Wednesday, May 18, 2005

When knowledge workers make mistakes

A big news item today started me to thinking about the checks and balances that the daily labors of knowledge workers are subject to in diverse settings. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to stress that "knowledge workers" are by definition engaged in the consumption, production and dissemination of something called "knowledge" which, we would hope, those workers ascribe some truth value to. So the checks and balances in question are meant to make sure that the objects and products of the knowledge worker's labor -- the "knowledge" itself -- is in fact sincere, transparent, and at least believed to be true by those using, producing, and distributing that knowledge.

In other words, we're talking about lies, mistakes, and everything in between.

The item was arguably the top story of the week: the accusation that Newsweek not only practiced shoddy journalism in reporting that US military interrogators desecrated Islamic holy texts as an intimidation tactic, but as a result is directly and morally responsible for the subsequent civilian protests, riots, and deaths in Afghanistan. I've been bothered by this story since it broke for several reasons: (1) apparently more than one government source that Newsweek trusted to confirm the accusation was unreliable; (2) even without government confirmation, independent former US detainees continue to make these accusations, some in a court of law; (3) the Bush administration put a striking level of public pressure on Newsweek to retract its story but is itself thwarting the investigation of US practices in military detention facilities; and finally, (4) Newsweek itself printed a pretty transparent accounting of how it came to print what it did, and how it investigated its own processes after the controversy began. Yet the whole story is being spun as "just one more example of that damn liberal bias" and the general untrustworthiness of the "media filter" (as the Republican National Committee calls it) otherwise known as professional journalism.

In refuting many of the specific allegations against Newseek, an Alternet piece today by By Robert Jensen and Pat Youngblood helps clear up much of the confusion:

First, it's not clear whether U.S. guards in Guantanamo or other prisons have placed copies of the Koran on a toilet or thrown pages (or a whole Koran) into a toilet. Detainees have made such claims, which have been reported by attorneys representing some of the men in custody and denied by U.S. officials. Newsweek's retraction is ambiguous, suggesting they believe the incident may have happened but no longer can demonstrate that it was cited in the specific U.S. government documents, as originally reported.

Given the abuse and torture -- from sexual humiliation to beatings to criminal homicide -- that has gone on in various U.S. military prison facilities, it's not hard to believe that the Koran stories could be true. Given that last month U.S. officials pressured the United Nations to eliminate the job of its top human-rights investigator in Afghanistan after that official criticized violations by U.S. forces in the country, it's not hard to be skeptical about U.S. motives. And given that even the human-rights commission of the generally compliant Afghan government is blocked by U.S. forces from visiting the prisons, it's not hard to believe that the U.S. officials may have something to hide.

Until we have more information, definitive conclusions are impossible. But if you go on a popular right-wing web site, youĂ­ll find the verdict that administration supporters are trying to make the final word: Newsweek lied, people died.

Yes, people died during demonstrations, and political leaders in the Muslim world have cited the Koran stories to spark anti-U.S. feeling. But reporters outside the United States have pointed out that these demonstrations have not been spontaneous but were well-organized, often by groups of students. The frustration with U.S. policy that fuels these demonstrations isn't limited to the Koran incident, and to reduce the unrest to one magazine story is misleading. Indeed, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference last week that the senior commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Carl Eichenberry, reported that the violence "was not at all tied to the article in the magazine."

So, why the focus on the Newsweek story? It's part of the tried-and-true strategy of demonize, disguise, and divert. Demonize the news media to disguise the real causes of the resistance to occupation and divert attention from failed U.S. policies.


Further, a column today online at the Nation reminds readers of the many other accusations of holy text desecration which have emerged from recent former prisoners of the US military around the globe:

Contrary to White House spin, the allegations of religious desecration at Guantanamo such as those described by Newsweek on 9 May 2005 are common among ex-prisoners and have been widely reported outside the United States. Several former detainees at the Guantanamo and Bagram airbase prisons have reported instances of their handlers sitting or standing on the Koran, throwing or kicking it in toilets, and urinating on it.

