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May 22, 2005 - Newsweek, Suckered, Sucks the Air Out of the Room

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Late last Sunday in it seemed to be a week when the national discussion turned to matters of class and class warfare.  (See May 22, 2005 - A Touch of Class).

Wrong.  On Sunday the conversation shifted to whether we should muzzle the press before they do any more damage to America.  Newsweek backed off from an item in their May 9 issue, reporting "that American guards at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had committed infractions in trying to get terror suspects to talk, including in one case flushing a Qur'an down a toilet."  It seems their source at the Pentagon said he (or she) really didn’t know that for sure, even though he (or she) had said there were internal memos about it.  Suckers.  They believed their government source.

Late Monday Newsweek just completely retracted the story.  Sorry about those anti-American riots and all the dead folks.  Editor Mark Whitaker: "We 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."

Fine.  And note this


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the story as appalling, admitting it had created a major problem for Washington in the Muslim world.

The White House had said Newsweek's apology didn’t go far enough.

"There is a certain journalistic standard that should be met, and in this case it was not met," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

"People lost their lives. People are dead," said US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "People need to be very careful about what they say…."


And so it begins – or continues.  Time to rein in the press.

Something smells here.

Dan Rather at CBS got set up with false information, let his reporter’s ego run with it, and he got smashed.  Gone.  One less pesky voice.  Now Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post group and affiliated with MSNBC and SLATE.COM, gets set up with false information, gets repeated assurances from their Pentagon source that this is really so, and gets cut off at the knees - blindsided.  More evidence that the press hates America and should be more like Fox News.  This Karl Rove guy is damned good.  Now Newsweek is crippled.

You want a compliant press under the thumb of the government?  This works.

The commentators on the right are piling on.

The novelist and military columnist Austin Bay here: "History may see Newsweek's fatal 'Koran flushing' story as the US press' Abu Ghraib…. Here's the connection: globe-girdling technology has once again amplified foolish behavior, lack of professionalism, and disregard for consequences into a tragedy."

Ah, as for amplifying foolish behavior, lack of professionalism, and disregard for consequences leading to tragedy, look to the Bush administration.  The war is going well?

Michelle Malkin, that oh-so-cute Filipino-American columnist who recently wrote a book to justify our World War II internment of Americans of Japanese heritage (discussed in these pages here last August), says this: "Not good enough, Newsweek. People have died because of your shoddy work."

We’re at around 1,635 US servicemen dead in Iraq at the moment, with perhaps ten thousand maimed for life or mad, or both.  No WMD and no link it al Qaeda – and clear evidence we went to war in Iraq because we wanted to, not because we were threatened in any way at all.  Hey, shoddy work – and lies too!

Ed Morrissey over at Captain's Quarters has this: "Newsweek ran an explosive story based on a single, unnamed source that it knew would cause a huge effect on the Muslim world, at precisely the moment when we need to ensure that people understand that we're not at war with Islam."

After the prison photos – that cigarette-smoking Lynndie England lass and her leash, the adorable Sabrina Harman grinning over the rotting corpse, the naked human pyramid, the iconic hooded electrode-man and the rest - Newsweek being sucker-punched and printing what the Pentagon initially approved and stood by for a week is not exactly the problem.

Andrew Sullivan here (my emphases) puts it nicely –


We have yet to see what's at the root, if anything, of the Newsweek story. But I think it's telling that some bloggers have devoted much, much more energy to covering the Newsweek error than they ever have to covering any sliver of the widespread evidence of detainee abuse that made the Newsweek piece credible in the first place. A simple question: after U.S. interrogators have tortured over two dozen detainees to death, after they have wrapped one in an Israeli flag, after they have smeared naked detainees with fake menstrual blood, after they have told one detainee to "Fuck Allah," after they have ordered detainees to pray to Allah in order to kick them from behind in the head, is it completely beyond credibility that they would also have desecrated the Koran? Yes, Newsweek bears complete responsibility for any errors it has made; and, depending on what we now find, should not be let off the hook. But the outrage from the White House is beyond belief.

