Aug 1 2005

Newsweek and the Real Rules of Journalism

Mistakes should be retracted—if the powerful are offended

Newsweek ran a sensational claim based on an anonymous source who turned out to be completely wrong. While one can’t blame the subsequent violence entirely on this report, it’s fair to say that credulous reporting like this contributed to a climate in which many innocent Muslims died.

The inaccurate Newsweek report appeared in the magazine’s March 17, 2003 issue, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It read in part:

Saddam could decide to take Baghdad with him. One Arab intelligence officer interviewed by Newsweek spoke of “the green mushroom” over Baghdad—the modern-day caliph bidding a grotesque bio-chem farewell to the land of the living alongside thousands of his subjects as well as his enemies. Saddam wants to be remembered. He has the means and the demonic imagination. It is up to U.S. armed forces to stop him before he can achieve notoriety for all time.

Unlike a more recent Newsweek item (5/9/05), involving accusations that
Guantánamo interrogators flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet, Newsweek has yet to retract the bogus report about the “green mushroom” threat. The magazine’s Quran charge was linked to at least 17 deaths in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as police suppressed anti-U.S. riots (see sidebar); alarmist coverage like Newsweek’s about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction paved the way for an invasion that has caused, according to the best epidemiological research available (Lancet, 11/20/04), an estimated 100,000 excess deaths.

Newsweek was right to retract the Quran story—mainly because the magazine claimed to have “sources” for the information, when Newsweek’s subsequent descriptions of how it acquired the story mention only a single source. But Newsweek’s source was essentially accurate in saying that U.S. investigators had confirmed serious Quran abuses in the course of a recent investigation: In a report released by the Pentagon subsequent to the Newsweek controversy, the Pentagon acknowledged several instances where prisoners’ copies of the Quran were mistreated.

Though none involved flushing a Quran down a toilet, as the magazine had reported, the report did admit that a guard once urinated on a Quran—ostensibly by accident (New York Times, 6/4/05). In another incident, an English-language obscenity was scrawled in the Quran of a prisoner, who said a guard had done it; the report, however, said that “it is equally possible that the detainee wrote in his own Quran.’’

“Generally accepted techniques”

It has been repeatedly asserted—including by Newsweek itself, in its initial apology (5/23/05)—that the magazine’s source erred in saying that the Quran abuse was confirmed in a specific report for the Pentagon’s Southern Command. In fact, the original report said that the incident was “expected” to be in the report—an expectation that could have easily been altered by the fact that the explosive allegation became public.

Taking the Pentagon’s official findings as the final word on such matters, of course, would be dubious; when any government holds prisoners in violation of international law, and denies them access to independent counsel or human rights groups, assertions by that government about how the prisoners are being treated can be given little weight.

As an example of the value of Pentagon denials, take the February 2003 statement of Gen. Daniel K. McNeill, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that “we are not chaining people to the ceilings. . . . Our interrogation techniques are . . . in accordance with what is generally accepted as interrogation techniques” (New York Times, 3/4/03; 5/20/05). More than two years later, on May 20, 2005, the New York Times reported that just two months before McNeill’s denial, at least two prisoners were beaten to death while chained to the ceiling at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, by U.S. troops under his command.

Nor is there any reason to think that contemptuous behavior toward the symbols of Islam on the part of the U.S. military would be unthinkable, or even particularly unlikely. Former prisoners of
Guantánamo have long complained that guards and interrogators mistreated their Qurans (, 5/16/05). The Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for intelligence is Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who is notorious for suggesting that Allah was “an idol” and saying that the United States’ enemies were followers of “Satan” who would “only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.” It was Boykin who reportedly ordered that the coercive interrogation methods used at
Guantánamo be used at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib as well (London Guardian, 5/20/04).

Doing the “right thing”

In the rush to condemn Newsweek’s May 9 report about abuse of the Quran at
Guantánamo, little attention has been paid to a technique the magazine used in reporting its original story: submitting articles to government officials prior to publication.

According to Newsweek’s accounts of the reporting behind the brief “Periscope” item that caused so much controversy, a draft of the item was actually given to a military official for review. Wrote assistant managing editor Evan Thomas in a post-controversy re-examination (5/23/05): “Newsweek national security correspondent John Barry, realizing the sensitivity of the story, provided a draft of the Newsweek ‘Periscope’ item to a senior Defense official, asking, ‘Is this accurate or not?’”

