The Newsweek fiasco

May 17th, 2005 – 10:35 pm
Tagged as: Media

As everyone who has been watching the news over the past few days now knows, Newsweek printed a story which included allegations that the Koran was put in a toilet during the interrogation of prisoners in Guantanamo.

The report in Newsweek that the US military desecrated the Koran as part of an attempt to break the Muslim prisoners there with humiliation techniques has provoked demonstrations, angry sermons, riots, and over a dozen deaths in Afghanistan, with demonstrations also in Gaza, Pakistan, Indonesia, and now Yemen. Both the chief Sunni Muslim cleric in Lebanon and its Shiite Grand Ayatollah, Muhammad Husain Fadlallah have now condemned it. The former threatened jihad or holy war. The latter said, “The desecration of the holy Koran in the terrifying Guantanamo detention center that America created under the title of fighting terrorism against the Muslims who have been arbitrarily rounded up there, is one of the American methods of torture . . . This is not an isolated act carried out by an American soldier but is part of an American program…of contempt for Islam, to disfigure its image in the minds of American.” Shaikh Muhammad Sayyid al-Tantawi, the rector of al-Azhar seminary and the chief Sunni authority in Egypt, called the desecration of the Koran “a great crime.” But he dismissed it as the work of “a bunch of kids, criminals . . .”

Then the anonymous source for that part of the story had a change of heart. The Bush administration was quick to demand a retraction of the story, and to blame Newsweek for both the deaths that occurred in the rioting and besmirching the United States’ image abroad.

What’s going on here?

But if stuff like the Newsweek version of a now two-year old tale about toilets and Qu�rans is enough to set off rioting in the streets of countries whose nationals were not even the supposed recipients of the �abuse�, then weren�t those members of the military or the government with whom Newsweek vetted the plausibility of its item, honor-bound to say �you can�t print this�?

Or would somebody rather play politics with this? The way Craig Crawford reconstructed it, this one went similarly to the way the Killian Memos story evolved at the White House. The news organization turns to the administration for a denial. The administration says nothing. The news organization runs the story. The administration jumps on the necks of the news organization with both feet – or has its proxies do it for them.

Newsweek has since retracted the story entirely, but this was hardly the first time that stories about the Koran being used as part of the U.S. interrogation tactics had appeared in the press. Why was the White House acting like this particular article was actually the reason for the riots, when there were plenty of other reasons [Salon day pass required]?

While the Newsweek error provided another flash point, it’s absurd to insinuate that anti-American violence from Kabul to Baghdad isn’t about a much larger fallout from U.S. war policies over the last three-plus years. Which is why it’s so appalling to watch the White House get up on its soap box as a matter of political convenience now

The real motive behind the White House’s actions is that they saw an opportunity to once again blame the media for their problems. I’ll let the ever-eloquent Arthur Silber explain the dangers of that.

The speed and the depth of Newsweek�s climbdown on this story is deeply disheartening. And it shows that there is a danger that is perhaps even greater than the profound danger that outright censorship represents: self-censorship by the media, on every story of importance and across the board. In fact, it is this kind of self-censorship that we have been seeing during most of the Bush administration�s time in office: a reluctance to question authority too much, and beyond a certain point. Outright censorship is a clearer danger: in such circumstances, everyone knows that �news� is officially dictated, and they realize they need to find the truth via other outlets. But self-censorship allows people to believe that they are getting the full story: after all, no one is making the media report these stories, so they must be true, right? But of course, that isn�t right�but the illusion is a deeply damaging one. If people think they�re getting the truth from major news outlets, they have no incentive to look elsewhere�and the full truth will forever escape them. In that sense, a self-emasculated press is more insidious a danger than a press in chains which everyone can see.

What is most striking to me about the Newsweek controversy, and what I find inexpressibly depressing, is the overpowering air of unreality about it. Another part of the subtext to the orchestrated Newsweek outrage is the notion that it is inconceivable that America could ever do anything that is less than admirable, that we are always on the side of good, and that our motives are always noble and heroic. Such fables might be comforting to children (although children are often the first to see through this kind of subterfuge), but they are singularly inadvisable for adults living in this world. Many Americans, and almost all the warhawks, seem to find it impossible to believe that any American might be guilty of racial prejudice, or that racial and/or religious animus might play any role in the behavior of our troops. Yet one need only consult an article like Bob Herbert�s about Aidan Delgado to see how far from the truth such a belief is. And there are and have been many similar stories. I am certainly not saying that the kinds of ignorant and hateful attitudes that Delgado describes are true of most, or even many, of our troops. But I also do not think those kinds of attitudes are that unusual, as Delgado makes clear.

While Newsweek may have made an error in judgement in their reporting of the original story, they made a much bigger mistake when they gave into pressure and retracted the story entirely. The job of the so-called fourth estate is to hold the high and mighty accountable for their actions, not to bow and scrape every time they make those in power uncomfortable. I highly recommend taking the time to read the articles from which I’ve quoted, so you can get a better idea of what’s really going with this whole Newsweek debacle, and of how the Bushites have once again managed to avoid taking responsibility for their actions by blaming the messenger.

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