It seems to me particularly worrying if this incident further intimidates the press from seeking the truth about what the government is doing in the war on terror. It is not being "basically, on the side of the enemy," as Glenn Reynolds calls it, to resist the notion of government-sanctioned torture and to report on it. It is patriotism and serving the cause that this war is about: religious pluralism and tolerance. The media's Abu Ghraib?? When Mike Isikoff is found guilty of committing murder, give me a call. Austin Bay still insists that Abu Ghraib did not constitute "deadly torture." The corpses found there (photographed by grinning U.S. soldiers) would probably disagree. (Will Bay correct?) Three factors interacted here: media error/bias, Islamist paranoia, and a past and possibly current policy of religiously-intolerant torture. No one comes out looking good. But it seems to me unquestionable that the documented abuse of religion in interrogation practices is by far the biggest scandal. Too bad the blogosphere is too media-obsessed and self-congratulatory to notice.


Yep, the media is the problem, or that’s what we are being told.
And Sullivan earlier said this


"Our military authorities are investigating these allegations fully. If they are proven true, we will take appropriate action." - secretary of state Condi Rice. I feel the same way about this statement as I did about the president's recent reaffirmation that atheists are as patriotic as Christian citizens. To put it bluntly: has it come to this? It is perfectly conceivable, given the torture policies promoted and permitted by this president, that desecration of the Koran has taken place in Guantánamo. Many other insane and inhumane interrogation tactics have turned out to be true. Remember smearing fake menstrual blood? We are in a critical war for world opinion.

A critical part of our message is that this is not a war against Islam as such, but against Islamo-fascism and terror. And yet we see the religious right co-opting air force academies [see Who is YOUR Copilot? from April 24 here], and we hear of incidents like the alleged toilet-flush of the Koran. Since no one is ever held responsible for anything in the Bush administration, we can be sure this incident will be lied about, covered up or blamed on some poor military grunt who can be easily scapegoated. But at some point, we will have to confront the severe damage this administration has done to American prestige and credibility in a critical global battle of ideas because of its interrogation policies.

That is the shame - and the terrible gift from this administration to Osama bin Laden.


Newsweek, wrong though they may have been, is not the problem.

But Rumsfeld says the press should watch what its says.  What a load of crap.

On the other hand, many on the right feel this way


Let me clear up one thing. Whether Americans flushed the Koran down the toilet is irrelevant. Newsweek should not have reported it, even if true. It’s common sense, people. Those journalists knew how Muslims would react! Why would you hurt your own country and risk more deaths just to report this “fact?” To what end???


Actually, that’s a pretty interesting question.  What is, after all, the purpose of news?  Do we really need to know what is happening all the time about everything – when if what is uncovered makes us all look bad?  Just why DO people want to know what is happening in the world, what they’re paying for with their taxes, what might get us all in trouble?  Some facts are, indeed, dangerous.

I guess that comes down to a question of just trusting your government – which is one definition of patriotism, but not the only one.

Maybe we shouldn’t know things.

Oh, and a note from Eric Alterman on such things here - "More PBS censorship on the way here. … Now Republican CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson wants to monitor NPR for biased Middle East coverage.  Why?  CPB's own internal polls show Americans don't think NPR has any problem reporting from the region."

Damn.  This is getting interesting.

Oh yes, the move toward an evangelical theocracy rolls on too. See Mark Lilla in the New York Times


The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the 'end times,' the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement - all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.

No one can know how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist. But so long as it does, citizens should probably be more vigilant about policing the public square, not less so. If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers. That remains true today, both in Baghdad and in Baton Rouge.


Put away that newspaper; in fact, flush it down a toilet.  Pick up a Bible.


And at 9:15 in the evening, Monday, 16 May - Keith Olbermann also argues that something smells


Last Thursday, General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Donald Rumsfeld’s go-to guy whenever the situation calls for the kind of gravitas the Secretary himself can’t supply, told reporters at the Pentagon that rioting in Afghanistan was related more to the on-going political reconciliation process there, than it was to a controversial note buried in the pages of Newsweek claiming that the government was investigating whether or not some nitwit interrogator at Gitmo really had desecrated a Muslim holy book.

