Newsweek limits use of anonymous sources

Monday, May 23, 2005

NEW YORK — Newsweek has announced plans to limit the magazine's use of
anonymous sources after a scandal in which one of its stories was blamed for
deadly protests in Afghanistan.

In a letter to readers appearing in today's edition, Newsweek Chairman
and Editor in Chief Richard Smith apologized for the original report and said
the magazine would raise its standards for using unnamed sources.

Two of the magazine's top editors will be assigned sole responsibility for
approving the use of such sources, and the magazine will stop using the phrase
“sources said” to attribute information in stories, Smith said.

“We got an important story wrong, and honor requires us to admit our mistake
and redouble our efforts to make sure that nothing like this ever happens
again,” he wrote. Newsweek is owned by The Washington Post Co.

The disputed May 9 article said U.S. investigators had found evidence that
interrogators placed copies of the Quran in washrooms and had flushed one down
the toilet to get inmates to talk. The magazine's report, which it apologized
for and retracted, was blamed for violent protests in Afghanistan, where more
than a dozen people died and scores were injured.

Rallies are planned for this week in Pakistan and other countries to protest
the report. Islamic leaders have called on Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez
Musharraf, abandon his support for President Bush's war against terrorism.

In a note to readers last week, Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said the
information came from “a knowledgeable U.S. government source,” and that before
the magazine published the item, writers Michael Isikoff and John Barry sought
comment from two Defense Department officials. One declined to respond, and the
other challenged another part of the story but did not dispute the Quran
allegation, Whitaker said.

Whitaker said the magazine's original source later said he could not be sure
he read about the alleged Quran incident in the report Newsweek cited,
and that it might have been in another document.

In the latest issue, the magazine stopped short of requiring that its
reporters corroborate any source speaking on condition of anonymity with a
second source, but Smith said that editors would work harder to do so.

“When information provided by a source wishing to remain anonymous is
essential to a sensitive story — alleging misconduct or reflecting a highly
contentious point of view, for example — we pledge a renewed effort to seek a
second independent source or other corroborating evidence,” Smith said.

What had looked to be an impending showdown last week over White House
pressure on Newsweek to do more to counteract the effects of the Quran
report appears to have dissipated.

On May 17, White House Spokesman Scott McClellan faced a contentious series
of questions from the White House press corps in a briefing. An edited excerpt
from the White House transcript:

“[Terry Moran, ABC News]: Scott, you said that the retraction by Newsweek magazine of its story is a good first step. What else does the president want this American magazine to do?

“McCLELLAN: … We would encourage Newsweek to do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done, particularly in the region. And I think Newsweek can do that by talking about the way they got this wrong, and pointing out what the policies and practices of the United States military are when it comes to the handling of the Holy Koran. The military put in place policies and procedures to make sure that the Koran … is handled with the utmost care and respect … .

“[Moran]: With respect, who
made you the editor of Newsweek? Do you think it's appropriate for you, at that
podium, speaking with the authority of the president of the United States, to
tell an American magazine what they should print?

“McCLELLAN: I'm not telling them. I'm saying that we would encourage them to
help —

“[Moran]: You're pressuring them.

“McCLELLAN: No, I'm saying that we would encourage them —

“[Moran]: It's not pressure?

“McCLELLAN: Look, this report caused serious damage to the image of the
United States abroad. And Newsweek has said that they got it wrong. I
think Newsweek recognizes the responsibility they have. We appreciate the
step that they took by retracting the story. Now we would encourage them to move
forward and do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done by
this report. And that's all I'm saying. But, no, you're absolutely right, it's
not my position to get into telling people what they can and cannot report.”

The next day, a Newsweek-related exchange went like this:

“Q: In the aftermath of your comments yesterday, some have suggested that you
were trying to dictate to the press. How do you feel about the criticism of

“McCLELLAN: I kind of laugh at it because I don't think that's possible. We
have a free media in the United States, and the only point I was making
yesterday was that they said they got it wrong, this was a report that had
serious consequences, people lost their lives, the image of the United States
abroad was damaged by the report, and I think that there's a responsibility to
help repair the damage. And like I said, I've seen Newsweek officials out
on television shows or appearing on “Nightline.” I mean, I would hope that they
would be appearing on Arab networks, as well, and talking to the region about
this issue. I think that that would help repair the damage. And I think that's
the point I was making yesterday.”

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