Critiquing the Press

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 16, 2005; 11:30 AM

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Read the latest from Kurtz: Newsweek Apologizes: Inaccurate Report on Koran Led to Riots.

An Ethically Challenged Congress.

Howard Kurtz was online to discuss the press and his latest columns.

A transcript follows.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Unfortunate - a word used by Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker to describe the repercussions the FALSE Qu'ran story written by former Washington Post reporter Michael Isikoff has had throughout the world. What is unfortunate is that him nor Isikoff has not been excused from their duties at Newsweek, or parent company. Yes I realize they deemed their sources as being credible, but after all that has happened in the press lately regarding fictitious stories (i.e. New York Times, CBS) why aren't reporters concentrating on being more diligent on basing their stories on FACTS rather then interesting hearsay? Also, why did it take so long after the release of the story for Whitaker to come out with an apology?

And now due to the actions of another damning media source in America, our troops have yet another reason to be looking over their shoulders for many angry Muslims who wish them harm, and rightfully so.

Thank you for your time.

Howard Kurtz: One reason that Newsweek didn't apologize earlier is that for a period of 11 days, no one challenged the item. The Pentagon didn't issue a denial, and it was not picked up by the rest of the American media. Only after the story was translated in the Arab media--and the riots began in Afghanistan--did the Pentagon start criticizing the story and Newsweek came to realize it couldn't defend the piece.

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Boston, Mass.: Media critics are constantly bemoaning anonymous sources, but I still see them everywhere. Is it because editors aren't tough enough, or it is just that sources now are too used to being granted anonymity to agree to go on record?

Howard Kurtz: Anonymous sources are vastly overused in Washington. This, ironically, is a case where it's understandable that a U.S. official would not want his name used, talking about a military investigative report that has not yet been released. On the other hand, I have to question whether there is great news value in publishing this allegation since, if true, it would have come out anyway when the report was made public. We all in this competitive business try to get out ahead of a story, but the risk here was so much greater than the potential benefit.

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Canada: Hi,

A review of past Mitch Albom's columns over the years found that Albom lifted quotes from other news organizations, without giving proper credits.

Isn't cheating? Isn't what local radio stations do: reading on the air what's in the local papers without crediting the source...

Where is journalism going?

Howard Kurtz: He should have attributed the quotes picked up from other places, as is the rule at the Detroit Free Press and many other news operations. But the inquiry did vindicate Albom from the far worse sins of making things up. And he's already served a suspension, although as far as I know it was with pay.

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Washington, D.C.: 16 PEOPLE ARE DEAD! American soldiers lives' are in danger!

Newsweek, of course, just thinks this is a "murky situation".

Perfectly clear to me.

Howard Kurtz: I hear you.

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Evans, Ga.: When a reporter takes a single, anonymously sourced quote to someone in the government and that individual does not comment on whether or not the reporter might have found someone who said something happened, the reporter can't maintain his garbage has been validated in any way. Isikoff should be fired.

Howard Kurtz: Taking the lack of a denial for confirmation of a story is very risky business indeed. Newsweek did the right thing by running a draft of the item by a senior Pentagon official, and it's odd that the Pentagon didn't raise any red flags. But that does not mean the story is true.

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Iowa: Not to diminish the seriousness of the error in reporting at Newsweek, but at least they issued a prompt apology for their mistake. Many of us are still waiting for an apology from the current administration for embarking on a costly war based on false intelligence and erroneous information.

Howard Kurtz: Newsweek deserves credit for not just apologizing but running a piece about what happened in the issue out today and making top editors available for interviews. Whatever the severity of the original mistake, they have not gone into the bunker, as often happens at media organizations under fire.

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Washington, D.C.: So let me get this straight: Only if something comes directly from a government official is it true? (or not true?)

I've heard lots of other credible allegations that American interrogators defiled the Koran as part of their technique (would it surprise you really? I mean c'mon.)

