Here we go again: A major news organization has made a mistake — in this instance an error that is lethal seventeen times over — and the blame is being put on the reliance on anonymous sources.
I’m in the process of completing a second book that could not have been written if people had not spoken to me on condition of anonymity. Newsweek made the mistake that led to the Newsweek Riots not because of anonymous sourcing but because of reporter bias.
Sources come in all kinds, many of them out to get somebody. This doesn’t matter if the reporter checks their information. The ponderous discussions of the use of anonymous sources (by such MSM members as Jules Witcover) are a smokescreen to distract your attention from the real issue.
Newsweek did a lousy reporting job and it did this not because of the initial reliance on an anonymous source but because of the prejudices and biases of its staff. If it weren’t for those prejudices, the reporters would have double-sourced the item. Instead, as Rich Lowry notes, they blew smoke:
“The report gave the impression that (1) FBI e-mails from Gitmo mentioned the Koran-flushing incident; (2) the incident had been confirmed; and (3) it was about to appear in a U.S. government report. All of these claims are, according to the Pentagon, false (which is not to say that nothing bad ever happened at Gitmo).
“No one is perfect — not even the brilliant Mike Isikoff — but this is a telling error. One government official told Isikoff that he had seen the Koran-desecrating incident in the forthcoming Gitmo report. Newsweek tried to confirm this. But a spokesman for SouthCom refused comment because it is an ongoing investigation. Another Defense official attempted to correct one error unrelated to the Koran desecration, but didn’t comment on the rest. With this solid nonconfirmation in hand, Newsweek ran with its explosive single-sourced item.
“Once people started dying, Isikoff’s original source said he couldn’t be sure that he had read about the incident in the SouthCom report. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker issued a weaselly statement saying that ’we regret that we got any part of our story wrong,’ without detailing what the errors were. Nor did he forthrightly apologize — although Newsweek was part of the press pack demanding that President Bush acknowledge and apologize for his errors during last year’s presidential campaign.
“It is, of course, unfair to blame the magazine for the deadly work of anti-American fanatics abroad. But it can be blamed for its shoddy original work, for its nonapology, and for the media culture of hostility toward the military that makes its mistake so characteristic. That is not to say that any of its reporters or editors harbors personal animosity toward the military. But they work in an industry that has defined its success since the Vietnam War almost exclusively in terms of exposing U.S. wrongdoing. The media collectively want to believe the worst about the military, and in light of Abu Ghraib, they have panted after every possible prison abuse.”
But it was more than shoddy reporting. As Bill Kristol notes, the magazine flat out lied: “In its May 9 ’Periscope’ item, Newsweek claimed that ’sources tell Newsweek’ that ’interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qu’ran down a toilet….’ In its May 23 “The Editor’s Desk” note, editor Mark Whitaker explains that Michael Isikoff’s and John Barry’s ’information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source….’ If there was only one source for the ’information,’ why did Newsweek originally claim there was more than one source?”
Historian Paul Marshall takes issue with the notion that Newsweek is not responsible for the violence in the Islamic world. “What planet do these people live on that they are surprised by something so entirely predictable? Anybody with a little knowledge could have told them it was likely that people would die as a result of the article. Remember Salman Rushdie?”
A final thought: Reporters are able to use anonymous sources when the public trusts them. This trust is about to evaporate with regard to the mainstream media. There’s a kind of market-justice in that.