Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Government | Media

May 18, 2005

How The Man Is Helped by Today's Deep Throats

Newsweek, CBS, and sources who lie.

David Goldenberg

"Fake but accurate" isn't exactly a slogan that wins over the public, but that is what both Newsweek and CBS must cling to now that their credibility has been severely damaged.

Two recent scandals at the major media outlets have eroded the public's trust in mainstream media and have turned two formerly reputable newsmen into punch lines. Michael Isikoff and Dan Rather have both been ridiculed because, in their quest to bring news—as opposed to spoon-fed PR—to the public, they relied on sources who turned out to be untrustworthy.

But the actual crimes of the reporters and the media outlets they represent are minor. In an era where journalists are routinely being exposed for plagiarizing and fabrication, Rather and Isikoff did nothing of the sort. They simply failed to vet their sources completely. They did no worse than what typical political journalists would have done in their shoes—many stories are built on flimsier sourcing.

But because the sources for both scoops were anonymous, the reporters have taken the blame for their false comments. (One crucial difference between CBS and Newsweek: The anger directed towards CBS was heightened by its initial refusal to admit the memos might be wrong. Rather et al also claimed to have conclusively cleared the documents with experts, yet the experts said that wasn't necessarily true.)

In both cases, the scoops could have been aired anyway based on the allegations of other named sources. (Marian Carr Knox, the secretary to President Bush's National Guard commander, confirmed the content of the memos in the wake of the CBS scandal. The allegations about guards putting Korans into the toilet had been made previously by several prisoners, including Asif Iqbal (The Guardian)). Certainly, neither scoop was as officially-sourced as the ones that would later be discredited, but neither would have been ignored, or mocked. But each time, the story has been twisted from one about incompetence in government to one about media overreach.

Government officials had the opportunity to respond to the Koran in-the-toilet story before it aired, and were evasive or declined to comment. Therein lies the biggest lesson about how this information made it to print. The Bush team seems to have figured out that it is better to force media organizations to scramble around in damage-control mode after printing overreaching stories than to correct them beforehand.

Gelf first commented on this emerging trend in a brief post about Rafed al Janabi, an Iraqi immigrant and U.S. soldier whose troubles in obtaining U.S. citizenship were reported in the Washington Post. Soon after the article was published, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services revealed that Janabi's initial application was rejected because of prior criminal charges. In the correction to the article necessitated by the new information, the Washington Post editors wrote, "Officials at the agency did not mention these facts when they were asked about Janabi's case before the article's publication."

This obfuscation seems to be the modus operandi of government officials today, and it's hurting the way that journalism works. Rather than focusing on the story, media outlets have been forced to print embarrassing corrections that cast doubt on their entire operations.

The government has been so unwilling to cooperate with the media that journalists have become all too happy to give anonymity to inside sources in exchange for nuggets of information. Even higher-ups simply giving routine briefing sessions often demand anonymity, hence the proliferation of the term "senior government official." In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Dana Priest, a national security reporter for the Washington Post, said, "We get bashed for all the anonymous sources but the administration is the one that insists on it. I don't think people realize that."

One possible way to counter this trend is to out sources who lie. This was suggested by New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent in the wake of the New York Times false articles about weapons of mass destruction. ("The contract between a reporter and an unnamed source—the offer of information in return for anonymity—is properly a binding one," he wrote. "But I believe that a source who turns out to have lied has breached that contract, and can fairly be exposed.")

An ex post facto outing doesn't sit well with Gelf. But perhaps an upfront deal in which journalists grant anonymity only when sources guarantee truthfulness—and take it away when their sources' info proves wrong—is the only way to curb a disturbing trend.

Related on the Web

•Slate's Jacob Weisberg writes about how the Bush administration has tried to undermine the legitimacy of the media.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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