Apr 29 2003

ABC’s Weapons "Scoop" Turns Up Empty

On April 26, ABC’s World News Tonight led with a major scoop. Anchor Claire Shipman announced at the top of the broadcast, “U.S. troops discover chemical agents, missiles, and what could be a mobile laboratory in Iraq. An ABC News exclusive.” But ABC’s “exclusive,” as it turns out, appears to be false.

The April 26 report began: “The U.S. military has found a weapons site 130 miles northwest of Baghdad that has initially tested positive for chemical agents. Among the materials there, 14 55-gallon drums, at least a dozen missiles and 150 gas masks.” Correspondent David Wright explained, “Preliminary tests showed it to be a mixture of three chemicals, including a nerve agent and a blistering agent.” Wright added that an Army lieutenant “says the tests have an accuracy of 98 percent.”

While expressing some reservations, Wright called it “by far the most promising find in the search for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,” especially since it included what his military source told him “looks like a mobile laboratory.”

Perhaps somewhat self-consciously, ABC followed Wright’s report with a short segment about weapons claims that have turned out to be false alarms. But ABC continued to pump the story the next day, with Wright appearing on This Week to explain that “what may turn out to be a very significant find are these mobile laboratories, which appear to have a pumping apparatus as well as machinery to mix chemicals.”

The story led World News Tonight again on Sunday, as anchor Carole Simpson explained that “for the second day in a row, some of the preliminary tests have come back positive for chemical agents.”

But the report also noted one new development: the arrival of a Mobile Exploitation Team (MET Bravo), which conducts its own testing of suspected weapons sites. When those tests were done, the story had changed significantly. According to an April 28 report in the New York Times, the MET Bravo team “has tentatively concluded that there are no chemical weapons at a site where American troops said they had found chemical agents and mobile labs.” As a member of the team told the Times, “the earlier reports were wrong.”

Reporters should be cautious when preliminary tests seem to confirm the existence of banned weapons in Iraq, particularly since so many of these initial findings have not been borne out (see FAIR Action Alert, 3/25/03). ABC was aware of this, but still chose this story as its lead news item for two days. On Monday, April 28, the story had seemingly crumbled. But ABC’s viewers were none the wiser: When the news was that ABC’s “exclusive” had washed out, there was no mention of the story on the Monday or Tuesday broadcasts of World News Tonight.

ACTION: Encourage ABC News to set the record straight on the weapons story it was pushing on April 26-27. Remind ABC that retractions of false stories should be featured as prominently as the original reports, and ask that more caution be shown in reporting government claims.

CONTACT:ABC’s World News TonightPhone: 212-456-4040PeterJennings@abcnews.com