May 22, 2005
Trust-Me Journalism and the Newsweek Retraction
Including why I disagree with almost everyone about it. "Not only do stories like 'Gitmo: SouthCom Showdown' (original title) tap a residual pool of trust that is ebbing away, but when Newsweek goes to that tap unwisely, as it did here, this further depletes the resource."
Last week, I did an unusually large number of interviews, all concerning the Newsweek fallout. My post on it was up, Newsweek’s Take-Our-Word-For-It World. The interviews were an extension of that.
Included was one with Christopher Hitchens and the BBC’s Radio 4 Today, which we taped Tuesday night at 11:30. Certainly for me the final event of the day. I had been “on” the Newsweek story—writing, reading, talking about it—since 9 am, with a short break for dinner.
Not wanting to be at any disadvantage in the BBC gig, I reached up into a kitchen cabinet, got the bottle down and poured myself a scotch and water before the call from London came. I was still fumbling with the ice when the producer clicked on the line.
She asked me if I had indeed planned to be cooking or “working in the kitchen” during an interview with Britain’s most important morning radio news program. I said no, I was just getting myself some ice.
Truth is, I didn’t want to be three drinks behind. I thought maybe two behind would be responsible and good. This I didn’t say. Just then I hear that unmistakably cheery voice (a very good radio voice) and Christopher Hitchens is picking up on my word “ice.” To which he says: “Yes, I was just getting some more of that myself…”
“Hi Christopher,” I said. (And cheers.) The founder of Civic Space Labs was sleeping on my sofa, not to be disturbed. So I left the lights off. I sat at the kitchen table. I sipped my Dewars and water, slowly. And I went over the Newsweek crash sight with Hitchens and the BBC, as best we could in five to seven minutes. It was good because I felt we were all in the dark.
Hitchens also noted that the American right was convinced that this case was evidence of “a propagandistic agenda on the part of the liberal media” to undermine the American war effort.
Having listened twice, I don’t know where Hitchens stands on the Newsweek retraction. Perhaps he didn’t want to have a position. (Friends with Michael Isikoff and John Barry, he disclosed.) He managed to come through loud and clear on one point, though: the agenda of the press includes making the Administration look bad at every opportunity. And it means missing most of the opportunities to make the President look good. Hitchens believes that. He added, somewhat mysteriously, “I can’t tell you how I know it.”
But he had one good illustration, also mentioned by William Buckley in his column, Newsweek’s Dilemma. (See this too.) Hitchens asked how often did you hear it explained that the United States policy was to provide every Muslim in detention with a personal copy of the holy book? Isn’t that helpful for evaluating the frequency of incidents with the Koran at Guantanamo? Buckley writes:
A copy of the Koran was given to all “detainees” at Guantanamo, as also a special cloth with which they can protect the book from ordinary abrasions of prison life, including tactile contact of it by non-believers, this being deemed profane.
The point they’re making involves the punctuation of events: when do you start the story, and what are the effects of beginning it where you do? Of course, punctuation runs both (or rather all) ways. If you start the story on May 12 with Gen. Richard Meyers it looks different, said Josh Marshall, among many others last week. This is from a Pentagon press conference May 12 with Myers and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Myers says:
It’s a judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eikenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran — and I’ll get to that in just a minute — but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his Cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan. So that’s — that was his judgment today in an after- action of that violence. He didn’t — he thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine.
Punctuation doesn’t resolve complaints because there is rarely an obvious moment where everyone has to begin in telling the story. My point is journalists tend to believe the starting point is given by events themselves (rather than “decided” by them in their conventions) because their professional ideology says there are objective reasons for most everything they do. Even though they know such a thing is impossible, and incorrect as a description of how reporting and news judgment normally work.
This is not an instance of political bias, but it is a cause of distortion. (And the distortion is seen as bias.) In my view this tricky little problem—overstating what is given by events, understating what is decided by journalists—is a hidden factor in the credibility wars.
The press often says “we need to better explain ourselves and how we work.” But it doesn’t mention that its own self-descriptions often don’t work. An example I have sometimes used is that the press is not described by itself as a player in election year politics, but everyone knows it is. (Including journalists!) In a case like that, further explanations actually make the situation worse.
At Instapundit May 15, we heard Roger Kimball of New Criterion asking:
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?
