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Kristof Still Doesn't Get the Anthrax Story: The Justice Department, Bush Science & Our Sorry Media

by Elizabeth Ferrari

In his unapologetic apology to Steve Hatfill yesterday, The Media's Balancing Act, Nicholas Kristof warned that the press should err on the side of sharing what it knows over the consequences to an individual should that report be printed. His premise seems to be that the problem in the anthrax reporting has been caused by the press printing "what it knows." Kristof appealed to the need for journalistic balance in order to serve the public good.

I don't know how an employee of the New York Times can still cling to such an idea, let alone, forward it in public. Judith Miller was not a public servant -- can we agree on that? I still have the email former Public Editor Okrent sent to hundreds of us when we asked why the Times would not cover election theft in Ohio 2004. He assured us the Times would cover the story if one developed. Of course, he said that while the Times sat on the Bush Administration's illegal wiretapping and to my knowledge, the Times has not covered the layers of corruption since peeled off of that election and the paper has not apologized in any way for either our stolen election or for shrugging off readers who asked for the paper to do its job.

The problem in our press is not that it prints what it knows. In the case of Dr. Ivins, the trial in the press has been replete with the press sharing what it does not know. The L.A. Times printed that Ivins stood to gain monetarily from the vaccine he was fixing and that he broadcast anthrax to save his job. That turns out to be a massive distortion coupled to an outright falsehood. Ivins' job was secure and he didn't stand to gain much if we used that vaccine or the one he had in development. The AP printed that Dr. Ivins suspiciously did not report a spill in his lab. Untrue, he reported it to his Ethics officer. The Washington Post printed that he had taken time off on 9/17/01 to mail the deadly envelopes. That turned out to be physically impossible: he was in Frederick at the time. Where is the balance in this reporting?

So, it's not a matter of "humanizing" the so called suspect or of adopting his viewpoint, as Kristof says, but of doing basic due diligence before running with these very serious allegations. Dr. Ivins has been prosecuted in the press with more impunity than Steve Hatfill was, although the FBI's case against him is even more flimsy. The larger question here isn't what the press knows but if the press can learn to distinguish a fact from a smear, no matter where that smear originates. In my reading about this case in our press, I've been struck with the repetition of talking points the FBI has put out. Here's one example of the career of the meme "compelling":

NPR August, 6, 2008: Jeff Taylor, US Attorney, Gonzalez appointee and host for the FBI briefing: "So, again, circumstantial evidence? Sure, some of it is. But it's compelling evidence and our view is we are confident it would have helped us prove this case against Dr. Ivins beyond a reasonable doubt."

AP August 18, 2008: Daschle said the most compelling evidence to him is the odd, extended hours that the Army scientist kept shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

New York Times August 16, 2008: In its case against Dr. Ivins, the F.B.I. developed a compelling profile of an erratic, mentally troubled man who could be threatening and obsessive, as in his odd fascination with a sorority from his college days. But investigators were never able to place him at the New Jersey mailboxes where the anthrax letters were dropped, and the case against him relied at its heart on the scientific evidence linking the anthrax in Dr. Ivins' laboratory to the spores used in the attacks.

Star Ledger: "I am persuaded, unless I'm missing something, there is a compelling case they at least got the one right guy," Smith said. "They claim there's no evidence whatsoever that there was an accomplice, but our hope is that they still keep looking to make sure there wasn't." click here

AP August 8, 2008: Mark Cunningham, a New York Post op-ed editor, one of three staffers there who were sickened by an anthrax-tainted letter, said he also was convinced about the government's case against Ivins. . . "The case is circumstantial but compelling," Cunningham wrote. "I'm glad they're keeping the case open, to tie up loose ends, make absolutely certain he acted alone, and all the rest. But I have my closure."

"The scientific evidence is compelling," says Rita R. Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation, which funded some of the research behind the investigation. It is impressive how all the different scientific aspects came together, she says. http://pubs.acs.org/cen/n ews/86/i34/8634notw1.html

Nature Magazine August 21, 2008: "Haigwood said FBI agents were "very ethical and above board." And reading their case files convinced her they have the right suspect. "The evidence was compelling," she said."

