Sunday, May 15, 2005

The press plays Truth or Consequences--or neither

Austin Bay has some excellent commentary on the story of the Newsweek article alleging that a Koran was flushed down a Guantanamo toilet. The report has sparked outrage and deaths in Afghanistan, and may cause more before this is through.

The questions raised by this story are deep ones. What is the responsibility of the media for the unforeseen consequences of their reporting? And what duty do they have to try to foresee the possible consequences of publicaton? If foreseen, what duty do they have to suppress a story to avoid such consequences? And how certain do they have to be of the story's veracity to publish these--or any--allegations?

In a sense, this Koran-flushing story is of the easiest type to judge, because it turns out that the allegations contained therein were almost certainly untrue, the story itself was relatively trivial and unimportant (there was no overriding "need to know"), and it was based on sketchy and anonymous sources. But what if the story had been true, or important, or well-sourced, or some combination of all three? The task of deciding how to factor in the question of consequences then becomes more difficult.

If we go back in time, we find that, during FDR's Presidency, reporters didn't even publish their own certain knowledge of how physically limited he was. They were so wary of the consequences of the story, so protective of both the President and the public, that they voluntarily censored themselves. The same is true for the early rumors concerning JFK's kinky extra-curricular sex life. Reporters of the time apparently suppressed the story for protective purposes--and also, perhaps, because JFK was well-liked by the press corps. Of course, in those pre-Sullivan vs. NY Times days, the penalties for getting it wrong were a good deal greater.

Now things are quite different, to say the least. They have been for some time. And, as Austin Bay rightly points out, the consequences in this age of cybercommunication are no longer local, they are worldwide and nearly instantaneous. The world has become like a room filled with propane or pure oxygen--a small spark is all that's needed for ignition.

Back in my liberal days, when Republicans were busy trying to impeach and remove Clinton from office (for crimes I thought were both stupid and wrong, but which didn't seem to me to rise to the level of impeachable offenses) I was very upset by the release of the Starr report. I had what seemed at the time (even to me) to be a very strange worry about it. I was concerned about its effect on the fundamentalist Moslem world. It occurred to me that such a puritanical group might experience a sort of wild rage on reading it, a feeling that America and the West were hopelessly corrupt and sexualized--that only a Sodom and Gomorrah-esque country would be publishing this sort of material about its own President--and you know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have no idea whether the Starr report factored into the 9/11 attacks in any way. I am not familiar with any references to it; it's certainly possible (perhaps even likely) that it did not. But, whether or not it had such an effect, the idea was already implanted in my mind that the media needs to at least consider the effects of the stories they publish.

Every journalist and every editor has a myriad of small decisions to make for each event: whether this is a story that needs to be covered, and, if so, in what detail; which sources are reliable and which not; which pieces of information should be included and which excluded. Long ago, the press used to factor into their decision-making process assumptions about the effect of such stories--on the war effort and on the American public, for example (the effect on the world wasn't such a big deal at the time, because of the immense gulf involved). But since the late 60s, when the press rose to its present position as government and military antagonist, the idea of the press as exalted mouthpiece of truth became reified. Now the position of the press seems to be Consequences? Who cares? Our only fidelity is to truth. And this "truth" has, unfortunately, come to be defined more and more as whatever any Deep (or Shallow) Throat might happen to say it is, as long as the story is scandalous enough to draw readers.

The result? Coverage of stories with no thought for consequences--and, increasingly, with a callous and reckless disregard for truth, also. A winning combination, is it not?

If any good comes out of this Newsweek fiasco and tragedy, perhaps it will be a re-evaluation of the duty of the press to be conscientious and cautious regarding both truth and consequences


At 10:49 PM, May 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hear hear, neoneocon.

I am thoroughly disgusted by Newsweek's actions in this case. I would prefer not to believe it, but it really does look to me like this was motivated by a desire to print actions that appear to be "criticizing" or questioning power, even a dislike for the Bush administration, which led to a *respected* main-stream media source rushing allegations into print because they were "politically correct," without fact checking or without even considering the consequences.

On top of Rathergate and Easongate, I gotta say, it's pretty hard for me to see it any other way. And it's also pretty hard for me to see the mainstream media in a positive light, let me tell ya.

That "apology?" Frickin' weak.

And people in the main-stream media wonder why they're not being trusted anymore.

