This story is fascinating on many levels. It comes at a time when the MSM is under increasing attack for the veracity of its reporting and the use of non-attributable sources, let alone from a vigilant Administration that prides itself on its ability to control the message. What interested me, from a PR perspective, is how Newsweek’s small “Periscope” item surfaced in the Muslim world to begin with, as well as how Newsweek went about admitting its mea culpa.
On the first count, it seems that the Newsweek item claiming the Koran was flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo was introduced at a news conference by a former cricket star-turned-anti-government-politican in Afghanistan. Ahhh. The power of a celebrity endorser! This news conference was picked up by Afghanistan radio and from there it permeated the general populace.
As far as the apology, editor Mark Whitaker, one of the most respected voices in journalism, directly addressed the mistake via a 1500-word explanation in today’s issue of the magazine, while Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Klaidman made the rounds on television. (I caught him on “CBS Evening News” Sunday night.) This pro-active effort to have its side of the story explained will continue in the national media for a couple of days, and live on in the blogosphere and thought-journals for much longer given the deadly impact the item caused.
Of course, those in the Muslim world do not give credence to Newsweek’s explanation, instead believing that the retraction has been fabricated by the U.S. government. Nonetheless, Newsweek, and its parent The Washington Post Co., is doing the right thing to explain the circumstances that led to this most unfortunate error. It’s hard to say what long-term affect this ill-conceived gossip item will have on the Newsweek’s reputation. It certainly won’t help efforts by the MSM, including The New York Times, to re-build readers’ trust.
Journalists are fallible and the most esteemed news organizations swiftly deal with their fallibility in an open and aggressive way, which is what Newsweek is doing. We’re certain to see more of this.