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."