How Newsweek's sneak peek failed

In what looks like a case of CBS syndrome, the magazine allowed a Pentagon official to read its Quran-abuse story -- all of it -- prior to publication.

By Eric Boehlert
Published May 24, 2005 5:26PM (EDT)

Newsweek's journalism sins have been well documented in the wake of its retracted story about U.S. interrogators allegedly flushing a Quran down the toilet at Guantánamo Bay. The magazine has been rapped for reporting the Quran item was "expected" to appear in an upcoming government report. That's a no-no, like reporting that somebody is "expected" to be indicted.

Newsweek has also taken flak for originally writing that its item was based on multiple "sources," when in fact it all hinged on the recollection of a single (anonymous) source. Inflating a source into sources is another cardinal sin of journalism.

But what's received less attention is the fact that prior to publication, Newsweek, in an effort to verify sensitive information, sent the entire article (albeit a short one) to a senior Pentagon official, asking whether the piece, not just the Quran mention, was accurate.

According to a follow-up report in this week's Newsweek, national security correspondent John Barry, "realizing the sensitivity of the story," provided a draft of the Newsweek Periscope item to a senior Defense official, asking, "Is this accurate or not?" And last night on PBS's "Charlie Rose Show," Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, reconstructing the events behind the story he co-wrote with Barry, said, "John Barry does something that we don't normally do. He provides an entire copy of what we're going to say in the magazine to a senior Pentagon official and poses the question in writing, 'Is this accurate or not?' They got the whole piece."

The Pentagon official voiced no concern about the mention of the Quran being flushed down the toilet, according to Newsweek, but did convince the magazine to make changes elsewhere in the story.

Most J-schools teach students that, prior to publication, they should not even read quotes back to sources for approval -- let alone send an entire draft to somebody outside the newsroom in order to give the thumbs up or the thumbs down. It's not too difficult to see how that principle might apply to sending a draft of a story to a Pentagon official to sign off on a story that reflects poorly on the Pentagon.

"I was surprised they did that," says Geneva Overholser, a Washington-based University of Missouri journalism professor who served as the Washington Post's ombudsman from 1995 to 1998. "Most of us in the mainstream press have objected to the notion of sending anything to anybody to preview, and I understand that," she says. "The implication is if you let them review it they can say, 'You took that out of context,' or, 'What I really meant to say was this.'"

A Newsweek spokesman declined to comment.

Overholser adds that she's not an absolutist on the issue, and that at times previewing a story can help with accuracy. The irony, she notes, is that even by letting the Pentagon get a sneak peek, Newsweek wasn't able to avoid the current controversy. And specifically, Newsweek seemed to interpret the Pentagon's silence on the Quran as a solid confirmation that it was accurate. "That's dangerous," says Overholser.

That misreading of the tea leaves is reminiscent of CBS's National Guard fiasco last September. On the day the report was set to broadcast on "60 Minutes Wednesday," CBS sent a reporter over to the White House to interview senior Bush aide Dan Bartlett and get a reaction to the memos at the center of the story. Bartlett never complained or suggested the memos were fake -- which CBS took as the final confirmation it needed to verify its story.

Big mistake. And one that Newsweek appears to have repeated.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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