Part of me can’t help but appreciate the irony of a White House which took the country to war on shaky (and later discredited) evidence going to war against a news organization that published a short article on shaky evidence.
But set that aside.
I haven’t followed every particular about the case of this blow-up over the article in Newsweek. But I do see a clear pattern — a White House trying to decapitate another news organization.
The parallels with CBS are obvious. And yet, the production of the Rather/National Guard piece ended up containing egregious errors. On top of that, CBS dug in its heels for days even after manifest errors in the reporting had become obvious. CBS brought the Rather-gate avalanche down upon itself with some very sloppy journalism. But the White House quickly saw the opportunity and grabbed it, effectively taming an entire news organization.
What already seems to be happening here is that the White House is trying to replicate the pattern, even in a case with a quite different set of facts.
Here we have a case where two reporters authored a story which seems not to have been as solidly-sourced as the reporters and editors apparently thought. The story quickly provoked a strong denial from the Pentagon. The news organization went back to its sources and found a key source second-guessing his original assertion. Newsweek first cast doubt on the story and then, this afternoon, retracted it entirely.
Newsweek thought the central claim had been confirmed. The Pentagon said these claims have been investigated and not found credible. And Newsweek now says it can’t stand behind the story.
Here’s a newsflash: reporters make mistakes. It happens every day in newspapers around the country. When a country has an aggressive, free press, it is inevitable that reporters will sometimes get stories wrong. Indeed, I think I could rattle off dozens in the last year alone in which the poor practices on the part of the journalists seem to have been more blameworthy than is the case here.
When news organizations make errors, they have to correct the story as quickly as possible. Believe me, every honest journalist lives in fear of getting a story wrong. And when a mistake gets made, even in good faith, it puts a dent in the journalist’s reputation.
If it turns out that the reporter was dishonest or acted recklessly or simply didn’t perform as a professional journalist should, then there are more immediate consequences. That can include demotion, firing or even being drummed out of the profession entirely.
Perhaps something like that will prove to be the case here; so far, though, I haven’t seen it.
What I do see is a pattern of a White House focusing in on particular instances of vulnerable reporting and exploiting them to set new de facto rules for the national political press.
Here we have today Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, specifically demanding further disavowals of the story from Newsweek. That should trouble anyone. The White House is not a party at interest here. Perhaps the people who have been falsely accused are. Perhaps the Pentagon could demand an apology if the story turns out to be false. Or the Army. Not the White House. They are only involved here in as much as the story is bad for them politically.
We are already seeing a wave of violence, at least some of which preceded the publication of this article, being blamed on the reporters in question here. That is a vivid reminder of the responsibility all journalists have to get stories right. At the end of the day, though, the responsibility for the deaths of those who were killed rests with those who killed them, nowhere else.
(As Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, in terms of severity it is actually not that easy to distinguish between this alleged conduct and lots of stuff we know for a fact did happen at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and other places.)
At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not justifying the work behind this story. I have no particular brief for Mike Isikoff or Newsweek. Indeed, it’s not clear to me precisely what happened at all. What I am saying is that occasional errors are inevitable with a truly free press. The price paid by the news organization and the individual journalist should be based on whether and how well they followed established journalistic practices — not on how much the White House went after them. If the new standard is that every material fact reported must be attested to on the record then in the future we’ll know only a tiny fraction of what we do now about the internal workings of our government.
What I see here is an effort by the White House to set an entirely different standard when it comes to reportage that in any way reflects critically on the White House.
That’s dangerous and it should be recognized as such.