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Newsweek's Fungible Editorial Standards

Andrew Sullivan, citing Daily Kos blogger SusanHu finding other allegations of Koran desecration, misses the point of the Newsweek Koran story by a country mile. The point is not that such allegations existed; it is that Newsweek reported that a US government investigation had (or would) conclude that such event took place.

No one (to my knowledge) is arguing a few detainees (and/or their lawyers) hadn't made allegations concerning Koran desecration, yet Sullivan implies that those charges somehow lend credence to Newsweek's shabby reporting. Sullivan then gets swept up in the "look at all the other prisoner abuse stories" mentality that presumably led Newsweek to run with such a poorly sourced report.

Jay Rosen, at PressThink, examines the story sourcing to show just how incredibly thin it was.

Newsweek, which I will call S1 for our first level source, and for which we have names (Michael Isikoff, Mark Whitaker, John Barry) said that it had sources (S2) without names, who in turn said that other sources (S3) also without names, working as investigators for the government, have learned enough from their sources (S4), likewise unnamed, to conclude in a forthcoming report for U.S. Southern Command (finally, a name!) that unnamed interrogators (S5) dumped the Qur'an into toilets to make a point with prisoners (S6) who are Muslims but also not named.

And as Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker explained, what made this nameless, formless, virtually fact-free item newsworthy was not the "toilet" imagery itself, or some of the other equally revolting allegations, which had been reported numerous times before, but the "fact" that for the first time a government source (that would be S2) said it.

"The fact that a knowledgeable source within the U.S. government was telling us the government itself had knowledge of this was newsworthy," Whitaker said in an interview with Howard Kurtz.

A point, apparently, totally lost on Sullivan.

Mark Tapscott analyzes the reporting and editing of the story, and finds it fundamentally flawed.

For whatever reason, it appears Newsweek's reporters and editors forgot Journalism 101's First Rule: If you don't have two independently verifiable sources for a serious allegation the publication of which could seriously damage or destroy an individual's reputation, put somebody in of physical danger or place public safety at risk, don't publish it.

Notice how Whitaker describes what his two reporters did to establish independently of the lone source's credibility: "Their information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur'an charge."

Read that last sentence again because it is a damaging admission of gross journalistic error. Neither DOD official verified Newsweek's lone source. One of the two Pentagon officials approached by Newsweek even raised a question about related information apparently provided by the lone source. But Newsweek published the Koran flushing allegation anyway. Surely that decision violated the magazine's own editing standards.

When a major national publication is willing to ditch its own editorial standards for the possibility of a minor scoop; "big journalism" is in far greater trouble than even its harshest critics imagined.


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Comments (32)

Newsweek has admitted their... (Below threshold)
-S-:

Newsweek has admitted their membership in the "we report what we assume" club, with Mary Mapes and Rather and CBS in general, among others.

They WANT to discredit the United States military. They WANT to establish that the United States is 'bad,' suspect, just generally a bad seed in our world.

They WANT there to be reasons to disbelieve much of anything that the United States, with a Bush Presidency, puts in motion, or even anything at all underway if/when there's a Republican Executive branch.

There is no excuse, NO EXCUSE, for any media source to publish the unsupportable story that Newsweek has reported and the consequences of their irresponsibility is terrible. This goes beyond the realm of "mistake" or "rush to print" or carelessness...Newsweek has committed a truly criminal offense and needs to be held accountable. A simple retraction ("apology") is not sufficient, does not even begin to compensate for their horrible act in reporting this unsupported and unsupportable story.

Newsweek didn't even verify so much as one source, one report, just assumed it HAD to be credible because they WANTED it to be so.

We now have a liberal media in the U.S. who is obviously confused about what is entertainment and what is "real life." It's as if many among liberal media think they're involved in gaming rather than journalism.

