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Tar Heel Pundits
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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Belmont Club on the Newsweek mess

Belmont Club has a good post on the Newsweek mess saying,
[T]he existence of a wartime situation distorts the editorial process to the degree that it increases the consequences of a mistake. The probability of making an editorial mistake may be the same as it was ten years ago, given the same standards of news confirmation, but the consequences of an error may have drastically increased in a post-September 11 world where news is disseminated to distant combat zones in the blink of an eye.
I don't share the animosity some people have toward Isikoff; I think that the way he fact-checked this story is probably the same way that the MSM fact-checks stories that they think are true. The problem lay in that the story about Koran desecration had been out there for a while. Thus, when Isikoff had an unnamed source tell him something that confirmed an urban legend that had been making the rounds for a couple of years, it seems that the zeal for reporting the story as fact led to a lower standard for fact-checking. On the Imus radio show on Tuesday, Howard Fineman described the fact-checking that went into this story:*
Howard Fineman: But what happened is, that Mike Isikoff . . . got in contact with a senior government official with whom he had dealt before and who was reliable in the past and who was in a position to know what investigations were going on about acts at Guantanamo.

This guy said that, this allegation which had been floating around the world for a year or two about the desecration of the Koran was something that American investigators had apparently confirmed and was expected to be in a report about Guantanamo. Now, he ran that allegation past, or sought comments about it from SOUTHCOM, which is the southern command, which oversees Gauntanamo and got a no comment from them.

And then he and John Barry, who's our Pentagon correspondent, sent the entire Periscope item, which had a lot of other stuff in it, but was only 10 sentences long, to another official at the Pentagon. That official read the item, which was short, commented on another part of the item, which we changed as a result of his comments. But that guy had nothing to say about the rest of the item.

Imus: He didn't confirm it or didn't deny it or anything, right?

Howard Fineman: Well, he didn't deny it. Now, I heard your discussion..."

Imus: He didn't confirm it either."

Howard Fineman: "Well you know, there all kinds of ways this works. And I know that from the days of Watergate and "All the President's Men", the notion of two sources on a story has become the popular dogma about how you confirm something. And there is a lot of truth to that, but there are all kinds of ways to check to the extent that you can, a story that you get. And even in "All the President's Men" you may remember the scene where they have a guy on the phone and they say 'Alright, we'll count down to 10, you know from 10 to zero and if you don't hear otherwise then, whatever.'"

Imus: That was a movie.

Howard Fineman: Yes I know. But I'm just trying to meet what the popular understanding of this is. If you run it pass SOUTHCOM and they say no comment, and you run the entire item past a senior person at the Pentagon, and he critiques some other part of the short item, but doesn't critique that, a reasonable reporter like Mike and John Barry, and reasonable editors like the ones at Newsweek, would think that they had it pretty solid. That's what we thought at the time. Now it turns out that our main source now isn't sure whether what he read about investigations at Guantanamo is going to be in that report and it's for that, that we're apologizing.
This is where Wretchard's analysis comes in. This wasn't just some blurb about Paris Hilton. This was a national security story with pretty obvious far-reaching implications. There are countries in the Middle East that make desecration of the Koran punishable by death---how could the editors at Newsweek think that the publication of this story would have ignited some sort of firestorm? Further, considering the fact that some of the ramifications from publishing this story had to have been known (I don't necessarily believe that Newsweek should have known that riots were going to break out causing the death of many people, but I don't buy for a second that they thought this would not have had an effect on anything. There are some smart people working there, and they should have known the type of controversy this was going to stir up in the Middle East.), it blows my mind that the confirmation process for a story from an unnamed source consisted of two "no comments" from other unnamed Pentagon sources.

Memo to the MSM: We are in a war, and people are dying. When writing about it, make sure you check your facts like we are in a war.

* - I got the transcript from the Imus show from Michelle Malkin (via Media Lies via Vodkapundit). However, I listen to Imus, and I heard this on Tuesday while doing my morning internet news read, and the "thud" my neighbors heard was my jaw hitting the keyboard. I am still dumbfounded at the lack of fact-checking that went into this story.

posted by John Branch @ 8:04 AM

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