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A Look at the 'Newsweek' Controversy

Aired May 22, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Deadly consequences. Has "Newsweek's" credibility gone into the toilet over its retracted story about an American prison guard defiling the Koran? Was reporter Michael Isikoff wrong to base such an explosive charge on a single anonymous source? Are "Newsweek" and the media anti-military, as some conservatives charge, or are administration officials piling on to deflect attention from their own problems in Iraq?

Plus, should "The London Sun" and "New York Post" have run that underwear shot of Saddam?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the uproar over the "Newsweek" debacle. I'm Howard Kurtz.

For 11 days after "Newsweek" ran a brief "Periscope" item on an alleged incident of defiling the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, nothing happened. But then it was translated by the Arab press, and riots broke out in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries, leaving 16 dead. "Newsweek" editor Mark Whitaker apologized and retracted the story.

Administration officials slammed the magazine for irresponsible conduct, and Republican Congressman Bob Ney singled out "Newsweek's" Michael Isikoff.


REP. BOB NEY (R), OHIO: "Newsweek's" behavior is not merely unfortunate, it is criminal. America's troops are in enough danger without self-righteous yellow journalists like Michael Isikoff defaming them for a cheap headline.


KURTZ: When White House spokesman Scott McClellan called on "Newsweek" to help repair the damage with a better portrayal of the military, ABC's Terry Moran took sharp exception.


TERRY MORAN, ABC NEWS: With respect, who made you the editor of "Newsweek"? Do you think it's appropriate for you at that podium, speaking with the authority of the president of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?


KURTZ: In a few moments, we'll talk about all this with David Gergen, David Frum, and Pentagon correspondent Pam Hess. But joining us now, "Newsweek's" Washington bureau chief, Dan Klaidman. Welcome.


KURTZ: Was the biggest mistake here relying on a single, unnamed source who said he'd seen a military report and ended up backing off of that account?

KLAIDMAN: Ultimately, I think it was the biggest mistake. We relied on one source who we had relied on in the past. He'd provided us accurate information. He was in a position to know. We sought further confirmation, and ultimately, I think, we relied on one source who got it wrong, and we accepted what we thought was tacit confirmation from other Defense Department -- from another Defense Department source, but that I think was the biggest mistake.

KURTZ: You were involved in the editing here. Did you raise the question about whether this was sufficiently nailed down?

KLAIDMAN: Yes, we did. You know, the frustrating thing about this mistake is we did go through a lot of the same kind of vetting process we go through with a lot of stories we do and sensitive stories. Brought in another reporter so that we could get more confirmation, and ran the item by other sources -- in fact, took the extraordinary length of actually providing the story to a senior responsible Defense Department official. But because we ultimately relied on that one source who got it wrong, and perhaps didn't have enough communication among editors and reporters, we got the story wrong, and so we retracted it. We acknowledged our mistake quickly, and we're now learning from the mistakes and reaffirming our values to get these stories right, but also putting out some guidelines to make sure that there's a better safety net in the future.

KURTZ: And "Newsweek" Chairman Rick Smith in a letter to readers released today says that "Newsweek" will be a lot more careful about using unnamed sources, that senior editors will have to approve their use, and there will be more description of what a source's motivation might be.

But now, we've had a lot of fire from the administration this week. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, lecturing "Newsweek" from the podium about the responsibility to repair the damage here. Do you think that the administration is trying to deflect attention from its own problems in Iraq and documented abuses at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. prison facilities?

KLAIDMAN: Look, Howie, I am really not in a position to ascribe motives to the administration. We're in an age where a lot of things get politicized. But what we're focusing on is that we screwed up. We made a mistake. And we want to learn from the mistake. We want to make sure that we re-establish the trust of our readers to the extent we can. That is our most prized commodity, other than our staff, our excellent professional and talented staff, and people are making comments of all kinds across the political divide and it's not really -- it's not...

