Thursday, May 19, 2005

Newsweek, Sources and Trust: This Cannot Go Away

In the interest of all of the comments from yesterday's post of the transcripts from Imus in the Morning, I offer this information. This is the transcript of Imus and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post discussing the issue from the show on Wednesday, May 18. This discussion presents some new issues and other considerations about the meaning of the event and the next step, presented for those who don't have the honor of being up at 5:00 AM when Imus comes on the air.

Imus and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post talk about the now retracted Newsweek story claiming U.S. investigators at Guantanamo Bay attempted to humiliate Muslim prisoners by flushing a Koran down a toilet.

Imus: "So how are we supposed to look at this Newsweek thing?"

Howard Kurtz: "...As one of the biggest blunders in the history of modern media. The costliest half a sentence ever published by a magazine that I can remember. This whole thing is about half a sentence in a Periscope item and yet, you know, it led to these deadly consequences, riots around the world. And looking back at it, it's really hard to understand how this thing got into Newsweek. You know, as you know by now, one anonymous source who now it turns out didn't know what he was talking about. Newsweek acknowledges, 'Well gee maybe we should have thought through the consequences that this might set off.' Newsweek is usually a pretty good magazine. It is owned by the Washington Post Company, where I work, where they're editorially independent and I enjoy kicking them around. But I feel badly, because I don't think, unlike a lot of these, you know, this is not Jayson Blair, this is not Jack Kelly, nobody intended to commit any fabrication, but it was a pretty big screw up."

Imus: "Well we feel bad about it as well, but however, we have a pretty reliable reporter, Michael Isikoff...I mean he's not some, you know, he's not Jayson Blair or Robert Frank from the Wall Street Journal, he's you know, he's a pretty reliable guy. And he, with a source that he's obviously used before, so..."

Howard Kurtz: "And this is why, you know, no reporter will say this out loud, but you have a sort of a gut feeling in your stomach that this could possibly have happened to any of us. I mean I still think that Newsweek was somewhat reckless in not, in putting this in the magazine with only, you know, one guy. You know, what does he say? The guy didn't have any documents he said. He had seen some papers that this was going to be in a forthcoming report by U.S. military investigators. This of course about the Koran being flushed down the toilet. I mean it wasn't exactly the hardest nailed story that I have ever seen. But how many of us, day in and day out, you know, talk to sources? And I do think anonymous sources are way overused, especially in Washington, but talk to sources who tell us things that we say, 'Well, you know, this is a trustworthy guy,' we put it in the paper and you're always kind of afraid in the back of your mind, 'Gee what if it turns out to be wrong?' The funny thing about Isikoff being at the center of this is, you have Republicans and Conservatives now trying to use this to paint the media, the hated, dreaded, liberal, mainstream media, as anti-American, anti-military, heartless, not caring whether people die. I mean it's been some extremely heated rhetoric from the administration and from some Republicans on Capitol Hill. And yet Isikoff was their hero about six years ago when he wrote or tried to break, I should say, the Monica Lewinsky story. Newsweek famously didn't run it, but he was the guy who listened to the Linda Tripp tapes. In other words when he was going after Bill Clinton he was, he was a demi-God, and now he's being attacked by a lot of folks on the right."

Imus: "There are some great people at Newsweek... Howard Fineman, Jonathan Alter, Evan Thomas and Jon Meacham. But the editor Mark Whitaker seems like a dope to me. He also, siding with Jim Lehrer and Brian Williams, he seems like he's in way over his head."

Howard Kurtz: "Well actually, I have a profile of him in today's paper. Dope is the furthest thing from a good description of him. I mean this is a guy who everybody says is just brilliant. He went to Harvard, he went to Oxford. He is not, by his own admission you know, the most polished television performer around. I mean, you know, he likes to let Isikoff and Fineman and Alter be the TV stars and he's more of a behind the scenes kind of editor and I think is less than fully comfortable being the out front guy. But, I'll say this though..."

Imus: "Well let Meacham do it then. At least Meacham is a lot more persuasive and appears to me to be at least able to articulate his thoughts better on television than this dope. I don't care if he went to Harvard or not. I know a lot of morons who went to Harvard by the way."

Howard Kurtz: "Well I'm sure that's true, but Whitaker is the captain of the ship and he's decided that he has to be the one to stick to the magazine."

Imus: "Get him out."

Howard Kurtz: "Here's what I was saying about that. I've covered as you know, the Jayson Blair story at the New York Times, the Jack Kelly story at USA Today and the Dan Rather debacle at CBS News. And in most of these cases, not all, but most of these cases, the top executives when something like this happens, when it hits the fan, go into the bunker, you can't get them on the phone, they put out statements, their PR people don't call you back and so forth. Whitaker, from the moment this happened, and I don't let Newsweek off the hook in any way, this was a terrible blunder, but within a day of being told by the Pentagon that your story was wrong, he apologized, put out an editor's note, put out his follow-up story and has returned my phone calls and the phone calls of other reporters around the clock and has gone on television. So whatever you want to say about his lack of electronic persuasiveness, he has not been hiding from this and I just think that he deserves some points for that."

Imus: "Is someone going to get fired here...should they?"

Howard Kurtz: "Well I'll leave that to the judgment of others. I don't usually call for people to be fired in these situations. I don't really think so. Here's why... I've asked Mark Whitaker that question a couple of times in the last forty-eight hours and he says while they feel badly and did it wrong, apologized, will change the rules and all of that... how do you fire a guy, you know because the likely culprit would be Mike Isikoff who A has been a very strong investigative reporter for you over the years, even though he didn't publish as big a scoop as you pointed out. B, who is doing his job? In other words, it wasn't like he heard it an elevator or something and put it in a magazine. He went to a source, who is described as a senior U.S. government official who Newsweek says had been reliable in the past, used frequently, who gave information that turned out not to be true. If you started firing every reporter who published something that somebody told him that turned out not to be true, you'd de-populate a lot of newsrooms. It seems to me that the ultimate responsibility here lies with the editors who put this in the magazine, because investigative reporters, by their nature, are aggressive, they are always pushing the envelope and they want to get all kinds of stuff in. But it's up to an editor to say, 'Well gee do we really want to go with one source here? Gee is it worth doing this if it's just one sentence and it could be inflammatory? Gee how do we really know it's really going to be in this military investigative report?' Apparently none of those things happened at Newsweek."

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