updated 5/23/2005 4:49:51 PM ET 2005-05-23T20:49:51
TRANSCRIPT EXCERPT

Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham spoke with Don Imus this morning on WFAN's "Imus in the Morning," simulcast on MSNBC, about the controversy over Newsweek's Quran desecration report. Meacham states that although Newsweek's main objective is to always find out the facts and tell the truth as best as they can see it, when it came to the Quran desecration report, they were "wrong, they made a mistake, and it was not up to standard."

WFAN's syndicated "Imus in the Morning" show broadcasts weekdays, 5:30-10:00 a.m. (ET), and simulcasts on MSNBC from 6-9 a.m. (ET). Following are excerpts from this morning's interview:  

Don Imus, MSNBC host: Here now the managing editor for Newsweek Jon Meacham. Good morning Mr. Meacham.

Jon Meacham: Morning Mr. Imus.

Imus: How are you?

Meacham: I’ve had better weeks.

Imus: So, you are the managing editor, right? What do you do?

Meacham: Yes I am. Well, I’m the number two day to day guy on scene there.

Imus: Who’s the number one guy?

Meacham: John Whitaker and then Rick Smith.

Imus: What does he do?

Meacham: Rick is the, at this point I think, damn near the longest serving news magazine editor since Henry Luce. He’s been at the top level for about 35 years and he is an interesting combination. He essentially married both church and state for us. He is the chairman, so he runs the business side and he also, because he came from the editorial side, oversees us and weighs in on the cover and on big issues and is really the guy in charge.

Imus: While he weighs in on the cover and other things, is he there in the trenches day to day?

Meacham: No, not really. The question is, is he reading every line of copy? No. That’s what...

Imus: Obviously nobody is over there. We know that now.

Meacham: Well now you’re complaining there are too many editors, there were too few editors last week so you got to keep your goal posts in one place. He, you know, he’s the boss. Sort of like, he’s a little strange in terms of an analogy because Don Graham is the owner of the company, but it’s a little like the New York Times where you have a publisher who actually is in charge of everything and then you have an editor and a managing editor who read all the copy, get things done.

Imus: Did this item, as it originally appeared in the Periscope page of your magazine, did it say that y’all were going to, that there was this source, well you guys said sources, but this source said that there was going to be a government document that suggested they had flushed a Quran down a toilet?

Meacham: Yeah, that allegation was expected to be in that SOUTHCOM report.

Imus: Ok, because I noticed in Jonathan Alter’s column, he says that the item was, he characterized it as trying to flush a...I realize this is a small point but he had it that the item was that they were trying to flush a Quran down a toilet and I just wondered if y’all were straight on whether the original report was they did flush it or that they were trying to flush it.

Meacham: Well the original item said flushed and..

Imus: Where did Alter get his information then that they were trying to flush it?

Meacham: That, I would have to talk to Jon about it. But the key thing is, we reported wrongly. We made a mistake that a Quran ended up in a toilet as an attempt to rattle the suspects and, or the detainees, and we just didn’t have enough to go with. And we were wrong and there’s you know, mistakes of things you just gotta acknowledge and try to fix and move forward and none of us want to be defensive about this. None of us are in any way trying to minimize the serious of it. Every word that goes in that magazine has to be as true and verifiable as we can possibly, possibly make it. And it seems obvious to say, but sometimes have to say the obvious and we screwed up in this his case and we’re now going to do everything we can to get things right, again stating the obvious.

Imus: Well this, a couple of fundamental things I’m sort of wondering about not being a journalist. I never, unless, I’m a consumer of journalism and the question has been asked. Bernard, Pat Buchanan and a bunch of other people have asked the question and I’m going to ask you. What is the point in a time of war of publishing, what seems like a story that has been out there anyway. You know, The Washington Post had alluded to desecration of the Quran in these various facilities. What’s the point, particularly with an item that wasn’t nailed down and y’all had to know, I mean somebody over there had to know that this thing wasn’t really just, absolutely nailed down. What’s the point of publishing this anyway?

Meacham: Well, in anytime, time of war, time of peace, our job is to try to keep our government, our military, people who are acting in our name, who are sacrificing, who are doing incredible work under incredibly difficult circumstances, our job is to keep an eye on what is going on. I mean that is what the press does. We are part of this democratic process. We cannot be mindlessly adversarial, which I’m afraid has happened in a lot of different places. I frankly don’t think it, I know it’s not true at Newsweek but that there is this automatic assumption of hostilities between the government and the press. But the point of reporting on these things is to try to keep people from doing bad things. Because some sunshine helps these things. We point out mistakes, they tend not to get made again. See this case in Newsweek. To say that ‘Well you shouldn’t report on it, on an important thing like Koranic desecration or allegations of it, just because other people have already reported on it,’ is sort of mixing the argument up a good bit, and what we’re trying to, what we were trying to do in this item is say, ‘Look we have problems, we have had problems, Abu Ghraib came forward with prisoner detention. Obviously these people are not in these places because they have done great things in society, the prisoners, the detainees. But at the same time we have to be incredibly sensitive about not inflaming what is already a terribly inflammatory situation which was not one of our own making. You know before September 11, you know, we did not invite this. This was brought on us as an act of war by extremists in the Islamic state, so we have been put in this position. This is not, as the President brilliantly said in National Cathedral on the Friday after the attacks, this war began at a time of their choosing. It will end on our terms at a time when we pick. We just have to hold everybody accountable for what’s going on so that it won’t get even worse. That’s the answer.

