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Case closed
Newsweek’s screw-up is a gift to right-wingers looking to blame the media for Bush’s foreign-policy failures
Blow by blow

May 1. Newsweek publishes a 300-word Periscope item by Michael Isikoff and John Barry stating — among other things — that a forthcoming government report would confirm allegations that American interrogators at Guantánamo had "flushed a Qur’an down a toilet."

May 6. Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan, an opposition political leader, holds a news conference at which he denounces President Pervez Musharraf, a US ally, and reads from the Newsweek item. Khan: "This is what the US is doing — desecrating the Koran."

May 10. After Khan’s remarks were repeated by Muslim-world media for several days, protests begin in Afghanistan, spreading to Pakistan and, eventually, as far away as Indonesia. In Afghanistan, at least 17 would be killed and more than 100 injured.

May 12. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, plays down speculation that the Newsweek item touched off the violence, blaming it instead on "the ongoing political reconciliation process in Afghanistan."

May 13. The Pentagon tells Newsweek that its story was wrong, and that military investigators had deemed reports of Koran desecration at Guantánamo to be not credible.

May 15. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker pens an editor’s note for this week’s edition, reporting that the magazine could no longer vouch for its sourcing on the story, and writing that "we regret that we got any part of our story wrong."

May 16. White House press secretary Scott McClellan rips Newsweek for apologizing without retracting the story: "The report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged." By day’s end, Whitaker issues a retraction, but denies he had been pressured into it by the White House.

— DK

FOR SUPPORTERS OF George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy, Newsweek’s deeply flawed report that American interrogators had desecrated the Koran at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp wasn’t just another example of alleged liberal media bias. Nor was it merely about the dubious ethics of publishing a potentially explosive story on the say-so of one anonymous source. Rather, the magazine’s screw-up was a gift — a talisman that Bush’s defenders can now invoke to claim that all is well, or would be if it weren’t for those America-hating liberals and their lackeys in the press.

Consider, for instance, what happened on Monday night when Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, and Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, squared off on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country. Jensen attempted to place Newsweek’s error in some context, noting that US forces are responsible for horrific abuses, including torture and homicide, at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.

Suddenly, Bozell started yipping like a dog that had finally managed to corner a wounded squirrel. "You cite me the evidence of American soldiers murdering people in prisons," he barked. Jensen, clearly perplexed, replied, "The evidence is in the Army’s own reports." That wasn’t good enough for Bozell. "You’re accusing the American military of murder. If you don’t back it up, back off," he sneered. And so it went until the segment sputtered out.

Now, I have to assume that Bozell was being outrageously disingenuous, because he’s not a stupid man. He had to know that, less than two months earlier, the Army reported that 27 prisoners were killed while in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan between August 2002 and November 2004. According to an Associated Press account, the Army had come up with sufficient evidence to charge 21 soldiers with such crimes as murder, negligent homicide, and assault. But in the new environment that Newsweek has helped to create, any accusations that American forces have acted abusively are now null and void.

This blame-the-media meme spread quickly within conservative circles. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial claiming that Newsweek’s error was part of an anti-military mindset on the part of the media that goes back to the Vietnam War. "Where the press corps goes wrong is in always assuming the worst about military and government motives," the Journal opined. The day before, Paul Marshall wrote in National Review Online, "The shakily sourced May 9 Newsweek report that interrogators had desecrated a Koran at Guantánamo Bay is likely to do more damage to the U.S. than the Abu Ghraib prison scandals." Imagine that. Charles Graner and Lynndie England must be so relieved.

Conservative bloggers, in particular, were apoplectic over the Newsweek lapse. Glenn Reynolds, whose InstaPundit.com is perhaps the most influential right-leaning blog, linked to a rant by Dean Esmay charging that "the press is not on our side in the war.... You guys are enemy propagandists. It’s just who you are. It’s nice that you’ve at least stopped pretending." Another, the increasingly prominent religious-right blogger La Shawn Barber, pushed this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, writing, "Whether Americans flushed the Koran down the toilet is irrelevant. Newsweek should not have reported it, even if true. It’s common sense, people. Those journalists knew how Muslims would react! Why would you hurt your own country and risk more deaths just to report this ‘fact’? To what end???"

To what end? Well, the truth — in this case, the truth about how Muslim detainees are being treated in the secret prison at Guantánamo Bay. It’s too bad that Barber has so little regard for that truth. Unfortunately, Newsweek’s regard for the truth was only slightly greater than hers.

ON SCARBOROUGH Country and, earlier, on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes, Brent Bozell was quick to compare the Newsweek fiasco with CBS News’s mangled report last September on President Bush’s National Guard service in the early 1970s — a report based largely on records that appear to have been faked. That particular media scandal ended several CBS careers, including that of producer Mary Mapes, and hastened the retirement of anchor Dan Rather.

Bozell’s comparison was right on target, but not in the way he intended. For years, media outlets such as the Boston Globe had been producing credible, well-documented reports that Bush — at a minimum — had used his family connections both to get into and out of the Guard, thus avoiding Vietnam. Whether that was still a legitimate story by 2004 is debatable; but the CBS mess had the effect of shutting down any further coverage of the matter (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, October 1, 2004).

And so will it be with the ongoing prison-abuse scandal if the right gets its way. Judging from what we know so far, Newsweek’s lapse wasn’t nearly as serious as CBS’s, although the consequences were far worse: rioting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the Muslim world, resulting in at least 17 deaths and more than 100 injuries in Afghanistan.

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Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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