Can online firestorm get big media to investigate itself?

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UPDATE 8/8/08 – If you only read one thing about this story, go directly to John McQuaid’s excellent wrap-up analysis. The short version is that ABC’s Brian Ross has given an interview making clear that the whole thing was a lot less sinister than some of us worried.

About 3 million Americans were watching as you reported that the deadly Anthrax sent to politicians and journalism organizations could be traced to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. You were given this information by people you had reason to believe had access to the investigation and who insisted on anonymity. Telling the understandably terrified American people in the weeks after 9/11 that Iraq might be behind the Anthrax attacks clearly helped make the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq. So, what do you do when you learn your anonymous sources were lying to you and you in turn were lying to your audience?

In an interesting test of whether online-only media can challenge the powers-that-be, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald makes a case that ABC News was deceived by sources whom it promised anonymity about the source of the 2001 Anthrax attacks and in turn deceived its massive audience, helping make the case for war against Iraq. My fellow Fellow and Center for Citizen Media founder Dan Gillmor, of Arizona State University and NYU’s Jay Rosen are leading a charge to get ABC to answer these charges and reveal who was using them to perpetrate this deadly manipulation of public opinion? They have come up with the following three questions that they want ABC to answer. What will it take to get ABC to respond? Here are Dan and Jay’s questions:

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?

There’s lots more to read: Glenn’s original posts Vital unresolved anthrax questions and ABC News and Journalists, their lying sources, and the anthrax investigation, are followed up today with Additional key facts re: the anthrax investigation, which includes links to much of the follow-up, including John McQuaid declaring the blogosphere officially “aflame.” Jay and Dan’s excellent posts exploring the journalistic implications (and follow-ups via Twitter here.) Comments threads on the Blotter, the website of Brian Ross’ Investigative Unit are calling for ABC to investigate.

I absolutely agree that ABC should explain how this story came to be, but am withholding judgment on whether and how their sources should be named based on that investigation. On the not so black-and-white front, people I respect who’ve worked with Brian Ross on other stories give him a lot more credit for journalistic integrity and the ability to admit mistakes than Glenn Greenwald does, which leads me to hope that demanding an investigation doesn’t become a personalized witchhunt. But I’ll be watching to see what it takes to get the attention of ABC News, or its parent company Disney.

“At Disney, each of us is responsible for upholding our excellence and our integrity. This means acting responsibly in all our professional relationships, in a manner consistent with the high standards we set for our business conduct.”

– Bob Iger
President and Chief Executive Officer (from Disney’s corporate site)

Note: Very light blogging in August as my writing energy goes into wrestling with my white paper in progress. I fear only one of us will survive this epic battle.

Images: Mickey Mouse dressed up for the holidays by Zengrrl via Flickr.

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