KURTZ: And one of those comments, Dan Klaidman, we just saw Republican Congressman Bob Ney calling Michael Isikoff "a yellow journalist." Did Isikoff do anything wrong here?

KLAIDMAN: Mike acted professionally. He is a reporter who you know, I've worked with for a very long time. You know, Mike doesn't only get the story mostly right, he has a long, long record, sensitive, politically sensitive stories, getting it completely right. The Monica Lewinsky story was largely Mike's reporting, and it stood up 100 percent, even though he came under enormous amount of criticism.

One of the things about Mike that I've always been impressed with, and we certainly fell short here, but Mike has always worked extremely hard to get more sourcing and to get on-the-record sourcing. He understands that when you run a story with an on-the-record, with on-the-record attribution, that that is a more of a journalistic coup, because people out there understand that it's more credible, because people who attach their names to this story, that gives it more validity.

KURTZ: I have just got time for a last question. "National Review" cover here, "Media Credibility in the Toilet." "The New York Post" this week ran a cover -- let's put that up -- showing "Newsweek" magazine in the toilet, referring to this Koran story. How bad a hit has "Newsweek" taken over this?

KLAIDMAN: Look, "Newsweek" has a long tradition of getting the story right and acting responsibly and fairly.

We made a serious mistake here. We've owned up to it. We are now reaffirming our core values, to be fair and accurate, and we're putting in guidelines to add an extra layer of -- and a safety net to make sure this doesn't happen again.

We have to earn back the credibility, and we're absolutely committed to doing that.

KURTZ: And we appreciate you coming on on what I know has been a difficult week. Dan Klaidman, thanks for joining us.

And joining us now from Boston, David Gergen, editor-at-large at "U.S. News & World Report," professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former adviser to four presidents. And here in the studio, "National Review" contributing editor David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush. And Pamela Hess, Pentagon correspondent from United Press International. Welcome to all of you.

Pam Hess, you deal with the military every day. PAMELA HESS, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, UPI: Yeah.

KURTZ: Could you do your job without anonymous sources?

HESS: It's not possible to do your job at the Pentagon without anonymous sources. The reason why is the Pentagon is a two-headed beast. It's both political, in that it has political appointees, whose job it is to make the president's policies both work and look good, and it's military, whose job it is to remain apolitical and to provide their best military judgments to the civilians.

Sometimes those military judgments undercut presidential policies, and don't make the president look good. They can't say those things out loud, because they are required to support the president's policies. So sometimes you have to go behind the scenes, and I can tell you that Pentagon reporters in particular put a great deal of stock in what the uniformed military says, particularly behind those closed doors.

KURTZ: David Frum, how bad a mistake was this by "Newsweek," and how did the magazine handle it in the first few days?

DAVID FRUM, "NATIONAL REVIEW" CONTRIBUTING EDITOR: Well, it was a serious mistake, and their initial response was, I think, made it worse. Their initial response, the first apology from managing editor Mark Whitaker was I think very high-handed and rather arrogant. But there is broader blame...

KURTZ: And do you think he corrected that?

FRUM: Yeah. But it's very -- you can't correct it, unfortunately.

KURTZ: All right.

FRUM: Because the broader context of this is is, this was not simply an -- we should not take it for granted that people in the Islamic world are going to react in violent ways. This was something that played into the hands of particular political figures. Imran Khan, a very ambitious Pakistani politician. I don't think "Newsweek" is widely read in Jalalabad. What happened there was that there are people in that part of the world who for their own sinister purposes seized on this magazine, and although it's delightful for anyone on the right to kick around a mainstream media institution, we also need to remember that the underlying story here is there are some very dangerous people in the Middle East.

KURTZ: Who will seize on whatever they can.

FRUM: Precisely.

KURTZ: "The National Review" seems to be doing some kicking around here with this toilet cover.

David Gergen, should "Newsweek" and Mike Isikoff still be protecting this unnamed source who it turns out, inadvertently we presume, provided this wrong information?

