The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Korangate - another case of too good to check properly?

A particular facet of the Memogate/Rathergate case (several pieces here) was the fact that CBS had inferred confirmation of authenticity from the failure of White House man Dan Bartlett to raise the issue [1], and without an explict request for any such confirmation.

The temptation is hard to resist to believe that the memos were waved in front of Bartlett's nose on the fly at the last moment with the intent of gaining cover whilst minimising the chances that he would raise the authenticity issue off his own bat.

Something of the same may have happened with the infamous Newsweek Guantánamo Koran story of May 9 by Michael Isikoff and John Barry.

The mag's explanation (May 23 issue - no date posted information): Iskikoff's original source was described in the May 23 piece as
a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter

Classic poke-in-the-eye anonymising.

Then (emphases mine)
NEWSWEEK National Security Correspondent John Barry, realizing the sensitivity of the story, provided a draft of the NEWSWEEK PERISCOPE item to a senior Defense official, asking, "Is this accurate or not?" The official challenged one aspect of the story...But he was silent about the rest of the item. The official had not meant to mislead, but lacked detailed knowledge of the SouthCom report.

I thought that Two Sources was the industry standard, not a flash of genius from a star reporter! And why should it have been left to a journo to think he need stronger sourcing? What part did Newsweek editors play in deciding on the adequacy of sourcing?

Who at Newsweek knew that the
senior Defense official...lacked detailed knowledge of the SouthCom report

And that nothing that official said could be taken as corroboration claims about the contents of the report?

The May 9 representations on the subject were as brief as they could have been:
sources tell NEWSWEEK

That's it; no reference to job descriptions, no proferred excuses for anonymity; just

I get the strong impression that some variation on the sourcing three card monte found in Rathergate has been worked in the Guantanamo Koran (Qur'an saith Newsweek) farrago.

The Editor's Note is as brazen a bird-flipping as ever seen from the New York Times, with a lede:
Did a report in NEWSWEEK set off a wave of deadly anti-American riots in Afghanistan?

No suggestion there that there might be anything doubtful about the report: the question raised is why those crazy Afghans reacted the way they did.

It goes on to say that the
...information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment.

Who was we?

And, on the MO of what passed for the rag's gaining confirmation from these two sources, it goes on:
One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur'an charge.

The clincher for printing the story was, it seems, that other media outlets had published allegations of abuse in the camps with even flimsier sourcing:
Although other major news organizations had aired charges of Qur'an desecration based only on the testimony of detainees, we believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence.

My guess is that the famous name of Michael Isikoff and the yearning for a scoop was enough to make his editors deliberately refrain from close questioning that might have brought the scoop into doubt.

We'll see.

  1. Dealt with in the Thornburgh Report (PDF) (p126a).

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