by Brad Jacobson
While cable news dutifully devotes nonstop coverage to the latest random criminal cases — kidnappings, shootouts, murderous love triangles, car chases — it’s telling when a supposed break in one of the biggest manhunts in FBI history, for a terrorist who murdered and poisoned multiple American citizens with anthrax, takes a backseat to nearly every other story. That is, if it’s mentioned at all.
Even as details, leaks and a burgeoning list of questions bubbled to the surface last week, demanding serious scrutiny, the big three broadcast networks were equally blasÃ©. Some nights skipping mention of the unfolding story altogether, as did last Tuesday’s editions of CBS Evening News and ABC World News (though both that evening reported the eminently newsworthy story of a thrill-seeking English couple who married while being strapped outside separate airplanes). On the same night, Brian Williamsafforded39 precious seconds to the anthrax investigation on NBC Nightly News.
In covering one of the most historic criminal investigations in our nation’s history, the worst bioterrorism attack on U.S. soil, the overall tenor and quality of network reporting (as well as much of the work in mainstream print media) has been nothing short of disgraceful. A dearth of circumspection and paucity of competent investigative work that mirrors the most feckless moments of the last eight years. This coverage, delivered in an Orwellian bubble world where our brazenly criminal administration still earns the benefit of the doubt, is all the more indefensible when you factor in the reality this is a Bush administration investigation, one which had already dragged on for almost seven years, during which time the government was forced to cough up nearly $6 million to settle with a previously wrongly accused man whose reputation and personal life it had destroyed.
As the story unraveled, coverage almost invariably failed to not only address questions that would be obvious to fictional adolescent sleuths Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys but also showcased a breathless zeal to help the Department of Justice prosecute Ivins through unfiltered and uncorroborated leaks — from accusations of “therapist” Jean Duley (Ivins was a homicidal killer who threatened her life and planned to kill all of his colleagues in a final “blaze of glory”), a woman known to have a fairly lengthy police record (news that failed to reach national mainstream outlets until the day the FBI/DOJ publicly aired their case,Â before disappearing again; plus, to my knowledge, Duley’s police record has yet to receive network airtime), whose depth of experience appeared at least suspect (she was still attending Hood College as of last year and, while various media reports called her a “psychiatrist,” “psychologist” or “social worker,” it turns out Duley is actually an “addictions counselor“) and whose affidavit, including the misspelling “theripist” and manic, haphazard penmanship, appears as if it were written by either a second grader or an unstable adult (investigative journalist Larisa Alexandrovna has more on Duley); to a leak last Monday courtesy of the Associated Press — quickly largely debunked by an update of the same article and then further dispelled by a New York Times piece Tuesday — which claimed, around the time of the anthrax attacks, Ivins had been visiting and harassing members of a Princeton University sorority located near one of the mailboxes used to send the envelopes; to another leak portraying him as both a porn-obsessed sicko because he received adult videos to a P.O. box and a raging alcoholic who, nonetheless, managed to retain his security clearance to work with some of the most lethal substances on the planet.
While ABC World News ignored the case on Tuesday’s August 5 broadcast, its previous night’s coverage proved no report might be preferable to a poor one. A segment called “A Closer Look” (video of this segment online included the headline “Closing the Anthrax Case”) focused on the break in the anthrax investigation. It’s a piece of journalism that might be described as anti-investigative work. As the online headline suggested — with exception to a one-sentence quote from New Jersey Representative Rush Holt (“After seven years of blind alleys and false accusations, we have to ask, well, has the FBI once again let their zeal replace evidence”) — this “closer look” was nothing more than a stenographic replay of the FBI’s storyline, including those damning quotes from Ms. Duley, a present wrapped in a bow to the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Bush administration. But a grave disservice to journalism, victims of the anthrax attacks, the American people and, quite possibly, the Ivins family. There was nothing remotely closer about this look.
Then there’s those 39 seconds NBC Nightly News dedicated to the Ivins’ case the following evening. Another example of a report imparting more heat than light, complete with an exclusive leak to NBC News from the Justice Department, seamlessly delivered by Brian Williams:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Federal officials are telling our justice correspondent, Pete Williams, they will reveal a possible motive tomorrow as to why they believe Dr. Bruce Ivins, the former Ft. Detrick bioweapons expert, sent the anthrax letters, including the one here to NBC. They say he felt badly stung by the criticism that the anthrax vaccine he helped develop for the armed forces back in the first Gulf War could’ve contributed to what’s now know as Gulf War Syndrome. He may have sent the deadly letters, they believe, to generate renewed interest in anthrax as a threat which would cause demand for an approved vaccine, one that he later, by the way, worked on.
