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3 Journalists Fight Back: Newsweek and the Koran Abuse Story Anonymous sources are like atomic energy— beneficial when handled carefully for proper public purposes, such as exposing government wrongdoing, but dangerous when used without safeguards. —Clark Hoyt, Knight Ridder Washington editor In the first decade of the twenty-first century, no political topic consumed the American public more than the constellation of actions and policies dubbed the “War on Terror” by the U.S. government. The Bush administration ’s aggressive multipronged response to the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington included such visible measures as wars abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan along with clandestine actions occurring across the globe out of public view. A public stunned in the immediate aftermath of the attacks rallied around the nation’s institutions, but soon a whole host of policy debates would arise around such issues as privacy, authoritarianism, torture, illegal rendition, surveillance, and deficit spending. As time went on, solidarity gave way to vicious political disagreements grounded in disputes over the very idea of how to act as a citizen. In this contentious climate, journalists struggled with a shifting balance of seemingly competing interests. The standard self-definition of journalism keeping watch over governmental actions taking place far out of sight of average citizens provided the normative backing to encourage aggressive reporting, seeking out what was happening in the shadowy spaces where the War on Terror was being conducted. Yet this view, however much it buttressed arguments for journalistic authority, came up against the Bush administration’s overt framing of this era as nothing less than wartime. Given i-x_1-206_Carl.indd 71 1/21/11 2:48:34 PM the extraordinary circumstances, this argument contended, the true public benefit was not in journalistic disclosure, but in journalistic restraint. What’s more, covert operations served the public so long as they remained secret. This argument ensured that journalistic efforts to uncover government actions , no matter the findings, would face accusations of being unpatriotic and harmful. This was not a distant concern; in a 2004 poll, 42 percent of respondents judged that journalists “stand up for America” while a near-even 40 percent deemed them “too critical of America.”1 In an era of uncertain economics and concerns over shrinking audiences, the fear of alienating audiences was never far from the surface of discussions about journalism. In the initial aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, journalists seemed more willing to support administration claims. However, as time went on, the pendulum began to swing toward a renewed journalistic vigor to uncover government actions. Certainly, the failure to find WMDs in Iraq—and the ensuing criticism not only of the government but also of journalists—signaled a need to be vigilant and distrustful of government aims. As journalists struggled to find their voice, they met with consternation from the administration and its supporters. At the nexus of this debate lies the unnamed source. The sensitivity of the War on Terror coupled with an administration intent on controlling its message made the utilization of unnamed sources an undeniable must to expose hidden governmental actions. But, as we have seen, because unnamed sourcing practices necessarily obscure details, they become a target for critics. Such was the case for Newsweek magazine when an all-but-ignored story on the mistreatment of terrorist suspects turned into a melee of recriminations and defenses that furthered the ongoing debate over unnamed sources. But before recounting what happened at the magazine, we must attend to how the journalistic community was already confronting the problems of source anonymity around the time of the Newsweek incident. Unease over Unnamed Sources The decidedly epigraphic tone of a Columbia Journalism Review article captured the shifting opinions toward unnamed sources among journalists: “Poor ‘Anon.’ Once he was the journalist’s trusty sidekick . . . now everywhere you look, civic-minded editors and consultants have the broom out and are swatting at ‘anonymice.’”2 The article signaled an ongoing concern that controversies involving unnamed sources hurt journalism at a time when mounting economic pressures, a hostile legal environment, and growing scrutiny from blogs made it more difficult to grant sources anonymity. 72 . chapter 3 i-x_1-206_Carl.indd 72 1/21/11 2:48:34 PM That same month, an Editor & Publisher cover story similarly surveying the precarious state of unnamed sources connected the use of anonymity to a growing disdain by news audiences: “On the popularity scale, anonymous sources ranked somewhere between steroid-engorged ballplayers and IRS...


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