Last night, the Public Relations Department of ABC News sent around emails breathlessly touting an "exclusive report from ABC News' Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross" which, the PR email noted, would "air this evening on 'World News with Charles Gibson.'" The email included a link to this article on ABC News's blog, by Brian Ross and Christopher Isham, the entire substance of which was contained within the first three paragraphs:
Iran has more than tripled its ability to produce enriched uranium in the last three months, adding some 1,000 centrifuges which are used to separate radioactive particles from the raw material.
The development means Iran could have enough material for a nuclear bomb by 2009, sources familiar with the dramatic upgrade tell ABC News.
The sources say the unexpected expansion is taking place at Iran's nuclear enrichment plant outside the city of Natanz, in a hardened facility 70 feet underground.
When I first read that report last night, I assumed it was some sort of preliminary or summary blog version of what the real report would be. The entire report was completely sketchy: attributed only to "sources familiar with the dramatic upgrade" -- nothing more specific -- and was unaccompanied by any corroborating information or any way to assess the veracity or credibility of the claims. It just seemed inconceivable that such an obviously significant claim would be emphatically advanced by ABC News with such skimpy information and using such shoddy methods.
Yet it is now the following day. The article has provoked the predictable reaction. And President Bush was asked about the report today during his press conference, where the questioner specifically stated that ABC News has reported that Iran may have a nuclear bomb by 2009 (transcript will be posted when available). That is now a claim that is being treated as credible, because it has the stamp of ABC News on it, and it has now been injected into the public debate over what to do about Iran.
But the report is worthless and a complete violation of basic journalistic standards. It provides no information whatsoever about the "sources" -- are they government sources, private individuals, intelligence operatives, Iranian, American or from some other nation, people with a discernible agenda or bias? The ABC News report provides no information whatsoever. What possible excuse is there for that? And why would a report attributed exclusively to a term so vague as to be impoverished of any meaning -- "sources" -- be the slightest bit credible or even worthy of publication?
Sean-Paul Kelley, who writes frequently (and insightfully) about Iran and recently returned from a long trip there, notes several reasons why the "substance" of the claim is so suspect. In a separate post, he notes that the whole claim about the Iranian nuclear progress seems to hinge on a huge condition which the article never suggests has been fulfilled. In fact, once you get past the first two sensationalistic paragraphs that throw around "2009" as the target date when the Evil Iranians are going to be able to create the Mushroom Clouds over our cities, it is actually difficult, if not impossible, even to discern what this ABC News report really is even claiming.
The lesson the media supposedly learned from their shameful participation in the pre-war Iraq deceit was that they would be far more scrupulous with the use of anonymous sources -- especially when it comes to claims that can be exploited to start new wars. As I noted previously, both The New York Times and Washington Post have promulgated guidelines for the use of anonymous sources, and this ABC News report violated several of the key safeguards (I was unable to find any ABC News policy on anonymous sources).
The Times policy, for instance, explains that they "have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality." The Post policy explains:
We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence. Our obligation is to serve readers, not sources. This means avoiding attributions to "sources" or "informed sources." Instead we should try to give the reader something more, such as "sources familiar with the thinking of defense lawyers in the case," or "sources whose work brings them into contact with the county executive," or "sources on the governor's staff who disagree with his policy."
None of this is exotic or complex. It's all basic common sense for how to avoid publishing suspect stories that lack credibility. Thus, as one would expect, the ABC News article also violates multiple basic principles for responsible journalism which Dan Froomkin, of WashingtonPost.com, has outlined at Harvard's Nieman Watchdog.
This ABC News article is almost like a stand-alone museum for the irresponsible journalistic practices that led us into Iraq and which have severely eroded the credibility of our national press. It is extremely inflammatory yet has no journalistic value because there is no way even to begin to assess its reliability. There have been some visible efforts by the national press as it reports on Iran to avoid the mistakes they made prior to the invasion of Iraq, but this ABC News report would stand out for journalistic recklessness even if we were back in the peak of the Government Worshipping Press Era of 2002. Those who want to argue that nothing has changed since then have been given a potent weapon by Ross and Isham.
UPDATE: From the President's Press Conference today:
Q: Back to Iran, sir. ABC has been reporting that Iran will be capable of building a nuclear bomb within two years. Have you seen evidence that Iran is accelerating its nuclear program?
THE PRESIDENT: I haven't seen the report that you just referred to. I do share concerns about Iranian intention to have a nuclear weapon. I firmly believe that if Iran were to have a nuclear weapon, it would be a seriously destablizing influence in the Middle East. . . .
So within less than 24 hours, a completely shoddy, unreliable and vague ABC News report translates into a straightforward statement at the President's Press Conference that "Iran will be capable of building a nuclear bomb within two years."