Thoughts on Newsweek

There is a point at which media criticism becomes rather censorious, and I think we've crossed it in the Newsweek scandal. Jonah Goldberg, in his latest column for National Review Online, writes of Michael Isikoff's motive for breaking the story, "my guess is that [he] was more motivated by a reporter's desire to break a story than by some Left-wing anti-Americanism." Then he gets to the argument:

But what on earth was gained by Newsweek's decision to publish the story -- whether it was true or not? Were we unaware that interrogators at Gitmo aren't playing bean bag with detainees? To me the similarities with the Abu Ghraib are greatest not in terms of the abuse but in terms of the media's unreflective willingness to undermine the war on terror.

There you have it. Publishing the alleged details of interrogations of foreign prisoners should be a big no-no, even if the story checks out. Bye bye Abu Ghraib, hello trend stories.

Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, an Internet acquaintance for whom I have much respect, has disagreed with some more rabid bloggers about whether legal action against Newsweek is warranted. He also insists that his earlier warnings about what this story could do to freedom of the press in this country were just that: warnings. He explains:

Today's expansive press freedom, which I support wholeheartedly, is of recent origin (essentially, it's a post-World War II phenomenon) and not to be taken for granted. Remember all the talk about the Enron scandal, and how free enterprise was at risk if greedy corporations didn't clean up their acts? Well, I'm afraid that press freedom is at risk if it's seen as a vehicle for out-of-touch corporations to peddle defective products without fear of consequences.

I think I made this clear with my last post, but let me say it again: Newsweek screwed up and screwed up badly. I am not against anonymous sourcing, or even using a single anonymous source for an explosive accusation. But if you are going to rely on that source, you had better be darned sure that he has an unblemished track record of getting it right and that he will not flip under pressure.

The signs are abundant that Isikoff and company did not have an unimpeachable source and that they knew it, so why did they run with the story and risk exposing themselves to massive recriminations? I don't know. The motives put forward for doing this are (a) Bush hatred; (b) a general skepticism of the U.S. military; and, in a pinch, (c) stupidity.

To run with the story was certainly stupid, and it is highly unfortunate that politicians in Afghanistan and Pakistan used the story to start riots that killed over a dozen people. This is likely to stain Newsweek's reputation for some time. It could result in a raft of cancellations, and I've no doubt that hawkish bloggers and the White House will continue to throw this back in the newsweekly's face for quite some time.

That would be unfortunate, I think. Newsweek's response to the scandal has consisted of equal parts contrition and struggling to understand the truth of what happened. Editor Mark Whitaker forthrightly apologized to readers, and longtime Newsweek hand Evan Thomas reported on the fallout of the magazine's screwup in fairly unflinching terms. Isikoff reportedly offered to resign as penance. There was no stonewalling, no cover up, no arrogant attempt by people at the magazine to spin the story in their favor.

That should be the end of it, folks. If we believe journalism is important, then we have to believe in freedom of the press. Part of that freedom is the normal back-and-forth in which newspapers and magazines are going to get it wrong every so often, come under criticism, and, we hope, acknowledge those mistakes and learn from them.

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