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The Fall of Brian Ross

On May 21, ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources program with host Howard Kurtz, a media reporter for the Washington Post, charging that the government was tracking his and other reporters’ phone calls. Kurtz treated the charges as factual and “ominous.” But one week later, on May 28, Kurtz was on the show looking into whether Ross had smeared House Speaker Dennis Hastert by falsely claiming he was the target of a federal corruption investigation. Former ABC News reporter Linda Douglass, a guest on the show, thought Ross’s report about Hastert was exaggerated, to say the least.

Was Ross reliable one week and not so reliable the next? Or was he off-target in both cases? And is it time for Brian Ross to be put out to pasture?

Hastert blamed the FBI for leaking the false information to Ross, in retaliation for Hastert’s criticism of an FBI raid on the congressional office of Democrat William Jefferson. If the FBI was behind the leak, it would not be the first time that Ross has been misled by his FBI sources.

His bio at the ABC News website claims that, “Following September 11, Ross and the Investigative Unit broke numerous stories about the investigation into the terrorist attacks and anthrax letters.” It doesn’t say that Ross, acting on information provided by his FBI sources, falsely implicated Dr. Steven Hatfill in the anthrax attacks.

More recently, my associate Roger Aronoff noted [1] that Ross did a story smearing conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for attending a conservative legal conference. Ross falsely suggested Scalia had deliberately skipped John Roberts’ confirmation as Chief Justice in order to go on a junket.

This is not to say that Ross hasn’t done his share of good pieces. His expos? of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers stands out as an excellent piece of work. But his recent work has made him into a laughingstock. The damage to his reputation has been compounded by his unwillingness to correct the record and apologize to Hastert.

On the matter of the feds supposedly tracking his phone calls, Ross told Kurtz that he found out from “a senior federal official” who told his colleague that “We know who you are calling; you should get some new cell phones and quick.” Ross said he was also told that reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post were having their calls tracked as well, and that “it seemed consistent with the information we know, that the CIA has made several criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, the FBI, based on stories that the Post and the Times have run about CIA secret prisons and the Jim Risen story at The New York Times about NSA wiretapping. In both cases, those agencies have confirmed that criminal investigations have begun.”

Kurtz asked Ross why, if sources are leaking classified secrets, “shouldn’t the government be able to investigate and track down which reporters they’re talking to?” Ross conceded that he thinks “they should be able to investigate, if they feel there’s a crime. But I think going after reporters’ phone calls and phone records is a way of chilling and preventing us from doing our job. And if you are chilling reporters, you are chilling the First Amendment. And I think that the public’s right to know in this case supersedes these issues. If, on their own, they can figure it out, I think that’s fair game, in a way.”

Perhaps Ross fears that his sources will be exposed as being as unreliable as those who told him the whopper about Hastert being under investigation.