Coverage of Bush’s case for the Iraq war does not fit the pattern described—at all—but notice that Kimball is supplying an answer (“they always assume the worst”) to the same question Hitchins asked, which is not far from the question I asked in my prior post: how did a “story with such scant basis,” as Hitchens put it, wind up in Newsweek?
Newsweek says: honest mistakes happen. This was one of those. We feel terrible about what resulted.
Column Right says: A press corps ready to believe the worst about Bush and the military is responsible. They probably saw this as another way to bring him down.
Column Left says: Story with a scant basis? This kind of abuse by interrogators is amply documented. Besides, the riots weren’t caused by anything Newsweek did. Ask General Myers.
The White House says: Newsweek, having retracted the story, should begin to repair the damage to our reputation abroad.
I dissent from all these reactions, and I will explain why.
There’s more to the Periscope item than bad judgment in trusting a usually reliable source. There’s a misunderstanding of the trust situation as it stands in journalism today. As I argued in “Newsweek’s Take-Our-Word For-It World,” these days the serious press has to be raising reliability and curing itself of bad habits just to keep pace with changes in the world that are wearing away at trust in what it does. Included in those changes are the politicized attacks upon it, now a feature of the enviornment.
Newsweek’s editors did an admirable job in going out to face the music and explain themselves when the furor began. (Much better than CBS.) But they have not, I think, confronted the weaknesses in Trust-Me Journalism, which as a form is a lot less effective today. Not only do stories like “Gitmo: SouthCom Showdown” (original title) tap a residual pool of public trust that is ebbing away, but when Newsweek goes to that tap unwisely, as it did here, this further depletes the reource, which everyone else in the press has to use, as well.
Thus Miami Herald editor Tom Fiedler’s remark to USA Today: “It didn’t have to happen, and we’re going to all bear the consequences.” That is a reaction different from “mistakes happen.” Dan Kennedy’s column in the Boston Phoenix fixed on the same point: “That error is going to make it that much more difficult for journalists to learn the truth about what’s going on at Guantánamo, at Abu Ghraib, and in detention facilities in Afghanistan.”
I would add that Newsweek’s editors made much of the fact that the article had been shown to an unnamed Pentagon official, who didn’t disconfirm it. From Howard Kurtz’s interview with Mark Whitaker, May 16:
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 before the item was published and asked, “Is this accurate or not?” Whitaker added that the magazine would have held off had military spokesmen made such a request.
But this defense hasn’t gone very far because of the lax standard in he didn’t disconfirm it paired with “senior Pentagon official.” If the guy had a name the press would be asking him: what were you thinking? Here’s journalism professor Chris Hanson in the Washington Post today, making a similar point:
Newsweek thought its Koran-in-the-toilet exclusive worthy of just a few lines in its gossipy Periscope section. The Newsweek team could have held the story for more verification. Instead, they checked the draft with a Pentagon official. He did not dispute the anecdote, and Newsweek evidently got the wrong impression that he had confirmed it. This was a far cry from the laborious checking and multi-source requirements that had delayed Newsweek’s Lewinsky story in 1998. In keeping with today’s looser approach, they fired their story into the air. It fell to earth, they knew not where. Until the riots, the denials and the denunciations.
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 agree with Reynolds on the “at risk” part. He adds: “While there will be specific consequences, for Newsweek and its staff, the bigger damage will be yet another incremental loss of press credibility.” This is so.
But I don’t agree with the Right that a press corps ready to believe the worst about Bush—or actively trying to undermine him—is largely responsible for the Newsweek story. Poor reliability measures, out-of-date standards for investigative reporting and a casual decision-making climate are far more responsible, in my view.
Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, said in comments here: Let’s start the story with Myers; his source (named) was in Afghanistan and said the riots weren’t caused by the magazine. Then he added, sarcastically:
Who needs to listen to the guys on the scene when you have everyone from Scott McClellan to Donald Rumsfeld to Jeff Jarvis, all trying to tie those deaths to one line in one report that was relegated (by editors, let us note) to the speculation section (Periscope) of a news magazine?
Did you catch that term speculation section? This is what I mean by casual. Newsweek won’t say so, but it has lower standards of reliability in Periscope, where speculation and what is now called snark are thought to be more okay. In the trade-off between readability and reliability, Periscope is supposed to be a series of highly readable nuggets and bits: information popcorn.
But Newsweek cannot afford that more relaxed standard with stories like “U.S. government finds desecration of the Koran by its agents,” which is not popcorn. Likewise it cannot afford to be loosey-goosey on the use of confidential sources. My own explanations focus more on this level of things, but I do not think them exclusively correct.
