When in doubt, it’s always safe to blame media
June 3, 2005
It’s far too easy to blame the national news media for everything that goes wrong in our country and around the world. But then, it’s always been easier to blame the messenger than to find out what really happened, and why. That’s certainly true in the big brouhaha involving Newsweek magazine and alleged Koran abuse by American soldiers.
Early last month, Newsweek published a “Periscope” item stating that “(U.S.) interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Koran down a toilet.” And then all hell broke loose in the Muslim world as the U.S. endured a storm of public protests. At least 17 people were killed in violent protests before Newsweek apologized in an effort to defuse the public relations crisis.
Of course no one – especially militant Muslims – stopped to consider the source, a Newsweek political gossip column that runs Inside-the-Beltway rumors and speculation, usually from anonymous sources.
For more than two years, other news outlets had reported Guantanamo prison detainees’ unverified claims that American guards had thrown the Koran to the floor and even tossed one into a latrine. Newsweek compounded its problem by asserting that a Pentagon report would confirm the alleged toilet incident.
But that report found no evidence to verify the incident while acknowledging five cases where the Koran was “mishandled.” There’s a big difference between mishandling the Muslims’ holy book, and desecrating it, however; after all, common sense tells us that it would be extremely difficult to flush a 950-page book down one of the Army’s low-flow field toilets.
Although I’m a frequent critic of the so-called “mainstream” media, I’ve been in and around the news business long enough to know an honest mistake when I see one. The author of the Newsweek item, chief investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, was in the lead on the Clinton administration’s Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s, so he clearly isn’t an anti-Bush, left-wing ideologue. Newsweek Editor-in-Chief Richard Smith apologized for Isikoff’s erroneous report and said the magazine will raise standards on stories attributed to unnamed sources, which is good journalistic policy.
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When I was at the Voice of America in the late 1970s, we had a two-source news policy. That is, we couldn’t go on the air with a one-source story – anonymous or attributed – unless and until we had confirmation from a second independent source. We weren’t always first with breaking news, but we were rarely wrong.
Today, however, in the era of 24-hour cable news channels, there’s tremendous pressure to be first with the story, no matter how flimsy the attribution is. Just look at how the cable channels rushed to kill off Pope John Paul before he actually died.
To hear the Bush administration tell it, Newsweek was part of a vast (or half-vast?) left-wing conspiracy designed to make the president look bad and to undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq. As Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote, “Outrage filled the airwaves … as administration officials took turns denouncing Newsweek’s brief report alleging desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay. But among the many declarations of shock … (and) multiple expressions of self-righteous horror at the riots the story sparked, only one (official) expressed any hint of self-reflection, any hint that this story might be more than just another mainstream media screw-up.”
And that official was none other than Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, who said that “people need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be very careful about what they do.” Yes indeed, especially when the subject is religion.
Just to put things in perspective, Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, who spoke in Reno earlier this year, noted that the Koran abuse story took a back seat to other, more important news such as the “American Idol” finals, the weird Wacko Jacko trial, the strange “runaway bride” case and Paris Hilton’s racy TV ad. Proving once again that celebrity-obsessed Americans crave a steady diet of tabloid news.
On the other hand, how do we explain the Muslims’ wild overreaction to a thinly sourced item in a political gossip column? Scarcely had the item appeared in print than a well-orchestrated “Death to America” campaign erupted in the Islamic world. And some of the people hollering the loudest were those who have had little or nothing to say about televised beheadings of civilian hostages, including humanitarian aid workers, and/or suicide bombings of hospitals, mosques and schools that kill thousands of innocent civilians including women and children.
In fact, the Koran incidents wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t issued free copies of Islam’s holy book to enemy combatants and terrorist suspects who have vowed to kill as many “infidels” (i.e. Americans) as possible. Do you think the other side is distributing free Bibles to Christians who are captured in Afghanistan and Iraq? Fat chance! Any self-respecting Islamic fascist would jump at the chance to flush a Bible down a toilet, if he/she could find a toilet to flush it down. More likely they’d bury the Bible in a desert latrine. As an ex-diplomat, I’m always sensitive to cultural differences.
I think we should take these differences into account when we try to understand why our sworn enemies act and react the way they do to relatively minor infractions of the international rules of engagement. Let’s face it, Americans are subjected to a hypocritical double-standard that condemns our detention facilities as “gulags” while looking the other way as our enemies slaughter women and children with apparent impunity.
n Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.