Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right... Isikoff v. McClellan

White House spokesman Scott McClellan has done the impossible: He somehow has transformed Michael Isikoff into a sympathetic figure of sorts for otherwise discerning people. A friend who will remain anonymous emailed to say that if he was forced to choose between Isikoff and McClellan, he would take the former. But because the friend is still asleep at this very early hour, and I cannot respond, his comments have instead inspired this post.

My response: There is no reason to choose up sides, dude!

We can condemn Isikoff's sloppy and reckless reporting without buying into the White House line. At the end of the day, two wrongs don't make a right.

The White House is undoubtedly exploiting the Newsweek incident for its own ends, as Josh Marshall has already persuasively argued: "What I see [here] is a pattern of a White House focusing in on particular instances of vulnerable reporting and exploiting them to set new de facto rules for the national political press."

And the White House is hardly in a position to be casting stones. As Greg Mitchell eloquently writes in his column in Editor & Publisher:

"There's nothing funny about riots and torture, but it's not hard to find the dark humor in certain aspects of the uproar over Newsweek's regrettable Koran-flushing item. Only one of the comedic highlights was White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan lecturing the media on Monday about losing `credibility,' given the administration's track record on WMDs in Iraq and other critical issues.

"Just last week, McClellan suggested to the same reporters that President Bush had been informed about the D.C. evacuation scare, only to admit later that the president had been out of the loop. This is the man who brought us Mr. Credibility himself, Jim Guckart, a. k. a. Jeff Gannon.

"Even more ironic, this is an administration that helped sell a war on intelligence often based (as in Newsweek's case) on a single source. Remember `Curveball'? The mobile biological labs? Now McClellan reminds the media about standards that `should be met' before running a story.

"Reporters at today's press briefing pressed McClellan on why he now denounces the idea of articles based on a single source when he routinely demands that they rely on just the White House backgrounders. Or as one put it, `it sounds like you're saying your single anonymous sources are okay and everybody else's aren't.'

"Now this is not to say that Newsweek did not do harm, and relying on a single source's say-so was (as per ususal) stupid..."

In a previous post, I criticized Isikoff for spending too much time in the green room, instead of on the phone with sources. I was wrong. As it turns out, the green room is exactly the right place to be if you commit an egregious, career-threatening journalistic error. Journalistic reputations apparently are now made or lost sometimes less on the substance of what you might or might not have done wrong than by what is said about you by the babbling and blathering bloviators and carnival barkers of the cable shows.

To be a journalist today is becoming more and more like being a politician: One has to have and maintain constituencies. One of Isikoff's key constituencies are those who must fill their green rooms every night. Among those defending Isikoff yesterday on the cable shows were Chris Matthews, Fred Barnes, Ed Rogers, L. Brent (Bazooka) Bozell III, Brit Hume, and... Bob Novak. (This is perhaps stating the all too obvious: If your journalistic credibility and ethics are under fire, it is maybe best not to have Bob Novak out there arguing your brief.)

As these posters at Media Matters for America interpret events, these defenses are directly "related to [Isikoff's] investigation into President Bill Clinton's sex scandal."

Indeed, there does appear to be some evidence of this: L. Brent Bozell III, the president of the right wing Media Research Center (not to be confused with the anti-right wing Media Matters for America) had this to say on Fox:

"One would be hard-pressed to lay the blame directly at the feet of Michael Isikoff. Michael Isikoff is also the reporter who broke the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story for Newsweek magazine."

The anti-Clinton crowd is an Isikoff constituency, and a reason that his career will not only survive, but flourish.

But there is also evidence of something else at work with all of the cable barkers defending Isikoff. Consider this statement made by Brit Hume on Fox:

"This is Michael Isikoff, the veteran investigative journalist, a guy we all know, who has been on the program, somebody who has compiled a pretty good record over the years." [emphasis added by blogger, indeed emphasized by both italicizing and placing in bold the words the blogger wants to emphasize, so that they are italicized and in bold, so there is no possible way that the point is not made.)

A guy we all know... who has been on the program. That says it all.

Gary Webb was a guy who we all didn't know, a guy who had not been on the program. There is no doubt that his reporting on the contras and drugs in the San Jose Mercury was flawed in too many ways, and I am not going to debate the merit of his work here, but his mistakes hardly were of the scale of Newsweek's error. Isikoff, the green room regular, appears to be going to receive a pass. The journalistic establishment appears to be circling the wagons on his behalf.

In this New York Times bouquet to Isikoff, the only person quoted saying an unkind word of any kind was Bill Kovach, a founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and former Washington bureau chief for the Times: "Here is a reporter who can shake stuff out of deaf and dumb people, but can't let it go at that. The material has to be edited and verified and lawyered if necessary. As the course of events in this particular event has shown, you can't play fast and loose with even a one-paragraph item."

In contrast, Gary Webb paid for his mistakes not only with his career, but also his life. He should have spent more time in the green room.

I have changed my mind: Green room skills apparently should not only be a top priority, but as this episode demonstrates, essential for any young, aspiring journalist.

