post — entitled “Getting it Wrong” — clearly acknowledging his error and apologizing for it. Later that day, he published another story transparently explaining in detail what happened, what caused his error, and what lessons he learned from his mistakes. ABC has never done anything remotely like that with its far more consequential and disturbing story.

Recall how this interaction with ABC began: with their publication of a new report by Brian Ross and Christopher Isham claiming — based solely on anonymous sources about whom ABC News disclosed no information whatsoever — that Iran’s nuclear program was far ahead of what even the American intelligence community believed. [And now there is apparently some notion being floated that the subsequent boastings of President Ahmadinejad on Tuesday that that their program is more advanced than even ABC claimed somehow bolsters the credibility of the ABC report (it's fascinating how -- just like with Osama bin Laden -- we are to discount, ignore and dismiss everything the "irrational crazy Holocaust-denying new-Hitler-Enemy" Ahmadinejad says, except when what he says can be exploited to promote a warmongering agenda, in which case he is to be believed)].

My criticism of that ABC story was that, by publishing such an obviously significant story without disclosing any information whatsoever about their sources, the story was essentially worthless, since there was no way to assess the credibility of the story other than by blindly relying on the judgment and integrity of ABC News. And ABC News — like most if not all of our most prestigious national journalistic outlets — apparently believes it is entitled to such faith.

But their behavior with regard to their false anthrax story — not so much the original reporting as their six-year refusal to acknowledge error (until Schneider’s email yesterday) and their ongoing refusal to explain how and why they got the story so wrong — reveals why blindly relying on ABC’s secret and unexplained judgments is so misguided.

Clearly acknowledging one’s errors and accounting for why and how those errors occurred is a prerequisite to credibility. And that is particularly so where a news organization gets a story of this magnitude so completely wrong.

More importantly, transparency about what occurred here and why — including whether the sources in question had motives to feed false information to ABC blaming Saddam for the anthrax attacks — can, by itself, have great journalistic value. Why were Americans subjected to five straight days of such an inflammatory story, touted by one of the country’s leading news organizations, when the story was false from the beginning? How can ABC not provide an explanation for that? And whatever else is true, a news organization which makes such a grave error and refuses to account for what it did is not behaving as a credible or reliable source of journalism.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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