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Monday, May 16, 2005

Was Newsweek's Sin That The Koran Flushing Story Was Too Good Not to be True?

Bloggers and a lot of others are agog over Newsweek's handling of its report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay flushed a Koran down a toilet as a means of angering Islamic detainees accused of being supporters or members of terrorist organizations.

More than a dozen people died and hundreds were injured in the anti-U.S. riots the Newsweek report sparked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Gaza Strip. Desecration of the Koran is punishable by death in Islamic nations.

Now Newsweek says it can no longer vouch for the accuracy of the story, which appeared as a brief item in the magazine's "Periscope" column in the front of the book. Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said reporters Michael Iskikoff and John Barry relied upon "a knowledgable government source" when they wrote the report. That source claimed to have seen a reference to the flushing incident in a military report.

After the magainze's article appeared and the deadly riots began, however, Newsweek's lone source, which it has not identified, backed off, saying he could not be certain he actually read of the incident in an official report or in a draft of some other report.

Whitaker told Reuters that "As to whether anything like this happened, we just don't know. We're not saying it absolutely happened but we can't say that it absolutely didn't happen either."

Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meachum defended the magazine's report, claiming in an interview with Reuters that "this was reported very carefully, with great sensitivity and concern, and we'll continue to report on it. We have tried to be transparent about exactly what happened, and we leave it to the readers to judge us."

For whatever reason, it appears Newsweek's reporters and editors forgot Journalism 101's First Rule: You don't publish a serious allegation that could seriously damage or destroy an individual's reputation, put somebody in physical danger or place public safety at risk if you don't have two independently verifiable sources.

Notice how Whitaker describes what his two reporters did in an attempt to establish their lone source's credibility: "Their information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur'an charge."

Read that last sentence again because it is a damaging admission of gross journalistic error. 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.

In any case, Newsweek went ahead and published despite its failure to independently verify its lone source's credibility. At a minimum, Journalism 101 would have required holding off publication until additional reporting and verification could be completed.

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.

Why then, having made such grievous, basic errors, would Newsweek's editors and reporters go ahead and print such a flimsily sourced allegation?

Here are some possibilities: First, competitive pressures made them fear somebody else would beat them to the story. It's not uncommon for anonymous government sources to feed such fears among journalists. When this happens, however, it can be a strong signal the information is incomplete, untrustworthy or otherwise compromised.

Second, Newsweek had previously published information provided by the source that checked out, so why doubt the veracity of the source in this instance? But like they say about the stock market, an anonymous source's previously credible performance is no guarantee of future credibility.

Third, Newsweek might have thought it had the same information from other unofficial sources - such as former Guantanamo detainees - who for obvious reasons are deemed less trustworthy. But when somebody in government says the same thing as the less credible sources, it can create a presumption the original information is accurate. Given the Pentagon's insistence that previous descration allegations had not been supported, this option seems rather unlikely in the present case.

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 happened, but given what Newsweek has offered in its own defense, it is difficult not to conclude that the fourth possibility is exactly what happened.

Given all of the other recent examples of MSM journalists being caught making up facts and quotes, Newsweek ought not be surprised to hear a chorus of demands that it go a lot further down the road of transparency and demonstrated credibility before anybody will ever again take it seriously.

Note: Newsweek has late Monday officially retracted the story. "Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay," Whitaker said.

As usual, Captain Ed gets right to the basic issue regarding Newsweek's explanation:
"Quite frankly, this is bulls--t. They went to the Pentagon with a wild story about flushed Qu'rans and now they're surprised when no one knew anything about it? Can you imagine what Newsweek would have written and published had the Pentagon told them to keep quiet about it? They would have turned it into another Abu Ghraib, complete with cover-ups and military censorship. It would have resulted in more silly Senate hearings, and even worse publicity than what Newsweek already generated, with more loss of life -- and all for a story that sounded patently false from the very beginning."

Michelle Malkin is hardly less "understanding" of the magazine's explanation, quoting at length from the appearance on this morning's Don Imus Radio Show of Newsweek's Howard Fineman and Jonathan Alter.

And LaShawn Barber has the roundup of blogger reaxs from everywhere, plus her own saucy observation: "When was the last time you heard the words 'Bible' and 'desecrated' in the same sentence? I digress."

Trey Jackson thinks liberals are defending Newsweek because the magazine is one of theirs. But he suspects the saner heads in the newsroom probably wish some of the Moonbats of the Left would be quiet. Here's his whole post.

My buddy Dale Baker of Okie on the Lam wonders what kind of medication might be available for what appears to ail Newsweek.

Then there is "Flushed," a Cox & Forkum editorial cartoon that leaves nothing to waste.

Clayton Cramer notes that "Newsweek lied, People died" and much, much more, including a disturbing observation from another blogger who thinks Congress ought to investigate. No, no, a thousand times no. But Clayton is always worth reading.

The Professor was in Australia delivering a lecture or returning from lecturing Down Under when this story first broke but he has now filed an analysis and it is up to his usual high standards. Here is the heart of Rosen's assessment, which bears quoting at some length:

"The very difficulty of summarizing what the faulty report said tells us something vital about it. To wit: Newsweek, which I will call S1 for our first level source, and for which we have names (Michael Isikoff, Mark Whitaker, John Barry) said that it had sources (S2) without names, who in turn said that other sources (S3) also without names, working as investigators for the government, have learned enough from their sources (S4), likewise unnamed, to conclude in a forthcoming report for U.S. Southern Command (finally, a name!) that unnamed interrogators (S5) dumped the Qur’an into toilets to make a point with prisoners (S6) who are Muslims but also not named.
"And as Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker explained, what made this nameless, formless, virtually fact-free item newsworthy was not the "toilet" imagery itself, or some of the other equally revolting allegations, which had been reported numerous times before, but the "fact" that for the first time a government source (that would be S2) said it.
"The fact that a knowledgeable source within the U.S. government was telling us the government itself had knowledge of this was newsworthy," Whitaker said in an interview with Howard Kurtz.
"In this way of thinking--the adequacy of which is in doubt--if you trust the source, and Newsweek told us it did, then the source saying it (Qu'ran thrown down toilets) is enough to make it news. Except that the kind of news the source was willing to make was 'weak' even if spot on. It was just a prediction of what someone else will later be saying, not what the source himself knew first hand."

If you trust the source, then the source saying it makes it publishable? Why am I reminded of a certain Georgia peanut farmer who was once known for saying "Trust me"? If that is indeed the standard to which the MSM has fallen, then the end of the MSM may be closer than any of us have heretofore imagined.

The Laughing Wolf says Newsweek's conduct makes him ashamed of ever having been a journalist: "Suffice it to say that right now I am ashamed at ever having been any part of the Old Media or to say that I was a 'journalist.' Alas, I was, and even was inducted into Kappa Tau Alpha for my academic work in journalism. "

Me? I say don't give up, Wolf, let's make it right again.

As the reactions continue to swarm, it seems increasingly clear that Flushgate is a milestone in the life and death of the MSM every bit as important as Jayson Blair at The New York Times, Rathergate at CBS and Easongate at CNN.