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Journalists need to be better citizens
The Providence Journal


May 17, 2005

Usually, if you do a bad job in my business, the worst that happens is you have to run a correction.

Last week, some sloppy journalism apparently got a lot of people killed.

Newsweek magazine reported on May 9 that military interrogators flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet at a Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison to rattle terrorist suspects.

The story sparked riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and so far 17 people have died.

Now, Newsweek admits it made errors in reporting and is backing away from the Koran allegation.

Add that to what Dan Rather and CBS did with their false report questioning President Bush's military records, and my profession isn't looking too good these days.

People say we rely too much on questionable sources and rush along without enough research.

I don't disagree. But there are two other things that have left me miffed.

First, I'm astonished by our credulity.

How could we believe this stuff?

In the case of the Dan Rather mess, how could they believe that a known Bush-hater suddenly found copies of authentic military documents from the early 1970s smearing the president?

As far as Newsweek's story - have you ever tried to flush a book down a commode?

I'm not surprised that journalists are occasionally so gullible. We like to say we are skeptics, even cynics, but we're not always that way. When we're on an explosive trail, we seldom tell ourselves, "It doesn't add up." We want to believe it. We want the glory of the big story. So we place too much weight on sources who tell us what we hope to hear.

There's a second factor that gets us into the kind of trouble Newsweek is in today and CBS got into on the Bush story. It cuts to the heart of what I think is wrong with some reporters.

Too many of us feel we have no obligation to citizenship, only journalism.

I'm not saying we should censor ourselves if we think a story will taint government and country. Fresh air is good for democracy.

But I'm convinced that if journalists cared as much about being citizens as getting the story, we'd be more careful, and thorough, in our reporting.

In June 1998, CNN broke a disturbing story. It reported that, in 1970, U.S. special forces tracked down American deserters who had sneaked into Laos and killed them with sarin nerve gas.

The report caused an international outcry because the use of sarin would have been a war crime. Not to mention the domestic outrage that our military would gas Americans, whatever their status.

The problem was that the report was false. It should have been no surprise. Americans gassing other Americans? It doesn't sound credible. You have to wonder how professional journalists could have believed it.

I'll tell you how.

CNN journalists wanted the glory of a big expose, so they checked their bull-detectors at the door.

I'm convinced they'd have been more skeptical had they a greater sense of citizenship. They'd have thought about the catastrophic consequences of such a story and been more careful.

Just as Newsweek should have been more careful with its report of a Koran being desecrated by the U.S. military.

It's simple: If we were better citizens, we'd be better journalists.

Lately, too often, we've failed at both.


Mark Patinkin can be reached at mpatinkin (at)
Distributed to subcribers by Scripps Howard News Service,

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