May 20, 2005

New York Times vs. Newsweek: Reporting vs. Repeating

The powerful story in the New York Times today about the deadly abuse of Afgan detainees at the hands of U.S. military personnel illustrates vividly the difference between using a source to gain first-hand knowledge, as the Times did, and relying on a source's second-hand information, as Newsweek did with the now infamous Koran item.

It is the difference between reporting and repeating.

The key paragraph, from a sourcing standpoint, in the Times story is this:

"The story of Mr. Dilawar's brutal death at the Bagram Collection Point - and that of another detainee, Habibullah, who died there six days earlier in December 2002 - emerge from a nearly 2,000-page confidential file of the Army's criminal investigation into the case, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times." (Emphasis added.)

Compare it to the Newsweek sourcing:

"Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators flushed a Qur'an down a toilet These findings, expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami (Emphasis added.)

The Times knew. It had the report. Newsweek never knew. It only repeated what someone told its reporters. Reporting vs. repeating.

Jay Rosen began his analysis of the affair with two statements by Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker:

"We're not retracting anything. We don't know what the ultimate facts are." -- Whitaker, Sunday.

"Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay." -- Whitaker, Monday. (Emphasis added.)

Whitaker was never in a position to say he or his reporters had first-hand knowledge of the report. They had to rely on an anonymous source who eventually abandoned them.

I got dinged by some newspaper traditionalists (although I am one, too) the other day when I ranted about the "self-destructive obsession by the press with 'scoops.'" [Read: Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet.] I should have been more precise: "meaningless, incremental scoops that hand on one unattributed fact."

The Newsweek story is not a "scoop." It was factoid, one that, to borrow Whitaker's adjective, the magazine was ultimately unable to prove.

By comparison, the Times piece on the despicable behavior by some of the guards and interrogators Bagram - that's a scoop. And that's the type the press should be obsessed with.

As Jeff Jarvis said the other day on the Newshour, the prime directive of journalism is "to tell the truth that we know." Having a copy of the report, as the Times did, is knowing the truth. Relying on a "knowledgeable U.S. government source," as Newsweek did, is assuming the truth. And you know what happens when you assume.

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Posted by Tim Porter at May 20, 2005 04:49 PM