Editorial Not watchdogs, but lapdogs

Journalism no longer defies the government, but complies with it

Journalism has shifted into self-flagellation overdrive since Newsweek acknowledged that its story alleging U.S. interrogators flushed a Koran down the toilet was inaccurate and based on a single, dubious source.

Doubtless Newsweek erred in printing a story, no matter how brief, with such shaky sourcing, but the magazine can't be held responsible for the 17 people who were killed in street fighting over the report. In short, news stories don't kill people; people kill people. If the philosophy works for the National Rifle Association, it should work for journalists.

From the editor

Yet, Newsweek's lapse in judgment doesn't discount the fact that U.S. soldiers or interrogators have abused the Koran. According to a May 27 New York Times report, a military inquiry uncovered five instances - three of which were deemed intentional - of Koran mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay. Two servicemembers have been punished.

Nor does Newsweek's inexcusable bungle spell the end of journalism; the greatest threats to the profession come not from bad apples within our staffs, but from an administration that has consistently lied about its actions and from an American public either disinterested in or accepting of their government's obfuscation.

The Bush Administration opportunistically rebuked Newsweek for its johnny-on-the-draw article, using another ugly media misstep to detract from its own human-rights abuses and global propagandizing. This is the same Bush Administration that stages town-hall meetings, has failed to investigate how a faux reporter received White House press credentials, has yet to determine who within the White House leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak, and according to a Government Accountability Office report, illegally distributes government propaganda to news organizations.

This is the same Bush Administration that, in the name of "national security," is diluting the Freedom of Information Act to prevent citizens from learning about environmental pollution near military bases. This is the same Bush Administration whose minions have been charged with monitoring the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio for "liberal bias."

Instead of defying government malice and interference, the media is caving in to it. Instead of standing up for our craft, as imperfect as it may be, we have contracted Stockholm Syndrome, and are starting to identify with our captors.

"How do we make people trust us again?" "How do we attract younger readers?" As circulation declines at large dailies and media become more fragmented, these are legitimate questions in the country's newsrooms. Yet the onus isn't completely on journalism. Something must be said about an audience that prefers to read about Paris Hilton's latest romp over nuanced investigative reporting. Instead of offering crayons with each newspaper, journalists must accept that some people are not going to read the newspaper. They are disengaged from the real world. If you need proof, note that only 17 percent of registered San Antonio voters cast ballots in the May 7 election. Write them off and move on to readers seeking meaty, compelling, accurate stories.

A final note about Newsweek: On May 22, Express-News holy-roller columnist Ken Rodriguez wrote that we need look no farther than the Bible to know single-source stories are bad journalism. "A fundamental guideline of our craft is found in the Old Testament," he wrote, quoting Deuteronomy 19:15.

While I favor the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics rather than religious texts, a passage in the Koran serves as a similar journalistic tenet: "Believers, if a troublemaker brings you news, check it first in case you wrong others unwittingly and later regret what you have done."

Remember Mr. Rodriguez, it's inadvisable to use only one source.

By Lisa Sorg

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