In Defense of Newsweek
We're already at overload on the latest presumed travesty of journalism, this time the whipping boy being Newsweek and its apparently inaccurate report of an alleged desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo prison.
Still, we're chiming in with our two cents.
First, we urge a skepticism amid the sanctimonious bluster being emitted from the asses of Condoleezza Rice and other White House officials who say Newsweek should've realized what violence the report would spark. Is the inference that journalists should self-censor if ugly realities threaten peace? At the time of publication, Newsweek editors evidently believed the story was credible. By the White House's logic, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib or even the My Lai massacre would've been kept hush-hush. The best and more responsible journalism has a duty to uncovering truth and letting the world sort it out. Granted, the Koran desecration might not have happened -- and, granted, that's a mighty hefty qualifier -- but Newsweek felt the article was accurate and, in fact, even now has nuanced its retraction so as not to discount the story altogether.
And what about the unbelievably resilient baaaalllls being carted around by Bush spokesman Scott McClellan when calling on Newsweek editors to make the retraction they eventually did? McClellan lectured reporters that the Newsweek piece was "based on a single anonymous source who could not personally substantiate the allegation that was made. The report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged."
Um.... no shit. You're right, ballboy, all this bogus information and skewered interpretation of facts have resulted in serious consequences and lost lives and a damaged reputation for the U.S. I mean, you are talking about the war, aren't you, Scott? The war that was built on oily yes men and decoder rings and phantom yellowcake and a guy named Chalabi (whose name sounds like some Tom Carvel ice cream creation, by the way)? Does the White House have such scant understanding of irony as to actually scold Newsweek for the negative consequences of a rush to judgment?
As a former journalist, my core question is whether Newsweek made a solid, good-faith effort to check the veracity of its story. The magazine contends that Michael Isikoff, one of the foremost investigative journalists in the country, vouched for the credibility of his source, who has been described as a high-ranking official who would have seen the Pentagon internal report in question. The source did not backpedal on his allegation until after its publication sparked rioting. Department of Defense spokespeople, when asked by Newsweek to verify the 10-sentence report before publication, questioned certain aspects of it but did not challenge the accuracy of the Koran incident.
The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz notes that part of the controversy stems from Newsweek's use of a single anonymous source.
"McClellan said the story 'appears to be very shaky from the get-go' and rests on 'a single anonymous source who cannot substantiate the allegation that was made.' Isikoff said Sunday that 'there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards,' noting that the Pentagon declined an opportunity to challenge the story before it was published.
"On sensitive stories, [Newsweek editor Mark] Whitaker said, journalists often have to rely on whether officials 'deny them or how vehemently they deny them.' But McClellan said it would be 'troubling if that's the standard they used.'
"Bob Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent who covered the Pentagon and now chairs Boston University's journalism department, said he often based stories on information from unnamed officials. 'I don't see how a reporter can function in a sensitive beat without relying on anonymous sources -- even one anonymous source if the reporter has confidence in him,' he said." [emphasis mine]
I must agree. Was the story airtight? Well, hell, obviously not (The Moderate Voice offers some differing opinions on Newsweek's lapses in judgment). But by no stretch is this situation a repeat of the "60 Minutes II" fiasco in which producers ran with a far-fetched tale from a guy with a history of mentally unstable behavior.
Moreover, we find it somewhat telling that Newsweek felt the story was ho-hum enough to place it in the odds 'n' ends "Periscope" section of the May 9 issue. In the wake of Abu Ghraib and a flurry of reports on Gitmo's strange excursion into Howard Stern territory -- interrogators employing fake menstrual blood and heaving jugs and other techniques in an effort to humiliate prisoners and drive them into talking -- what in the name of Allah was difficult to believe about a U.S. officer stuffing the Koran in a toilet? Newsweek's editors didn't blink for the same reason the Pentagon didn't blink, and for the same reason American readers didn't, at least until deadly violence erupted in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And as The London Times reports:
"Despite Newsweek's about-turn, the Pentagon has yet to state officially that no mistreatment of the Koran by interrogators took place at Guantanamo Bay, where the US has held 600 detainees in legal limbo for more than three years.
"General Richard Myers Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that no evidence has yet been found to support the claims. Such allegations had been raised before Newsweek's report. A lawyer for some Guantanamo inmates has blamed the attempted suicide of 23 of them in August 2003 on a US guard stamping on the Koran."
Perhaps the final irony is not that the Newsweek story could well be false, but that it still seems so damn believable.