Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Disappointment in Samarra : WHAT HAPPENED TO 'TRUST BUT VERIFY'?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Disappointment in Samarra : WHAT HAPPENED TO 'TRUST BUT VERIFY'?

Article excerpt

As recent incidents show, the press too often takes White House and military officials at their word and asks questions later

Looking back to 1999, I remember the headlines at the height of the Lewinsky scandal pretty clearly. I believe "Clinton Didn't Do It" graced the front page of The New York Times. I'm nearly positive that Page One of The Washington Post blared, "Clinton Had No Relations With Monica." Because when a president and other top officials say something, it must be true, and newspapers must print what they say as fact and then ask questions later. Right?

For example, the White House recently revealed that President Bush's fly-by- night, top-secret Thanksgiving mission to Iraq was almost halted when its secrecy was compromised after Air Force One was eyeballed by a British Airways pilot.

"Bush's Baghdad-Bound Plane Was Spotted," or words similar in effect, read the headlines of many newspapers that carried a Dec. 2 Associated Press report on the matter, ranging from the Los Angeles Times to the Aberdeen (S.D.) American News.

The only problem is that the encounter, which apparently was impressive enough to make its way onto souvenir pins in Crawford, Texas, possibly never happened, we later learned. Perhaps it was all just a misunderstanding, or it was made up by the White House, pulled from the same thin air that Air Force One so gallantly flew through.

For the record, the souvenir buttons are sold out, according to Australia's Sydney Morning Herald.

There is a right way to do this, of course. Contrary to what I wrote at the top of this page, the actual headlines in 1999 read more like: "Clinton SAYS He Had No Relations With that Woman." In 2003, wouldn't it have been more accurate to report: "White House SAYS Bush's Baghdad-Bound Plane Was Spotted"? It certainly would have saved the newspapers the embarrassing task of informing their readers later that inaccurate information had slipped onto their pages.

I am not suggesting the press was anti-Clinton or is pro-Bush. This is a nonpartisan issue. Actually, it's more like Journalism 101: Trust, but verify. It's always amazing to watch the press treat most official statements with admirable skepticism and careful attribution -- but then turn around and report assertions from any White House or military command as fact until they fall into question. This is especially troubling in times of war. …

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