Fat Steve's Blatherings

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Accuracy Last, or Newsweek is Still Digging

      Newsweek still doesn't understand what went wrong.

      The editor attempts to explain in the next issue.  Let's fisk him:

A Letter to Our Readers


      May 30 issue - In the week since our Periscope item about alleged abuse of the Qur'an at Guantanamo Bay became a heated topic of national conversation, it will come as no surprise to you that we have been engaged in a great deal of soul-searching and reflection.

      If that were true, I'd be encouraged.  But real soul-searching would start from the idea 'We got the wrong result because we used the wrong process.'  Newsweek can't seem to grasp that idea.

      Since cutting short a trip to Asia on the weekend we published our account of how we reported the story, I have had long talks with our Editor Mark Whitaker, Managing Editor Jon Meacham and other key staff members, and I wanted to share my thoughts with you and to affirm—and reaffirm—some important principles that will guide our news gathering in the future.

      As most of you know, we have unequivocally retracted our story. In the light of the Pentagon's denials and our source's changing position on the allegation, the only responsible course was to say that we no longer stand by our story.

      It would have been a nice gesture, there, to say 'When we published it, we thought it was true.  We now believe it was false.  We were wrong.'  Or maybe you still believe it was true?  Or what?  Some clarity would be appreciated.

      We have also offered a sincere apology to our readers and especially to anyone affected by violence that may have been related to what we published. To the extent that our story played a role in contributing to such violence, we are deeply sorry.

      A frank admission that the story was part of a process that led to riots would be nice, rather than trying to equivocate.  As for the 'sincere apology' to the dead, that's just disgusting.

      Newsweek also might have explained why they are so ignorant of Muslim culture that they had no idea the story might provoke riots.  Or perhaps they could explain why they did know, but went ahead anyway?  Either would be interesting.

      Let me assure both our readers and our staffers that NEWSWEEK remains every bit as committed to honest, independent and accurate reporting as we always have been. In this case, however, we got an important story wrong, and honor requires us to admit our mistake and redouble our efforts to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.

      That's the tone they should have had throughout.  But I can't help noting that accurate reporting is honest by definition, and I wonder why you put accuracy last?  And what is "independence," how does it differ from "accuracy" and "honesty", and why, apparently, is it more important than accuracy?

      One of the frustrating aspects of our initial inquiry is that we seem to have taken so many appropriate steps in reporting the Guantanamo story. On the basis of what we know now, I've seen nothing to suggest that our people acted unethically or unprofessionally.

      A "profession" that gets things wrong so easily needs far better standards.  'Everybody else does it that way' is not a defense, it's an indictment of yourself and everyone else.  A forthright statement that 'There is something wrong with our standards of verification' should have been made.  And since "veteran investigative journalist" Isikoff fouled up so easily, how about a story on "investigative journalism" in general, starting from the question "Is there really any reason to ever take this stuff seriously?"

      Veteran reporter Michael Isikoff relied on a well-placed and historically reliable government source.

      We here see Newsweek's first mistake.  Would Isikoff have been prepared to stake his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor on the proposition that this official would never lie or make a mistake?  If so, I would like to see an argument about why he believed that.  If not, then all the 'historically reliable' stuff is intellectually irrelevent, and dishonest in intent.

      And by the way, Newsweek, why didn't you ask for a copy of the report?  Or a title, author, and page reference?  Or at least ask the source to read this to you over the phone?

      We sought comment from one military spokesman (he declined) and provided the entire story to a senior Defense Department official, who disputed one assertion (which we changed) and said nothing about the charge of abusing the Qur'an. Had he objected to the allegations, I am confident that we would have at the very least revised the item, but we mistakenly took the official's silence for confirmation.

      The fact that Newsweek showed the article to others means that they didn't trust Isikoff's source.  So, if you honor is important to you, why don't you say, clearly, 'WE THOUGHT ISIKOFF'S SOURCE MIGHT BE WRONG.  WE TRIED TO CONFIRM THE SOURCE, AND FOULED UP.'

      The way Newsweek fouled up was by not asking, explicitly, 'We are informed a certain report is in the works, saying such and such? Is it true that such a report is being prepared?  Have you read it?  Can you confirm or deny or information as to its contents?'  The failure to get explicit answers to these questions was where they Newsweek went off the rails.  And the fact that this was considered "professional reporting" is appalling.

      It now seems clear that we didn't know enough or do enough before publication, and if our traditional procedures did not prevent the mistake, then it is time to clarify and strengthen a number of our policies.

