Show of Farce

The press digs itself into holes; the government covers up its own errors—the system at work

Journalists used to come largely from the "outsider" precincts of our culture. They were children of immigrants and working people, raised simply, not prone to cozying up to power or accommodating power. That's because the press was supposed to be a watchdog on power on behalf of the public. That has changed—not completely, but it has changed. At times now, too many reporters seem to be channeling Dickens's Oliver Twist, with their bowls outstretched toward their government minders, asking: "Please, sir, may I have some more gruel?"

Finally, into the era of press compliance stepped a presidency that had imperial ambitions and imperious ways. One of those ways is lockstep secrecy. The Bush White House's golden rule goes something like this: Jolly the press, but tell them nothing but boilerplate; hide from them anything embarrassing and anything that might give them evidence of our mistakes and fallibility. It's a little bit like a monarchy, which America thought it had shed two centuries ago. Like the first one (the reign of King George III), this one too is non-benevolent.

Facing this extreme choke hold, the Washington press corps has begun to resist, finally. The rest of us in the press should back them solidly and stand up as professionals to bring about strong change, not lip service. We are in a fight for old established principles. The nation as a whole is in the same fight, though it does not fully realize it yet.

Some people say the national cacophony is merely a season of bitter partisan jousting between Democrats and Republicans. In rebuttal, I believe the evidence is strong that the Bush government has perverted important American traditions. I believe the press, too, fell into a perversion. We welcomed the anointing of journalists as celebrities and over time sowed other bad seeds as well. The harvest was Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, Stephen Glass, and a laundry list of other fabricators and corner-cutters who flourished under loosened standards. Some of the country's top newspaper editors gave this explanation: The Internet had created a 24-hour news cycle that inflamed the news business's competitive fever and left the editorial gatekeepers little time to winnow out the chaff and the misreporting. There's some truth in their words about the arrival of an unending news cycle. But the rest of the rationale won't wash. The devil didn't make us do it.

The river of press scandals has brought about change. Ombudspersons have multiplied at newspapers. The screening of copy has tightened up. The use of "anonymous sources" has been reduced. (Newsweek, in "A Letter to Our Readers" in its latest issue, lays out its stricter newsroom standards.) But the press remains under siege, under a microscope, trying to rebuild the people's confidence in what they read in the paper and what they're told on television.

The struggle with the Bush White House and its acolytes will also be a hard slog. They cling to an ideological view and concede nothing to those who have different beliefs. Nonetheless, the press, if it doesn't want to become the national piñata, will have to clean up its house and vigorously fight for its traditional role in this democracy.

To get an idea of how the Bush government deals with the press and public, let's take a look at how it handled the original Newsweek article, which was 354 words long and ran in the Periscope section in the May 9 issue. The reference to desecration of Islam's holy book said: "Among the previously unreported cases [of abuse at the Guantánamo Bay detention center], sources tell Newsweek: Interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet . . . " The article went on to say this incident and other findings were "expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami . . . "

Newsweek's editor, Mark Whitaker, says that before deciding to publish the item, "we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur'an charge." The other "aspect," Newsweek says, was corrected before publication.

More than a week passed before the Pentagon complained about the Koran reference. In a news story in its May 18 edition, The New York Times wrote that the Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, "said that the military was still reviewing whether there had been any incidents of Koran abuse at the [Guantánamo] prison." Di Rita was quoted as saying: "We've not previously included [the issue of Koran desecration] in any kind of previous investigations into detainee operations, because there haven't been credible allegations to that effect." He added that "there have been instances, and we'll have more to say about it as we learn more, but where a Koran may have fallen to the floor in the course of searching a cell."

When Newsweek went back to its original source (there was only one, contrary to the citation of "sources" in the original item), the person, described as a senior government official who had been reliable in the past, said he could no longer be certain he saw that Koran reference in the Southern Command report. He said he might have read it elsewhere.

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