Monday, May 16, 2005

Die, Newsweek, die!

The horde – led by the White House, no less – is circling Newsweek, relishing the smell of blood.

It’s legitimate and necessary to question Newsweek’s decisions on the Koran story, including the role that liberal or anti-Bush bias may have played (though, unlike the Rather incident, it doesn’t seem to be much of a factor). If that kind of reasoned criticism is being made out there somewhere, it’s been eclipsed by the right wing’s fervent wish for a Dan Rather II, another chance to pummel the MSM into submission. Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum point out the sheer perversity of such attacks coming from an administration that has tacitly condoned much worse than holy book-flushing.

If we want to have decent journalism institutions that are not shills for one party or the other (and it’s not clear that we do anymore, but that’s another question), how can they maintain their standards and credibility in the face of sustained, ideologically-motivated attacks?

The MSM has always made mistakes. Before, they just went away faster. Now they mushroom into nuclear fiascos. Avoiding such errors – especially ones that spark riots – is a good start. But it’s only a partial answer. It’s impossible to be error-free, or to predict all possible fallout from a story – especially in the difficult job of reporting on national security.

It’s an asymmetrical warfare problem. Newsweek is playing by one set of rules, the White House and its right-wing allies by another - and they have the advantage.

The Newsweek rules (if your source goes south, suck it up and admit it) are a distinct improvement on the Dan Rather stall-and-obfuscate defense. But they are almost quaint and utterly inadequate to the task. They assume a measure of goodwill on the part of the audience and political system that no longer exists.

The Bush rules (affix blame for your own sins to your political adversaries and crush them) are baroquely cynical – and effective. But Newsweek can’t fight on that playing field without surrendering its claim to fairness -- and with it, its ability to tell stories.

So besides soldiering onward, what should Newsweek do? Focus groups? Reality show? I wish I knew.