May 16, 2005

Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet

When is this self-destructive obsession by the press with "scoops" and "exclusives" going to end?

Newsweek is the latest self-inflicted victim of this misplaced priority, which values "sources" over facts and half-truths over transparency - and for what? A story that protects the innocent from the corrupt? The uncovering of wrongdoing by the powerful? A corporate scandal that threatens public health? Or at least some hanky-panky by one of our elected scoundrels? Nope. As you know, the magazine tossed its credibility into the commode for a 299-word brief that alleged U.S. interrogators had done the same with a copy of the Koran at Gitmo.

Pew Research Center Here's part of the item:

" Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash. " (Emphasis added.)

Pardon the sarcasm, but, boy, that was worth a throwing away whatever good reputation Newsweek had plus catalyzing deadly riots and deaths in the Mideast.

Almost as bad as the original item was Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker's tepid "explanation" - not an apology or a retraction. It's defensiveness ("I think it's important for the public to know exactly what we reported, why, and how subsequent events unfolded.") is matched only by the curtain-raising glimpse it offers the public into the byzantine, back-channel sourcing that passes for much of the reporting in Washington, D.C.

(UPDATE: Newsweek has retracted the story.)

Here's Whitaker:

"(The) information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur'an charge." (Emphasis added.)

No names. No positions. No reasons for their anonymity. No nothing that would add to either the credibility of the original report or the response.

I don't need to tell you that overall press credibility - regardless of platform - continues to slide. A Pew Research Center study (PDF) released in April found that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing printed in newspapers. Newsweek fared almost as badly. Nearly 40 percent don't believe what they read in the magazine and in a section of the report devoted to political news, only 10 percent said they learned about politics from Newsweek, a 50 percent drop from year earlier.

There is plenty of material out there to read about the connection between credibility and anonymous sources - here, for example are ASNE, Daniel Okrent on the New York Times report on preserving the trust of readers, and Geneva Overholser on new sourcing polices of the major papers - but I'm going to avoid anonymous-or-not debate. My belief on that is clearly equivocal: Anonymity cannot be ruled out. Whistleblowers in industry and government are at times necessary. Anonymity should not, however, be routine, as it particularly is in Washington, and it should not be used as the sole basis for a story.

There is a deeper issue behind the reliance on unnamed sources: Values.

Reporters and news organizations wield anonymity as a tool to gain what many of them see as their most prized possession - a scoop, an exclusive, a "The-Daily-Blatt-has-learned" story.

The value editors and reporters place on scoops is a vestigial remnant of the day when such things mattered - when New York, for example, had a two fistfuls of daily papers that would rush out Extras with the latest "exclusive" lede topping a running story.

The obsession with being first was so strong that the wire services or networks routinely crowed (or at crow) if they beat the competition by minutes.

That day is gone. News today is a continuum. It flows ceaselessly from producer to consumer and, more and more, back again to the producer. It can be stopped and recorded for consumption later, it can be sampled at any hour of the day or night, or it can be ignored altogether, as it increasingly is.

This news environment needs a new set of values. I outline some pairs of old and new values last month. Here's the pair that applies to the Newsweek debacle:

Old Newsroom Value: Competition. The obsession with being first leads to a buffet line of bad journalistic behavior - deal-cutting, anonymous sources, lop-sided stories (with follow-ups often receiving lesser play than the original, errors, out-right chicanery and plagiarism.

New Value: Context. Thoroughness serves readers, not sources. Information, with more reporting, becomes education. Transparency trumps anonymity. [Read: New Values for a New Age of Journalism.]

This evening, Mark Whitaker was scheduled to speak at the Knight Fellowships 2005 Symposium on journalism at Stanford University. His topic was to be the future of news. He canceled. And now the topic is "Credibility in an Age of 24-7 News." It's timely, but tiresome, given the amount of jawing devoted to the subject.

I'll be on the panel discussion with Katrina Heron (former editor of Wired), Sandra Mims Rowe (editor of the Portland Oregonian and former head of ASNE) and Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Fellowships. I'll let you know how it goes.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis on the Newsweek Mess: "To sum up journalism as "tell the truth" sounds so damned simplistic. But that is what journalism is about, isn't it? Or shouldn't it be?"

Posted by Tim Porter at May 16, 2005 01:25 PM

Tim, very well said -- I posted an article expressing similar concerns about unnamed sources on my blog today, too. Although I used unnamed sources when I was a reporter back in the '80s/'90s, I used the tactic sparingly and not without trepidation. You are right -- the "value" placed on scoops is not only old and misguided, but as we now have learned, it can be deadly as well.