Did our press know this "evidence" was compelling? Even if the phrase is a direct quote, the fact that it went unchallenged so often argues a kind of innocence no reporter should aspire to. No one included the caveat, for example, "Nancy Haigwood has not seen Dr. Ivins in twenty-five years and her outfit depends on millions of dollars in annual federal grants." The FBI's phrase was just churned out, over and over, as if the language was somehow losing syllables.

In other words, Nick, please share your fears and facts with your public. But clearly label your fears so they don't get spammed all across the country in factual drag as the report that Bruce Ivins was a homicidal sociopath was spammed when the source was a low level mental health worker/recovering addict/FBI witness. It was never interrogated by anyone in the press before being broadcast and it still hasn't been questioned in any substantive manner. Only Bruce Ivins' life as he led it contradicts the hundreds of repetitions of "what the press knew".

There's something else here, too, that is so huge we can't see it. I've yet to see a single caveat in the press regarding the FBI's scientific "findings" in the Ivins case that no scientist outside the government will validate and in the context of the documented manipulation of science itself by the Bush Administration. This administration's suppression, falsifying and censoring of science has been read into the Congressional Record. Surely the press has access to that body of facts. Surely as a mere civilian I'm not the only one that has read or heard or witnessed the iron control the Bush Administration has exerted over government scientists in the last eight years? Anyone with access to a search engine can search "Bush censors scientists" and come up with hundreds of hits such as this one:

SCIENCE-US: Top Scientists Want Research Free From Politics
By Adrianne Appel

BOSTON, Feb 14 (IPS) - Leading U.S. scientists called on Congress Thursday to make sure the next president does not do what they say the George W. Bush Administration has done: censor, suppress and falsify important environmental and health research.

"The next president and Congress must cultivate an environment where reliable scientific advice flows freely," said Susan Wood, a former director of women's research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Wood resigned her post in 2005 in protest over the FDA's delay in getting emergency, over-the-counter birth control onto the market.

"Serious consequences can result when drug safety decisions are not based on the best available scientific advice from staff scientists and experts," she said.

Wood joined a panel of prominent scientists in Boston -- convened by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group -- to announce a joint statement asking Congress to protect scientific integrity. Among the more than 15,000 government scientists signing onto the statement are Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre and former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and Anthony Robbins, professor of medicine at Tufts University and former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.


So, if the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins depends upon "new" science developed by government scientists, a reasonable person has to ask, how reliable is that science? It hasn't been published or peer reviewed. There is no expert outside the government willing (so far) to validate it. Perhaps, in that instance, we are being asked to trust the Bush Justice Department to vet the FBI product.

Unfortunately, even though the press that Kristof defends has not raised the issue, the Bush Justice Department that has sponsored and presented this "new" science to convict Bruce Ivins, has been under investigation for corruption. The Bush Justice Department is under investigation for gutting the Voter Rights Act office, for political discrimination in its hiring practices, for politically motivated prosecutions of Governor Don Siegelman and Paul Minor and others, not to mention, for lying to Congress and for trying to present torture as patriotism to the American public.

Although I respect Kristof as one of his longtime readers, I have to call bullshit on his "apology" to Steve Hatfill because that apology is founded on the premise that our press is diligent enough to be presented with the problem of what to distribute to the public. Would that it were so. What a wonderful dilemma that would be were it true.

Our press shouldn't be criticized for sharing what it knows with the American public. But it should be hung out to dry for sharing what it cannot verify – as Kristof did with respect to Hatfill and as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times and worst offender, the AP have in the last four weeks with respect to Dr. Ivins. They should be hung out to dry again for never raising the obvious problems with the last iteration of the FBI's case: the Bush Justice Department is asking the American public to believe it so respects both science and justice for once that the unpublished case against Bruce Ivins is in any way believable.

I don't fault you, Mr. Kristof, for sharing what you know or for making the best, difficult decision you can make as a journalist. I fault you for not being all over the Ivins chapter of this story. Because you, of all people, should recognize what is being done to Ivins in the press right now and unlike Steve Hatfill, Bruce Ivins is not here to contend with the Bush Justice Department. Covering this story with some kind of insight and integrity is the apology that the American public deserves from you or from anyone who claims to serve the public good in print.