Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What You Should Know

Guess who's beating breasts about unnamed sources?

By Matt Taibbi

Give the American media a story about American interrogators defacing the Quran, and journalists are so appalled there's no time for fact checking before they dash off to see the latest exhibition of Piss Christ.
—Ann Coulter, on the Newsweek scandal

Ann Coulter has taken up the cause of journalistic ethics. Last week she joined 100 million other Americans in courageously denouncing Newsweek magazine, which has now entered the pantheon of entrenched, all-powerful anti-American conspirators. It joins, among others, Bill Clinton, the ACLU and Piss Christ creator Andres Serrano.

In the safe haven of its secret underground lair, this apparently tireless bund of traitors concocted a brilliant scheme to screw up the attribution on a story about the Quran being flushed down toilets in Guantanamo Bay. They might have succeeded, had not Ann Coulter and a few other brave souls stepped in to defend the besieged minority of true patriots.

It was humorous to see how quickly Newsweek lost its cachet with Middle America. So long as it went about its usual revolting Neanderthal literary mission—wrapping 4000 words of inane speculations about the historical Jesus around breathless updates on the value of Martha Stewart stock (Pie Chart, p. 37!), and startling new insights about "the real George Washington"—no one had any problem with Newsweek.

An ethical magazine is one that uses up its news pages asking questions like Can smiling prevent cancer? and makes sure at least twice each calendar year to do a "What the fuck is wrong with our ungrateful, disobedient children?" story, so that angry suburban parents have something to read in the doctor's office while they wait to have their bunions shaved. That—plus the occasional feature on Shrek 2 as the crowning achievement of the human creative impulse, and the odd investigation into why cell phones in restaurants are so darn annoying—is what good journalism is all about.

As is almost always the case when our population works itself into an indignant furor over some fresh moral atrocity, virtually every respected commentator in the country leaped onto the soapbox once it became clear which way the wind was blowing. Windbag after windbag lined up to denounce the use of unnamed sources as a crime roughly equivalent to the buggering of orphans.

"Unless hard digging provides real verified facts, the anonymous stuff should be flushed down the toilet," croaked USA Today founder and renowned press ethicist Al Neuharth.

Added the Arizona Republic, in a house editorial non-hysterically titled "Sources of Shame": "Accepting the word of unnamed sources is traveling in landmine territory."

Martin Peretz of the New Republic went so far as to draw a general conclusion about the seamy character of all journalists from the Newsweek episode. "All of Newsweek's penitential protestations notwithstanding," he said, "what emerges from this episode is the image of a profession that is complacent, self-righteous, and hopelessly in love with itself."

It's funny. The only time anyone thinks to blast the use of "unnamed sources" is when the mistake occurs in that rarest of phenomena in mainstream journalism: the dissenting piece of investigative journalism.

The reality is that unnamed sources are used about 10,000 times a day by the more patriotic and upstanding members of our working press, only they're not used to wonder about the goings-on at places like Guantanamo Bay. Instead, they're used to kiss ass and make icons out of morons—to turn George Bush into Winston Churchill, Dick Gephardt into Eugene Debs, Tom Clancy into Tolstoy.

Most consumers of news magazines will recognize the format, which typically involves an unnamed spokesman whispering that such-and-such Croseus-rich politician is a great lover of NASCAR races, or lies awake at night worrying about the poor: "Aides say Kerry is particularly concerned about the plight of the southern white jobless, whose situation deeply touched him when he last visited..."

The practice is especially common in campaign journalism and in the political profile genre, where it never offends self-appointed trade moralists like Marty Peretz. Newsweek, the current "unnamed sources" villain, is and always has been the very worst offender in this area.

No one bitched at the magazine on January 24 of this year, for instance, when reporter Richard Wolffe wrote a slobbering cover profile on the "Bush you don't know" that was filthy with unnamed sources.

An example from the text:

Bushs leadership style belies his caricature as a disengaged president who is blindly loyal, dislikes dissent and covets his own downtime. In fact, Bushs aides and friends describe the mirror image of a restless man who masters details and reads avidly, who chews over his mistakes and the failings of those around him, and who has grown ever more comfortable pulling the levers of power.

This, just months after Bush himself admitted during a presidential debate that he really couldn't remember any mistakes that he'd ever made, and after Bush himself admitted that he doesn't even read newspapers, let alone books. (During the 2000 campaign, Bush carried around the same copy of a biography of Dean Acheson for six months in an effort to convince reporters he was a reader.) Yet Newsweek allows Bush aides to insist, as unnamed sources, that Bush agonizes over his mistakes and is an "avid reader."

In another part of the article, Wolffe quotes an unnamed "Republican senator" on the matter of Bush's command of detail:

When he wants to be, hes a real stickler for details, says one Republican senator. When he calls you to talk about a bill, he knows the nitty gritty. You dont get the sense hes been reading the Cliffs Notes guide to an issue.

So you think Newsweek didn't work hard enough to confirm the Quran-toilet story? How hard do you think Richard Wolffe worked to confirm that George Bush "knows the nitty-gritty"? I bet he burned up the phone lines working on that one.

They just throw this stuff out there week after week, and no one ever complains about it. That's because kissing ass is not a crime in America, while questioning the government often is. At least, you better not screw it up if you try. God help you then.

The most absurd aspect of the Newsweek scandal was the whole idea of a "media out of control." Many people, even allegedly responsible people like Peretz, took the position that the post-Watergate American press is now so sick with self-love and power-lust that it reflexively sheds its ethics whenever it smells blood.

In Santa Maria, California this week, I am one of over 1500 media personnel accredited to cover the Michael Jackson trial, one of the most pointless and idiotic news stories of all time. By the thousands, we chase tornadoes, wring our hands over Brad and Jennifer, film babies fallen in wells, do one-hour interview specials with Scott Peterson's cellmate.

Once every year or so, one or two of us steps out of line to cover some serious matter involving war or corruption or torture. If that's "out of control," what would we be if we were really working?

Volume 18, Issue 21

Thanks to Mutualist for the link.

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