Death by Error

Down "Periscope": The conjunction of 21st-century Internet speed and 12th-century fanaticism has turned our world into a tinderbox. (By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)
By Tina Brown
Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Newsweek imbroglio, coming on the heels of the plagiarism epidemic in newspapers and the CBS National Guard fiasco, is another sharp sciatica pain in the media psyche, but unlike those other reputation-wreckers, this one comes with a body count.

For once our feelings seem to be unrelieved by schadenfreude. At Newsweek there was no swaggering megalomaniac editor who deserved a comeuppance, no celebrity anchor with vanities to unmask. Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's editor, errs on the earnest side. The decent, hardworking editors under him who put out the magazine each week seem largely enemy-free. On Friday and Saturday nights, when other people are trying new Thai restaurants or are snug at home with a rented DVD, these guys are toiling past midnight, fretting with the copy desk about a headline that might mischaracterize a story, a caption that needs to be clarified with another pass.

One of the scariest things about being an editor is how it's always the little stuff that comes back to bite you -- that frisky subordinate clause that unravels a reputation, that overlooked mistake in a front-of-the-book column that creeps in when all the scrutinizing energies are diverted by some big investigation that's expected to make the real trouble. This kind of small-beer fallibility with huge consequences is the humble reality behind most grand conspiracy theories.

When the folks at Newsweek showed their trusted Pentagon source the offending "Periscope" item by Michael Isikoff and John Barry alleging Koran abuse, they thought they were playing by all the usual rules of engagement in Washington, presuming the absence of rebuttal to mean confirmation. What they didn't understand, and should have, is that the conjunction of 21st-century Internet speed and 12th-century fanaticism has turned our world into a tinderbox. Anti-Americanism is the Islamic world's PC salve for the real source of their fury, the tyranny of their own corrupt governments. Newsweek is now reeling from a personal encounter with proxy rage. As the Arab scholar Fouad Ajami put it to me, "This is a chronicle of calamity foretold."

There is now something unbearable about the cast of red/blue blabbers from the election wars trundling their acts back on all the shows, venting about Newsweek's troubles through the prism of the same old pickled partisan divide. Don't they understand that that moment is gone and we are into a much scarier endgame now? The cable rants have no conviction anyway. MSNBC meathead Joe Scarborough seemed on automatic pilot Monday night as he burst a blood vessel berating token liberal punching bag Bob Jensen about Newsweek's hatred of all that was fine and noble about America, etc.

The irony is that just at the time this country is required to explain how lovable we are to vengeful Islamofascists, our self-image has never been in bigger shambles. We're beaten down with seeing ourselves as obese reality-show couch potatoes with descending science skills and mounting debt in a world where Indians and Chinese can do our jobs better. Arabs hate us and the dollar is so low against the euro that when you go to Europe you burn through all the cash in your wallet in the first 20 minutes. Even the transcending moral verity that made it all worthwhile, the value of your apartment, is suddenly being called a bubble. America is having to reconcile itself to something hitherto untasted -- a feeling of powerlessness that is at odds with its supposedly overwhelming military might. Like most perceptions from a distance, the Islamist view of American swagger is sadly out of date.

In the media's case, its own dwindling self-esteem is matched only by the rising contempt of the consumer. Everyone is flailing around trying to win back the public's good graces, chasing elusive audiences while pursued in turn by the baying of the bloggers.

At a time when we are choking on information, we have lost our nerve about what to do with what we discover. Are we now supposed to suppress anything that might offend the sensibilities of an Islamist mob, even when the purpose of revelation is to address their grievances? Oh, and tiptoe round the tender feelings of the jihadists who took a knife to Daniel Pearl's throat because he was Jewish and American? And what about the bodyguard of silence that protects unnamed official sources even when they turn out to be mischievous or mendacious? Is it time for truth-seekers to stop protecting these delinquent gremlins when an inaccurate steer needlessly creates the kind of havoc that results in 17 deaths and more than a hundred wounded? And what happens to investigative journalism, already in a post-CBS crouch and bullied by a secretive administration, if anonymous sources are largely abandoned? Does anybody think that if the press turned away from reliable anonymous sources the Bush team would suddenly start saying something real? When they dole out top players like Andy Card to Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," it's about as enlightening as an interview with Max Headroom.

The fact that it's Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post Co., that is caught in the current media furor is almost beside the point. If it hadn't been that publication it would have been another. The pages of newspapers that we're told only middle-aged dinosaurs now read are like a serialization of The Last Days. Everywhere you turn a major reputation is crashing like Saddam's statue: Kofi Annan, CBS News, the CIA, Maurice Greenberg. Morgan Stanley, Dave Chappelle, Newsweek. We don't know yet whether the mood of doom is a real climate change or just a passing perfect storm. All we know is that when and if some sort of new world order reconstitutes itself, it will be unrecognizable. And probably made in China.

2005by Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company