Fat Steve's Blatherings

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

More on Newsweek's non-standards

      In my prevous post, I examined Newsweek's intellectal/journalistic standards, or lack of same.  Others in the blogosphere are doing it too, and some excellent points have been made.

      At The New Criterion, Roger Kimball asks:
      Why is it that all the stories you read in Time-Newsweek-The New York Times-The Washington Post-Etc. or see on CNN-The BBC-CBS-NBC-Etc., why is it that all their stories about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, etc., why is it that the presumption, the prejudice, the predisposition never goes the other way? Why is it that their reporters always assume the worst: that we're doing dirty at Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., and are primed to pick up and believe any rumor damaging to the United States? Shakespeare knew that rumor was a “pipe/blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,” not to be trusted. So why do these journalists, trained to sift evidence, to probe sources, to listen beyond the static of rumor: why do they only do so in one direction, so to speak? Yes, I know that's a self-answering question, at least in part, but it is worth pondering nonetheless.

      The Indigent Blogger reports on Bader Zaman Bader, the person named in Newsweek's cover-your-ass story on how they got the facts wrong as having seen a Koran tossed into a latrine.  It appears Bader was released from detention last September, but he only just got around to mentioning the Koran abuse, despite claiming it gave him nightmares ever since it supposedly happened.  And how did the Indigent Pundit discover this?  He used that secret blogospheric weapon, Google.

      But then, 'learning is only possible in a state of ignorance,' as someone said.  Newsweek was certain they knew it all, so they didn't check into the allegations.

      Speaking of Bader, Scott Johnson of Powerline noted Newsweek, in the midst of supposedly explaining how they got their facts wrong, couldn't help throwing in more unproven allegations.  Johnson calls it "pathetic."  I have a less charitable opinion.  At the least, though, it shows an inability to distinguish between what happened (Newsweek reported a story without investigating properly), and what the magazine wishes had happened (we got the story right after all!).

      As of Sunday, Newsweek was still determined to dig their hole a little deeper.  Reuters reported:
      Whitaker told Reuters that Newsweek did not know if the reported toilet incident involving the Koran ever occurred. "As to whether anything like this happened, we just don't know," he said in an interview. "We're not saying it absolutely happened but we can't say that it absolutely didn't happen either."

[SNIP]

      "This was reported very carefully, with great sensitivity and concern, and we'll continue to report on it," said Newsweek Managing Editor John Meecham. "We have tried to be transparent about exactly what happened, and we leave it to the readers to judge us."

[SNIP]

      "We believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence. So we published the item," Whitaker said.

      "Our original source later said he couldn't be certain about reading of the alleged Koran incident in the report we cited," he wrote.

      The story was wrong, but they can't bring themselves to say, clearly, 'We shouldn't have reported it.'  Their source was wrong, or lying, or maybe their reporter misquoted him, but they don't say which, may not know which, and don't seem to care.  The source couldn't be sure, but the magazine still calls him "knowledgeable."  They "reported very carefully, with great sensitivity and concern," but not so much care, sensitivity, or concern that they found a second source who'd say the same thing, or got a look at a copy of the report, or an exact quote from the report, or anything else that might have confirmed or refuted the first source.  Instead, they asked a Defence Department official, and when he didn't dispute the allegation, they assumed it was correct.  This is the standard that Dan Rather and Mary Mapes used in the Memogate story, but apparently the MSM didn't learn anything from that incident.

      The story of this mess has become so twisted that Scrapleface's jibes read like straight news:
      While the magazine has apologized publicly to the riot victims and their families, Mr. Whitaker told the New York Times, "We're not retracting anything. We don't know what the ultimate facts are."

      For those unschooled in professional journalistic ethics, Mr. Whitaker explained that a retraction demands a higher standard of evidence than an ordinary news item.

      "You don't just rush to press with a retraction until you nail down the facts," he added.

      (Hat tip: LaShawn Barber, who has a wonderful link collection.)

