- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

It is time to look past the fury caused by Newsweek when it took a tip and printed it as a fact, but one cannot ignore the probability this was an example of “gotcha journalism.” It brings to the forefront again serious journalistic questions facing the media post-September 11, 2001.

Clearly none of the editors of the gossipy Periscope item on stuffing a copy of the Koran in a toilet had any idea enemy forces in far-off Afghanistan could use the item to whip up riots in which 17 would die. Now we know it can happen.

Newsweek has retracted the story. But if the item had been true, the question still would center on whether there was real news of value in the act of an individual American guard violating U.S. policy in this single incident.

This is different from the more critical abuses found in Abu Ghraib prison, where the violation of humanitarian policy was widespread. Prison policies and training were an essential part of that story. The Newsweek item referred to a single incident. That reporting was not based on policy.

Many newsmen have become angry because they feel tight U.S. post September 11 policy regarding prisoner interrogation has been too secretive and perhaps covers up violations of the Geneva Convention.

The New York Times reacted editorial to the Newsweek problem with a countercharge against the Bush administration: “The White House and the Pentagon have refused to begin any serious examination of the policymaking that led to abuse, humiliation, torture and even killing of prisoners taken during antiterrorist operations and the invasion of Iraq.” The Times then used its counterattack to call for releasing the “Southern Command” report and “all other reports on prisoner abuse.”

The Times editorial raises the question of whether, given the times in which we live where one item has been exploited to kill 17 persons, we should publish every misstep and thus make it available for enemy exploitation? I think not.

New York Times columnist David Brooks took a more reasonable line: “Maybe we should focus on what’s important. Newsweek’s little item was seized and exploited by America’s enemies in a way that was characteristically cynical, delusional and fascistic.

“The people who seized upon this item, like the radical clerics in

Afghanistan are cynical in the way they manipulate episodes like this to whip up hatred and so magnify their own standing.

“At the same time, they believe everything that could be alleged about America — and more,” Mr. Brooks wrote in summarizing the problem.

If one is to avoid handing daily ammunition to the enemy, we need to ask how much we need to publicize individual misconduct. Do we have standards?

In 1969, as first White House director of communications, I opened reportorial access to freedom of information requests, but the restrictions of security always were in place. That partly led to the battle over the “Pentagon Papers.”

Security too often is used to hide government mistakes. The media have a responsibility to keep probing. So government-media conflict is inevitable; in a democracy that is both important and healthy. Every administration would like things to go its way, but reporters’ questions always must be there.

Loren Ghiglione, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, sums the subject up with the old saying, “The media needs to be a watch dog, not a lap dog.” In today’s world, the media has turned more toward “gotcha journalism” looking toward sensationalism to attract readers and viewers.

Large public companies dominate the media. The pressure to meet the “bottom line” has caused many to cut expenditures primarily dedicated to thorough investigative reporting. This is understandable, but it places added responsibility on editors.

Michael Parks, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, sees a “relaxation in the past vigor of investigative reporting. We have lost some of our steam.” In the post September 11 era, the use of anonymous sources remains essential to some reporting but too often is used as an easy way out, and that, too, is a major problem.

Newspapers generally demand two or three sources, but over the years even publications like The Washington Post, which usually requires multiple sources, have changed their approach on anonymity from time to time. The Post policy on Watergate differed from its policy on other government matters.

With today’s emphasis on the Middle East, there are few Western news persons with deep knowledge of the culture or the people of the region.

Rick Rodriguez, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, believes we need to “do more to educate our staffs and our readers on the Muslim culture.”

Geoff Cowan, Annenberg School dean, believes we approach Middle East problems “with an insufficient frame of reference.”

One thing both the media and the government share is the need for greater credibility. Credibility is more important after September 11, 2001, than at any time since the Vietnam War. The credibility of the media and of the government is at a low level, but it will not be improved by “gotcha journalism” or by military deception.

There is much happening of importance in the world today, and there is a serious question whether the media fully understand the new world. There also is a growing challenge of transparency in government. It is time for both sides to take a new look at the new demands, problems and opportunities of the post-September 11, 2001, era.

Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers and former Nixon White House director of communications.

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