Neither Brian Williams nor his justice correspondent posed any questions regarding this fresh allegation. Failing to demand evidence supporting this new leak or to question its legitimacy before passing it on to millions of viewers and the rest of the media, the dynamic Williams duo acted not as responsible journalists who either considered or cared that government officials might be using them — something any competent and ethical journalist must be on guard against in such situations — but as willing mouthpieces, blithely abdicating their role as members of the Fourth Estate, no more circumspect than White House spokespeople.
Even New York Times journalist Scott Shane, one of the more reliable reporters covering this case, had an odd appearance when he visited PBS’ NewsHour on Monday‘s August 4 broadcast.(Yet it was arguably as much or more the fault of NewHour senior correspondent Margaret Warner.) Earlier in the day, Shane published a Times article with the headline “Anthrax Evidence Is Said to Be Circumstantial” (later edited online to “Anthrax Evidence Called Mostly Circumstantial“), in which he reported in the opening paragraph “a person who has been briefed on the investigation said on Sunday” that “evidence amassed by F.B.I. investigators against Dr. Bruce E. Ivins….was largely circumstantial.” But somehow in a lengthy discussion with Shane, neither he nor Warner raised this highly relevant point, each with ample opportunity to do so.
While possible, it seems unlikely on the same day Shane writes a major article around this finding — the case being brought against Ivins will be predominantly circumstantial — that it would later, on the very same day, completely slip his mind. What’s more, as regular newscast segments go, Warner conducted a pretty extensive interview. So even if, for the sake of argument, Warner failed to do her homework prior to the interview and missed Shane’s article (more believable), one would still expect Shane to point out the case’s top-heavy circumstantial nature, if not immediately, then at some time during the discussion. Did NewsHour censor Shane? Did they agree beforehand not to mention that, by Sunday August 3, the case against Ivins was already believed — by a very credible source close to the investigation — to be built upon “largely” or “mostly” circumstantial evidence? It’s certainly a curious omission, one that, intentionally or not, helped to buy the government more time to leak negative information about Ivins before playing its hand on Wednesday.
As it turned out, when the Justice Department held its big press conference two days later, it confirmed Shane’s Monday scoop had been correct. If anything, the report’s characterization of the evidence seeming “mostly” or “largely” circumstantial turned out to be generous. The case against Ivins appears, thus far, completely circumstantial: they couldn’t tie him directly to the anthrax envelopes, prove he made the trip to Princeton around the time the envelopes were mailed, detect the type of anthrax mailed on his body or in his home or car, present any eyewitness accounts putting Ivins in his lab on those nights in late September and early October, or confirm many other colleagues hadn’t used the same flask that federal prosecutors call “effectively the murder weapon.”
Following this far from airtight presentation, journalism professor and author Ted Gup wrote in the Washington Post:
Such evidence, even when seemingly overwhelming and conclusive, is the very sort of circumstantial argument that pegged Richard Jewell as the Atlanta bomber, that linked Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield to the Madrid bombings, that fingered Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee as a spy, and that cast biodefense expert Steven Hatfill as the original anthrax suspect. In each of those investigations, the news media were largely complicit, conveying incriminating details of the government’s case as if they were the gospel.
And yet, in each of those cases, the government was wrong — shaking public confidence even as it eroded individual civil liberties, produced groundless prosecutions and diverted precious time and resources in pursuit of bogus cases. […]
In June, the government agreed to a settlement with Hatfill valued at $5.8 million. Neither it nor the press, which was only too eager to link arms with the Justice Department in carrying the stories that stripped Hatfill of everything he had, has offered an apology or conceded wrongdoing.
Against this background, who could be blamed for imagining that an innocent Ivins was hounded to his death? Can we discount the accounts that suggest the government repeatedly harassed Ivins’s family, offering his son a reward and sports car if he would turn his father in?
Gup went on to say:
To their credit, in reporting the Ivins’s case, the media now appear somewhat chastened and more inquisitive than inquisitorial. It may well be that, absent a trial, it will fall to reporters to aggressively test the solidity of the case against Ivins. Perhaps they can restore a measure of credibility to their profession and to the government.
Hopefully he was not holding his breath.
If you turned on CNN and MSNBC the day after Wednesday’s FBI/DOJ presentation, you would’ve found no mention of the Ivins’ case. Paris Hilton’s scantily clad political spoof? Yes. A child kidnapping ring? You bet. Bret Favre’s trade to the NY Jets? Touchdown. Questions about a case involving the worst bioterrorism attack in U.S. history? Nothing.
