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May 17, 2005

Newsweek's Take-Our-Word-For-It World

It was next-to impossible for us to judge the Periscope item for ourselves; there was almost nothing in it our trust could latch on to, except Newsweek's royal stamp and Michael Isikoff's magic name.

We’re not retracting anything. We don’t know what the ultimate facts are.
— Mark Whitaker, Sunday.
Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay.
— Mark Whitaker, Monday.

As these quotations show, it was news weakly made that helped trigger fatal events far beyond the world of Newsweek and its subscribers. Now that the report has been fully retracted, people have been asking me what I think about this seriously screwed-up story.

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 Quran 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 (Quran 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.

In his post on the Newsweek disaster, Austin Bay points out that we live in a world where “loosey-goosey allegations can lead to riot and death.” Since it is not possible for journalists to ignore this fact, they have no choice but to factor it in with their decision-making.

Here it does not fill me confidence to find Whitaker saying to Howard Kurtz: “I suppose you could say we should have foreseen the consequences of the report, but we didn’t.”

That doesn’t mean a charge like desecration of the Quran should never be reported. If United States policy is to show scrupulous respect for holy texts, then it matters if American policy is being violated. I don’t agree at all with La Shawn Barber: “Newsweek should not have reported it, even if true.” But I do agree that the possible consequences in being wrong—and being right—should have been factored in, driving the need for reliability up, up, up. But nothing like this happened at Newsweek.

We have to chart the sourcing a little to see how thin the original story actually was:

Source Level 1 is named: it is Newsweek magazine itself in the person of its editors and reporters. We know who they are and we can decide whether we trust them.

Source Level 2 are the unnamed sources in the government who were said to have knowledge of an “upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami” documenting all this. These sources now appear unreliable, and won’t confirm. It appears that one of them was not really a source for the allegation but a Pentagon official who was shown the report and didn’t disconfirm it. From the New York Times account by Katharine Seelye:

In addition, the reporters, Michael Isikoff, a veteran investigative reporter, and John Barry, a national security correspondent, showed a draft of the article to the source and to a senior Pentagon official asking if it was correct. The source corrected one aspect of the article, which focused on the Southern Command’s internal report on prisoner abuse.

“But he was silent about the rest of the item,” Newsweek reported.

That is the most revealing fact I have come across so far, because it is very clear how much weaker didn’t disconfirm is when compared to alternatives like “Colonel Jones said…”

Did he confirm it?

No, but he didn’t disconfirm it.

Oh, so is that confirmation?

Well, he would have warned us, I think.

Right, right. He would have warned us.

When I say “thin” that is the kind of thing I mean.

Source Level 3 are the (unnamed) “investigators probing interrogation abuses.” They are the ones who will compile the report for U.S. Southern Command. What Newsweek’s sources “had” was simply a prediction about what these people would be putting in their report. (Whitaker in a piece Newsweek ran Monday: “Our original source later said he couldn’t be certain about reading of the alleged Quran incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.”)

Source Level 4, also unnamed, are the people the investigators would have talked to in their probe. We don’t know who that is, but we can guess it is likely to include prisoners, lawyers, rights groups, guards, interrogators, agents and officers— direct witnesses, and those who talked to them.

Source Level 5 are the interrogators in Guantanamo Bay who could have, conceivably, thrown things like the Quran down toilets. Certainly they are among the best sources for what actually went down. Alas, no names.

Source Level 6, also unnamed, are the prisoners for whom the alleged action would have been intended— a special class of witness.

The allegations in the Periscope item thus come with six possible levels of sourcing confidence. But as readers we have names for only Level 1: Newsweek’s editors and reporters. On my six point scale Newsweek’s item ranks as perhaps one and a half, naming itself and Southern Command. The question the magazine should have to answer is why it ever thought sufficient such a meager reliability level for a story of this kind.

