I’ve not blogged about the Newsweek fiasco due to being professionally depressed. Having been a reporter and still maintaining a membership (though my current dues are late) in the Society of Professional Journalists as a statement of support, thus far the facts behind the magazine’s story make for a fiasco for journalism.
Granted, there is astounding hypocrisy from the White House, as a letter writer (the second letter) to The Washington Post states.
I’m having a reality problem. The White House and the Pentagon are furious because Newsweek didn’t double-check the source on its story about an American interrogator flushing a Koran down a toilet, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is complaining because people’s words and actions have consequences?
Are we not in the middle of a billion-dollar-a-week war with no end in sight and hideous casualties on both sides because the White House and the Pentagon didn’t check their sources about the infamous weapons of mass destruction? Does this mean we can demand an apology and retraction of said war?
The irony runneth over.
Anne Applebaum’s column (which for some reason is not on The Post’s web site) also tries to provide perspective.
Indeed, some of the criticism starts us down a slippery slope.
Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) used even stronger language, saying that Isikoff had “fabricated” the Koran incident and branding Newsweek’s behavior “criminal.”
So are we to prosecute reporters who make a mistake while we allow military leaders who facilitate and cover-up torture to remain unaccountable?
No doubt the fiasco is a “gift to conservatives.”
Consider, for instance, what happened on Monday night when Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, and Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, squared off on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country. Jensen attempted to place Newsweek’s error in some context, noting that US forces are responsible for horrific abuses, including torture and homicide, at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.
Suddenly, Bozell started yipping like a dog that had finally managed to corner a wounded squirrel. “You cite me the evidence of American soldiers murdering people in prisons,” he barked. Jensen, clearly perplexed, replied, “The evidence is in the Army’s own reports.” That wasn’t good enough for Bozell. “You’re accusing the American military of murder. If you don’t back it up, back off,” he sneered. And so it went until the segment sputtered out.
Now, I have to assume that Bozell was being outrageously disingenuous, because he’s not a stupid man. He had to know that, less than two months earlier, the Army reported that 27 prisoners were killed while in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan between August 2002 and November 2004. According to an Associated Press account, the Army had come up with sufficient evidence to charge 21 soldiers with such crimes as murder, negligent homicide, and assault. But in the new environment that Newsweek has helped to create, any accusations that American forces have acted abusively are now null and void.
Still, the bottom line for me is the continuing damage this does to the profession, one already under suspicion by a large segment of Americans, according to a survey by the University of Cincinnati.
It probably comes as no surprise that only 3 percent of the journalists said the US press has too much freedom. But in stark contrast, 43 percent of the public felt the news media are given excessive leeway. Although 95 percent of the journalists strongly agreed that newspapers should be allowed ”to publish freely without governmental approval of a story,” only 55 percent of the public strongly agreed.
The younger generation more than agrees.
One in three U.S . high school students say the press ought to be more restricted, and even more say the government should approve newspaper stories before readers see them, according to a survey being released today.
The survey of 112,003 students finds that 36% believe newspapers should get “government approval” of stories before publishing; 51% say they should be able to publish freely; 13% have no opinion.
Asked whether the press enjoys ” too much freedom,” not enough or about the right amount, 32% say ” too much,” and 37% say it has the right amount. Ten percent say it has too little.
Screw-ups like Newsweek’s don’t help. But what struck me was that the magazine was both willing to go to press with a story based on only one anonymous source and that it was apparently tone-deaf to the repercussions of the article.
Remember Woodward and Bernstein? Every fact needed two sources before editor Ben Bradlee would allow it to be published. It is disturbing to me that journalists apparently go to press with such flimsy verification. Though the Periscope column has struck me as little more than a gossip column when subscribed to the magazine, still you would hope they would recognize the damage a story like this could have before relying on one source who hides behind anonymity.
I can’t, on the other hand, urge that reporters stop using anonymous sources. But there needs to be some major revision of the journalistic ethics regarding them. There was speculation, thus far unconfirmed, that the CBS News much maligned story about Bush’s National Guard service was in fact orchestrated by Bush supporters who planned for the story to emerge just so they could shoot it full of holes and discredit Dan Rather. While there’s no evidence of this, it’s not implausible. Should journalists’ contract with anonymous sources be null and void if the material turns out to be false? I’m not sure if that’s helpful, but something needs to be done.