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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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Korangate: reliance on the enemy

One puzzling aspect is the exact form of the verification sought by Isikoff and Barry (piece yesterday).

We have a Newshour interview with Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker, who said
We went to the extraordinary lengths of actually showing the entire story to a separate high level Pentagon official. They disputed other aspects of the story but not dispute that.

After we published the story, we were not challenged on any aspect of it for 11 days...
by the Pentagon.

It's not clear, though, what the precise form of the discussion with the separate official took. Was he merely asked to comment on the text, or was he asked to verify that
  1. the draft report mentioned by the original source existed; and

  2. the Koran-in-toilet incident was included in it.

And what efforts were made by Newsweek to satisfy themselves that the separate official had made sufficient enquiries within the military to justify reliance on anything he said. Or didn't say.

If Isikoff had asked for explicit confirmation and received a non-committal answer, that would have been something. He might even have run the piece with the No comment leaving it up to reader to judge.

On the other hand, his editors - who, after all, had the sole responsibility for deciding whether the piece should run or not - might have decided to spike it [1].

Which leads one to wonder, where was the fire? The report would come out in due course; the allegations mentioned were extremely brief and (so far as I'm aware) contained nothing particularly new.

The impression one has of the piece is of a teaser for a report that Newsweek itself was about to publish. Why should so slight a piece have had extraordinary lengths invested in it?

With the Killian memos, the imperative to cut corners to get the scoop was understandable: if the memos had been verified as genuine, it would have been a marquee story for 60 Minutes. One important enough to take a bit of risk to reel in.

But the Isikoff piece, on its face, was something close to gossip. Is there more to it than meets the eye? Some kind of coded message to the Pentagon? (The danger of tinfoilism is self-evident [2].)

  1. The reference in the original piece to sources - in the plural - looks bad, given what we know now. There was one source, for which negative corroboration was obtained. The piece was so blatantly misleading as to raise suspicions of an intention to deceive.

  2. For instance, supposing that the story was an attempt by the Pentagon to discredit Isikoff (or Newsweek) in advance of some other story they feared he (or it) was about to break.

    One certainly needs something to explain why the original source - which had evidently given such sterling service in the past - should have crumbled the way he did; but misunderstanding and wishful thinking are rather more likely explanations.


As Tom Rosentiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism is quoted as saying,
It's not up to a news organization to let its source substantiate the news for them.

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