And, Andrew Sulivan and Dai... (Below threshold)
-S-:

And, Andrew Sulivan and DailyKos "reporters" are included in those willful behaviors: they WANT to discredit the U.S. military, the Bush Administraton (ANY Republican Presidency, based upn history)...so no amount of proof of thier erroneous thinking (and attitudes) will ever be comprehended by them, while no amount of proof will ever be reasonable to include -- it's not necessary to substantiate their willful determinations, is my point, from what I've read. They seem to conclude that they'll have what they want because they want it, the failing of a narcissistic generation in the U.S. (and elsewhere from what I've read).

Compare this to the Swift B... (Below threshold)
bullwinkle:

Compare this to the Swift Boat Vets that Newsweek paid almost no attention to, other than trying to discredit them, each and every one of them signed an affadavit attesting to their story. I guess 200+ people willing to sign their names to a statement don't count but one only willing to speak if he can remain anonymous does. Any chance to smear the US Military and the Bush administration is just too damn good to pass up.

I'm glad to see more emphas... (Below threshold)
BR:

I'm glad to see more emphasis now being put on discovering the source's identity. In NY Times article today, linked by Drudge, it is reported that the first reaction happened in Pakistan:

"The outcry over the Newsweek article apparently began in Pakistan, when Imran Khan, the legendary cricketer turned opposition politician, summoned reporters to a press conference on May 6 to draw attention to it. Once close to the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and a onetime crusader against corruption, Mr. Khan has been vocal in recent years against United States strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq."

This irresponsible action by Newsweek could have still more consequences than we have already seen in Afghanistan. It could topple Musharraf, if not successfully handled. A nuclear country, then in the hands of Islamic extremists - increased danger to India as well as the West.

So, I am interested in whether Newsweek's source deliberately instigated the printing of the disinfo in collaboration with the May 6th press conference in Pakistan and the subsequent organized demonstrations elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Does anyone know the date that the Newsweek magazine first hit the streets here and in Pakistan? Would Imran Khan have had the magazine in his hands on May 6th or did he have pre-knowledge of the article?

In addition to the above co... (Below threshold)
Meezer:

In addition to the above comments, it's pretty frightening that some people consider "It didn't happen this time, but it probably happened another time" as a viable way to try and convict someone/something. No doubt they would accept a prosecutor - in a trial with them as the defendant - using such tactics. [sarcasm]

Am I the only one who think... (Below threshold)

Am I the only one who thinks, who cares if the Koran WAS desecrated? Terrorists love to hide behind religious symbols, whether a book or a mosque. As far as I'm concerned, it is faux outrage and just an excuse for America bashing.

Count me among those who ex... (Below threshold)

Count me among those who expect that ultimately the underlying story will be confirmed, and I say "so what." Newsweek shouldn't have reported it on such flimsy evidence, but again, to the facts alleged, so what. This is freaking psy-ops. It's what they do. It's war. And it's among the things that, for (obvious) national security reasons, should be classified and undiscoverable.

Yes, Jeff and Wavemaker, fr... (Below threshold)
BR:

Yes, Jeff and Wavemaker, from a rational viewpoint, the allegations are laughable. One can say, they are desecrating our flushing toilets with their p...resence. Let them dig holes in the ground like they're used to. And they should be thankful they still have clamdiggers.

But it has now gone beyond the content of the allegation; Newsweek has now placed a psyops tool in the hands of the Islamic extremists to inflame their masses into violence.

Agreed -- hence such ops sh... (Below threshold)

Agreed -- hence such ops should be classified and disclosing them should be a crime.

About what Jeff Blogworthy ... (Below threshold)
-S-:

About what Jeff Blogworthy notes...

In this issue, it's one of those cases of not so much the issue being outrageous in reality (and probably recognized as such even by Newsweekians), but of finding an issue known to be outrageous to certain humans and then driving that issue home (for purposes of creating source of outrage for certain humans).

It's like Newsweek has not actually revealed itself as terrorist partner (I don't buy any attempt to dismiss Newsweek's behavior as being accidental or casually wrong or anything similarly meager). They appear to have moreorless created an outrageous incident for purposes of motivating, inciting the anticipated outrage to follow.