But the fact that one anonymous government guy now isn't absolutely sure that he read it in one particular government report leads Newsweek not just to apologize -- but to actually assert that they were wrong to suggest such a thing.

How much pressure from the Bushies was Newsweek under, and did it really have to cave that thoroughly?

Howard Kurtz: It's true that other news outlets (including The Post) have reported allegations of Koran desecration BY DETAINEES. Newsweek went a step further by quoting a source as saying that U.S. military investigators had confirmed this. Could it still be true? Of course it could. I have no way of knowing. As for administration pressure, it mainly took the form of harsh public statements by Pentagon officials. But I wouldn't reach the conclusion that Newsweek "caved"; the editors concluded their story was wrong, at least in part, and that they couldn't defend it.

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Orange, Va.: Isikoff says there was no lapse in journalistic ethical standards. Hmmm... only one anonymous (natch) source, who didn't see the events he described but did read a draft report about them. He now recants. The military, when called to respond, didn't refute the charges overtly enough for Isikoff, thereby confirming them.

I guess Isikoff's right -- how can he breach journalistic ethical standards when there are no journalistic ethical standards?

I'm sticking to blogs.

Howard Kurtz: This is definitely fuel for the many blogosphere critics who say the mainstream media can't be trusted.

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Denver, Colo.: Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said, "Just as citizens," Whitaker said, "we feel badly about the fact that there's been a rash of violence."

They feel badly as citizens, but not as journalists. Hey, everyone's talking about Newsweek for a change! You're all tabloid trash now, aren't you, Howie?

Howard Kurtz: I'd prefer not to be included in that rather descriptive phrase, thank you very much.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Your headline is wrong: Newsweek hasn't apologized. They've backtracked, but haven't apologized.

An apology would include an admission that the story was WRONG. They won't do that, will they? Just like CBS has never figured out if those forgeries were real or not, right?

What an unethical profession! I need a shower after reading my morning paper.

Howard Kurtz: Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker told me point-blank yesterday he was apologizing, and Newsweek's follow up story, posted yesterday, explicitly said the magazine got some of its facts wrong.

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Washington, D.C.: I am in military; served in harm's way. Now I know why J. Ventura called the media/reporters "jackals" If we were as lazy and sloppy in our jobs as these media "prima donnas" are in theirs, our country would have been conquered along time ago. Maybe we should send the Newsweek "reporters" and their "editors" (now there a joke!) out to Iraq and Afghanistan to "explain their mistake." Those cowards would never survive...which may be a good thing!

Howard Kurtz: I understand anyone who's angry about this blunder, given the deadly consequences that followed the item.

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New York, N.Y.: Michael Getler came down pretty hard yesterday on The Post for its late arrival to the story of the Downing Street Memo that seems to prove the Bush administration was enlisting the Blair government to "fix the intelligence and the facts" to justify a war that was understood by both the U.S. and U.K. governments to be inevitable by July 2002--eight months before the war.

Do you have any thoughts on why it took an e-mail campaign to get The Post and other American newspapers to pay attention to the implications of the memo?

Howard Kurtz: None of the explanations are satisfactory. The Post should have done a substantial story much sooner, especially after other American media outlets picked up on the memo.

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Alexandria, Va.: Isn't the Newsweek blunder just another reason for those who already hate the West to call for more violence? If it wasn't this, might it not be something similar? Won't they be able to find a reason to target us regardless of the severity? Am I being too cynical?

Howard Kurtz: There's no question in my mind that extremists and other anti-American agitators seized on this short item as a way of whipping up violence. After all, this isn't the first time allegations about U.S. interrogators trashing the Koran have surfaced. That, however, does not let Newsweek off the hook, since it provided the fuel with a story it says it can no longer defend.

