Friday, May 20, 2005

David Brooks: in defense of Newsweek

Yesterday, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column defending Newsweek against the bloggers. Brooks writes that, instead of criticizing the media, we need to focus on "the extremists, the real enemy," the ones who bear the true responsibility for the deaths.

As I wrote previously, however, there are two separate issues raised by the Newsweek/Koran story, issues that have been lumped together by many commentators. And Brooks, unfortunately, is ignoring them both, as well as setting up a false "either/or" dichotomy of responsibility.

The first issue has to do with practicality--what was written and what were the consequences of publishing it. Questions about the information's truth or falsehood don't enter into this first consideration. Even if it had been true, an argument could be mounted against the need to print it. In the last analysis, that's a judgment call, as I wrote in my previous post on the subject.

The second issue has to do with what's called "process": how was the information authenticated, and was this in agreement with commonplace journalistic standards that are (or used to be) in place to make certain that anything printed in an article is likely to be correct? The answer in this case is "no." But this is a separate issue, and has nothing to do with either truth or consequences--although, of course, we are only talking about the issue because of the dire consequences of publishing this particular poorly-researched article.

When you put the two issues together, and look at what Newsweek has done here, you have an affront to both common sense judgments and time-honored journalist practices. Brooks' analysis in his column ignores all of this. I am, quite frankly, really surprised at his lack of intellectual rigor. I think it only shows that, in this case, he is letting his identity as a journalist trump his ability to think straight. And it's not just his identity as journalist--it's his identity as a former writer for Newsweek, and a colleague of Isikoff and the rest. My guess is that he has an emotional allegiance to them, and doesn't like seeing them bashed by those mean old bloggers, and this is clouding his judgment.

The liberal media doesn't have to be way out there with Chomsky to be negligent nevertheless. I wonder whether Brooks ever heard of the old concept of "contributory negligence"--meaning one can still be responsible for something without being 100% responsible. There is a partial responsibility. In this case, of course the fundamentalist Moslems who were all riled up about this and went on a rampage bear the greatest responsibility. That goes without saying, and that's why no one felt the need to say it.

But the fact that others--the ones who committed the acts--bear the greater responsibility does not in any way absolve Newsweek of its partial responsibility in the matter. We expect more from Newsweek--we expect them to use good judgment, and to follow proper journalistic safeguards before they publish a story--and yes, to think about the possible consequences of that story vs. the public's need to know. Is that too much to ask?

10 Comments:

At 6:01 PM, May 20, 2005, Blogger THIRDWAVEDAVE said...

You're right, but Newsweek has its own version of what "good judgement" is. If the story is harmful in any way to our military, then they think this is responsible reporting. Too bad.

 
At 6:03 PM, May 20, 2005, Blogger The Zombieslayer said...

From Newsweek? Yes.

 
At 8:46 PM, May 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dollars to donuts, Isikoff has been emailing Brooks and other old drinking buddies saying "C'mon, get out there and stand up for the team. Here's some bullet points ...."

 
At 6:49 AM, May 21, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

I think that Newsweek and other journalistic media should be held accountable for what they print !

 
At 10:37 AM, May 21, 2005, Blogger Pat said...

As I posted at Lifelike, my concern is that ascribing partial blame for the deaths & rioting seems to be accepting at least partially the "chickens coming home to roost" argument for 9-11; that the person who commits a crime is not solely responsible for that crime. So unless the amount of blame you'd allocate to Newsweek is a tiny sliver, I'd have to disagree with you.

As I put it at Roger's, in the question of culpability in this incident, Newsweek falls somewhere between "could have anticipated this outcome" and "should have anticipated this outcome"; in my opinion "should have anticipated" is too much of a stretch. There is the much ballyhooed point that other reports have mentioned virtually identical charges (including a Vanity Fair piece a few months ago). There were no eruptions of violence after those stories were published. Indeed, the western media have had a field day with allegations of abuse of varying kinds for a year, and yet this is the story that gets the blame? Why didn't the other pieces cause riots and deaths? Answer: Because they weren't seized on by some famous cricketer as an excuse to demagogue.

