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Case closed (continued)

Related links


The media insider’s virtual watering hole is the first place to look for any new developments as the Newsweek controversy continues to unfold.

Journalism.org’s Daily Briefing

Compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Somewhat duplicative of Romenesko, but with a more traditionalist take.


Conservative-leaning law professor Glenn Reynolds updates his site with maniacal regularity, making it the premier site for finding right-wing critiques of the media.


New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen analyzes the nexus between the mainstream media and blogworld. His first take on the Newsweek story is essential reading, but watch for updates.

CBS relied on documents that it had every reason to believe might not be authentic, and it refused to back down for several weeks. Newsweek, by contrast, relied on its legendary investigative reporter, Michael Isikoff, as well as a government source who’s been described as high-ranking and in a position to know that a forthcoming government report would include evidence that a Guantánamo interrogator had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. (Ironically, Isikoff was once a darling of the right for breaking the Monica Lewinsky story.) Another Newsweek reporter, John Barry, showed the entire brief news item to another Pentagon source, who did not dispute that particular non-fact. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker apologized, and then retracted the story, within days after questions were raised and Isikoff’s source apparently backed off his original assertion. Though refusing to concede that Newsweek’s journalistic practices were faulty, Whitaker was a model of openness and contrition on Monday. On PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Whitaker, in one of several appearances he made that day (and why exactly did NBC News claim an "exclusive" for Brian Williams’s interview with him?), was asked about the violence that had broken out following publication of the item. His response: "We certainly accept some responsibility, and we feel awful about it."

And "some" responsibility is all Whitaker, Isikoff, and Barry should take — notwithstanding the suggestion of WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) talk-show host Jay Severin that, a generation ago, men who’d made such a grievous mistake would not only resign, but they might also have "blown their brains out." Though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House press secretary Scott McClellan were quick to blame the outbreak of anti-American violence on Newsweek, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had exonerated the magazine as recently as a week ago, blaming it instead on local unrest. Nor was this even close to the first reported incident of Koran-flushing at Guantánamo. Newsweek’s only new wrinkle was that the allegations would be included in an official US report.

NOT THAT Newsweek deserves a pass on any of this. The magazine was wrong on an important story, and it was wrong because Isikoff and Barry didn’t do a whole lot of reporting. Like many observers, I was surprised to see some media veterans — including Fox News’s Fred Barnes — defend the magazine’s reliance on one anonymous source, as long as that source was good enough. (Or as the inimitable Chris Matthews, of MSNBC, put it, "It couldn’t be some dingleberry in the bureaucracy.") Former ABC News correspondent Bob Zelnick, who chairs Boston University’s journalism department, told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, "I don’t see how a reporter can function in a sensitive beat without relying on anonymous sources — even one anonymous source if the reporter has confidence in him." (Zelnick added he wasn’t sure he’d have run with the Koran story regardless of sourcing, given its incendiary potential.)

Frankly, it’s hard to see how this is any different from the Boston Herald’s reliance on one anonymous eyewitness source in the Bristol County district attorney’s office for its report that Superior Court judge Ernest Murphy had spoken in a demeaning manner about victims of crime. Then again, that cost the Herald a $2.1 million libel judgment. The price Newsweek ultimately pays is likely to be much higher in terms of lost credibility. That it comes at a time when public trust in the media is at rock bottom only compounds the problem — not just for Newsweek, but for all media institutions.

New York University’s Jay Rosen, who writes the PressThink.org blog, wrote that Newsweek’s error was "a creature from an earlier climate of credibility: when a single-source story was good enough; when anonymous was okay as long as you trusted ‘your guy’ at the Pentagon or the DA; when the consequences of being wrong were not as great, as instant, or as global; when the game of being first — which always meant more to journalists than anyone else — could go on as if it had intrinsic value to the public."

And now 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. "The issue of how prisoners are treated at Guantánamo has not gone away," a Newsweek source who — yes — asked to remain anonymous told the Los Angeles Times. "Now they want to deflect that by talking about how irresponsible Newsweek magazine was."

Bush-administration officials would like nothing better than to make the media the issue instead of their own irresponsible actions. Newsweek has given them a big assist.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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