And it's like, Go ahead, apologize. Know what? It's too late. Not only are people dead, but it's only going to be the allegations that people remember, *not* that lame*** apology and retraction. It's downright irresponsible. It's downright irresponsible and f****** frustrating to boot.

Can you imagine what we could do if the press were actually on board?

Now that was a good point mentioned on Austin Bay: That the greater problem lies in a violent subculture within Islam where people are willing to kill because they heard a book was defaced (compare and contrast the actions of Christians when that artist whose name I can't remember right now displayed a statue of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung, if you please). But that doesn't let Newsweek off the hook. Not in any case. Not that this will lead the MSM to rethink their reflexive anti-Americanism either (psst--guys? Critiques carry a lot more legitimacy if reflexive criticism isn't your standard operating mode of behavior.)

No other way around it: Newsweek lied, people died. Period.

At 11:20 PM, May 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, colagirl, I agree with you. I am getting angrier by the minute. I just read this comment by JRK on Austin Bay's blog. The content of the comment is extremely disturbing, as you will see if you read it. Extremely. The commenter has worked in Afghanistan, and writes, among other things: The word I receive from Kabuli friends is that Isikoff has singlehandedly turned US triumph in the country to a total disaster.

I can only hope that word of the retraction gets out and has the effect of cooling down the situation--although, of course, retractions are notorious for never having anywhere near the power of the original lie. I also hope that JRK's informants were guilty of hyperbole.

At 11:40 PM, May 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It appears the weak-minded--or charitable--among you are presuming this was not done on purpose, with malice aforethought.
That Newsweek regrets anything else but getting caught.
That they won't do it again at the next opportunity.

Some Muslim clerics are calling for the perps to be handed over to them.
Since, to be accurate, the perps here are the Newsweek staff, send them.

At 12:04 AM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard Aubrey--no, I don't think it was done purposely and knowingly. I think it was done selfishly, stupidly, and with reckless disregard for the consequences. That there was malice towards Bush, his administration, and the military is probably also true. But I don't think Newsweek foresaw the scope of the response in Afghanistan itself.

At 1:16 AM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The world has become like a room filled with propane or pure oxygen--a small spark is all that's needed for ignition.

Of course, a spark introduced in a room of pure oxygen will do nothing. Something combustible has to be present, like propane or the spark has to be on a fuel, like wood (matches) or fabric. Even then, all it does it set things on fire, where they will burn hot and bright.

Now, a room with 5:1 oxygen:propane mix will blow up pretty violently.

Anyway, great post.

At 3:54 AM, May 16, 2005, Blogger ed thomas said...

I was in rural Kenya at the time when Starr was pursuing Clinton- connected to the world beyond by VOA and the BBC- and I shared the worry of how that saga was perceived around the world. It was also the time when Kenya's US embassy was bombed and Clinton bombed Afghanistan. Such a mix of sex and violence was, I think, a considerable kind of spectacle to those living with poverty and those with a much more conservative worldview. The people I knew purported to see nothing wrong in Clinton's philandering, and dismissed the reporting somewhat irritably, yet what they objected to most I think was being forced to dwell on it, and having to endure the power politics alongside it. Missiles, penises and massive explosions-often in the same broadcasts- were a very unfortunate combination to say the least.

At 8:31 AM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neo. Can you conceive of experienced journalists being this dumb by accident?
Being innocent?
Not knowing the role the media played in Viet Nam?
Not knowing how it's done?

You may be right, but the least hypothesis is mine.

At 8:40 AM, May 16, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

I think you guys are succumbing to some 20/20 hindsight. Neo-neocon says Newsweek published the piece "with reckless disregard for the consequences." But seriously, who could have predicted such extreme consequences? Who, if anyone, did predict such extreme consequences? It certainly wasn't common wisdom beforehand that a small news piece, not even involving violence against a human, could spark violent riots. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it caught almost all of us, left and right, by surprise. I don't doubt that Newsweek was motivated by anti-Bush animus, and had an obligation to fact-check the story better. But to suggest Newsweek should have known this would start riots is, I think, quite unrealistic. To further suggest that they did know is, I think, absurd.