As CJR Daily noted, Newsweek was “opting to trust a longtime source, despite the lack of any real corroboration.” Tim Porter was more specific: “No names. No positions. No reasons for their anonymity. No nothing that would add to either the credibility of the original report or the response.”

This is not just Newsweek’s problem. Everyone in journalism knows that trust in the press is under pressure as never before. Some of it comes from high-profile screw-ups by journalists and other spectacular lapses in editorial controls. These stories have filled the headlines so there is no need to repeat the litany.

Some of the pressure originates in a politicized attack on the press that has roots in the culture war, but has now spread to government itself (as with the current conflict between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NPR.)

Some can be traced to the heightened scrutiny that results from Big Journalism’s loss of monopoly position in news and commentary. There are more media watchers these days and they have their own ways of checking up on the press, pooling their complaints and getting the word out. PressThink is itself part of this trend.

And some of the heightened pressure is due to the larger setting in world affairs— including the war in Iraq, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, and the way in which information released in one place can have instant effects around the globe.

Under these conditions, it is imperative that journalists in the United States raise their standards for reliability, because the consequences of being wrong—for themselves, for their profession as a whole, and for others far removed—are graver. The most difficult part of raising standards is not to figure out what to do that might improve reliability, but to admit that standards weren’t as high as they could have been in the first place.

For professionals who have achieved a certain standing (and won awards) this is hard because it requires some humbling first: Maybe we aren’t as good as we need to be. But the alternatives are worse. Instead of improving reliability, the press can simply become more timid, reducing risk by increasing its own toothlessness. It can fall back into formalisms of the “he said, she said” variety, and never really try to figure out the truth. It can switch the mission to entertainment, and select news that way. There is always denial that anything is different today, a favorite among the crumudgeon class.

The Periscope item in the May 9th issue of Newsweek is a creature from an earlier climate of credibility: when a single-source story was good enough; when anonymous was okay as long as you trusted “your guy” at the Pentagon or the DA; when the consequences of being wrong were not as great, as instant, or as global; when the game of being first—which always meant more to journalists than anyone else—could go on as if it had intrinsic value to the public. Porter says the scoop mentality at Newsweek is “vestigial.” I agree.

The obsession with being first was so strong that the wire services or networks routinely crowed if they beat the competition by minutes.

That day is gone. News today is a continuum. It flows ceaselessly from producer to consumer and, more and more, back again to the producer. It can be stopped and recorded for consumption later, it can be sampled at any hour of the day or night, or it can be ignored altogether, as it increasingly is.

By using the loopy logic of “firstness” (this is the first government source to say it!) Newsweek was I think pursuing the wrong goods, and it compounded the problem by settling for a low level of reliability in deciding to make its Periscope item news. On top of that Editor Mark Whitaker does not appear to understand the difference between “take our word for it” journalism, and the “don’t take our word for it, judge for yourself” kind, a shorter term for which is transparency.

It was next-to impossible for us to judge the Periscope item for ourselves; there was almost nothing in it our trust could latch on to, except Newsweek’s royal stamp and Michael Isikoff’s magic name.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, says (at his blog) that his paper has tighter standards than Newsweek when it comes to anonymous sources.

We don’t like ‘em and don’t want ‘em in the paper, particularly on local content. It occasionally means we have to wait to publish a story. It occasionally frustrates the journalists who believe they have the story nailed. We permit them when we know the source has first-hand knowledge of an event, there are other sources, and we judge there’s a compelling public need to know. And even then we may not publish until we do more reporting.

Note: “We permit them when we know the source has first-hand knowledge of an event” would have sunk the Periscope item. Isikoff (whose source it was) granted anonymity to someone with second hand knowledge. (My category S2.) New York would have flunked the Greensboro test.

Media beat reporters: I’m gonna give you a freebie. Check into regional and “status level” differences in professional opinion about what Newsweek did, and compare the anonymous sourcing standards at national vs. local outlets. Read between the lines of what this guy wrote. My sense is: resentments of the national press are a story, not in Greensboro only but many places. Where do I get it? I read the comments at my blog.