      Howard Kurtz reports on the story here (registration required).  Kurtz quotes Newsweek's editor:
      He said that a senior Pentagon official, for reasons that "are still a little mysterious to us," had declined to comment after Newsweek correspondent John Barry showed him a draft . . . That official "lacked detailed knowledge" of the investigative report, Newsweek now says. Whitaker said Pentagon officials raised no objection to the story for 11 days after it was published, until it was translated by some Arab media outlets and led to the rioting.

      Gee, in my naïvté I thought it was the job of the "investigative reporter" to ascertain whether a prospective source had "detailed knowledge" of the subject under discussion.  I never realized the source is supposed to do all the work for the reporter.

      But I do find it interesting that Newsweek seems to think that the world revolves around them, and that the Pentagon has nothing better to do than fact-check whatever they print.

      Kurtz quotes Isikoff:
      "Obviously we all feel horrible about what flowed from this, but it's important to remember there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here," he said. "We relied on sources we had every reason to trust and gave the Pentagon ample opportunity to comment. . . . We're going to continue to investigate what remains a very murky situation."

      So, Isikoff, you either didn't understand what you were told, or you were conned, or you misjudged your source's competence, and for certain you didn't verify the information, but that's not a lapse in standards.  Note that for the record: JOURNALISTIC STANDARDS "ABSOLUTELY" DON'T REQUIRE YOU TO GET THE STORY CORRECT, OR EVEN MAKE A REASONABLE ATTEMPT TO DO SO.  That's straight from a "veteran investigative reporter," as Kurtz characterizes him, writing for one of the most prestigious MSM outlets in the U.S.

      Perhaps I can clear up some of the murk, Mikey: you aren't very good at investigating, and you substituted your prejudices for evidence.

      Kurtz does do us a favor when he says:
      The 10-sentence item said an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami was "expected" to include the alleged Koran incident -- the subject of only one sentence -- among various abusive techniques used "to rattle suspects" at Guantanamo.

      Thanks, Howard, for calling attention to that weasel word 'expected.'  It would appear Newsweek was less than confident in their story, so they left themselves an out.  Now that the corpses have piled up, it seems they lack the nerve to confess their doubts.

      Jon Friedman, in Investor's Business Daily, asked (Link via Joe Gandelman; original story no longer available):
      How could a story this explosive have passed through Newsweek's hierarchy without someone raising his or her voice and asking if the sourcing on such a sensitive piece was air tight?

      How could Newsweek have allowed such an important a single-sourced story (featuring an anonymous source, no less) to be published?

      I would chalk it up to Newsweek wanting very much to have a scoop of any kind. More than most magazines, it prides itself on being as capable of breaking news as the big daily newspapers.

      I chalk it up to their anti-Bush sentiments.  They don't seem to have had much faith in the story, but it was a chance to do the administration dirt.  But whether I'm right or wrong, it was shoddy reporting.

      Other journalists make the same point.  Joe 'The Moderate Voice' Gandelman, along with a fine collection of links, noted:
      Newsweek's journalistic standards either are or have become lax. This story could have waited a bit. The reason: they should have anticipated that there could have been an uproar — although they surely could not have anticipated that there would be riots eventually blamed on their news report. They should have had several sources ready to back up their report.

      Journalist Mark Tapscott eviscerates Newsweek:
      For whatever reason, it appears Newsweek's reporters and editors forgot Journalism 101's First Rule: If you don't have two independently verifiable sources for a serious allegation the publication of which could seriously damage or destroy an individual's reputation, put somebody in of physical danger or place public safety at risk, don't publish it.

[SNIP]

      Neither DOD official verified Newsweek's lone source. One of the two Pentagon officials approached by Newsweek even raised a question about related information apparently provided by the lone source. But Newsweek published the Koran flushing allegation anyway. Surely that decision violated the magazine's own editing standards.

[SNIP]

      They also appear to have forgotten Rule Two: Anonymous sources in government always have agendas, typically self-serving agendas. That means journalists should never rely upon lone anonymous government sources unless they are quoting a document or person they routinely see and can provide additional details, the verification of which would not jeopardize identity.

      Otherwise, there is simply no way to reassure readers that a lone anonymous source isn't using the media to peddle half-truths or outright falsehood. Even with such verification, the information is often still second-hand and thus ought to be viewed with great caution.

