Thoughts on Newsweek

There is a point at which media criticism becomes rather censorious, and I think we’ve crossed it in the Newsweek scandal. Jonah Goldberg, in his latest column for National Review Online, writes of Michael Isikoff’s motive for breaking the story, “my guess is that [he] was more motivated by a reporter’s desire to break a story than by some Left-wing anti-Americanism.” Then he gets to the argument:

But what on earth was gained by Newsweek‘s decision to publish the story — whether it was true or not? Were we unaware that interrogators at Gitmo aren’t playing bean bag with detainees? To me the similarities with the Abu Ghraib are greatest not in terms of the abuse but in terms of the media’s unreflective willingness to undermine the war on terror.

There you have it. Publishing the alleged details of interrogations of foreign prisoners should be a big no-no, even if the story checks out. Bye bye Abu Ghraib, hello trend stories.

Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds, an Internet acquaintance for whom I have much respect, has disagreed with some more rabid bloggers about whether legal action against Newsweek is warranted. He also insists that his earlier warnings about what this story could do to freedom of the press in this country were just that: warnings. He explains:

Today’s expansive press freedom, which I support wholeheartedly, is of recent origin (essentially, it’s a post-World War II phenomenon) and not to be taken for granted. Remember all the talk about the Enron scandal, and how free enterprise was at risk if greedy corporations didn’t clean up their acts? Well, I’m afraid that press freedom is at risk if it’s seen as a vehicle for out-of-touch corporations to peddle defective products without fear of consequences.

I think I made this clear with my last post, but let me say it again: Newsweek screwed up and screwed up badly. I am not against anonymous sourcing, or even using a single anonymous source for an explosive accusation. But if you are going to rely on that source, you had better be darned sure that he has an unblemished track record of getting it right and that he will not flip under pressure.

The signs are abundant that Isikoff and company did not have an unimpeachable source and that they knew it, so why did they run with the story and risk exposing themselves to massive recriminations? I don’t know. The motives put forward for doing this are (a) Bush hatred; (b) a general skepticism of the U.S. military; and, in a pinch, (c) stupidity.

To run with the story was certainly stupid, and it is highly unfortunate that politicians in Afghanistan and Pakistan used the story to start riots that killed over a dozen people. This is likely to stain Newsweek‘s reputation for some time. It could result in a raft of cancellations, and I’ve no doubt that hawkish bloggers and the White House will continue to throw this back in the newsweekly’s face for quite some time.

That would be unfortunate, I think. Newsweek‘s response to the scandal has consisted of equal parts contrition and struggling to understand the truth of what happened. Editor Mark Whitaker forthrightly apologized to readers, and longtime Newsweek hand Evan Thomas reported on the fallout of the magazine’s screwup in fairly unflinching terms. Isikoff reportedly offered to resign as penance. There was no stonewalling, no cover up, no arrogant attempt by people at the magazine to spin the story in their favor.

That should be the end of it, folks. If we believe journalism is important, then we have to believe in freedom of the press. Part of that freedom is the normal back-and-forth in which newspapers and magazines are going to get it wrong every so often, come under criticism, and, we hope, acknowledge those mistakes and learn from them.

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  • Scott

    Pentagon: No Abuse of Koran, Afghan Protests Unrelated
    The U.S. Defense Department says an inquiry has so far not confirmed an incident reported by Newsweek magazine, in which an interrogator at the Guantanamo detention facility allegedly put a Koran into a toilet in order to upset some prisoners. The department also says demonstrations in Afghanistan Wednesday and Thursday that left eight people dead and have been widely attributed to anger over the alleged incident, were in fact not related to it.

    …General Myers also told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Carl Eichenberry, disagrees with the reports that protests in the city of Jalalabad were caused by anger over the alleged Koran incident.

    “It is the judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eichenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran, but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his cabinet are conducting in Afghanistan. He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine,” he explained….

    Desecration of Koran Had Been Reported Before
    Newsweek magazine’s now-retracted story that a military guard at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet has sparked angry denunciations by the White House and the Pentagon, which have linked the article to Muslim riots and deaths abroad.

    But American and international media have widely reported similar allegations from detainees and others of desecration of the Muslim holy book for more than two years.

    James Yee, a former Muslim chaplain at the prison who was investigated and cleared of charges of mishandling classified material, has asserted that guards’ mishandling and mistreatment of detainees’ Korans led the prisoners to launch a hunger strike in March 2002. Detainee lawyers, attributing their information to an interrogator, have said the strike ended only when military leaders issued an apology to the detainees over the camp loudspeaker. But they said mishandling of the Koran persisted….