Neo-neocon┬┤pulled a quote that "Isikoff has singlehandedly turned US triumph in [Afghanistan]to a total disaster." Besides the fact that "total disaster" is almost certainly hyperbole, it seems strange to give so much credit to Newsweek per se. To me, the situation sadly merits a reevaluation of the apparent earlier "triumph". If the situation was so volatile that an unsubstantiated story could spark such a response, then it was not as good as we thought. If anti-American feeling was boiling strong enough to be touched off by Newsweek, then it was strong enough to be touched off by any number of things, and probably would have been touched off by something soon enough. For now, I think we should do our best to spread the word that the Koran-flushing almost certainly didn't happen, console ourselves in the fact that the anti-American feeling has for now taken the form of protests, rather than bombings, and ride it out.

Lastly, I must concur with Neema that oxygen is not itself combustible, but is simply an agent of combustion. Prove it to your friends.

At 10:03 AM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alex. Why would not experienced journalists expect this result?

The Palestinians are always going on about the four thousand three hundred and seventy-second holiest site in Islam.

The Iraqis got upset when Americans fired on a mosque from which Iraqi insurgents were shooting (having defiled the mosque first). This one had numerous iterations.

Only a fool would not have expected such a result. To ask who of us expected it is a goofy question. The first most of us heard of it was after the riots started, so "expecting" something to follow the report would have been, without a time machine, difficult.

At 10:52 AM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea of determining the effect on the war effort is now passe, for some.

Years ago, when the country when to war, the country when to war. It was every bodies war, so if you didn't like it you either found a way to help end it or you jumped on board.

Somewhere around the time of the first Gulf War, the notion sprang up with fervor that it was no possible to "opt out" of a war. It was "Bush's War" not mine. I saw this again when the WTC was struck .. the war of terrorism is not "my war" came from places like NPR and was not challenged.

Once you "opt out," it is pretty darn easy to think that whatever you do is done as a "neutral." Just after 9/11, Rather and Jennings in a panel discussion on journals "embedding" with the enemy said that they would cover the story of the enemy attacking US forces before trying to warn them of an impending attack. That position is easy to take when your a "neutral."

Newsweek has taken their "oath to neutrality" while blindly tossing about "anonymously sourced" accusations with no need to worry about the "war effort" because it is simply "not their war." It stands to reason.

The underlining premise that you can "opt out" of a war is most obvious fallacious when you consider that there were some 3000 folks would probably have liked to "opt out" on the "war on terror" on the morning of 9/11/01, but were not given that choice.

At 11:28 AM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yesterday, after it significantly registered in my brain the damage this Newsweek "oops" caused, I checked my expiration date on my most recently received copy. I think this deplorable episode has finally done it for me...why am I giving financial support to an organization that I seem to regard as the enemy. I guess I felt I owed it to my sense of fairness in decision making to know what the "other side" was saying. Crazy, huh, that I should consider the news that has political connotions that is reported in one of our country's major news publications to be so tainted and biased? It's pathetic that they seemed so consumed by whatever (anti Bush, anti America...what is it that makes them almost always take the negative slant). Anyway, I did put pen to paper and committed a first class stamp to communicate to them that this was probably my personal "last straw". I added that I was NOT a religious far right extremist and it's not with pride that I confess that I don't even much attend church. I didn't want them to have the excuse to discount the angry passion of my sentiment. I'm just an ordinary person who loves her country and believes it's an agent of good for the world . Thank you, Neo, as always for hitting the nail so squarely on the head. Hey, I could think of a few useful things to do with that hammer since most of the MSM needs some sense knocked into them.

At 12:17 PM, May 16, 2005, Blogger THIRDWAVEDAVE said...

Re-evaluation of the media's responsibility? I used to think that after the Dan Rather thing, but the truth is "the media" is part of a political party in this country and won't be stopping anytime soon to re-evaluate anything, except how to get its viewpoint out to as many as it can w/o tripping in the process.

The problems in the media are bigger than you think: Exhibit "A", Newsweek.

Next case....

At 12:56 PM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I certainly stand corrected on the oxygen thing!

But as far as whether Newsweek could have known and should have known, the answers are "yes" and "yes." That was the point of my Clinton impeachment/Starr report story--if even I was thinking that way years before 9/11, why shouldn't Newsweek be thinking that way years after? You can't say they didn't have ample evidence of the volatility of Moslem fundamentalists. After Salman Rushdie, it has been crystal clear that any liberties taken with the Koran are, quite simply, a cause for death among a sizeable segment of the Moslem population.

