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Newsweek -- lessons of 'Qurangate'
marketwatch.com ^ | August 5, 2005 | Jon Friedman

Posted on 08/06/2005 7:45:23 AM PDT by abb

Newsweek -- lessons of 'Qurangate' Commentary: Editor Mark Whitaker reflects on the crisis By Jon Friedman, MarketWatch

(In May, Newsweek Magazine reported, and subsequently retracted, a story saying that the American military had desecrated the Quran at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The brief item touched off an international furor and became the most electrifying media story of 2005. In the first of a two-part Media Web series, Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker reflects on the crisis. On Monday, Newsweek Worldwide Publisher Greg Osberg discusses the business angle -- and the state of magazine publishing)

When I interviewed Whitaker, 48, for more than an hour on Tuesday afternoon, I was struck by the new man, though he'd probably object to this description.

Whitaker, while always cordial and interesting in previous interviews, was unmistakably aloof. He used to pause and stammer a lot when he talked about himself. Come to think of it, he seemed to wish he could be somewhere else -- undergoing a root canal, perhaps.

But this time, I detected a change in him as soon as we shook hands. For openers, he had disdained a necktie, part of his usual meet-and-greet uniform. Then, throughout our time together, he grinned easily and -- wonder of wonders -- even cracked a joke or two. Smiling wickedly, he wondered aloud about what movie stars could be cast in a "Dynasty" version of the Murdoch family drama in a television mini-series!

No, I don't expect Whitaker any time soon to mellow to the point of penning one of those touchy-feely "My Turn" columns in Newsweek. Still, he conceded that what he called "Qurangate" has sharpened his view of the world.

"It makes you more sympathetic toward people who live in the public eye," he said. "It makes you understand the pressures they're under. When you've been through it, it makes you (even) more committed to be fair and accurate."

Above all, Whitaker, in retrospect, is satisfied that Newsweek acted quickly and decisively to make its case.

Thinking about how rigidly other bureaucratic, image-conscious news organizations reacted when they were under scrutiny, Whitaker said flatly: "We didn't take six months and appoint a commission to do it. The only answer is transparency."

The rise of blogs has put pressure on every public figure to respond to emergencies in a forthright way. Critics argued Newsweek took too long to retract the story.

"This era demands transparency," he said, leaning forward. "The `blogosphere' gives a fascinating dimension to news coverage."

Then Whitaker paused and quipped: "The blogosphere won't replace the mainstream media. If the mainstream media went away, what would the blogs talk about?"

It all started with what seemed to be a fairly minor item, tucked away in Newsweek's "Periscope" section in the May 9 edition.

But when word spread that Newsweek said American military personnel had desecrated the Quran in front of Muslim detainees, the news quickly became a sensation of the worst possible sort.

Middle East radicals promptly seized the story and exploited it for political purposes. Newsweek was blamed around the world when rioting broke out in Afghanistan and at least 15 people died.

In the U.S., the piece ignited a firestorm of a different sort. Some critics charged that Newsweek's use of a single unnamed source was completely irresponsible. Another faction insisted that the piece underscored the media's desire to hurt President Bush's image.

"Once the Pentagon attacked us, everyone started getting interested," Whitaker recalled.

Newsweek had unwittingly, to say the least, pulled off a near-impossible feat: It simultaneously became a foe of both the Bush administration and Muslim fundamentalists.

"We were yet another exhibit for the problems of the mainstream media." Whitaker lamented. Newsweek somehow figured into a number of tangled, heated debates, such as the Far Right vs. the Far Left and the merits of the New Media vs. Old Media, he pointed out.

The fiasco threatened to escalate when the White House publicity machine cranked up and tried to force the magazine to making amends for all the trouble.

Was the White House trying to shift the focus of the news coverage from that week's military base closings to his magazine's actions? "I'll leave it to others to say what their motives were," Whitaker said, pretty much answering the question.

Showing just how fast the news moves nowadays, in the few months since Newsweek took center stage, a) New York Times reporter Judith Miller has gone to jail for defending her decision not to reveal the names of her sources and b) Time Inc. has invited scorn from the media industry for cooperating with the government.

Media blitz

As the controversy swirled around him, Whitaker conferred with Donald Graham, the chairman of the parent Washington Post Co., (WPO: news, chart, profile) and Newsweek communications director Ken Weine. They agreed on a strategy designed to limit the PR damage while setting the record straight about what had happened.

Whitaker took the unusual (for him) step of enacting a media blitz. In a matter of hours on May 16, he appeared on "The NBC Nightly News," PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," ABC's "Nightline" and National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation." His colleagues also flooded the zone by appearing on TV and radio programs.