Too bad Whitaker canceled -- like those who decline to be named in news stories, he also is acting like a coward.

Posted by: Gary Goldhammer on May 16, 2005 12:41 PM

Excellent post. I am not so sure, though, that context is a new value replacing competition. I am fond of how the Hutchins Commission identified context -- more than fifty years ago -- as a fundamental value. I love the notion of a comprehensive intelligent account of the day's events in a context that gives it meaning. But if this value is not new, it's essential now.

Posted by: Mark Trahant on May 16, 2005 01:20 PM

Again Tim, nicely done. The point of the news being a continuum is spot on. This is where the MSM has failed to evolve...the price for that is near certain extinction. Good luck on your panel. MM

Posted by: Major Mike on May 16, 2005 02:56 PM


Posted by: CHAD on May 16, 2005 04:26 PM

Newsweek, in playing the Quran item almost as a 'bright,' showed how badly it misunderstood Muslims and the way they view the holy text -- much differently than the Judeo-Christian Bible. The magazine should have gone out of its way to vet so inflammatory an item.

Posted by: barbara wilcox on May 16, 2005 09:27 PM

Call me old fashioned, but the question burning in my mind is this: even if the Quran story is true, why in the world would anyone in America publish it? Same with the Abu Grabh prison story (certainly supports my position on keeping women out of combat zones.. distractions not needed!) War is hell... deal with it. Reminds me of the Vietnam era when we were our own worst enemy. History is repeating itself under the guise of "Freedom of the Press". What are these reporters thinking? Is their assignment to present the worst possible face of America to the world? We need to win this war in Iraq, whether or not we are agreed on our justification for being there. That ship has sailed. Can we stop shooting ourselves in the foot, dredge up some patriotism and start accenting the positive?

Posted by: Cricklwood Labs on May 17, 2005 10:45 AM

"catalyzing deadly riots and deaths in the Middle East"

... uh, not so much, Tim. See

Posted by: Lex on May 17, 2005 11:28 AM

He shouldn't have cancelled. That engagement was a gift: an opportunity for self-examination and taking charge in a crisis.

Posted by: Jay Rosen on May 17, 2005 02:26 PM

I know your site is an industry navel-gazing exercise, and a welcome one at that, but aren't you holding a 299-word Periscope brief to a higher standard than the entire administration that led to Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, Downing Street memo, etc.?

Doesn't the fact that stories quite similar to this one appeared elsewhere first suggest that Newsweek is being singled out in the crosshairs just like Dan Rather was for another White House bugaboo?

The "Newsweek Lied, People Died" meme is a hollow distortion of the meta-truth of this story: namely, that selected journalists are being asked to take the fall for White House failures. Why must accountability be limited to editorial offices instead of the Oval Office?

Posted by: skimble on May 17, 2005 04:28 PM

I hope you have already read this:

Posted by: Jim Williams on May 17, 2005 05:30 PM

Re Jay Rosen's comments.

Yes, Jay, I think we should hold Newsweek to a higher standard for "truth" then politicians. In fact, we often rely on reporters to dig up the truth and catch politicians in a lie. Now that reporters have fallen in credibility to the point that they resemble politicians, people are just as likely to listen to a politician as a journalist - and that is the real tragedy of stories like this.

Posted by: MightyYar on May 18, 2005 04:17 AM

as a journalist, I agree especially with the question, When is this self-destructive obsession by the press with "scoops" and "esclusives" going to end? I think your Quality Manifesto is a good answer to the problem.

Posted by: Leon B on May 18, 2005 07:16 AM

I could not agree with you more. I am so frustrated by the majority of the news "Media" jumping on stories before the credibility is proven. For example..the "bride", the "finger in the chili", the Mom and her Kid who was expelled for hugging. If they would only come down out of their Ivory Towers to spend time in the masses, it would be a wake up call. How many hugs have turned into somethig bigger. If more parents would volunteer at middle and high schools, they would be amazed at what goes on and how hard schools try to keep it in hand. And how many of our religious symbols and our flags and our missionaries have been destroyed? Who prints that. Oh my gosh, I would rather read you or listen to Michael Savage...Fed Up!

Posted by: Barbara S. on May 18, 2005 12:54 PM

Oh, knock it off! Pure and simple: another example of the radical, loony left media expressing their hatred for George Bush (and every aspect of his administration)

Journalistic integrity in the American left wing media is like virtue in a brothel.

Can anyone spell, "Dan Rather"?

Posted by: Walt on May 19, 2005 03:31 PM
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