Sunday, June 5


F.A.I.R. points out a largely overlooked issue in the onslaught of criticism against Newsweek for its short item about Koran abuse at Gitmo: the fact that the magazine submitted the article to the Pentagon for review before publishing it.

But is showing articles to government officials prepublication really "the right thing" to do? Such advance looks can't help but imply that journalists are asking for permission to publish critical articles about the government—a dangerous impression to give if the news media hope to maintain a free press. The prepublication review also invites officials to give feedback not only on facts but on questions of balance, organization and tone as well—areas in which government officials have no special expertise, but which as interested parties to the story they have every incentive to weigh in on.

Of course, checking facts is an important part of the journalistic process. But fact-checking traditionally involves asking sources about the facts in a report, not giving sources a chance to review the entire report ahead of time. This not only protects the story from attempts by sources to participate in the editing process, it's also less fallible than Newsweek's method. When an official is shown a story in advance and makes no comment about a particular allegation, that can mean many things: "That's true"; "I don't know if that's true or not"; "That's less important than other things I'd like to comment on"; "I hope publishing this false report blows up in your face."
When asked to explain the discrepancy between the White House's criticism of Newsweek's anonymous sourcing of its Quran item and the fact that the White House itself regularly gives anonymous briefings to reporters, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said (5/17/05) it was acceptable to quote anonymous "officials who are helping to provide context to on-the-record comments made by people like the President or the Secretary of State or others"; the real problem was that "some media organizations have used anonymous sources that are hiding behind that anonymity in order to generate negative attacks."

It's easy to see why the White House press secretary would approve of anonymous sources when they help the administration and condemn them when they don't. What's more puzzling is that some in the media seem to be judging anonymous sources the same way.


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