Imus: Yeah, I tend, it’s not important what I think or really important, but I tend to agree with you. But I do, hindsight is enormously helpful in my asking these various questions, but it does seem to me in just trying to think about it without trying to cause trouble or to make your life miserable that it seemed just on the surface to be fairly flimsy to me, and I, somebody over there had to recognize that in order to make this sort of charge that it would been better to have it really nailed down and somebody had to anticipate that it might inflame these folks.

Meacham: We could not agree more. What you just said is right. We were wrong. We screwed this up. It was not up to standard. That conversation about sensitivity should have happened. It didn’t. We made a mistake. It was used...

Imus: Is that all it is, a mistake?

Meacham: I’m just, all I can tell you is the truth and this was a bad mistake and we’re sorry. What you’ve seen in the magazine this week, what you heard all last week from Jon and Howard talking to you a week ago, all the way forward is a well meaning, well intentioned institution that’s been doing this for 72 years, trying to make sure we get it right. And we take, I cannot tell you how seriously we take the fact that we’re read around the world, that we’re read around the country. You know, 3.2 million people subscribe. Those are hugely important people to us.

Imus: It’s a top ten magazine, of course you obviously know that being the managing editor.

Meacham: Well, it’s very important, I really believe in a very serious way that we are a vital part of the life of the Nation.

Imus: Well, let’s not get crazy.

Meacham: laughing.. you’ve asked serious questions, so let me answer you seriously for one minute. That we are an important thing. You and I would not be talking about this, if we weren’t important. It doesn’t have anything to do with me this has to do with Newsweek. And all we can do is say we were wrong. I mean other institutions, other people throughout history have had an inability to admit that they were wrong and that they were going to try to get it right going forward. We are not going to make that mistake. We’re not going to compound the mistake. All we can do, all common sense tells you you can do is say you know this wasn’t where it should have been . We shouldn’t have published it at that point. It doesn’t mean we are giving up the pursuit of strong, dogged tough reporting at all but it’s going to be triple riveted, quadruple riveted going forward as it has been in the past.

Imus: You know who Isikoff’s source was?

Meacham: I know roughly.

Imus: Do you know the person's name?

Meacham: I don’t want to get into that, if you don’t mind. I just, the source...

Imus: In other words you do...

Meacham: The source has been historically reliable.

Imus: I wish you were here because Charles and I would make you tell us. (laughter) Because we would beat the hell out of you and get it out of you.

Meacham: I know but actually you’re too gentlemanly. I know you hide behind it, ultimately your grace would win out.

Imus: Did you read Time Magazine’s account of what you all did.

Meacham: I did. I did.

Imus: What’d you think of that?

Meacham: You know we are the story of the moment and you can not be, I want to go back to slightly self-flagellating pose for a second because it’s true. We take on the whole world every week. We write about institutions, we write about people, we write about books, we write about political campaigns, and whenever you are in the position of actually being written about, as you know, everyday, you always look at the thing and say my god here are the 16 things that I would have done differently. Here are the 17 nuances they got wrong. I am not saying this is true about Time but obviously we are the story right now and we obviously report on everybody else, and so we have to take it here. One thing, again not to be to gooey about it that I think is really important and I thought was really important before this and have written some about it, is we would all do a lot better if there were a larger measure of empathy in the culture right now. Not in, not so rolling over for everybody or each other or back scratching but just understanding that everybody is working through, what the great 19th century novelist George Elliot said ‘dim lights and tangle circumstances’. You know we are all trying really hard to get it right, to do whatever job we’re doing and in real time and that includes the President of the United States, that includes the Prime Minister of Great Britain and that includes the editors of Newsweek and that includes the soldiers on the ground. And the more empathetic and I think even magnanimous we can be the better off the whole country can be.

Imus: I think most people probably think that Newsweek was trying to do the right thing. You can have the discussion which we have already had about whether it should have been written about in the first place and you explained that rather eloquently, however this incident got unfairly compared, as you obviously know to the Jayson Blair situation, the clown at the USA Today, the CBS News deal and a couple other incidents which was unfortunate, so why I agree we should all have more empathy the problem is that the general public doesn’t pay as close attention to this stuff as perhaps you and I do, or Charles or the rest of us, lumps all of these things in together and so you all come off looking like Jayson Blair when that’s just not the case.