One such incident (during which the Koran was thrown into a pile and stepped on) prompted a hunger strike among Guantanamo detainees in March 2002. Regarding this, the New York Times in a 1 May 2005, article interviewed a former detainee, Nasser Nijer Naser al-Mutairi, who said the protest ended with a senior officer delivering an apology to the entire camp. And the Times reports: "A former interrogator at Guantanamo, in an interview with the Times, confirmed the accounts of the hunger strikes, including the public expression of regret over the treatment of the Korans." (Neil A. Lewis and Eric Schmitt, "Inquiry Finds Abuses at Guantanamo Bay," New York Times, May 1, 2005, p. 35.)

The hunger strike and apology story is also confirmed by another former detainee, Shafiq Rasul, interviewed by the UK Guardian in 2003 (James Meek, "The People the Law Forgot," The Guardian, December 3, 2003, p. 1.) It was also confirmed by former prisoner Jamal al-Harith in an interview with the Daily Mirror (Rosa Prince and Gary Jones, "My Hell in Camp X-ray World Exclusive," Daily Mirror, March 12, 2004.)

The toilet incident was reported in the Washington Post in a 2003 interview with a former detainee from Afghanistan


But this still leaves us with a climate where contradictions in this cycle of knowledge production abound. Journalists who can't rely on the federal government to supply public information must turn to anonymous whistleblowing sources inside that government; but when those sources make mistakes or intentionally mislead, it is the journalists who bear the blame -- blame handed out by that same federal government (and itself reported as the authoritative "news of the day").

What seems to be happening is a basic misconception between, and conflation of, two different types of knowledge production: enterprise journalism research and institutional strategic communication. By "enterprise journalism research" I mean the seeking out of stories off the daily "beat" of routine news production, involving arduous information gathering from multiple sources, cross-checking the truth value of that information and the reliability of those sources, interpretation of that information in historical, social, and political-economic context, and finally disemination of that information in a clear narrative form. Get the facts, check the facts, analyze the facts, and then tell the story of the facts, to put it another way. On the other hand, the goal of "institutional strategic communication" is to influence this process at all levels: become a source (preferably, the only source) for other information-gatherers so that your ideas are valued; undermine the reliability of other potential information sources so that their ideas are devalued; promote a set of historical interpretations, social categories, or political-economic theories for framing any information that is gathered; and finally, spin the resulting narrative depending on whether the story it tells makes you look like a hero or a villain.

Given this framework, what strikes me most about this Newsweek episode is that the enterprise journalism side has responded carefully, transparently, and consistently all the way through. Information was assembled, vetted, and distributed; then that information was challenged, and upon further investigation the original vetting of the information fell apart. The breakdown came to light, was double-checked, and admitted in a relatively short span of time, from the originating media outlet. This story was faulty; but the overall process of knowledge production and verification, both internally and externally, was apparently functioning as best as we might expect.

On the other hand, the strategic communication side has clearly spun this event for its own gain, has ignored evidence outside of the Newsweek report of the very charges the Newsweek report attempted to corroborate, and claims the system of enterprise journalism as a whole is broken upon the evidence of a single failure that was, quite quickly, corrected. It strikes me that if the federal government itself were held to the same standards -- not only standards of careful knowledge production and dissemination, but standards of admitting and correcting mistakes when they are uncovered -- then the Islamic world's perceptions of us (which, remember, is the whole issue) might be much different to begin with. And perhaps not only the lives lost in the recent Afghanistan riots, but those of countless (literally, uncounted by the US government) Afghan and Iraqi civilians might have been spared.

Sincere knowledge workers within a capitalist political-economy -- I count myself as one of them -- are subject to varying opportunities and constraints as they try to sell what they see as the truth. Journalists in particular face tight deadlines, recalcitrant sources, and editorial censorship often related to advertiser demands. These and other structural aspects of for-profit knowledge production in 21st century global journalism need to be investigated, analyzed, and challenged themselves -- often by other sincere knowledge-workers (subject to their own structural constraints) that we like to call "researchers" or "academics". But no matter how sincere our efforts, how sincere our beliefs that the knowledge we have uncovered is the truth, we will make mistakes. Still, our media -- like our academia, and especially like our government -- is only "biased" or "broken" to the degree that it refuses to learn from those mistakes. I for one think that US journalists have shown progress in this and other recent crises of truth; I don't think I can say the same thing about the US government.

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