'Newsweek' dispute shows tensions of media, government
Published by The
State, May 26, 2005.
Shoot the messenger, if you must. But heed the message. The
uproar in press, policy and political circles goes deeper than
Newsweek's use of an anonymous source to report on possible abuse
and insensitivity by U.S. troops guarding Muslim prisoners in
There are three levels of concern: What the media have done;
what the U.S. government may have done, and what was done to
provoke a deadly anti-American riot in Afghanistan. If there
is a trail of culpability for the latter tragedy, we must be
careful where we point fingers of blame.
Each year in May, I take a class of USC students to Washington
as part of a course examining the intersection of media and government.
Our timing could hardly have been more instructive.
We sat in the House Gallery last week during the congressional
ritual known as "one minutes." Members of the House
have 60 seconds to speak on any subject they choose. Several
chose to excoriate Newsweek's report based on a single anonymous
source, albeit a trusted one, saying military interrogators flushed
the Quran down a toilet as a psychological means of breaking
The treatment of prisoners sweating out their interrogation
and the treatment of judicial nominees sweating out their Senate
confirmation proceedings were the hot topics of our Washington
week. My students — majoring in journalism, public relations
and political science — witnessed the debate at close quarters.
What might they have concluded? That debate is alive and well
in a democratic society. That it is sometimes acrimonious, frequently
harsh and vilifying, often accusatory, seemingly always intensely
partisan and, occasionally, enlightening.
We'd spent much of the previous week examining facets of the
media-government intersection. For example, the "24/7" news
cycle developed over the past two decades (I was part of it as
a 20-year CNN correspondent) has put us in an era of news, information
and opinion delivered at warp speed.
In their book appropriately titled Warp Speed, media watchdogs
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel also warn of the "journalism
of assertion." If you say something loud and often enough
and have a media platform, you can force your issue onto the
public agenda. Think "weapons of mass destruction." Kovach
and Rosenstiel also warn of the increasing use of anonymous sources
as diminishing the credibility of information and increasing
the possibilities of abuse.
So where are we now? Deluged with more information than ever
before in a multimedia universe of television, cable, newspapers
and the Internet. Yet more Americans are turned off on the media
and the news than are tuned in.
Who's to blame? Watch where you point those fingers. My experience
in more than 30 years as a journalist is that media do not so
much set the agenda as respond to events and directions set by
others. Yes, journalists choose which stories to report. But
to quote Kovach and Rosenstiel, "while the press may not
tell people what to think, it gives them a list of things to
Kovach and Rosenstiel, both newspaper veterans, wrote Warp Speed
in the wake of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. Its
message remains timely.
In 1998, Newsweek and reporter Michael Isikoff held off reporting
the Lewinsky affair and its sordid soiled blue dress because
the magazine was not confident it had fully confirmed the story.
Internet gossip Matt Drudge scooped Newsweek without any additional
sourcing. Now Newsweek and Isikoff have retracted a story let
loose on the strength of a single anonymous source. Isikoff says
he's still pursuing the Quran story, and some in Washington (my
source is anonymous) say Newsweek caved too soon.
Though we've had a media culpa, let's not lay all blame on the
journalists. From what we already know — Abu Ghraib comes
to mind — the Quran story is plausible. Last year's "60
Minutes" report on CBS about President Bush's service record
in the Air National Guard was also plausible, from what we knew
about the Vietnam era. But CBS did not connect all the dots before
it went on the air.
That's what journalists are expected to do. But you might also
ask, what did the guards and interrogators at Guantanamo do?
Have we heard an absolute Pentagon denial? Who told Isikoff about
this alleged behavior? What was the motive? Should a reporter
have ignored it?
You might also ask, tragic though it was, did Newsweek pull
the trigger to cause those deaths? Was it the act of publishing
or the act of desecration (presumed or otherwise) that led to
the fatal outrage? There's a journalistic opportunity here to
better educate our citizenry to the sensibilities of less-understood
Yes, the messenger may have faltered and the message may have
been flawed. Journalists must step up their vigilance. But there
is something in this message to be learned about what our society
may have perpetrated and how another society may have interpreted
such an act. The flaw is not journalism's alone.