Newsweek Retracts Flawed Quran Report
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JEFFREY BROWN: From New York is the author of today’s note in Newsweek, the magazine’s editor, Mark Whitaker. For the record, a spokesman for the Pentagon declined an invitation to join us.
Mr. Whitaker, why did you decide to retract the story?
MARK WHITAKER: Well, I think we had already made clear that we thought that we had made a mistake in the fundamental aspect of the story that everybody’s concerned about, which is that we had firm evidence that an internal military investigation into the situation at Guantanamo Bay had uncovered Quran abuse. We said in our magazine this week and went to great lengths to disclose what we had reported, how and why, and the chain of events afterwards. We fully printed the Pentagon’s denials and said that we thought we had gotten this wrong. Then people started using the word “retraction” – were we prepared to retract. There were other elements in that story, in that brief story which people are not concerned about. This is the one detail that everybody is concerned about and we are prepared to retract that.
JEFFREY BROWN: But let me ask you about the one thing that people, the other thing — the main thing people really care about is: do you now know whether or not the event involving the Quran happened or not?
MARK WHITAKER: We have — we are not in a position to know that. And our — what our original report said was that a U.S. official, a source who we had dealt with in the past, we believe to be critical, we believe to have access to internal documents, was saying that this had turned up in an internal investigation. As we reported in the magazine this week, we offered the Pentagon a chance to comment on that story.
We went to the extraordinary lengths of actually showing the entire story to a separate high level Pentagon official. They disputed other aspects of the story but not dispute that. After we published the story, we were not challenged on any aspect of it for 11 days until we heard on Friday night, 24 hours before our deadline from the Pentagon, that we had gotten it, had gotten it wrong.
In the time we had before publishing, we decided to disclose as much as we could. We got back to the original source. The source said that he thought he had still seen something but couldn’t verify that it was in the investigation we mentioned. As a result, we admitted that we may have gotten it wrongs and we apologized for that. Then today, both at the White House and elsewhere, people began asking whether this was a retraction. I think given the part that everybody is focused on, given that we had already said we had made a mistake and that we regretted it – we went ahead and said, of course, that amounts to a retraction.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you have seen and heard the criticism these past couple of days and, of course, this is based on the violence that happened last week. Do you accept some responsibility for the violence that took place?
MARK WHITAKER: We certainly accept some responsibility and we feel awful about it. And in the magazine this week and in the editor’s note, I say that; I say how upset we are and I express sympathy for the Afghans who have died and been injured and for the U.S. soldiers who have been caught in the middle of all this.
And at the same time, we in our magazine this week and others have reported that this was a chain of events. It was only a week after our story appeared that extremists in the region seized upon it, started talking about it, did it in a very simplified way that didn’t in any way convey the context of our short story. That then got passed along and it became one element of a variety of things that caused the riots. I think what Gen. Myers said at mid-week reflected what our reporting and a lot of other reporting showed, is that there were many elements that contributed to this rioting. On the other hand, clearly our report played a role. And for that we feel terrible.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Whitaker, can you explain for our viewers, for your readers who may not understand that in this case it appears your reporters relied on one anonymous source and then you went into print with that and here’s the consequences. I think many people would not understand how that would happen without further corroboration.
MARK WHITAKER: Well, the fact is I know that there is a conventional wisdom that you should never go with a story based on one source. You have to have two sources, or three sources. The fact is that anybody who works in our business knows that occasionally there are stories that do have, that do only have one source. Sometimes you can’t get more than one source. If you have a corporate whistle blower and the whistle blower is the only person who’s prepared to come forward, sometimes you have to do stories based simply on that one source.
Obviously the fewer sources you have, the more onus there is on your sense of the credibility of that or those sources. In this case this was not somebody — you know, to describe the source as an anonymous source sounds like it could just be anybody — it was a high level U.S. official, who, as I said, was in a position to know the things that he was telling us. It’s someone who we had dealt with in the past and we believed to be credible. Obviously we would have not been prepared to do a story based on any source but we knew this to be a credible source.
