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Minding Our Business



'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 Cuba.

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 prisoners' will.

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 think about."

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 cultures.

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.


The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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