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Last Updated

05 Jun 2003

Source: Baltimore Sun, June 5, 2003

Media organization rebuffs Hatfill request to speak at conference

Head of journalist group says it's 'not a good fit'

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

For months, hundreds of journalists have sought an interview with Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, the former Army bioterrorism expert who has been under 24-hour surveillance by FBI anthrax investigators for more than a year. Nearly all have been turned down.

But when Hatfill offered to address the nation's largest organization of investigative journalists at its annual convention, which opens in Washington today, it was the journalists who said no.

"It's not that we don't want to hear Steven Hatfill," said Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., a professional organization whose conference is expected to draw more than 1,000 people.

But Houston said Hatfill is "not a good fit" for IRE, as the group is known, because its speakers are not newsmakers but working journalists who speak on such topics as "Digging into Environmental Data" and "Tracking White-collar Crime."

"I really have to stress that we're a conference that goes after the nuts and bolts of news-gathering," he said.

In addition, Houston said, Hatfill's offer came only two weeks ago, when the IRE conference program was nearly complete. "It's hard to add something in the last two weeks, especially when there are already 280 speakers," he said.

But Pat Clawson, a former reporter and friend of Hatfill who handles the stream of media inquiries for him, thinks more than a mismatch between speaker and conference is at work.

"This refusal to hear Steve represents elitist arrogance on the part of the media," said Clawson, a former correspondent for CNN and NBC Radio. "The press feels it is too good to hear from its critics."

Clawson, who joined IRE shortly after its 1975 founding and acted as bartender at its first conference in Indianapolis in 1976, said he was particularly chagrined by the rejection because he had talked Hatfill into making the offer to speak.

"I said, 'Why don't you walk into the lion's den and confront these guys?'" Clawson said. "Steve finally decided he was interested in going in and talking about how he felt he'd been treated by the press. ... He's got some constructive ideas on how the media should handle a situation like this."

Clawson said IRE does include some non-journalists among its conference speakers. Last year four judges were on one panel, he pointed out. And this year, FBI Agent Brad Garrett, who has participated in the anthrax investigation, is scheduled to be part of a panel called "Art of the Criminal Investigation."

To Houston's explanation that IRE wants "nuts and bolts" speakers, Clawson replied: "What is more nuts and bolts than to have a target of a major national investigation by the press sit down and talk about what that experience is like? Why should journalists not be made aware of the human consequences of their reporting?"

Clawson also complained that one of the IRE officials who decided against letting Hatfill speak, board member and Washington Post reporter James Grimaldi, had a conflict of interest.

Hatfill had criticized an article Grimaldi wrote about background checks for United Nations weapons inspectors, Clawson said. Hatfill trained as a weapons inspector but was not sent to Iraq.

Grimaldi declined to comment.

The flap over Hatfill and IRE is the latest episode in an extraordinary saga in the media's coverage of criminal justice.

No one has been charged with sending the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and sickened at least 17 others in late 2001. But Hatfill has been publicly identified as a focus of the investigation since an FBI search of his Frederick apartment a year ago.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has said on television that Hatfill is a "person of interest" in the anthrax case. An FBI surveillance team follows Hatfill everywhere he goes.

Last month, Hatfill was fined $5 for "walking to create a hazard" after an FBI vehicle ran over his foot and knocked him down on a Georgetown street.

Hatfill has denied any connection to the anthrax attacks and blamed the FBI scrutiny and media coverage for destroying his life. Fired from two jobs since the investigation began, he is unemployed and lives with his girlfriend in Washington.

But media interest in Hatfill has not let up. Yesterday, Clawson got a call from a filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about Hatfill's life. Today, Clawson is scheduled to meet with a Japanese TV crew for a report on the anthrax case.