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Windsor Mill, Md.: It seems that every time the mainstream media is bamboozled by a source that it provides another opportunity for the right wing echo chamber to gloat. The violence is regrettable of course, but the story rang true due to previous allegations. We are in a media climate where only right wing investigative reporting will be allowed. Anyone remember Vince Foster, etc? It's like the referee reacting to constant haranguing by a coach.

Howard Kurtz: You are right that the story rang true, given all that we've learned about the abusive techniques used at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. But ringing true is not the same as being true, or at least confirmed, and ringing true is not an acceptable journalistic standard.

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Midland, Tex.: Would it ever be possible, especially during this time in our war on terror, for the news media to take a default position that our military is not always wrong, and give them the benefit of the doubt before criticizing them? It would seem that if that was the prevailing mindset, instead of the seething hatred that the mainstream press has for the military now, that our troops would be safer and our missions more attainable.

Howard Kurtz: I'm not buying your "seething hatred" argument. Certainly, all the reporters who were embedded during the Iraq war came away with a healthy respect for the military and their performance was praised by the Pentagon as well. Also, even if the Koran allegation was true, it would mean that one person or a few people did something in interrogating detainees that is against the rules--which happens to be the position of the Defense Department, which has brought charges against a number of the Abu Ghraib guards and is continuing to investigate.

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Columbia, Md.: What on earth does it take to get fired from a news organization these days? Dan Rather using fake documents on the air, but is allowed to keep his job. Mitch Albom fabricates items in his columns, yet is allowed to keep his job. As far as I can tell, Newsweek has not fired Michael Isikoff yet for his sloppy journalism. Does someone have to commit murder to get fired...oh wait, Newsweek essentially did with their false story...never mind.

Howard Kurtz: You've misstated the two previous cases. The National Guard documents used by CBS may well have been fake, but Rather&Co. didn't know they were fake, although they were certainly reckless in rushing the story on the air without proper checking. Mitch Albom does not "fabricate items"--in one instance, he interviewed two players who said they would be at a game, wrote the story in advance and was embarrassed when the players didn't show up at the game. A really bad mistake, but not intentional fabrication. The sins of the media these days are grievous enough that we don't have to exaggerate.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Howard.

From a previous poster....

"It seems that every time the mainstream media is bamboozled by a source that it provides another opportunity for the right wing echo chamber to gloat"

Are you kidding me. People have died. If the only thing you are worried about is political gloating, then you need to seriously rethink your priorities in life.

Howard Kurtz: Fair point.

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Sarasota, Fla.: Howard,

I've worked with Michael Isikoff as both an anonymous and named source. I think he blew it here, but that it's not his norm. He's always asked the follow-up question to make sure he correctly understood what he was hearing. And he was always willing to listen to something that was outside his current line of thinking.

But the pooch is walking gingerly right now.

John

Howard Kurtz: Thanks for that account. It's not often that ACTUAL ANONYMOUS SOURCES join these chats.

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Washington, D.C.: Newsweek's report has left more than a dozen people dead, contributed to anger towards the U.S., and assisted as a great propaganda tool for Islamic fundamentalists and radicals.

And the best that the Newsweek editor can say is that he apologizes and expresses regret for the loss of life.

Sorry, that's not good enough.

People at Newsweek need to be fired. People involved with that story - whether Isikoff and his researchers who wrote the story, or the editors who let the story through even though it was based on a single anonymous source and contained such an explosive accusation - need to be held accountable.

A person who causes the deaths of others doesn't get to say simply "Whoopsies, sorry about that" and go about their day. They are held accountable for their actions. Journalist are not immune from that same requirement.

Howard Kurtz: I do think we should keep in mind that Newsweek didn't intend to cause any violence, that this was a short item seized upon by extremists opposed to America. That said, Newsweek clearly bears a serious responsibility here. But I don't think the magazine's brass is just saying "whoops" and taking it lightly.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Wait a minute. Over 1,500 soldiers and untold civilians are dead due to "bad sources" and "poor reporting" regarding WMD in Iraq. And here we have a story that the Pentagon did not deny, has several corroborating witnesses who have seen the Koran used inappropriately in interrogations, and people are crying for Newsweek's head? Maybe they should have not quoted an anonymous source, but this seems like displaced venom that may be politically motivated by people who want to perpetuate the "liberal" media myth.

