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Posted by on Oct 12, 2011 in Infectious diseases, Media

Frontline and ProPublica Present Biased and Irresponsible View of Anthrax Investigation

Frontline and ProPublica Present Biased and Irresponsible View of Anthrax Investigation

Daschle_letter_small.jpgThere are journalistic programs in which we (I) place more credit than otherspossibly owing to their style, possibly owing to their length and supposed care with a subject, and possibly owing to the fact that they air on the Public Broadcasting System. “Frontline” is one such show.

However, credit afforded to news programs can be easily and permanently eroded when they showcase a subject of which we (I) know something aboutlike medicineand present a terribly biased or outrightly incorrect view of an issue. This is presumably done for the sake of generating controversy and attention (irresponsibly) or, I can only guess, because the show’s producers are lazy or stupid or both.

Last evening, “Frontline” aired a documentary of the FBI’s investigation of the so-called anthrax attacks of 2001, a subject of which I know something about, at least on an amateur basis. The program, “The Anthrax Files,” was heavily informed, it appears, by input from ProPublica, an amorphous collection of “independent” journalists, that partners with all sorts of more tangible news organizations like “60 Minutes”* and NPR. And from ProPublica, the format and theme of the program—that being, that USAMRIID scientist Bruce Ivins was not the perpetrator of the anthrax attackswere heavily informed by ProPublica’s curiously perpetually suited managing editor Stephen Engelberg.

As a recurrent talking head, Engelberg heavily insinuates in his program (and it really does appear to be his program) that Bruce Ivins was not the anthrax killer by first laying out the case of Steven Hatfill. Hatfill, an American physician and virologist, was the FBI’s prime initial suspect as the anthrax killer, circa 2002, and the agency basically hounded the guy (for a number of reasons that are not explained in the “Frontline” program) to no success. Engelberg’s prelude on Hatfill provides the basis for later suggesting that the FBI pushed another hapless suspect, Bruce Ivins, who was much more mentally brittle than Hatfill, to suicide when the agency pursued the USAMRIID scientist in the same harassing way as it did Hatfill. In other words, according to Engelberg, Ivins didn’t commit suicide out of guilt of being the anthrax killer or fear of rightful criminal prosecution, but because the FBI drove him to it.

But here Engelberg’s journalistic transgression is one of serious omission. Namely Engelberg utterly fails (and I can only conclude that he intentionally utterly fails) to include essential information from a 2009 court-authorized psychological review of Bruce Ivins. From this review, a 9-member panel concluded in March that “Dr. Ivins was psychologically disposed to undertake the mailings; his behavioral history demonstrated his potential for carrying them out; and he had the motivation and the means.” So why wouldn’t Engelberg include this important psychological review of Ivins in the “Frontline” program? The answer: Because it gets in the way of his controversy- and attention-generating themesnamely that Ivins wasn’t the anthrax killer, and the FBI is an incompetent and/or pernicious government institution.

Engelberg also attempts to undermine the FBI’s scientific evidence pointing to the “smoking gun” RMR-1029 flask at USAMRIID (for background on this flask, start here), over which Ivins had control. To my understanding, there were 16 domestic labs that had the RMR-1029 strain before the 2001 anthrax attacks; however, only one of these labs was located where the “federal eagle” envelopes (which were used in the attacks) were distributed and sold (in Maryland and Virginia). And this was the USAMRIID RMR-1029 flask over which Ivins had control. Engelberg completely fails (and again, I can only conclude that he intentionally fails) to provide the information about the envelopes in his “Frontline” program. The fact that the scientific evidence (meaning the genetic evidence implicating RMR-1029) does not solely support the fingering of Ivins is nothing new. It is the confluence of the 2 vital pieces of informationthe genetic identification of RMR-1029 and the location of the envelope purchase that points to Ivins.

Engelberg also attempts to erode the FBI’s allegations that 1) Ivins worked alone in
lengthy late-night shifts during September 14-16, 2001, and from September 28
to October 5, 2001, before the rounds of the NY Post/Brokow and
Leahy/Daschle letters were respectively mailed, and 2) Ivins, in highly disingenuous fashion, submitted “unusable” and false B. anthracis spores to the FBI for testing. Engelberg’s attempted correction of the FBI’s graph of Ivins’s late-night hours during the fall of 2001, although less impressive than the FBI’s original graph, still reveals a spike in Ivins’s work hours during the time in question. And Engelberg doesn’t negate the fact that Ivins submitted an unusable sample of B. anthracis to the FBI, but that Ivins also submitted at least 2 workable samples to the agency at some point during their investigation.** Last Engelberg fails to include any information about the 2002 contamination of Ivins’s laboratory with B. anthracis spores, outside of the proper containment facility, and Ivins’s failure to report the incident.

Whatever easy agenda Engelberg is pushing to some receptive sector of the American population in “The Anthrax Files” (the FBI is a terrible organization?), it is, in the case of the anthrax attacks and Bruce Ivins, nothing other than irresponsible and, in my view, only serves to undermine the credibility of ProPublica and “Frontline.”

* Speaking of a news program in which we (I) have no confidence.

** Apparently because he had no choice but to do so.

Public domain photograph of Daschle “anthrax” letter from Wikipedia.

bmartin (1082 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.