Sources are Fine, as Long as You're Kissing Ass
the American media a story about American interrogators
defacing the Quran, and journalists are so appalled
there's no time for fact-checking—before they dash off
to see the latest exhibition of 'Piss Christ.'
Coulter, on the Newsweek scandal
Coulter has taken up the cause of journalistic ethics.
Last week she joined 100 million other Americans in
courageously denouncing Newsweek magazine, which
has now entered the pantheon of entrenched, all-powerful
anti-American conspirators. It joins, among others,
Bill Clinton, the ACLU and Piss Christ creator
the safe haven of its secret underground lair, this
apparently tireless bund of traitors concocted a brilliant
scheme to screw up the attribution on a story about
the Quran being flushed down toilets in Guantanamo Bay.
They might have succeeded, had not Ann Coulter and a
few other brave souls stepped in to defend the besieged
minority of true patriots.
was humorous to see how quickly Newsweek lost
its cachet with Middle America. So long as it went about
its usual revolting Neanderthal literary mission—wrapping
4000 words of inane speculations about the historical
Jesus around breathless updates on the value of Martha
Stewart stock (Pie Chart, p. 37!), and startling new
insights about "the real George Washington"—no
one had any problem with Newsweek.
ethical magazine is one that uses up its news pages
asking questions like Can smiling prevent cancer?
and makes sure at least twice each calendar year
to do a "What the fuck is wrong with our ungrateful,
disobedient children?" story, so that angry suburban
parents have something to read in the doctor's office
while they wait to have their bunions shaved. That—plus
the occasional feature on Shrek 2 as the crowning
achievement of the human creative impulse, and the odd
investigation into why cell phones in restaurants are
so darn annoying—is what good journalism is all about.
is almost always the case when our population works
itself into an indignant furor over some fresh moral
atrocity, virtually every respected commentator in the
country leaped onto the soapbox once it became clear
which way the wind was blowing. Windbag after windbag
lined up to denounce the use of unnamed sources as a
crime roughly equivalent to the buggering of orphans.
hard digging provides real verified facts, the anonymous
stuff should be flushed down the toilet," croaked
USA Today founder and renowned press ethicist
the Arizona Republic, in a house editorial non-hysterically
titled "Sources of Shame": "Accepting
the word of unnamed sources is traveling in landmine
Peretz of the New Republic went so far as to
draw a general conclusion about the seamy character
of all journalists from the Newsweek episode.
"All of Newsweek's penitential protestations
notwithstanding," he said, "what emerges from
this episode is the image of a profession that is complacent,
self-righteous, and hopelessly in love with itself."
funny. The only time anyone thinks to blast the use
of "unnamed sources" is when the mistake occurs
in that rarest of phenomena in mainstream journalism:
the dissenting piece of investigative journalism.
reality is that unnamed sources are used about 10,000
times a day by the more patriotic and upstanding members
of our working press, only they're not used to wonder
about the goings-on at places like Guantanamo Bay. Instead,
they're used to kiss ass and make icons out of morons—to
turn George Bush into Winston Churchill, Dick Gephardt
into Eugene Debs, Tom Clancy into Tolstoy.
consumers of news magazines will recognize the format,
which typically involves an unnamed spokesman whispering
that such-and-such Croseus-rich politician is a great
lover of NASCAR races, or lies awake at night worrying
about the poor: "Aides say Kerry is particularly
concerned about the plight of the southern white jobless,
whose situation deeply touched him when he last visited..."
practice is especially common in campaign journalism
and in the political profile genre, where it never offends
self-appointed trade moralists like Marty Peretz. Newsweek,
the current "unnamed sources" villain, is
and always has been the very worst offender in this
one bitched at the magazine on January 24 of this year,
for instance, when reporter Richard Wolffe wrote a slobbering
cover profile on the "Bush you don't know"
that was filthy with unnamed sources. An example from
leadership style belies his caricature as a disengaged
president who is blindly loyal, dislikes dissent and
covets his own downtime. In fact, Bush's aides and friends
describe the mirror image of a restless man who masters
details and reads avidly, who chews over his mistakes
and the failings of those around him, and who has grown
ever more comfortable pulling the levers of power.
just months after Bush himself admitted during a presidential
debate that he really couldn't remember any mistakes
that he'd ever made, and after Bush himself admitted
that he doesn't even read newspapers, let alone books.
(During the 2000 campaign, Bush carried around the same
copy of a biography of Dean Acheson for six months in
an effort to convince reporters he was a reader.) Yet
Newsweek allows Bush aides to insist, as unnamed
sources, that Bush agonizes over his mistakes and is
an "avid reader."
another part of the article, Wolffe quotes an unnamed
"Republican senator" on the matter of Bush's
command of detail:
he wants to be, he's a real stickler for details,"
says one Republican senator. "When he calls you
to talk about a bill, he knows the nitty-gritty. You
don't get the sense he's been reading the Cliffs Notes
guide to an issue."
you think Newsweek didn't work hard enough to
confirm the Quran-toilet story? How hard do you think
Richard Wolffe worked to confirm that George Bush "knows
the nitty-gritty"? I bet he burned up the phone
lines working on that one.
just throw this stuff out there week after week, and
no one ever complains about it. That's because kissing
ass is not a crime in America, while questioning the
government often is. At least, you better not screw
it up if you try. God help you then.
most absurd aspect of the Newsweek scandal was
the whole idea of a "media out of control."
Many people, even allegedly responsible people like
Peretz, took the position that the post-Watergate American
press is now so sick with self-love and power-lust that
it reflexively sheds its ethics whenever it smells blood.
Santa Maria, California this week, I am one of over
1500 media personnel accredited to cover the Michael
Jackson trial, one of the most pointless and idiotic
news stories of all time. By the thousands, we chase
tornadoes, wring our hands over Brad and Jennifer, film
babies fallen in wells, do one-hour interview specials
with Scott Peterson's cellmate.
every year or so, one or two of us steps out of line
to cover some serious matter involving war or corruption
or torture. If that's "out of control," what
would we be if we were really working?