May 18, 2005

May 18, 2005 | Commentary on

Mainstream-media bombshell

Correcting the damage done by sloppy journalism is just about as hard as getting the sticky stuff back into its container. And a correction, even a retraction, almost never has the same impact as the original news reporting.

All of which should make those of us in the news business intensely aware of the importance of accuracy. It's not good enough to get the news first; you have to get it right. Yet, in the age of the Internet and instant communication, accuracy and speed increasingly work against each other - and against standard practices like multiple sourcing and named sources. Such practices are there for a reason. In the case of erroneous reporting, real people's reputations, livelihoods and sometimes lives are at stake.

Rarely have the consequences of running with a half-baked tip been as disastrous as in the case of the misbegotten Newsweek report in the May 9 issue of desecration of the Koran by American interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. In recent days, the report has sparked riots in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, even Indonesia. Sixteen people have died, more than 100 people have been wounded, and the image of the United States in the Muslim world has taken a blow bigger than that inflicted by the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal. The damage simply cannot be overestimated.

On Monday, Newsweek editors retracted the story after considerable official pressure to account for its allegations. Previously, this weekend, Newsweek had acknowledged that their one anonymous source was no longer sure of his information - i.e., that he had seen a report of an internal Pentagon investigation which was about to reveal that American interrogators had humiliated their prisoners by flushing the Muslim holy book either whole or in parts down a toilet. In the days following, no substantiation whatsoever for this claim has been found.

The disaster here has several origins: First, Newsweek went to print on a tip without actually seeing the document in question, having apparently only asked a Pentagon spokesman to confirm or deny the report, which he declined to do. Second, there was clearly a total lack of understanding of Muslim religious sensitivities; the desecration of the Koran is a capital offense in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, as British author Salman Rushdie found years ago when he published "The Satanic Verses" and was slapped with a fatwa death sentence by Iranian clerics for his trouble. Third, no one at Newsweek questioned that religious desecration was a tool of interrogation sanctioned by the U.S. government, maybe because they wanted to believe it.

(On top of it all, ordinary common sense should suggest that flushing a thick book down a toilet is physically impossible, as anyone who has had to live with the sad state of modern, American, low-flush plumbing would know.) Newsweek's retraction, announced by editor Mark Whitaker, was hailed by the White House as a good first step, but not enough. The administration is now asking Newsweek to account for how the story was developed in the first place.

While the firewalls between government and media must remain inviolate, Newsweek needs to make public its internal investigation. Other news organizations have had to eat large slices of humble pie when dealing with fabrications by their reporters: the New York Times with Jayson Blair; the New Republic with Stephen Glass; and USA Today with Jack Kelley.
Sorting out Newsweek is one thing, best left to its publishers and owners.

Sorting out the damage done to America's image in the Muslim world is going to be much harder. The deliberate desecration of the Koran makes for the perfect instant myth.

In many Muslim countries, anti-American sentiment is highly combustible and can erupt at any time when someone fans the flames. Newsweek's retraction will not be as widely accepted as its original misreporting. One Pakistani Muslim cleric told the BBC that the retraction was "a crude attempt, both by the weekly magazine and the American authorities to defuse the anger of Muslims across the world."

The argument we will hear is that where there's smoke, there's fire. But with the Newsweek revelations, smoke was all there was. Muslims around the world, American readers and the U.S. government as well, do not deserve this from the American media.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times