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August 12, 2008

Media Furies

Roy Meachum

The Bruce Ivins tragedy starkly revealed the trashy shape of America's media. Print and electronic alike, they have become modern versions of Greek playwright Aeschylus's Eumenides; the Furies of ancient Rome, they resound still in the Yiddish phrase: Kein eine horah. "Not one listening" is a prayerful cautionary against the 40,000 beasties that always hover waiting to strike all those who earn praise.


In the last months, in particular, Dr. Ivins' behavior hip-hopped from the exemplary to the eccentric. Knowing him during his long Fort Detrick career, colleagues blamed his fitful deterioration to the tightening media circle woven by the feds who wanted him to be guilty.


"It was not pleasant," recalled former a former biodefense official, Jeffrey Adamovicz, to The New York Times. "There was a general sense of paranoia that they were going to get somebody no matter what."


Washington's U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor attempted to sell the world that Bruce Ivins was the one and only culprit who stuffed powdered anthrax into envelopes mailed through the postal system, resulting in five deaths and numerous poisonings officially fixed at 17. Bush-stalwart Taylor made absolutely no mention of the victims felled by the nearly seven-year investigation.


Steven Hatfill's name you know. For his years of agony and pain after he was designated, by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, "a person of interest," Dr. Hatfill received nearly $6 million in taxpayer funds. Perry Mikesell was not so lucky.


An Ohio microbiologist, Mr. Mikesell was cast under suspicion by the feds; he worked on Legionnaires' Disease at Ft. Detrick at one time. The highly respected scientist participated in publishing academic tomes on his experiments. Subject to similar pressures as Dr. Ivins – notably close surveillance and innuendo – “He drank himself to death," a relative said. He downed a fifth of hard liquor a day toward the end, we are told.


Dr. Hatfill's former girlfriend went on record that she had been flatly informed by FBI agents he was a mass murderer; she was warned she would be charged as an accomplice if she failed to tell all. A very similar approach to Dr. Ivins' children was categorically denied by officials. The son said he had been offered $2.5 million if he informed on his father. Never happened, justice department types insisted.


To increase pressure on Dr. Hatfill, when he was the prime target of the probe, television stations were invited by feds to set up their satellite trucks to cover a search of the Ft. Detrick scientist's apartment. A New York state emergency room physician was also exploited by the media on the FBI's behalf, in 2002.


Regional television stations replayed again and again, how authorities closed off streets around Dr. Kenneth Berry's home. Made sinister-looking in their biowarfare protective suits, agents were shown hauling away computers and sacks of papers, mail and books. The doctor's attorney told a N.Y. Times interviewer: "They destroyed his marriage and destroyed him professionally for a time."


A Pittsburgh TV station labeled Dr. Berry a "material witness," giving no source. The KDKA-TV commentator didn't bother to explain what the doctor may have witnessed. The NBC-TV outlet speculated the allegation may have sprung from the suspect willingly submitting to a polygraph test that "came back inconclusive." The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported the elder Mr. Berry said his physician-son knew Dr. Hatfill, then the only acknowledged "person of interest" in the case. Was that guilt by association?


The New York Daily News said the other media had it all wrong. The new FBI Director Robert Mueller ordered that the "cold case" receive a top-to-bottom review, rechecking all sources and every possibility. That's how, the paper said, Dr. Berry became involved in 2004. Only several months ago various insider-media types said Mr. Mueller's latest order for review turned up Bruce Ivins.


Sunday's New York Times reviewed the disastrous side effects for people dragged into the case ("Anthrax Case Had Costs for Suspects") and that established a sort of balance. The Washington Post chose to glorify the one figure in the Bruce Ivins' story that has been seriously condemned on all sides, except evidently the paper that gave me my first job after leaving the Army.


Since I worked four times for the Washington Post Company, it naturally generates a special memory. The Graham family does not feel the same way.


In 1975, I covered the pressmen union's strike against the paper for TV Channel 5. The newspaper's "line" was how the workers broke valuable equipment without provocation and stalked off the job. A phalanx of strikebreakers marched in. The number two official in the Federal Mediation Service told me he had never seen a better organized company plan to break its unions.


Remembering Eugene "Butch" Meyer cruising through the newsroom and wearing his pressman's hat, newsprint folded to keep ink out of hair, I could not buy the idea the unions arbitrarily and maliciously junked the paper they had fought so hard to save. I reported on Post-employed security guards beating up on strikers, but only when complaints were filed with police. I did everything by the book as it was taught by editors Al Friendly and Ben Gilbert. The Post newsroom's standards of professionalism are much diminished these days, as this story illustrates.


The Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau nationally broke the story of Dr. Ivins' suicide. In what was obviously a direct "plant" by federal sources, the California paper alleged he had sent the anthrax-lace envelope to induce panic, the story said, in order to sell the vaccine he invented. Prosecutors were ready to indict.


The Post hung its "scoop" the next day on the "fact" that Dr. Ivins and his lawyer were prepared to discuss life in prison; he would not face execution under the deal. The possibility of the scientist's innocence was swept aside. Readers assumed guilt, otherwise why would he and his lawyer look for a deal.


According to attorney Paul Kemp no such plea-bargaining was pending, as The Post reporter could have determined by simply asking. Mr. Kemp has never said anything to shake others' opinion that his client was totally innocent of all charges! But that's not what The Post said.


The paper demonstrated all the negativism of "new journalism" Sunday when it ran reporter Anne Hull's version of the truth according to Jean Duley. It was bad enough that The Frederick News-Post labeled Ms. Duley a "psychiatrist," such things happen in the local newsroom. But The Post gave space to the woman who has constantly vilified Bruce Ivins on the basis of counseling sessions, which may have been themselves illegal.


A survey of state agencies turned up no license of Ms. Duley to perform therapy, certainly not by herself. She was legally required to function under the guidance of certified counselors or psychiatrists. She told Ms. Hull that she qualified to help persons addicted to booze or drugs, at $20 an hour.


She was, in any event, not licensed to call police about patients' behavioral problems, which she did, only to be shot down. Shrinks and licensed therapists are allowed; she is not. Ms. Duley persisted and somehow wound up before District Court Judge Milnor Roberts, who issued a temporary restraining order, which police never served on Dr. Ivins. He was hospitalized and found dead first.


At Wednesday's news conference, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said there would be no further investigations into those 2001 anthrax murders. Almost before the words were out of his mouth, the Federal Bureau of Investigations petitioned for a search warrant for the C. Burr Artz Library.


Since the feds have no doubt the guilt lies exclusively with Bruce Ivins, you may very well ask what they are trying to uncover, certainly no new leads. We will not hear about anything that casts further doubt on the Department of Justice's finding. You can bet they're looking for anything that will pull their solely circumstantial case tighter around the dead man's neck…


…while the media Furies cheer them on.


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