I did Hugh Hewitt’s radio show with Glenn Reynolds Tuesday night; we talked about the Newsweek fallout. Transcript is here. Glenn posted a short summary and reflection on what we said here. He writes:

Both Jay and I rated this scandal an 8 on a scale where RatherGate was a 10. While there will be specific consequences, for Newsweek and its staff, the bigger damage will be yet another incremental loss of press credibility. I’d rather have a press that was trusted, and trustworthy. We’re still some distance from that, I’m afraid.

Agreed. One correction: Hewitt asked me if I were boss of the Washington Post Co., would I fire reporter Mike Isikoff; but I thought he had asked me about editor Mark Whitaker. (I talked over his question.) I said I might.

Thinking about it after… I don’t think anyone should be fired. No. Mike Isikoff is supposed to push his story, and be an advocate. The failures I see are in Newsweek’s decision-making overall. When Hewitt asked me, would you fire…. I should have changed the subject.

Meanwhile, others want to argue with Glenn Reynolds, and why not? At Hit & Run, Matt Welch had something to say back to Glenn. First, from Instapundit:

I WARNED EARLIER that if Americans concluded that the press was on the other side, the consequences would be dire… I’m a big fan of freedom of the press. I think it’s too bad that the journalistic profession is ruining things for everybody through the hubris, irresponsibility, sloppiness, and outright agenda-driven bias of its practitioners.

A big “fan” of the First Amendment? That’s a strange way of describing your relationship to it, Glenn. Maybe it’s sarcasm. Says Welch:

But if we’re to ladle out blame for the pending First Amendment collapse on journalists who have a dispute with one source, let’s save a drop or two for commentators who have encouraged their readers to believe the falsehood that professional reporters have been showing up to work all these years to carry out a specific agenda to undermine America.

Joe Gandelman thinks back to Newsweek and Isikoff in the Clinton impeachment struggle and “raises BOTH eyebrows when he reads how biased Newsweek now is right-down-the-line and how it hates Republicans when not too long ago GOPers were praising it…and Isikoff. Does this obscure Newsweek’s journalistic failure on the Koran story? No.”

In today’s editions, Mark Whitaker tells Kit Seeyle of the New York Times: “Unlike CBS, we felt we were being extremely forthcoming by publishing all the details and publishing the Pentagon’s denials and saying we committed an error. But then it seemed that people felt like we weren’t apologizing. In order for people to understand we had made an error, we had to say ‘retraction’ because that’s the word they were looking for.”

Whitaker also told Charles McGrath of the Times: “Everybody behaved professionally and by the book in this case.” He doesn’t seem to grasp how this almost makes it worse.

At Daily Pundit, Bill Quick’s paraphrase of this post is: “if Newsweek asks us to take them on faith as a source again, (my conclusion, not Jay’s) we probably shouldn’t.”

Does anyone know why Michelle Malkin is crafting headlines like, NEWSWEEK LIED. PEOPLE DIED and then putting a * after LIED, so as to explain: “Newsweek was reckless and sloppy and wrong. But I do not think the magazine ‘lied.’” Make sense to you? Not to me.

Jim O’Sullivan explains in comments:

Newsweek “lied” in the same sense that Bush “lied,” according to anti-Bush forces, when he said Hussein had WMDs. Bush and Newsweek both believed what they were saying. If they can throw around the “L” word, so can we.

Oh. I get it now. Which one of you is tit and which is tat?

Austin Bay is among those calling for the source to be named:

With 15 to 17 dead, that source needs to come forward on his own; if the source doesn’t, Newsweek needs to tell us who he is. I suspect we’ll find the source is a bureaucrat or political appointee who leaked to the press on the expectation of “future considerations,” and this “flushing” tidbit sounded just like the kind of “hot tip” the Vietnam/Watergate template press would love to have. Let’s get the principal players out in the open, the reporters and editors who were at the “press checkpoint.”

