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Negligent to death

To be so negligent that your error at work results in death and destruction-that's as bad as it can get for a journalist

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

"There but for the grace of God go I."

These are the (slightly edited) words of John Bradford, a 16th-century English Protestant martyr. He actually said, upon seeing criminals on their way to the scaffold, "There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford"-and he later was burned at the stake by order of Queen Mary in 1555.

After Newsweek's horrific lapse in editorial judgment, journalists who regularly use anonymous sources might be saying the same. It is bad enough to be a Rather or a Mapes and be revealed as an over-the-hill or incompetent ideologue, worse still to be a Jayson Blair or a Jeff Gannon/James Guckert and be ridiculed as a hypocrite or fraud. But to be so negligent that your error at work results in death and destruction-that's as bad as it can get for a journalist.

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Will the scandal cause any serious change within mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the major networks and news weeklies? No, not unless collectively these elite organizations swear off the use of Washington whisperers-and that won't happen. There are too many scoops to be had and too much money and too many reputations to be made via reliance on anonymous sources.

Anonymous sources "leak" information for many reasons-to advance their own agenda or career, wound a rival, destroy a policy initiative, curry favor, or simply do mischief. Reporters and editors long ago became addicted to this style of journalism by tip. The Watergate "Deep Throat" legitimized the concept in the public's mind, and the earlier leak of the Pentagon Papers-the publication of those pilfered documents upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court-put everything on paper in play.

Now, deep into the fourth year of a war, veteran Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff and its editors used an anonymous source to produce an item that led to Muslim riots and deaths. Would every other big-name journalist in town have acted as Mr. Isikoff did? Would every other elite newspaper, network, or magazine have done so? Bradford's famous phrase is on a lot of lips this week, but will almost certainly be forgotten by summer's start. The dead are far away, and there are stories to be had and circulation numbers to defend.

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