The Newsweek thing

OK, I will admit I’ve only been paying sort of sidelined attention to the world outside of me this week, but I have managed to catch a whiff or two of the Newsweek story. Here’s what confuses me: Was it really “bad journalism”? The bit about the flushed Koran was, as far as I can tell, half of a sentence within a larger piece, and it wasn’t even a new charge: some British detainees reported the same thing last year, and there have routinely been reports of poor treatment. The new part, I assume, was that the Newsweek story said that the military had discovered this and included it within an internal report. This single line sparked massive protests and violence — the kinds of activity that would make any source on anything reconsider the wisdom of his/her decision to speak out — and the source then backed off of what he or she had said.

To me, that’s not necessarily bad reporting, particularly if everything that Newsweek‘s editor has said is true: that they showed the story to an independent (meaning, uninvolved) Pentagon source for confirmation, that they returned to the source and had the line confirmed, that no one ever said, prior to publication, that the line was wrong. It took the Pentagon how long to finally protest the line? Over 10 days? I see a small flaw in their citing “sources” plural if there was only a single guy behind it, but it looks as though they believed that they’d be able to fall back on the other confirmations if something fell through.

I’m actually curious about this, not asking to be argumentative: am I missing a report in which it’s said that the story was inaccurate, or is it still just that the source backed off his/her initial information? Has anyone offered to release the internal report to prove that this is wrong?

It bothers me that media outlets and journalists are increasingly coming under attack on at least two sides, both the side that seems to say report only that which can be easily proven (and which eventually slips into “report only that which you are handed”) and the side that says journalists have stopped being truly investigative and are too content to take what they’re given by the government. I’m also bothered by this whole assumption that it was the reporting of the act that sparked riots and violence, instead of the fact that so many people believe — and they probably aren’t wrong about this — that religious “torture” is something the American military uses.

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4 Responses to The Newsweek thing

  1. tmseay says:

    I’m mostly with you. Newsweek took prudent steps to confirm its story, and they quickly apologized and withdrew the story when someone official finally got around to disagreeing with them. I think the White House is just slamming them now to perpetuate the myth of the liberal press to its own advantage.

    Having said that, I don’t think that desecration of the Koran by American soldiers is the sort of thing Newsweek should have reported based on the remarks of one anonymous source. The bulk of their article was about prison abuses, and there are plenty of well-documented abuses they could have talked about. Stepping into a maelstrom on the basis of what one person thinks he might have read strikes me as pretty irresponsible.

    But I’d love to see the White House spend half as much time talking about real abuses and what they’re going to do to change the system as they do talking about how Newsweek supposedly sucks.

  2. kepkanation says:

    Hear, hear, on the White House talking about making changes. They’ve so jumped on this as an example of “it’s not that we’re a problem, it’s that the messengers make us look bad!” I’m sure that plays well to the doubters within their own party — everyone who wants to think it’s not really as bad as it seems — but it makes my head hurt. If Newsweek was running a prison with scads of abuse charges leveled against it, I’m sure the White House would advocate burning it to the ground, editors inside. (Though, come to think of it, if Newsweek gets its own prison, I will sign up to be incarcerated, but only if the Washington Post reporters will be there, too).

    I think where I get hung up on this is the old standard for libel — that the truth is always an absolute defense. Therefore, as long as an editor/reporter knows that the story can be proven, the number of sources is almost unimportant. But I agree, they should have (and should always, on everything) look for further confirmation. They could have backed it up simply by including a citation to past allegations.

    I really want that report to be made public.

  3. gotmce99 says:

    Yeah – I think this whole Newsweek pushed me into the “don’t publish unless you can prove it side,” assuming I wasn’t there already. It just seems to me that there are a ton of stories Newsweek could have done besides something that is based completely on one person’s story – who refuses to have their name used.

    It’s like all those NYT articles about weapons of mass destruction that quote “senior administration sources” or whatever – or WP stories, for that matter. I think there should be a higher standard.

    But I completely second you that 1) it’s already been reported and 2) the reporting didn’t kill people – the actions reported did.

  4. kepkanation says:

    I fall into the “don’t publish unless you can prove it side,” too, but in a different way — anonymous sources don’t actually bother me, because despite all of my cynicism, I still trust certain media outlets to print the truth as best they know it. I guess I’m onboard with the Newsweek editor, who said something to the effect that in certain cases, there’s a kind of “brave whistle-blower” phenomenon where sometimes the only way to get the good information is not to reveal the source’s name, but to reveal as much about them as possible. I think I get this from the Watergate scandal being my big, celebrated standard of journalism excellence — which it should, perhaps, not be, as they ran into some serious difficulties and major ethical problems in reporting that.

    What it comes down to for me, I guess, is the credibility of the source — and I can see both sides of this issue, because greater transparency is always an excellent goal, but I feel like some stories would never get broken without the use of anonymous sourcing…

    So, yes, let me be circular: you’re right, I think the media in general have been getting a little lazy about sourcing of late, and there should be a higher standard in place for what needs direct citation and what does not — and perhaps some kind of public disclosure of what those standards are would be interesting, too.

    Several media groups are pushing the White House to end its practice of background briefings right now, however, and that’s an excellent policy: abstract of the article.

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