  • tmatt

    As a reporter, I was taught the rule that you never used an anonymous source unless you could confirm the information from at least two other sources. In other words, the anonymous source points to the story.

    The only time I ever wrote a story on a single anonymous source, the source had WRITTEN PROOF. He had a document. That made all the difference.

    This source at Newsweek claimed to have seen a doc, but they never got the doc or anyone else who said they had even seen it. Correct?

  • Charlie

    I think a more likely explanation for why Newsweek ran with the story was that they believed it to be true. TMatt’s recent post about the liberal culture of the NY Times, and most newsrooms, is instructive. The newsroom “worldview” presumes that certain things are true, and goes looking for evidence to confirm those beliefs. In that sense, news organizations are religious endeavors full of evangelistic zeal, pushing a point of view–sometimes beyond what the facts will bear.

  • dk

    Does anyone know what kind of Korans were used and where they came from? The press has assumed all Korans are equal and equally sacred among all Muslims–hence the outrage. But as I understand it, only certain presentations of the Koran are deemed authentic and many are considered inauthentic–perhaps even somewhat sacriligious–among many Muslims. It would be interesting to know if Muslim reactions are to a symbolic descration or the desecration of a symbol.

  • Q

    Two thoughts. First, a response to Jeremy’s comment, There was no stonewalling, no cover up, no arrogant attempt by people at the magazine to spin the story in their favor. That should be the end of it, folks.

    I disagree. Newsweek was indirectly responsible for more than a dozen deaths. Either the editor or the author (or both) should lose his job.

    There used to be a tradition in politics, here in Canada, at least, that a Minister would resign when there was a major screw-up in his or her department. It doesn’t happen anymore. I think it’s a tradition we need to get back to, not only in politics but elsewhere in public life, to show some accountability.

    Second, a response to Charlie’s comment, that Newsweek ran the story because they believed it to be true. Maybe so, but was the story news? Jonah Goldberg poses a provocative question, Were we unaware that interrogators at Gitmo aren’t playing bean bag with detainees?

    Since the story wasn’t news, Newsweek must have had some other motivation for publishing it. Please understand, I’m solidly on the left when it comes to politics — I abhor the Bush administration’s use of 9/11 to excuse widespread human rights abuses. But Newsweek made a serious error of judgement on this story, and it’s reasonable to ask what agenda led them to such a stupid decision.

  • Tim Graham

    Guys, I would have to disagree with the notion that there was no spin from Newsweek, starting with the way they mangled the word “retraction.” Editor Mark Whitaker claimed in Monday’s New York Times that there would be no retraction when they didn’t know what they got wrong. Then late on Monday, they retracted. The next day, Washington Bureau Chief Dan Klaidman came on TV and claimed they had actually retracted the story over the weekend, which they had not. They did not distinguish themselves in the aftermath any more than they distinguished themselves with the original story.

    And just because we have a free press does NOT mean we cannot criticism them as deeply injurious to the country or others with mini-scoops that everyone could have done without. Couldn’t we all just wait two weeks and see what the SouthCom report says? Yes, unless you’re trying to beat Time or U.S. News or another news outlet to the punch.

  • metagirl

    Hmmm. My earlier comment seems to have mysteriously disapeared. Weird.

    Posted by Scott at 8:04 am on May 19, 2005

    “As a reporter, I was taught the rule that you never used an anonymous source unless you could confirm the information from at least two other sources. In other words, the anonymous source points to the story.”

    My question to you is, does it matter that Newsweek showed this story to the Justice Department and that they gave it back with “no comment”?

    That’s a pretty big source, if you ask me! If they believed that the there was never any desecration of the Koran, wouldn’t they say so?

    You’d think that there would have been a lot of riots in the streets with all the previous reports in newspapers like the Washington Post as far back as 2002, where they depicted prisoner accounts of the exact same kind of treatment of the Koran.

    The problem with Newsweek’s story was that the source said that there would be an official report about possible desecration of the Koran, then he/she changed their mind and said that they weren’t sure if there would be a report. That, and pressure from the Administration, were the reasons for the retraction.

    Speaking of administrations…something wrong with truthful debate?

  • Beth

    I wish the news media would realize that readers subscribe to NEWS magazines because we want to read hard verifiable NEWS. We do not want to wade through misleading articles using information supplied by anonymous,unnamed sources.
    I have canceled my $39.00 susbscription with NewsWeek and refused the latest issue of that publication because I subscribed to Newsweek hoping to get real NEWS and instead they send me a GOSSIP sheet. I consider this bait and switch and I believe a lot of other subscribers feel the same way.