As the mystery of Alexander Litvinenko’s death by polonium 210 continues to unfold–and the shadowy world of spies, former agents, defectors and seedy characters revealed seems lifted from a twisted Le Carré plot–questions continue to arise about the poisoning of the former FSB agent and defector to Britain.

What we do know is that Litvinenko died in London on November 23. What we also know is that in the days after many in the British and US media rushed to judgment–reporting rumor and speculation as fact.

As one British journalist put it, four days after Litvinenko’s death: “As the case rolls on, and the media hysteria continues, more and more, I feel what the situation is exposing is not the evilness of the Kremlin but our own gullibility, the sloppiness of our media, the irresponsibility of our politicians, and the greed of our PR industry.” Take the British magazine The Spectator, whose end of November cover featured a caricature of Russia’s president and the headline, “The Long Arm of Putin.” The story didn’t even engage other hypotheses than that the Kremlin was responsible for the poisoning. In one typical paragraph, the author wrote, “poisoning a British citizen on British soil demonstrates a new level of chutzpah even for the Putin regime.”

In its editorial on November 25, the venerable Times of London demanded that “President Putin must prove by deeds that he is not linked to Mr. Litvinenko’s murder.”

In the United States, the Washington Times‘s Arnold Beichman trumpeted: “Meet today’s Murder Inc. Headquartered in the Kremlin.” Echoing the charge, the Times‘s Wesley Pruden wrote, “A hit job worthy of the KGB.” Pruden went on to assert that “nearly everybody assumes that the Russian government probably with the assent, if not the encouragement, of Vladimir Putin, ordered the hit and assigned the hit man.” The Wall Street Journal on November 26 announced that Russia is “the enemy of the United States,” arguing that “Alexander Litvinenko’s death is the latest in a series of killings, attempted murders, imprisonments and forced exiles whose victims just happened to be prominent opponents of Mr. Putin.” And last weekend, the New York Post‘s headline told the world that it was “Putin’s poison.”

In more respected media outlets–such as the Washington Post–regular columnists Charles Krauthammer and Anne Applebaum were more sophisticated in their indictments. Nevertheless, they too concluded that Putin did it. “Well, you can believe,” Krauthammer wrote, ” in indeterminacy. Or you can believe the testimony delivered on the only reliable lie detector ever invented–the deathbed–by the victim himself, Litvinenko directly accused Putin of killing him” (“The Murder in London,” 12/8/06). Applebaum, just a few days earlier, wrote: ” But though it’s doubtful that he ever gave an actual order to an actual thug, Putin is certainly responsible for Litvinenko’s death in this deeper sense: He presides over this web of old intelligence operatives, indeed sits at its center. And he approves of their methods.” A central piece of evidence: According to Applebaum, “One of his first acts as Prime Minister in 1999 was the unveiling of a plaque to Yuri Andropov.”

What does it reveal about the Western media’s standards that so many news organizations–even the most reputable–have rushed to confuse speculation and rumor-mongering with fact-based reporting? “It seems safe to say,” wrote a Western commentator in Moscow news, “that the juridical dictum ‘innocent until proven guilty’ does not apply to Russia.”

As the investigation unfolds, we’re bound to see more media hype. Witness yesterday’s New York Times article, “When an ex-KGB man says they’re out to get him” (December 10).

But what is also emerging, as the investigation and radioactivity spread to Germany, is an alternative hypothesis, a counter-story–focusing on the business dealings of members of Russia’s private security industry and the security (and health) risks posed by trafficking of the dangerous (and extremely valuable) radioactive isotope polonium 210.

(To its credit, the New York Times‘s William Broad–in two stories, “Polonium, $22.50 Plus tax,” Dec. 3, 2006, and “US and Foreign Regulators Consider Tightening Controls on Deadly Polonium 210,” Dec. 10–debunked the conventional media line that only the Kremlin had the wherewithal to administer a lethal dose. Broad writes that “public and private inquiries have shown that it proliferated quite widely during the nuclear era, of late as an industrial commodity.”)

As an antidote to the media frenzy, it’s been valuable to read investigative writer Edward Jay Epstein’s blogs about the Litvinenko case. What sets him apart is his interest in cooly and rationally raising the questions that few are asking. On November 30, Epstein raised the question of whether it was murder–or an accident which, as he put it, is even “scarier.” And in “The Polonium Puzzle: The Alternative Hypothesis,” Epstein suggests the alternative hypothesis to murder: polonium smuggling–for profit rather than assassination.The real question we have to ask, Epstein says, is not who killed Litvinenko but how did it come about that he was exposed to a very rare isotope–one which is produced only in a few grams? In his latest blog, ” A Diversion From Hell: The Polonium Mystery” (December 10), Epstein raises a whole new set of questions–specifically about the relationships Litvinenko had with his contaminated associates–that need to be answered in order to resolve the extraordinary mystery of the poisoned ex-spy.

Stay tuned.