Whitaker wanted to reinforce the notion that Newsweek expressed contrition and that it had done "nothing deliberate. There was no plagiarism or fabrication. There was no cover-up."

Whitaker kept his bosses, Newsweek Editor-in-Chief Richard Smith and Graham, in the loop and reassured his nervous staff. He also coped with the scare of receiving crank calls at home in Manhattan.

"The lowest point was when people started calling me at home to denounce me," he said bitterly, noting that he feared for his family's comfort, if not its safety.

And oh yeah, Whitaker also managed to put out a magazine which, in normal times, has established an enviable reputation for taking strong stands, challenging authority and breaking news. Newsweek subsequently covered its own predicament in thorough detail.

Whitaker can look back now and appreciate the heat of the crisis.

"These fires burn so quickly," he mused. "It did perhaps drive home some lessons about the environment we're working in. Thanks primarily to the Web, you are constantly being second-guessed for anything you do. This is just something you have to get used to."

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you forgive Newsweek?

FRIDAY STORY OF THE WEEK: "America's Most Dangerous Drug" by David J. Jefferson (Newsweek, Aug. 8) - Even if you think that Newsweek hyped the crystal meth epidemic (as Slate's Jack Shafer contended), the story delivered the goods and illustrated the harrowing nature of the addiction. Don't quibble about statistics. Newsweek's story, quite simply, performed a public service by talking about the problem.

Please send your comments to JFriedman@MarketWatch.com


TOPICS: Business/Economy; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: gitmo; isikoff; korandesecration; msm; newsweek; thumbsucking
More thumbsucking from marketwatch.com's Jon Friedman
1 posted on 08/06/2005 7:45:27 AM PDT by abb
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To: abb
"The `blogosphere' gives a fascinating dimension to news coverage."

Yeah, it's called "truth".

2 posted on 08/06/2005 7:51:32 AM PDT by randog (What the....?!)
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To: abb
"If the mainstream media went away, what would the blogs talk about?"
I don't know but I'd love to find out.
3 posted on 08/06/2005 7:51:49 AM PDT by RedRover
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To: abb
Sounds he's desperately trying to shift the blame. The truth is the "old" media just doesn't have a strangle hold on news anymore. To quote my Grandma, "Poor things, they're dealing with it the best they can."
4 posted on 08/06/2005 7:53:33 AM PDT by Dallas59 (You love life, while we love death. - Al-Qaeda / Democratic Party)
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To: abb
Above all, Whitaker, in retrospect, is satisfied that Newsweek acted quickly and decisively to make its case.

So the new Whitaker doesn't get it any more than the old Whitaker.

5 posted on 08/06/2005 7:56:08 AM PDT by SittinYonder (America is the Last Beach)
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To: abb

Then Whitaker paused and quipped: "The blogosphere won't replace the mainstream media. If the mainstream media went away, what would the blogs talk about?"

Maybe they'd actually talk about the NEWS. It amazes me how self-absorbed the old media is. Especially when doing puff pieces on each other. The word "circle****" comes to mind.


6 posted on 08/06/2005 7:56:53 AM PDT by hsalaw
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To: abb

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you forgive Newsweek?

NO!


7 posted on 08/06/2005 8:00:12 AM PDT by tet68 ( " We would not die in that man's company, that fears his fellowship to die with us...." Henry V.)
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To: SittinYonder

The brief item touched off an international furor and became the most electrifying media story of 2005.

They just can't help but pat themselves on the back,
even though it might have cost people their lives and
destroyed our nation's reputation.

"Journalists"! Feh!


8 posted on 08/06/2005 8:03:18 AM PDT by tet68 ( " We would not die in that man's company, that fears his fellowship to die with us...." Henry V.)
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To: abb
"...a story saying that the American military had desecrated the Quran at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The brief item touched off an international furor and became the most electrifying media story of 2005..."

I don't get it. I, and enumerable other FReepers have boasted on this very page that we spend large amounts of time, ROUTINELY-(sometimes daily)desecrating that same Quran.

How comes it that we receive no attention for our acts? I want my fifteen minutes here!

9 posted on 08/06/2005 8:03:44 AM PDT by skimbell
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To: hsalaw

We sure as hell wouldn't be talking about Natalie Holloway.


10 posted on 08/06/2005 8:03:49 AM PDT by thoughtomator (Free Michael Graham!)
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To: abb
"When you've been through it, it makes you (even) more committed to be fair and accurate."

