Ben Bradlee Criticizes ‘Newsweek’ on Sourcing Debacle

By: Joe Strupp

Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of The Washington Post and a onetime Newsweek D.C. bureau chief, criticized the news magazine for taking too long to retract its recent, inadequately sourced Koran-abuse item. He added that under certain circumstances he would reveal a source who lied to a reporter and came out against single-source stories, in a conversation Monday with E&P.

Some (most recently, commentator David Gergen) have called for Newsweek to reveal its source on the retracted Koran-abuse story. When asked if he would ever reveal a confidential source that had been wrong or lied, Bradlee said, “If a guy led you over a cliff on purpose, I think I’d get even with him.” But, he added, he would not “swear a vendetta” for a source who simply made a mistake. “I’m not prepared to say it is an absolute rule,” he said.

As for how Newsweek handled the retraction, Bradlee said, “they could have been quicker to tell it all. If they’d cleaned it up the first day, it would have been over with.” Bradlee told E&P, referring to the magazine’s retraction of a May 9 item in its Periscope section, “The first retraction was a semi-retraction. You are either right or wrong or you don’t know. And if you don’t know, you shouldn’t have printed it.”

Bradlee’s comments followed a week in which Newsweek has been heavily criticized for its revelation that a single-sourced item by Michael Isikoff, which reported that a Koran had been flushed down the toilet by U.S. military personnel at Guantanamo Bay, was incorrect. The magazine first reported on May 15 that its lone source had backed away from the report, then retracted the story a day later.

“If they could have tied it up with one [retraction], it would have been better,” Bradlee explained. He then noted, “I’ve had certain experience in that field,” a reference to the Post’s Janet Cooke episode in 1981, when the paper, under Bradlee’s editorship, had to return a Pulitzer Prize after finding that Cooke had fabricated an award-winning story.

Bradlee also opposed Newsweek’s use of a single source and its limited description of the source. “I don’t like one source,” he said. “And maximum sourcing is the first rule. Is it a man or a woman? Is it military or civilian? Is it Republican or Democrat? Help the reader a little bit.”

But, Bradlee said there was likely some truth to the story, since “we had heard that story and those rumors before.” He also called Isikoff a “pretty good reporter,” noting, “he hovers around stories that prove difficult.”

As someone who had written Periscope stories in the past, Bradlee said he was skeptical about the weekly feature, which offers short items in the magazine’s front pages. “I’m not a great fan of that art form,” he told E&P. “It’s a little gimmicky, it’s a packaging tool.” He said when he was at the magazine, in the early to mid-1960s, writers who submitted Periscope briefs were paid $5 per item, “or a bottle of booze.”

“The cry would go out on Saturday, ‘We need Periscopes! We need Periscopes!'” he recalled. “If it was really good, it was worth more than a Periscope. If you couldn’t prove it, it was worth a Periscope.”

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