Meacham: That’s right. I call it the lazy roundup paragraph problem, where people are going to say ‘well here are the five screw-ups recently in the media, boom, boom, boom, boom. And the only thing that I can do about that is push hard at Newsweek which is the only place that I have any place to work and try to avoid that. Try to say, when somebody says ‘hey isn’t this news story like what happened to X’, say well maybe, maybe not. We just have to get those nuances right. And if anything we have learned a new that lazy roundup paragraphs, hey here’s a trend in the media, hey here’s a trend in the prisoner tactics, hey here’s a trend in how we’re fighting in Iraq and being careful not to do the lazy trend story. And the papers are full of these, magazines are full of these because people are always trying to spot something larger in the smaller things. There is a  whole industry including our magazine that could fall back on that instinct of wanting to appear very wise and as though whichever journalist could connect dots, that other people couldn’t connect, which of course they can’t and as you are saying maybe there are dots that shouldn’t be connected. So this is a case not only for empathy, you’re exactly right, but just for more exactitude. Because as you know when you are written about, when you are in the news suddenly you see the world a whole lot differently. And you realize that life is not clinical and we’re not all sitting on Olympus who are passing judgment ohh X is true and Y is not true, that we’re all not only A in this together by and large but B good journalism is when you hold up a mirror to the country and the reflection is accurate and if it in inaccurate than we are in trouble.

Imus: I’m not as concerned about you know items, for example, written about me or items that Newsweek writes about somebody else, if they get some, you know if they make honest mistakes. But when mistakes are made that suggest that there, that the original motive was some sort of agenda that’s what I find troubling and I think in some quarters that was the suspicion regarding not just Newsweek but you know the rest of the which unfairly or maybe accurately described as the liberal news media, is that there is agenda there and this is just another example of that, but I don’t know whether I think that or not.

Meacham: I’ll tell you what I think, which is that right now I know a lot of people think there is a liberal media that comes out of really the Nixon years. But if you talk to a whole lot of liberals they think we’re in the pocket of the right wing. So both sides at this point, in this incredibly divisive moment think that the main stream press somehow or another attacking one way or another. It sort of drives me crazy because all we’re trying to do, and we didn’t do it in this case, but all we’re trying to do is to find out the facts and tell the truth as best we can see it. You know Philip Graham who bought Newsweek and made it part of the Washington Post company said ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history, sometimes you wish it weren’t quite so rough, some weeks,’ but that’s what we’re doing and it’s not, and all I can speak for passionately is Newsweek. We are not part of any liberal media agenda. We are not part of any conservative media agenda. People who are whacking Michael Isikoff around on the right who say ‘he’s a liberal journalist who is trying to make America look bad’ seem to have forgotten that this is a guy who basically impeached Bill Clinton 7 years ago. Mike gave the right wing the best years of their life in the past 10 years or so. And that was simply Mike chasing the facts as best he could find them. And in one case it lead to the impeachment of a democratic incumbent President, in other cases maybe it’s made republicans uncomfortable. But he’s doing what we should do at our best, which is simply trying to find out the truth, trying to hold up a mirror, trying to shed light, trying to keep the government accountable, whoever it is. Because if you get too clubby the other side of empathy is the famous case with Scotty Reston, the legendary Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times and JFK. Reston had the bay of pigs story in ‘61 and Kennedy asked him to hold it and Scotty held it and Kennedy later told him that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done because you should have run it, because than I wouldn’t have gotten into this mess. So you know, that’s a true and fascinating episode. So we are a fallible human institution, you actually know a whole lot more of us better than almost anybody outside the magazine, you know (Howard) Fineman, you know John (Alter), you know Evan (Thomas), we’re I hate to say it but these are really good, honest, decent,  hardworking, wonderful people.

Imus: I agree.

Meacham: And we’re not crazy liberals, we’re not nutty conservatives.

Imus: I don’t know about that. (laughter) You know I do think of you every Sunday morning when I drive by the Episcopalian Church in Southport and try to run over people. (Laughter) Although there are fewer and fewer parishioners I noticed so, not that many opportunities.

Meacham: You know it’s really not fair to try to run over people who are hung over. (Laughter) You know, you of all people should have sympathy.

Imus: Fairly eloquent defense, if it’s necessary at this point of your magazine. I think you all probably will be fine. Big old wet kiss from Frank Rich yesterday, what the hell is he trying to do, he’s trying to get a job over there.

Meacham: You know David Brooks of..

Imus: That was a great column from Brooks...

Meacham: That was a great column. I called him up and said I’d come down and cut his grass for him.

Imus: Yeah that’s good. Alright man thank you very much.

Meacham: Thank you very much.

Imus: Jon Meacham, the managing editor from Newsweek Magazine.

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