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Anonymous means unaccountable
Scripps Howard News Service


May 17, 2005

Newsweek said a Pentagon investigation confirmed that a U.S. interrogator at Guantanamo Bay flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet, furious Muslims around the world demonstrated against the United States and at least 17 people died as a result.

Then the magazine's anonymous source backed off his assertion, and in apologizing, the magazine's editor said:

"This was reported very carefully, with great sensitivity and concern, and we'll continue to report on it. We have tried to be transparent about exactly what happened, and we leave it to the readers to judge us."

The judging by Bush administration officials, media critics and others wasn't friendly. Sloppy reporting had caused this country enormous harm, they said. So now there's been a retraction, although the Newsweek editor, Mark Whitaker, still doesn't seem to get it exactly, still doesn't seem to grasp what went wrong.

Part of what went wrong, it seems to me, was a fundamental failing of Washington journalism: an over-reliance on anonymous sources. While anonymous sources can be important for certain kinds of stories, especially as guides of where to do further probing, they are suspect for a variety of reasons. Anonymity in making charges against others, after all, is a way of shooting from behind the bushes, of drawing blood without personal risk, and Washington is filled with people out to get other people.

Though they won't last long as sources if they are outright dishonest, some sources may be; perhaps they are not seeking lifelong collaboration with the press. Short of lying, they may leave out vital qualifications or they may put their information in a context that badly distorts the truth. Even when the source is not eviscerating a person or cause, carelessness with facts will have less personal consequence when the source's name is unattached to what appears in print. Anonymity is an escape from accountability.

This much and more makes anonymous sources a danger for media, as I myself once discovered with great pain when editing a daily paper. And yet Washington media swim daily in this ocean. Doing so enables them to be livelier than they would otherwise be. Their headlines or on-air blurbs are much more fetching than more devotion to credibility would allow. The trouble is the publications and news shows are far more likely to get their stories wrong that way.

Another part of the problem is the way so many reporters and editors conceive our jobs _ that the crucial thing is to be the adversary and to break the story first, when the crucial thing is to get the story right. Even for the one damaging line in a short item, Newsweek did exercise care reaching well beyond the amateurish, but could have waited for more evidence before going with this story, especially considering what the story's consequences might be.

The magazine seems to have been complacent about consequences because some released detainees had already made similar public charges about mistreatment of the Koran, with no violent demonstrations ensuing. Might it have occurred to the magazine that Muslims around the world would grant far more validity to a Pentagon investigation of desecration than stories told by men whose revenge against the Western infidels hardly excludes lies? Though it is obviously easy for me to say so with hindsight, I don't think it a stretch to believe the journalists at Newsweek should have considered that among the Islamic faithful are some so driven by fanaticism and vile political purpose that they might well turn to the streets in anti-American rage after the piece, and that even friendly governments in Muslim lands might be self-protectively critical of the United States on this subject.

If, as the editor said, the magazine had been careful and sensitive and concerned, it would have worried more about how inflammatory the item could be, and would have taken its time before publishing anything.

Even now, after the Pentagon has issued an adamant denial and the source has said that he may have been wrong, Newsweek's editor seems less than convinced of egregious error. The New York Times reports that, in an interview, he "expressed frustration at the Pentagon for not informing the magazine of questions about the accuracy of the original account until about 10 days after it was published."

The reason it took so long was that the Pentagon, instead of talking to a few people who might or might not know what was going on, examined 25,000 documents to make sure it had the facts right. There's a lesson in that diligence for Newsweek and the rest of us in the journalism trade.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)
Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.

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