DAVID GERGEN, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": No. I think they should unmask the unnamed source. After all, there was an old rule in journalism, and Ben Bradlee represented that at "The Washington Post," if an unnamed source lies to a news organization, that source loses his anonymity, by definition, because he's misled people.

In this case, it may be that the unnamed source was -- unintentionally misled "Newsweek," but nonetheless, given the seriousness of what happened, it seems to me the unnamed source should be unmasked in this case, just as it should have been in the Joe Wilson case, when the name of his wife was given to the news media.

I cannot understand why journalists are the only ones who are being put in the pen and ragged on these things when it's the unnamed sources who are getting everybody in trouble.

KURTZ: Right. Although "Newsweek" would take a lot of heat for breaking a promise of confidentiality, particularly if the deception was not intentional.

GERGEN: Well, of course, they would, but on the other hand there should be -- you know, I think "Newsweek" has done something very commendable today. Rick Smith, who is an extremely respected chairman, former editor of "Newsweek," has put out these new standards for the magazine, which I think is -- should serve as a beginning point for all news organizations to raise their standards. I think it was a commendable step.

KURTZ: All right.

GERGEN: But having said that, you know, it's time for the sources to be held to account, too.

KURTZ: You're shaking your head, Pam Hess.

HESS: I'm thinking, absolutely not. People are human and sources are human and they will make mistakes. It is the journalist's job, because it's the journalist's name that's on that piece, to make sure that what that person is saying is true. You're supposed to talk to a lot of people before you go with it, because one person doesn't have the corner on the truth. So if a journalist fails to get multiple sources and that one source is wrong, it's the journalist's fault, not the source's fault, unless they intentionally mislead. Then it opens a whole another can of worms.

KURTZ: David Frum made reference to conservatives perhaps enjoying this, beating up on "Newsweek." Let's take a look at some of what's been said on the airwaves this week.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Truth is that some news agencies can't wait to get dirt on the military so they can embarrass the Bush administration. Ideological reporting is rampant in this country and it is getting people killed. PAT BUCHANAN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What "Newsweek" did was shameful and stupid. I don't care if the item was true or false, it doesn't make any difference.


KURTZ: Pat Buchanan doesn't even care if it's true. He thinks these things shouldn't be reported. Has "Newsweek" been unfair overall to the Pentagon, to the Bush administration, to Don Rumsfeld?

FRUM: Look, "Newsweek" has been, especially on Iraq, they've had a very strong point of view. They have been very much opposed to the war. They've been very much opposed in particular to the Department of Defense, very heavily reliant on the -- very heavily reliant on people who criticize what the administration has been doing. I've heard stories about one very senior person at "Newsweek," a reporter there saying publicly, Ahmed Chalabi must be destroyed. He was a player. He was a player in this story. So they've had a strong point of view.

KURTZ: What about the idea that it doesn't matter whether it's true or not?

FRUM: Well, you know, I think one of the things we're also battling here is a little bit -- is a hangover, that for about a year after 9/11, the press was really extremely supportive of what the administration was doing and what the military was doing, and maybe that was a little unnatural, and maybe they feel like some things got past them, and Abu Ghraib has been, you know, has been the Tet Offensive of this war that's had a shocking effect on the attitudes of the press, and they're reverting to some of their old habits of suspicion.

I don't think anything is concealed by covering up the truth. I think the real question is why was "Newsweek" so ready to believe something that was false.

KURTZ: David Gergen, a "Wall Street Journal" editorial this week talks about a basic media mistrust of the military going back to Vietnam. You've worked for four administrations. Are journalists more willing these days to believe stories that reflect badly on our soldiers, or did that begin to change with the war in Iraq?

GERGEN: I think that -- I think this is a canard that journalism is anti-military. The embedded reporters on the going-in process and the buildup to this war were extraordinarily positive about the military. And I think it was a complete reversal of what we saw in Vietnam, when the journalists were I think -- had a very edge -- hard edge against the military. But I think it's a very different environment now.

