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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2002.

Anthrax Case Poses Troubling Questions

Media -- As name of Steven J. Hatfill makes headlines, it brings to mind rush to judgment during '96 Olympics.


No one knows if he is guilty. But any American who has even glanced at a newspaper or news broadcast in recent days by now knows Steven J. Hatfill's name. They may not know the details of Hatfill's sudden ascent to headline fame. But by this week, the American public knew that the FBI was investigating the bioterrorism specialist in connection with the anthrax letters that killed five and sickened at least 13 more last fall.

Hatfill's is the only name they know.

This despite the fact that an unnamed senior federal law enforcement official has been quoted in the media as saying Hatfill is one of about 20 or more scientists who are considered "persons of interest" in the investigation, based on their knowledge and access to anthrax.

However, Chris Murray, FBI spokesman for the Washington field office, which is leading the investigation, said Wednesday that Hatfill's name was "not from me" and not from anybody he knows. As for Hatfill's designation as a "person of interest," Murray said, "I have no idea where that came from. I've seen it in the press, but no one in the FBI that I know has ever used that."

Hatfill's sudden and ubiquitous presence in the national (and international) media, without being named an official suspect, without arrest, and without any direct evidence quoted by an identified, on-the-record government source, raises perplexing questions about how journalists should cover the investigation of private citizens in connection with high-profile crimes.

The stakes are even higher, the questions perhaps more confounding, when the investigation involves issues of national security in a climate of fear, all taking place in a high-tech era of split-second information dissemination.

Many print articles on Hatfill used the scientist's name and delved into his professional background while also warning of the potential pitfalls of treating him like Richard Jewell, the security guard at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta whom federal agents initially suspected as the culprit in the deadly bombing at Centennial Olympic Park.

The FBI named only Jewell as a suspect, and the media ran with the story, probing his life and background. Ultimately, however, the FBI cleared Jewell of any involvement.

Some too have made comparisons to scientist Wen Ho Lee, investigated by the FBI on suspicion of espionage at the Los Alamos, N.M., research facility. (The FBI's treatment of both men led to stinging rebukes and formal apologies, and on Sept. 26, 2000, the New York Times printed a 1,600-word "public accounting" of its aggressive coverage of Lee. Lee spent nine months in jail, lost his job and remains unemployed. Jewell sued a number of news organizations, and several settled for what is believed to be more than $2 million, according to a "60 Minutes" report aired on CBS in June. The report said Jewell struggled to put his life back together for five years. He then got a job as a police officer in a nearby community and got married a year ago.)

Unlike the Jewell case, most major newspapers did not put Hatfill's name on their front pages until he held a news conference on Sunday denying his role in the anthrax attacks. News stories so far have been careful to say there has been no direct evidence linking Hatfill to the letters. Following Hatfill's news conference the FBI issued a response:

"We are unaware of any FBI employee who has named a suspect in the anthrax death investigation," special agent Steven Berry, a supervisory special agent in the press office at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., repeated later in the week. "The FBI does not alert the news media to the service of search warrants."

Has an injustice been done to Hatfill, whose name is now linked with the anthrax attacks in the public's mind? How should the media balance the public's right to know in a high-profile case, with the rights of an individual's right to privacy? Beyond invoking their names at every turn, have the media or the FBI changed their practices since the days of Richard Jewell and Wen Ho Lee?

No, said Jewell attorney L. Lin Wood, who is still representing his client in a defamation case pending against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He sees little progress on the part of the FBI. "There has been no improvement. No lessons learned," he said. "Because there is no accountability for the FBI's wrongdoing. I see government officials speaking anonymously. Get someone on the record. [Hatfill] is under investigation. Say that. It is the great government doublespeak."

Jewell, Wood said, has become the poster boy for the falsely accused. Instead he should be considered a hero, he said, for the way he saved at least 100 lives that day by clearing out a five-story tower after spotting the bomb package. The main suspect now in that case, survivalist Eric Rudolph, has never been caught.

