Reader SAO writes in to ask why we aren't covering the Newsweek story, which incited the deaths of at least 15 people over a poorly-checked, irresponsible report that the magazine itself now admits is probably false. Me, I'm wondering why no-one on Newsweek's staff saw the potential problems with this report at the time, as Glenn Reynolds and others did. Immediately:
"The press is exquisitely sensitive to the risks posed by, say, racial insensitivity in reporting. It's too bad they're not so careful with regard to things that might get American troops killed."
If they did see the problems, why didn't that stop the story, an act that would have carried zero consequences? And if they didn't see those obvious problems, we've got to ask - why not?
Veteran journalist Joe Gandelman has a roundup of reactions left and right, and specifically notes that making these kinds of allegations is part of the al-Qaeda training manual; this makes apologists' references to "similar allegations from other prisoners" rather rich, IMO. Greyhawk adds an excellent post on similar but debunked allegations in the past and the possible origins of Newsweek's story. In the aftermath, Jeff Jarvis has a fine point to make about Newsweek's mischievous CBS-style non-retraction - which is likely to get even more people killed. Satirist Scott "Scrappleface" Ott is funny as always, and Glenn's post-"retraction" roundup offers a fine back and forth getting at the issues and responsibility. Responsibility that includes religious sects who see incitement to violence and murder as an acceptable response in such situations (but not in Iraq, says Omar).
Media double standards and malfeasance? Ya think? But those double-standards matter. They go to the heart of the reason why nobody said 'wait a minute' at Newsweek, why the subsequent insincere "apology" bordered on malice - and why that liberal media continues to be surprised at surveys like this one from UConn:
"While 72 percent of the journalists said their profession did a good or excellent job of reporting information accurately, only 39 percent of the public felt the same way. At the same time, 61 percent of the citizen respondents said they disagreed with the statement that "the news media tries to report the news without bias."
Add another survey to the pile. Unsurprisingly:
"Some survey findings may provide fodder for conservatives who complain about liberal tilt in the press.... The divergence came when 32 percent of the public identified themselves as Republicans, compared with only 10 percent of the newsroom employees. Among journalists who said they voted in the 2004 election, 68 percent reported favoring John Kerry and 25 percent chose George Bush. Yet among the public respondents who said they voted, Bush beat Kerry 54 percent to 44 percent.
Those figures are actually a bit higher than I'm used to seeing for the Republican side, in comparison to other surveys we've covered. Does the word "diversity" ring a bell with anyone?
As Tim Porter notes, recent surveys weren't kind to Newsweek, either:
"A Pew Research Center study (PDF) released in April found that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing printed in newspapers. Newsweek fared almost as badly. Nearly 40 percent don't believe what they read in the magazine and in a section of the report devoted to political news, only 10 percent said they learned about politics from Newsweek, a 50 percent drop from year earlier."
No wonder. As Paul Marshal notes:
"Equally disturbing is the fact that Newsweek reporters seemed to have little idea how explosive such a story would be. While noting that, to Muslims, desecrating the Koran "is especially heinous," Thomas looks for explanations, including "extremist agitators," of why protest and rioting spread throughout the world, and maintains that it was at Imram Khan’s press conference that "the spark was apparently lit." He confesses that after "so many gruesome reports of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the vehemence of feeling around this case came as something of a surprise."
What planet do these people live on that they are surprised by something so entirely predictable? Anybody with a little knowledge could have told them it was likely that people would die as a result of the article. Remember Salman Rushdie?
The spark was lit not by Imram Khan but by Newsweek itself on May 9 when apparently none of its reporters or editors was aware of the effect such a story would have. There seems to have been nobody there that knew that death is the penalty for desecrating a Koran in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere."
Gee, I just can't understand why people might be reluctant to trust them for news.
Veteran journalist Mark Tapscott notes that not only did Newsweek demonstrate complete ignorance, not only did it fail to meet the classic "sensitivity" standards so rampant nowadays - it violated basic professional standards for stories like this one:
"For whatever reason, it appears Newsweek's reporters and editors forgot Journalism 101's First Rule: If you don't have two independently verifiable sources for a serious allegation the publication of which could seriously damage or destroy an individual's reputation, put somebody in of physical danger or place public safety at risk, don't publish it.
They also appear to have forgotten Rule Two: Anonymous sources in government always have agendas, typically self-serving agendas. That means journalists should never rely upon lone anonymous government sources unless they are quoting a document or person they routinely see and can provide additional details, the verification of which would not jeopardize identity."
Again we ask, why? I don't think Evan Thomas is a liar with an agenda; to the contrary, he has been candid about press bias in the past. No, I think it's deeper than that.
One of award-winning journalist Bernie Goldberg's key points in his 2001 book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News is that the monoculture of social backgrounds and political beliefs in many newsrooms impairs the media's ability to have the kinds of second thoughts that may have helped Newsweek. Because they rarely bump into colleagues who might question their views, it never even occurs to them to ask certain questions, at least in a serious way. This also hurts their coverage of issues like religion and the military, where they have little representation or background and so misreport the issues - or fail to ask the right questions that would lead to good investigative journalism.
As Chris Bray noted in Military Blindness in the Media - and Beyond:
"Reporters who cover the military without understanding it don’t just muff a few basic facts about what kind of soldier carries what kind of gun, or which service does what. They also fail to apply the right skepticism in the right places, or even the right credulity in the right places, and so end up swinging in a wild arc between breathless adulation and naive condemnation. They surrender many of the necessary tools for questioning the authority of the armed forces, and render nearly useless the check and the balance of the Fourth Estate on a major power of government. They create confidence where there should be wariness, and fear where there should be strength.