LMBO!
The astounding thing is that hard-copy weekly news magazines still exist! I suppose this indicates that there are still enough barber shops and dentist offices around to keep them alive.

11 posted on 08/06/2005 8:15:53 AM PDT by Lancey Howard
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To: abb

Media Jihad on Bush continues.


12 posted on 08/06/2005 8:18:28 AM PDT by Paladin2 (Don't Tread on Me; Live Free or Die)
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To: Lancey Howard

After the Koran debacle at Newsweek, I cancelled my subscription. I was very please when I saw (on Drudge, I believe) that Newseek cancelled an edition due to financial troubles.


13 posted on 08/06/2005 8:19:43 AM PDT by Mean Daddy
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To: abb
Newsweak lied, people died. Simple. Sad.
14 posted on 08/06/2005 8:26:41 AM PDT by upchuck ("If our nation be destroyed, it would be from the judiciary." ~ Thomas Jefferson)
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To: abb

Still, he conceded that what he called "Qurangate" has sharpened his view of the world. "It makes you more sympathetic toward people who live in the public eye," he said. "It makes you understand the pressures they're under. When you've been through it, it makes you (even) more committed to be fair and accurate."

Baby steps toward empathy. It's a healthy start...

-------------------------- Then Whitaker paused and quipped: "The blogosphere won't replace the mainstream media. If the mainstream media went away, what would the blogs talk about?"

OK guys, he's got a point. Some of the fun is "taking on" their take...

--- Newsweek had unwittingly, to say the least, pulled off a near-impossible feat: It simultaneously became a foe of both the Bush administration and Muslim fundamentalists.

ROTFLMAO - and feeling (for the first time) some sympathy for Newsweek...

15 posted on 08/06/2005 8:29:30 AM PDT by GOPJ (A person who will lie for you, will lie against you.)
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To: tet68
even though it might have ... destroyed our nation's reputation.

Certainly in the case of Newsweek, I'm sure that doesn't matter. I can't help but think they are probably thrilled with how important they are.

16 posted on 08/06/2005 8:32:06 AM PDT by SittinYonder (America is the Last Beach)
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To: abb

I probably read right over the part where Friedman mentions the final Pentagon report proving the incident Newsweek reported NEVER HAPPENED. (Yelling on purpose)

He did write that part, didn't he?


17 posted on 08/06/2005 8:45:36 AM PDT by savedbygrace ("No Monday morning quarterback has ever led a team to victory" GW Bush)
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To: All
"The blogosphere won't replace the mainstream media. If the mainstream media went away, what would the blogs talk about?"

IMO he dismissed the only real lesson. To wit, the gatekeepers of information should not continue to take talk radio (post-"Fairness Doctrine") and the Internet so lightly. The two have destroyed the MSM wall around information. Gate keepers are just fooling themselves. One hour a week of Firing Line on PBS is no longer enough "fairness." That era is gone!

Yes, we still need the MSM. The difference is with today's easy access to news sources around the world their spike is useless. A story does not need for the MSM to give it "legs". We can go visit it where ever it is.

And when the MSM tosses a morsel of their choice out of the gate (such as about the Koran and the toilet) for the public to experience, talk radio and the Internet quickly scramble to scoop up facts fleeing through the smashed walls of MSM censorship.

Ever clinging to the past, Mr. Legacy Media says it's second guessing and bitterly noted "that he feared for his family's comfort, if not its safety" due to the second guessers.

I'd love to see a "What if there had been modern talk radio and the Internet when. . " study of the 1960s and 70s.

18 posted on 08/06/2005 10:40:21 AM PDT by WilliamofCarmichael (Hillary is the she in shenanigans.)
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To: abb
Whitaker also managed to put out a magazine which, in normal times, has established an enviable reputation for taking strong stands, challenging authority and breaking news.
And how, exactly, do you establish "an enviable reputation for taking strong stands challenging authority?" By attacking Republicans - and by never taking a stand not approved by the "objective journalism" Establishment.

By avoiding independence from The New York Times et. al. like the Devil himself, you get a wonderful reputation for "independence."


19 posted on 08/06/2005 10:49:06 AM PDT by conservatism_IS_compassion (The idea around which liberalism coheres is that NOTHING actually matters but PR.)
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To: abb
The brief item touched off an international furor and became the most electrifying media story of 2005.

Oh really?

I can think of twenty other stories that qualify more on the basis of importance or universal interest.

Anybody with two brain cells to rub together can. Blatant propaganda don't count.

20 posted on 08/06/2005 10:52:49 AM PDT by Publius6961 (Liberal level playing field: If the Islamics win we are their slaves..if we win they are our equals.)
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