Unnamed Sources Can Burn the Media

Originally posted: May 20, 2005

There is an old rule of journalism: If your scoop remains a scoop for more than 24 hours, you’d better go back and check your sources.

Newsweek magazine owned the story of American interrogators at Guantanamo tormenting Muslim detainees by flushing their holy book, the Quran, down a toilet. This was just a small note at the beginning of the magazine, contributed by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, who achieved fame by uncovering President Clinton’s liaison with Monica Lewinsky.

Isikoff’s source was a longtime government official who was “knowledgeable about the matter.” No other news organization could verify this story. Apparently no other journalist touched it until, in this wireless world, the charge made its way to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan, where it set off a wave of angry anti-American riots resulting in 17 deaths.

Fifteen days later, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker expressed regret for the story, admitting that the unidentified confidential source was no longer sure the story was true. This adds fuel to a simmering controversy in major news organizations all over the country about using unnamed officials and relying on single sources.

In my 10 years as national political correspondent for NBC News, there were strict rules. If a source refused to go “on the record,” the network demanded to know who he was, how he was in a position to have the information he offered and whether we would be advancing his political agenda by reporting the story. Then, without identifying the original source, we could use his information to seek a confirmation.

Those standards may have slipped elsewhere. They certainly have slipped at Newsweek. There, the reporters never got an actual confirmation. Nor, apparently, did anyone address the question: How do you flush a book down a toilet?

Initially the magazine’s spokesman apologized for “unspecified errors” but never actually backed away from the story. The following are quotes from The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today:

“We regret we got any part of the story wrong.”

“We don’t know what we got wrong.”

“Whatever facts we got wrong we apologize for.”

“There was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards.”

“We followed careful and proper reporting techniques.”

Happily, this was a one-day dance. By the end of the day on Tuesday, Whitaker issued a one-sentence statement: “Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Qur’an abuse at Guantanamo Bay.”

Obviously, Newsweek is not finished reporting this story, nor should it be. However, it had to acknowledge the damage done to America’s interests abroad, especially when both the Pentagon and the White House issued scathing and self-righteous denunciations. Not surprisingly, the folks who most often insist on speaking as unidentified sources and who presided over the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib used Newsweek’s misfortune to climb onto the high horse.

Reporters and editors almost universally believe that when they agree to take information in return for a pledge of confidentiality, it is the professional equivalent of a sacred trust. However, this “off-the-record” business has so thoroughly infused journalism that it is time for a re-examination. If Newsweek’s unnamed source purposely misled the reporters then let the story stand until the riots in Afghanistan left 17 dead and more than 100 injured, the magazine needs to consider its obligations. If a source lies to you, I say the contract has been broken, and the magazine, newspaper or network owes it to its readers and viewers to reveal the name so all can better judge if it was a journalistic mistake or a purposeful effort to peddle false information.

Or take another example. If a source confidentially peddles true information, but in so doing, implicates the reporter in a crime, again, I say the contract has been broken. That would be the case of political columnist Robert Novak and the White House leak revealing that the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson was an undercover CIA agent. There was a felony involved here. We don’t yet know who committed it, but we do know that Novak drove the get-away car.

It is sometimes necessary to take sensitive information on a not-for-attribution basis, as with a whistle-blower, for example. But in granting that privilege reporters need to be able to demand truth in return and to know that their news organizations will stand behind them and enforce that standard.

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