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.
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.)
"(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