More of why I conclude that they are criminally liable in the deaths and damages that have followed as a direct result of their now-retracted story, but it even goes further than that to my view: that Newsweek appears motivated to destroy, destruct U.S. military and military character, and that's a very, very terrible offense.

Meaning, it isn't so much t... (Below threshold)
-S-:

Meaning, it isn't so much that pages or even entire editions of the Quaran were ALLEGEDLY destroyed (later proven that pages of a copy of the Quaran were ripped out and attempted to be flushed down a toilet by a Muslim prisoner, not by U.S. military, and as NOT reported by Newsweek).

To most Americans, the issue wouldn't be a huge thing, even if someone in the U.S. military had done either (I'd find it strange and objectionable if it was policy for the U.S. military to do either, however, and can never anticipate such, to be clear).

But, to those known to riot, mame, murder and destroy and to target the U.S. Military for enemy offense and more, those acts WOULD be predictably inciteful.

Such that, Newsweek (or any other "journalism" source) would want to be very careful in documenting very specifically any report about such actions, and not only didn't do that, it seems to have literally rushed to present the unsupportable imaginings because it fit someone's idea of what SHOULD be, what MIGHT be such that it confirmed an editorial policy that needs substantiation to confirm their "anti U.S. military" mentality.

Wavemaker - ah ha, you may ... (Below threshold)
BR:

Wavemaker - ah ha, you may have hit on a way to force full disclosure by Newsweek. If the upcoming report is classified, then those who unauthorizedly spoke about it in the S4 to S1 chain described above by Jay Rosen, broke the law.

Whether we did or did not f... (Below threshold)
frameone:

Whether we did or did not flush a Qur'an down the toilet, no one has yet to dispute Newsweek's report that Gitmo interrogators also "led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash," "that 10 Gitmo interrogators have already been disciplined for mistreating prisoners, including one woman who took off her top, rubbed her finger through a detainee's hair and sat on the detainee's lap," and "an instance in which a female interrogator allegedly wiped her red-stained hand on a detainee's face, telling him it was her menstrual blood."

It feels good, don't it, to run around pretending that Newsweek made shit up and that nothing untoward that might upset a radical Muslim population was going on down there. Of course you guys don't think the above actions are a big deal. Just standard psy ops. What you care about is whether or not anyone finds out about it. "Hey man, you can't handle the truth." Yes, indeed, that always makes me feel good when my government insists that I or anyone else can't handle the truth of its actions. It's just this kind of thinking that gives me great confidence in the Army's own internal investigations. I'm sure no one at the Pentagon has ever been pressured into changing their story to cover-up incendiary behavior.

Really it comes down to this: Who are going to believe? You guys think Newsweek has some kind of vested interest in destroying America. I tend to think that the Pentagon and Rumsfeld have a vested interest in covering their own asses. Given human nature, which do you think sounds more reasonable?

Let us also not forget what else this story has brought to the public: It's a capital offense to desecrate the Qur'an in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Freedom is SO on the freakin' march.

I can't tell whether a Qur'... (Below threshold)
Jus John:

I can't tell whether a Qur'an was flushed or not. On the other other hand, I'm reasonably sure that Saddam had not WMDs or yellowcake. So who really has a credibility problem?

Jeff as a Christian, I conf... (Below threshold)
Just Me:

Jeff as a Christian, I confess I would probably sad or disappointed if somebody told me that somebody was flushing the Bible down the toilet, but I can't say that my first instinct would be to riot or murder people, or even raise some massively huge protest. To do that would essentially be turning the Bible into an idol. I admit the rioting and murder over the whole Koran flushing thing just seems idiotic to me.

As for Newsweek-I think it just once again shows you that the MSM wants to believe anything that makes the administration look bad, that they are willing to overlook the credibility of sources, or even worse, not really try to do a thurough job of fact checking. They would just rather smear the administration than take their responsibility as journalists seriously.