Indeed, being a journalist today is becoming more and more about everything except being a journalist. An aspiring twenty-something journalist today need not bother learning how to read court records, develop sources, conduct interviews, or write copy. They need not attend boring school board meetings, bother to learn the conventions of their craft, spend time on the street with cops, or have to endure sleeping alone (or with the wrong person) in bad motels on the campaign trail. They are entitled to proceed directly to the green room! Instead, all that one need to do today to succeed as a "journalist" is blog, appear on the right cable shows, network with your college alumni, have your book blurbed by Tucker Carlson, hire the right publicist (every aspiring twenty-something "journalist" should always " have [a] publicist in tow"!), and soon be an editor and media critic... without having even written their very first news story. (If anyone objects to those comments, they can sue me!)

Now more pressing news: I am reading an extraordinary book, "The Paradox of Southern Progressivism: 1880-1930", by William A. Link, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The book was published by the University of North Carolina Press.... in 1992.

I guess I just lost most of my ever dwindling traffic by saying that I wanted to comment about an obscure academic book that was written more than a decade ago. In this age of Wonkette and Drudge and Google News, anything older than two hours ago is like sooooo, like over. But I hope that someday the currently prevailing ethic that everything older than like two hours ago... is going to be like, soooo totally over. (Thanks to Amy for teaching me Valley Girl speak.)

I am going to interview Professor Link for this very blog in the near future.

(Because of my dwindling traffic, I have taken to pandering to specific readers, by naming them in my posts, and placing their names in bold, as if I were writing some gossip column for the New York Post.)

Here are some gems from Professor Link's book:

"Post-Republican southerners shared a common tradition of governance. Imbued with rural republican traditions, they despised concentrated power... Like their parents and grandparents, they tolerated the functioning of local, state, and federal governments only under strict constraints."

Another gem:

"In the nineteenth century the cultural setting [in the South] for social policy-- broadly defined as any exercise of governance designed to shape individual and community behavior-- was distinctive. Aside from postmasters and an occasional tax collector, the federal government rarely touched the lives of southerners in the isolated rural communities and villages that the great majority of them inhabited. The role of sate and local governments was no greater. In such areas as public health, the regulation of moral behavior, and public welfare, state and local officials scrupulously respected home rule and the sanctity of local autonomy."

I know my traffic is now dwindling even further, but if my most devoted readers will just stay with me here a while longer...

I hope my girlfriend is still reading.

Link also writes: "[W]elfare policy was rooted in a traditional view of charity that sought to discourage dependency, assumed that poverty was the product of individual character flaws rather than social environment, and stigmatized relief recipients."

And also: "Whether in education, health, or public poor relief, southern state and local governments exercised social policy in a manner that most late twentieth-century Americans would consider strange, even alien... Few features of social policy were compulsory or coercive; except for grave emergencies, the sanctity of the individual and of personal liberty remained sacrosanct."

And that was all by page 7....

One only has to only read this compelling social and political history to understand why the Democratic party does worse and worse every election in the South, and that the only Democrats that seem to have any kind of success at all are the DLC types. I will write more about this later, and lose even more readers...

Another pander to a specific reader to stem the tide of my dwindling audience, I do a shout-out to Bidisha Banerjee, an editorial assistant at Slate, who sometimes writes the morning blog feature for the magazine. Bidisha sent me a very nice email saying he enjoys reading this very blog, but he and an editor are not sure whether or not to link to it because they are unsure whether it is a blog or a parody of a blog, as I say atop.

I hope this morning's post clears up the confusion!

A somewhat lengthier version of my Washington Examiner column on Baron Edward Von Kloberg III is on the front page of this morning. The column is also going to appear over the next few days in a small number of other newspapers. In this particular case, the pandering, putting his name in bold face, is not going to gain me any new readers. For those who are really, really interested in the him, I wrote about him still earlier in this blog.

One wonders what advice the Baron might offer up to Newsweek and Michael Isikoff.

I promise that I will stop writing about Von Kloberg anymore.

Once again, I hope my girlfriend is still reading.

Tomasky, I will lend you my copy of "The Paradox of Southern Progressivism" when I am done reading it. I am probably going to force this book upon all of my friends.

Finally, Dad, happy birthday this morning.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Newsweek retracts story, after seventeen are dead by rioting inspired by apparently erroneous report.

Seventeen people are dead tonight. One apparent cause of death: sloppy and inaccurate journalism.

As I write this post, still very little is known as of yet, but Newsweek is retracting a report that a Pentagon inquiry had determined that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba desecrated the Koran. The Newsweek report, by reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry, although principally reported by Isikoff, also claimed that an interrogator flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet in attempting to get one terror suspect to talk. Newsweek is now reporting that the story might not have any truth to it.