Is Newsweek culpable for blowing the story? Sure. Did they publish the story because of liberal, anti-military, anti-US, anti-Bush bias blinded them to the obvious falsity of the charge? You betcha. Should they be criticized for that? I'll shout "Newsweek sucks" from the rooftops.

But is Newsweek culpable even in the smallest way for the deaths of 18 people? I don't buy it.

Don't get me wrong; I think the press should be more careful about what they print, not because negative stories about the US and its military are directly responsible for problems, but because they create a climate in which it is difficult to get American goals accomplished. People tend to accept arguments apparently against self-interest and so when they hear Americans knocking America they automatically ascribe more credibility to them than Americans praising America.

 
At 10:34 PM, May 21, 2005, Blogger Emmunah said...

The people that think, without any critcal thought, that a Quran was flushed down the toilet (that's some toilet) and go on a riot...are the ones culbable. I do NOT CARE what superfluous excuse they use, it is stupid to riot over anyone doing anything to a book, no matter how holy. It's one thing to write letters, protest, try to stop it...you know...constructive things. But the people that went haywire are probably the people that we needed to know the identities of anyway. I hope those crazy Al Bakri people in the UK yesterday, are all identified and watched. It was simply an exucse to go on a murderous rampage. Because they have never been outraged at their own people doing these things. Saddam killed people inside the Mosques in Kerbala...not a peep.

And if anyone wants to hold newsweek "accountable" for printing something like that, then the same blame should lie with Rupert Murdoch for printing Saddam in his briefs. Maybe the same can be said for any tv news that shows bombs going off in a Muslim land, or Muslims being arrested by non-muslims. Where do you draw the line? Palestinians go into the Church of the Nativity and use pages of the bible to wipe their butts but no Christian rampage resulted from this? Why should we bend THAT far to accomodate a religion that tolerates NOTHING from anyone else's religion? These people that rioted, are the people that need help, jail, or watching....not the majority of Muslims, but these particular people...and newsweek is not culpable...they just believed a source, but they should not have to censor themselves over every tiny things that MIGHT offend Muslims...because that would be quite likely everything!

 
At 12:35 AM, May 23, 2005, Anonymous strcpy said...

To say that newsweek is blameless is idiotic. There isn't just 10 units of blame out there to be divided up in some fashion.

Newsweeks "blame" is irrespective of how much the other side has. At best one would call them negligent.

The really bad part is that newsweek thinks they are blamless and guiltless for running a false story that folded under simple questions and fact checking. Even further they are astonished that people would get worked up over them printing false information (it's not a lie you know, not sure what else to call it but I have been informed so). They get hot and bothered for much less of the groups they supposedly "watchdog" (how would they respond if the administration had done something similar to them).

 
At 9:42 AM, May 23, 2005, Blogger USMale said...

"That goes without saying, and that's why no one felt the need to say it." Surely you are being ironic here?!

 
At 4:51 PM, May 23, 2005, Blogger Dean Esmay said...

I suppose I agree with Brooks inasmuch as I never felt Newsweek wsa responsible for the riots--I felt they were responsible for publishing enemy propaganda.

As I've said elsewhere, my issue here is not that this incident by itself is the problem, it's that it's part of a pattern by the press--always more skeptical of us than our enemies, always ready to harp on the negative when it comes to our efforts, and always ready to act as if being on our side means it's "touting the administration line." Part of that may be their own historical ignorance and the general lack of patriotism that's so common these days, and part of it may be how they're trained in j-school: to assume government lies, the military lies, and that the press are made up of people in white hats bravely speaking truth. It puts their priorities in the wrong places, and has done so constantly for the last few years.

Taken as an isolated incident, this was one small thing. But it's what exposes the rot that goes to the core.

The press isn't on our side. That's just all there is to it.

 
At 8:22 PM, May 23, 2005, Blogger jj mollo said...

As a rule of thumb, I think that Newsweek should be saying to itself that, if a story can get ordinary people fired, demoted, jailed or killed, then you need to think hard about its provenance and benefits.

 

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