The White House, the Pentagon, world leaders, the Muslim street, John Q. Public, and the press fed Newsweek a boatload of griefburgers last week for getting the Quran-in-the-toilet story wrong. The magazine's Michael Isikoff and John Barry reported that a forthcoming U.S. Southern Command report was "expected" to include investigators' findings that a Quran was flushed down a toilet at the Guantanamo detention center to "rattle suspects."
Newsweek retreated from the story when its confidential source reversed himself, telling Isikoff he could no longer be certain that the Quran allegations were in the SouthCom report.
The criticism from the press, while much deserved, overstepped on one count. Some readers, including three at the Washington Post, believe that Newsweek had claimed multiple sources for its Quran revelation when it had only one.
On Sunday, May 22, Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote:
The reporting depended on a single, anonymous source, albeit one who was supposed to be credible and trusted. Yet the printed item said "sources tell Newsweek." That's plural and therefore misleading. That kind of thing happens too often in journalism. Normally, at least two sources are required for such a volatile claim.
On Monday, May 23, Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote:
The item was attributed to "sources," although there was only a single source, who Newsweek said later backed off his account.
On Tuesday, May 24, Post op-ed columnist Gene Robinson wrote:
Just what did Newsweek do wrong, besides using the lazy "sources said" attribution in its item about supposed desecration of the Koran, when in fact there was only one source?
Gelter, Kurtz, Robinson, and other Newsweek critics are wrong about the magazine inflating its source court. I understand how they made their mistake, as I almost committed it when I wrote about the furor last week. But just before posting, I went back and re-examined the controversial sentence. It reads:
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.
This copy reads as if composed by a Waring blender and edited with a dull band saw, but those faults aside, it doesn't claim multiple sources for the Quran allegation. It claims multiple sources for the Quran allegation plus the anecdote about the dog leash. I contacted Isikoff, who confirmed my hunch. He says the magazine had two sources for the dog-leash allegation.
If a writer has one source for one allegation, and he has two sources for the second, he's not inventing anything when he claims plural sources for those two allegations. This close reading isn't a legalistic attempt to exonerate Newsweek but to defend an excellent reporter from the charge that he conjured a source out of thin air.
I asked all three Post writers to comment on my observation. Gene Robinson wrote to say:
I still think that attribution is confusing at best, although the point of my column was to argue that Newsweek did not commit the capital offense that critics of the magazine allege. The word I used in the column was "lazy." As the Periscope item is written, there's no way to tell whether the item claims multiple sources for both the Quran and the dog allegations, or one for the first and one for the second, or maybe one for the first and two for the second, or whatever. Maybe I should have done what you did—pick up the phone and ask Mike Isikoff to apportion the sourcing. But if a determined reader has to call the reporter to parse the attribution, why include it in the first place? It was lazy writing; the item as printed is ambiguous about the sourcing; and it's easy to see how a reader would take away that there were multiple sources for the Quran allegation, even though you have helpfully established that that wasn't the case.
That said, my column argues that apart from some lazy writing I don't think Newsweek committed a class-A felony here, and that there are times when unnamed sources are not only acceptable but essential. That's still what I believe.
Howard Kurtz responded:
What I wrote was based on interviews with Newsweek editors who kept talking about a single source. If there was more than one source, I stand corrected, although the item was so brief it was hard to tell and of course the source(s) remain anonymous.
Addendum, May 25, 9:30 a.m. Michael Getler e-mailed his comments from London, where he was traveling:
I think the fact that Kurtz, Robinson (I saw a piece this morning by Schanberg that was along the same lines, and Hertzberg in The NewYorker puts "sources" in quotes, and probably others that I have not seen) made similar points is a reflection of how that piece was read by many media savvy readers and presented to the public. It is one thing to go ahead and try to clarify what reporters say was the degree of anonymous sourcing. But it is the case that the use of "sources" is often flimsy and meant to cover one real source. The power of this item was built around one source and when he caved the item was retracted. All the discussion of the top editors in the aftermath centered on one source. Others weren't even mentioned (at least at the time I wrote). Without that source, no item.
The only reference in the story was to sources told Newsweek. The collar stuff would not be very new. The key stuff was the toilet linked to the report. But there was nothing more to go on, and the way this was presented to the public I think it was very fair to assume that Newsweek had "sources" for the whole item. I think you run the risk of essentially endorsing what may either have been carelessness or intentionally obscuring the degree of sourcing by clever writing. Readers should not have to call up later to try to parse such things. I'm a great fan and supporter of Mike and his reporting. But I think the larger point here is that the central reason for this item came from a single source and that the single reference anywhere in the story was to multiple anonymous sources.
Disclosure: Slate, the Washington Post, and Newsweek are owned by the Washington Post Co., a "diversified media and education company." Michael Isikoff is a friend. He did not plant or prompt this story in any way (nor did anyone else). Also, I have more friends at Newsweek than I do in my own family, and that's counting cousins. One "Press Box" reader suggests that I place my disclosures at the start of my pieces, rather than at the end, so readers will know where I'm coming from before I get there. This is a fine suggestion, and I'll follow it whenever my disclosures run longer than my pieces. Send your disclosures via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)