News you can use . . . to start a riot

Newsweek is in full retreat amid the fallout from its Qur’an shredding story. In the current issue, editor Mark Whitaker admitted that there were some problems with the sourcing and signed off with this:

[W]e regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.

In the same issue Evan Thomas gives the controversy a more extended treatment. He asked, point blank,

How did Newsweek get its facts wrong? And how did the story feed into serious international unrest? While continuing to report events on the ground, Newsweek interviewed government officials, diplomats and its own staffers, and reconstructed [a] narrative of events

FOB Paul Marshall — that is, friend of the blog Paul Marshall of Freedom House — is incredulous about why Newsweek ran with this story that its own reporters and editors though might be shaky. In an article for National Review Online, he charges:

The shakily sourced May 9 Newsweek report that interrogators had desecrated a Koran at Guantanamo Bay is likely to do more damage to the U.S. than the Abu Ghraib prison scandals. What is also deeply disturbing is that the journalists who put the report out seem somewhat clueless about this reality.

Marshall recounts some of the riots and deaths that have followed allegations that U.S. interrogators desecrated, destroyed, and flushed copies of the Koran to intimidate prisoners. Then he takes a few shots at Thomas’ “What have we learned from this?” treatment:

While noting that, to Muslims, desecrating the Koran “is especially heinous,” Thomas looks for explanations, including “extremist agitators,” of why protest and rioting spread throughout the world, and maintains that it was at [Pakistani politician] Imram Khan’s press conference that “the spark was apparently lit.” He confesses that after “so many gruesome reports of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the vehemence of feeling around this case came as something of a surprise.”

What planet do these people live on that they are surprised by something so entirely predictable? Anybody with a little knowledge could have told them it was likely that people would die as a result of the article. Remember Salman Rushdie?

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  • Bartholomew

    Marshall: “editor Mark Whitaker admits that their sourcing was suspect”

    Not quite. The source was a senior government official, who backtracked only after publication. How come the “conservative media” are uninterested in whoever that might be?

    John Simpson at the BBC has a better article on subject:

  • Erik Nelson

    I think all of us are interested in who that person was, including many in the conservative press.

  • Steve

    Newsweek lied, people died, blame Karl Rove? Please, Bart, that is the worst logic ever.

  • The Green Knight

    Except of course, Steve, that not even the administration is claiming that Newsweek lied; at worst, it was mistaken. And it very possibly wasn’t even that.

    I’m not sure where you saw the name “Karl Rove” in what Bartholomew wrote.

  • John

    I’m sure the Justice Department wants very much to know who Iskoff and Berry’s contacts were, especially since at least one of these persons leaked sensitive, confidential information. Justice can investigate; Iskoff and Berry can refuse to cooperate; and they can do future reports from their jail cells.

  • Yusuf AbdulHakijme

    OK, here’s my understanding of The Story So Far:

    1. British, Russian, and Arab press organs report allegations of Qur’an desecration at Guantanamo.

    2. Newsweek finds corroboration from FBI and Pentagon sources and publishes it.

    3. Muslims around the world are understandably outraged. Some turn to violence against the U.S. soldiers occupying their country.

    4. The Pentagon official who talked to Newsweek retracts his statement after the fact.

    And Newsweek is supposed to take the blame? That’s even more absurd than blaming Karl Rove (which no one did, Steve). If anyone is endangering U.S. troops, it’s “interrogators” flushing Qur’ans down toilets, and/or Pentagon weasels who lie their way out of responsibility for everything. “Friendly fire” indeed.

  • Steve

    “from FBI and Pentagon sources” uh-huh. Suuuuure. I believe that

    The implication, if you’ve been listening to the media go on about this, is that “government sources” equates to people in the White House, once the White House gets upset and ask Newsweek to possibly make a retraction.

    “It’s your own damn fault” is no excuse for bad, horribly bad, journalism.

  • Molly

    “”…and they can do future reports from their jail cells.”

    Or go out to lunch with Robert Novak.

  • Molly
  • Erik Nelson

    The problem with the story is that it claimed confirmation about what was coming in a government report from several sources. In the end, this was not true – not only was the piece of information not in the government report, but there was a single, anonymous government source, who later could not recall where he had seen the information.