But Monday afternoon, while offering himself up to the networks for a series of rare, almost unprecedented sit-down interviews on the White House lawn, Press Secretary McClellan said, in effect, that General Myers, and the head of the after-action report following the disturbances in Jalalabad, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, were dead wrong. The Newsweek story, McClellan said, “has done damage to our image abroad and it has done damage to the credibility of the media and Newsweek in particular. People have lost lives. This report has had serious consequences.”

Whenever I hear Scott McClellan talking about ‘media credibility,’ I strain to remember who it was who admitted Jeff Gannon to the White House press room and called on him all those times.

Whenever I hear this White House talking about ‘doing to damage to our image abroad’ and how ‘people have lost lives,’ I strain to remember who it was who went traipsing into Iraq looking for WMD that will apparently turn up just after the Holy Grail will - and at what human cost.


Olbermann has issues with Scott McClellan, of course.  But now the press is so skittish over this all no reporter at the next pres briefing is going to ask him if he is calling General Richard Myers a liar and fool.  The press has been neutered.

Olbermann also points out that the Newsweek story is pretty much the same thing that was covered in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and British and Russian news organizations, except that Newsweek


… quoted a government source who now says he didn’t have firsthand knowledge of whether or not the investigation took place (oops, sorry, shoulda mentioned that, buh-bye). All of its other government connections - the ones past which it ran the story - have gone from saying nothing like ‘don’t print this, it ain’t true’ or ‘don’t print this, it may be true but it’ll start riots,’ to looking slightly confused and symbolically saying ‘Newsweek? Newsweek who?’


Yep, hung out to dry.

And the argument here that this is a political set-up…


The real point, of course, is that you’d have to be pretty dumb to think that making a threat at Gitmo akin to ‘Spill the beans or we’ll kill this Qu’ran’ would have any effect on the prisoners, other than to eventually leak out and inflame anti-American feelings somewhere. Of course, everybody in the prosecution of the so-called ‘war on terror’ has done something dumb, dating back to the President’s worst-possible-word-selection (“crusade”) on September 16, 2001. So why wouldn’t some mid-level interrogator stuck in Cuba think it would be a good idea to desecrate a holy book? Jack Rice, the former CIA special agent and now radio host, said on Countdown that it would be a “knuckleheaded” thing to do, but “plausible.”

One of the most under-publicized analyses of 9/11 concludes that Osama Bin Laden assumed that the attacks on the U.S. would galvanize Islamic anger towards this country, and they'd overthrow their secular governments and woo-hoo we've got an international religious war.

Obviously it didn't happen. It didn't even happen when the West went into Iraq. But if stuff like the Newsweek version of a now two-year old tale about toilets and Qu’rans is enough to set off rioting in the streets of countries whose nationals were not even the supposed recipients of the ‘abuse’, then weren’t those members of the military or the government with whom Newsweek vetted the plausibility of its item, honor-bound to say “you can’t print this”?

Or would somebody rather play politics with this?

… this one went similarly to the way the Killian Memos story evolved at the White House. The news organization turns to the administration for a denial. The administration says nothing. The news organization runs the story. The administration jumps on the necks of the news organization with both feet - or has its proxies do it for them.

That’s beyond shameful. It’s treasonous.


Treasonous?  No, it’s Karl Rove.

And Olbermann argues the administration now has it both ways – sort of –


I mean Conservatives might parrot McClellan and say ‘Newsweek put this country in a bad light.’ But they could just as easily thump their chests and say ‘See, this is what we do to those prisoners at Gitmo! You guys better watch your asses!’

Ultimately, though, the administration may have effected its biggest mistake over this saga, in making the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs look like a liar or naïf, just to draw a little blood out of Newsweek’s hide.


Ah, a small price to pay for castrating the press.


Oh, and we have a new diplomatic tool – as explained here by someone who chooses the moniker “Liberal Avenger” –


Can you imagine how they are laughing at us in diplomatic circles around the world? European diplomats contacting the State Department expressing concern about Afghanistan's descent into anarchy and the official response is a shrugging of the shoulders followed by "don't blame us - blame Newsweek."


That seems to be our posture now – a variation on these -

"The Devil made me do it!" - Flip Wilson (1933-1998)

"I didn't do it, nobody saw me do it, there's no way you can prove anything!" – Bart Simpson (forever, it seems).


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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