Newsweek retraction not enough

Remember last year when CBS News 60 Minutes made an error in using documents which couldn’t be verified? Pro-Bush bloggers quickly made the supposedly-falsified documents the story, diverting attention from the “real” issue of Bush’s military service.

It’s happening again, this time with Newsweek’s apparent error in reporting that Guantanamo Bay guards had flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet. Despite a considerable background of detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, the Bush administration wants Newsweek to run “some puff pieces about the U.S. military and how it’s dedicated to treating Islam with care.” Greg Palast puts it this way:

“It’s appalling that this story got out there,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on her way back from Iraq.

What’s not appalling to Condi is that the US is holding prisoners at Guantanamo under conditions termed “torture” by the Red Cross. What’s not appalling to Condi is that prisoners of the Afghan war are held in violation of international law after that conflict has supposedly ended. What is not appalling to Condi is that prisoner witnesses have reported several instances of the Koran’s desecration.

What is appalling to her is that these things were reported.

One of my professors rephrases the argument. He claims that even if the story were true, it shouldn’t have been reported, because it would be so inflammatory. It was insensitive to Muslim sensibilities, he says.

If we had worried about Muslim sensibilities, we wouldn’t have gotten ourselves in this mess in the first place. The mainstream news media’s real sensitivity is to the Bush Administration:

Meanwhile, FAIR has issued an action alert:

Newsweek, the Quran and the "Green Mushroom"

Following the real rules of modern journalism

Action Alert (5/19/05)

Newsweek ran a sensational claim based on an anonymous source who turned out to be completely wrong. While one can’t blame the subsequent violence entirely on this report, it’s fair to say that credulous reporting like this contributed to a climate in which many innocent Muslims died.

The inaccurate Newsweek report appeared in the magazine’s March 17, 2003 issue, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It read in part:

“Saddam could decide to take Baghdad with him. One Arab intelligence officer interviewed by Newsweek spoke of ‘the green mushroom’ over Baghdad—the modern-day caliph bidding a grotesque bio-chem farewell to the land of the living alongside thousands of his subjects as well as his enemies. Saddam wants to be remembered. He has the means and the demonic imagination. It is up to U.S. armed forces to stop him before he can achieve notoriety for all time.”

Unlike a more recent Newsweek item (5/9/05), involving accusations that Guantanamo interrogators flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet, Newsweek has yet to retract the bogus report about the “green mushroom” threat. The magazine’s Quran charge has been linked to rioting in Afghanistan and elsewhere that has left at least 16 dead; alarmist coverage like Newsweek‘s about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction paved the way for an invasion that has caused, according to the best epidemiological research available (Lancet, 11/20/04), an estimated 100,000 excess deaths.

Newsweek was right to retract the Quran story—mainly because the magazine claimed to have “sources” for the information, when Newsweek‘s subsequent descriptions of how it acquired the story mention only a single source. But it’s far from clear that Newsweek‘s source was inaccurate in saying that U.S. investigators had uncovered abuse of a Quran in the course of a recent investigation; similar allegations have repeatedly been made by former Guantanamo prisoners (Washington Post, 3/26/03; London Guardian, 12/3/03; Daily Mirror, 3/12/04; Center for Constitutional Rights, 8/4/04; La Gazette du Maroc, 4/12/05; New York Times, 5/1/05; BBC, 5/2/05; cites compiled by, 5/16/05).

Denials by the U.S. military that such incidents have occurred mean little; when any government holds prisoners in violation of international law, and denies them access to independent counsel or human rights groups, assertions by that government about how the prisoners are being treated can be given little weight. Eric Saar, a former U.S. Army sergeant who served as a translator at Guantanamo, has accused the Pentagon of engaging in organized efforts there to deceive outsiders: Citing a new book by Saar, the Washington Post reported (4/29/05) that “the U.S. military staged the interrogations of terrorism suspects for members of Congress and other officials visiting the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to make it appear the government was obtaining valuable intelligence.”

It’s certainly not the case that the Pentagon has been so attentive to Muslim sensitivities that such treatment of a Quran would be unthinkable. The Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for intelligence is Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who is notorious for suggesting that Allah was “an idol” and saying that the United States’ enemies were led by “Satan,” and would “only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.” It was Boykin who reportedly ordered the coercive interrogation methods used at Guantanamo to be used at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib as well (London Guardian, 5/20/04).

It has been repeatedly said—including by Newsweek itself, in its initial apology (5/23/05)—that the magazine’s source erred in saying that the Quran incident was contained in a report for the Pentagon’s Southern Command. In fact, the original report said that the incident was “expected” to be in the report—an expectation that could have easily been altered by the fact that the explosive allegation became public.

Newsweek‘s retraction of the Quran story, contrasted with the lack of any correction of its “green mushroom” claim and other similarly erroneous WMD coverage, is quite illustrative of the actual rules—quite different from the ostensible rules that are taught in journalism school—that govern contemporary journalism:

  • Anonymous sources are fine, as long as they are promoting rather than challenging official government policy.
  • It’s all right for your reporting to be completely wrong, as long as your errors are in the service of power.
  • The human cost of bad reporting need only be counted when people who matter are doing the counting.

ACTION: Please contact Newsweek editors and ask them to review the magazine’s WMD coverage, and urge them to hold it to the same standards they applied to the Quran story.

Phone: 212-445-4000

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone.

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