JEFFREY BROWN: But given that something did go wrong here, who is responsible? Will there be some disciplinary action? Are you prepared to change some of the practices that you have perhaps even on your sources?
MARK WHITAKER: Well, certainly I think we feel to the degree that we’ve gone back and reconstructed our own process that everyone behaved professionally. Michael Isikoff, the investigative reporter, relied on a source who he knew to be informed and to be credible. We didn’t simply rush into print.
We gave the Pentagon the opportunity to respond. As I said, we went to the quite extraordinary lengths of actually showing a top official every sentence of the story. That official challenged other aspects of the story but not the Quran detail. And then after we published it, no one in the government came back to us and said, you got this wrong; you should correct it; this is going to have dire consequences for 11 days — until afterwards. And I think that what that says is that no one anticipated the effect that this might have.
In retrospect, perhaps we all should have. We at Newsweek should have. Perhaps the Pentagon officials who reviewed the story should have; perhaps the government, after the story was printed. Other news organizations have printed allegations directly from detainees of Quran abuse: The New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and those reports did not lead to riots. For some reason at this particular time, ours was the match that lit a fire.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Mark Whitaker of Newsweek Magazine, thank you very much.
MARK WHITAKER: Thanks for having me on.
JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now to discuss these issues is Tom Goldstein, professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of California, Berkeley. And Jeff Jarvis, author of the buzzmachine.com weblog and former critic for TV Guide and columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. Welcome to both of you. Mr. Jarvis, starting with you, does the Newsweek situation tell us that anonymous sources are overused?
JEFF JARVIS: Well, I think absolutely. What is our prime directive in journalism? It is to tell the truth that we know. And in this case the editor just said that he had only one source; there were no direct witnesses; there were other problems. And what was the imperative to tell the story even if we weren’t sure of it as journalists? It was kind of a case of gotcha – cynicism and to say we got somebody in the government or with a case of showing off, it would be addiction to exclusives.
But was it really important for the public good to come out with this story even before we knew it to be true? And I think that the taint that anonymous sources now bring is that someone didn’t have the guts to stand up and say did this happen? And that someone is still back there mysteriously; we don’t know who that is. And that someone made a mistake and that someone was the only source of the story. And it was not adequate to come out and do the damage that has been done.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Goldstein, what do you think, what was the imperative to put this into print?
TOM GOLDSTEIN: Well, let me just go back a little bit. This item appeared in the Periscope column in Newsweek, which is short items usually of speculation. I wouldn’t say gossip but they usually are very, very well sourced, and one thing that Mark Whitaker did not say. He talked about one source.
The regrettable part of this particular instance — it seems everyone did everything right every step of the way but the result was a terrible, terrible result. The one flaw that I would point out is that in the original item, it talked about sources, which suggests to me that there are more than one people talking to Newsweek. It turns out to be bun source. And there are situations, to be sure, where one source is certainly as good as two, three or four. And you quoted earlier from the new New York Times policy, which I think – well, first in the New York Times policy, which you didn’t quote from, it talks about how you might wish to show somebody what you have written, which has generally not been accepted in journalism. So Newsweek did an extra mile there. But what the Times does talk about is that you should identify sources more. You should talk about why they don’t want to go on the record; how they know what they know. And in this particular item, that did not happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Jarvis, are you suggesting that that poll we cited, this is why the public is so skeptical of journalism because it can’t trust who the sources are?
JEFF JARVIS: No, I think it’s actually more than that. I think that the public has seen a top down one way lecture media for its entire history. But now that the people own a printing press in the Internet, the people are speaking and they’re having their turn and they’re saying that, well, sometimes we don’t trust what we hear. Sometimes we have more information. Sometimes we don’t necessarily want to accept this.
