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Newsweek pays price for arrogance

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Posted: Friday, May 27, 2005 10:00 pm

Newsweek magazine recently suffered a bitter and very public humiliation.

It got what it deserved.

Most publications, this one included, use anonymous sources from time to time.

For Newsweek, failing to name sources was not a rarity. It was a routine.

This practice, a blend of laziness and hubris, blew up recently. Earlier this month, Newsweek reported that military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, in an attempt to convince Muslim detainees to talk, had flushed a Quran down the toilet.

Richard Hanner

The inflammatory account, attributed to nameless "sources," was actually based on a single government source.

It may have contributed to rioting that claimed the lives of at least 17 people.

It turned out to be wrong.

In fact, there was only one source, not two. After the item was published, the lone source backed away from the statement.

Newsweek has issued its own passionate mea culpa, saying it will be more careful in the future. I am unconvinced.

In the news industry, the use of anonymous sources has often been described as an addiction. And if there is one major publication hooked deeply by the use of the unnamed source, it is Newsweek.

I am a long-time Newsweek reader and sometimes admirer. But in recent months I've been more and more perplexed by the magazine's profligate use of unnamed sources.

For example, if you take the time to comb through the May 2 edition of Newsweek, as I did, you would find the following so-called sources:

"Feds," with no further elaboration, in a story about a fugitive who might be a terrorist.

"An official familiar with NSA (National Security Agency) procedures," in a story about the agency distributing the names of U.S. citizens to other federal operations.

"A spokeswoman," for John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, in a piece about finding office space.

"Sources close to the Justice probe," in a piece about Rep. Tom DeLay.

"A White House aide," cited in the same story.

"One associate," of a lobbyist, quoted in a story about the suspected channeling of money meant for youth programs to Middle Eastern militants.

"Sources," with no further identification, are cited in the same story.

"A former Bush administration official," in a story about the controversy over John Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations.

"One source," is quoted in the same story -- no elaboration.

"One person in attendance," at a memorial service for a former Wall Street CEO is quoted about attempts to oust a financial executive. "A former Morgan Stanley exec," is used in the same piece.

"A former inspector," speaks out in a story about the Witness Protection program. "One official," contributes to the same story.

You get the idea.

Newsweek also frequently fails to name people pictured in its photographs. And when it feels like, it simply writes a story with no sources, as it did in a story about a possible purchase of the New York Stock Exchange, also in its May 2 edition.

In my view from the hinterlands, this reeks of institutional arrogance, a journalistic version of the line in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" about badges.

"Sources?," Newsweek seemed to ask. "We ain't got to show you no stinking sources!"

Why does this all matter? Because readers deserve to know their news is credible, not the fuzzy or partisan mutterings of someone who hiding behind a cloak, or worse yet, doesn't even exist.

Especially in stories when the stakes are high, reporters need to press hard to get sources on the record, not cave to the default position of namelessness.

Newsweek's debacle is a reminder to all of us to be more vigilant about sources. That involves a culture of aggressive questioning by editors of reporters, and an indelible expectation of openness, not secrecy.

I still wonder, though, if Newsweek is serious about yanking the needle out of its arm.

In this week's edition, there is a long, apologetic letter to readers from Richard M. Smith, chairman and editor-in-chief of the magazine.

This statement is on page 4.

On page 10, there is a story about President Bush sketching out a patient, methodical vision for peace in the Middle East.

The source? A "senior aide."

There is -- surprise -- no name attached.

Richard Hanner is the editor of the News-Sentinel. He may be reached at richardh@lodinews.com or at 369-7035.

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