I think the problem is not that -- is not that "Newsweek" or the other journalistic organizations are anti-military. They're certainly not -- "Newsweek" is not coming from a leftist position. After all, they were very, very critical of Bill Clinton, and it was Michael Isikoff who uncovered and investigated a lot of the facts against Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky case.

KURTZ: Right.

GERGEN: So I think it's important to remember, I think what journalism in general has become, pretty critical of authority, and too willing to go with anonymous sources, which shows that authorities have somehow blundered. And I think that's what Rick Smith is trying to do in these new standards, saying from now on, we're going to try not to go with a single anonymous source.

KURTZ: Let me turn to Pam Hess, because you're at the Pentagon every day. ABC's Terry Moran, in an interview this week with radio host Hugh Hewitt said that journalism begins from the premise that the military must be lying. Is there this built-in skepticism that can perhaps be unfair when covering the Pentagon?

HESS: There is actually a built-in skepticism, and here's how it starts in Washington. All of the civilian agencies that reporters cover are necessarily political. Their job is to do what the president says and to support the president's policies and make the president look good. The problem that you have is that then gets translated over into covering the uniformed military, and there's not a lot of understanding that there's a separation between the uniformed military and the Pentagon. And the uniformed military's job is not necessarily to make the president look good, but rather to implement what it is that the president says, and in fact, the military is supposed to be apolitical.

KURTZ: What about this question of reporters' bias?

HESS: I don't know that it's a question of reporters' bias. I think it's a reporter's job is to question authority, is to question presidents and politicians. What happens is that they then apply those same kinds of attitudes and the same kind of questions to the military, and the military takes that very personally, because they say, hey, we're not political. We're not trying to make the president look good. We're just trying to do our job.

So what they perceive is a bias reporters feel like they're just doing their job, but I do think that there's a disconnect there.

KURTZ: Sounds like a culture clash.

I need to get a break here. When we come back, we'll talk more about the role of Michael Isikoff and how much journalists should rely on those anonymous sources. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. "Newsweek's" Michael Isikoff has a long track record as an investigative reporter. He broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or would have had "Newsweek" not famously held his story. Isikoff has been both praised and vilified on the airways this past week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHUCK TODD, THE HOTLINE: Michael Isikoff, we all know, is one of the best reporters in this town, period. Hands down. He broke a lot of stories.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's a terrific reporters.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": "Newsweek" reporter Michael Isikoff is a disgrace. He has smeared loyal American soldiers and he wrote a story that touched off deadly riots and did incalculable damage to America's already battered reputation.


KURTZ: I should note that Paul Begala, who we just heard from, worked on the Clinton White House during the Lewinsky scandal...

FRUM: Payback time for Paul Begala.

KURTZ: All right, just wanted to point that out.

Are some commentators going overboard here in chastising Isikoff and arguing that the media hate the military?

FRUM: First of all, on Isikoff, I think they -- Isikoff is an apolitical person. He has views, I'm sure, but he is not an axe- grinding reporter. There are such, but he's not one of them. And I think Bob Ney was completely out of line to criticize him on the floor of Congress. That's wrong. Paul Begala, that's a vendetta.

You know, mistakes happen in journalism, as they happen in the military. And I think those of us who will say, the military will sometimes drop a bomb on the wrong village and hurt people, and we say things like that happen in war. So if we can understand military mistakes, we should be able to understand journalistic mistakes.

I think this may be a moment where we need to focus a little bit less in on Americans and the mistakes they inevitably make, and a little more out on what is going on in the Islamic world. There are people who are so ready to exploit these passing words to order to create violence in which people are killed.

KURTZ: But David Gergen, is this mistake -- and everyone admits it was a mistake by Mike Isikoff -- going to become part of the pantheon of media blunders that get recited here? I mean, just this past week, CBS canceled "60 Minutes Wednesday." They said it was low ratings, but of course, that's the program that aired Dan Rather's now discredited report on President Bush and the National Guard. How much is this further blackening the reputation of the media?