      A better way to put this would be "It is now evident that we don't know how to investigate properly.  We intend to learn.'

      In the weeks to come we will be reviewing ways to improve our news-gathering processes overall. But after consultations with Mark Whitaker and Jon Meacham, we are taking the following steps now:

      We will raise the standards for the use of anonymous sources throughout the magazine. Historically, unnamed sources have helped to break or advance stories of great national importance, but overuse can lead to distrust among readers and carelessness among journalists. As always, the burden of proof should lie with the reporters and their editors to show why a promise of anonymity serves the reader. From now on, only the editor or the managing editor, or other top editors they specifically appoint, will have the authority to sign off on the use of an anonymous source.

      The fact that the source was anonymous was almost irrelevent.  The problem was, the source was wrong.  "For being a man he may err, and what is more, may lie."  The same story, with a named source, would have been almost as embarassing.

      We will step up our commitment to help the reader understand the nature of a confidential source's access to information and his or her reasons for demanding anonymity. As they often are now, the name and position of such a source will be shared upon request with a designated top editor. Our goal is to ensure that we have properly assessed, on a confidential basis, the source's credibility and motives before publishing and to make sure that we characterize the source appropriately. The cryptic phrase "sources said" will never again be the sole attribution for a story in NEWSWEEK.

      If you'd put in the original story 'A confidential source who we believe is in a position to know, and who we don't think would lie to us, told Michael Isikoff . . .", the story still would have been wrong.  What was important was not the source's name, or motive, or position, but the source's quality of information.  Nothing you've written yet says how you'll make sure of getting more accurate information.

      When information provided by a source wishing to remain anonymous is essential to a sensitive story—alleging misconduct or reflecting a highly contentious point of view, for example—we pledge a renewed effort to seek a second independent source or other corroborating evidence. When the pursuit of the public interest requires the use of a single confidential source in such a story, we will attempt to provide the comment and the context to the subject of the story in advance of publication for confirmation, denial or correction. Tacit affirmation, by anyone, no matter how highly placed or apparently knowledgeable, will not qualify as a secondary source.

      Ah, at last the issue of corroboration comes up.  But how about a policy that says such stories will say, "An anonymous source we can't corroborate or refute claims . . ." whatever?  That would make it clear that there really isn't a whole lot of reason to take the story seriously.

      These guidelines on sourcing are clearly related to the Guantanamo story, but this is also a good time to reaffirm several larger principles that guide us as well. We will remain vigilant about making sure that sensitive issues receive the discussion and reflection they deserve. While there will always be the impulse to get an exclusive story into the magazine quickly, we will continue to value accuracy above all else. We are committed to holding stories for as long as necessary in order to be confident of the facts. If that puts us at a competitive disadvantage on any particular story, so be it. The reward, in accuracy and public trust, is more than worth the price. Finally, when we make a mistake—as institutions and individuals inevitably do—we will confront it, correct it quickly and learn from the experience.

      Since they still haven't learned much from what happened, permit me to say that I am not impressed.

      I have had the privilege of being part of NEWSWEEK's proud editorial tradition for nearly 35 years. I can assure you that the talented and honorable people who publish NEWSWEEK today are dedicated to making sure that what appears on every page in the magazine is as fair and accurate as it can possibly be. Based on what we know now, we fell short in our story about Guantanamo Bay. Trust is hard won and easily lost, and to our readers, we pledge to earn their renewed confidence by producing the best possible magazine each and every week.

Richard M. Smith
Chairman and Editor-in-Chief

      Since the talented, honorable, dedicated people of Newsweek have now demonstrated that they don't know how to do their job properly, they have lost my trust.  Until you realize that you don't know how to collect information accurately, you won't regain it.

      As a suggestion: send your reporters to law school classes, and have them learn about what is and is not admissible evidence in court, and why it is or isn't admissible.  Then let them learn what "Proof beyond a reasonable doubt" means, as well as "Preponderance of evidence."  Then let them explain whether their story reaches either threshold, and why it fails to reach the highest (if it does), and why, if it fails to reach "Proof beyond a reasonable doubt," you think the story should be published.  Procedures like this might clarify much intellectual confusion.

      But me, I won't be holding my breath.  For what is needed above all is a realization on the part of reporters of "I may be wrong.  In fact, I may be so ignorant or unintelligent as not to be competent to deal with this story at all."  And they don't seem to have such attitudes.



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