"It feels good, don't it, t... (Below threshold)
Meezer:

"It feels good, don't it, to run around pretending that Newsweek made shit up and that nothing untoward that might upset a radical Muslim population was going on down there. Of course you guys don't think the above actions are a big deal."

Ah, a great respecter of religious sensibilities, I see. No doubt you were helping Christians protest against govt. funding of Serrano.

Jeff, wavemaker, BR and oth... (Below threshold)
-S-:

Jeff, wavemaker, BR and others...yes, the concern and alarm is as to those who have incited the riotous and murderous (and motive behind that).

But, referring to such behavior as 'violating..laws' just seems too tidy, too civil, for what's been done. Because, what's been done (Newsweek, the driven vehicle) is really ugly: aiding and abetting the enemy.

And by those aids and abets, being responsible for bringing about the deaths of American military and civilians. Very, very bad.

Also as a Christian, what J... (Below threshold)
-S-:

Also as a Christian, what Just Me wrote:

Jeff as a Christian, I confess I would probably sad or disappointed if somebody told me that somebody was flushing the Bible down the toilet, but I can't say that my first instinct would be to riot or murder people, or even raise some massively huge protest. To do that would essentially be turning the Bible into an idol. I admit the rioting and murder over the whole Koran flushing thing just seems idiotic to me.


The same point I tried to make earlier and that is that the response is very strange and abnormal to nearly all Americans (and others in other areas of the globe). It does call to question the basis upon which they riot and murder -- I mean, the Bible to my view is holy and the word of God -- but it's a printed thing made by man in the permutation of a bound book such that, it's offensive, yes, but not to the point of life and death issues. It can be replaced.

But, it's not the printed texts that's the issue, it's the psychology of those who respond to issues like this and others by murdering and violence. Most people don't respond that way, some do, so some of us just wonder why and what's motivating the irrational behaviors.

I think we can identify what INCITES them, just not why they act as they do (rioting, murdering, destroying, completely irrational violence and targeting uninvolved civilians in the process).

I can burn an American Flag... (Below threshold)
robert:

I can burn an American Flag....I can burn a bible...I can burn a copy of the Torah...SO....where is the nearest Koran that I can burn!!!! Come on! you loony moonbats....I thought you were the group of INCLUSION.....

On the other other hand, I'... (Below threshold)
Mark Flacy:

On the other other hand, I'm reasonably sure that Saddam had not WMDs or yellowcake.

Then you weren't paying attention. Saddam had yellowcake.

The only yellowcake he had ... (Below threshold)
Just John:

The only yellowcake he had came with chocolate frosting. It's not a desert war, it's a dessert war!

Robert's got a good point. ... (Below threshold)

Robert's got a good point. Let's make sure all the muslims in ME know that we don't shoot people for burning the American Flag or the Bible, so we're just including them in our poignant expressions of freedom. That'll promote peace and understanding (and a spike in American Flag sales in Islamabad).

The most egregious aspect o... (Below threshold)
Corky Boyd:

The most egregious aspect of the Newsweek story is it implies such actions are official government policy. As we have seen in the Abu Gharib revelations, it was 8-10 improperly supervised enlisted personnel who were running amok. They along with the prison commander are being disciplined.

Newsweek attempted to make a mountain out of molehill, but in doing so stubbed its toe big time. Getting facts wrong is one thing, but distorting their importance is another.

What is gratifying to see is, thanks to the internet, the media themselves are becoming the story. The world has changed and they are finding they can't get away with shoddy journalism.

Why pick on the media? Why... (Below threshold)
Marshall:

Why pick on the media? Why isn't the administration going after the government guy who gave them the story, if anybody has to take the blame? Why doesn't the Pentagon STOP people from doing such things? Does anybody really think this did not happen?