On the same Thursday afternoon, a look at their websites found the Ivins case only made MSNBC’s “Other Top Stories,” coming in fourth behind — you guessed it — Bret Favre’s trade to the NY Jets. Of CNN’s 18 top stories, the Ivins case was absent — of course, Favre’s trade is there, as is “Did Caylee’s mom pose as mystery sitter?”, “Owners cuddle, dress pets…then fry them,” “Paris did ad in 4 takes — from memory!”, “McCain, Obama agree on ‘Dark Knight’,” and “Lawyer: Morgan Freeman, wife divorcing.”
And while ABC, CBS and NBC national nightly newscasts covered the DOJ’s case against Ivins on Wednesday, they hardly appeared “chastened” or felt compelled to “restore a measure of credibility to their profession.”
In the CBS Evening News report, introduced with a graphic of a Justice Department file opened to an illustrated report titled “Anthrax Case CLOSED,” anchor Katie Couric and justice correspondent Bob Orr repeated the pattern of laying out the government’s case with little or no questioning of the quality of evidence provided.
Orr framed his segment, saying, “Newly released FBI evidence makes a strong circumstantial case that bioweapons researcher Ivins was a delusional sociopath who had the opportunity, motive and means to be the 2001 anthrax killer.” Interspersed with U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor’s comments from the press conference, Orr’s performance is closer to a co-prosecutor on the DOJ’s behalf than as a journalist assessing the strengths or weaknesses of the evidence, including the flask on which the alleged matching anthrax spores were found: “The most damning evidence,” asserted Orr, “a flask of anthrax spores recovered in 2004 from Ivins’ personal workspace at Ft. Detrick, the Army weapons lab where he worked.”
Yet he failed to mention the gaping hole in this “most damning evidence”: it was already known by then that many of Ivins’ colleagues also had access to the same flask. Moreover, on the day of the FBI/DOJ’s press conference, Paul Kemp, Ivins’ attorney, told the media that the number of people with access to it was far greater than previously reported — not 10 or 20 or 30 people but hundreds. The government soon admitted, by its own count, that more than 100 people could’ve used the flask.
Orr similarly treated other weak strands of the DOJ’s circumstantial evidence, including the alleged “striking” likeness between the threatening letter sent with the anthrax envelopes and the email Ivins wrote to a friend. Orr called Ivins’ email “chilling.” But Ivins’ words aren’t chilling. Nearly everyone in the Bush administration and in the GOP-led Congress, as well as many in the media, often made similar post-9/11 comments. Rather, it’s what Ivins believed Osama Bin Laden might do (“…Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and sarin gas…” based on what Bin Laden had said (“…he [Bin Laden] just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans”) that might instill fear. Without further proof, it’s a specious piece of semantic contortion and misappropriation that crumbles under scrutiny.
Moreover, Orr omitted the obvious: Where’s the handwriting analysis? And if one was performed, why aren’t the results being presented to us?
After Orr’s de facto co-prosecution, he ended his report with what should’ve been his lede:
ORR: While the FBI believes it’s now solved the case, the evidence does not directly connect Ivins to the anthrax letters and does not directly tie him to the New Jersey postbox where they were sent out. But with the suspect now dead, the government will never have to prove that case in court.
Which is exactly why Ted Gup noted in his WaPo op-ed, “It may well be that, absent a trial, it will fall to reporters to aggressively test the solidity of the case against Ivins.” Imagine how Professor Gup would grade Orr, Couric and CBS for this report.
NBC Nightly News justice correspondent Pete Williams’ framed his report somewhat more responsibly, noting upfront, “But this is a circumstantial case with no absolute proof that he did it.” Yet he prefaced this comment with an FBI assertion that, according to the evidence presented, is false on its face: “Amy, the FBI says it can trace the anthrax used in the attacks directly to Dr. Ivins and it says he repeatedly tried to mislead investigators.” Whether or not he misled investigators (unproven as well in the evidence proffered), again, the flask sitting in Ivins’ workspace in a shared lab three years later, to which so many colleagues had access — including former employees, like Philip Zack, who were no longer employed at Ft. Detrick when they frequented the lab and worked on unsanctioned, unknown projects — does not “directly” link Ivins to the anthrax used in the attacks. Like CBS’ Orr, Justice Correspondent Williams then proceeded to state the other main points of the Justice Department’s case without question.
