Newsweek is caught, by its own hand, in the cross-currents of modern journalism, the Pandora's box of the global war on terrorism, an administration that enjoys flogging the failures of mainstream media, and a media-savvy enemy to the United States that knows how to inflame public opinion.
To wit, the U.S. military Monday found itself on the defensive again when it was forced to deny Arabic news reports it had entered a mosque in Ramadi, Iraq, and desecrated a Koran, Islam's holy book.
The United States is supposedly engaged in a war of ideas with fundamentalist Islamists for the heart of the Muslim world, an attempt to sow moderation and progress in a world that seems to be increasingly embracing the opposite. All apparent signals suggest it is not winning.
An examination of the timeline in the Newsweek case points to something important.
The Newsweek report -- two sentences in Periscope, its widely read, front-of-the-book set of pithy news briefs -- first appeared May 4 in the May 9 edition.
It read: "Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash."
Newsweek did not cite its source on the item.
However, similar charges were made in public by Thomas Wilner, a Washington, D.C., attorney with Shearman and Sterling who is representing 11 Guantanamo detainees from Kuwait in a lawsuit against the government. Wilner told reporters in February on a conference call that U.S. forces abused the prisoners, beating them with chains, sodomizing them, delivering electrical shocks, shaving Christian crosses into their body hair, and throwing their Korans in the toilet.
The difference between the Newsweek report and the Wilner allegations, carried by Reuters News Service and others, is the erroneous Pentagon confirmation of the Koran desecration.
But nothing happened in February related to the graphic charges, and for two days after the Newsweek report hit the streets, there was little reaction.
On May 6, however, a Pakistani political figure and former cricket star, Imran Khan, held a news conference and denounced the report. Khan is known as a sincere defender of Pakistan and one who has advocated a more moderate form of Islam than that embraced by Islamic fundamentalists. Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Jalil Abbas Jilani said May 8 the government was "deeply dismayed" by the reported Koran desecration. Pakistan's parliament the following day called on the government to condemn the United States.
Ironically, the government there two years ago banned an issue of Newsweek from Pakistan because it contained an article it deemed critical of the Koran. A government minister told a news agency the magazine would be seized at customs because the government feared if it were distributed it would spark violence.
By the end of the week, governments across the Middle East including some normally friendly to the United States had joined in the public statements, according to news reports: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Arab League all lent their voices.
By May 11 riots had broken out in Jalalabad, Afghanistan -- a place known to be a stronghold of Afghan outlaw and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- and in Pakistan. By the end of the week they had spread to Gaza and Indonesia. At least nine and as many as 16 were killed in the violent riots.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers denied the allegation May 12.
U.S. Southern Command has "looked through the logs, the interrogation logs, and they cannot confirm yet that there were ever the case of the toilet incident ... not where the U.S. did it," Myers said.
He also said the U.S. military did not believe the riots in Afghanistan were related to the Newsweek report.
On May 15 Newsweek came forward with a retraction of sorts: An editor said the magazine had gone back to the original source to check the information. The source told Newsweek he could not be certain where he had seen an account of the Koran-flushing incident and said it might have been in other investigative documents -- which leaves open the possibility that the report may have been an accidental repeat of the February allegations rather than the result of an official inquiry. U.S. Southern Command is still investigating the charges, according to the Pentagon.
Newsweek also said it ran the entire item by a senior Pentagon official, who did not deny it. The magazine took that to be de facto confirmation.
There is plenty of blame to be heaped on Newsweek. Reporters should not rely on single sources for their stories -- no matter how reliable or well connected -- for just such reasons of human error. The Newsweek reporters might better have insisted on seeing the document being cited, or having it read to them, or the source at least going back and getting some confirming details -- a date on the document, or its title page.
That the item appeared in its Periscope section also raises a flag. Confirmation that U.S. forces had desecrated a Koran would be front-page news across the world; why then wasn't the item held and reported out for the following week?
The answer might be found in the 24/7 news cycle and the immediacy of the Internet. Once a reporter confirms a juicy news item it is foolhardy to sit on it too long, as he or she can be easily scooped by a traditional news organization Web site or a weblog. The pressure to be first is no longer a race toward each morning edition; it is a constant, round-the-clock battle to best the competition, and that leaves little time for journalistic discipline. Reporters may resist that pressure, but they do so at their own peril.
This is new and uncharted media terrain, and the relative merits of being right and being first are still being worked out. The result is sometimes a rush to be first and then a painful righting of the record after the fact.
But Newsweek's error is not the only factor here. The Pentagon and White House regard "mainstream media" (read: "liberal media") as hostile to their interests. It may be, and an anecdotal case can be made to that end. But rather than trying to blunt that perceived hostility, they fan its flames. For instance, the Pentagon has begun leading the Early Bird -- its daily roundup of defense-related news stories -- with newspaper corrections, some as inane as a name misspelling. It led the Early Bird with a story about a longtime and tough Pentagon reporter who was fired not for inaccuracy but for violating his newspaper's sourcing rules. There seems to be a battle line drawn between "them" and "us."
The White House and the Pentagon must develop a better relationship with reporters -- even those they deem hostile -- so they can knock these stories down before they get printed. Had there been more mutual respect between the two sides, Newsweek might have offered the Pentagon more time to dig up evidence to prove the original source wrong. Had the Pentagon more inclination to do so, it would have provided it more quickly. Instead, both sides are left cleaning up the mess after the damage has already been done.
The White House and Pentagon were quick to blame Newsweek for the Afghan riots over the weekend, despite Myers' on-the-record statements to the contrary. What Myers might have known is that most Afghans don't read, much less in English. Even fewer get subscriptions to Newsweek.
Newsweek's erroneous report didn't help matters, but the riots were a result not of a popular uprising of disgust over what a U.S. weekly magazine reported but rather the masterful manipulation of a population eager and ready to believe the worst about the United States.
For this fact, the Pentagon, the White House, the State Department, Congress and the U.S. citizenry may have to turn the mirror on itself.
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the release of pictures depicting the humiliation and abuse of Iraqi prisoners a year ago gave permanent clip art to al-Qaida and others who want to exploit the existing fissures between the United States and the Muslim world.
The subsequent release of memos detailing U.S. policy deliberations with regard to the definition of torture, the abrogation of Geneva Convention protections for war prisoners and the expanded list of harsher-than-normal interrogation techniques approved by the Pentagon makes fertile ground for American enemies.
The problem with these is not only in their public release, but the fact that they happened -- and largely behind closed doors. The lack of public debate suggests to U.S. detractors that the government was trying to get away with something it knew to be immoral or illegal.
That the White House and Pentagon leadership eagerly abandoned constitutional habeas corpus protections for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay lends a hollow note to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's assurance Sunday that the United States nevertheless embraces the constitutional protection of religion there.
In October 2003 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked in a leaked memo these critical questions: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us? Does the U.S. need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? Is our current situation such that 'the harder we work the behinder we get?'"
By government admission the United States is fighting a "war of ideas" to help moderates win influence in the Muslim world. The eagerness with which the rioters embraced a fallacious report, and to which normally friendly governments lent their voices, suggests it has a long way to go.
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