As pipe bomb story raises more questions
WASHINGTON (Sept. 5, 2004) - - When a news editor for a major wire service read a National Right to Life press release about partial-birth abortion, he was outraged, and he decided it was time to express himself.
The release, issued by NRLC on August 26, commented on a federal court ruling that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act cannot be enforced because it conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on partial-birth abortion (see story, pages 8-9).
Among the hundreds of journalists who received the release by e-mail was Todd Eastham, North American news editor for Reuters Limited, a major national and international news service. On the morning of August 27, Eastham hit his e-mail "reply" button and sent his thoughts back to National Right to Life. In total, these were his words:
What's your plan for parenting & educating all the unwanted children you people want to bring into the world? Who will pay for policing our streets & maintaining the prisons needed to contain them when you, their parents & the system fail them? Oh, sorry. All that money has been earmarked to pay off the Bush deficit. Give me a frigging break, will you?
The e-mail was sent from Eastham's Reuters e-mail account, email@example.com.
NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson, who wrote the press release and who directs the department that received Eastham's reply, said that Eastham's angry message came "out of the blue."
"As far as we can tell, we had never before received any communication from Mr. Eastham - - he was on an e-mail list for press releases only because he was listed by the Reuters Washington bureau as a news editor," Johnson said. "After receiving his provocative e-mail, we did a little research and found that Mr. Eastham was listed as Reuters' North American news editor. We also found that he both edited political stories and had reported under his own byline on many different subjects, including political stories and stories about the Catholic Church."
Regarding the substance of Eastham's comments, Johnson commented, "It appeared that Mr. Eastham felt very strongly that abortion is necessary to prevent the birth of children who will otherwise snatch some bread from his mouth. I have four children, three of them adopted. Two of the four already pay taxes, and so far none of the four seems headed for prison."
(A collection of other comments on Eastham's e-mail appears on page 28.)
Later on August 27, Eastham's e-mail was reported on the popular website nationalreview.com by Romesh Ponnuru. Soon it was being reproduced, and commented on, by many other publications and websites, including a large number of the so-called "blogs." "Blogs" are websites, usually maintained by private individuals ("bloggers"), that feature frequent journal-like commentaries on current events.
On August 30, Howard Kurtz, who covers the news media for the Washington Post, reproduced Eastham's e-mail in his widely read "Media Notes" column. Kurtz quoted Johnson as saying it was "sad" to see "such blatant hostility" toward the Bush administration and unborn children.
He quoted Reuters spokesman Stephen Naru as saying it was "unfortunate" that an editor "chose to offer his personal opinion."
Kurtz also reported, "But Eastham, saying he doesn't usually edit stories involving abortion, responds that he read the release 'as a personal political solicitation and was not responding in my capacity as an editor. I didn't intend this as a professional communication.'"
Johnson commented to NRL News, "Since Eastham sent the e-mail from his official Reuters e-mail account, I wonder how we are supposed to distinguish between a news editor in his 'professional communication' mode and the same editor in his 'unprofessional communication' mode."
Johnson dismissed as "ludicrous on its face" Eastham's claim that the press release - - which was headed, "Statement by National Right to Life on the future of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act" - - was "a personal political solicitation."
Eastham's e-mail was reported in many venues as well, including The Weekly Standard, christianitytoday.com, Family News in Focus, and LifeNews.com. On August 30, Cybercast News Service ran a story which was picked up by the popular website www.drudgereport.com. On August 31, Fox News Network Washington bureau chief Brit Hume reported on Eastham's e-mail in his daily "Political Grapevine" feature.
On the same day, the Reuters e-mail was the subject of critical commentary by James Taranto in his "Best of the Web Today," a popular feature on www.opinionjournal.com, a website associated with the Wall Street Journal.
Two days later, on September 2, Taranto reported, "Our item Tuesday about Reuters editor Todd Eastham's angry e-mail to the National Right to Life Committee prompted an e-mail from Reuters spokesman Steve Naru, who relayed a statement from David Schlesinger, the 'news' service's global managing editor, which reads in part: 'I personally was appalled by the incident and I can assure you it has been handled robustly through our internal disciplinary process.' We wrote back to ask what 'handled robustly through our internal disciplinary process,' means, and Naru replied that this information is confidential. He did reveal, however, that Eastham 'is not employed in the same capacity. We are making appropriate adjustments to his duties.'"
On September 3, Schlesinger also sent an e-mail to Johnson, in which he said, "I was personally appalled by Mr. Eastham's lapse; it has been handled through our disciplinary process and he understands the seriousness of what happened."
Schlesinger did not explain the nature of the "disciplinary process," but he wrote, "Freedom from bias is integral to all that Reuters represents, and I intend to keep it that way."
Johnson said that Schlesinger's statements were welcome, but added, "I have to wonder about the culture of a newsroom in which such sentiments would be so casually conveyed by an editor, whose job presumably includes reviewing reporters' stories for bias and distortions."
Johnson also sharply questioned Reuters coverage of a pipe bomb that exploded in a biotech laboratory near Boston on August 26. No one was hurt, but the lab suffered an estimated $250,000 in damage.
A Reuters dispatch the next day left the clear impression that the attack might have something to do with opponents of embryonic stem cell research. But reporters for other news outlets who actually checked the facts quickly ascertained that Amaranth has nothing at all to do with embryo-based research. Indeed, the firm is engaged in adult stem cell research, a type of research that is constantly applauded and promoted by virtually all people who oppose embryo-destructive research.
For example, The Scientist Daily News reported on August 31, "Police in Watertown, Mass., said yesterday that they don't believe that the unknown person who blew up a pipe bomb in a biotech laboratory there last Thursday (August 26) was protesting stem cell research, as has been broadly suggested, because the company uses only adult cells in its research - - not controversial embryonic cells."
That story and others said that authorities were focusing on a former employee of another firm in the same building. who was out on bail while awaiting trial for allegedly trying to burn down the same building in 2003.
On August 31, that individual was arrested for the bombing. On September 1, Reuters sent out a new dispatch, which ran in many newspapers across the nation, that actually compounded its original error.
The lead sentence for the September 1 story was, "Police yesterday arrested a man in connection with last week's pipe bomb explosion at a Boston-area laboratory specializing in stem-cell research," without distinguishing between research that requires killing human embryos and other types of stem cell research. Fully one-third of the story was devoted to references to a "national debate" over "stem cell research," references to restrictions adopted by President Bush, and the concluding observation, "Democratic candidate John Kerry has said he would reverse Bush's actions."
NRLC's Johnson commented, "Reuters never told its readers that the lab was in fact engaged only in precisely the sort of ethical stem cell research that is strongly supported by President Bush and other opponents of embryo-destroying research, and it strongly implied just the opposite. The reader could leave the story only with the strong impression that the crime probably had something to do with opposition to embryonic stem cell research - - why else devote a third of the story to that subject? Yet, the contrary facts were easily ascertainable and were reported by many other news outlets."
Johnson concluded, "The Reuters dispatches on the bombing were laden with misinformation that was inserted without any evident effort to check the facts, apparently on the basis of sheer assumption - - which is a text-book symptom of journalistic bias."