GERGEN: I'm afraid that it will become not only in the pantheon, but one of the leading examples, and even a tipping point in the public's view of the media. You know, the polls have gone down and down about public trust in the media. Almost half the public now thinks that the media tends to be un-American or anti-American. You know, two-thirds of the people in one poll say they don't -- they think the media is always slanted in its reporting, and this is only going to -- it's only going to drive those numbers in the wrong direction further.

And so much so that it's one of these moments that I think is really -- it just gets burned into the public memory bank. It's what's needed now, Howard, in my judgment is that the Rick Smith's effort to raise standards at "Newsweek" now needs to be followed by other news organizations coming together and trying to see if they can't agree upon some standard of ethics and reporting responsibility that would play across the board. It seems to me we...


KURTZ: You rely on unnamed sources, it's part of your job at the Pentagon...

HESS: I have several unnamed sources watching me right now.

KURTZ: But would you have gone with a story like this, this explosive and potentially inflammatory story based on one unnamed source?

HESS: No. It was just bad journalism, and "Newsweek" recognizes that. And the -- covering the Pentagon is an art. And the art is knowing who of the 25,000 people there know exactly what's going on on the story, and you have to realize that people will comment on stories that they don't know anything about, and your job is to figure out who actually knows this stuff.

And what "Newsweek" should have done in the last thing is given this to someone in the public affairs office and said, knock it down.

KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE). I got 10 seconds.

FRUM: Unlike Dan Rather, I think this was an honest mistake. I mean, that is the one -- that story should head the pantheon, because there they really did not care whether the story was true or not. Isikoff cared. He just made an error of the kind we -- everyone in media will make at some point in his life.


KURTZ: Up next, those Saddam Hussein photos splashed across tabloids in London and New York. Should they have been published?


KURTZ: The U.S. military vowing to investigate how photos of Saddam Hussein in captivity were leaked to Rupert Murdoch's "London Sun," including one of the former Iraqi leader in his underwear.

David Gergen, you're the editor of "The London Sun" or "The New York Post," would you have run these pictures?

GERGEN: Yes. This was the military's mistakes. They should not have allowed those pictures to be taken or leaked. Once they're out, they're out. Howie, I would use them more tastefully, hopefully so, but nonetheless I think they're in the public domain once they're out. KURTZ: David Frum, couldn't there be violent repercussions from this in Iraq, as there were in the "Newsweek" case?

FRUM: Well, I think the people who are pro-Saddam are being as violent as they can already. I don't know that they're going to do worse than they're doing now, and it may in fact demoralize them a little bit.

KURTZ: Pam Hess, if this had been a leaked photo of a U.S. POW in captivity, suddenly being displayed in his underwear, wouldn't most of the U.S. media been denouncing this as a horrible thing to do?

HESS: Absolutely. And I think though, to the Pentagon's credit, they're denouncing this as a horrible thing to do, and they're investigating it as a Geneva Conventions possible violation.

KURTZ: David Frum, I've got -- excuse me, David Gergen, I have got a few seconds. You say that once it's out, but of course, had newspapers declined to publish these leaked photos, they wouldn't have been out. So you seem to be letting the media off the hook a little bit here.

GERGEN: Well, listen, Howie, once they've been leaked, they're going to get out somewhere. We know the nature of this business, and if "The Sun" hadn't published them, somebody else would, some other tabloid would have. So I don't think you can blame the press on this. This was -- these pictures should never have been allowed to be taken.

KURTZ: All right, well, certainly probably they would have wound up on the Internet at the very least.

GERGEN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: David Gergen, Pam Hess, David Frum, thanks very much for joining us.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: My thanks to all our guests and to "Newsweek's" Dan Klaidman for coming on to take the heat.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer, who will be airing an interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, begins right now.


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