The Dan Rather case, we see our trust in journalism a bit in tatters now and these incidents always hurt. In the case of Dan Rather what should have happened when the bloggers came along and found things that were wrong with those documents is he should have said thank you, good; let’s look into this together, let’s see this as a cooperative effort. But that’s not what’s happening still, and so big media is still acting big. And I think that’s a bigger problem than with the trust that the public has in the press.
JEFFREY BROWN: But let’s say with the anonymous sources, Mr. Goldstein, for a moment, because this is — the public, I think still doesn’t understand the notion of relying on someone who refuses to use their name and how much corroboration do you need. You’re at a journalism school. What do you tell the students?
TOM GOLDSTEIN: Well, first, in contrast to the Rather situation, I’d like to point out that Newsweek did immediately retract once it had the information, so it should be credited for that.
JEFF JARVIS: Not quite immediately –
TOM GOLDSTEIN: Close. You tell students and you hope that they learn their lessons — is that you try to get people to talk on the record. But there are certain situations — in the case of a case of a whistle blower, in the case of diplomacy, in the case of national security, where the person who has access to information cannot be identified by name. And journalism totally without anonymous sources, television, print, would be a very tepid, lame journalism.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Jarvis, if were you setting up your newsroom, what would the rules be?
JEFF JARVIS: I agree that we need them, but Dan Okrent’s very good column — he’s the public editor of the New York Times — a week ago about the sources said they are way overused. For every little entertainment story — and I created Entertainment Weekly, so I’m as guilty as anyone — the gossip world uses anonymous sources – people who knew what star was with whom.
But the problem is when you use that same standard with news that can affect lives, even lose lives, that’s a different standard and I think that the problem becomes that people are inured in our business with the idea of, oh, what the heck, it’s an anonymous source and I think it was Okrent who said that the idea is as – we just heard — the good idea is to say why should this be anonymous? Why should we listen to this person? Why should we report this any way? I think we have to think that way now in terms of how the public is going view us and what we say.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what kind of guidelines though, I mean, where would you draw the line over whether it’s allowed and when it’s not allowed, Mr. Jarvis?
JEFF JARVIS: I think that you have to go to the simple truth. I think that we overdo rules in this business. It comes down to that prime directive. We tell the truth that we know to be true. And I think it comes down to that, that if you believe that you have got five sources, you believe this is very important; you understand that someone’s life could be at risk for revealing this, there can be very good reasons to use anonymous sources. We now have to test those reasons every time. And I think that’s really the only difference is to say, go to an editor and the top editors have to say, do we really need to do this? And, in fact, in this case would the world have been any worse off if Newsweek had not reported this? No, the world would be better off today.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Goldstein?
TOM GOLDSTEIN: I mean, I agree that editors should play an increasing role in checking out sources but I also think that in the context over the last thirty or forty years, if you look in the long run, anonymous sources have gone down. They’re still used too much but I think there is a higher consciousness and I think we will see a decreasing use of them in the future because I think the public has spoken.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Whitaker said that Newsweek will be reviewing their policy on sourcing. Mr. Goldstein, do you expect changes in the industry because of this and other incidents?
TOM GOLDSTEIN: I would anticipate and you earlier referred to the New York Times document which goes further than the Times has gone before, and I suspect that Newsweek will take a look at the use, the blind use of just saying “sources told Newsweek,” as it was in this story. I mean, what kind of sources, where did they come from? How do they know what they know?
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Jarvis, what do you think given the competitive urges that you’ve cited in this industry?
JEFF JARVIS: Well, I think that’s just the problem. News has changed. It used to be that we waited for the news to come to us, when the magazine arrived or the newspaper or the show started. Now the news waits for us to come to it. And I don’t think this idea of gotcha, exclusives and scoops is really what is the public wants of us anymore. I think the public, as one blogger named Tim Porter said, we need new values. The public wants not competition but instead context. And I think he is very right about that. We have a different role in this world of commodity news. If we are going to be special and report well, then we have to report truthfully and provide context and not just come out with another scoop to say, oh, look at us; look what we know something somebody else doesn’t know.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jeff Jarvis and Tom Goldstein, thank you both very much.