Ditto for Dan Gillmor: “I’m starting to think that unnamed sources who lie like this should be outed. No, this is not a call for journalists to break their promises. But maybe we should tell people who demand anonymity that they will be outed if it turns out they lied. This would undoubtedly lead to fewer stories based on unnamed sources, but it might also lead to more honorable journalism.”

Bob Zelnick, self-described conservative, Bush supporter, former Pentagon reporter for ABC News, now chair of the Journalism Department at Boston University, talked to Howard Kurtz:

Zelnick [said] he often based stories on information from unnamed officials. “I don’t see how a reporter can function in a sensitive beat without relying on anonymous sources — even one anonymous source if the reporter has confidence in him,” he said.

But Zelnick said that even if the Koran incident was true, he would have had “reservations” about running it because “the potential to inflame is greater than the value of the piece itself.”

Wanna see someone thinking for herself about this story? Cori Dauber, And You Thought You Had a Bad Day. I recommend it.

Miami Herald editor Tom Fiedler talks to USA Today:

Tighter vetting procedures and a prohibition against basing a story on one unnamed source might have prevented the misstep, Fiedler says. “It didn’t have to happen, and we’re going to all bear the consequences. We learned in carpentry to measure twice and cut once. We’d better do that in journalism.”

This man understands what I meant by “raise reliability.” Fiedler to colleagues: We better start doing that now. If Newsweek had measured twice…

Here’s a revealing twist: the Los Angeles Times grants anonymity to a Newsweek journalist for purposes of… well, see for yourself:

A Newsweek journalist familiar with the reporting on the article agreed with his editor’s regrets Monday, but said it appeared the administration was seizing on the error to minimize the abuse allegations.

“The issue of how prisoners are treated at Guantanamo has not gone away,” said the journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Now they want to deflect that by talking about how irresponsible Newsweek magazine was.”

Recall Tim Porter’s adjective, vestigial? Joe Hagan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal has this:

Editors are caught in the middle. They need to assure readers that the use of anonymous sources isn’t fomenting inaccuracy or bias. But they feel they must also protect their reporters’ ability to gather news.

“It’s a subject of immense importance to our business,” says Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor of the Washington Post. He says he fears a “secret government” and adds, “I think there’s not enough use of unnamed sources, frankly.”

Via Instapundit’s post, former Newsweek staffer Alex Wong says bigfoot-ism was involved: “I just can’t see a less established reporter getting a pass on such a fact [without] more backup documentation than the hearsay of one anonymous source. Newsweek’s prizing of their Bigfoots is on a higher level than the other publications I’ve worked for. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — branding a couple of writers is a pretty good business strategy. But perhaps, this time, it bit the mag in the ass.”

Josh Marshall takes note of how the White House called Newsweek’s retraction “a good first step,” and then demanded more action.

A question. What “more action” should a White House ever be in a position to demand after a story has been retracted, especially in a case where the White House is not even directly involved in the facts of the case.

Think about.

Marshall elsewhere is suspicious of the White House playing up the Newsweek article as “cause” in the rioting, when Gen. Richard B. Myers had cast doubt on it. He’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Marshall says we should “let Newsweek’s reporting stand or fall on its own (though bear in mind that even at this point the Pentagon’s denials seem rather technical).” That is the route I took in my post, evaluating how well-sourced the story was, apart from what the White House said. Now Josh:

But do not miss the fact that the White House and the political appointees at the Pentagon are exploiting this in every way they can — even going so far, it would seem, as to declare as a moral certainty claims that only a few days ago they professed to believe were false.

Andrew Sullivan asks:

After U.S. interrogators have tortured over two dozen detainees to death, after they have wrapped one in an Israeli flag, after they have smeared naked detainees with fake menstrual blood, after they have told one detainee to “Fuck Allah,” after they have ordered detainees to pray to Allah in order to kick them from behind in the head, is it completely beyond credibility that they would also have desecrated the Koran?

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 17, 2005 1:07 AM