Along the Tracks

Monday, May 16, 2005

Newswe(a)k apology

The Washington Bureau chief of Newsweek seemed really broken up in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Monday (that’s sarcasm, for those keeping score at home; he was smug and, frankly, non-apologetic). After all, only a few handfuls of people have died from his news magazine’s sloppy reporting.

If you missed it, a “Periscope” story (Note: this appears to be a cleaned-up version) by Michael Isikoff on Guantanamo detainee abuse allegations ran in the May 9 edition of Newsweek. It included a rather non-chalant, throwaway paragraph indicating a “confirmed” report that interviewers had flushed a Koran down the toilet as an intimidation tactic. It turns out the original allegation came from supposed FBI internal memos, never corroborated; and the “confirmation” came from a “senior official” who had no direct knowledge of the report which might, supposedly, contain the results of an investigation into the incident.

That may seem a questionably serpentine series of “ifs” and “supposeds” to you and I; it seemed solid journalism to Newsweek.

“Confirmed” means something to people with passing journalism training: A second, independent source has direct knowledge of the issue at hand and can state flatly a report’s accuracy. It’s not the same as “believed” or “understood” or “overheard.” The person is claiming to know something first-hand.

Newsweek’s source couldn’t “confirm” something which he or she hadn’t seen. This error is specifically the one for which this week’s Newsweek expresses “regret.” The editors “extend (their) sympathies” to those killed thanks to their shoddiness, but do not apologize.

As of this writing, there was no expression of “regret” for the deeper failures of this liberal media mainstay: Gullibility and wishful thinking. This incident mirrors almost precisely Dan Rather’s phony National Guard documents debacle. A juicy allegation which will embarrass the Bush administration suckers in “professional journalists,” who assume its truth rather than looking on with proper journalistic skepticism. Also like Rather, Newsweek is attempting to cloud its responsibility with a lot of hokum about “special precautions” taken prior to publishing - precautions which cannot justify using the word “confirmed” as an equivalent for “did not deny.”

In J-school, I was taught the truth will come out, and it’s our job to be the conduit for that revelation. We don’t decide truth, we present all relevant information which will, sooner or later, make that truth clear. “Believing” or “claiming” or “exaggerating” or “hiding” - these are the actions of fools, scoundrels and politicians (sometimes one and the same), not journalists.

The mainstream media is increasingly critical of the new media - talk radio, blogs, online magazines, alternative publications - yet almost every journalistic failure of the past few years has been perpetrated by the mainstreamers, while the new media has avoided these scandals by being careful, transparent and quick to correct mistakes.

For the mainstream media to remain a trusted source of news, it must clean up its sloppiness of action and laziness of thought. Otherwise, it will drift into irrelevance.

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