Jun
01
2005

Lessons from Newsweek's Retraction

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 reexamination (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 have not only 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.

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.

See also: Newsweek, the Quran and the "Green Mushroom" (5/19/05)