The First Draft of History is Sometimes Wrong

A word on the Newsweek fiasco: to paraphrase some of my Pentacostal friends, don't print someone unless "you know that you know that you know" that your story is right. Or you'll go to hell.

Sometimes, the roasting will be done by former friends and colleagues, as happened to Mitch Albom . Or sometimes, when you make mistakes, people will die, as happened this past week in Afghanistan.

A word of context: the White House has been quick to blame Newsweek for the riots in Afghanistan--while not mentioning that the climate of prisoner abuse at places like Abu Ghraib which made the claims of Koran flushing plausible.

During the last Presidential Campaign, Bryan Keeler of the Columbia Journalism Review talked about a "toxic tidal wave" of misinformation that both the Kerry and Bush campaign dumped into the 24-7 news cycle--knowing that once a piece of misinformation made it into the media cycle, it was imprinted there indelibly, picked up by all future stories down the food chain.

No one, argued Keeler, was taking time to check facts--they were instead content to pass on spin in the name of journalistic balance.

"Striving for fairness and balance does not mean we can’t adjudicate the facts," Keeler wrote. "When the truth is knowable, the press should not hesitate to point it out. When it is not knowable, reporters need to include anything they can to help the reader understand a given issue or situation."

I'd like to take Keeler one step futher: Journalists seem to have forgotten the old adage from the City News Service: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Any source--whether a unnamed government official or a piece that appears in a national publication like Newsweek--is suspect. (The New York Times, according to a recent report, printed more that 3,000 corrections last year alone.)

journalists like to say that they write the first draft of history. But the first draft is sometimes wrong.


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