Conventionally Yours

Media scandals are becoming as routinized as a Japanese tea ceremony, although the scandals differ hugely.

If you want to know why the media can't seem to get their act together, watch how they cover their own failings. Media scandals are becoming as routinized as a Japanese tea ceremony, although the scandals themselves differ hugely in their particulars. As the Newsweek mess unfolded this week, conventional media outlets had a number of highly conventional reactions, and duly offered them up as "news." A tour of key themes reveals the incredibly predictable workings of the profession's collective brain.

  • Nameless Panic. The item that Newsweek retracted, claiming that military investigators had "confirmed" a case of a Koran being flushed down a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay prison, came from an anonymous source. The immediate result was a great deal of eerily familiar hand-wringing about the use of anonymous sources. The Wall Street Journal ran one of the most prominent stories, headlined, "Newsweek Flap Spurs Debate Over Sources." Never mind that something spurs this particular debate, oh, about every other week. And it will keep on raging as long as journalists continue to use anonymous sources—that is, forever.
  • Anonymous sources are a substance that news people can't stop abusing, and every time we get into trouble, we start a new recovery program to get off the sauce. Problem is, we do our talk therapy in public, and I think people are growing a bit tired of it. No wonder they tell pollsters they don't like us any more.

  • Mistakes Were Made. Given that the media have savaged modern American presidents (including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton) for using the passive dodge, it's strange to see journalists, of all people, resorting to same. Yet they do. Speaking on NBC, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, Daniel Klaidman, said, "We feel that we did our due diligence, but sometimes mistakes get made, and we think that, in this case, that is what happened." (In fairness, Klaidman spoke elsewhere in the active voice, at one point telling Charlie Rose, "We apologize for what we did. And it was in good faith, but we made a mistake.") The Stanford student newspaper reported that at a campus panel discussion on "media credibility," a newspaper editor from Oregon said of Newsweek's error: "These mistakes get made and they are unforgivable, but on some level, they are understandable." Politicians aren't the only ones with limited-modified hangouts.
  • * The March of Scandal. Many observed that the media are in a truly historic crisis this time—which is exactly what we said last time, and the time before that. The spin differs, however, depending on national origin. While American journalists churned out the usual woe-is-us pieces this week, some foreign news outlets seemed to be dancing a little jig. Reuters, which is based in Britain, ran a roundup under the festive headline, "Celebrated U.S. Media Scandals," beginning with The Washington Post's Janet Cooke and running through decades of muck, ending with this latest from Newsweek. An Agence France-Presse wire story that appeared on various news sites in the U.S. and abroad noted: "The episode marked the latest in a series of scandals that have dogged the U.S. media, beginning with an uproar caused by former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair ... and continuing with a similar controversy at USA Today by reporter Jack Kelley. ! These two episodes were soon followed by the case of former CBS News anchor Dan Rather.... And then came revelations that the Bush administration had paid several radio commentators to promote its initiatives...." And so on. Such chronicles are beginning to read like the biblical passage, "Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas...." Except, while the latter is about the genealogy of Jesus, the media are in more of an anti-Christ role.

  • Drama Over Truth. There's a fumbling-in-the-dark quality, a way in which the media are just incapable of telling the whole story right out of the box. Instead, they begin with a very simplistic version of the scandal that lends itself to dramatic headlines and grabby phrases for the cable crawl. This is especially true on television, where the nuances—for example, the fact that Newsweek's retraction didn't rule out the possibility of Koran abuse—dribbled out very slowly. In a piece that appeared this week on the Columbia Journalism Review's Web site, CJRDaily, Brian Montopoli wrote: "Producers, it seems, would rather stir viewers' emotions [than] provide them with the truth. The story, in its oversimplified form, plays well into television news' long-standing bias toward conflict. It's Newsweek versus the government, the liberal media versus conservatives, and, for some, overeager advocacy journalists versus America."
  • Tone Problems Abound. News people are in the business of choosing words, yet when it comes to their own troubles, they often hit all the wrong notes. The New York Post's front page featured a photo of a copy of Newsweek in a toilet, with the headline, "Holy Shiite." Inside, in a Post column unfortunately headlined, "Editors in Flush to Judgment," Steve Dunleavy wrote, "If the Koran doesn't fit, you must acquit." True, the Post is a tabloid, but given that more than a dozen people were dead in Afghanistan, the old "have-you-no-decency" line came to mind. In a blog entry critiquing White House press secretary Scott McLellan's performance, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann wrote: "I smell something—and it ain't a copy of the Koran sopping wet from being stuck in a toilet in Guantanamo Bay. It's the ink drying on Scott McClellan's resignation." Thanks for the, um, color.