Howard Kurtz: The question of whether the incident really occurred or not -- and it's been alleged by a number of detainees -- seems to have gotten lost amid the anger at Newsweek and the magazine's admission that its source is no longer sure the story (that the incident would be cited in a forthcoming military report) is true.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: All the back-and-forth about mistakes and standards of journalism miss the same point that was at issue in the Dan Rather-Mary Mapes case with the Bush National Guard memos -- it is the newsroom culture and ideological climate that makes these "mistakes" possible.

From the moment the Abu Ghraib photos went public last year, most of the elite media has assumed that torture and abuse are widespread/systematic and that this mistreatment was ordered from the top. When reporters/editors/producers are determined to prove something that they believe (or want to believe) is true (U.S. troops routinely abuse Muslims, or that Bush bailed on the National Guard), their standards slip accordingly. I suspect Newsweek's editors level of enthusiasm to rush to print would have decreased greatly if the target of the allegations had been the NAACP or the ACLU...

Howard Kurtz: I beg to differ. No journalist I know thinks that U.S. troops "routinely" abuse Muslims. The abuses that we've learned about, and the chilling photographs, are horrible for the country, but they had to be reported. Reporters have certainly asked questions about whether lower-level guards were carrying out policies dictated from above, but have not automatically assumed that to be the case.

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Burke, Va.: This accusation has been made before, and there were no riots. Why were there riots this time?

Second - it seems to me that what many critics want is for this information not to be reported at all.

Howard Kurtz: I wish I knew why there were riots this time and not before. And you are right in the sense that even if the Newsweek story had turned out to be 100 percent accurate, and riots resulted, there are those who would blame the media for putting out the information.

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Re: I'll stick to blogs: Yeah, cause blogs never state anything that's not true

Howard Kurtz: Touche.

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Washington, D.C.: Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on Friday had front page articles featuring athlete uniform number selections. Is this just coincidence or do newspapers sometimes stack feature sports articles for slow news days along those lines?

Howard Kurtz: I suspect it's not a coincidence. I bet one newspaper heard the other was pursuing a similar story and rushed its version into print.

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Doylestown, Pa.: "A person who causes the deaths of others doesn't get to say simply "Whoopsies, sorry about that" and go about their day. They are held accountable for their actions. Journalisst are not immune from that same requirement."

But apparently high-ranking government officials are -- in fact, they even get Medals of Freedom for THEIR "slam-dunk" mistakes.

I can appreciate the outrage over the Newsweek error, but unless these posters are also expressing similar outrage over the lead-up to the war in Iraq, methinks it is all a bit too partisan in its origins.

Howard Kurtz: Although this controversy has to do with the war in Afghanistan, not Iraq, which had much broader popular support and didn't involve questionable intelligence.

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Southside, Va.: Re: Newsweek, so can anybody get a look at the report? It seems to me that the question is whether it states that the Quran was desecrated, not how Newsweek found out about it. Truth is the best defense. Thanks.

Howard Kurtz: The report by the U.S. Southern Command hasn't been released yet but will probably be made public in the coming weeks.

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Herndon, Va.: I'm very curious why you would choose to label Newsweek's story False when it is collaborated by the following sources:

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 20, 2005: Lawyers allege abuse of 12 at Guantanamo By Frank Davies Inquirer Washington Bureau "Some detainees complained of religious humiliation, saying guards had defaced their copies of the Koran and, in one case, had thrown it in a toilet, said Kristine Huskey -an attorney in Philadelphia],"

From the Center for Constitutional Rights, New York City, NY and linked as a footnotes in a Human Rights Watch report:

"72....When the Korans were provided, they were kicked and thrown about by the guards and on occasion thrown in the buckets used for the toilets. This kept happening. When it happened it was always said to be an accident but it was a recurrent theme."