Now it wouldn’t surprise me to find Bush haters among Washington reporters. But if you’re going to call Michael Isikoff one, yet you don’t mention his role in lifting to newsworthiness the Monica Lewinsky story, then what you have to say about partisanship in the press is meaningless to me. And trying to discuss anti-Bush feeling in the press without including this White House’s decision to marginalize, discredit and de-certify the same press strikes me as absurd punctuation. (Jacob Weisberg of Slate wrote on this angle.)
Equally absurd was the blogosphere’s use of the catch phrase: Newsweek Lied, People Died. (Also seen here, here, and here.) Blogger Jim O’Sullivan explained in comments here why this was a valid headline.
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.
This is exactly the problem. When your descriptions of what happened owe their logic not to what happened but to what “anti-Bush forces” said back when, then you have left the realm of description entirely; and your statements about events are going to be wildly unreliable.
Point scoring is not truth-telling. We all know this. My definition of an ideologue is someone who feels entitled to forget it, by virtue of being on the right side of things. Newsweek Lied, People Died was ideological wallowing. Glenn Reynolds doesn’t think so. In his Tech Central Station column May 18, he wrote:
The blogs have certainly been all over this story, with the tagline “Newsweek lied, people died.” And while that tagline may be a trifle unfair, there’s no question that Newsweek took it seriously, and that Newsweek’s retraction happened a lot faster than it would have a few years ago.
I think he’s wrong on all counts: it wasn’t a trifle unfair, it was absurd. Newsweek didn’t take that accusation seriously, nor does anyone with a brain. And the speed of the retraction, which owes a lot to earlier incidents and the blogging about them, had nothing to do with “Newsweek lied.”
Normally sure-footed and resolute in its handling of the press, the White House slipped this time and decided to gorge itself on the Newsweek error, crossing a line when it demanded (after the retraction) that Newsweek do more, and repair the image of the United States. (See David Brooks lambasting the White House for its lack of restraint.) This is from the May 17 briefing by press secretary Scott McClellan:
Q. Scott, you said that the retraction by Newsweek magazine of its story is a good first step. What else does the President want this American magazine to do?
Which caused its own uproar. I don’t agree that it’s “inappropriate” for McClellan to speak this way. If he wants the gains and consequences of pressuring the press to report a certain way, it’s his right to take the podium and risk it.
But it’s weird to me that White House officials, in order to turn up the pressure on Newsweek and achieve a bigger tactical victory, would forget their larger strategy of downgrading the importance of Washington journalism. The strategy describes the press as a fading power, which can be snubbed and marginalized. McClellan is very much building up the power of Newsweek in world opinion by demanding that it “help repair the damage that has been done.”
I don’t agree with the Left’s logic that this is a non-story because, after all, the allegations are well-substantiated elsewhere. The essence of the Newsweek story, as a piece of news, was that a government inquiry (called “the SouthCom probe” in the original) was going to confirm charges of the soiling of the Koran for purposes of mental torture.
Editor Mark Whitaker explained it: “Although other major news organizations had aired charges of Qur’an desecration based only on the testimony of detainees, we believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence. So we published the item.”
This new piece of information, which went out as VERIFIED, then changed to UNVERIFIED and finally RETRACTED, was not incidental in the propagandistic use of the Newsweek item abroad. Now it could be said that the Bush Government admits it. Newsweek’s item verified an image already in circulation: Koran, Muslim prisoner, American, toilet.
Even so it’s absurd to say the Newsweek item caused rioting that left 15-17 dead. And it’s ridiculous for Hugh Hewitt to refer to recent events as “the Newsweek riots,” which happened when I was on his radio show with Reynolds. (I will try to correct him next time I hear it.) We ought to fix responsibility for riots with rioters, and conservatives should not need to be told that.
Was the Newsweek report without consequence, then? No, I don’t think so. Invective against the U.S. is marginally more effective when confirmation of the horrific appears in the American state’s own media system (which is how Newsweek is seen in Afghanistan.) I think that is what you can say about the retracted item: it became material with which to enflame crowds. Because it was also a confirmation of earlier imagery, this made it very good material.
