Accuracy in Media

William J. Broad has written about science for the New York Times since 1983. Most of his articles try to explain discoveries and trends in the world of “big science” to the Times’ lay readers. His special forte is the interaction between science and national security, but he has also written on the exploration of outer space and the world’s oceans. He has shared in two Pulitzer prizes and his biography says that his reporting has received “every major journalistic prize.”

Broad’s science coverage has a breathless, “gee whiz” tone, which is not surprising since he lacks any formal scientific training. He received a Bachelor of Arts from a relatively obscure mid-western liberal arts college and did some graduate studies in the “history of science.” Broad practices “press release” journalism that is heavily dependent on real scientists to provide him content and context. He is particularly partial to the U.S. Energy Department’s huge laboratory complex, one of the few remaining U.S. centers of “big science.”

Consequently, he is quick to defend his “sources” when they come under attack for disregarding common-sense rules governing security or safeguarding classified information. A recent example is Broad’s coverage of the U.S. Energy Department’s troubled Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, NY. Brookhaven has a long track record of management and security problems; at one point in the mid-1990s, the Energy Department even took the unprecedented step of firing the contractor responsible for managing the lab.

Now an internal Energy Department investigation has revealed that Brookhaven has been ignoring even the most basic rules governing the presence of foreign scientists from countries like Iran or China on its campus. Before they are allowed to set foot on Brookhaven, foreign scientists from sensitive countries, like Iran, China, or India, are supposed to undergo background security checks. At a minimum, the lab is supposed to ensure that visiting scientists hold valid passports and up-to-date visas. But the internal report found that Brookhaven didn’t ask visiting scientists, particularly those from sensitive countries, to provide passport and visa information, claiming it wasn’t their job to do so. In the aftermath of 9/11 and near-hysteria over our porous borders, such a lapse seems inexplicable.

Worse yet, the internal review found that Brookhaven had permitted scientists from sensitive countries full access to the labs before background checks or counterintelligence reviews were completed. In more than half the cases sampled, the lab issued security badges authorizing full access to the lab campus before assignments had even been approved. In one stunning example, Brookhaven provided a badge and full-site access to a visiting scientist from Iran. Iran is high up on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of international terrorism, yet this Iranian roamed freely around Brookhaven for more than two months before his background checks had been completed. Although specifically required, high-level approval for the visit had not been obtained and, even after all this was uncovered, lab officials took another five days to order the Iranian off the site.

Given the proximity of Brookhaven to the site of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, the New York Times should have reported Brookhaven’s flagrant disregard of security procedures, especially regarding scientists from state sponsors of terrorism. But the Times ignored the story and, instead, ran an article by Bill Broad on the big science going on at Brookhaven. Days after the story about Brookhaven’s security failures broke elsewhere, Broad was treated to a guided tour of Brookhaven, where physicists awed him with their experiments to recreate the “Big Bang.” He lavished praise on the Brookhaven scientists and claimed that they are on the threshold of understanding “how the universe was formed billions of years ago” as well as “the forces and particles that rule nature today.” In comparison to that, who could be bothered by some bureaucrats’ rules and regulations on security. Broad’s article, “In a Lab on Long Island, a Visit to the Big Bang,” makes no mention of Brookhaven’s recent security problems.

And that is the point. By shilling for big science, Broad helps cover up the lab’s record of negligence on security. He has become the “go-to” reporter whenever one of the Energy labs is at risk of public exposure for malfeasance or negligence, which is often. In return, the scientists let him pretend he is one of them. Left to Broad, the Times’ readers would never learn about security problems at a lab right on their doorstep.

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