Inclusion of a statement from Ivins’ lawyer was the only substantive difference in this report: “Tonight, a lawyer for Dr. Ivins says the FBI never found anthrax in his house or in his car or anything else directly linking him to the mailings.” But Pete Williams, presumably an expert in covering federal criminal cases, offered no educated assessments of his own on the government’s evidence. As with Orr, Williams did little more than parrot the FBI/DOJ presentation, in a segment edited in such a way that only added coherence and credibility to the government’s case. Similar to Orr as well (and Couric’s “Anthrax Case CLOSED” opening graphic) he also punctuated his report with an air of futility and premature closure: “And without a trial, we’ll never hear what Dr. Ivins would’ve said in his own defense.”
Essentially identical to Orr’s and Williams’ reports was justice correspondent Pierre Thomas’ segment on the FBI/DOJ’s presentation for ABC World News, another reiteration of the evidence edited in a such a way as to lend more heft and seamlessness to the government’s case while omitting obvious disconnects and holes.
To its credit, however (if we were grading on effort and not execution), World News then followed this segment with another titled “Anthrax Investigation Debunked,” in which Gibson spoke with legal correspondent Jan Crawford-Greenberg:
CHARLES GIBSON: Well, with Ivins’ death, this case will actually never go into a court of law. But would all that evidence have stood up in court? Our legal correspondent, Jan Crawford Greenburg, is joining us from Washington. And Jan, I know you’ve seen the evidence. I want to read you part of a statement that came from lawyers today. They said what the FBI presented with that evidence was all heaps of innuendo, contorted to create the illusion of guilt. How conclusive was it?
JAN CRAWFORD-GREENBERG: Well, Charlie, certainly, there was enough evidence to get an indictment from a grand jury, as Pierre just reported. You know, we saw that he had control over that [sic] anthrax spores, had been linked to a flask in his lab through all of that scientific – that new scientific testing. That we saw his behavior growing increasingly erratic. And of course, he even tried to mislead investigators to say another researcher had control over that anthrax. But this was not an open or shut case by any means. Defense lawyers would have had a lot work with. For example, there was no DNA, actual DNA, linking Ivins to the anthrax on those letters, his own DNA on those letters. You know and then even when you look at the scientific evidence in that flask, the anthrax spores that were in that flask, Charlie, a lot of researchers in that lab also had access to it.
Yet, once again, there’s no direct evidence Ivins “had control” over those specific anthrax spores or that he solely “had been linked” to that flask in his lab. Quite the opposite. In fact, Crawford-Greenberg went on to contradict the strength of this evidence and her own act of inflating its worth by subsequently noting “even when you look at the scientific evidence in that flask, the anthrax spores that were in that flask, Charlie, a lot of researchers in that lab also had access to it.”
Gibson then posed a question that can’t be asked too much, but his legal correspondent’s response could’ve come straight from the FBI or DOJ:
CHARLES GIBSON: So it might have been a dicey case for the FBI and for prosecutors in court. But whether or not he could have been convicted, this was obviously a rather quirky fellow. What was he doing dealing with deadly toxins?
JAN CRAWFORD-GREENBERG: Well, Charlie, this was someone who had worked in this lab nearly 30 years. He was highly respected, highly regarded by his colleagues. It was only in the later years that his behavior became more erratic. Now we saw some congressmen today calling for more screenings of scientists who handle these dangerous drugs, but there’s no indication that that would have picked up any of his erratic behavior at all.
With so much of the government’s circumstantial evidence resting on Ivins’ alleged ever-deteriorating mental state, purportedly going back at least as far as July 2000 and maybe even to his undergraduate college days, it’s hard to believe his colleagues and supervisors (not to mention to his friends and family) would’ve remained so oblivious or unconcerned about such a chronic basket case, specifically one whose job entails handling substances that could potentially unlock a genocidal Pandora’s Box. Moreover, according to the case against him, “his behavior became more erratic” seven years before they revoked his security clearance.
Maybe World News deserves some credit for actually attempting to give this evidence “a closer look” this time. Or maybe it intended to only appear as if it were doing so. Regardless, Crawford-Greenberg’s responses did more to muddle the government’s evidence against Ivins than it did to present viewers with a clear and candid legal assessment.
Compare Gibson and Crawford-Greenberg’s discussion to MSNBC’s Countdown segment aired on the same night, in which investigative journalist Gerald Posner, speaking with host Keith Olbermann, exposed many aspects of the government’s case without mincing words or glossing over its discrepancies and disconnects.
OLBERMANN: The flask of anthrax with identical spores, ostensibly, their strongest piece of evidence. What do you make of this?
POSNER: That’s what they make it sound like, but it’s not. Let me tell you, the late public hears this, they think that’s the evidence. Those are the spores that got people sick, sent out from the envelopes, not true. That was liquid anthrax in that flask.