But that is a long long way from “cause.” Murderist propaganda is caused by propagandists, not the foreign magazines they quote.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
In Newsweek’s Take-My-Word-For-It World (May 17) and this post, I argued that the magazine’s reliability standards were too low for the times in which we live. Confirmation of that now comes from the boss, Newsweek Editor-in-Chief Richard M. Smith, who writes a Letter to Readers in the new issue (dated May 30.) The big changes:
Smith also said: “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.” Smith’s column doesn’t explain how if standards were adequate before they need to be changed now. But maybe that’s expecting too much.
CJR’s Steve Lovelady, who once worked for Time, says good move. About Smith’s Letter: “It raises the bar.” He has two additional suggestions: institute a two-source rule, tell confidential sources you will burn them if they lie.
“A small error in a 300-word blurb.” Kevin Drum’s reaction at Washington Monthly is different. Smith’s letter is excessive in the extreme. What Newsweek did was like jaywalking, he says. But it apologized. “Since then the right-wing media hate machine, like a jackal sensing a rare opportunity for blood, has somehow managed to convince them they bear responsibility for riots in Afghanistan that were staged by extremists….” There’s more. “Newsweek and the rest of the media need to get up off their knees and start fighting back. They’ve done enough apologizing.”
Drum on May 18: “Liberals should think very hard before joining the media bashing crusade too eagerly.”
“A catalogue of journalistic sins.” Michael Getler, ombudsman of the Washington Post, on the Newsweek retraction: “This means editors, especially, and not just the ones at the top, must do their jobs better.” (I agree.)
Patrick Healy of the New York Times, writing in the Week in Review, asks whether it is even possible for Big Media to regain public trust.
A media makeover today faces obstacles that Tylenol did not have to confront. Scrutiny is intense. The Internet amplifies professional sins, and spreads the word quickly. And when a news organization confesses its shortcomings, it only draws more attention. Also, there is no unified front - no single standard of professionalism, no system of credentials. So rebuilding credibility is mostly a task shouldered network to network, publication to publication.
A concise and accurate statement.
Hugh Hewitt and his guest, ABC’s chief White House correspondent Terry Moran (who asked Scott McClellan, “who made you the editor of Newsweek?”) had a pretty tense exchange on his radio program last week. It included this moment of consensus:
HH: [quoting military blogger Major K] “…My brother called me a journalist once during a conversation about this blog. I was offended.” That is a general impression among the American military about the media, Terry. Where does that come from?
Hewitt wrote a column for the Weekly Standard about it here. See also Hewitt’s blog post, and John Leo’s column in US News, The Media in Trouble, which notes that “conservatives are losing their monopoly on complaints about media bias.” Journalists are joining them, is his point.
Jonathan Alter in Newsweek’s new issue (dated May 30) makes this observation:
Very few TV and radio programs, newspapers, magazines and blogs undertake the kind of expensive and complex reporting that requires confidential sources. Most are in the noisy business of re-chewing news, not revealing it; finding new angles, not finding the story itself. Only about a dozen national news organizations are out there actually digging for important stories that someone wants hidden.
Only about twelve, let’s see. Probably he means: ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Knight-Ridder, the Los Angeles Times. I’m guessing.
People have been citing this report by Tim Golden (“In U.S. Report, Brutal Details of 2 Afghan Inmates’ Deaths”) in the New York Times as a proper contrast with the Newsweek item, in that it is based on documents the newspaper actually obtained— as against an anonymous second-hand source making a prediction about the contents of a future report, “confirmed” by a Pentagon official who hadn’t seen the report and so said nothing.
Blog column right is gearing up for outrage over this report on Newsweek’s Japanese edition with a cover showing the U.S. flag dumped in the garbage, part of declaring that the American way of life is being rejected by most of the world. I think this will be a noise machine episode because there is no lapse in journalistic standards. However, someone at Newsweek must grasp by now that the notion of separate information spheres, each of which gets its version of the magazine, is obsolete.
Avoir, Okrent: Daniel Okrent winds up his tour as first public editor of the New York Times with a final column on all the things he wished he’d done. It includes a dig at Paul Krugman for misusing statistics that will cause commotion in the blogosphere, especially because he did not give examples or try to prove the case. Here is my appreciation of Okrent from last week. And here’s Weldon Berger’s strongly worded dissent at BTC News: “How the New York Times public editor blew it.”
Meanwhile, new public editor Barney Calame, whose first column is still two weeks off, debuted with a posting on Okrent’s Web Journal about the Downing Street Memo, and the coverage of it in the Times, which was slow off the mark.
Posted by Jay Rosen at May 22, 2005 10:52 AM Print