Northern Valley Beacon

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Some fallacies in the Newsweek incident.

Newsweek has become a ranting point among those conservatives who insist that the main stream media is just one big liberal conspiracy. When it retracted the story about interrogators flushing a copy of the Koran down the toilet at Guantanamo, it is alleged to have set loose deadly riots in Muslim countries. It retracted the story.

The big issue is whether Newsweek trusted an anonymous source too much. And whether it took lack of criticism on the part of the Pentagon officials who were shown the story as affirmation.

As old news dogs who have dealt with anonymous sources, we take a different approach. First of all, we are not sure but what the flushing-the-Koran story is not true. After Abu Ghraib, it seems like something a bunch of boyscouts masquerading as intelligence officers would do. We strongly suspect that Newsweek had a valid story, but the source got scared when the story resulted in such volatile reactions.

However, those volatile reactions are also suspect. The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the article was only part of the cause of those riots. So, the question for the MSM is just what is the mix of motives.

And then there is the debate over whether news organizations should use anonymous sources. It seems like a silly question to those of us who have relied upon them. The real question is HOW to use anonymous sources.

The old rule was that an anonymous source was never quoted. It was the job of the reporter to go out and find independent corroboration of the story from the anonymous source. The source gave information for investigation, not publication. That's the way journalism once worked. And it worked well. The source was protected from disclosure for another day. But the story got told--with verification.

The catch was that sometimes it took months and months to develop the story. With today's 24-hour news cycle, working on a story that long and that carefully does not seem part of the job. Cable television, web logs, and talk radio shows are out there making up stories out of clear air. The rule is now audience competition over accuracy and veracity.

It's all a matter of revisiting the old working rules of journalism and seeing how they might be adapted to a culture that really has little interest in truth-- only in finding affirmations of one's kind and discreditation of those who differ.

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