    Newsweek should not have run this story with a single anonymous source as confirmation.

    Other press accounts have been based on claims made by former detainees at Guantanamo whose stories are not exactly reliable. Had the government report actually confirmed this, it would have been a story. But the problem is that the government investigation did not prove it. There has been, to this point, no confirmation that such an event happened.

    What makes the Newsweek story a problem is that it offered heretofore unavailable confirmation that this event happened. Confirmation which, in the end, did not exist.

  • Fred

    There have been stories of the desecration of sacred symbols in this country. We don’t like it reading about it but we take it. Newsweek should be better at assessing the international effects of its articles, especially in consideration of present tensions. I wonder if it won’t be judged as marginably reliable in the marketplace. Its future articles will come under more scrutiny.
    For many the impact of an article is a function of faith in the journalist or the publication. An “unnamed source” has worked for the press without much serious challenge. If it hadn’t they wouldn’t still be useing it. We’ve seen too many instances of irresponsible or out-and-out deceptive practices. An increasingly resourceful and critical readership is going to follow a media that is less cavalier, has more respect for its readers. It will be interesting to see what Newsweek sales do in the coming months.

  • Ray from Minn

    There is one puzzling aspect to these riots. Just who was being killed? Were there people over their in favor of the desecration of the Koran? Or was it just insane violence with people killing whoever was near? If so, that deserves some commentary.

    Apparently, the March 2005 issue of Harper’s has a refernce to the Koran being thrown into toilets in Afghanistan by American soldiers. Might this be somewhat common knowledge in that region and the appearance of the news in Newsweek, deemed to be an “official” magazine, confirmed that it was official U.S. policy?

  • Bartholomew

    “Newsweek should be better at assessing the international effects of its articles”

    I thought the issue was that story was inaccurate; are you saying that news stories in general ought to be written and printed with an eye to the “effects” they may have?

    Incidentally, what’s with Peter Marshall’s last line: “Anybody with a little knowledge could have told them it was likely that people would die as a result of the article. Remember Salman Rushdie?” Is Marshall blaming Rushdie for the violence that was incited by Khomeni and others?

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  • Fred

    ‘are you saying that news stories in general ought to be written and printed with an eye to the “effects” they may have?’

    Do you think news stories of this magnitued are printed without an eye to the effects they make? To make their matters worse, VOA quotes generals that the riots appear unlinked to the descration of the Koran. This would be two instances of undocumented reports in the same article. The good news is, Newsweek and similar publications will have to give a more critical readership more documented , thus more responsible news.

  • francis

    yes, the “effects” of stories should be considered.
    Not that that should preclude their being published, but there should be a minute or two of reflection about these “effects” – even if they are true.
    Of course, you cannot blame the magazine if the story turns out to be accurate, but if it doesn’t hold, see above.

    As for Mr Rushdi: while the death threats against him are deplorable, he is no saint either. Especially in the last few weeks he has shown ( ), that he has no regard or respect for the convictions of other people (if he doesn’t share them), no gratitude to the government that continues to protect his life, and if he only had the power to implement his views, he would prove to be no better than Khomeni, if not worse!

  • metagirl

    To everyone who believes that Newsweek was “lying” about the desecration of the Koran and that their story alone caused anti-american sentiment and rioting:

    Does it matter that there have been multiple stories in newspapers like the Washington Post where prisoners talked about the exact same kind of desecration of the Koran dating back to at least 2003?

    Does it matter that Newsweek actually ran the story by the Justice Department and that they had no comment before the story came out? You’d think that if the story was a lie that they’d have something to say about it before it was published. If they lied, that is.

    Does it matter that their retraction was about the idea that there was going to be a report about a US investigation into the possible desicration of the Koran? Their source told them this and then later said he/she wasn’t sure about it.

    Does it matter that out of all the rhetoric coming from the White House, none of it specifically said “There has never been any desicration of the Koran”?

    Do you actually believe that we haven’t earned any anti-american sentiment at the very least for our mistreatment, torture, and rendering of prisoners (not charged with a crime, just suspected)?

    Just wondering.

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