Newsweek didn't kill those ... (Below threshold)
bdjonesdna:

Newsweek didn't kill those people (with intent).. But the power and responsibility of the press is clearly shown. You might say Newsweek could be charged with involuntary Muslim slaughter. Still this aggressive desire by the media to get the exclusive and be the one to break the story has gotten completely out of hand. Those with the responsibility and power to change the way sources are used needs to change it and it needs to be across all media outlets that call themselves creditable. Should Newsweek be made an example of? It may be time…


Is Kevin Bacon in the "S 1 ... (Below threshold)
t. z.:

Is Kevin Bacon in the "S 1 thru 6", if not this could be the only thing that is truly 6 degrees away from Bacon. ??

How in the world does decli... (Below threshold)
Vanshalar:

How in the world does declining to give a response equate to affirming the allegations? I don't get it.

EXCLUSIVE! Newsweek was paid to publish the article about Koran flushing by Osama bin Laden!

I know this because I emailed them about this half an hour ago (with a subject of "Ch33p V!agra"), and since they haven't responded, it must be true!

Oh my, that's hilarious. V... (Below threshold)
BR:

Oh my, that's hilarious. Vanshalar, it belongs at the top of the list in my new collection of Newsweek/MSM jokes from the people with the best sense of humor in the world - on the internet.

As John Podhoretz po... (Below threshold)
Jack Rudd:


As John Podhoretz points out, Newsweek's greatest sin is NOT in reporting a lie. Their greatest sin is their act of sedition against the United States during wartime. Whether the lie was true or false is somewhat beside the point.

Yes. I recently read an ex... (Below threshold)
BR:

Yes. I recently read an excerpt of the law on this, but can't remember where I saw it. Either Ann Coulter's book "Treason" or in the recent press on Samuel Berger's theft of classified documents out of the National Archives. Perhaps someone here at wizbang has a link?

The sedition most glaringly obvious is Newsweek's 9 May edition. Hmm, edition of sedition.

But the snake in the grass is the hidden source(s). Where's CTU's "Jack" Kiefer Sutherland when we need him. He'd do what's necessary and get it done in 24 Hours.

"Whether the lie was true o... (Below threshold)
frameone:

"Whether the lie was true or false is somewhat beside the point."

So even if the Qur'an flushing story was true, Newsweek committed treason in reporting it. Ultimately this is what it comes down to isn't it? It's a free press you want to abolish. And don't give me that "It's war time" crap. Newsweek wasn't giving away troop movements here (like say Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera) they were reporting on behavior that, if true shouldn't have been going on in the first place. Personally, you can burn, flush or defecate on whatever sacred or holy document you want. Just like you can have your SM partner strap a dog collar around your neck and drag you around your bedroom if that's your bag.

But if a US soldier does either thing to humiliate or dehumanize a prison it's unacceptable and should be reported.

What I don't get about the above comment is that it suggests that all you supposed free thinkers are opposed to the kind of reporting that allows for free thought. And here for the sake of argument let's assume the Qur'an story was true (although no one has challenged that Army investigators found evidence of the dog collar story) Do you really want to live in a country where the government controls what can and cannot be reported? Remember this is the war on terror we're talking about, the war that isn't like any other war because there is no potential end to it, no possible final victory over extremism.

Reporters should be held to high ethical and professional standards but I'd rather have a few mistakes made in a self-policing profession than have the government play news editor, which, it seems, is what many of you here are calling for.

And really you all need to drop this the "liberal media" hates America. Hates America? I'm an American and so are most of my friends and family. I don't think the media hates me.

There was a joke about libe... (Below threshold)
Boeremeisie:

There was a joke about liberals in South Africa during apartheid days. The liberal United Party (mostly English-speaking whites in the big cities) were much like the liberals in America today - fiery haters of their own country and the rest of its people, including the white Afrikaners (of Dutch/French/Danish/German descent, mostly farmers, whose forefathers fought the British in the Boer War).
It went something like this:

"The liberal's prayer:

Thank you, God, that I am a liberal against apartheid.
Thank you, God, that I enjoy the bounties of this land.
Thank you, God, that you've provided the Blacks to serve me.
Thank you, God, that you've provided the Afrikaner to protect me."




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