Monday, May 23, 2005

CLOSING THOUGHTS. Following Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker's somewhat confusing efforts to apologize but not retract, and then to retract, damage control this week is being handled by the magazine's chairman and editor-in-chief, Richard Smith. In "A Letter to Our Readers," Smith promises to tighten up on the use of anonymous sources.

"From now on, only the editor or the managing editor, or other top editors they specifically appoint, will have the authority to sign off on the use of an anonymous source," Smith writes. The rest of his essay is a model of contrition and responsibility-taking.

Let's point out the obvious. Michael Isikoff is a good reporter, Whitaker enjoys an excellent reputation, and Newsweek is the most interesting of the three US newsmagazines. No one should lose his job. We move on.

But I'm not sure that Smith or Whitaker have quite figured out what went wrong. Isikoff got his tip that the government would include in a forthcoming report a Koran-flushing incident at Guantánamo; his source has been described as a high-ranking, trusted official in a position to know. Isikoff did his job. The problems arose after Isikoff reported the item.

Not to preclude any other possibilities, but I would identify two specific problems:

1. The editors believed they had a two-source story. They didn't. Much has been made of the fact that another Newsweek reporter, John Barry, whose byline also appeared on the item, showed it to an anonymous senior Pentagon source, who disputed part of the story, but not the Koran-flushing bit. The fact is, according to Newsweek, this source said nothing about the Koran.

Smith writes: "Had he objected to the allegations, I am confident that we would have at the very least revised the item, but we mistakenly took the official's silence for confirmation." No kidding. What's now clear is that this source may well have thought he was being asked to vet things he actually knew about; he likely had no information about the Koran incident one way or the other.

Morton Kondracke, on Fox News, called this "a one-and-a-half-source rule," but it really wasn't. It was one source, period. And though I understand - as Bob Zelnick and Fred Barnes have pointed out - that it may sometimes be necessary to rely on one well-placed, anonymous source in reporting a story, in this case the tidbit wasn't worth it unless it could be better documented.

Oddly, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter this week tries to knock down the notion that one source isn't enough, writing, "The notion that every scoop must have at least two sources is a myth that extends back to Watergate, when one source - if well-enough placed - would often suffice."

Yet consider this exchange last Monday, on MSNBC's Hardball, between host Chris Matthews and Washington Post reporter Robin Wright:

MATTHEWS: So are we going back - are we back to the two-source rule of the Woodward and Bernstein team, Robin?

WRIGHT: Most of the people at the Washington Post rely on a three-source rule.

MATTHEWS: Three-source rule?


MATTHEWS: Well, Newsweek is going to have to catch up to the Post.

Corporate ironies abound. Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post Company. Isikoff moved over from the Post to Newsweek during the 1990s following a dispute over his zealousness in covering the Paula Jones story. Both the Post and Newsweek are content partners with MSNBC.

2. It's especially dangerous to use anonymous sources to make a prediction. Keep in mind that the key part of Isikoff's item was not that a Koran had been flushed down the toilet, but that an investigative report by the US government would make that finding. In other words, Isikoff was using an anonymous source to predict something that hadn't actually happened yet.

What can you say, other than "wow"? Jack Shafer got at this particularly well, writing:

Many years ago at a newspaper job far, far away, my attorney David Andich cautioned me and my writers against publishing what anonymous government officials said would be in their reports. He also told us to be especially wary of the prosecutor who informed us - confidentially, of course - that he was going to indict the deputy mayor next Tuesday. If you commit those stories to print and the report or indictment doesn't contain the information your source predicted, you will find yourself in a world of legal hurt, he said.

What Isikoff needed from his source was not a prediction - instead, he should have insisted on a draft of the report. No report, no item - no White House attack on Newsweek, blaming the magazine for riots that have caused at least 17 deaths.

Jay Rosen has some useful wrap-up thoughts, including his account of (not) trying to keep up with Christopher Hitchens in the Dewar's department. Smart man!


Anonymous said...

One wonders:
If the pictures of Saddam in his tighty-whiteys (in Rupert's London Sun and NY Post) cause rioting and deaths in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, will the White House condemn Rupert and/or his papers, and try to censor and edit them, as they have done with Newsweek?

Anonymous said...

The question is moot. No such thing occured. People in the middle east always hated Hussein, having him belittled in briefs is not a concern.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why but the gratuitous mention of Hitchens and his relationship to Dewars is a bit unsettling, sort of like tittering about Bush's past. If the guy's a drunk (and it's relevant) say so. If not, why bring it up?

Dan Kennedy said...

Did you read Jay Rosen's post? If you do, you will see that he and Hitchens share a laugh over this. Not gratuitous at all.