Journalism’s Credibility Gap

The mainstream media have been having a bad year, to say the least. Newsweek’s infamous “toilet story” is only the latest–and possibly the most devastating–example of the partisan scribes flushing their own credibility down the Porta-Potty. There are many others, including:

– CBS News and Dan Rather using obviously forged National Guard documents in an attempt to sling mud on the commander in chief during the presidential campaign;

– On the eve of the election, the New York Times trumping up a now long-gone story about phantom explosives ignored by American soldiers;

– The endless, out-of-proportion reporting on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, coupled with dark and unfounded intimations that the corruption reached all the way up to Bush and Rumsfeld.

No wonder an increasingly skeptical public continues to turn to more credible sources for news.

Like Abu Ghraib, the Saddam photos, and now the news that American soldiers may have murdered two prisoners in Afghanistan, the Newsweek story couldn’t help but serve as a prime recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. Only this time, there was no truth to the charge that American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had flushed the Qur’an, which Muslims consider the literal word of God, down the toilet.

Muslims consider even placing a copy of the Qur’an on the ground to be a sign of profound disrespect toward God. Didn’t Newsweek’s editors know they were indulging in the journalistic equivalent of lighting a match in a room full of explosives?

Where is the discretion we should expect of highly paid professionals who have (or think they have) highly sensitive information? Even if it were true, did this information need to come out? To what end?

While Newsweek’s editor eventually apologized for the blunder, there are signs that the scribes still don’t get it. Yes, they have acknowledged that it probably isn’t a good idea to rely on a single anonymous source speculating about the contents of a government document that no one has seen.

But no one–especially not star investigative reporter Michael Isikoff–has lost his or her job over the fiasco. Yes, 17 lives were lost and the United States faces an even more skeptical Muslim world, but let’s not be so simplistic as to blame Newsweek.

Trying to turn the page, journalists appear to be closing ranks. One reporter cynically asked the White House whether it expected the press to only report “how great the military is.”

Several have said Newsweek reported the non-story “by the book.” (Then perhaps it’s time to get a new “book.”) To the media elite, responsibility for the carnage lies elsewhere. They seem to be offering a collective, “Moi?”

For example, Jack Shafer of Slate asked, “Are the riots and the deaths the magazine’s fault? I say no, whether Newsweek got the story right or wrong. If Al Jazeera published the most inflammatory story it could find—or make up—about the pope or the Virgin Mary, would we blame the satellite station if Rome rioted or the Romans?”

Actually, we would be right to blame both. As they say, never yell “fire” in a crowded theater.

And the example is absurd anyway. I doubt there would be a riot among Christians in Rome. They have shown very little propensity to do such things. Yet, unfortunately, Muslims have shown quite a bit. It’s often shoot first and ask questions later.

The media elite, for their part, are acting like a bunch of 3-year-olds. They want rights without responsibilities. They want to be able to float unsubstantiated rumor against the United States in a time of war and then walk away unscathed.

While the nation needs the media to help keep the government honest–this is a prime function of journalism–the media need the country, too. But too many journalists display a hyper-detachment, as if it is somehow wrong to support this nation in wartime. Too many are reliving what they see as the glory days of the press during Vietnam.

But the press during World War II actually engaged in some strategic self-censorship, understanding that freedom of the press is not free. But a few years ago, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee admitted that if the newspaper had uncovered secret Allied plans for D-Day, he would have published them.

No wonder press coverage of the Iraq war is so unrelentingly negative. While taking advantage of all the freedoms this country offers, the media show it absolutely no loyalty. Don’t the scribes realize that if the Islamists win, they will be first against the wall?

If that happens here, journalists will have a lot more to worry about than their yawning credibility gap.

About Stan Guthrie

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is God's Story in 66 Verses. He also is author of All that Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy. He is co-author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Besides authoring, writing, and editing books, Stan is a literary agent, bringing together good authors, good books, and good publishers. Stan writes the monthly Priorities colum for BreakPoint.org. He has appeared on National Public Radio's €œTell Me More,€ WGN's Milt Rosenberg program, and many Christian shows, including The Eric Metaxas Show and Moody Radio'€™s €œNew Day Florida.€ A licensed minister and an inspirational speaker, he served as moderator for the Christian Book Expo panel discussion, Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?
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