This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," May 16, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.
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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DANIEL KLAIDMAN, NEWSWEEK WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: We took the piece and we supplied it to a senior Pentagon official, asked whether it was accurate. That official pointed to one part of the story and said that part was not accurate but said nothing about the rest of it. We took that part out, and we ran the parts that he implicitly had suggested were accurate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BRIT HUME, HOST: That was how Newsweek Washington bureau chief Daniel Klaidman helped partly explain, at least, the magazine’s decision to go ahead with its story it had gotten from a single source it felt it couldn’t identify. The result, of course, was a story that caused protests in which 17 people died and now, after some hesitation, a retraction from Newsweek.
For more on this and the issues it raises, I’m joined from Boston by my old friend and former ABC News colleague Bob Zelnick, who is now the head of the journalism department at Boston University.
Hi, Bob. Welcome.
ROBERT ZELNICK, FORMER ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Brit, it’s good to be with you.
HUME: What’s your sense of what went wrong here?
ZELNICK: I think the sourcing went wrong. They believed one particular source. They then interpreted silence as confirmation, which was a risky move in a story as sensitive and potentially as volatile as this. And it just didn’t work.
They take a risk when they go with unnamed sources. And in this particular case, as in others that we could both name, the risk turned out to be too great.
HUME: Let me ask you a question based on a quote that appeared in the morning press about how this story was done. This is Michael Isikoff, the veteran investigative journalist, a guy we all know who has been on this program, somebody who has compiled a pretty good record over the years.
And he said, quoted in The Washington Post, "It’s important to remember that there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here. We relied on sources we had every reason to trust and gave the Pentagon ample opportunity to comment." Would you agree that there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards?
ZELNICK: Again, I think journalistic standards are not absolute that apply to every single situation. This was a high-risk report. It indicted the United States on an extremely volatile issue, as we have seen. And I think, in that case, I would have not only presented the potential story to the Pentagon or to the Southern Command, but I would have told them that we need guidance on this, and unless we get it, we’re going to go with the story.
HUME: And what do you think — yes, but assuming that neither Southern Command or the Pentagon was in a position to react quickly enough, would you go with the story or not?
ZELNICK: I would have been a little bit nervous about this story in any event.
ZELNICK: Look, I agree with you completely that Isikoff is a talented and experienced reporter, and that John Barry is, as well. So I don’t want to — I don’t think this amounts, in terms of journalistic technique, to the kind of egregious performance we saw by Dan Rather and CBS in the Air National Guard story. But I think, in a case like this, the discretion is the better part of valor. And I would have been really reticent about it.
Another thing I would add about this, Brit. I may be in a distinct minority here, but I think that, even if I believed this story to be true, I would have been reluctant to go with it, because I think the emotional impact so far exceeded the journalistic value of what I was offering, that I would have just let this — let someone else break this if I was going to lose it.
HUME: Do you sense that the reluctance to retract was based on a continuing belief that the story is probably true, even though the Pentagon hasn’t confirmed it in its investigations?
ZELNICK: No, I don’t. I think, in this particular case, this was a lapse into the CBS practice, saying that we admit our source was wrong, but we can’t prove a negative, we can’t prove that the events didn’t happen, therefore, we’re not going to retract. And I applaud Newsweek for seeing the light, for being reasonable, and changing its position during the day, and putting this to rest.
HUME: This does raise the question once again of unnamed sources. It strikes me that perhaps there’s one thing to use unnamed sources to report on, you know, on a political agreement that may or may not have been reached, or a decision by someone to run or not to run for office, or something like that.
But when something very charged and very negative is being reported, what do you think ought to be the rules governing what you have to have in order to go with it? And how do anonymous sources figure in that, in your judgment?
ZELNICK: Brit, I covered enough sensitive beats over enough years, Moscow, Israel, the Pentagon, that I am weary about putting down absolute rules. I know that I went with single anonymous sources time after time in reporting on the first Persian Gulf War, the Battleship Iowa, the shootdown of the Iranian Airbus, the college spy case in Israel. And I’m not saying my batting average was 100 percent, but I think the public gained more than it lost by my relying on sources that I trusted.
And in many cases, sources that I initiated the contact with, and that was a very important — when I would get a call from some spectacular unnamed source trying to push me toward a story, all my wary antennae would go up and I would be very reluctant — and I think you can remember some of the discussions we had during sensitive periods, that kind of coverage.
But when I initiated the call to someone who had been candid with me in the past and someone I trusted, I didn’t necessarily insist on a second source.
HUME: What about the idea, though, of a two-source rule on stories that are very explosive? We’ve got about 15 seconds left.
ZELNICK: I think that might do more good than harm. But again, based on personal experience, I think the public ought to understand that it will lose a lot, in terms of credible information.
HUME: Bob Zelnick, great to have you. Thanks for doing this. See you soon.
ZELNICK: My pleasure, Brit.
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