But I agree that the "Isikoff singlehandedly turned triumph to disaster" meme is hyperbole. I certainly hope it is, at any rate--but indeed, I think it is. Alex, you are absolutely correct that our "triumph" in places such as Afghanistan remains tenuous. That is exactly and precisely why the press needs to be extra careful about setting off the spark in that fuel-filled room (and please note that I am now extra-careful about designating what fuel I might be talking about).

At 1:05 PM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard Aubrey asks: "Neo. Can you conceive of experienced journalists being this dumb by accident?
Being innocent?
Not knowing the role the media played in Viet Nam?
Not knowing how it's done?"

My answer: yes, indeed I can. My impression of many journalists is that they are simply not deep or critical thinkers. They are facile writers--which sometimes goes with those characteristics, but often does not--and they are business people running a business. Like many successful people, they also often have pretty large egos, and are interested in their own power and sense of self-righteousness.

Yes indeed, they know the role played by the media in Vietnam. But they think that role was a noble one. A goodly portion of my last two essays in the "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series went towards attempting to explain just how and why they came to feel that way, and to cling to that thought even now in the face of a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

Simply put, many of them (perhaps particularly the older ones, who lived through the Vietnam era as journalists) think of themselves as beleaguered heroes.

At 2:11 PM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm,it just occurred to me that based on the strength of the accuracy of the story in question, this magazine should now be spelled Newsweak.

At 2:24 PM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Newsweek seems to have shown poor judgment here, to be sure, but there is a much MUCH deeper problem than Newsweek's overzealousness to zing the Bush administration.

The fact that there are millions of people that are so frustrated, repressed, and religiously inflamed that they riot at the sort of provocation that normal adults are expected to take in stride is the real problem, and it won't go away no matter how careful Newsweek is.

At 3:49 PM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, Randall, there are.
Try naming them by their religion.

Just try.

At 5:42 PM, May 16, 2005, Blogger demulcents said...

Impact can be a real transformer. I presume that the heinous impact of Isikoff's article was a shock to him and to Newsweek. I believe that when you see a very negative result of your actions you can and often are shocked into changing your behavior, and maybe even into changing your point of view. I have hope, and send some prayers, to a real transformation for Newsweek and the Old, Establishment Media. They have blood on their hands, and they know it.

At 12:10 AM, May 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Moreschi.
You think the results "blood on their hands" bothers them. You think they see the whole thing as a negative result (outside of being caught).
On what do you base this?

At 9:59 PM, May 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Moreschi,

One would think so, but you only need to look at thier reactions after the fact. They explicitly stated *they did nothing wrong*.

A normal thinking person would step back and and think about it for a moment, at least give them pause. While they may not think what they did was wrong, I don't thik one would say they did *nothing* wrong.

One of the things I believe about arguing politics, or telling reporters something like this post does (and discussions with quite a few other groups) is that they don't care. Riots, death, etc isn't a factor. It's like telling someone that drinking a lot of water will make you urinate - yea, so? Riots and death? We report what we feel is newsworthy. Notice that "newsworthy" does not include things like truth, unbiased, people aren't going to be killed, etc. It only has to do with ratings and getting it first. Though to be fair that wasn't a newsweek quote, but it is pretty accurate of what the general media cares about.

At 10:27 PM, May 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wretchard, at Belmont Club, makes a point so good it's scary.

He says that in the old days, enterprises like manufacturers or mines dumped their waste on the public at large. The cost of dealing with the waste was shoved off to society in general. Later, it became legally required for such enterprises to clean up their own messes.

Currently, the media don't follow this model. The costs of their excesses are dumped on the public, and they face no costs at all.

Wretchard askes what might happen if the press is treated as an industrial polluter, required to pay, so the rest of us don't have to, for their excesses.

At 3:25 PM, May 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neo-neocon said, "...I don't think it was done purposely and knowingly. I think it was done selfishly, stupidly, and with reckless disregard for the consequences. That there was malice towards Bush, his administration, and the military is probably also true. But I don't think Newsweek foresaw the scope of the response in Afghanistan itself."
Your comment is correct, but also very telling in a PC perspective. In other words, hurt Bush, hurt the US military, but if they had known it would hurt civilians would they still have gone with the story? If not, then they are revealed yet again.
This, as in all your essays, are great posts. I have given it to my kids and wife to read. They love it, too. (I was a willing VN vet.)


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