Using the Media For a Magic Trick

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I propose that the media spend less of their finite, precious resources doing what I'm doing right now: covering the media.

No, I don't want to put all the media writers out of business. Yes, there are days when the making or unmaking of the story is the story. But please, not every day. If we covered government, business, foreign affairs, sports, entertainment and the rest of modern existence as aggressively and thoroughly as we cover ourselves, we might not have to worry so much about declining newspaper circulation and anemic television ratings. And even if the so-called mainstream media turn out to be dinosaurs, fated to suffocate in the oxygen-poor, fact-free Internet blogosphere, at least we'd go down swinging.

That was an awfully neat parlor trick the Bush administration performed last week, focusing attention on the reporting and editing process at Newsweek and away from more inconvenient facts: the copiously well-documented physical and psychological abuse of Muslim prisoners; the way this abuse has poisoned hearts and minds against America over the past three years; and the eruption of deadly riots in Afghanistan, a country we were supposed to have fixed.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan ought to be explaining why the administration turned away from still-problematic Afghanistan so quickly to rush pell-mell into Iraq. Flacks at the State Department and the Pentagon ought to be scurrying to assure the world that the disgraceful prisoner abuse has come to an end and that those responsible, including the higher-ups who hid behind "deniability" while making the abuse possible, will be brought to account.

Instead, it was Newsweek that had to self-flagellate for a whole week. What a trick -- but then again, we in the media played the role of magician's assistant.

Magic depends on misdirection. You make an elaborate and distracting flourish with the right hand, while the left hand palms the ace or releases the trap door. It's the job of a free press to watch the hand the magician wants everyone to ignore. Normally we do a decent job. But if the diversionary flourish is a j'accuse of media bias or ineptitude, we fall for it every time.

More than that: We go insane. Just what did Newsweek do wrong, besides using the lazy "sources said" attribution in its item about supposed desecration of the Koran, when in fact there was only one source? There was , after all, a well-placed source, according to Newsweek, and it was the source who made the mistake, saying later that he could not be sure he saw that specific act of desecration -- putting the holy book in a toilet -- cited in a specific report on prisoner abuse. The reporter accurately wrote what he had been told by a person in a position to know. That's what reporters do.

And the deadly riots? "Those demonstrations were, in reality, not related to the Newsweek story," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at the White House yesterday. The administration doesn't deny that there have been instances of Koran abuse, nor does it deny that the detention facility at Bagram in Afghanistan -- with which the rioters no doubt were familiar -- was the site of truly horrific violations.

But we help turn all this into an issue of journalistic process and tie ourselves in knots over the use of anonymous sources. Look, every reporter and editor would rather have an on-the-record source than an anonymous one. But without unnamed sources, we -- and you -- would be less well-informed. To cite just one example, Watergate would be nothing more than the name of an expensive apartment building overlooking the Potomac.

No reporter wants to be manipulated by a source hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. But this is the most secretive administration in recent memory. If you say inconvenient things out loud, with your name attached, you get frozen out. Unnamed sources are a necessity.

Let me get this straight: The White House makes a mistake on the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, relying heavily on its own unidentified sources who turn out to have their own political agendas, and what follows is a war in which tens of thousands of Iraqis die. I'm being vague on the number because the administration refuses to count. Thousands of young Americans are maimed and more than 1,600 lose their lives; the flag-draped coffins are flown home, as in previous wars, but this administration doesn't want you to see them.

And we're supposed to blame Newsweek's editorial procedures?

Watch my right hand, ladies and gents. Nothin' up my sleeve.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company