News... weak?

Mon May. 16, 2005 4:59 PM PDT

Last week, Newsweek published an article "reporting: that, "sources tell Newsweek: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet." Soon after, riots broke out in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, and Indonesia, among other places. The White House and Army quickly apologized, insisting they would look into the allegations. But there was also a sense that the riots breaking out had more to do with political unrest that had already been plaguing Afghanistan than with Newsweek's allegations. Just this weekend, Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, declared, "foreign hands are trying to disturb our parliamentary elections and are against the strengthening of the peace process."

The U.S. seemed to agree. According to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, the senior commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry thought that "the violence that we saw…was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran… [Eikenberry] thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine."

Yesterday, Newsweek issued an apology for its original article. "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst." Pentagon spokesmen jumped on the apology, attacking the credibility of Newsweek. White House spokesman Scott McClellan says, "It's puzzling that while Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refused to retract the story. The report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged." Pentagon spokesperson Lawrence Di Rita offered, "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said."

It's important, before we go jumping to conclusions that the media is completely without credibility, to identify exactly what Newsweek got wrong. Note: "On Saturday, Isikoff [author of the Newsweek article] spoke to his original source, the senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur'an, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report." Moreover, Isikoff had shown the story to a senior Pentagon official, who did not dispute the Koran claim.

So here's the thing: Newsweek didn't publish anything incorrect. Sources did tell Newsweek that he recalled a Koran/toilet incident in the report. But it turns out that the source cannot be sure that the incident was in the SouthCom report. Note that the editor of Newsweek states that, "The source had been reliable in the past, and was in a position to know about the report he was describing." Also note that the Pentagon is still trying to find out if the allegations are true. According to General Myers, military investigators at Guantanamo "have looked through the logs, the interrogation logs, and they cannot confirm yet [emphasis added] that there were ever the case of the toilet incident."

I'm still perplexed as to why Newsweek apologized. They did not print anything incorrect. Rather, they used a source that proved reliable in the past that turned out to not be able to peg his claim directly to one report, but still holds that the claim is true. And yet, in their May 23rd issue, Newsweek writes, "How did Newsweek get its facts wrong? And how did the story feed into serious international unrest?" Give me a break. It's seems naïve at best, and ignorant at worst to think that Newsweek's allegations of interrogators desecrating the Koran single-handedly fomented the deaths and unrest throughout the Middle East. It's hardly the first time allegations of this kind have emerged. And we still have yet to hear the final word on whether or not they are true.

Not only is Newsweek bowing to pressures, the New York Times even used their story on the issue to shamelessly defend and one-up themselves: "Reader surveys have said that the use of unnamed officials is one of the biggest reasons their trust in the news media has eroded, and several news organizations, including The New York Times, have been tightening rules on the use of unnamed officials." Likewise the BBC covers the story with the headline, "Koran story brings US journalism crisis." They go on to discuss how the BBC has reassessed its journalistic practices of late. Good for them. But it still remains to be seen that Newsweek got it all wrong. So to all those jumping to conclusions, be it Newsweek themselves, Pentagon officials, or Muslim clerics threatening a holy war: let's just settle down for a minute. The jury is still out on this one.

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