Even if the FBI can tie it to that flask, they can’t explain how it was then made into this extremely sophisticated type of weapon with small milligramage with electric charges to it, with polyglass on top of the coating, all to go deep inside the lungs, to spray into the air. This was weaponized, military anthrax. They cannot explain how it went from that glass flask in a liquid form into the form that was sent out in the envelopes. That they don’t have the evidence on.
OLBERMANN: What, if anything they presented today, is the strongest evidence? What do they got going for them?
POSNER: Well, they threw out this machine, what they called the lyopholizer, they say that can make wet anthrax into dry anthrax, but I talked to six different microbiologists today and people involved formerly in weapons programs in the United States and in Russia, who say that the machine that the FBI talks about can’t do that. [What a novel journalistic technique — speaking with other experts to confirm the credibility of the government’s case.]
The strongest evidence they have going for them is also their Achilles’ heel and that’s his psychological profile. That fact that he’s very unstable, that he was someone who was an alcoholic, that he might wanted to have the vaccine continue to go along, but that’s also the fact that he could have been set up as a cutout, a patsy, or used by a group of people who wanted the anthrax out there.
They also knew about his weak psychological profile. How was he employed with the most secret biological warfare lab in the United States with this type of background that we now hear about that they should have known about from day one? The Defense Department should hang its head in shame.
OLBERMANN: Right. Thirty-five years of murderous intent and nobody knew about it, and they let him in to the germ warfare lab. As to motive, they mentioned it but almost as if it were in passing. Is that a weak part of the case? Do they offer anything that made any sense?
POSNER: Boy, I’ll tell you, I thought it was a weak part of the case. I listened to the press conference today and then sort of at the end as though they thought they had to throw something out, they said, â€œOh, by the way, let’s give you the reasons to why we think he sent out and went on this homicidal rage.â€
And the motive they said was, â€œWell, he helped develop a vaccine for anthrax, he probably wanted to continue to see that developed so that by killing people, by having come up with some unknown way of this high military grade anthrax. We would keep the vaccine program going.â€
That was pretty weak, and, you know, I thought they just literally were fishing. They don’t have a good motive, unfortunately, for them and their prosecution. But as you said in the lead into this, they don’t need to because the primary suspect, the only suspect, is dead. They’re going to close this case.
OLBERMANN: But the declaration that he is the only, it’s not just a question of proving a dead man did this or was part of this, but the insistence is he did by himself, the lone, mad scientist thing. Did they get anywhere near confirming that?
POSNER: No. As a matter of fact, Keith, that’s my major problem with this. You know, if you look at it and you say, â€œHeâ€˜s involved, heâ€˜s got a role in it, heâ€˜s done something.â€ That, the evidence, I’m waiting to see that and they may nail that down. But I spoke to enough experts in the last few days who have convinced me, who know how this process works, that these spores that were sent out, were not the work of one lone scientist and that, I believe, is the case.
Nevertheless, this story disappeared from network news studios by the following morning. No mention on TV Thursday on CNN or MSNBC, nor on NBC, CBS or ABC’s national nightly newscasts. Nor did it warrant any further network coverage Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
Dr. Bruce Ivins is dead. He may have been the anthrax killer and acted alone. He may have acted with others. (Based on the known evidence, both of these two scenarios seem less likely with each passing day.) He may have just been a convenient fall guy. (As Gerry Andrews, microbiologist and former longtime colleague of Ivins, wrote in a New York Times editorial yesterday: “After the anthrax attack, Dr. Ivins himself worked directly with the evidence. The F.B.I. asked Dr. Ivins to help them with the forensics in the case by analyzing the contents of suspicious letters. And he did so for years, until the authorities began to suspect that the anthrax spores used in the mailings might have originated from his lab. [Awfully convenient, no?] Dr. Ivins, for instance, was asked to analyze the anthrax envelope that was sent to Mr. Daschleâ€™s office on Oct. 9, 2001. When his team analyzed the powder, they found it to be a startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparation, the likes of which had never been seen before by personnel at Fort Detrick.”) The person or persons who murdered and poisoned Americans with those anthrax letters may even have framed him. The FBI may have also driven Ivins to take his own life after relentlessly hounding him and his family for a crime he never committed.
But the FBI and DOJ wanted this case closed. Now. And in one of the most important criminal investigations in our nation’s history, for the deadliest bioterrorism attack on U.S. soil — which our government, with help from Brian Ross and ABC News’ curiously sourced false reporting, initially used to build support for invading Iraq — the networks (Olbermann’s Countdown coverage notwithstanding) have thus far refused to substantively question this historically corrupt government’s circumstantial case against a dead man who will never have his day in court.
By the way, have you heard that John Edwards cheated on his wife?
Cross-posted from MediaBloodhound.