Wood said he does not know Hatfill, or the details of his case beyond what he has seen in the news. But what he has seen disturbs him.

"We ought to have an FBI that is capable of investigating very serious crimes," said Wood. "And they should be good enough to do so outside the cameras and the media spotlight."

Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research institution in St. Petersburg, Fla., noted that the circumstances of the Jewell and Hatfill cases are very different, but said the parallels between the bombing and the anthrax incidents are "inescapable." He said the role of the federal authorities in the two cases, and the pressure on them to solve those cases, is also similar.

The media must be mindful of the weight that comes with tone, proportion and the way journalists tell stories, he said.

Steele recalls the repeated airing of slow-motion video of Jewell driving in his truck. "Slo-mo video can warp reality," he said. "It can in some instances create a sinister impression of an individual -- the way they turn their head, they way they move their eyes."

He said the media can also learn from the Wen Ho Lee case that the ways stories are constructed, or the way certain facts are emphasized -- even when accurate -- can "give certain impressions."

"In every newsroom there should be at least a triple check-and-balance process in stories of allegations of wrongdoing," Steele said. "That goes for anthrax attack stories as well as allegations of wrongdoing by the local Boy Scout leader. Personal and professional lives are at stake."

Steele said the way the story is played also influences the public. "If the story is on the front page, or at the beginning of a broadcast, there is a weight that goes with that, that tells readers, viewers, 'This is important.' It heightens the belief that someone is, if not guilty, at least suspicious."

Like all critics interviewed for this story, Steele cautioned journalists against using allegations that come from anonymous sources and information that is leaked from sources who may have ulterior motives. "Someone told the news media that there was about to be a search at [Hatfill's] apartment," Steele said, alluding to the fact that helicopters, satellite trucks and journalists were on hand both times Hatfill's Frederick, Md., home was searched -- voluntarily on June 25, and with a warrant on Aug. 1. "The media did not happen to be roaming around his apartment with satellite trucks at that moment."

The curious thing about Hatfill is that his name leaped to such prominence without his ever being officially acknowledged by the FBI as being under investigation. Since the spring, Hatfill's name has circulated among scientists and journalists speculating about possible domestic suspects in the anthrax attacks. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at Purchase College, State University of New York, wrote this spring on a Web site for scientists that she thought only a disgruntled American scientist would have the technical expertise to produce the kind of anthrax contained in the tainted letters. She estimated that fewer than 40 people could be suspects. But Rosenberg has never publicly named Hatfill.

Cinny Kennard, a former CBS correspondent and an assistant professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communications who lectures on ethics, said she thinks that in some ways the media have done a good job of prodding the FBI to get the anthrax investigation moving forward. But she believes that the tremendous speed at which news travels today may demand a new system of journalistic ethics.

"I don't think our ethics and standards policies fit with this era of technology we live in," Kennard said. "Maybe we need to use more scrutiny than we have in the past."

Instead, she said, the opposite is happening. In the old days, a name could appear in the San Jose Mercury News, and an East Coast paper wouldn't pick it up until a week later. "Now they get it in 30 seconds. Suddenly it's on 24-hour news channels, on the banner on MSNBC, on televisions in the airport. The atmosphere of technology should call for different ethics and standards."

Wood, Jewell's attorney, also believes the media have a greater responsibility now than ever before. "We are talking about a new world post-Sept. 11. This is a country that desperately wants to believe that the FBI knows what it is doing. They want to believe they can pick up a newspaper and the information that they read is accurate. That information can have an even greater impact now."

It has already had an impact on Hatfill. After reporters pursued Hatfill, he was fired from his contracting job at the Science Applications International Corp. in March. Following the second search of his home on Aug. 1, Louisiana State University, which had hired him to teach federal agents and police to handle bioterrorism, put him on paid leave for 30 days.

"If I am a subject of interest, I am also a human being," he told reporters Sunday. "I acknowledge the right of the authorities and the press to satisfy themselves as to whether I am the anthrax mailer. This does not, however, give them the right to smear me and gratuitously make a wasteland of my life in the process."