After the Newsweek fiasco, the magazine published a letter to their readers, in which the editors laid out their new guidelines for handling “anonymous sources.” The gist is that they will seek to avoid such citation, pushing those involved in the proposed story to go on record; or, if the anonymity is crucial to that individual, to find another source to bolster the allegations. Sounds good. I guess. In the way that saying you are going to try to do a better job always sounds good. But is it necessary? Yes, it would have been nice if they could have gotten the same information from more than one source. But does that then mean that the piece should not be published? Perhaps if the allegation is shocking and inflammatory. Which the Koran incident was. But it was no more shocking and inflammatory than information already available to the public.
The fact is, the government source—who had given Newsweek consistently accurate information before this incident—the magazine was quoting still holds that he saw a report of flushing a Koran; he just doesn’t remember which report it’s in. And there is ample evidence that mistreatment of the Koran occurred—if the Newsweek allegation was so unbelievable, it simply wouldn’t have taken so long for the Pentagon to voice doubts that it was true. This whole fiasco could be easily dispelled if the Pentagon agreed to a thorough investigation into the conditions at military prisons like Guantanamo and Bagram. But instead of trying to get to the bottom of what is true and what is false, the White House has responded with an embarrassing indictment of the media.
Why embarrassing? Well, beyond the irony of the Bush administration indicting a magazine for relying on a single source for information that led to violence (WMDs and the Iraq war, anyone?) this administration has little or no regard for the press, and has made that clear. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card said back in January that he didn’t think the press had a “check and balance function.” So, why all the sudden concern from White House spokesman Scott McClellan on the veracity of the news? McClellan referred to the Newsweek issue as a “credibility problem.”
But it seems that the White House is the organization with the real press credibility problem. Remember the video press news releases disguised as news telecasts, or the supposedly independent reporters who were getting a paycheck from the White House? Or what about those less-than-savory characters that were being welcomed into the White House press conferences? When it comes down to it, this administration just doesn’t like to answer any questions. Take the recent “press availability” event when Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to town: So few reporters showed up that the room was filled with White House interns. According to the Washington Times, “A member of the press corps we spoke to yesterday equated reporters at such staged White House functions as ‘props.’ He explained that because the president only takes four questions at each press availability—two from U.S. wire service reporters and two from foreign scribes—many in the press corps don’t bother to show up. ‘Since we can’t ask questions, why schlep over there?'”
And it’s not just in the U.S. In February, Bush declined to attend a town-hall style event in Germany after he learned that the questions would not be pre-approved. Similarly, only a few weeks earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice only agreed to answer questions that were pre-approved when she went and spoke in France.
The president himself once told a reporter, “You’re assuming that you represent the public. I don’t accept that.” I would agree with Mr. Bush. Scripted questions and White House “journalists” don’t represent the public. When the facts of an issue, for instance, detainee abuse, don’t make the administration look good, it’s well within their interests to paint the press as unreliable—as though everything were conjecture. Newsweek, in its handling of the situation: the retraction and the insistence on reform, is to be commended for its work ethic. But its refusal to stick to its guns, and demand the same accountability from the administration is disappointing.