In the meantime, 17 people have died in Afghanistan, after riots broke out provoked by the Newsweek account. Newsweek's editor Mark Whitaker has posted this editor's note online about the erroneous report:

"Although other major news organizations had aired charges of Qur'an desecration based only on the testimony of the detainees, we believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence. So we published the item. After several days, newspapers in Pakistan and Afghanistan began running accounts of our story. At that point, as Even Thomas, Ron Moreau, and Sam Yousafzai report this week, the riots started and spread across the country, fanned by extremists and unhappiness over the economy."

"Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur'an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them 'not credible.' Our original source later said he couldn't be certain about reading of the alleged Qur'an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of the our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in the midst." [emphasis added.]

Some comments: The source for Newsweek's story hardly seems credible at this point. Whitaker's statement now quoting his magazine's anonymous source as saying that allegations of Koran desecration "might have been in other investigative documents or drafts" than the specific one reported by the magazine is pure speculation. Both the anonymous source and Newsweek are recklessly only continuing to fan the flames.

The magazine should obviously continue to report the story, and if it turns out that there indeed are other credible allegations of Koran desecration in some other secret government document, it would seem the magazine has got an incredible scoop. If the Pentagon and White House have lied about this, the credibility of the Bush administration would stand little chance to recover-- and rightfully-- coming on the heels of no WMD found in Iraq. And it is also more than reasonable that the magazine and its source want to vindicate themselves, but they won't achieve that by continuing in reckless public speculation as to what might or might not be true.

The predominant journalistic culture now apparently is that it does not matter anymore whether what journalists report is accurate or not. One hopes-- although they would be naive to do so-- that this particular incident would be the one that would lead to higher journalistic standards. (After all, nobody died because of Jayson Blair.)

But don't count on it. Wonkette will soon be holding forth once again on Charlie Rose as to why it doesn't matter if any of the gossip she reports on her website is true or not. The Drudge Report will print the latest unsubstantiated gossip on whichever public figure, as he is wont to do.

Isikoff, the principal author of the Newsweek story in question, is also hardly your traditional "investigative journalist." He is perhaps best known for his zealous pursuit of Bill Clinton's sexual escapades. In that pursuit, he certainly had done as much harm to himself and his profession than the President whom he was pursuing. Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis persuasively argued in the New York Review of Books that Isikoff was more a participant in the events to bring down Clinton than an objective observer. Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and the author of a book about the Clinton impeachment crisis, "A Vast Conspiracy" had this to say of Isikoff in the New York Review of Books: "Isikoff appears to recognize that we are moving toward a first historical consensus about the meaning of these tumultuous events: that Clinton's impeachment, and the events leading to it, amounted to a constituional and cultural disgrace for this country... In light of this, Isikoff seeks... to portray himself as a `level-headed observer' who was merely acting out of `good faith' and for a `legitimate professional purpose.' But try as he might to pretend that he only had a seat in the stands for this epochal contest, the truth is that Isikoff was down on the field-- performing, as it turns out, for the losing side." (In fairness to Isikoff, one can find posted here his response to both Lewis and Toobin in the New York Review.)

After Sept. 11, Isikoff, who had admitted to having been obsessed with green room appearances and presidents' personal lives for too long, swore that he, like so many other Washington journalists, would become more serious minded (as if an impeachment and trial of the President by the United States Senate were never really serious matters). But this latest episode raises doubt as to whether that has been the case.

Instead of earning his redemption, Isikoff's editor is offering on behalf of Newsweek to "extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."

Tonight, it is difficult to see the line between Wonkette and Drudge and Newsweek. If the line was once blurred, it feels at least as of this writing, to have all but disappeared.

Until now, all the erroneous reports and reckless rumor-mongering was always only done without any bad intentions! No innocents are ever hurt, and if they were, not too badly. Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox has said famously that anything she writes will only ruin someone's day, and not their life. Unfortunately, that is the new ethic for much of journalism.

In this case, the Afghan death toll stands at seventeen, and no story correction will ever do justice for the harm already done so many. (What can ruin someone's day can indeed ruin their life, perhaps even rob them of it entirely.) And the worse might still not be over. Protests against America have not only broken out in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but all throughout the Arab world including among other places, Yemen and the Gaza Strip. Also as a result, U.S. servicemen now already in harm's way stand in even greater harm's way.

Update, 10:49 P.M: Since my original posting, the Washington Post has posted a story online to appear tomorrow on its front page story about the Newsweek saga. A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, is quoted in the newspaper as calling Newsweek's report "irresponsible" and "demonstrably false."

Whitman further said: ""Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those who were viciously attacked by those false allegations."

Addendum: Wonkette, in this post, actually had done a public service a while back, in naming Isikoff as one of Washington's journalists who has a cable television problem. No call by an MSNBC booker ever apparently went unreturned. Advice for young journalists: stay away from the green room and instead stay late at the office and double check the details of your stories with your sources.

A biography of Isikoff on Newsweek's web site has this to say: "Isikoff's exclusive reporting on the Monica Lewinsky scandal gained him national attention in late 1998, including profiles in the Washington Post and the New York Times and guest appearances on the `Late Show with David Letterman.'" I knew there was a reason that as a young man I aspired to be a journalist...