May 16, 2005

The Credibility Chasm

Pundits chortled knowingly and often during the intertwined Vietnam and Watergate eras about Richard Nixon’s credibility gap. Now comes the Newsweek “Periscope” item alleging that an unpublished report contained an allegation that an American interrogator or interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had tried to shake up Muslim prisoners by hurling a Koran into a toilet. Here is the direct quote: “Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among previously unreported cases, sources tell Newsweek interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur’an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.”

“These findings, expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command could put former Gitmo commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller in the hot seat...The FBI e-mails indicate that FBI agents quarreled repeatedly with military commanders, including Miller and his predecessor…over the military’s more aggressive techniques. ‘Both agreed the bureau has their way of doing business and DoD has their marching orders from the SecDef,’ one e-mail stated, referring to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.”

This story doesn’t suffer from a credibility gap. It has opened a credibility chasm. Since the item’s publication on May 4, riots have erupted throughout the Muslim world, fueled by incendiary reporting from the always reliable Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. At least 17 people lie dead as a result of the mayhem, hundreds have suffered injury, and the fledgling democracy in Afghanistan now finds itself fighting for life.

Needless to say, the Reliable Source responsible for this juicy tidbit developed amnesia once the story turned sour. He (or perhaps she) didn’t have the actual document in question, and couldn’t require what he (or she) had seen or where.

Newsweek meanwhile has been reduced to asking aloud how a simple story about desecrating a holy book could have inspired such a calamitous result. (This reflects the American press’s famous sensitivity toward religious observance, which tends to regard every devout believer, regardless of religion, as a seething nut.)

The magazine has issued a limited, modified correction — apologizing to the dead and to those who might suffer as a result of the furor ignited by the report, but without retracting the story. Editor Mark Whitaker wrote, “Our original source later said he couldn’t be certain about reading of the alleged Qur’an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in the midst.”

Then, as if to underscore the non-repentant nature of the apology, Managing Editor Evan Thomas suggested that while the original story may have fallen short of the truth, it may still capture accurately a larger truth about the brutality of U.S. guards. This sounds like CBS’s original claim that the fake stories about George W. Bush’s National Guard record may be true, even though the documentary evidence in support of the story had been manufactured, and every living source in a position to know about the president’s service had disputed the account.

The performance brings to mind a couple of historical analogies. When William Randolph Hearst conjured the Spanish-American War from overwrought and misleading reporting about the sinking of the USS Maine, critics dubbed his reportage, “yellow journalism.” Hearst, brash and proud, made no apologies and didn’t care. Newsweek, in contrast, seems to appreciate the mess it has created, but refuses to accept full responsibility — or even primary responsibility. Call it “yellow-belly journalism.”

Much more recently, the Johnson and Johnson Co. had to confront bogus stories that the nation’s drug counters were packed with poisoned bottles of Tylenol. The company quickly recalled products, offered swaps and took aggressive action to restore public confidence — most famously, by introducing tamper-proof safety packaging. The last remnants of the panic subsided when authorities determined that the scare was the result of an isolated act of homicide: Seven people in the Chicago area died by ingesting cyanide-laced pills.

I mention both dramas to set the stage for some helpful advice for Newsweek.

• In journalism, if you have a story that remains exclusive for too long, you have a biiiig problem.

Journalists love a feeding frenzy, and the press corps would have loved nothing more than a tale that would have nailed the president and Donald Rumsfeld with fresh prisoner-abuse allegations. But nobody followed Newsweek’s lead. Nobody. There is only explanation for this silence: There was nothing to the story.

• When you make a mistake, don’t mewl. Don’t offer cheesy excuses. Apologize and grovel. Show humility. Take action to correct the mess. And then shut up.

There is a good reason the public holds journalism in low esteem: Journalists almost never admit error, although they tend to be ruthless toward any public figure who has dared commit a stupid peccadillo. In this case, Newsweek cannot quite force itself to admit error — claiming to have placed its story before unnamed Pentagon officials; taken its facts from a reliable, veteran source; and retailed a story that had been circulating in rumor form around Washington and the Middle East for a period of months.

This is weak. Every apology should contain the following sentences: “We were wrong,” and “We are sorry; we apologize.” Anything short of that comes off as smarmy and insincere — and with 17 dead and parts of a region aflame, this is the time to practice some real and public humility.

• Understand that truth has consequences. Lies have consequences. Press sensations have consequences. Before unleashing the hounds of controversy, try to have some idea what the real consequences will be.

Nobody is going to admit it, but editors at Newsweek probably figured the small item that set off the firestorm would embarrass the president and the Pentagon. Editor Mark Whitaker told Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post, “I suppose you could say we should have forseen the consequences of the report, but we didn’t.” Meanwhile, the magazine’s Washington Bureau Chief, Dan Klaidman, calls the tale “an honest mistake.” Who does the talking points for these guys, Monty Python?

• Understand the risks of using unnamed sources.

What once was a rarity in journalism — unnamed sources — has become a contagion. As a result, news consumers must endure a constant bombardment of gossip described as hard fact.

Here are the problems with unnamed sources:

1) Nobody can hold them accountable if they’re lying.

2) Too often, they have axes to grind, and find gullible or willing reporters to serve as their hit men.

3) Reporters inflate the importance of mediocre sources by means of grandiose titles. When I worked at the White House, a reporter liked a quote I had given and thus asked, “Can I refer to you as a senior White House official?” I refused, demanding that I be named and mentioned by title — Director of Speechwriting. The item never appeared in print because the reporter knew perfectly well that nobody would care about a quote from a speechwriter. The president’s valet probably had better information and access.

4) Unnamed sources make sloppy reporting easier to commit and harder to detect.

5) And finally, the practice is slimy. Very rarely, one will encounter a situation in which a source may suffer personal harm if identified, but these cases are pretty rare. Most of the time, duplicitous and vicious human beings merely want to cover their behinds — and their tracks.

If you want to change people’s lives, enter medicine, the ministry or politics.

Too often, reporters get a hankering to conjure stories that will influence the course of human events. When one sets about to do this consciously, it almost always ends up badly for all involved — and for many innocents caught in the line of real or rhetorical fire. The journalist’s job is to describe and analyze, not to perform political hits.

It is difficult to think of a proper way to correct a story that has inspired murderous mayhem and jeopardized the most promising development in the region in centuries — but Newsweek needs to figure out a way to do so, and fast.

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