Newsweek’s editor-in-chief Richard M. Smith later explained (5/30/05), “One of the frustrating aspects of our initial inquiry is that we seem to have taken so many appropriate steps in reporting the
Guantánamo story. . . . We sought comment from one military spokesman (he declined) and provided the entire story to a senior Defense Department official, who disputed one assertion (which we changed) and said nothing about the charge of abusing the Quran.”

Given the relative media silence over the matter, one would conclude that this action raised few ethical questions among mainstream reporters. Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz commented in an online chat (5/16/05), “Newsweek did the right thing by running a draft of the item by a senior Pentagon official, and it’s odd that the Pentagon didn’t raise any red flags.” Post ombudsman Michael Getler agreed (5/22/05) that Newsweek “did the right thing in taking the item to two Pentagon officials for comment before publication.”

But is showing articles to government officials prepublication really “the right thing” to do? Such advance looks can’t help but imply that journalists are asking for permission to publish critical articles about the government—a dangerous impression to give if the news media hope to maintain a free press. The prepublication review also invites officials to give feedback not only on facts but on questions of balance, organization and tone as well—areas in which government officials have no special expertise, but which as interested parties to the story they have every incentive to weigh in on.

Of course, checking facts is an important part of the journalistic process. But fact-checking traditionally involves asking sources about the facts in a report, not giving sources a chance to review the entire report ahead of time. This not only protects the story from attempts by sources to participate in the editing process, it’s also less fallible than Newsweek’s method. When an official is shown a story in advance and makes no comment about a particular allegation, that can mean many things: “That’s true”; “I don’t know if that’s true or not”; “That’s less important than other things I’d like to comment on”; “I hope publishing this false report blows up in your face.”

If Newsweek had taken the more time-consuming approach of fact-checking by asking about specific allegations in the story, it would not only have insulated its journalism from the potential for official interference, it might have gotten a more useful response when it asked about the alleged Quran incident.

Anonymity for spinners

While the practice of having officials vet stories in advance has received little attention, conventional wisdom holds that the real ethical lesson of the Newsweek incident is to avoid anonymous sources. In a letter to readers in the magazine’s May 30 issue, Newsweek’s Smith vowed, “We will raise the standards for the use of anonymous sources throughout the magazine. Historically, unnamed sources have helped to break or advance stories of great national importance, but overuse can lead to distrust among readers and carelessness among journalists.”

While there’s no denying that unnamed sources are overused, the kind of anonymity granted in the May 9 “Periscope” item—protecting a source who is breaking government secrecy to expose official wrongdoing—is actually the most justifiable, and such uses make up a small minority of the anonymous sources who appear in the news media every day. Overwhelmingly, the officials who are quoted without being identified are not whistleblowers, but rather government officials looking to spin the news in favor of themselves and their bosses.

Sure enough, a few pages from that editor’s note, Newsweek ran a piece on a meeting between George W. Bush and Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Nazif. The meeting occurred behind closed doors, so Newsweek’s only source for what happened there was an anonymous White House official—remaining unnamed, the magazine said, “because the meeting was private”—who, unsurprisingly, took the opportunity to boast about Bush’s performance.

In the source’s version, Bush “counseled patience,” “emphasized his commitment to nation-building” and showed a “more nurturing approach” during the meeting. “It’s not a simplistic foreign policy,” Newsweek quoted the source. “It’s not just a shoot-from-the-hip, idealistic thing.”

This more common use of anonymous sources—to give administration officials a chance to flatter themselves—raised few if any eyebrows among the critics who supposedly objected to Newsweek’s reliance on the unnamed.

When asked to explain the discrepancy between the White House’s criticism of Newsweek’s anonymous sourcing of its Quran item and the fact that the White House itself regularly gives anonymous briefings to reporters, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said (5/17/05) it was acceptable to quote anonymous “officials who are helping to provide context to on-the-record comments made by people like the president or the secretary of state or others”; the real problem was that “some media organizations have used anonymous sources that are hiding behind that anonymity in order to generate negative attacks.”

It’s easy to see why the White House press secretary would approve of anonymous sources when they help the administration and condemn them when they don’t. What’s more puzzling is that some in the media seem to be judging anonymous sources the same way.

Never mind J-school

But then, there are the rules that are taught in journalism school, and there are the real rules that govern contemporary journalism. Newsweek’s selective retractions and inconsistent policies on anonymity are quite illustrative of the actual rules:

  • Anonymous sources are fine, as long as they are promoting rather than challenging official government policy.
  • It’s all right for your reporting to be completely wrong, as long as your errors are in the service of power.
  • The human cost of bad reporting need only be counted when the statistic will serve the interests of people who count.