Ethics and the Gitmo Toilet

This column considers an editor with high standards and tries to understand Newsweek's escalating global cock-up. Larry Beaupre lost his job as editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer after he, colleague

This column considers an editor with high standards and tries to understand Newsweek's escalating global cock-up.

Larry Beaupre lost his job as editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer after he, colleagues and the paper were betrayed by investigative reporter Mike Gallagher during the 1998 Chiquita fiasco. Now Beaupre is managing editor of The Scranton Times, explaining why he ignored the encounter between the local Republican congressman and a much younger woman to whom he's not married.

She told police that the congressman was giving her a back rub in his Washington, D.C., apartment but began choking her. She said she fled to a bathroom and called 911. He confirmed the back rub but denied the assault. No injuries, no arrest, no charges filed, and later she recanted.

Then one of his political opponents tipped news media, but Scranton Times didn't bite. A nearby competing daily gave the story continuing coverage.

Here is an edited version of Beaupre's response to questioners and critics.

It's also a short course in sound ethical decision-making:

"Is this news? No. Where is the connection between the politician's private moral life and his public performance?

"Are we to investigate the private lives of all public officials? How about revealing the private, personal, sexual conduct of doctors? Or lawyers? Or mayors? Or judges? Or newspaper editors? Or you? ...

"You have to make assumptions to decide who is telling the truth. ... By our standards, the threshold for news in a dispute like this is: (a) The accuser has the capacity to file a criminal complaint, so why doesn't she? Then it would be a story. Or (b) she can file a civil lawsuit, and then it would be a story. The essential ingredient in both a criminal and civil complaint is a sworn statement by the accuser that her assertion is true. So why doesn't she? ...

"We'll cover this story aggressively when it's newsworthy. That time may come, if it finds its way into the courts or if it becomes a part of a political campaign or if it attaches itself somehow to the politician's public responsibilities. Until then, my decision is that, although this certainly is titillating, it is not news."

Writing on The Columbia Journalism Review Web page, Susan Q. Stranahan agrees.

"While some may see the decision not to publish the story as media gatekeeping, there's some truth to Beaupre's determination that he, the editor — and not his competition — has to be the one who decides what goes into and what stays out of his newspapers. That's what good editors do — set standards of their own, not unthinkingly adopt those of others. And that's true whether the competition is Star magazine or The Washington Post or The (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader."

· · ·

Now to Newsweek. It's less a problem of anonymous sources than of a single mistaken source and credulous journalists.

A brief story in the May 9 edition said a military report on prisoner abuse at Guantanamo asserted that U.S. interrogators flushed a Qur'an down the toilet. The Pentagon apparently accepted the tale.

But when the story provoked deadly riots in overwhelmingly Muslim Afghanistan, from which most Gitmo prisoners were taken, Newsweek became a public relations problem. The Pentagon said it probed the assertion and found no credible evidence of Qur'an desecration.

Newsweek hedged, saying it relied on an unnamed source who was a "longtime reliable source, a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter." Newsweek says the allegation was credible, given what its reporters heard about prisoner abuse at the base in Cuba.

Problem No. 1: Single-source (anonymous or on-the-record) stories are risky, but that's a judgment editors expect experienced reporters to make when verification is unavailable. Newsweek says a second reporter asked a "senior defense official" if a draft of the article were "accurate or not." The magazine says that official challenged one assertion unrelated to Qur'an desecration "but was silent about the rest of the item." Newsweek inferred confirmation rather than ignorance.

Problem No. 2: You hear what you want to hear even when you bear the subject no animus because it's a good story and it's your story in a highly competitive field that measures worth by what you did today.

Following the belated Pentagon denial, Newsweek went back to its original source "who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur'an, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced" in the military investigation on which Newsweek's story focused.

Told that, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita exploded, telling Newsweek, "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?"

Newsweek then retracted the Qur'an desecration story. Should Newsweek have waited for independent confirmation on the original, inflammatory story? Yes. But if it were confirmed, should Newsweek have told the world that interrogators desecrated a Qur'an? Yes. Barring ethical counter-arguments, the presumption is to publish if a story is newsworthy.

Does our need to know make this story newsworthy and outweigh the likelihood of violent reactions overseas? Yes. Newsweek has no duty to protect rioters from themselves. Rather, news media have a duty to help us make informed decisions on public policy.

Does our need to know, so that we can hold our officials accountable, trump potentially greater risks that such stories might pose for Americans serving, working and traveling in Muslim countries? Yes.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.