Whiffing on Warner’s Warning

Sometimes reporters need to be a little more skeptical about just why a certain story is coming along at a certain time — particularly when there really isn’t any news there.

Today, the Charleston [West Virginia] Gazette ran a story on its front page, by reporter Chris Wetterich, which leads off, “The possibility of a terrorist attack in West Virginia is real and suspicious activity occurs here every day, U.S. Attorney Kasey Warner said Tuesday.”

Sounds scary. But read on and one learns that Warner also admitted, “There is no specific, current threat.” In other words, there’s no compelling reason for Warner to go public with his warning at this particular time.

When Attorney General John Ashcroft’s office acted similarly in May — issuing its own terror warnings based on no new evidence — the press was rightly skeptical. Reporters gave prominent play to critics’ concerns that the announcement seemed timed to distract the public from other developments that were harmful to the Bush administration, and to needlessly instill fear in the electorate.

Such warnings are obviously a sensitive subject during an election year, and should be treated as such. With West Virginia a swing state, where the campaigns have been waging an under-the-radar contest to slant coverage their way, local media should know to treat such claims with close scrutiny. And other aspects of the story should set off alarm bells with local reporters: the timing, in the middle of the Democratic convention, and the fact that Warner is a Bush appointee with close family ties to the Republican party in West Virginia (one brother is the state GOP chair, and another is the Republican candidate for governor). Given all this, it’s surprising that a reporter would take the announcement entirely at face value.

That doesn’t necessarily mean not reporting the story at all. It may be news when the state’s U.S. Attorney makes an announcement on terrorism. But on such a politically charged topic, readers deserve to get a hint of other issues that might be at work, rather than simply recycling a press conference into an uncritical story.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.