Yet Another Wake-Up Call

By Michael Getler
Sunday, May 22, 2005

For all of us who rely on, and want to trust, our newspapers, television networks and news magazines, this has been a tough couple of years. Some of our best (the New York Times and CBS News), some of our biggest (USA Today) and dozens of others have been caught up in various scandals and serious errors of journalistic procedure and judgment. They have weakened their credibility and public trust, tarnished a craft that is central to democracy and an informed citizenry and brought pain to thousands of journalists who believe strongly in what they do and how they do it.

Now along comes Newsweek magazine with what may be the biggest and most comprehensive journalistic nightmare in a long time. But people emerge from nightmares, so maybe this one will wake up editors everywhere.

This story is tragic on many levels. At least 15 people were killed and scores injured in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world by rioting and protests sparked, at least in part, by a brief item in Newsweek's "Periscope" column in the May 9 edition, which was on the newsstands several days earlier. It reported that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that American guards at the Guantanamo Bay detention center had flushed a copy of Islam's holiest book, the Koran, down a toilet and that such a finding was expected in a forthcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command. That item has since been retracted by Newsweek.

The loss of life, and the further darkening of an already damaged view of American policies and attitudes in the Muslim world, are, of course, the most serious elements. But for journalism, this episode also has so many elements that it adds up to a uniquely dramatic lesson for all of us.

First, it involves a normally reliable, quality newsmagazine and two first-rate reporters, one of whom, Michael Isikoff, is among the most dogged, relentless investigative reporters around, a commodity that journalism could use more of these days. I should also note that while The Washington Post Co. owns Newsweek, and many Post readers have written to me about its article, there is no editorial con-

nection at all between the newspaper and the magazine. If anything, they are competitors.

Second, it is important to keep in mind that there has been much officially documented evidence of abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq and claimed but uncorroborated incidents involving the Koran. Also, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, said at a news conference May 12, based on an assessment by the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, that "the violence we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations of disrespect for the Koran . . . but more tied to the political process and reconciliation process. . . . He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine."

The power of the Newsweek item was that it suggested that U.S. investigators had corroborated claims of desecration of the Koran, and it clearly was used, as Newsweek to its credit reported, by some to spark outrage.

Whatever its actual role, the item revealed a catalogue of journalistic sins.

The reporting depended on a single, anonymous source, albeit one who was supposed to be credible and trusted. Yet the printed item said "sources tell Newsweek." That's plural and therefore misleading. That kind of thing happens too often in journalism. Normally, at least two sources are required for such a volatile claim.

Maybe Newsweek didn't think the claim would be so volatile because of all the other documented abuses. But was that because of a cultural disconnect in which American reporters and editors simply do not understand the place of the Koran, above all other things, in Muslim life?

Newsweek did the right thing in taking the item to two Pentagon officials for comment before publication. But neither one said anything about the Koran item. That's not, and should not be assumed to be, confirmation. Those officials, if they knew it was wrong, should have waved Newsweek off, or found out if it was wrong. But they were not under any obligation to do so. Ironically, had Newsweek insisted on an on-the-record response for its anonymously sourced story from the Pentagon or the military's Southern Command, it might have been told this was untrue or unconfirmed and saved everybody a lot of trouble.

The magazine also reported that the toilet episode was "expected" to be included in an upcoming report. That's like saying somebody is "expected" to be indicted or found guilty, and journalists simply don't do that. Here is one more case where it was definitely worth waiting to make sure of the facts. Newspapers and magazines, especially, have the advantage of time to wait and time for editors to act, but sometimes they fail to take advantage of that. Predicting what will be in a report is always dangerous.

Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker, who acted quickly and candidly to admit the mistakes and apologize, said on ABC-TV's "Nightline" that the whole episode would cause an internal examination of policies to see "whether we need to have written policies." That is truly surprising; after a highly publicized string of media foul-ups of recent years, a major newsmagazine does not have written guidelines?

Whitaker also told The Post's Howard Kurtz that because the "Periscope" items are brief and tend to come in late in the week, "there are one or two layers of editing and review that are not there" compared with other news stories. That is another pitfall for news organizations that have more relaxed rules for one section than others.

The Newsweek blunder gave a loaded pistol to one of the most secretive administrations of recent years, one that makes frequent use of anonymous officials to brief reporters and that has serious credibility problems of its own regarding the foundations for the war in Iraq. And the White House pulled the trigger.

For the media, the only antidotes are accuracy and attentiveness. This means editors, especially, and not just the ones at the top, must do their jobs better. Otherwise, the hemorrhaging of trust will not stop. Reporters dig and gather, but editors get paid to sort it out and preserve the trust. The worst prescription would be to rein in the reporters and pull in our horns.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail

© 2005 The Washington Post Company