[SNIP]

      Which leaves us with a fourth option - For too many people in the Newsweek chain of editorial command, it just had to be true or it seemed so credible that it must be true, given everything journalists "know" about U.S. interrogation methods of prisoners in the war on terrorism. Call this the Rathergate Option.

      Frankly, it is bad enough that the magazine admits it can't say for sure that the incident really happenned, but given what Newsweek has offered in its own defense, it is difficult not to conclude that the fourth possibility is exactly what happened.

Jeff Jarvis shows no mercy:
      An incident such as this should force us to ask what the end result of journalism should be. Is it to expose anything we can expose? Is it to beat the other guy to tell you something you didn't know?

      Or is it to tell the truth?

      And if you don't know it to be true, is it reporting? If you rely on unnamed sources and unconfirmed reports, is it journalism?

      To sum up journalism as "tell the truth" sounds so damned simplistic. But that is what journalism is about, isn't it? Or shouldn't it be?

      I'm not saying that Newsweek lied. But they didn't know the truth before they said what they said. They put the gotcha scoop ahead of the truth and ahead of nothing less than the good of mankind.

      The superb Austin Bay writes:
      History may see Newsweek’s fatal “Koran flushing” story as the US press’ Abu Ghraib. Under any circumstances, Newsweek’s flagrant, tragic error is an error a long-time-coming...

      The sin of greed always seems to creep into every scandal and it’s certainly lurking in this tragic incident. Newsweek wants market share, and a scoop grabs readers. But profit generated by a frantic “me first” quest isn’t the only motive. The “Vietnam-Watergate” motive’s also in play. That’s a tired and dirty game but for three decades it’s been a successful ploy for the New York-Washington-LA media axis. It’s rules are simple. Presume the government is lying– always make that presumption, particularly when the president is a Republican. Presume the worst about the US military– always make that presumption, even when the president is a Democrat. Add multi-cultural icing– the complaints and allegations of “Third World victims” are given revered status, the statements of US and US-allied nations met with cynical doubt and arrogant contempt.

      Anti-American propagandists –and that includes Al Qaeda– have used Gitmo and Abu Ghraib as emotional/political weapons. Responsible reporting must take that into account– in fact, credible reporting has to take that into account. A news organization will ultimately lose credibility if it doesn’t factor the Al Qaeda propaganda angle into its reporting on Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. I know, this makes for a more complicated story, but this is an intricate, complex war on an intricate, complex planet. I argue that the “Vietnam/Watergate” template directed Newsweek to “get Bush"– and that’s a narrow vision for a quality journalistic enterprise in a world where information technology puts us all within earshot of one another.

. . .this particular story operates as if Newsweek were a “neutral observer” and Al Qaeda and the US are moral equivalents.

      Over at Mudville Gazette, Greyhawk notes some of the other phony stories of abuse of prisoners and Muslims that have circulated.  Of course, none of that caused Newsweek to hesitate before printing their false rumor.

      Secular Blasphemy says:
      This is far bigger, far worse than memogate. This is an indictment on the way mainstream media works, being way too reliant on anonymous sources telling a story that is just too good to check.

      Commentator 28 at Bay's site observes:
      This is the Sepoy Mutiny all over again - and this time on steroids. The stupidity of Isakoff & Newsweek can be explained, but not condoned, by their lack of both general and historical knowledge combined with a level of arrogance that only the truly and willfully ignorant have.

      Dean Esmay skewers one of the pro-Newsweek arguments:
      A lot of the defenses of Newsweek I've seen tend do be of the "well given the other abuses like Abu Ghraib we've seen, the flushed-Koran story believable." Screw that. Prisoner abuses happen in all prisons, in all wars, under all administrations. They aren't acceptable, but the very fact that they happen so rarely that we can name every incident, and publicize them--and put people in jail for the most extreme abuses--speaks volumes.

      And lest we forget, the Abu Grhaib story was "broken" by the U.S. Army, who heard the rumors of abuse, investigated, and arrested people for them.

      I guess we can sum it up this way: Newsweek's intellectual standard seemed to be, 'Evidence?  We don't need no stinkin' evidence!'

THE HOUSE OF SAUD MUST BE DESTROYED -- AND WILL BE!

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