White House, media in struggle for credibility



Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - The botched Newsweek story that caused protests and rioting throughout the Muslim world put another big blot on the news media's already smudged reputation. But the fallout from the magazine's mistake highlighted another issue - the struggle for credibility between journalists and the White House.

Bush administration officials, whose case and planning for war with Iraq and treatment of prisoners have been questioned by the news media, seized on Newsweek's foul-up as another example of the media's failings, the better to impugn the credibility of all its critics.

Newsweek's discredited report that American interrogators in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tormented captive Muslims by flushing a Quran down a toilet got sensationalized attention in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where at least 17 people died in rioting triggered by it.

Administration officials lined up to criticize the magazine once it became apparent that the story was falling apart. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it "appalling." Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman called it "irresponsible." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denounced it and added that "people need to be very careful about what they say."

On Tuesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan amplified his earlier criticism and urged Newsweek's editors and reporters "to do all that they can to help repair the damage." For starters, he suggested that the magazine publish positive stories on the U.S. military's efforts to see that the Quran "is handled with the utmost care and respect."

By pummeling Newsweek, administration officials got a chance to limit the damage to America's image abroad while also undermining the media's credibility at home. The furor over Newsweek's error comes at time when the media and the White House are on the defensive over credibility issues.

The media's problems are obvious - a seemingly endless series of scandals involving plagiarism, nonexistent or unreliable sources, phony memos, sensationalized stories, inflated circulation figures and other misdeeds that have besmirched some of the most prestigious names in journalism - The New York Times, CBS News and USA Today among them. Now Newsweek.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, an organization dedicated to improving the profession, lamented the steep decline in media credibility in its annual State of the News Media report, released in March.

"People have long considered the press sensational, rude, pushy, and callous. But in the last 17 years, they have also come to see the press as less professional, less moral, more inaccurate, and less caring about the interests of the country," the report said, citing a host of poll numbers.

But the Bush administration has been forced to face serious credibility questions of its own. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq tops the list, but the mistreatment of Muslim detainees was an issue long before Newsweek mentioned the Quran. News coverage of abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Afghanistan graphically contradicted official pronouncements about treatment of prisoners.

More recent reports have focused on detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the government's policy of sending some suspected terrorists to countries known for torture.

Other issues are related more directly to journalism ethics. The administration has come under fire for giving lucrative government contracts to friendly media commentators and for distributing promotional videos disguised as news reports.

In an ironic twist, McClellan chastised Newsweek for relying on anonymous sources just a few weeks after the White House insisted that reporters couldn't identify three "senior administration officials" who conducted a telephone briefing about the president's energy policy. Reporters weren't even told who the officials were. Briefings by officials on condition that they not be identified have long been standard practice in Washington.

Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a Newsweek critic in the current controversy, said the magazine is a convenient target for an administration that detests unauthorized leaks and works hard to control and limit information. An added benefit for the administration: Highlighting Newsweek's error could lessen the impact of other reports of detainee abuse.

"There's no penalty for scapegoating journalists," Rosenstiel said. "This is a way of discrediting all the reports. ... It's what they teach you in journalism school: If you spell a name wrong, people will doubt everything in the story."

The White House criticism of Newsweek rang hollow with opponents of the Iraq war who charge that President Bush deliberately overstated the threat from Iraq. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., accused administration officials of trying to silence skeptical media voices.

"There is - of course - sad irony in this White House claiming that someone else's errors or misjudgments led to the loss of innocent lives," Conyers wrote in a letter to McClellan. "When taken to task for wrongdoing, a pattern has emerged of this administration viciously attacking its accusers."

But Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center, which monitors attitudes toward the news media, said government officials shouldn't ignore the magazine's mistake. America's interests in the Muslim world make it necessary to highlight where the Newsweek report was wrong, he said.

"From their (the administration's) point of view, it's important to make the case that this did not happen," he said, referring to the report of Quran desecration.

© 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.