Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Newsweek et al

My legions of regular readers (both of you!) have been asking me: why haven't I commented on the Newsweek debacle?

Well, if you follow that link, you'll see that I have. Why haven't I written about it here? Frankly, a lot of people have been saying what I'd like to say, and saying it better than I could.

However, let me add this --

Selling information is a funny business. When you sell a car, you're not worried about the buyer taking the car home, copying it in his garage, and giving the copies away. But information, once it's sold, is out of the control of the seller. You can attempt to sue someone for publishing something they shouldn't have, but once it's out there, it's out there -- as irretrievable as an angry word, as Robert Heinlein once said.

This is more the case now than it's ever been before. An inflammatory picture or story, published on the Internet, is available to hundreds of millions of people immediately... and so a damaging story can cause far more damage than ever before. And we certainly know that sensational headlines travel farther and faster -- and are remembered longer -- than the retractions of them.

But what truly bothers me is the lack of consequences -- and the utter irresponsibility with which the press, in general, seems to be greeting this.

Let's be honest here. A story was published under criteria that, in retrospect, seem laughable at best -- only one source, and an anonymous source at that, who wasn't even a witness to the events he was describing! -- and a story that inflamed passions around the world, causing over a dozen deaths. Shouldn't someone take responsibility for that? And what form should that responsibility take? I'd love to see more discussion on this.

It's a difficult question. What do you do, once the barn door is open and the damage is done? I've heard and read the standard comments, ranging from "Michael Isikoff should be fired" to "Mark Whittaker should be fired" to "they should both be fired". Some more creative souls have suggested that the victims of "the Newsweek massacre" (Hugh Hewitt's term, I believe) be encouraged to sue... and Isikoff and Whittaker extradited to Afghanistan to stand trial there.

Personally, I'm in favor of fighting fire with fire. The Newsweek board should decide -- secretly! -- to publish one (1) totally unfounded story that makes American soldiers look good (and, for bonus points, makes former Guantanamo detainees look silly, which actually isn't that hard). Naturally, the story byline would have to credit Michael Isikoff... before he is fired.

If the story works, great -- it's good press for the United States, at a time when the United States could use some good press. (Don't worry, Newsweek -- your colleagues across America will waste no time debunking such a "good news" story.)

And if it doesn't work -- if the story is seen as a ploy, which of course it would be -- then it further reduces Newsweek's credibility, which seems fair to me. (They're clearly not credible; why should they look credible?)

It's a win-win situation, folks... assuming, of course, that Newsweek could ever bring themselves to write favorably about the U.S. military, even tongue-in-cheek while holding their collective noses. Personally, I doubt they can do it. But it'd be fun to watch them try.

UPDATE: Neo-neocon compares the Newsweek massacre with the blood libel. It's an apt comparison... and a chilling one. (Uncounted tens of thousands of Jews have died, some of them horribly, because of the completely unfounded rumor of the blood libel. Newsweek, do you have any idea what you just started?)

UPDATE II: A great thought from Dan Gillmore:
I'm starting to think that unnamed sources who lie like this should be outed. No, this is not a call for journalists to break their promises. But maybe we should tell people who demand anonymity that they will be outed if it turns out they lied. This would undoubtedly lead to fewer stories based on unnamed sources, but it might also lead to more honorable journalism.
What a great idea.

UPDATE III: BlackFive says: "I haven't read Newsweek since May 26th, 2003." Read his story and you'll understand why.

UPDATE IV: Mark Steyn, as usual, says it better (and snarkier) than most:
To date, reaction has divided along two lines. Newsweek has been hammered for being so flushed with anti-Bush anti-military fever that they breezily neglected the question of whether their story would generate a huge mound of corpses.

Which is true. On the other hand, there are those who point out it's hardly Newsweek's fault that some goofy foreigners are so bananas they'll riot and kill over one rumor of one disrespectful act to one copy of one book. Christians don't riot over ''Piss Christ'' and other provocations by incontinent ''artists.'' Jews take it in their stride when they're described as ''a virus resembling AIDS,'' which is what Sheikh Ibrahim Mudeiris said a week ago in his sermon on Palestinian state TV, funded by the European Union. Muslims can dish it out big-time, so why can't they take it, even the teensy-weensiest bit?

All of which is also true, but would be a better defense of Newsweek if the media hadn't spent the last 3-1/2 years bending over backwards to be super-sensitive to the, ah, touchiness of the Muslim world -- until the opportunity for a bit of lurid Bush-bashing proved too much to resist.


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