Botched Report Puts Newsweek Editor in Front Of the Story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mark Whitaker raced from one television studio to the next on Monday, trying to explain Newsweek's biggest blunder in two decades on "Nightline," "NewsHour" and "NBC Nightly News."

The man who has run the magazine for more than seven years did not seem happy about it.

"I'm not like some people who would walk a mile for a camera," he says. "I'm not necessarily looking for more television exposure." But, he says, "it's necessary at a time like this that the editor come forward and speak for the magazine."

Since Friday, when Whitaker got what he describes as a heated phone call from Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita, blaming Newsweek for the deadly riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere that have claimed at least 16 lives, he has taken an unusually prominent role for an executive who generally leaves the punditry to his top reporters and columnists. Whitaker much prefers to operate behind the scenes, and the only time he gets much media exposure is when Newsweek is under fire.

During a crisis, says Washington bureau chief Dan Klaidman, "his emotions don't swing up and down."

"Mark was determined from the start that we'd be upfront about this," says columnist Jonathan Alter.

"He's a little shy, and it's taken him awhile to warm to the public role this job requires," says political writer Howard Fineman.

Not since Newsweek had to admit that it was duped into running phony Hitler diaries in 1983 has the magazine been at the center of a storm of this intensity. Rarely have so few words sparked such deadly consequences. By Saturday night, Whitaker had concluded that the fateful half-sentence in a May 1 "Periscope" item -- saying military investigators had confirmed that a U.S. interrogator at the Guantanamo Bay prison flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet -- was wrong. Star reporter Michael Isikoff had checked again with his unnamed source, who backed off the account.

On Sunday, Newsweek released Whitaker's apologetic editor's note and a follow-up piece, but he was a bit vague in interviews about whether he was fully retracting the story. That left an opening for Bush administration officials to further denounce Newsweek, prompting Whitaker to rush out a formal statement of retraction.

He has made misjudgments before. In March, Whitaker expressed regret for a cover shot of then-imprisoned Martha Stewart pulling back some orange curtains, which turned out to be a composite photo. "It was never our intention to produce something anyone would mistake for the real Martha," he explained then.

Whitaker, 47, is a Newsweek lifer in every sense of the word. Not only did he largely grow up at the magazine's Manhattan headquarters, but two decades ago he married another editor, Alexis Gelber, who is now director of special projects and does not report to him.

"Ever since I've known him, he's been reserved," says Alter, who went to college with Whitaker. When they briefly lived together, Alter says, he would wake up "and hear this thump-thump on the floor and it was Mark skipping rope like a boxer, getting in shape." Later in life, "he became relentlessly determined to make himself into a good golfer."

Klaidman says Whitaker has a "laserlike" intelligence but is not the backslapping type. "He's a very cool customer," Klaidman says, but to those who don't know him, "the combination of high-wattage brain and cool demeanor can be a little foreboding."

Whitaker has also stirred controversy with what he has refused to publish. He famously held Isikoff's 1998 piece on a prosecutor's investigation of Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, passing up the bombshell that ultimately led to a presidential impeachment. Whitaker also declined to publish Bob Kerrey's account of his role in killing unarmed civilians in Vietnam because the former senator had decided not to run for president again, which allowed the New York Times Magazine and "60 Minutes" to trumpet the scoop in 2001.

Privately, some staffers say Whitaker can be too cautious, too predictable, too bureaucratic, "the ultimate apparatchik," as one puts it.

"I think I'm actually quite ambitious in terms of the big picture," Whitaker says. "In terms of deliberations, in terms of thinking about the consequences of what we do, I am cautious." He is comfortable with Isikoff's reliance on one unnamed source for the "Periscope" item, however, because that source had been reliable in the past and the Pentagon was offered a chance to knock down the story.

To this day, he defends his spiking of the Lewinsky piece, saying that Isikoff had been unable to talk to the former White House intern and that "there were huge stakes if it was wrong." Unlike the Koran item, he says, "that was a story where we were aware in advance of the repercussions it might have."

Newsweek has won four National Magazine Awards during Whitaker's tenure, ranging from coverage of 9/11 to the Iraq war to the 2004 election, and staffers describe the man as a fount of ideas. Fineman says Whitaker ordered him to do a "Bush and God" cover story in 2003 based on his past coverage of the president and religious conservatives. "He put two and two together in a way I hadn't thought of," Fineman says.

Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post Co., has remained the No. 2 newsweekly, with sales of 3.1 million compared with Time's 4 million. While Whitaker has done his share of hard-news covers, he has also rolled out endless "soft" cover packages on eBay, single moms, God and the brain, "The Sopranos," Dr. Phil, hormone therapy, teenage girls, insomnia, "America's Best High Schools" and "The Myth of the Perfect Mother."

He speaks in perfect paragraphs about journalism issues but chooses his words slowly and carefully on personal matters. "I'm not all that comfortable talking about myself," he admits.

Whitaker was born in Lower Merion, Pa., the son of a white mother and a black father who had been her student at Swarthmore College -- a relationship that caused something of a stir on campus. His parents divorced when he was 5, and Whitaker rarely saw his father, Syl, for a half-dozen years.

Whitaker joined Newsweek as an intern in 1977 with impeccable credentials. Harvard graduate. Oxford student. Next came the globe-trotting: Stringer in San Francisco, Boston, Washington, London and Paris. Then he began his climb up the corporate ladder, from business editor to assistant managing editor to managing editor to the top job.

When he succeeded Maynard Parker, who died of leukemia in 1998, Whitaker's reserved personality provided a striking contrast to his hard-charging predecessor. Although he had once written a cover story on "The Hidden Rage of Successful Blacks," Whitaker played down any hoopla about becoming the first black editor of a major newsweekly. But he has tried to be what he calls "ahead of the curve" on racial issues, with covers including "The Good News About Black America."

"When you're a person of color in what remains a mostly white world, especially in our profession, you develop a sense of independent judgment," he says. "When times get hard it doesn't completely surprise you. I've been thinking a little about those things in the last few days."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company