" August 19, 2004. The disrespect of the Koran by guards at Camp X-Ray was one of the factors prompting a hunger strike. Ibid., para. 111-117."

and why has no one challenged the Pentagon and white House ' indignant denunciations of the story when just last Thursday the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, in a U.S. State Dept.-issued press release , said the Newsweek story isn't a chief cause of the riots:

" -He has been told that the Jalalabad, Afghanistan, rioting was related more to the ongoing political reconciliation process in Afghanistan than anything else."

Howard Kurtz: I'm not labeling it false. Newsweek says its source was wrong. The earlier stories involved allegations by detainees -- which may be true, I have no way of knowing -- while the Newsweek item said U.S. military investigators had confirmed such a toilet-flushing incident.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: "The question of whether the incident really occurred or not"

The military has already investigated this. The answer is "not". Please try to keep up.

Howard Kurtz: The fact that military investigators have not confirmed it does not mean that in the hundreds of interrogations at various detention facilities, something like that did not happen. It does mean that the Pentagon has been unable to verify the allegation, contrary to the Newsweek story.

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Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Boy there are some fired-up people out there! It's as though Newsweek has set about killing people...Imagine if there was a story out there in the Arab press that my favorite book got flushed down a toilet - I'm not sure my reaction would be to rush out and riot. This story raises all kinds of questions - one of them is certainly whether Newsweek got it right. BUT there is also a weird history of Islamic fundamentalists getting upset about books - think Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses". Newsweek does not seem to be in a strong position, but lets stay calibrated! Writing a story that isn't watertight is one thing, being held responsible for the lunatic behavior of fundamentalists on the other side of the world is another.

Howard Kurtz: Those are all fair points. But Newsweek is still in the unenviable position of having to explain why it published the allegation, based on one unnamed source, that it now says was wrong.

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Boise, Idaho: Howie,

Interesting how all the 'patriotic' Republican types are down on Isikoff now for 'unnamed sources', but seemed fine with them when he was opening the Lewinsky affair wide open, isn't it?

Howard Kurtz: It's fair to point out that Mike Isikoff has broken a lot of important stories over the years, and this unfortunate incident has to be weighed against that.

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Rockville, Md.: It's easy to blame Newsweek for the rioting deaths but personal responsibility still falls on the extremists actually causing the deaths. People seem to let the actual murderers off the hook so easily, like we have such low standards for them because/ they're crazy foreign extremists. We can blame Newsweek for bad reporting, but I think it's crass to blame them for murders

Howard Kurtz: I hope that even Newsweek's harshest critics recognize that the staff never imagined that violence would result from this one brief item. Perhaps they should have, but clearly they didn't.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Mr. Kurtz, It's kind of an unruly crowd today, the most anti-media I've seen in some time, perhaps ever.

Today the media is getting blasted for something it said. Imagine what it might be like after the next terrorist attack to have to defend the media against topics if failed to cover, but should have.

Howard Kurtz: Well, there are strong emotions out there over this one because of the deadly consequences, and I understand that.

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Columbia, Md.: Howard, Will Newsweek now name the 'source', if there ever was one? I have three theories: One is that the source got leaned on and decided to 'correct' his errors. Two is that the 'source' was just spewing garbage in the first place. In either scenario, Newsweek is duty bound and ethically compelled to 'out' this 'source'. Third is the most serious one; Newsweek just made up the story and attributed it to a 'source'. Now that they can't back it up, the are fessing up. There should be a penalty for this. A major one! How do you see this playing out?

Howard Kurtz: Newsweek probably won't name the source. A couple of reporters are now facing jail on the principle of protecting sources, as you may recall. The responsibility for protecting a source whose information is wrong, but who didn't deliberately try to deceive you, is a tricky one.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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