"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Monday, May 16, 2005

Journalistic Errors 

So - the folks at Newsweek seem to have stepped in something stinky. Turns out that their source may have had some details wrong about the document which allegedly confirmed the inflammatory Koran-flushing story:
In its apology, Newsweek said it learned of the alleged incident from what it called "a knowledgeable U.S. government source." The magazine says that source originally said he read of the Koran desecration in a U.S. military report on mistreatment of prisoners at the base. Newsweek says the source now says he is not certain he read of the incident in that particular report.

Never mind, of course, that the source continues to insist that the incident was, in fact, referenced in another official report. Never mind that the essential details of the story have been reported ad infinitum by other eyewitnesses. In other words - never mind that the story is almost certainly true; it still constitutes what MarketWatch's Jon Friedman breathlessly describes as "the most costly mistake in modern journalistic times."

Well, sure - compared to this, Judith Miller's stenography on behalf of Ahmad Chalabi in the Paper of Record, which (if it is not rude to bring this up) led in no small part to the deaths of tens of thousands, was a mere typo. Seriously, one would think that a journal calling itself MarketWatch could do a better job of calculating costs.

The Newsweek debacle recalls in almost every detail the strange and horrible saga of Dan Rather's Memo. As in that case, there can be no doubt that the larger point (Chimpy's desertion from the National Guard, or the Gitmo horrorshow) is beyond serious debate. As in that case, the whole argument comes down to an arcane problem of sourcing - a relatively insignificant error becomes the tree which obscures whole forests.

Meanwhile, speaking of forests, TBogg has this comment from the comically pathetic Jonah Goldberg:
Something tells me that if the White House made a mistake which resulted in riots, deaths, etc there'd be a just a smidgen more outrage than we'll hear about this.

Okaaaaay.... Yes, folks, irony is officially dead and buried.

Now, of course, it would be nice if journalists could, you know, get their damn facts right. And a huge part of the problem in this respect is the scourge of anonymous sources. Anonymity alters the calculus of credibility in subtle and dangerous ways. For instance, if I report that, according to White House spokesroach Scott McClellan, George Bush engaged in an erotic spanking episode with Condi Rice on Air Force One, my credibility remains intact so long as I can prove that McClellan said what I claimed he said. Any doubt about the accuracy of McClellan's hypothetical bombshell itself would rightly reflect upon no one but Scottie. On the other hand, if I report that "an unnamed administration source" passed along the juicy goods about Dubya and Condi, then suddenly it becomes my responsibility to authenticate the underlying story. I'm left hung out to dry, while my source lives to leak again. This is an excellent reason to eschew anonymous sources in all but the most desperate situations, and the Newsweek story provides a good object lesson in that regard.

So let's celebrate Newsweek's newfound concern for absolute accuracy, but let's also maintain some perspective. Just as the Rathergate story came to be about superscripts and proportional fonts instead of about the Boy King's demonstrably inadequate service record (and what that record implied about him as a Commander in Chief and as a human being), the Gitmo story will now be about what source read what outrages in which specific reports. Meanwhile, the real story - the well-documented abuses occurring daily in Bush's American Gulag - will quietly slip away.

 

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