Newsweek’s Nightmare  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   June/July 2005

Newsweek’s Nightmare   

A botched story, not a journalistic war crime.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Let's stipulate that Newsweek's "Quran in the toilet" item is not one of the high points in the history of the magazine.

It's devastating when a source backs away from a published story, particularly one this explosive. And what could be worse than seeing a piece that is ultimately discredited help trigger riots that result in the loss of human life?

But let's also keep what the magazine did and didn't do in perspective. Because there's been a lot of hyperbole and nonsense in the torrent of criticism that has inundated Newsweek.

This is an awful time for journalism. Each day brings new revelations of ethics breaches: fabrication, plagiarism, lifted quotes, rampant inaccuracy. It's enough to make this Romenesko addict consider a visit to the Betty Ford Center.

But lumping the retracted story that U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo flushed a Quran down a toilet with the recent paroxysm of journalistic felonies is just plain wrong.

First of all, the magazine did have a source, one that reporter Michael Isikoff, a top investigative reporter, had used before. That's a far cry from making something up.

Second, Newsweek ran the item by two Pentagon officials. It's not as if it cavalierly published information without trying to determine its accuracy.

Was the piece flawed? Obviously. Could the magazine have done better? Of course.

Using a single source for a story of such sensitivity is always dicey. Attributing the information to "sources" when there was just one is misleading. Predicting what an official report will say is inherently risky; as others have pointed out, it's like reporting what will be in a forthcoming indictment, never a good idea. And failing to run the item by the official Pentagon spokesman was a mistake.

But we're hardly in Janet Cooke or Jack Kelley territory here.

The Bush administration and the right-wing blogs have had a field day with the episode. But some of their rallying cries have been downright laughable.

The notion that Newsweek has blood on its hands is ridiculous. People died because irresponsible zealots used the news item to work their followers into a frenzy of anti-Americanism. And the climate that made that so easy to do was created, not by the dreaded liberal media, but by the people who launched the war in Iraq and jettisoned the rights of detainees at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Indeed, as the New York Times reported, "Guantánamo" has become shorthand in much of the world for American hypocrisy.

Equally absurd is the idea that the impetus for the item was the media's reflexive antimilitary, antiwar, lefty posture. Last time I checked, the editorial page of the Washington Post, Newsweek's sister publication, was as passionate an advocate of invading Iraq as Dick Cheney.

And I'm baffled by the idea that Newsweek was "insensitive" to how upsetting the item would be. The problem isn't sensitivity, it's flimsy information. If someone were to establish that Americans at Gitmo put a Quran in a toilet, that's serious misconduct that needs to be revealed. The problem is the action, not the coverage.

Pummeling Newsweek serves a valuable purpose for the administration: It changes the subject. Attention shifts from the very real problems in the way detainees have been treated to the latest journalistic miscreant.

That happens all too frequently. When Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury News overreached in their series on the CIA and crack cocaine, the media discredited Webb's work with a vengeance (see "The Sad Saga of Gary Webb," page 20). But they failed to pursue the core allegations, many of which turned out to be true. When the CIA inspector general later reported that the agency had recruited drug traffickers to fight an undeclared war, the media, held in thrall by Clinton/Lewinsky, paid little attention.

The Newsweek incident also has provided fodder for the enemies of anonymous sources. Now I agree that these ghostly figures are used far too frequently and blithely, but I certainly wouldn't ban them. There are some important stories that would never surface without them. And as Bob Woodward, who may have used an anonymous source or two in his time, has pointed out, named sources are responsible for plenty of misinformation. Did someone say WMD?

As Woodward likes to say, the key isn't the identity of the source, it's the quality of the information.

In this case the quality wasn't so good. Newsweek deserves to be spanked. But let's not confuse a mistake — a serious one — with a journalistic war crime.

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