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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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Newsweek: Isikoff and his 'sources'

High on the list of charges in the Korangate affair was the use of the word sources to describe the chap who said, and then unsaid, that he had seen the Koran-flushing allegations included in a Southcom report.

At least, that's what many - including your humble blogger - thought he was doing.

Jack Shafer puts on his Chancery lawyer's hat and demurs.

The original text:
Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.

Shafer expounds an alternative construction: rather than a group of sources attesting to each of the matters referred to, he posits a single source for each.

And, indeed, grammatically, the words are capable of bearing that meaning.

He goes to the Font - and Isikoff tells him
the magazine had two sources for the dog-leash allegation.

Now, a standard rule of journalism, I'd thought, was that if a reader needs to read a sentence more than once to get its meaning, that sentence should be rewritten.

As a matter of courtesy to the paying customer, if not as a mark of professional pride.

Now, the Periscope section is, I understand, less thoroughly edited than the rest of the mag. But I find it vanishingly unlikely that a seasoned hack like Isikoff did not appreciate that
  1. sourcing was of the essence with stories such as the Koran-dunking; and

  2. the graf he produced was plainly ambiguous as to the number of sources for that story.

One of two inferences might be drawn:
  1. Isikoff saw the ambiguity, but could not be bothered to amend the copy; or

  2. he deliberately drafted the graf to be ambiguous to cover the fact that he only had a single source for the Koran element.

It is patently absurd for a publication like Newsweek to expect its readers to peruse its articles with the meticulous attention and eye to alternative constructions that a lawyer would give to a will or statute.

Shafer talks to three Post journos who'd written about the Isikoff piece - and none of them would have a bar of it, I'm pleased to say.

My suspicion: Shafer, having discovered his theoretically alternative reading, was so pleased with himself that he could not resist committing it to print.

The perils of cacoethes scribendi...

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