They get it wrong, and it counts."
It does. It just did. And it has also highlighted the chasm of values between the journalist class and the general public it purports to serve. One doesn't need surveys to see the double-standards at work:
- If belief-sets that see violence as an acceptable response are the real fault, as a number of liberal bloggers have suddenly realized, one wonders why the MSM (mainstream media) seems unable to apply that logic to, say, its coverage of Al Sharpton.
- One also wonders why the benefits of discretion seem so apparent to them on subjects like race, but not war, a point expressed above. Unconventional Wisdom adds some insightful observations on that very issue.
- Their "discretion" is so great that many media outlets refuse to call blatant car bombings of civilians terrorism, or call their perpetrators terrorists. We've heard the familiar, slimy evasions: "militant" (oh, you mean they're like N.O.W?), "gunman" (you mean, like the guy who robs a bank?), "resistance" (resisting what - their humanity?). It so bad there's even a blog plug-in to fix it. And we musn't show graphic footage from 9/11. It might incite. It might offend.
- LaShawn Barber offers an aside in her own post, noting: "When was the last time you heard the words 'Bible' and 'desecrated' in the same sentence? I digress."
No, she doesn't. It's the point here.
The media has proven they can show the kind of responsibility this story demanded. They'll even go further, and muzzle themselves in ways that impair their ability to report legitimate news - as long as any cause or issue related to the liberal point of view is involved.
The surveys noted above, matter. Lack of political diversity within the media is preventing it from questioning the wisdom of stories like the one Newsweek ran, a simple act that would have forestalled many deaths. Having that kind of intellectual diversity on hand might have given Newsweek some people in the newsroom who would familiarize themselves with stuff like al-Qaeda's manual (we have them here, on a far lower budget), or have good enough relations with military and intel sources to elicit that kind of information. People who would treat extreme claims from captured terrorists with more skepticism - which, as Greyhawk notes above, is utterly warranted. People who might have insisted on following the rules Tapscott cites above.
It might have meant that the same benefit of the doubt so often extended to the Saddam Husseins and terrorist fanatics of the world (who mustn't be called "terrorists", remember, lest it inflame), might have been extended to the American military as well. I know, I know, a ridiculous fantasy... still, a guy can dream.
We might have even seen a full and unconditional apology and retraction that would have done more to put a brake on future violence, without removing Newsweek's ability to continue investigating if it wished. That was certainly the sensible thing to do. Was it done? No.
At each and every link in that chain, Newsweek failed. As so many of its partners in the "mainstream media" fail. Repeatedly. Consistently. On key subjects that matter. This time, people died.
More deaths will follow, because actions have consequences. More liberal media erosion will also follow, for the same reason.
Brian C. Anderson's "South Park Conservatives" chronicles the rise of alternatives to media institutions that are no longer seen as sharing key values with large swathes of their audience, or serving the public well.
I'll have more to say about his book in the coming days, but its key point is simple: over time, imbalances like the ones noted above will be addressed in a market economy. Viewers and readers who do not share the liberal mindset are getting more and more fed up - and they now have both venues to express that, and alternatives to turn to.
As Anderson writes:
"Over time, a greater number of right-of-center voices will find audiences..... The Left will have to re-examine, argue, and refine its positions, so many of which have proved disastrously wrong, and stop living off the past. It's hard to imagine that this development won't result in a broader, richer, deeper national debate - something liberals of an older, John Stuart Mill-stripe would have welcomed."
It's also hard to imagine that this development won't result in "sensitivity" that extends beyond lib-left partisan bounds. Maybe even one that thinks the lives of people like Robin's cadets who put it all on the line for America deserves the same consideration our media currently gives to the sensitivities of a self-seeking liar and demagogue like Al Sharpton.
May it come to pass, speedily, in our days.
But that's cold comfort to the people who have died and will die - all because of the recklessness of a politicized media and the hateful violence at the heart of our Islamofascist enemies and their belief system.
- Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds doesn't write opinion pieces very often, but here he takes on Andrew Sullivan very directly. Caustic and sharp-edged - but he offers some important reminders.
- Donald Sensing says the Dept. of Derfesnse dropped the ball, too. This does make it more understandable that Newsweek would believe there could be something to their story... but it isn't enough to justify the decision to publish or their conduct since. Summary: The Islamists are still culpable. Newsweek is still culpable. The DoD is now partly culpable as well. See this comment for more.
- Dan Darling looks at the aftermath on the front lines, and it isn't pretty. Some very good comments in the comments section really add to the article. Good comments in Robin's retraction announcement post, too.
- Irshad Manji talks about the riots in Jalalabad, the Quran's status as the literal world of God, and Muslim traditions that show human editing. (Hat Tip: Instapundit)
- Silent Running does a... related experiment with Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men," all in the name of science. And their post has photos!
- Acidman attended Jounralism school... and let's just say, he wasn't impressed. He writes: "I see a big change happening in journalism today. The pendulum swings slowly, but I see it moving in the opposite direction now, after it's been heading left for three decades. When "GOTCHA" journalism turns around and GETS YOU, I see good things happening." That may be what it takes to make the media do the right thing.
- Looks like Newsweek has now published a full retraction, a real retraction. An instant retraction like this might have made some difference. In terms of its effect on the ground now, too little, too late.
- Back in 2003, Winds blogchild (and former journalist) LaughingWolf ran a series valled "Saving Pvt. Journalism." Thought it was worth reminding folks.